Author Q&A: Peter Orner

  • May 3, 2012

A discussion with the author of Love and Shame and Love.

Alexander Popper can’t stop remembering. Four years old when his father tossed him into Lake Michigan, he was told, “Sink or swim, kid.” In his mind, he’s still bobbing in that frigid water. The rest of this novel’s vivid cast of characters also struggle to remain afloat: Popper’s mother, stymied by an unhappy marriage, seeks solace in the relentless energy of Chicago; his brother, Leo, shadow boss of the family, retreats into books; paternal grandparents, Seymour and Bernice, once highfliers, now mourn for long-lost days; his father, a lawyer and would-be politician obsessed with his own success, fails to see that the family is falling apart; and his college girlfriend, the fiercely independent Kat, wrestles with hard choices.

Covering four generations of the Popper family, Peter Orner illuminates the countless ways that love both makes us whole and completely unravels us. Alternately comic and sorrowful, Love and Shame and Love explores the universals with stunning originality and wisdom.

You have chosen an interesting style in which to tell Popper’s story. The small sections present snapshots of life from differing points of view and different generations. You use a style all your own but it contains elements of stream of consciousness, epistolary, anecdotal, fact reporting and modern blog-post-esque styles. It works brilliantly — but, it is a bold move. Were you concerned that modern readers would find the story disjointed and hard to follow or did you assume that in our 30-second-attention-span world, you would feed readers information in portions they would be able to digest? What led you to write in this way?

I guess when I’m writing anything I try and keep the idea of what a general reader might think out of my head. My old friend, Andre Dubus, used to say, write to one person, the one person who might understand. I never forget that. So I think my style, whatever it is, comes from this. I want to whisper in the ear of someone who might — emphasis on the might — hear what my characters are trying to say. Isn’t there an old Van Morrison album, “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart”? I like that title. As for our low attention span society, I wonder, has anything called society ever had a longer attention span? For me, poetry takes the most concentration. But it’s such a rewarding concentration, isn’t it? I mean if you really move deeply into a poem, it takes your head off. That’s what I’m looking for in these shorter sections. Again, to take one particular person’s head off … .

This novel has a real sense of place. Chicago feels like an additional character in the story. You were born in that city — is that why you chose to place the Poppers there? How important is the setting in novels and in particular in this novel? Do the actual addresses you use have particular significance for you?

Place is everything to me. I need to feel grounded in some land, whether it’s mythical or not. My first novel was set in Namibia, a country where I’ve spent a lot of time. I tried in Mavala Shikongo to capture that intensely beautiful and strange place on the page; same with Chicago, which is home. And the more specificity of place, the better. So those addresses you mention, they are real, at least they are real in my head. They conjure particular houses, particular bedrooms. You know what I mean? Think about your own addresses, what they conjure up? So many memories in those numbers and street names.

It is unusual for politics to play such a prominent role in a novel not specifically about politics, yet you choose to include it in this one. Why? Would you say that politics, like life itself, is filled with love and shame and love?

Absolutely, and sex. I grew up in a very political family. My father ran for office, my stepfather was a state legislator in Illinois for many years. And so I do love it, I guess it’s in my blood. Any time you mix power and fame and occasional actual responsibility, you’re going to get a lot of human drama. That’s what I’m after. It boggles my mind that politics doesn’t come up in more American novels. How is this possible that we ignore the thing we spend so much of our lives worrying over, and yet when we sit down to write, we pretend all our characters are apolitical, or that their political views are milquetoast and clichéd. I think politics is endlessly fascinating, especially the way we lie about it so much. The way it allows us to put people in boxes. Well, people who like that freak Santorum are this, people who love Obama are this. I like to get in there and talk about politics the way people actually do, which is like it’s life and death. Like it matters. For a lot of my characters, the blood sport of politics is life, complicated life. I’m not sure I’m making any sense here … And you’re right, Love and Shame and Love isn’t about politics — it’s about people who care about politics, who love it, for whom politics is an integral part of the fabric of their lives. One last thing, I especially love losing politicians. There is something about losing in public, on such a grand scale. I love the unheroics of it. So I write a lot about people who run for mayor in Chicago and lose. And people who run for president and lose. Two of my favorite people in the world — and they come up in the book — are Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis. What is it about them that makes them so interesting? Something so hapless and loveable about the two of them that makes me think back on the years with a great deal of fondness.

You portray many different kinds of relationships/marriages in the different generations of Poppers — none of which are particularly hopeful. Is this your commentary on the state of marriage in America? Is it doomed?

Hmmmm, wow. I’m not sure I was commenting on the state of marriage. How is the state of marriage? An interesting question. I suppose it depends on whose marriage we are talking about. Is marriage truly an institution? Like the Smithsonian or something? Yet the fact that we — and I do, too — think of marriage this way is interesting to me. Relationships are so fraught as it is. Add the label and pressure and perceived perfection of BEING MARRIED — and no wonder so many marriages end. The marriages in the book are flawed and imperfect and these are the sorts of relationships I’m most interested in exploring. Who wants to read about a happy marriage? Can you think of anything more dull? We want it in our lives, but read about it? Bad enough we sometimes have to have dinner with overly happy couples!

The only relationship you choose not to explore in detail is Leo’s. It is handled almost as an afterthought. In a dream, Popper reveals that his brother is living with a same-sex partner in Washington, D.C. Why is Leo’s sexual orientation revealed in this way? In a novel about love and relationships, why do we not learn more about this one?

Part 2 of the book really focuses on Popper and Kat. And as you point out, I was interested in the unhealthy or dysfunctional relationships in this family. I had more than my hands full with them. Leo’s relationship was pretty healthy and that’s why it’s not addressed in full. Maybe in the next book … Leo being gay isn’t a bombshell, just a fact of their lives. Nobody would be surprised but Seymour, which is why Popper tells him after he’s already dead. Basically for the purposes of being able to tell a few dumb jokes inside of that dream. It makes me wonder, are our dreams mostly serious. Or do we sometimes have comedic dreams?

Love and Shame and Love explores more than just marital/sexual relationships. It is also a novel about family. The three generations of Poppers seem to “love” each other, but none of the parental-child bonds seems especially strong. Why is this? Ironically, Popper’s relationship with Ella seems to be the best example of parental-child relationships even though he is not able to parent in the traditional way.

I think you say it best. These traditional ways get in the way of real love. It seems to me our traditional ways aren’t always the most loving. Popper loves Ella. He can’t have what he wants. He can’t live with his own daughter. But he can do the best he can.

Popper is well-read and you reference many famous works of literature in this novel. What are some of your personal favorite authors/books? Are there specific works that influenced you in the creation of this novel?

So many … Bellow, which is why he comes up so often. I wanted to tip my hat to a fellow Chicagoan. I dearly love Isaac Babel, who has been a big influence on my style of keeping things short. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. And Golden Apples by Welty, to name a few essential books for me. Also, the great stories and single novel of Juan Rulfo. Who, like Babel, kept things short and to the point. Goes back to that taking your head off thing I was talking about earlier.

Towards the end of the book, Popper questions his father about two key events that occurred between Phillip and Miriam during Popper’s childhood. His father dismisses them as if they never happened. Does this indicate that we cannot always trust what we remember, particularly from childhood? Or, does this mean that adults are able to employ a type of selective memory that allows us to forget unpleasant episodes in order to survive? Or, does Phillip simply lie to his son?

I think the events that happen to us when we are kids take on an outsize significance. We re-live them in our minds over and over. For our parents, these things are smaller of course. I think we can trust these memories, but we also are being constantly reminded that these events weren’t quite as big to other people involved as they were to us. I think this is ultimately what the book is about. Popper carries all this stuff around with him, dragging all these memories across his life. Is Philip lying? I leave it to the reader.

I have to ask … what do you think will happen to Popper? Will he find love again?

That you care about him enough to ask warms the heart of this writer. I’ve got hopes for him. Thanks for rooting for the poor soul.

Mandy Huckins holds a Master of Arts Degree in English from the University of Charleston in South Carolina. She recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area with her husband, an Air Force officer. When not reading, Mandy works for the Combined Federal Campaign-Overseas, which provides uniformed service members and DoD civilians serving overseas the opportunity to make charitable contributions to one or more of over 2,500 different organizations.

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