Busy S.F. author relishes chance to talk about literary hero

Peter Orner has no idea how the San Francisco theater company Word for Word will stage two of his short stories. To find out, he’ll have to sit, watch and listen with the rest of the audience.

Word for Word’s shtick is taking short stories and acting them out — yes, word for word — on stage. Two pieces from Orner’s 2001 collection, “Esther Stories,” will get the treatment on Feb. 27 as part of BookFest 2012 at the JCC of San Francisco. The author will take the stage afterward to take audience questions.

“I’ve been a [Word for Word] audience member many times,” says Orner, a Chicago native who settled in San Francisco more than a decade ago. “I love their work, and I’m looking forward to this. I very much trust their work.”

The first story, “Atlantic City,” is about a woman who comes home to find her husband dead on the floor. That triggers a mournful stream-of-consciousness reminiscence of happier times at the Jersey shore.

Peter Orner

The other, “Providence,” features the same two characters — the very Jewish Walt and Sarah, years earlier, when the couple were still young and frisky.

“I can see why they chose the stories they did,” Orner says. “There’s a certain rhythm to them. I’d like to see them back-to-back.”

Normally at book festivals, authors tout their latest work. Orner, 42, does have a recently published novel, “Love and Shame and Love,” but he won’t be talking about that. In addition to the Word for Word performance, the author also will moderate a Feb. 26 panel about his literary hero, Saul Bellow.

More specifically, the talk will be about Bellow’s recently collected and published letters. Orner will be joined on stage by author Joyce Carol Oates and Benjamin Taylor, who edited Bellow’s letters for publication.

“The letters are wild,” Orner says. “You see him being extremely lovely, extremely needy. He was a very social animal, very gregarious, but he needed to be alone when he wrote, and that was hard. He couldn’t write a boring sentence, even in a letter.”

Orner’s affection for Bellow extends into his own work. Characters in his new novel talk about the late writer, and the book begins with an epigrammatic quote from Bellow: “In Chicago I had unfinished emotional business.”

What does Bellow mean to Orner? In a word, he says, “Everything.”

“He was a genius, wonderful, lyrical, energetic. He had an ability to drive a sentence like no one I ever read before or since.”

Like his idol, Orner mines his Chicago Jewish roots for material. Loosely based on his own family, the sprawling new novel spans four generations of a Jewish family from the Windy City.

Though Orner passed the bar and practiced law for a while, he followed his muse to the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. He moved to San Francisco in 2001 to teach writing at U.C. Santa Cruz and, later, at San Francisco State University.

His 2006 debut novel, “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,” drew on his experience teaching in Namibia many years ago.

The new novel and most of the “Esther” stories bear the mark of a writer heavily influenced by his Jewish upbringing. Orner says he feels Jewish “every minute of every day. It’s what I am and what I do. The stories I tell are always from that angle.”

Though he is first and foremost a writer of fiction, Orner took a detour writing the screenplay for “The Raft,” an upcoming film starring Ed Asner, and based on another piece from “Esther Stories.”

“While not my natural medium, it was really fun to do,” he says of the screenwriting process. “I was at the filming, and to watch Ed Asner morph into character was wonderful. But what I like to do is sit in the quiet of my garage and be alone; the movie was a lot of noise.”

Now the Bernal Heights resident is back in the garage, crafting the next round of stories. Odds are, most of them will have something to say about the Jewish condition. And it’s not always mint condition.

Says Orner, “Franz Kafka used to say ‘I have a hard time enough being a human being. I’ve got to be a Jew, too?’ I always think of that.”

“Saul Bellow in Life and Letters,” 1-2:15 p.m. Feb. 26. Included in $10 BookFest Sunday admission.

Word for Word, 7 p.m. Feb. 27. $10-$15 suggested. At the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. www.jccsf.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.