Daniel Orozco’s Orientation: And Other Stories was published in 2011 by Faber & Faber. The collection’s titular story places the reader in the shoes of a new, unnamed employee on their first day in the office. As the employee is given a tour and the do’s and don’ts of the position (pace your work to fill an eight hour day; never answer the telephone, our guide says), the reader quickly realizes that this workplace is unusual. There’s a man who uses the women’s room, a woman who knows when and how you will die, an omnipresent Unit Manager, and a serial killer. Ask too many questions, though, and you may be let go. The stories found in Orientation: And Other Stories explore the often-murky divide between personal and professional identity.
A lot of the stories in Orientation: and Other Stories focus a great deal on the workplace, whether it’s a traditional workplace (“Orientation” and “I Run Every Day,” for example) or non-traditional (“The Bridge” and also probably “Orientation”). Where does that inspiration come from?
I’ve come to believe that there’s no greater arena for high drama than the workplace, whether your job is a grocery bagger or an administrative assistant or a test pilot. Everybody’s got a job, and for most people the workplace is a highly regulated environment—you can’t wear what you want, you can’t eat when you want, and you can’t avoid that guy who drives you absolutely nuts (because you work with him, or because he’s your boss). For about a quarter of your adult life, you have to be there, whether you like it or not. Who-You-Are and Who-You-Have-To-Be-At-Work are not always harmoniously aligned, and the tension between those two identities can reveal who you really are. It’s Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” but instead of drawing a bead on a charging lion or ambushing a cadre of Fascists on a mountain road, you’re dealing with the broken photocopier again, or sneaking in late from lunch. Dramatically, it’s all the same.
Every time I read “Orientation,” I’m most intrigued by the Unit Manager, Matthew Payne, even though I feel that most readers are most interested in Kevin Howard, the serial killer. No one ever sees Mr. Payne and yet he’s always there. I always want to hover at that point of the story and take a peek into his office, but our guide never lets me. Care to give any insight on what might be behind his door?
I have no idea what’s behind the door. All I see is a door that is always closed, with a nameplate on it that reads: Matthew Payne. I went to Catholic school as a child, where the nuns told us that Jesus was everywhere, watching us. He would know if we said his name in vain, or if we masturbated, or if we even thought about masturbating. So, Matthew Payne is like the Jesus Christ of my Catholic boyhood, terrifyingly and creepily unseen, yet all-seeing and all-knowing—the perfect Unit Manager.
Stories like “Orientation” and “Officers Weep” push back against what is considered to be a “traditional” short story. Is this a conscious effort? Specifically, I’m interested in what the inspiration and thought process was like to write “Officers Weep” as a series police blotters.
Every short story I write begins as a kind of challenge, an exercise. I’m very much engaged with figuring out a narrative problem, which is a good thing for a writer to do because it tests the limits, stretches the writerly muscles. It gets me out of my narrative comfort zone and keeps me engaged with the story I’m trying to figure out. “Officers Weep,” for instance: Many years ago I had a commute that entailed a very short train ride, not long enough to immerse myself in a book, so I picked up the local papers I’d find on the seats and thumb to the police blotters. For about a month I regularly read and collected these odd little entries—“Boy burns another boy with a penny”; “Woman comes home to find man crawling across living room floor”—and wondered what I could do with them? Each was so rich and strange with implications of story, but picking one to expand on would eliminate the episodic texture of an actual police blotter; but simply listing such entries lacked a dramatic narrative. And that’s when I decided to tell a love story between two cops, in the language of the police blotter. I figured out a possible solution to the narrative problem, and wanted to see if I could make it work. Every story is kind of like that for me.
I’ve noticed that in some of your stories, we never learn the names of characters, in others, we get only secondary character names, and in “Temporary Stories,” Clarissa Snow is only ever referred to by her whole name. Is there an explanation behind these choices?
There’s no rule of thumb with regard to naming (or not naming) characters in my stories. I make the decision as it serves the particular story I’m writing. In “Temporary Stories,” for instance, there was something about the repetition of Clarissa Snow’s full name that somehow subtextually heightened or intensified her presence in the narrative—like when we always say Charlie Brown in reference to the comic-strip character, or Lee Harvey Oswald for JFK’s assassin. For “I Run Every Day,” it felt appropriate to never have the narrator’s name referenced; a name identifies a character, and I wanted to suggest “no identity” for the protagonist of this story of a man who thinks he knows who he is, but who in fact doesn’t know himself at all. In “Orientation” I was mostly just having fun making up names, fooling around with sounds and cadences and wordplay and such.
Orientation: and Other Stories came out in 2011. Are you working on anything now? Can we expect a new collection soon?
Not a collection, but a novel, which I’ve been scrivening away at, and hope to finish this year.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer