Peter Orner




The underlying force of Am I Alone Here? is the desire to recover the "weight of what's vanished" and fiction's alchemical ability to do so.  - The New Yorker

This is an ideal moment to appreciate a master of his form.  - John Williams, New York Times

For the past 12 years, since his lauded “Esther Stories,” Peter Orner has been      engaged in a strange, quiet and wonderful experiment.  - Lauren Groff, New York Times Book Review

myparents2 copy.jpg



Chicago-born Peter Orner has lived in the San Francisco Bay area for the past sixteen years. He is the author of two novels published by Little, Brown (The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, 2006, Love and Shame and Love, 2010) and two story collections (Esther Stories, 2001, 2013 with new foreword by Marilynne Robinson and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, 2013), as well as the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). Peter's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, The Southern Review, and many other publications. Stories have been anthologized in Best American Stories and twice received a Pushcart Prize. Peter has been awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a two-year Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, as well as a Fulbright to Namibia.

His latest book, Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection/ memoir, was published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Peter's brother, Eric Orner. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Am I Alone Here? is now in its third printing. 

Peter also introduced a re-issue of Mavis Gallant's novel, A Fairly Good time, for NYRB Books, which was published in April, 2016. 

A new book of oral history, Lavil, set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in May, 2017. 

A film of one of Peter's stories, "The Raft," (with screenplay by Peter and Rob Jones) recently premiered at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. 

Peter Orner has taught at the University of Namibia, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Northwestern, the University of Montana (William Kittredge Visting Writer, 2009), Washington University (Visiting Hurst Professor, 2008), Bard College (Bard Fiction Prize Fellowship, 2007), Miami University, and on the law faculty of Charles University in Prague. He currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. Peter is a member of the Bolinas, California Volunteer Fire Department. 






Last car over the sagamore bridge

“In his second story collection, Orner fires jewel-toned shards of fiction into a stunning whole.” — ★ Publishers Weekly, starred review

"An ideal moment to appreciate a master of his form."  — John Williams, The New York Times

"A magnificent and moving mosaic of remarkable narratives." —  Skip Horack, San Francisco Chronicle

"Imagine Brief Interviews with Hideous Men written by Alice Munro."  — Tom Bissel, Harper's

Harpers Review

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

As a work of African provenance, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo will take its place alongside Saul Bellow's ''Henderson the Rain King" and Graham Greene's ''The Heart of the Matter." With this staggering debut novel, Orner has joined the first rank of American writers.”   Steve Almond, The Boston Globe

"Ranks High among the best works of fiction about Africa ever written by an American."  — Tom Bissel, Harpers

"The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" is one of the most gorgeous novels of the past decade. Set in Namibia, and written by Peter Orner, a young American writer, I read it twice when it first came into my hands. Once for the sheer joy of its language, and then again for its intricately woven plot. — Alexandra Fuller, Telegraph UK

 "I couldn’t help but think back to Peter Orner’s stunning, Namibia-set roman-a-clef The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. It’s a book about many things, but mostly about the exquisite boredom that prevails in this desert-riddled southern African nation. Orner, an American, didn’t mention genocide, didn’t portray truckloads of dead black bodies and only glancingly referred to AIDS. Every character – black, white and in-between – was rendered as utterly human. The book, something of a cult classic, was so superb that its (few) readers could have been forgiven for believing that it ushered in the age of Western writers detailing the African prosaic." — Will Ferguson, The Toronto Globe and Mail

New York Times Review
Mmegi Review
Boston Globe Review
Salon Review

Underground america

“Underground America is an excellent introduction to an ongoing social disaster. It gives a face to people in the country who are one injury, one legal problem away from ruin.” – Oscar Villalon, National Public Radio, California Report

Salon Interview


“This book, thank god, defies any category. Although some will want to dive in randomly and skip around, reading these exquisite essays in order allows the book to develop a momentum and cumulative power that sneaks up on you and knocks you back.” —DAVE EGGERS, author of Heroes of the Frontier

“Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?  is a collection of beautiful essays about reading, and (as a bonus) it’s also a wry, self-examining memoir of being a child, a partner, and a parent. It will remind you of important books you’ve forgotten and make you want to read ones you haven’t, and it really will make you feel less alone.” —MAILE MELOY, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It




Love and shame and love

“The novel gets in your head and makes itself home there. Like the James Salter of Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, with their acutely observed domestic and sexual tension.” – Maria Russo, New York Times Book Review

WBEZ Chicago Review
New York Times Review
Washington Post Review
Chicago Tribune Review

Esther Stories

“Orner doesn’t simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls.” — Margot Livesey, The New York Times Book Review

New York Times Review

Hope deferred

"Hope Deferred might be the most important publication out of Zimbabwe in the past thirty years." — Harper’s

Voice of Witness





“Peter Orner is the publishing equivalent of a character actor:  many readers might recognize his name but not quite be able to place his work….But among writers, Mr. Orner is a boldface name….Mr. Orner has found a distinct writing style for his fiction work:  short, lyrical chapters that give his work a mosaic-like feel.”

—Reyhan Harmanci, New York Times

“The protagonist of this elegant yet intimate novel is ensnared in several webs: his Jewish family, Chicago politics, the culture of the ’80s.”

– New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice

“The Chicago men and women who inhabit these pages exist in a world we recognize, where government is a s common a topic of thought and conversation as relationships, work, and kids.  Drawing on his own history, Orner sifts freely through three generations of the Popper family, which moves from Chicago to Highland Park in the great suburban expansion after World War II.  They’re “a modern ironical family” who say proudly, “We’re Democrats before we’re Jews.”  ….As Alexander says, ‘I’m trying to write a sad story, a good, sad story.’  Orner has done that.”

—Ron Charles, Washington Post

“Beautiful…. Think Saul Bellow (Chicago setting, rollicking Jewish-style comedy) mated with Chekhov (unassuming, devastating detail), set to the twangy thump of early Tom Petty. Now that promises quite a love child….Orner is the rare sort of writer who not only exactingly paints life’s bewilderments and suffering, but induces the experience itself in the reading…. Again, apt that Chekhov is invoked here, because Orner’s prose showcases a 21st-century version of the Russian’s unvarnished mastery….What drives this slideshow is inventiveness and craft – or art – condensed into seemingly simple images and stories. It’s the kind of nostalgiafest that finds you settling deeper into your cushion, leaving you slightly bereft when the last image gives way to a bright white screen.”

—Ted Weesner Jr., Boston Sunday Globe

Love and Shame and Love is a rich and intriguing novel by a young master on how relationships, especially familial, both keep us afloat and sink us in equal measure.”

—“Top Shelf,” San Francisco Chronicle

“Orner’s second novel is a vibrant masterpiece about what it is to live in America—and what it is to live.  Orner’s characters, the children, parents, and grandparents of a Jewish middle-class family, are exquisitely rendered, and though he is not always kind to them, they are easy to fall in love with, no matter their faults.”

—Emily Temple, (One of ten “Must Reads” for November)

“Mr. Orner turns the lives of ordinary middle-class people into comedy and tragedy.”

—Cynthia Crossen,

“Though Peter Orner is quite purposeful and precise in his nonlinear approach to storytelling, reading his latest novel Love and Shame and Love can evoke the sensation of unpacking a box full of memories in brief, frequently lovely chapters, vignettes, and letters, which ultimately coalesce to create a powerful and heartfelt family history….But this is less a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman or a sad chronicle of one family’s ascent and decline than it is an ambitious, kaleidoscopic novel of the Jewish experience in Chicago….Love and Shame and Love serves not only as an ode to the history of Chicago, but to Chicago literature itself.  In Orner’s erudite, quotation-filled prose…there is, of course, more than a hint of Saul Bellow.  The novel is…remarkable for the specificity of its characters and the settings they frequent….but the more universal story of thePoppers’ thwarted dreams and loves will likely resonate with those who have never set foot in Chicago or its northern suburbs.”

—Adam Langer, Chicago Tribune

Orner has written one of the year’s best novels.  It leaves you certain that the Poppers aren’t fictional characters but real ones, waiting, impatiently, for your love.”

—Sheerly Avni, San Francisco Magazine

“Love and Shame and Love” begins with a bar mitzvah boy in Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz’s chambers, and bounces around, a pinball of memory, lighting up landmarks of Jewish life in the city and suburbs, from the Standard Club to Charlie Beinlich’s, always spot on…. Three generations of the Popper family flutter by in disarray, like scallop-edged black and white photos tumbling out….A beautifully written book about the ghosts of family hovering over us all.”

—Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times

“Each couple emblemizes the topical relationship of their day, but with such quirky specificity, their pain is your pain.  It’s the details, in fact, where Orner seduces—That quiet parade of absolutely wacky and wonderful stuff that’s so odd, it must be real even if it’s fiction….Love and Shame and Loveis a slow burn with a firecracker at the end—the best kind of firecracker,w here you, not the characters, gasp in realization about what we really inhereit from the past.”

—Leigh Newman, “Book of the Week,” O, The Oprah

Love and Shame and Love is the genuine article, a patchwork tome that feels neither taut nor forced, a novel about politics and law and traditions and progress and family and, of course, the title concepts:  love and shame.”

—Kevin Morris,

“The primary narrator, Alexander Popper, is the latest in a line of ever aspirational, but not fully realized, Jewish men whose failures haunt the lives of the next generation.  Orner offers a cocoon as we accept the stories’ unsettling resolve toward the everyday lives of those who, like so many, remain on the ever-swinging pendulum between ‘Love and Shame and Love.’”

—Adera Causey, Chattanooga Times Free Press

“Even when the narrative slaloms back and forth through time and point of view, the shotgun pace keeps you deeply wedded to the characters, their struggles, their almost triumphs….Love and Shame and Love will break your heart, but in the best possible way.”

—Anna Pulley, San Francisco Weekly

“Orner has captured his characters in motion, bringing the past exquisitely and precisely to life even as he illuminates the present, timeless, struggle to make family, and life, meaningful. This is a big, smart, generous, important novel.”

Antonya Nelson, author of Bound

“I consider Peter Orner an essential American writer… Esther Stories was among the best story collections of the last decade. Love and Shame and Love is among the best novels of this fresh new one.”

— Kevin Brockmeier, author of Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination.

Love and Shame and Love is a marvel. It left me with that feeling we all crave when we read-the sense of wonder you wake with after a dream, realizing just how mysterious is this world.”

— Marisa Silver, Author of God of War

“Auden said that art is born of humiliation, which seems an ideal place to start appreciating Love and Shame and Love. A keen-eyed observer of American life and history, Peter Orner strips every layer of pretense from his characters, not to diminish but rather to reveal them. This is a real and memorable America.”

—Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants, and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.


“Teeming yet not hyperactive, full of emotion without being mushy, elegant yet intimate, this is a book that gets into your head and makes itself at home there….Like the James Salter of “Light Years” and “A Sport and a Pastime,” with their acutely observed domestic and sexual tension. There’s something noble and moving about Popper’s resolute sorrow, about all the Poppers’ largely unsuccessful struggles to connect to their times, to their city, to others. “Love and Shame and Love” doesn’t end so much as fade into a Lake-Michigan-in-winter mood of quiet devastation. It doesn’t grab for glory, but it wins a big share anyway.”

—Maria Russo, New York Times Book Review

“In his magnificent second novel, Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner proves he is one of the finest American poets of family weather. This is as it should be. Orner comes from Chicago, where blustery airstreams have blasted off the lake for years, sanding down the grand buildings and provided the updraft for a city cacophonous with bravado.

– John Freeman, The Toronto Star

“Both challenging and worthwhile.  Instead of a sustained narrative, hundreds of snapshots from Alexander’s past are pieced together—though ‘snapshots’ suggests something static, and each of these eye-blink vignettes is animated by yearning….They soon coalesce into an emotionally inflected mosaic of Alexander’s past.  ‘Isn’t history as much about tearing things down as it is about building things up?’ Alexander asks.  Mr. Orner has found a way of making loss and reclamation exist side by side.”

—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“Peter Orner’s inventive coming-of-age story finds the drama pulsing through the most seemingly conventional lives….”I start things and I stop,” Alexander Popper admits.  “It doesn’t connect.  Nothing ever connects.”  Not so with this fine novel, which resonates thanks to Orner’s understanding that the more disparate the elements, the more complete the portrait of family life.”

—David L. Ulin, O Magazine

“Saul Bellow’s masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March, glints and shimmers beneath the vibrant surface of Chicago native Peter Orner’s new novel, Love and Shame and Love, like a pencil drawing beneath a watercolor. But the episodic, time-bending structure of the Chicago family saga, as well as its deep wistfulness and droll humor, are Orner’s own….[An] incisive portrait of Chicago as a city of grit and magic, patronage and prejudice, struggle and resurrection…. Appearing between chapters, expressive drawings enhance the novel’s verve and punctuate its mosaic composition…. Pithy, vivid, imaginative and poignant, Orner’s novel traces the cultural arc from a swanky night club where Alexander’s grandparents Seymour and Bernice watch the Rat Pack clowning onstage to their grandson dropping acid at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert…. Shameful secrets are held and ransomed. And love is betrayed and resurrected and sustained.”

—Donna Seaman, “Eight Forty Eight,” WBEZ Chicago Public Radio

“Each chapter is a solitary memory, dusted off and glowing with latent emotional residue…. it stands as a feat of laudable literary skill that Orner manages to use one-off vignettes to get at the really big happenings in life.”

—Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times

“Peter Orner’s new novel is a deft character study of a family hiding the usual secrets and lies of contemporary life, but it’s also a well-observed portrait of a city as rich in history, dirty tricks and deception as any of the people he puts in it. Orner excels at stripping away artifice and revealing the complicated, often contradictory workings of the human heart…. Love, anger, shame, sorrow, regret, betrayal and finally, acceptance: these, then, are the factors that propel the Poppers.”

—Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

“Peter Orner’s inventive coming-of-age story finds the drama pulsing through the most seemingly conventional lives….”I start things and I stop,” Alexander Popper admits.  “It doesn’t connect.  Nothing ever connects.”  Not so with this fine novel, which resonates thanks to Orner’s understanding that the more disparate the elements, the more complete the portrait of family life.”

—David L. Ulin, O Magazine

“Part epic, part bildungsroman, Peter Orner’s “Love and Shame and Love” is a refreshing departure from the shtetl nostalgia shtick that has come to typify contemporary American Jewish fiction. Orner’s characters are complex, but their quirks, like their Jewishness, are the stuff of real life. And like life, this novel is at times terrifically funny; at others, hopelessly sad. Always, the writing is meticulously crafted and evocative…. Often, “Love and Shame and Love” brings to mind Saul Bellow and his depictions of Chicago, that land of opportunity and loneliness, and characters — like Moses Herzog — who are helpless in the face of destiny. In the world of this novel, as in much of Bellow’s oeuvre, Jewishness is not something external to the characters, it’s embedded in their psyches like childhood traumas, like Chicago, but more so, inextricably a part of who they are…. There are obvious patterns in the Popper family: The men fall hard for beautiful, strong women who can’t, or won’t, love them back. The tragedy is in the inevitability of it all, and in the shame of having one’s love rejected, as if one has been played for a fool.”

—Shoshana Olidort, The Jewish Daily Forward

“To relate his story, Orner takes us back and forth through time….He does this seamlessly, despite having such a large cast of major characters with which he works….The Poppers are a ‘modern ironical family,’ and we can all relate to them; we have all had our share of catastrophes.”

—Jaime Boler, Mobile Press-Register

“How Love and Shame and Love is put together results in something akin to a sonata penned by Chekhov, with multiple movements, themes and sections fused together in the service of a wide-ranging, large-scale history of an American democracy of the heart.  Orner, who comes from Chicago in the way that James Joyce came from Dublin, uses the Second City to explore what amounts to serial romantic and political monogamy. The book is about politics and passion…. For Orner’s novel, like a sonata, does a hundred things at once. It makes you laugh against your will….This is the laughter of Kafka and Welty, a laughter that asks you to take seriously the vagaries and violences of human life, but also to distance yourself from them….a tour-de-force novel.”

—Katie Kane, The Missoulian (Montana)

“Deeply felt, gorgeously atmospheric, and compassionately comedic.”

Booklist (Starred Review) 

“A masterful, multifaceted novel.”

—Kirkus, (Starred Review)

“Vibrant and captivating…richly layered.”

—Publisher’s Weekly, (Starred Review)

“Addictively compelling”

—Library Journal  

“Love and Shame and Love is an epic book—epic like Gilgamesh and epic like a guitar solo.”

—Daniel Handler author of Why We Broke Up




For queries concerning work by Peter Orner, including questions concerning rights, please contact Ellen Levine at Trident Media by clicking here. 
New York, NY. (212) 262-4810.

You may also email Peter directly: peterorner(AT)

Or connect via social media, though I am generally incompetent: 


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