Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Orozco’

“A very Saroyan thing to do…”

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

The man from Moscow

Last week, an awards ceremony fêted the two winners in the fifth William Saroyan International Prize for Writing at Stanford’s Green Library. Each of the two winners takes $5,000, as well as a nifty little crystal book engraved with a Saroyan self-portrait and the particulars of the event, which is  sponsored by Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation.  (Alas! I cannot find a photo of the glass books anywhere!)

The event was informal and, for fiction winner Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, 2011), it was a triumphal return to campus, where (in a pleasant coincidence) he had been a Jones lecturer and a Wallace Stegner fellow in the Stanford English Department’s Creative Writing Program. He now teaches way up north at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho.  Yes, he is as charming and affable as his photo (at left) suggests.

For non-fiction winner Elisabeth Tova Bailey, a visit to Stanford was not an option.  As she describes in her book, travel is somewhat difficult for the author, who has been waylaid by the illness she describes in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010).  But she delivered these words, which were read at the reception:

“Could I really write a whole book about a snail? It’s the questions that haunt us that take us on the most interesting journeys. Imagine the startled and dubious looks I received when confessing that I was not only writing a book about an individual snail, but it was an adult book! The minuteness of my topic was a conversation stopper.

“Yes, there is mystery and grace in the life of a snail, even romance and sometimes humor! Having chosen my main character I realized I was in a sticky situation, I was going to have to write an entire chapter on slime and another on the strange rituals of gastropod courtship. I thought of all the writers who would love to dip their pens into such topics, but my subject had clearly chosen me.

“When a specific snail came into my life unexpectedly it captured my attention by going about its life. As I observed its nightly adventures I learned that my snail had an epicurean appetite, an opinion on the most comfortable places to sleep, a love life, a memory, complex defense mechanisms, and enviable natural abilities, all of which put human limits into perspective, and that was humbling.

He ought to know.

“At an early age, I fell in love with sentences and the places they took me. Writing a book has allowed me to travel even further. Why write a sentence unless it can take one on a journey both literary and interesting? Thank you for recognizing these aspects of my small book about a humble mollusk.”

Orozco, however, wasn’t expecting to speak at all, and had to ad lib for the occasion – he delivered his intentional gibberish with improvised brio: “I don’t have any prepared remarks to make.  I’m hoping to spend most of this time. I don’t have any prepared remarks, but I don’t have any time.  Good reviews, bad reviews – it’s a surprise, and it’s wonderful.”

I’m not sure I got that quite right.  I’m not sure anyone could.

But Hank Saroyan, the author’s nephew and one of the judges for the contest, seemed pleased with Orozco’s response to his crisis.  “It’s a very Saroyan thing to do,” he said.


Saroyan prizes for a gastropod’s BFF and a Bay Area native

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Art thrives in the everyday – and this year’s awards in the fifth William Saroyan International Prize for Writing prove it.  The numbing routine of today’s workplace and an author’s biographical “thank you” to a common snail captured the attention of the judges this year.

Daniel Orozco (Photo: Krysta Ficca)

The awards went to Elisabeth Tova Bailey‘s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010) for non-fiction and, in the fiction category, to Daniel Orozco‘s collection, Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, 2011). Each of the winners, selected from a field of 228 applicants, will receive $5,000.

The finalists for fiction were Ben Lerner‘s Leaving the Atocha Station and Miroslav Penkov‘s East of the West: A Country in Stories. The finalists for non-fiction were Arion Golmakani‘s Solacers and John Jeremiah Sullivan‘s Pulphead.

The major literary award, sponsored by Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation, encourages new or emerging writers in fiction and non-fiction.  The award honors the life and legacy of the American writer and playwright William Saroyan.

When Bailey was bedridden she received a snail as a gift.  Eventually, she wrote about the interspecies relationship that ensued. She told NPR that feeding it wilted flowers gave her “a feeling of being useful again,” and the sound of it munching on petals reassured her in the night. She said it “moved so smoothly and gently and gracefully, it was like a tai chi master.”

E.T. Bailey (Painting: Edith B. LaRoche)

She admits that at the worst phase of her debilitating illness, “my life matched its life more than that of my own species,” according to an interview on the website  SheWrites.

“That I could write an entire chapter on slime or another entire chapter on the way a snail hibernates – there was just so much to say,” she said.

Bailey said “the lives of the smaller and short-lived creatures are even more intense, more crammed with plot, than our longer human lives. … Like me, it woke up and went to bed. Like me it wanted something delicious for dinner,” she said in an interview on BookBrowse.  “Snails are also famous for spending many hours in courtship.”

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating has won a number of awards already. It has been named one of NPR Morning Edition’s top books for 2010 and also one of the American Library Association’s Booklist‘s top 10 science and technology books. According to the eminent poet Maxine Kumin, “Readers will find her mental journey remarkable and her courage irresistible. I am very taken with this small book.”

Orozco is a name familiar to the Stanford campus:  He is a former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones lecturer in the Stanford English Department’s Creative Writing Program.

But the Bay Area native’s life was not always one of academic gigs.  In a KQED interview last year, he recalled a job in a fiberglass fabrication shop in South San Francisco where “our boss was a jerk.”

William Saroyan (Courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

“On the job is where we all have to be, whether we like it or not,” he said. “My mother packed licorice in a factory for over 20 years, and came home tired but still human, and I am in awe of how she managed that.

“For most people, the workplace is an extremely structured and regulated environment … you have to be civil to a boss or a co-worker who drives you crazy; you have to show up at 8 and leave at 5 and take lunch from 12 to 1 (not 1 to 2, not 12:15 to 1:15); you have to spend all day with people that you didn’t choose to spend all day with, and you have to do it for about a quarter of every week for the rest of your life.”

According to a New York Times review: “The bridge painters, warehouse crews and paralegal assistants in Orozco’s stories have no clear way to control their destinies at work, and life piles on with a series of banal indignities on the clock and pointed crises off it.  They witness suicides, murders and mass layoffs. One temp fields calls from the desperately unemployed, then moves to a job helping to plan the demise of an entire department. Her agency eventually rewards her with the Orwellian promise of ‘permanent temporary employment.'”

Oscar Villalon wrote in Zyzzyva, “Nobody else is writing quite like Orozco.  These are bracing stories. Rich with wicked humor and loving toughness.”

After his debut book of short stories, he is now working on a novel.

This year’s judging panel for fiction included award-winning authors Elizabeth McKenzie and Minal Hajratwala, a former editor and reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, and archaeologist Patrick Hunt. The non-fiction panel included Keith Devlin, executive director at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information; Fritz Maytag, legendary brewer, distiller and winemaker; and Hank Saroyan, writer, performer and nephew of William Saroyan.

The Saroyan Prize was last awarded in 2010, when the fiction prize went to Rivka Galchen for her novel Atmospheric Disturbances and the non-fiction prize went to Linda Himelstein for The King of Vodka. Other notable winners include Jonathan Safran Foer in 2003 for his novel Everything is Illuminated.  George Hagen won in 2005 for his novel The Laments, and Kiyo Sato won in 2008 for her memoir Dandelion Through the Crack.

William Saroyan was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life (1939-40), the novel The Human Comedy (1943) and many volumes of short stories, essays and memoirs. Born in Fresno in 1908 to Armenian parents, Saroyan was a high school dropout and largely self-educated. He is best known for his short stories about the experiences of immigrant families and children in California. He died in 1981.

Stanford University Libraries houses the William Saroyan Collection, which includes manuscripts, personal journals, correspondence, drawings and other material.