Illinois State Library

Illinois Center for the Book

Individual Author Record

General Information

Name:  Peter Orner  

Pen Name: None


Audience: Adult;

Born: 1968 in Highland Park, Illinois

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Illinois Connection

Orner grew up in Highland Park and graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston.

Biographical and Professional Information

The product of four generations of lawyers, Peter Orner moved to Washington after college, working as a limousine driver, with the expectation that he would go into politics. But then he went to Namibia, Africa to teach. Although he had fallen in love with writing, Mr. Orner followed in his family’s footsteps and got a law degree from Northwestern University. From there, he went directly into a graduate writing program at the University of Iowa. In 2001, Orner moved to the Bay area to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University and has taught mostly graduate-level writing while there. Orner's experiences in Africa became fodder for his first novel, ''The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo.'' His work there as a pro bono immigration lawyer helped in his editing of two non-fiction books, ''Underground America'' and ''Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives.'' Both books are published by McSweeney's/​ Voice of Witness, an imprint devoted to using oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. His work has appeared in the ''Atlantic Monthly'' and ''The Best American Short Stories'', and has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes.Orner currently resides in Bolinas, California.

Published Works Expand for more information

Titles At Your Library

Esther Stories
ISBN: 0618128735

Mariner. 2001

A debut collection of thirty-two pieces of short fiction explores the influence of life's brief but essential moments on the future lives of the characters as it chronicles the fates both of unrelated strangers and of two Jewish families, one from the East Coast, the other from the Midwest. Original. 15,000 first printing.

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo: A Novel
ISBN: 0316066338

Back Bay Books. 2007

When Mavala Shikongo deserted them, the teachers at the boys' school in Goas weren't surprised. How could they be? She was too beautiful, too powerful, and too mysterious for their tiny, remote, and arid world. They knew only one essential fact about their departed colleague: she was a combat veteran of Namibia's brutal war for independence. When Mavala returns to Goas with a baby son, all are awed by her boldness. The teachers try hard, once again, not to fall in love with her. They fail, immediately and miserably, especially the American volunteer, Larry Kaplanski.

Love and Shame and Love: A Novel
ISBN: 0316129399

Little, Brown and Company. 2011

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 high fliers, 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 impossible choices.

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

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
ISBN: 0316224642

Little, Brown and Company. 2013

"A ravishing collection, full of wisdom, grief, beauty, and especially surprise."--Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collectors

Peter Orner zeroes in on the strange ways our memories define us: A woman's husband dies before their divorce is finalized a man runs for governor of Illinois and loses much more than an election two brothers play beneath the infamous bridge at Chappaquiddick. Employing the masterful compression for which he has been widely praised, Orner presents a kaleidoscope of individual lives viewed in startling, intimate close-up.

Whether writing of Geraldo Rivera's attempt to reveal the contents of Al Capone's vault or of a father and daughter trying to outrun a hurricane, Orner illuminates universal themes. In stories that span considerable geographic ground--from Chicago to Wyoming, from Massachusetts to the Czech Republic--he writes of the past we can't seem to shake, the losses we can't make up for, and the power of our stories to help us reclaim what we thought was gone forever.

Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live
ISBN: 1936787253

Catapult. 2016

A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism

“Stories, both my own and those I’ve taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I’ve become,” Peter Orner writes in this collection of essays about reading, writing, and living. Orner reads—and writes—everywhere he finds himself: a hospital cafeteria, a coffee shop in Albania, or a crowded bus in Haiti. The result is “a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” Among the many writers Orner addresses are Isaac Babel and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom told their truths and were silenced Franz Kafka, who professed loneliness but craved connection Robert Walser, who spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a Swiss insane asylum, “working” at being crazy and Juan Rulfo, who practiced the difficult art of silence. Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Yasunari Kawabata, Saul Bellow, Mavis Gallant, John Edgar Wideman, William Trevor, and Václav Havel make appearances, as well as the poet Herbert Morris—about whom almost nothing is known.

An elegy for an eccentric late father, and the end of a marriage, Am I Alone Here? is also a celebration of the possibility of renewal. At once personal and panoramic, this book will inspire readers to return to the essential stories of their own lives.


Esther Stories

  • Rome Prize in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction
  • Pen Hemingway Award Finalist,
  • Young Lions Award Finalist, New York Public Library
  • Notable Book, New York Times, 2001
  • The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo

  • Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
  • Best-Seller, San Francisco Chronicle
  • Bard Fiction Prize
  • Love and Shame and Love

  • Silver Medal, California Book Award in Fiction
  • Ribalow Prize Finalist, Hadassah Magazine
  • Editors' Choice, New York Times
  • Lit Pick, San Francisco Chronicle
  • Editor's Choice, Chicago Tribune
  • Starred Review, Publishers Weekly
  • Starred Review, Kirkus
  • Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

  • Starred Review, Publishers Weekly
  • Am I Alone Here?

  • Rome Prize
  • Bard Fiction Prize
  • Finalist in Criticism, National Book Critics Circle Award

    Speaking Engagements

    Speaking Engagement Availability (Yes)

    For queries concerning work by Peter Orner, including questions concerning rights, contact Ellen Levine at Trident Media at