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

  • Esther Stories, Houghton Mifflin, 2001
  • The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Little, Brown and Company, 2007
  • Love and Shame and Love, Little, Brown and Company, 2011
  • Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, Little Brown and Company, 2013
  • Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live, Catapult, 2016

Selected Titles At Your Library

Esther stories /
ISBN: 0618128735. OCLC Number:

Houghton Mifflin,. Boston :. 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.

The second coming of Mavala Shikongo /
ISBN: 0316066338. OCLC Number:

Little, Brown,. Boston, Mass. ;. 2007.

"When Mavala Shikongo deserted them, the teachers at Goas weren't surprised. How could they be? She was too beautiful, too powerful, and too mysterious for their tiny, remote world. They had a thousand theories about their departed colleague and only one essential fact: she was a combat veteran of Namibia's brutal war for independence. She must have had something to hide - why else would she have endured the long days and cold nights at this threadbare boys' school, so deep in the veld that, the teachers say "even the baboons feel sorry for us"?" "So when Mavala returns to Goas their astonishment is genuine. In her arms is a baby son, and there is no mention of a husband. Awed by her boldness, the teachers try hard, once again, not to fall in love with her. They all fail, immediately and miserably, especially the American volunteer, Larry Kaplanski."

Love and shame and love :
ISBN: 0316129399. OCLC Number:

Little, Brown and Co.,. New York :. 2011.

The interactions of four generations of the Popper family reveal the ways in which love, memory, and connections can make individuals whole or completely unravel them.

Last car over the Sagamore Bridge :
ISBN: 0316224642. OCLC Number:

. .

"In Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, 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's become known, 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, he 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 how our stories help us reclaim what we thought was gone forever."--Jacket.

Am I alone here? :
ISBN: 1936787253. OCLC Number:

. .

'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 Vac̀lav 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.


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