Creative writing professor announced as a finalist for national book award

SF State creative writing professor Peter Orner is 1-of-30 finalists in the running for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for his book, “Am I Alone Here?”, the College of Liberal and Creative Arts announced Monday in a University Communications press release.

Orner’s text, which reads more like a memoir, analyzes and compares his own personal life struggles, such as divorce and loss, with the work of well known literary figures. It is one of five books nominated in the “criticism” category, according to the release, which detailed his experience and inspiration.

According to Orner, his non-fiction piece is comprised of 40 or so essays, each cataloging and reflecting on a difficult time in his life. For instance, Orner wrote during the death of his father at San Francisco General Hospital, comparing and examining his feelings on the process of death, with Anton Chehkov’s short stories exploring realism, the press release cites.

Orner explained he was inspired to write the book when he turned to works of worldwide literary icons for comfort, and realized the power certain stories and novels can have when trying to make it through challenging times.

“I was having some trouble writing fiction after the death of my father. So I turned to the books and stories that have inspired me and began to write about them. Or as I put it in the book, I began to take what I call morning notes,” Orner said. “In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about them as anything more than just notes to myself.”

Eventually those notes to himself turned into a 289-page book; a difficult process that took eight years for Orner to complete.

“I generally write fiction, so the most challenging thing with non-fiction, is telling the truth as best I can on the page,” Orner said. “This isn’t always easy for me since as a fiction writer, my job is to make things up.

Despite the acclaim he’s received, Orner’s goal is still to connect with his readers.

“Reading, like I say, is such a personal thing. If I connect with one reader, then I consider that a success,” Orner explained.

When asked if he was surprised his book was one of the finalists in the NBCC awards, Orner said, “It was a great surprise, to be honest. The news came out of the blue.”

Former Creative Writing Department Chair, Maxine Chernoff, who brought Orner on as a creative writing professor at SF State in 2003, said she wasn’t surprised when she heard Orner’s book was one of the finalists.

“It’s a wonderful book, so I wasn’t surprised. It is so interesting because it’s so personal, understanding … and wonderfully articulate with a great appreciation of literature,” Chernoff said. “I really loved the chapter set in Prague and on his marriage. The way he captures it in this setting is particularly well told, his honesty is distinct and brutal when it needs to be.”

Alexander Bouskos, a 22-year-old creative writing major who reads Orner’s work, said he was glad to see Orner’s book recognized.

“Having been familiar with his work, it’s so heartwarming to see his work up for an award, and I am beyond impressed with his books,” Bouskos said.

According to NBCC Vice President and BBC.com books columnist, Jane Ciabattari, the 24- member NBCC board chooses books to nominate for each catergory, not based on publisher and author submission, but by what each member reads and recommends.

“NBCC board breaks down into committees and we read and recommend books all year long in a confidential process involving a password protected Writeboard, email listservs and three in-person board meetings,” Ciabattari said in an email.

The finalists in each category — criticism, autobiography, biography, non-fiction, fiction and poetry — will attend a New York reading at the New School on March 15, where the winners will be determined, according to Ciabattari.

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