Daniel Orozco (Moscow, ID)
Since 1967, the Arts Endowment has awarded Literature Fellowships to more than 2,500 writers of prose and poetry, numerous future Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners and U.S. Poet Laureates among them. More than one NEA Literature Fellow has said that receiving the NEA grant made them feel like a “real writer.”
In FY 2006, Daniel Orozco was one of 50 fiction and nonfiction writers from 25 states to receive an NEA Literature Fellowship of $20,000. His work has previously appeared in McSweeney’s, Harper’s Magazine, and the Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, and Pushcart Prize anthologies, among others. A professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Idaho, Orozco spoke with the NEA about his life as a writer (and reader) and the importance of his NEA Literature Fellowship.
NEA: Let's start with the basics -- why write?
DANIEL OROZCO: "Why write?": Always a problematic question because the answer seems so arrogant: "In order to tell 'my' stories." Yech. Yet the impulse to seek an audience, to find your readers, is essential. My answer is a variation of that. I see writing as a puzzle, a problem-solving exercise. The impulse to write, for me, derives from figuring out a narrative problem: Can I tell this story in this way? Can I pull it off?
NEA: What was your first publication credit?
OROZCO: My very first publication was a story that appeared in a college literary journal in the San Francisco Bay area. This was in the late 80s. It felt great, of course, but the interesting thing--the nice thing--is that even now, the feeling is the same, a "woo-hoo" and a little dance. When you see your story typeset, you feel like a writer.
NEA: What's your writing process: Where do you write? Do you write every day?
OROZCO: I write every day when I'm working on a project, in the mornings, setting aside the time between 8 and noon. Sometimes I write for four hours, sometimes I write for twenty minutes, but I sit there between 8 and noon or so, every day. I write in the study, with the shades drawn, at a desk that faces a wall. . . . I tend to listen to the same music over and over, putting the CD on repeat for weeks. I've got a dictionary and a thesaurus next to me, and I spend a lot of time looking up words. I write at the keyboard exclusively, but once a month or so I print out what I've written and go to a coffee house for a couple of hours and read it and mark it up, then I go back home.
NEA: How important was the NEA Literature Fellowship to your writing career?
OROZCO: Invaluable. Affirming. Like going to a party you never thought you'd be invited to. The money was handy--I took time off from teaching to start a novel -- but it's so much more than money. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and I don't get out much. To have benefited from an organization whose sole goal is to recognize and help artists, to be a participant/recipient in that whole enterprise is to quite simply feel a part of something.
NEA: What have you read recently that made you want to go out and buy a copy for everyone you know?
OROZCO: I re-read a lot, and the nice surprise is how books can get better when you read them for the second or third time. I'm currently re-reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I'd buy that for everyone. Also recently re-read: Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, and The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. I'd buy those for everyone, too.
NEA: You've been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, which also receives grant support from the NEA. How important is that kind of time and space to a writer?
OROZCO: Places like MacDowell are special because they privilege time, making it all yours--private and uninterruptible, to do whatever you want with. It seems at first an indulgence, an excess, an embarrassment of riches--too much time. But. I wrote in the morning, wrote in the afternoon, tinkered and re-wrote most evenings. I was fully engaged and focused in a way I'd never been before. It was the most productive and rewarding experience I've ever had.
NEA: Beginning writers often ask for advice on what they should do. What shouldn’t they do?
OROZCO: This may sound awful but: They shouldn't think it's all fun. Writing can be the most exciting and gratifying of endeavors, but mostly it's laying pipe . . .there is accomplishment and progress, but it's slow and steady and sweaty. I'll quote Colette: "Who said you should be happy? Do your work."
Read a sample of Daniel Orozco’s work in the 2006 NEA Annual Report .
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