Daniel Orozco is out of the office

Orozco's darkly funny short stories flirt with the macabre

 

NAME Daniel Orozco
AGE 52
VOCATION Short-story writer, creative writing professor, soon-to-be novelist
HOMETOWN Daly City, California
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION Corporate training manuals, police blotters, John McPhee's Assembling California
ON "WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW ""I don't start from my experience. I have to make something up. Then my experience comes in as supporting material."
ON THE KIND OF STORIES HE CAN'T WRITE "I like to push stories towards some kind of extremity. Something has to happen. I couldn't write an introspective story about a divorce if you put a gun to my head."

Here in Moscow, the Berkeley of Idaho, Daniel Orozco is clearly a big man off-campus. During a 90-minute happy hour at a downtown wine bar, the acclaimed short-story writer politely excuses himself three times to greet friends and colleagues. The bartender pours him a pint of Boundary Bay India Pale Ale before he even has to ask. The gray-templed 52-year-old is in his element.

That has not always been the case. "My first three years here, I was bored out of my mind," says Orozco, whose first collection, Orientation and Other Stories, hits bookshelves in March. "On Sunday, Moscow is a ghost town. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, it's a ghost town frozen under ice. I couldn't wait to leave."

Before he joined the University of Idaho's English faculty in 2003, Orozco was straight-up coastal. He grew up around San Francisco, the son of Nicaraguan immigrants who worked union jobs at Bay Area candy factories. As a Stanford undergrad, his carousel of attempted majors included pre-med, math, psychology, and (finally) film and broadcast communication. Throughout his 20s, he worked as an office assistant around the Bay, a decade of soul-crushing work that he satirized in his breakout short story, "Orientation," written after Orozco ditched office life at 30 to "hide out in a graduate program" at the University of Washington.

"Those are the offices and these are the cubicles," begins the story's anonymous narrator. "That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone."

"Orientation" was published by the Seattle Review, just as Orozco completed his MFA in creative writing in 1994 (a decade before The Office debuted on TV, by the way). The next year, it was selected for Houghton Mifflin's Best American Short Stories and aired on National Public Radio. Addressing the reader in a deadpan workplace intro, Orozco uses "Orientation" -- and his subsequent work -- to explore the droll and disquieting micro-stories that lurk behind commonplace encounters. One new officemate steals from the break-room fridge, we learn. Another is a serial killer, and we're told to act surprised when he's eventually caught. "Say that he seemed like a nice person," instructs the narrator, "a bit of a loner, perhaps, but always quiet and polite."

After stints as a UW doctoral student and a Wallace Stegner Fellow back at Stanford, Orozco heard about a job opening at the University of Idaho. But he couldn't imagine life among the low hills and long winters of the Palouse Valley.

"Someone told me about Moscow, and I thought, 'Oh, God,' " he says, sipping foam from a fresh IPA. Nonetheless, he applied and was hired, and it wasn't until 2007, returning from a summer fellowship in New Hampshire, that a switch finally flipped. "I don't know what happened. It just suddenly felt like home."

Place looms large in Orozco's stories, which have appeared in A-list journals and magazines, including Harper's, McSweeney's, StoryQuarterly and others. He's been widely anthologized in collections such as Best American Mysteries and Best American Essays; all of his published work will appear in his forthcoming short-story collection. Orozco's tales are characterized by dark comedy, adventures in form, and a looming tension that flirts with the macabre. In the opening of "Only Connect," a soon-to-be-murdered partygoer is admiring Seattle's skyline when the hostess warns him, "You never know where danger lurks." The line could be an invocation for Orozco. In "Officers Weep," a series of police-blotter blurbs traces a burgeoning romance between two cops. It ends in a cliffhanger, with the lovers-in-uniform about to interrupt a grisly crime.

Another of Orozco's stories, "Shakers," is an impossibly good, multi-perspective account of a two-minute California earthquake. As the pavement ripples, the reader ping-pongs from one foreboding episode to another, experiencing the tremors from the perspective of a stranded hiker and a parking lot rapist, among others. Orozco was in San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, and he says his story "was all about engaging California."

But don't call Orozco a Western writer. "I have a problem with the notion of Western writing," he explains. "I think it ghettoizes us. Stegner is still called a Western writer, but I see the notion of regionalism being used as a way of simplifying and reducing good writing."

Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux has already committed to Orozco's first novel, a few years out and still a work in progress. As we drain our beers and part ways, Orozco remarks that the book's settings would mimic his own migration: San Francisco, Washington state, and "a fictional town very much like Moscow."