Figuring it Out by Doing
Faculty Focus: Daniel Orozco
Daniel Orozco isn’t ready to reveal much about his debut novel. “It has a plot. Stuff happens. A couple of people die.”
Orozco, an associate professor in the University of Idaho Department of English, has spent nearly 13 years writing, studying and teaching short stories at UI. He is a master of his craft — an artist who loves lingering over individual sentences and deliberate structures.
But when he released his first collection, “Orientation: And Other Stories,” in 2011, his publisher made him agree to write a novel, too.
Orozco admitted the daunting task of writing a novel over the past six years has been a struggle — but a struggle that’s valuable to his life and his students.
“The fact that I write and struggle to write and struggle to publish means that I’m working at what I’m doing. That’s who students should be taught by,” Orozco said. “I’m engaged with the work that they do because I’m engaged with the work I do.”
The concept of struggle is central, too, to Orozco’s writing. Joking aside, he doesn’t share much publicly about his novel-in-progress, but he said it addresses some of the same issues as his short stories.
“A lot of my work deals with people who struggle with solitude, with being alone,” he said. “It’s always been a dramatic area I’m fascinated to write about, and the novel certainly deals with that.”
For the past 20-plus years, he’s often found himself (whether he means to or not) exploring the “emotional incongruities” in a quote from R.M. Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”: “Therefore, dear sir, love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you.”
Writing about solitude challenges Orozco to find drama in the lives of people separated from typical human dramas.
“There are stories about people who take relationships for granted, take companionship for granted, and I like to write about people who don’t,” he said.
The concepts of struggle and solitude are also sources of motivation — for Orozco and for his characters. He points to Samuel Beckett’s exhortation to “Try again. Fail Again. Fail better,” as a reminder that difficulties lead to progress.
Wrestling with and even complaining about his work is a sign to Orozco that he’s thinking about it and energized by it.
“Work is a funny thing,” he said. “You enjoy it even though it’s not always fun.”
To help drive the novel forward even more, he turned to a classic narrative device: the MacGuffin. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term to refer to an object or goal that drives characters and their actions throughout a story.
“It could be a letter, microfilm, poison. For Hitchcock it didn’t matter,” Orozco explained.
Orozco chose a notebook as his MacGuffin, stolen 20 years past by one character, and desperately sought by another character in the present. This gave Orozco the opportunity to move the story in time and in space. He decided to set it in landscapes familiar to him, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Washington and “a town much like this one with a college — but not this one.”
Now that the novel is nearly done, Orozco is eager to get back to the focused and demanding practice of short-story writing, but he’s also pleased that his struggle has led him along an interesting path.
“It’s been rewarding,” he said. “I’m glad I’m figuring it out by doing.”