An Interview with Michelle Orange

Robert O'Connell

Michelle Orange Photo

In “Every Sha La La, Every Oh No,” a piece she wrote for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Michelle Orange claims, “I avoid the top tier of my favorite songs with the deft recoil of a jaded Hollywood publicist. Like the sweet reek of a fading teen queen client—so beautiful, so over—I find it impossible (or more likely imprudent) to be in the same room with them.” These sentences, at once imaginative and sensory, gesturing toward not-quite-archetypes that we know even if we have never acknowledged them, represent Orange’s unique abilities. Her writing combines an expansive and restless intellect with a casual, soft-grip command of language. She recognizes oddity and translates that oddity into familiarity. In her recent collection of essays This Is Running for Your Life, Orange writes about movie stars, growing older in the Internet age, and Beirut. Each subject runs happily through the contours of her mind until it is rendered graspable without losing a bit of its curiosity. She will be reading from her work at the University of San Francisco on April 8 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Emerging Writers Festival. We thank her for taking the time to answer some of our questions. You can read some of Orange’s work at her website.

Switchback: You write for a number of different outlets. Your book This Is Running for Your Life is full of longer, deeply reasoned pieces, but you’ve also written shorter essays for publications like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and movie reviews for Movieline and Capital New York. Do you distinguish between these types of writing? If so, how do they inform one another?

Michelle Orange: Different muscles are involved, or emphasized, in the different kinds of writing you mentioned, so the writing of them might exercise me in different ways. If the amount of energy required varies, the source is always the same, as is the struggle to get things right.

SWB: Is your reading as varied as your writing? Do you tend toward works that might appear on professors’ syllabi, or do you try to read writing from across the spectrum, regardless of how “literary” it is?

MO: The great thing is I don’t have to try, my interests are really varied and my reading pile tends to reflect that. But I do make an effort to read more fiction—the balance is a little off there. Right now I’m making my way through the Patrick Melrose novels, and predict a long love affair with Edward St. Aubyn. I haven’t been as wowed by contemporary fiction in a long, long time.

SWB: Most of your work concerns parts of our cultural landscape that compete with the written word or, at least, our traditional understanding of the written word: film, the Internet, celebrity culture. You went to graduate school for film studies. What keeps you writing? What do you think words can accomplish that none of our other options in art and media can match?

MO: I’ll go back to St. Aubyn, who is reacquainting me with the power and intimacy of the relationship that can take shape between reader and writer. That relationship is profoundly unique in the arts, and no amount of “competition” will alter it. Increased distraction and choice might even make the basic requirement of literature—to slow down and engage in a deeply private relationship—more appealing. Someday.

SWB: In some of your essays, there are long sections with few, if any, characters and little scene, sections of uncut thought or argument. The essays stay engaging, though, because of the strength of the language and intricacy of the ideas. What strategies do you have for keeping more argumentative writing from becoming tedious reading?

MO: Well, the fear of being tedious is a powerful motivator. Certainty can breed tedium. I think it’s important, in argumentative or idea-based writing, to stay alive to ambiguities, and narrate them as you might a scene or a story. If you’re performing perform, with the idea that the reader will draw his or her own conclusions. The main thing is to keep the reader with you and ideally illuminate something true, not to convert or badger. I find it helpful to stay true to my thought processes in the writing, which is to say to stay true to life, and bring the reader along: this is how I got here, what do you make of it? Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum, and they shouldn’t be presented that way.

SWB: Do you have a process for conceiving a piece? Are there ever times when you have to seek material, or do you tend to have the germ of an essay on your mind most of the time?

MO: I do usually have a couple of germs buried, like peas under a mattress, in my mind. The annoying thing is there is no reliable method of getting one to sprout, only habits that have worked at least once in the past. Sometimes it feels very accidental, the point at which a handful of observations suddenly pop together and form something whole. But then, should it happen a few times in a row, as with the book, themes start to take shape and it becomes apparent that my preoccupations are not as random as they might have seemed. Seeking an idea is misery. It’s more pleasurable to enter a heightened state of awareness of my own thoughts, following them like a detective might—taking notes, making connections, and reporting back to my cranky boss.