Writing about the humanity in work
Tess Vigeland: Fifteen years ago, Daniel Orozco published the short story "Orientation." It's a guided tour of a new office filled with salacious tidbits about the co-workers delivered in an absurdly deadpan voice.
Daniel Orozco: "Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the voicemail system answer it. This is your voicemail system manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can't find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He'll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go."
Vigeland: Orozco had been working various office jobs when he wrote the story -- human resources, a temp during the summers. Now he teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho. And Orientation is the title story in his just released debut collection of short stories. Daniel Orozco, thanks for joining us.
Orozco: Thank you. Good to be here.
Vigeland: The question might be obvious, but why do you write about work?
Orozco: I have this weird notion that you find out more about somebody at work than you do anywhere else and I think it has to do with the fact that at work you are somehow constrained, and you adapt to that. The office is filled with many, many petty and mean and arduous tests. I think when you are tested, that's when you reveal who you are.
Vigeland: You mentioned that you worked in HR for a period and also that you were a temp, so that must be where the bit called Temporary Stories comes from, also in this collection. In it, a woman is trained with answering calls from job seekers. Can you read a bit from the top paragraph of page 128?
Orozco: Yeah, let me read this: "So, began a woman on line 6, do you think I should apply for this position to get my foot in the door and take the chance of getting stuck in a dead-end job? Or should I risk waiting for the job I really want to come up, which could possibly be never? Tell me, line 3 implored. Tell me I haven't missed the application deadline for the job in medical records. Please, please, please, please tell me that. Guess where I'm sleeping, line 4 began. OK I'll tell you, I'm sleeping on my brother-in-law's living room's sofa. I'm a 44-year-old man sleeping on my brother-in-law's living room sofa and if I don't get a job by the end of the month, the punk is going to toss me out on my ass."
Vigeland: Your description of the office here is so detailed. How much of your experience comes into this?
Orozco: Oh, this phone call stuff is absolutely true. It is practically transcribed. I hated doing phone work. I found out too much about people and that made me uncomfortable. I just wanted to answer the phone and what I was getting were these glimpses of these lives looking for work.
Vigeland: There's such a humanity in your depiction of these characters, despite the fact that they're in a place that I think a lot of people think is a dehumanizing place.
Orozco: Yeah, there is a lot of comedy even while things are very sad. But I never want to be making fun of these people. My mom and dad worked in factories for years. My mom packed licorice for over 20 years and I marvel at that. I mean, she could take a long bus ride home and be kind of human and nice. And I've never forgotten that. There is dignity in any work, no matter how dehumanizing it may be.
Orozco: Great to be here. Thank you.