We caught up Susan Orlean, biographer of Rin Tin Tin, author of The Orchid Thief, inspiration for the movie Adaptation. Here’s what she had to say about her journalistic interests and writing process.
1. “Newsy” and “topical” are not Orlean’s first priorities as a journalist.
Susan Orlean: I’m drawn to stories that unfold as I look into them, and they are usually something I find in the margins of life rather than right in front of me. And I rarely write about things that I’m already doing – again, there doesn’t seem to be a chance for discovery, which is so important to how I write.
It must have been weird then to write about treadmill desks last spring right before they became a “thing.”
SO: An unusual experience! Unlike most of my stories, this one wasn’t my idea. An editor at the New Yorker knew I had just gotten a treadmill desk and wanted me to write about it. I resisted, but the editor finally persuaded me, and I did have a lot of fun writing the story. It was astonishing to see how much it got discussed and circulated; as a person who usually writes about things no one has heard of or thought about, I’m not used to that degree of currency. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just not what I do.
2. Orlean’s interests as a writer are many and wide, rather than single-topic expertise.
SO: I often think of myself as having deep knowledge of a few very specific things, but no broad knowledge of any particular area. It’s my fault, of course, since once I learn about a topic, I really don’t want to revisit it, even though a second story about, say, orchids, would be much faster and easier than my first one, since I would come equipped with all the knowledge I’d acquired first time around. I’m just attracted to the process of learning, and then turning around and teaching, but then I want to start the process again with a new experience of learning. I appreciate expertise, of course, but I really crave that deep dive into utterly new, strange worlds, and then telling about the experience. Then I want to dive again. I sometimes am amused by how I have a pretty thorough understanding of such diverse topics as urban grocery stores, Bulgarian tennis, show dogs, trailer parks, and taxidermy.
3. She rarely knows which of those interests will lead to her next book project.
SO: I don’t plan ahead. An idea will just hit me in the head, and it’s clear to me almost immediately that it’s the one I’m going to do next. I’m just as surprised as anyone when I see what I’m working on. Story or Book A doesn’t lead to Story or Book B — quite the opposite, in fact. I would never have done a book about Lassie after a book about Rin Tin Tin, for instance.
What’s it like then to be done with a project but still get asked about it? I’m sure the world is not done talking to you about orchid theft.
SO: For starters, let me say that I’m genuinely thrilled — flattered, in fact — that readers continue having interest in work of mine, even if it’s long ago and I’m not engaged with it anymore. It continues to amaze me that I get to write for a living and that people are interested in what I’ve written. That softens any amount of frustration or impatience I might feel being asked to return to old work. I will admit that I occasionally worry that my best work is behind me when I’m asked about stories I wrote 10 or even 20 years ago. And there are a few stories, like “American Man Age Ten,” that I’ve discussed so many times that I worry my answers sound canned. But bottom line, I’m happy to still be talking about the work. I’m happy they continue to live in readers’ minds.
4. Orlean’s system of organizing notes and research is a shape-shifting beast.
SO: I’m always looking for a better system; it’s one of the big challenges of the work. I take notes by hand, which isn’t efficient, but it’s my preference. I recently bought a Livescribe pen, which also tape records and digitizes the notes – yes, it’s magic – and I think it will help a lot. I use Evernote a lot. I have file folders left and right. And when it comes time to write my books, I transfer most of my notes onto index cards and lay them out in a gigantic spread, to try to get a real feel for what I have gathered. It’s cumbersome, but I feel like I really need to see everything in a very physical way in order for it to really make sense.
5. She’s often asked to speak publicly and host events and programs. Unlike some writers, she likes it.
SO: I feel lucky that I enjoy the performative stuff, since it’s become important for writers to be engaged in that way, and not all of us writers enjoy doing it. I do. I love radio, for instance, and love doing readings. It’s partly because I’m a bit of a ham, but also because I really love having the real-time experience of an audience, especially when I’m doing a reading. I try to write in a very oral way – that is, as if I were really talking to you and telling you the story – so to actually do that is very satisfying. It’s also a great tool for seeing what works and what doesn’t: An audience reaction is a really good measure of how well a piece has communicated.
6. She’s good at Twitter but didn’t set out to be.
SO: I fell into Twitter. I had no idea of how it worked or why I’d even want to use it. I signed up at the urging of a young writer friend, who assured me it was the coming thing. (She’s obviously a genius.) And for a while I didn’t understand it and definitely didn’t know how to use it. Slowly, I got more comfortable with the format, and just started chatting casually, as if I were in an office chatting with my colleagues. It felt very natural to me. I definitely didn’t see it as a way to “sell” myself or push my — aaargh! — brand. I just enjoyed it. The more I used it, the more comfortable I got with the idea of what my voice was on Twitter. There was never a grander plan than that.
7. Her kind of journalism normally involves an insane amount of travel, but she’s trying to do less.
SO: I have a son now, and he’s at an age where he’s very annoyed when I’m away. As a result, I’ve cut down my travel by a huge amount, and when I do travel, I do it in as short a time as I can. I’m also elated when I have an idea for a story or book that doesn’t require a huge amount of travel. I miss going to interesting places, but I can live my life much more easily if I’m not gone as much.
You’re from Cleveland, have lived in Boston but now in Los Angeles and the Hudson Valley of New York. Most of your subjects are American, uniquely so, but do you feel a person of a specific part of America? Of all of America? Of the world?
SO: Aaaargh! This is the question I ask myself constantly. I find myself wondering where I live. And more importantly, where I will live ultimately. I suppose it’s an embarrassment of riches, because I really love everywhere I have a root in the ground, so maybe I’ll just continue floating between these different places. It certainly fits with my writing persona, since I float between topics too. But I’m really very much a homebody, very connected to where I live – I always think my multi-city lifestyle gives people the wrong impression, that I’m a vagabond who loves being one foot out the door. Quite the opposite! It’s just been a combination of circumstances that have added up to me being in lots of different places.
8. Her new book project will focus on a public library… on fire.
SO: I’m writing a book about the Los Angeles Public Library, with a focus on the arson fire that burned it down in the 1980s. It’s a great tale.
9. The question she gets asked most often contains the words “Meryl Streep.”
SO: Ha! Yes, I get asked about Adaptation all the time, but I’m very philosophical about it. If that’s the worst thing in my life, to be asked too often what it’s like to be played by Meryl Streep, then I would say I’m a very lucky person.
Kevin Smokler is the author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School.