An Interview with Susan Orlean, by Tom Hardej
May 28, 2013
Susan Orlean certainly has had an eclectic career. (How many of us can say that Meryl Streep has played us in a movie?) She always follows her interests and writes passionate, thoughtful pieces, whether it’s for the New Yorker, one of her books—her most recent, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, was a New York Times bestseller and has just come out in paperback—or her massive Twitter following. We caught up with her to talk about her process as a writer.
How did you get where you are now? What was your trajectory in becoming a writer and a published author?
I have always wanted to be a writer, so by the time I began thinking about what I would do with myself, it was always what I had hoped for and dreamed about. I got very lucky out of college, basically stumbling into a writing job, which was pure accident in a way. There was a very small magazine starting; they were willing to hire people with no experience, which is exactly what my situation was, and I really was writing—not making coffee for established writers. So it meant that early on I had a chance to write, to build a portfolio of stories, and to figure out what made a story, what interested me. I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do no matter what. I worked at that tiny publication, which only lasted a year, and then got a job at an alternative news weekly. I was living in Portland, Oregon, at the time. Then I started throwing myself at the mercy of editors at bigger magazines and coming up with story ideas and asking them to let me have a chance. Luckily, they werewilling and I moved on from there. I moved to Boston and wrote for the Boston Globe and the Phoenix, and I moved to New York in 1986. At that point I had started working on a book, and I also approached the New Yorker with this crazy idea that maybe I would write for them. And to my pleasure—and frankly, my surprise—they were persuaded. So that began my relationship with the magazine, which has continued until today.
Obviously you’ve written a number of books. How does writing books compare to writing shorter magazine andnewspaper pieces?
It’s more challenging by a factor of a billion, ifthat’s what you mean. There is nothing to prepareyou for how much more challenging it is to write a book. Magazine pieces are certainly challenging in their own right, but sustaining a story for 300 pages, and really being out there on your own, is a giant challenge—a good one—but
definitely a huge challenge.
When you first started, you were pursuing all sorts of publications. Was there something specific you were most interested in writing about, or were you just going for anything that might stick?
I think at that early stage I just wanted to follow my curiosity. There were times when I thought, “Geez, I should really have a beat; I should become an expert in something. Someday someone will think, ‘We need Susan; she’s the one who knows this stuff.’” And yet my instinct just didn’t take me in that direction. I was always more inclined to learn about the thing I knew nothing about, rather than to become an expert in something. So those were the stories I was pursuing, and that’s how I presented myself to editors: “I’m really good at learning new stuff. I don’t come to you with a body of knowledge about anything, but I’m really good at learning new things.” It’s not always the easiest way to sell yourself to editors, but it was the most genuine way for me, because it truly was what I had in mind.
You worked on your most recent book, Rin Tin Tin, for quite a long time. What led you to that story?
I brought a certain amount of personal history to it, having grown up watching The Adventures of
Rin Tin Tin, and having been madly in love with him as a dog when I was a kid. This was partly my wish fulfillment to learn about this creature that I had adored. I like animals a lot, so the idea of writing a book that focused on animals was very attractive to me. And most importantly, I thought it was a great story. I just thought it was a fantastic story that was full of surprises, history, and fascinating characters. It had all
the elements that work for me in a story.
In your other pieces you’ve been able to interview people, but obviously you can’t interview a dog, especially one that has been dead for many years. Did that mean spending a lot of time in the archives?
It was really different because not only was he a dog, and a dog that was not alive, but all the important people were also not alive. I was suddenly looking at a project that was absolutely new to me, which meant spending a lot of time in the archives and figuring out how you write a story through historical material rather than through interviews, which I was much more accustomed to. That was a huge challenge. It made it very exciting and also
at times very daunting.
Something that often comes up in your writing—very explicitly, of course, in The Orchid Thief—is obsession.
But as a writer, you also have to become obsessed with Rin Tin Tin, in the same way that your subjects become
obsessed with orchids, or whatever else. Do you see a connection there?
Definitely. In order to really dig into a subject as a writer, you have to replicate some of that same single-mindedness and, one could argue, obsession. At the very least you become passionate and focused in a way that is very similar to what your subjects are going through. Certainly for me, there was a little bit of a surprise in realizing that, because writers also pride themselves on having a certain objectivity and distance from their subjects and an ability to step in and step out. But you have to become passionate about what you’re writing about, or it will be very hard to write a good book.
You grew up in the Midwest, and you have said that when you moved to New England, you found it a weird and interesting place. Now that you’ve relocated to the West Coast, are you having a similar reaction?
There is a remarkable amount of regionalism that still exists, which is wonderful. Yes, the West is very different from the Midwest, from New England. That’s a wonderful realization: there are still interesting and distinct characteristics of the different parts of the country. They’re all weird, and they’re all fascinating, all at once.
Susan Orlean has made her career writing for various publications such as Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, and the Village Voice while also writing several nonfiction books including The Orchid Thief (referenced in the film Adaptation). She currently works as a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her latest book is Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, a biography of dog actor Rin Tin Tin.
Tom Hardej is a graduate of Boston College with a degree in mathematics, but he recently went back to school at the University of Maryland to obtain a master’s degree in historic preservation. He has been a freelance editor for eight years.
Author photo: Gasper Tringale