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Author Interview: Susan Orlean
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SO: A fundamental question, which I have to deal with, and it’s actually sort of funny. It has become a comical sidetrack in the book . . . the people who manage the character licensing of the two animals are very sensitive about it. Even now. But it is really a funny thing—like, who do you prefer? The Rolling Stones or the Beatles?

RB: Were there any other dogs of that stature?

SO: Even after all these years, they are the ur-dog figures. They were serious figures and were embodied differently, but both embodied a notion of American identity that you would never say Benji does. It was also a period of time when Americans were beginning to think about what it meant to be an American. All the ideas of strength and courage and steadfastness, they really were embodied in the two of them. It’s really about an American identity, and also about a time when the country was becoming more and more urban, and our connection to animals became very different and much more atavistic. Much more connected to this memory of a more rural time.

RB: Do you know Mark Derr’s book, A Dog’s History of America? It’s a well-written, anecdotal, sensible account, and in it, he pursues the idea of that country/city switchover.

SO: It was definitely a moment, also the move to the suburbs, where you could have a dog. It became part of a whole life that people were buying and aspiring to, but also a culture that goes from rural to urban. It’s interesting how you start viewing animals differently. They become more precious, in a different way—more emotional than when you are a farmer, for example.

RB: Is there any surprise in this story, for you? Will the story go somewhere that you don’t anticipate?

SO: I hope so. The whole story was so surprising to me to begin with, because I had no idea that this was a real dog with real person with a really interesting history. So there was already a big surprise. Every story I have ever done has had a moment where it turned, where I found myself astonished, and I hope for that.

RB: Recently, Best American Essays 2005, which you guest-edited, was published . How much work was that?

SO: A lot more than it seemed.

RB: [laughs] I thought (series editor) Robert Atwan did all the heavy lifting?

SO: He really does. But also it’s a lot of reading, and it’s hard to make the choices.

RB: He reads a thousand essays, and you read how many?

SO: He gives the editor about 120, in that range. I am going to do Best American Travel Writing 2006. It’s fun to be on the other side once in a while.

RB: It’s encouraging that there are places that keep publishing personal essays.

SO: It’s either very high-end or very handmade. It’s either the New Yorker and The Atlantic, or these much smaller, much more specific journals. Middle-range magazines don’t really have this kind of writing.

RB: Are you noticing what looks to me like renaissance in small literary magazines?

SO: I don’t follow that world that much, but I do think that it feels like that to me. What’s funny is that this is the worst moment for newspapers and newsmagazines. And [yet] these more particular publications—not that they are drawing in advertising, but in terms of having an audience—they seem to be really thriving. I’d rather work for The Drunken Boat than for Time Magazine, to be honest with you.

RB: Do you have any fears about people ceasing to read?

SO: No. That seems like it is never-ending; the form might keep changing in terms of how things are delivered, but what you are talking about is the basic human impulse to communicate. I just don’t see how you could assume that would go away. And there will [always] be people who will want to be communicated to and people who want to do the communicating. What the form will be, who knows?

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 35: Mar/Apr 2006

Photograph by Peter Urban

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