Living in the Boston area, I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading Susan Orlean in the Globe on a regular basis. From there, she went on to her now highly regarded work at The New Yorker and publication of The Orchid Thief (and its subsequent adaptation as the acclaimed film, Adaptation). She has published two collections of her columns as well as collaborated on a number of other projects. Recently, she was guest editor for Best American Essays 2005. Susan Orlean, who continues to exhibit her great command of ingenious reporting and smooth, lucid and often humorous writing in her signature “oddball” pieces, is presently bringing those talents to bear on her latest project, a “biography” of Rin Tin Tin. Susan and I met for the second time (for more about the first, visit identitytheory.com) at a neighborhood coffee shop in South Boston, not far from her downtown loft. We talked about being a New Yorker, The New Yorker, Rin Tin Tin and this and that.
RB: Are you a New Yorker?
SO: I guess I feel un-entitled to call myself a New Yorker. I haven’t lived there quite as long as I lived in Ohio, but close.
RB: Famously, Harold Ross said that “The New Yorker is not for the little old lady from Dubuque [Iowa].” How true is that today?
SO: The little old lady from Dubuque is a very different old lady these days. . . . The world has shrunk and expanded simultaneously. You can be a little old lady living in Dubuque and be completely tuned into what’s going on in every possible way, in the arts, science, politics, everything.
RB: How “New York” is The New Yorker?
SO: That’s an interesting challenge in the magazine, to both acknowledge its origins and its uniqueness in capturing something about New York. Clearly, it’s about the world—New York has become more of a concept. It still has a real connection to New York, but … almost more as what that implies, what the place means to the world as a center of thinking and arts and culture, rather than necessarily a physical place.
RB: How integral is writing the magazine pieces to you?
SO: I love writing for the magazine. I can’t imagine ever not making it an important part of my life, for a variety of reasons—first of all, it’s an association that I am prouder of almost than anything. So it’s important to me emotionally and professionally and sentimentally to be connected to it. Also, there are a million stories I want to write that wouldn’t work as books.
RB: Why aren’t there more venues for the kind of story you write?
SO: I used to talk with Tina Brown about this a lot. Her take on it was the most insightful: The kinds of stories I really want to do and really enjoy doing rely 99 percent on execution and 1 percent on having a good idea—99 percent on pulling it off. Magazines and newspapers, both correctly and unfortunately, fear sending someone off on a story where doing it really well really matters. Tina and I used to talk about this—it was of interest to her and to me. Her feeling was you can take an obvious subject, a profile of Tom Cruise. Even if it’s not done all that well, it’s easy to promote it. It’s easy to draw a number of readers to it because it’s a ready-made. You have certain audience who may finish the piece and say, “It wasn’t very good,” but they are going to read it. You take a piece about a guy who steals orchids—you begin with zero audience.
RB: You have a young child and a dog. Why would you want to move back to Manhattan, or maybe Brooklyn?
SO: I feel like the longer we are away from New York, the harder it is to picture what we’ll do. In downtown Boston, of course, our life is not different in terms of not having a yard. . . .
RB: You’re over in the Fort Point area of Boston?