Author Interview: Susan Orlean

By Robert Birnbaum, June 2011, Updated February 2015

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 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?


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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?

SO: Yeah. We have a loft in one of those old warehouse buildings, so we are still living a totally urban life. When the dog needs to go out, you put in your coat and go on the elevator and take him out. We go to the country on weekends and there are times when I think, “Boy, this really is a great way to live,” with a lot of space; you [can] let the dog run outside, and there’s room for the baby, so I don’t know. . . .

RB: You are focused on a bio of Rin Tin Tin. Is it correct to say it’s a biography?

SO: I described it that way, tongue in cheek, because it’s a funny thing to say. In fact, it is the story of a popular-culture character that was also a real living being. So there is this whole history of this particular dog and his offspring, [all of whom] continued as a thread through American pop culture.

RB: Why did you do Throw Me a Bone? Was it (co-author) Sally Sampson’s idea?

SO: She suggested it to me, and my involvement in it was writing the head notes. So it was a fairly low-impact involvement.

RB: Sally took the recipes seriously, and the mix of pictures and quotes was entertaining. I loved the Ed Hoagland quote to the effect, ”People want their dogs to be like them, when they should become more like their dogs.” How was it received?

SO: It did well. They are going to put it in a quality paperback edition next Christmas. It’s one of those books that’s a steady seller.

RB: Have you always liked dogs?

SO: I grew up with cats, and then got a dog when I was 13; I [also] got a dog when I was in college, which was an insane thing to do. I had her for 13 years, took a break after she died and then got Cooper. I love animals, and I really love dogs. But they’re an incredible pain in the neck.

RB: So are children [laughs].

SP: Yeah. It’s true, so is everything actually. It’s also a great deal of pleasure and he’s a great dog. And my other dog was wonderful. I like having animals around. It was interesting to not have a dog for that stretch. It was such a strange feeling. I didn’t have to go home after work.

RB: That reminds me of a wonderful song by Meg Hutchinson, where she sings about being one of those people who only stays out for a short while and then goes home to take care of her dog, and that her rolls of film have no humans on them, and other familiar dog-owner behavior. My relationship with my current dog is a lot different than that with previous dogs. I don’t even think of her in terms of “pet.”

SO: Yeah. It’s a funny term.

RB: Could you write this Rin Tin Tin book without having had your own dog?

SO: No, and yet and I think it’s also sometimes attractive to me to do a story about something that’s totally outside my life. You often think of story ideas because there is something in your life that triggers a connection and a thought, so it’s inevitable—I actually like doing stories that are outside my experience. For one thing, part of the appeal of the story is that I want to learn about this. I want to understand this thing that I know nothing about. And secondly, that the journey through learning about it is very much embedded in the way I write the story.

RB: I recall you saying that you can really only work on one thing at a time. Are you not writing other things as you put the Rin Tin Tin story into a book?

SO: I hate working on more than one thing at a time. I find it really tough. Sometimes you have to, but it’s not what I like to do. I feel like I really need to be immersed in a subject or I have trouble feeling what I need to feel to write.

RB: So there is this emotional imperative that’s perhaps implicit, which people don’t normally consider or talk about.

SO: To me it’s essential.

RB: Who was more popular, Rin Tin Tin or Lassie?

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?