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Author Interview: Susan Orlean

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?


Photograph by Peter Urban

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