May 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 56°F


Compulsive curiosity

For the past two years, “The Orchid Thief” author Susan Orlean has been busy writing a biography on dog star Rin Tin Tin. She said she hopes the book will be finished in a year — but don’t ask. Orlean will talk tonight about her career, life as a staff writer at The New Yorker and what it means to be a writer. This past weekend, Editor in Chief Vanessa Schneider spoke with Orlean — just overcoming a cold and preparing to take her son to the circus— about breaking journalism conventions and getting caught up in taxidermy.

New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean draws inspiration from her favorite writers, including John McPhee, Joan Didion, Ian Frazier and Joseph Mitchell. Courtesy of the Office of Media Relations

Vanessa Schneider: You studied literature and history in college, and you’ve said you were looking for a way to be a writer, to write the type of pieces you wanted to write. What stories did you want to write, and why were you interested in writing those stories?

Susan Orlean: I was really drawn to these long-form narrative, non-fiction stories that I was reading in The New Yorker and Life magazine and some of the nonfiction that was being published then, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe — the kinds of stories that were not about breaking news and concerned themselves with kind of slice of life. I just was drawn to those stories very naturally and also loved the idea of doing the reporting that it would entail, stepping into other lives and spinning the story of what I saw. But it’s not a very typical path for a writer. There’s no prescribed way that you become that kind of writer. The people I knew in college were either interested in working for newspapers, or in some cases, working for newsweeklies. And they were learning the skills of that kind of reporting: fast, investigative — all very worthy but not what I was interested in. I guess the bottom line is, I wanted to write the stories I wanted to read. I certainly read the newspaper so I shouldn’t quite put it that way. I wanted to write stories that had the transformational quality of fiction, that you could really immerse yourself in the story as you read it and really imagine another life, but pieces that were non-fiction.

VS: How did you go about developing that narrative technique — reading a lot, by just doing it?

SO: I read a lot. I still do read a lot. I did not write for the newspaper in college. When I was done with college and was taking a year that I thought was just going to be a year off before going to graduate school, I stumbled into a job at a tiny magazine that was just starting up. Part of what was so great about it is that we were basically taught how to report. Some of it was just instinct. Anybody who has a curiosity and ingenuity can figure out how to be a reporter. There are tools that you learn how to use that are great, but I’ve never even been that good at finding databases and that sort of stuff. It’s just never been my strength. I did feel that I did just naturally have a good feel for stories, and once I found myself in the stories, I let my instinct really lead me. I didn’t follow the typical path of reporting. I think that’s ended up being useful for me. I don’t usually follow what might be the obvious way of entering the story.

VS: Can you give an example?

SO: Typically, people assume if you’re going to write a story about, say, origami, which is the story I did most recently, that you would read a whole bunch of books about the history of origami and be prepared. I’ve preferred always to do the kind of thing that makes journalism teachers slightly sick to their stomachs — to not do preparation, to enter the story very innocently and ignorantly, and to learn it on my feet, to learn it as I am learning, and to learn from the people who are the practitioners of whatever it is I’m writing about. I liked the challenge that it was to enter a world and not be prepared. And I also always felt that it was more valuable to learn from the people who are doing it, rather than sitting and reading books. And, secondarily, I will go back and research published material, but my initial way of entering a story is to just dive in and struggle a little in the beginning.

VS: How do you go about finding your stories?

SO: It’s serendipity. Sometimes it’ll be from a suggestion, although that doesn’t happen that often. It’ll be just a curiosity that I sort of discover in myself, or a newspaper story that alludes to something but doesn’t really expand on it, that makes me want to know more. It can be a piece of found material — a sign, a leaflet, something that I’ll kind of come across and think, Oh, that’s interesting. Or it can be someone I meet. Last year, I was walking my dog, and I was chatting with a little girl who was walking with her dog. She told me she raised homing pigeons, and I thought, My God, that’s so interesting, a 13-year-old girl raising homing pigeons — very unlikely. I ended up doing a story about it. It can be as totally accidental as that. I think part of it is that you have to have an instinct for what might be an interesting story and that may be a skill that can be developed, but I think your mind has to work that way.

VS: Have you ever been reporting a story and thought, This just isn’t going to work?

SO: Yeah, occasionally. That definitely happens where either the people are not cooperating or the story starts to be less interesting the more I learn about it. It doesn’t happen that often because I usually think pretty hard before I commit to a piece. But it definitely happens.

VS: You use such amazing detail and dialogue, how do go about recording those things?

SO: I take notes while I’m talking to people. Occasionally, I’ll have to step out and fill in my notes because I’m not a great shorthand writer. I rarely use a tape recorder. I just am more comfortable taking notes. While I do not preach this as the way everybody should do it, I think you need to do whatever is comfortable for you. I feel like using a tape recorder, weirdly enough, makes me pay less attention. And I’m not sure why, it just does. There have been times when I’ve been sorry I didn’t tape record something because I didn’t take thorough enough notes and that happens. But I also hate transcribing. That was always something I dreaded, and I thought, You know what, I’m just not going to do it.

VS: You gave a speech at the Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism a few years ago, and you talked about passion and curiosity. Why is it important for a writer to have those qualities?

SO: The one thing that is absolutely essential — there is no substitute and absolutely nothing that can take the place of it — is that you truly and honestly have to want you, as the writer, have to really want to know the answer — the answer being, who is this person or what is this situation, or why am I interested in this subject? Without that natural, genuine desire to know something, you just can’t do this kind of story. And that’s not to say when you’re working for a living you don’t get assignments where the only real reason you’re doing the story is because you got assigned the story. I understand the privilege of doing a story that truly comes out of your desire. But when we’re talking about those kinds of stories, and not about the assignments, though actually you can talk about this in regards to an assignment. I was certainly assigned plenty of stories in my life, but there was never a story I couldn’t find some reason to be interested. And while there may be some that seem so mundane it’s hard to really muster that, I think a writer is just a person who uses writing to convey their real desire, which is to tell stories. And there’s nothing that isn’t a story. There are certainly some things that are much better than others for all sorts of reasons. And maybe this sounds a little too dramatic, but there is something interesting in every subject. There’s got to be.

VS: So is that the attitude you take when going into pieces?

SO: Yeah, and now I do have the great privilege of really only doing the stories I’m interested in, and that’s a great, lucky place to be in my professional life.

VS: How many pieces a year do you write for The New Yorker?

SO: I’ve been on a very slow work schedule over the last two years. I’m working on a book and I had a baby two years ago. These last two years have been part maternity leave, part book leave. Normally I do four to six. That’s my usual year, but I just haven’t had a usual year in a few years.

VS: Can you talk about your new book?

SO: It’s a biography of Rin Tin Tin, the dog actor.

VS: How’s that going?

SO: It’s actually great. It’s really fascinating, and really fun, and really a challenge because it’s mostly historical, so it’s going to be a really different undertaking for me. It’s exciting and scary. I’m used to seeing things with my own eyes and hearing them with my own ears, and having 75 to 80 percent of the primary characters involved in the story not be alive is very different.

VS: When is that expected to be finished?

SO: Don’t ask. I’d like to be done a year from now, which sounds really long, I’m sure, but books take a long time.

VS: Who are your favorite types of people to profile?

SO: My favorite kinds of people are people who are deeply engaged in something, who really love it and who are unself-conscious about it. It’s the most engaging. It’s the most fun to be pulled deep into some world you know nothing about, and I really like to write about people who have never been written about before. It doesn’t always turn out to be that way, but I have the most gratification out of writing stories about people who are very much outside the world of press agents and publicity. It feels like I’ve really discovered something and I’ve brought readers to something really new when that happens. And then I’ve done some pieces about really well-known people, and that’s been a lot of fun, too. I’m a bit of a contrarian and I like writing stories about people who are either really popular and I don’t understand why—

VS: Can you give an example of that?

SO: The perfect example of that would be the painter Thomas Kinkade. He’s just this mass-marketed painter. He has millions of galleries and the kind of painting that is pastoral, let’s say. And he’s somebody I would guess most of the readers in The New Yorker would just be horrified by the thought of, and that’s partly why I was interested in him — my natural reaction, too, is to think, Oh god, I hate this stuff, and yet he sold something like 10 million pieces of art. Well, what’s the deal here? So I sometimes love writing about something very, very popular for that reason, which is to understand how something that I don’t particularly like or appreciate has managed to be really popular.

VS: Have you ever reported about something that, when done with reporting and the piece is published, you’ve become passionate about the topic, too?

SO: There’s always a kind of wake. While I’m working on a story I tend to get completely persuaded that this is the coolest thing, and I’m going to start doing this — how could I have missed this all of these years, it’s so great? And then usually after the story’s over, and I get a little distance, it’s not that my enthusiasm fades, it’s that, when you’re working for two or three months on a story about taxidermy, you start thinking a lot about taxidermy and you go from, Oh, taxidermy is so weird, to, God, taxidermy is so cool. Seeing it through the eyes of people who really love it is the thing that makes you say, Now I understand it, now I see why someone loves it. And there are certain things that I’ve been totally immune to, say, Thomas Kinkade. Although I actually really liked him as a person, I am totally immune to the art itself, but I came to understand the attraction … When I was working on “The Orchid Thief,” I went from thinking, Oh man, orchids are so ugly, to seeing incredibly beautiful ones and really appreciating them, and still do. But I didn’t think, You know what, I’m going to become an orchid grower now. I’ve never quite crossed that line. I’ve never made something a huge part of my life.

VS: What are you going to talk about at your speech tonight?

SO: I’m going to read a little bit, and then talk a little bit as we’ve been talking about my career and journalism and The New Yorker in general. I think when I speak at colleges, I emphasize that a little bit more because I think often people in the audience are aspiring writers, or there’s a slightly different interest in the nuts and bolts of your career, as opposed to talking to a group of, say, older people who may just have a different curiosity.

VS: Any advice for journalists and writers?

SO: If you really love writing and you really want to be a writer, it’ll happen. It’s the ultimate meritocracy. If you really love doing it, and you are heart-and-soul devoted to it, it will happen. It’s a bit of a mysterious world to enter because it’s not like becoming a lawyer where you go to law school and then you become a lawyer. It doesn’t have that automatic-ness to it. I really believe it does reward people who are really committed to it, and who get a lot of joy out of it. As far as practical advice, I think the most important thing you can do is write as much as you can. If you want to be a writer, the best thing you can do is write and get published, it doesn’t matter where. It doesn’t matter if it’s the smallest paper in the world or if it’s The New York Times … . What matters is to write and write and write, and being published is important because it begins to make you understand the great excitement of being read and also the responsibility of being read. And, finally, in addition to write and write and write is read and read and read. The best education you can get to be a writer is to read the writers you love, and read them and re-read the pieces you really care about and try to learn from them. While each one is unique, and can’t be a blueprint for anything you’re going to write, they can be marvelous instruction. I re-read the pieces that are my little rabbit’s foots over and over again, and I’m still learning.

VS: What pieces inspire you?

SO: There’s a collection of John McPhee’s called “Giving Good Weight,” Joan Didion’s “White Album,” Ian Frazier’s book “Great Plains,” and Joseph Mitchell’s book “Up in the Old Hotel.” And those are four, I think, very different but totally fantastic books, and I read them over and over again.