TALK­ING TO STRANGERS

IN MORE THAN TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AS A STAFF WRITER AT THE NEW YORKER, DUR­ING WHICH TIME SHE HAS WRIT­TEN EIGHT BOOKS, IN­CLUD­ING THE LI­BRARY BOOK, PUB­LISHED IN OC­TO­BER BY SIMON & SCHUS­TER, SU­SAN OR­LEAN HAS DIS­PLAYED A SEEM­INGLY SIM­PLE YET RE­MARK­ABLE TALE

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By kate tut­tle

In more than twenty-five years as a staff writer at the New Yorker, dur­ing which time she has writ­ten eight books, in­clud­ing The Li­brary Book, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber by Simon & Schus­ter, Su­san Or­lean has dis­played a seem­ingly sim­ple yet re­mark­able tal­ent: get­ting peo­ple to talk.

IF SU­SAN Or­lean were a char­ac­ter in a chil­dren’s book, she would be com­posed of equal parts Har­riet (the spy), Alice (from Won­der­land), Char­lotte (of the web), and the Lit­tle En­gine That Could. One can see her cu­rios­ity and dar­ing in The Orchid Thief, the break­out book that she chased through the murki­est cor­ners of the Ever­glades; her faith in the power and ne­ces­sity of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in magazine pro­files of gospel singers, girl surfers, and a crowd of other unique in­di­vid­u­als; and her tena­cious, pow­er­ful work ethic in her hope that each new book is bet­ter than the last.

Grow­ing up in Cleve­land in the late 1950s and early six­ties, Or­lean read vo­ra­ciously, and from as far back as she can recall, she wrote. “I kept quite a de­tailed diary of fam­ily trips,” she says. “It wasn’t like a jour­nal. I was writ­ing them as sto­ries that I imag­ined some­one else read­ing. They weren’t diaries for me; they were re­portage. For my vast au­di­ence!” She laughs, adding, “I al­ways felt that writ­ing—it just felt mag­i­cal to me; it felt like alchemy: that you could take mere words and end up cre­at­ing a feel­ing or a sen­sa­tion or evoke a mem­ory.”

Or­lean’s child­hood dove­tailed with the end of a golden age of chil­dren’s nov­els star­ring an­i­mal pro­tag­o­nists. She read as many as she could find, from Lad: A Dog to Misty of Chin­coteague. Other pas­sions in­cluded the nov­els of Eleanor Alice Hib­bert, who wrote un­der the pen name Vic­to­ria Holt (“sort of a Brontë sister wannabe,” Or­lean says), known as the Queen of Ro­man­tic Sus­pense. “My sister and I would ab­so­lutely beat each other up to be the first one to get them at the li­brary,” Or­lean re­calls. “And then I got turned on to Faulkner and Hem­ing­way by a re­ally won­der­ful high school teacher. And I felt like, ah, this is a whole other world that I’m dis­cov­er­ing.”

Her par­ents sub­scribed to the big mag­a­zines of the time, some of which were do­ing ground­break­ing work in the 1960s. “I was an avid magazine reader, and Life and Look were kind of in their glory days. They were do­ing won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary non­fic­tion writ­ing.” While read­ing one of these sto­ries she re­mem­bers think­ing, “This is what I want to do. I want to do ex­actly this kind of writ­ing.” The only prob­lem was that she had no idea how one be­came a magazine writer.

SIT­TING in the li­brary of her se­cond home in Pine Plains, New York, which she shares with her hus­band, John Gille­spie, and their teenage son, Austin, Or­lean projects a cheer­ful cu­rios­ity. She’s warm and friendly, thought­ful and open. Even though she has spent the past few days record­ing the au­dio ver­sion of her eighth book, The Li­brary Book, pub­lished in Oc­to­ber by Simon & Schus­ter, and her voice is strained as a re­sult, she seems happy to talk.

The house, which sits on fifty-plus rolling acres not far from the Hud­son River, is filled with ob­jects Or­lean has gath­ered over the years, many from her days writ­ing in far-flung des­ti­na­tions. A stuffed fox—ac­quired dur­ing a phase when she was ob­sessed with taxi­dermy—stands guard above an an­tique type­writer; books share shelf space with old toys and what ap­pear at first to be metal sculp­tures but are ac­tu­ally pieces of vin­tage ma­chin­ery. She loves each of her things, but more than that she loves the sto­ries be­hind the things. “I first started col­lect­ing stuff when I was right out of college and had my first apart­ment. We would go to thrift stores and yard sales and buy stuff for a nickel. Go­ing on­line and amass­ing a col­lec­tion is easy these days, but where’s the joy in that? It’s just much more in­ter­est­ing for me to tell you that my dog found that antler,” she says, ges­tur­ing to­ward the ob­ject in ques­tion, “than just say­ing, ‘There’s that antler, you can buy those on­line.’”

Later we walk out­side, trail­ing

be­hind her ex­u­ber­ant and ex­pres­sive dog, a mid­dle-aged Welsh springer spaniel, and head down a slop­ing pas­ture, where a small herd of An­gus cat­tle are hid­ing in the shade. Or­lean rings a bell atop a gatepost, and they emerge, swat­ting flies. The cows have soft, sweet ex­pres­sions. They push forward for their al­falfa treats, a spe­cial gift on a hot day, but are shy about be­ing pat­ted.

OR­LEAN’S ca­reer—she has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1992— has com­pelled her to travel around the world: Ice­land, Bhutan, Ja­pan, and else­where. “Those years when I was trav­el­ing and re­port­ing at all hours and writ­ing till three in the morn­ing, I didn’t have chil­dren,” Or­lean says. “There’s no ques­tion in my mind that I didn’t have kids be­cause I was push­ing my ca­reer forward, and I pushed my ca­reer forward more be­cause I didn’t have kids.” Ever since Austin was born in 2004, she has been in­clined to choose projects she can do close to home, which dur­ing the school year is Los An­ge­les.

Tak­ing her own young son to the li­brary in L.A., the Stu­dio City branch— just as years ago her mother had taken her to the branch out­side Cleve­land— sparked pow­er­ful emo­tions. “It was so pal­pa­ble and pro­found, such a mem­ory trig­ger,” Or­lean says, “that I was kind of thrown back. I hadn’t been to a lit­tle branch li­brary in so long. So I was sort of rolling that around in my head.”

Then, while vis­it­ing the Los An­ge­les Pub­lic Li­brary, Or­lean took a tour of the space with Ken Brecher, head of the Li­brary Foun­da­tion of Los An­ge­les. “He pulled a book off the shelf and smelled it,” Or­lean says. He men­tioned to her that you could still smell the smoke. “I thought, ‘What? Did they ac­tu­ally let peo­ple smoke in the li­brary?’” Or­lean says. “Then he said, ‘No, no, the fire.’” It was the first she’d heard of the 1986 fire that gut­ted the Los An­ge­les Pub­lic Li­brary, dam­ag­ing 700,000 books. “And I just thought, ‘Oh my God—this is it,’” she says. “It’s like, Oh, good, a ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent has oc­curred; I can get a good pic­ture!”

Or­lean dove in to re­port­ing, a process she says is like her own per­sonal grad­u­ate school. “I over­learn, be­cause I think that’s nec­es­sary,” she says. “I learn about stuff that ends up not ap­pear­ing in the book at all.” The fire it­self, in­clud­ing an ar­son in­ves­ti­ga­tion and both crim­i­nal and civil tri­als, forms one strand of the nar­ra­tive Or­lean weaves to­gether in the new book. She also threads the li­brary’s his­tory, from its nine­teenth-cen­tury be­gin­nings, to­gether with a close look at what li­brar­i­ans there do to­day as they serve an ever-chang­ing com­mu­nity.

“It was a chal­leng­ing book,” she says. “And I went into it think­ing how easy it would be.”

THIS year Or­lean be­came the Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Chair in Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism at the Banff Cen­tre, in the Cana­dian Rock­ies. The pro­gram is a month­long res­i­dency for writ­ers work­ing on long-form non­fic­tion pieces; as di­rec­tor, Or­lean leads work­shops, pro­vides ed­i­to­rial feed­back, and hosts a series of guest lec­tures and con­ver­sa­tions. The Cen­tre is a hub of cre­ative en­ergy—string quar­tets prac­tic­ing for an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, a dance troupe re­hears­ing a piece that will debut there, car­pen­ters build­ing the­atri­cal sets. On a walk­ing tour of the Cen­tre, my guide tells me about the glaciers, then about the In­dige­nous peo­ple who have long lived in the area. We walk past a gag­gle of math­e­ma­ti­cians ready­ing for a hike, then a Columbian ground squir­rel that stands straight up like a prairie dog, whistling at us. The place feels alive, filled with sto­ries and pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Tim Fal­coner, who works with Or­lean in the lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism pro­gram, says no­body knew what to ex­pect from the big-time Amer­i­can au­thor who took over from the for­mer di­rec­tor, Cana­dian writer Ian Brown. “But she’s been great,” he tells me. “She works re­ally hard; she’s ex­tremely friendly.” She greets a dozen peo­ple as we sit down to lunch in the airy, open din­ing room— a beau­ti­ful space I’ve al­ready no­ticed, with dis­may, is far too noisy for me to record our con­ver­sa­tion. Or­lean her­self doesn’t use a tape recorder when in­ter­view­ing peo­ple, pre­fer­ring quick notes in a re­porter’s note­book. She be­lieves deeply in four-by-six-inch in­dex cards and cork­board. “I feel like I couldn’t write with­out them,” she says. “I need to have my cards laid out in front of me. I’m kind of an or­ga­ni­za­tion freak, to be hon­est.”

The week I’m at Banff, Or­lean is host­ing fel­low New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, au­thor of Go­ing Clear: Scien­tol­ogy, Hol­ly­wood, and the Prison of Be­lief (Knopf, 2013) and The Loom­ing Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), among other books. When she strides on­stage that evening for her pub­lic in­ter­view with Wright, Or­lean’s pre­ci­sion is on dis­play, both in her ap­pear­ance—chic black dress and san­dals—and her ques­tions, which, while warm and re­laxed, are also prob­ing, di­rect, and fo­cused on invit­ing the thought­ful Texan to re­veal him­self. It’s a mas­ter­ful in­ter­view, a con­ver­sa­tion about sex, re­li­gion, pol­i­tics, and writ­ing.

When she and I talk the next day, I use the tape recorder app on my phone. Or­lean, who once oc­ca­sion­ally re­viewed tech gad­gets on Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, is fas­ci­nated by it. She’s not an

“When I ar­rived at the

New Yorker, Su­san was al­ready a star. She was also in­cred­i­bly friendly to a new­bie like me,” says David Rem­nick, the magazine’s editor. “She was wel­com­ing,

open, funny, full of ad­vice and sto­ries that

calmed the nerves.”

ab­so­lutist about tap­ing in­ter­views; for The Li­brary Book she some­times used a pen that con­tains a mi­cro-recorder. “I’m ac­tu­ally an early adopter,” she says, “for bet­ter or worse.”

IN THE 1970s Or­lean ma­jored in English at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan in Ann Ar­bor. Her par­ents ex­pected her to go to grad­u­ate school and then launch a ca­reer. “There was never even the slight­est hint of, ‘Oh, you’ll find a nice man, he’ll take care of you, you don’t need to work,’” she says. “I think my par­ents were prob­a­bly very sex­ist in many ways but not in that way.”

Law school was her fa­ther’s plan for her—Arthur Or­lean was a real es­tate de­vel­oper—but his daugh­ter didn’t fol­low. “I dragged my feet,” she says, “and then I took a year off, which was con­sid­ered ab­so­lutely re­bel­lious.” She moved to Port­land, Ore­gon, and worked as a wait­ress and vol­un­teered as a le­gal aide, a par­tial ac­qui­es­cence to her fa­ther’s wishes. But she kept her eyes open for some­thing else.

“I wanted to be a writer, but I re­ally had no idea how to make that hap­pen,” she says. “And then I heard about a lit­tle magazine start­ing up in town that was look­ing for peo­ple”—Pa­per Rose, now de­funct—“and they didn’t nec­es­sar­ily need to have ex­pe­ri­ence. I made a bee­line for it, went to the in­ter­view, and ba­si­cally said, ‘You have to hire me—you have to.’”

Her clips were laugh­able: the high school year­book she’d edited and one book re­view she’d writ­ten for the Michi­gan stu­dent pa­per. “I im­pressed them with my de­ter­mi­na­tion, which was not a bad way of judg­ing whether I would be good at this job or not,” she says. She got it.

“All of a sud­den I was a writer,” she says. “I had no idea what I was do­ing. I was twenty-two or some­thing.” For her first piece she posed as a preg­nant teenager and talked to ev­ery­one, from adop­tion agen­cies to Planned Par­ent­hood. “I did one or two more pieces, and sud­denly I felt, I’m in the groove,” she says. “I hardly knew what I was do­ing, re­ally, but I felt this con­fi­dence.”

Or­lean next jumped to Wil­lamette Week, the al­ter­na­tive newsweekly in Port­land, where she started as a mu­sic critic but soon be­gan writ­ing fea­tures. One day the writer Mikal Gilmore called. A Wil­lamette Week alum, he’d read her work and sug­gested she write for Rolling Stone, where he was now an editor. “It’s the kind of thing where you think, ‘This is a prank call, right?’ I’ve ben­e­fited from cer­tain peo­ple like that seek­ing me out and men­tor­ing me in a way that was very valu­able.” Pieces in Esquire, Vogue, and Out­side fol­lowed.

OR­LEAN wrote her first piece for the New Yorker in 1987, for the magazine’s Talk of the Town sec­tion; it was about the cloth­ing line Benet­ton, then at the height of its pop­u­lar­ity. Specif­i­cally, the piece was about how the com­pany taught its work­ers a spe­cific way to fold their sig­na­ture sweaters at its stores, bold and col­or­ful, to cre­ate a wall that looked like a woolly ac­cor­dion. “I guess in a funny way it sort of pre­fig­ured much of what I’ve done for the magazine since,” Or­lean says, “which is a kind of notic­ing of or­di­nary life.”

The editor of the New Yorker at the time, Robert Gottlieb, of­fered Or­lean a job as a staff writer, but shortly there­after he was fired. “I had to wait and see if Tina [Brown, the incoming editor] was go­ing to honor the agree­ment,” says Or­lean. Brown did and went on to hire many of Or­lean’s long-term col­leagues, in­clud­ing Jef­frey Toobin, Lawrence Wright, and David Rem­nick, who would go on to suc­ceed Brown as the editor. “I like to point out to them that I was there first,” she adds, grin­ning.

“I was young, but also I felt like a lot of the peo­ple at the New Yorker at the time I came had never worked any­where else,” she says. In an of­fice pop­u­lated by writ­ers and ed­i­tors in shabby, an­ces­tral tweeds, Or­lean dressed col­or­fully. Pe­tite and out­go­ing, with flame-red hair, she stood out in what was then, she says, “a very old-fash­ioned place.”

Rem­nick, who has been the magazine’s top editor since 1998, hav­ing started as a staff writer in 1992, re­mem­bers meet­ing Or­lean. “When I ar­rived at the New Yorker, Su­san was al­ready a star. She was also in­cred­i­bly friendly to a new­bie like me,” he says. “She was wel­com­ing, open, funny, full of ad­vice and sto­ries that calmed the nerves.” At the New Yorker, Or­lean be­came known for her pro­files, which were al­ways suf­fused, Rem­nick points out, “with a deep sense of hu­man­ity— even, some­how, when the hu­man in ques­tion was an an­i­mal,” as it was in “Show Dog,” her pro­file of a cham­pion boxer, from the Fe­bru­ary 20, 1995 is­sue. (Her first line: “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Trues­dale.”) And again in her book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Leg­end (Simon & Schus­ter, 2011), about the ca­nine movie star, which be­gan with the sen­tence: “He be­lieved the dog was im­mor­tal.”

AN OR­DI­NARY life ex­am­ined closely re­veals it­self to be ex­quis­ite and com­pli­cated and ex­cep­tional, some­how manag­ing to be both heroic and plain,” Or­lean writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to The Bull­fighter Checks Her Makeup, a col­lec­tion of pro­files pub­lished by Ran­dom House in 2001.

The col­lec­tion is com­posed of the types of sto­ries she has honed at the New Yorker. “I’ve gone to them with very weird ideas,” she says, “and even Tina rarely said no. With taxi­dermy, I dis­cov­ered that there was a taxi­dermy world championship coming up, so it be­came the frame­work of the story. But it be­gan as me just go­ing to David and say­ing, ‘I want to write about taxi­dermy,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t think any­one else is work­ing on that right now. You own that beat.’”

Re­port­ing in worlds she is un­fa­mil­iar with has re­quired em­pa­thy and re­spect, Or­lean says. It’s cru­cial not to act like an elite out­sider, gawk­ing at some­thing you see as strange. “I like writ­ing about worlds that may be per­ceived as, Oh, no­body at the New Yorker does

taxi­dermy, no one at the New Yorker lives in a trailer park,” she says. “And I think it would be ab­so­lutely dis­as­trous if the magazine wrote these pieces and they had a tone of smug­ness or slum­ming. They’re bet­ter off not writ­ing them in that case.”

Her own ap­proach is to lead with what she calls “the democ­racy of cu­rios­ity,” the idea that the peo­ple she in­ter­views know more about their own lives than she will ever know. “I’m here to learn what you know, forward and back­ward,” she says. “If some­one knows some­thing that I don’t, I’m in their thrall. I don’t over­pre­pare; I ac­tu­ally un­der­pre­pare when I’m re­port­ing.” For in­stance she didn’t bone up on botany be­fore talk­ing to peo­ple for The Orchid Thief (Ran­dom House, 1998). “I think it’s a good re­port­ing tech­nique, be­cause peo­ple love teach­ing you, but also for me it’s a prac­tice of hu­mil­ity. And one that I feel is es­sen­tial for tak­ing what is an im­bal­ance ini­tially,” she says, re­fer­ring to the dy­namic be­tween re­porter and sub­ject, “and get­ting it level or ac­tu­ally tip­ping it a bit in an­other di­rec­tion.”

OR­LEAN’S first book, Satur­day Night, went through three pub­lish­ing houses and seven dif­fer­ent ed­i­tors be­tween ac­cep­tance and pub­li­ca­tion. “It was just this churn­ing in the pub­lish­ing world,” she says. “For some­one who had never writ­ten a book be­fore, I didn’t even know what I was miss­ing.” Seven books later, she has been with the same agent, editor, and even pub­li­cist for years. At the first meet­ing for The Li­brary Book, Or­lean re­calls, “We just said, ‘Here we are again!’”

The new book feels dif­fer­ent in other ways, though. “It’s the first time I’ve writ­ten a book where peo­ple didn’t scratch their heads and go, ‘What is it about?’” she says. “Also, ev­ery­one loves li­braries.”

As Or­lean was writ­ing the book, her mother, Edith, was dy­ing of de­men­tia. It was poignant to re­mem­ber “the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing taken to the li­brary by your par­ent—and now I was the par­ent tak­ing my child,” Or­lean says. “She was los­ing her own mem­ory and all the sto­ries of her life and who she was and what she ex­pe­ri­enced in her life was dis­ap­pear­ing, but also I thought our mem­ory of those vis­its to the li­brary—now they’re in me. And how strange it felt to have that.” Or­lean found her­self think­ing about peo­ple’s mem­o­ries as per­sonal li­braries, and about “the li­brary as a mem­ory, as this big mem­ory of col­lec­tive sto­ries.”

The Li­brary Book ends with some of Or­lean’s most per­sonal, pas­sion­ate writ­ing—a love let­ter to li­braries, but also to sto­ries and to Edith, the first au­di­ence for all of her writ­ing. “My mother was al­ways my great­est fan,” Or­lean tells me, “and it didn’t mat­ter if it was me at five, writ­ing a lit­tle story, or me pub­lish­ing a book. She was proud of it all.” On her wrist, the most del­i­cate tat­too I’ve ever seen bears the ini­tials of her fa­ther and son, her hus­band, and her mother.

BACK at the house in New York, I ask a ques­tion that I con­sid­ered a softball: “You are so good at these dis­tilled, per­fectly ob­served de­scrip­tions of the peo­ple you write about; how would you like to be de­scribed in a pro­file of you? Have you ever been de­scribed in ways that you don’t like?”

For the first time in all our con­ver­sa­tions, Or­lean seems a lit­tle taken aback.

“That’s a re­ally tough ques­tion. Have I ever had a weird de­scrip­tion of me writ­ten? Well a lot of times peo­ple will say that I’m lit­tle, and I’ll think, ‘I’m not so lit­tle, damn it, I’m big!’” At this, Or­lean sits up straighter and swings an arm em­phat­i­cally, in a way that makes me see in­stantly the tough lit­tle kid she was. “I mean, in the world at large, I am small,” she adds. “Maybe the first thing that strikes peo­ple about me is that I’m five foot two inches.”

All of a sud­den the house feels busier than it had when the day’s in­ter­view be­gan. Or­lean’s son pops in and out, then leaves with her hus­band to go run some er­rand in­volv­ing a boat. The elec­tri­cian comes to fix some­thing. The dog stops by so we can coo at her some more.

I be­gin to think Or­lean hates this last ques­tion. “I don’t know what I would say,” she says. “That’s too hard!”

A mem­ory comes to her. “When I was a kid, I had this weird fantasy that some­one would de­scribe me as a dy­namic,” she says. “It’s funny to think that as a kid that word seemed so amaz­ing to me.”

It’s ac­tu­ally the best word I could come up with to de­scribe her now. I’m about to tell her I think she re­ally is dy­namic, but she’s still mar­veling at how dif­fi­cult she finds the ques­tion.

“I’m giv­ing you the nonan­swer. You’ve stumped me. That’s a big one!”

OR­LEAN once read a sur­vey that showed Amer­i­cans’ se­cond most-com­mon fear (af­ter drown­ing) is talk­ing to strangers. “And I thought, ‘God, that’s all I do!’ That’s lit­er­ally the story of my life.”

“I’ve had won­der­ful luck,” Or­lean adds, “but I’ve also pur­sued luck. And I dis­cov­ered in my­self pretty early on a sense of how to make luck. And I didn’t sit around waiting to be dis­cov­ered; I set out to make sure that I got no­ticed. I mean, that sounds ob­nox­ious. But I knew peo­ple who had a much more pas­sive at­ti­tude about their pro­fes­sional life, and from the be­gin­ning I just thought, ‘No, you make it hap­pen.’ You don’t sit around and think that some­one’s go­ing to sprin­kle fairy dust on you and won­der­ful things will hap­pen.

“I’m lucky. I feel like you get in a dif­fer­ent state of mind when you’re re­port­ing,” she says. “I’m full of neu­roses and self-con­scious­ness and all of that won­der­ful stuff. But when it comes to ap­proach­ing strangers, or be­ing the per­son at the party who doesn’t know any­one, it doesn’t bother me. And I feel lucky.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.