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
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.”