Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Susan Orlean Q&A

I don't think this piece needs a giant introduction. All I'll say is that it's always nice when the writers you admire are decent human beings. It's another little thing that prevents me from filling out law school applications.

This interview previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina).

P.S.--I didn't ask about "Adaptation," because she's talked (and written) about it a thousand times. I wanted to explore somewhat new terrain.


Susan Orlean is busy today. She's settling into a new home. Her pets are giving her trouble. A deadline is looming. Yes, she's still up for the interview, which amidst the swirl of domestic- and work-related chaos, she nails.

This snapshot of Orlean's afternoon encapsulates her strength as a writer—she's remarkably focused. Her latest book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (now available for sale everywhere) covers the rise of dogs as pets, dog training, the beginnings of the film and television industry, and the lives of the dog (or, more accurately, dogs) and his enamored guardians: trainer Lee Duncan and TV producer Bert Leonard.

Every diversion fits into this memorable portrait of the canine icon, and Orlean's orderliness does not lead to stodgy prose. The author of The Orchid Thief and New Yorker staff writer clearly relishes finding every angle to a story, even the ones that affect her personally. It's why I'll read anything she writes. Regardless of how arcane the subject is, she makes it sparkle via wit and investigation.

In this mid-September interview, Orlean, 55, talks about juggling all those subjects, what led her to write about Rin Tin Tin, and if an animal will ever again reach such a level of celebrity.

Pete Croatto: The last time we talked you displayed quite a passion for bookstores misplacing you and other authors' books. With that said, where is Rin Tin Tin going to end up being placed?

Susan Orlean: Well, I already see it listed under pet care, which I guess is not surprising, and biography, which is not incorrect. I think it's going to end up in a couple of different places, and I suppose better that it end up in many rather than none. It's tricky. It's a biography of a sort. It's an animal book of a sort. And it's kind of a cultural observation of a sort, so I don't blame bookstores for finding it a little hard to figure out.

PC: The book covers a lot of ground. How did you manage to tie all those subjects together without getting overwhelmed or cluttering the narrative?

SO: Well, you're assuming I didn't get overwhelmed. I did. The book took me a long time [nearly 10 years]. First of all, it was a huge undertaking that was far bigger than I expected. I felt strongly that it made sense only if I told it in a really thorough way. What I think was the only thing I could do in terms of keeping the narrative intact was to try to convey to the reader the story of my discovery of what I was learning. Essentially that I started a subject expecting it to be kind of compact—not simple, but just manageable—and it grew and grew and that I wanted them to come along on that same exploration with me.

PC: It's funny you mention wanting to take readers along with you, because in Rin Tin Tin, like your other work, you write regularly in the first person. How did you come to write in that style, and did anyone encourage you not to at any point?

SO: To answer your first question, I began writing in the first person—or at least not pretending that I wasn't in the story as the reporter—at a point where the only way to make sense of the narrative meant acknowledging my presence, basically. And it was really liberating. And I didn't feel that it meant that I was suddenly the subject of the story, but rather that it made it so much easier to move the reader around in time and space. I'm just sort of saying, "I'm here. I'm the person observing this." It's actually much more natural. It's the way you'd tell a story over dinner. We're not inhibited in telling a story at dinner to friends: "And then I asked" or "Then I went to figure out x." So, to me, it's actually far more authentic. And it's the way you tell stories, so it never felt phony to me.

I've always written for places that, fortunately, don't have strict rules about how you write. You write to achieve the best effect. I don't think the stories become narcissistic exercises, so no one ever said to me, "I don't see what the point is of having you in here. Get out." It's not been a problem in that way.

PC: The one reason I ask is that I've read a lot of books steeped in reporting where authors include themselves in the narrative, and it becomes a distraction. How do you keep yourself from being the elephant in the room? When do you know not to include yourself in the narrative?

SO: Well, it's kind of hard to answer that. It's surely intuitive. I really do think it's strictly a kind of measure in your own gut of whether you're interfering or helping. It should always feel that you're advancing the story by being in there. Huge, huge long stretches of my writing I'm not the least bit present. To be honest with you, I feel I always write in a way that my voice is very subjective. Even if I don't say "I, I, I," I think there's always a sense that this is a story being told by an actual person, and I happen to be the actual person. Occasionally, I'm going to refer to something specific. Not everyone is going to like that. There are some people who get very irritated by the writer being present at all. That's fine. It's a matter of taste, but I feel strongly that I follow my instincts and hope that they keep it authentic and readable.

The bottom line is that I feel that my goal is to be the most interesting storyteller in the world, and whatever I need to do to make that happen is what I try to do.

PC: Without giving away too much, Rin Tin Tin had a special significance to you from an early age. What made you decide to write this book now?

SO: Very specifically because I had come across Rin Tin Tin's name in the course of working on another story. I hadn't actively thought about Rin Tin Tin in decades. I came across his name and had a reaction that was so strong that I really kind of sat up straight. It's rare that you have a reaction to a memory that's so strong. It just led me almost instantly to think, "This is a book; I want to write a book." Because I so quickly learned so many things about Rin Tin Tin that were so fascinating and rocked me out of what I had thought was the case of his life. It made me think, "Oh my gosh here's something that I thought I knew, and in fact I don't know it all—and there's this amazing story to be told."

PC: You could also say that sense of discovery runs through the book.

SO: Yeah, very much. This is so much a case of falling into the rabbit hole and thinking, "Wow, this is an incredible story and it just keeps getting more and more interesting. I can't walk away."

PC: One striking aspect of the book was how much the general public loved Rin Tin Tin. Are we ever going to see an animal with such a devoted following or has the novelty of TV and films—two media he was around for in their early days—worn off?

SO: I think that the innocence that is required to look at an animal as so powerful and so symbolic, I don't know that we're that culture anymore. I don't know if we look at animals with the same kind of belief the way we used to. Animals have been heroic and moved in and out of roles many times as far as being looked at almost as more powerful than people. I'm not sure that we will have that connection. Also, at the time Rin Tin Tin became such a phenomenon, the number of channels, so to speak, of entertainment was so limited. You had three networks. It was just a very different world. We still have stars that take on enormous significance, but I think the impact is kind of different these days.

PC: I would agree with that. Also, you mention in the book dogs only become a regular part of domestic life until the 1940s or 50s. Rin Tin Tin premiering onscreen in the late 1920s was a big deal.

SO: We're a far more sophisticated culture now. It's harder to surprise people. It's harder to get a reaction of such amazement because we've seen it all.

PC: Yeah, we have. We've seen Keyboard Cat.

SO: Because of the rise of things like YouTube and reality TV, we just don't look at entertainers as having a kind of god-like quality. That's something we just don't see anymore. It used to be that you knew nothing about Hollywood stars and you simply admired them from afar, and that simply does not happen anymore.

PC: Bert Leonard, the producer of the first Rin Tin Tin television show, was devoted to the dog until his death. You learned of Leonard's loyalty via a storage locker full of old documents, the key for which you received from his daughter Gina. How do you get subjects to give you that kind of trust?

SO: The one thing a writer needs to be is genuine and I think that many people are really eager to have their stories told and in the case of Bert…I think his family loved the idea of his being remembered when he had kind of disappeared. And so, while she had no idea if there was anything in there, I think also her feeling was it's great that you're interested in him; if you want to take a look, go ahead. But I was certainly fortunate that I had her trust. I think that's the sort of result of being honest and saying, "I really want to know his story and I really care about telling his story."

PC: Your best-known books have dealt with subjects—orchids and Saturday nights—that are not on the tips of everyone's tongues. Many people don't know who Rin Tin Tin is. These aren't what publishers would consider sexy topics.

SO: I am a victim of my own curiosity. The only ideas that really get me excited are the ones that really get me excited. I have a sort of temperamental inability to focus group my ideas. I tend to get interested in a subject and really want to learn about it. My natural next reaction is, "Oh, I just learned something really interesting. I want to tell people about it." The fact that I do that via a keyboard and a published book is really almost incidental. Learning a story and telling a story is what really interests me…It's just sheer impulse and, frankly, a certain instinct of, I know this is a good story. I know people won't think that they want to know this, but boy, it's so cool they're going to be really glad that I told them.

PC: If you write a book because it's a popular topic and you don't care about it, then that lack of interest may show.

SO: I'm just not interested in that. If something is already popular, why would I want to write a book about it? I don't pick subjects just to be contrarian and purposefully offbeat. I like to write about what interests me. The kind of commitment I have to it and my enthusiasm is what usually draws people in and later they may think, "Wow, now I'm interested in that." I'm so often curious about the things that I don't know anything about and that strike me in a surprising way. It's hard to be surprised if it's something that's already really familiar.

PC: There's one quote from the book that stuck with me: "A singular passion helps you slice through the mess of the world, but I had also come to believe that cutting such a narrow path plays tricks with proportion and balance and pushes everything to the edge." That's written about people who were passionate about Rin Tin Tin. But, for you, does that apply to writing?

SO: Absolutely—I think the focus and, frankly, obsession required to write something is just as consuming as any passion, and sometimes plays the same tricks on your ability to be balanced and have perspective. Unfortunately, that's also the only way to get it done.

PC: Over the last couple of years, you've hit the social network with abandon. Your Twitter account is a blast. You're easily reachable on Facebook. Is that part of a writer's job now or was it a curiosity that blossomed?

SO: Aha! It's a bit of both. I first signed up for social media at the urging of my assistant; she insisted that it was a new job requirement for a writer. Then I discovered that I enjoyed it, much to my surprise. I think there are still many writers who don't engage in social media and still sell lots of books and do a great job. I just think it's a good opportunity to talk to your readers, to have fun, and to add another dimension to your experience as a storyteller.

PC: You're in California now. Has moving west changed your perspective as a writer?

SO: I'm sure it will—place has such a profound effect on all of us. But we've only been here two weeks. So far, I'm still jet-lagged.

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