Yale Literary Magazine interview with Susan Orlean

The Yale Literary Magazine met with Susan Orlean in New York City in March. Ms. Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of the bestseller The Orchid Thief, as well as three other books: Red Sox and Blue Fish, Saturday Night, and, most recently, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. Her current project is an expansion of her recent New Yorker profile of a tiger collector in New Jersey. Like much of Ms. Orleans' work, the new book will take, in her words, "an oblique look at American culture."

In your writing, you show a fascination with contemporary American culture. Do you feel that you are celebrating it, or just describing it? Do you consider your writing patriotic?

There's a timelessness to the American character. I do write about mass culture -- my recent article about the popular artist Thomas Kinkade is an example -- but I'm attracted most often to the timeless elements in contemporary society. Even when I'm writing about foreign cultures, I'm more interested in the way that American culture imposes itself on other cultures. The word patriotic is complicated. I'm loyal. I'm proud to be an American. But growing up post-Vietnam, Watergate.... To say that my stories celebrate American culture sounds too much like boosterism. But I'm fascinated, intrigued, drawn to the American character, the American way.

Do you consider what you write to be literature?

The best description of what I do would be literary non-fiction. Is it journalism? Yeah, I guess. It's a funny genre. It's not a new form or style -- people as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville used it. But there's a new appetite for it. People want to know about the real world, and through a voice that's more eloquent and creative than the news. There's a vitality in non-fiction.

Did you ever have a professor in college who pushed you in the direction of literary non-fiction, or non-fiction in general?

In college, no. I was an English major and I had some wonderful teachers who really inspired me. But they were academics, and what they thought about was academia. The kind of writing I wanted to do wasn't a very palpable profession. I went to the University of Michigan, where they have a really good daily newspaper. People who wanted to work for dailies got a great training there, but I never had any interest in writing for a daily. It's a totally different thing. I'm almost lucky that I didn't fall into that, because it wasn't really what I ever wanted to do. But there was no other direction. I wrote poetry that was published in the poetry magazine, I was very serious about my concentration in literature, but there was no college outlet for what I thought I wanted to do.

And you knew at that point what you wanted to do?

Well, I had read enough of The New Yorker to think, "This is what I want to do." But I had no clue about how you went about achieving it. I remember even mentioning it to a few of my friends who worked a lot for the Michigan daily and who I think just thought, "What? How would you do that?" And then, even more than now, The New Yorker was the Kremlin. You didn't even know who worked there, or who wrote the stories, or anything.

How did you go about actually getting to write for The New Yorker?

I had heard through a roundabout conversation that The New Yorker might be looking for new "Talk of the Town" writers, and I just picked up the phone and called. I got an editor on the line who gruffly agreed to let me drop off my clips, which I did the next day. I didn't know what to expect, but to my great surprise I got a call from this same editor inviting me to come down to the office and talk further. He liked my ideas and let me take a crack at a "Talk" piece -- an idea of mine about how Benetton teaches its employees to fold sweaters -- which I did immediately, and it ran the following week. I started writing "Talk" pieces regularly from that point on.

In The Orchid Thief, how did you create a voice that was technically accurate and yet still conversational in tone?

In that book, the factual stuff had to be very crisp and clear. It was important to make people understand through my tone that this was factual, this was not me speculating and being colloquial and being hyperbolic. By contrast, when I'm talking more casually and more informally, I make statements that are conversational. I think that those sections coexist comfortably, but the tone is very clear between one and the other. It's almost the way you would be telling a story to another person, just describing a situation, and you'd say, "I went to his house, the house was at such-and-such address," and you're very technical and very specific, and then you say, "We went in, and he had like a thousand pieces of furniture in the living room." It's not jarring if the tone that you're using sounds consistent. I put up enough signs to the reader that "This is factual," "This is me chatting."

In the opening section of The Orchid Thief you write that John Laroche, the title character, became obsessed with turtles; "then, out of the blue, he fell out of love with turtles and fell madly in love with Ice Age fossils... then abandoned them for something else -- lapidary I think -- then he abandoned lapidary and became obsessed with... old mirrors." Is it important when you're writing non-fiction to know all the details?

Sometimes when you're talking about people, the lack of really knowing is the truth. I think admitting to the reader that you don't exactly know is fine. I'm comfortable doing it. I'm saying to the reader, "I'm experiencing this sort of the way you are." I don't know everything and I don't even think it's important to know everything. I do think it's important to feel that you've come to understand someone, or a situation, which is different from knowing it. I say this a lot when I teach: writing isn't that different from sitting in a group of people and telling a story. And what engages people isn't the encyclopedic, detailed information about the topic, but something more than that, a personal feeling that you're telling a story that you, the teller of the story, are engaged in, and that you know that other people will be interested in. Somehow the telling of it echoes the story itself.

Do you ever write about ideas, rather than people or places?

I don't do it that often. Essay writing is very difficult and I'm a little intimidated by it. I'm not sure I know how to do it. I'm not very interested in doing opinion writing, even though I have a lot of opinions. I started as a music critic, actually, when I was first writing, in Oregon, and in addition to doing reported pieces I was doing music criticism for a long time. But I don't really like it. I just don't feel like I've got the language of criticism. I can talk endlessly about why I like something and why I don't like something else. But I don't feel that comfortable writing it.

Do you ever write about controversial issues?

I don't avoid controversial subjects. Most stories that I'm drawn to don't have that inherent in them, because they're more descriptive or they're more oratory. But people are controversial. I thought the Thomas Kinkade piece -- you know, that's writing about someone who people have such strong feelings about. I had a lot of arguments before the piece came out about why I should even bother doing it, and I made a strong argument for why I thought it was stupid to think that you shouldn't write about someone just because you thought their art was bad. When they're selling millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of art every minute. I don't avoid those stories, at all. But I don't think people would think of me as someone who tends to write about controversial stuff.

Did you get reactionary letters after the Thomas Kinkade piece came out?

No, actually. It's funny. And I didn't hear from him, which didn't surprise me. I thought I might get some letters from people who love his work, but then I started doing some calculation in my head, and thought that the overlap in audiences probably isn't that great, and that it was more likely that our readership either hadn't heard of him or thought that his work was just horrible. But I also didn't get any mail saying, "I can't believe The New Yorker's writing about Thomas Kinkade," because I think the piece ended up justifying itself. I'm very interested in writing about mass culture, and I think that the best place to do it is in a magazine like The New Yorker, because there's a squeamishness among people who think of themselves as intellectuals about looking at or thinking about mass culture, taking it on in a nonjudgmental way. I like doing that and I even like it if it really irritates people. I like saying to people, "Think twice before you think you know about the world around you." It's very easy to dismiss things out of hand, and it's much more interesting and more rewarding to try to look at the world nonjudgmentally and see what's really there rather than what you think is there.

How do you go about interviewing subjects? Do you use a tape recorder?

I take notes. But I'm not a great notetaker. I am a great absorber. And I feel like I've put a lot more value on actually being in the moment and listening to the person; I care less about using lots of quotes. I absorb, and I pay attention, and I process what the person is saying, and at the end of the day I have a sense of what I experienced. If someone has a funny, interesting way of expressing themselves, I like to write as much as I can, because then I know I'll use more quotes. But usually I find that I'm spending more time just having the experience, and taking notes about things that I need to remember. It's when I sit down to write that I begin thinking, "Oh, now I know what I want to remember," not at the time that I'm with someone. Because I almost always end up using stuff that I didn't think was going to be that important. It's a little like packing for a trip. Either you can pack everything, and chances are you'll use what you've brought, or you can pack very little, because you don't know until you're there what you're really going to need, and then you either make do with what you have or you find that somehow, intuitively, you brought something that is just going to be fine.

What are book tours like? Do you enjoy doing them?

I do like doing them. First of all it's just fun to be on the other side of it, and it's very gratifying to see this thing that you've created, existing in the world. And it's very flattering to feel that people want to talk to you. I like doing readings, partly because I feel like I'm good at it, so that's fun, and I don't have any stage fright and it's a real high for me to read and feel that people really respond. And now that I've written enough and had my books out enough, the only thing I don't like is the fear that no one will show up. I can't stand it. I experience it before every single reading -- I think, "There won't be anybody there, and I'm going to be humiliated." That becomes less and less likely just as you write more and people know your name more. I would much rather find that there were two thousand people than two people. You get tired. You get worn out, for sure. But it's fun.

You've said you prefer interviewing people who aren't used to being interviewed. But do you ever interview people that do get interviewed a lot? How do you get them to really say anything? What are your tricks?

It's funny. Thomas Kinkade was the first time in a while that I talked to somebody who was so controlling and packaged. I was told how long he would give me, where it would be, what the circumstances were. This was a new experience for me. I don't have any tricks. I'm not sure that there are any tricks. The only thing that I do that might qualify as a trick, is that I go less prepared than you'd think you'd want to be, because if I'm superprepared, and they're superprepared, all we're doing is having a prepared exchange, and it's not really worthwhile. But I'm sure that could backfire terribly. If I'm interviewing a politician for instance, or someone like that -- which I haven't done in a long time -- my only trick is to try to get as much time with the person as I can. Once you've been around someone for long enough that they begin dropping their guard, you're more likely to have a real exchange. But you can't always get that. If you're given half an hour with Laura Bush, you're going to get what you're going to get, and I think the important thing is to not do the story pretending that you're getting any more than you're really getting. And that's actually probably the best trick, just to say, "Really, what are you experiencing? Are you having an insightful conversation with this person? No. You're having a different experience." Think through what that experience is, rather than trying to ratchet it up into some other category, which is, "I really saw into the soul of Laura Bush." And to me that's the biggest failing in most writing: it's inauthentic. You have a twenty-minute press interview with somebody, and you pretend you've done a psychological study. I mean, that's phony. If instead you write about your twenty minutes with Laura Bush and really write about what it was like -- that's an interesting story. I mean you can make something out of that. And boy, I can see a story and read it, and maybe I'm not always right, but I can almost always tell you exactly how many interviews the person had, or how long they spent. You can just smell it.

So most magazine stories are based on very short interviews?

When you've written for celebrity-profiling publications, you are unfortunately taught to make much of nothing. The publicist sets it up with the celebrity wrangler at the magazine that you're going to have a forty-minute slot with Madonna, and then you have to write a cover story with it. It's not that you're evil for doing it, but that's what ends up being expected. It's a great watershed moment for a writer -- it certainly was for me and I'm sure it is for a lot of people -- when you suddenly feel like what you need to do is write about what you really experienced, what you really thought. Don't make more or less of it.

Do you find that your subjects are usually very willing to talk to you?

People don't get heard as much as they'd like. It was a great realization for me as a writer that people really want to be listened to. They are surprised that someone is interested, really interested. And you have to really want to hear somebody. A big part of it is tapping people's natural desire to be listened to, especially since they know they'll never have to deal with you again. It's the same principle that underlies therapy, confession, conversations with strangers on airplanes: it's a kind of duty-free intimacy that people really crave. If you can provide it without tricking people -- because it's not duty-free; it gets published -- you can tap into that incredible appetite. It's more appealing to talk with someone you'll never know. It's almost like talking out loud to yourself. And there is no limit to how unnoticed people feel by the media. It's just the nature of what is considered newsworthy. If a person is living a life that is not newsworthy, it's appealing to have someone say, "I want to hear your story." Most people say, "Really, really? You really want to hear?" And people have amazing stories.