Susan Orlean is an American writer whose book The Orchid Thief, which profiled the Florida orchid expert John Laroche, was adapted into a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman and became the cult Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Orlean’s movie-muse career didn’t end there. The film Blue Crush was in turn based on her article “Life’s Swell”, which was published in Women’s Outside and featured young female surfers in Maui.
Orlean’s work has also appeared in Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992. Her magazine pieces have been compiled in two collections, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. Orlean has also served as editor for Best American Essays 2005 and Best American Travel Writing 2007. Her most recent book is Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend , a biographical history of the dog with the same name, which she spoke about on the Colbert Report.
Orlean is also a master of the 140-character narrative. An avid Twitterer, this interview came about when she characteristically responded to a fan tweet from The Days of Yore.
What was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio like? Were books a big presence in your childhood home?
I grew up in a suburb that placed a very high value on education and on social responsibility – it was an unusual community and a wonderful place to grow up. I probably dreamed of living somewhere more exciting but I realize now it was an exceptional environment. Books were important to me – we went to the library several times a week, and my parents encouraged us to read as much as possible.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a writer from almost the minute I could imagine “being” anything. I didn’t know what that meant, in practical terms, and I didn’t know anyone who was a writer, professionally, but I knew I wanted to tell stories and see them published.
Did you write in college?
I wrote a lot in college, but most of it was literary criticism and analysis for classes, or – surprisingly enough! – poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry, both on my own and in classes and workshops. I shared that with my fellow students but didn’t make an effort to publish it elsewhere.
What happened after your college graduation, what was the next step for you? What kind of jobs did you have?
I moved to Oregon after college, and lucked into a job at a tiny new start-up magazine. I still can’t believe I got the job, but I begged and wheedled my way into it. After that, all my jobs were writing jobs, and I learned how to write by doing it. I had great editors, and they served as teachers – since I really had no idea how to write journalism.
I worked as a waitress in college, and then when I first moved to Portland, I got another waitressing job to pay the rent while I was waiting for my big break as a writer. I worked at a seafood restaurant called the Rusty Anchor or something like that.
I want to hear more about that first writing job.
This was a little start-up magazine called Paper Rose, and I was hired as a writer, which was astonishing since I was so inexperienced. But the staff was all made up of people like me: right out of college, incredibly excited to write, and learning as we went along. We immediately became a family – most of us had just moved to Portland, so we really banded together socially as well as professionally. The office was in an old house, and it was very casual – more like a college paper than a real-world magazine. I was learning with each story how to report, how to write, and how to come up with ideas.
What was the living like for you in the years before publication and literary recognition?
I was quite broke when I started my writing career. I made less money than I had made as a waitress, so it was scary. Fortunately, I was living in Portland, Oregon, which at that time was very cheap; I shared an apartment with my boyfriend and later, with my boyfriend and my sister. We ate a lot of Kraft Macaroni ‘n Cheese and scavenged some of our household decor – I was very proud of our coffee table, which was a discarded telephone wire spool. I shopped at Goodwill for a lot of my clothes.
All of my friends were also starting out as writers and artists, so there was a general air of jovial penny-pinching. No one had a lot of money, and we had fun doing whatever was cheap or free. We just explored Portland, roaming around all the little neighborhoods, and enjoying the incredible access to the outdoors. We went camping a lot. In town, we spent a lot of nights at bowling alleys and pie shops. It was a blast.
I do remember one day seeing my bank balance at zero and having a knot in my stomach – but I just pushed on, and did what I had to do.
Is there anything you would tell yourself at that age, looking back with the wisdom and experience you have now?
Have more fun! I was very driven when I was first starting out, and I rushed through those years of carefree post-college life. I wish I had savored it more. But that’s the nature of hindsight.
Would you say that there was a point in time when you started taking your writing more seriously than before, a moment where you decided to commit to it in a new way?
Not really – I’ve always had the same seriousness about it.
When was the first time you were published?
The very first time, I guess, was a book review in my college paper, and I was thrilled – it was a sort of out-of-body experience. In fact, for years, each time I saw my work in print, I was just as exhilarated and amazed as that first time.
How did your family feel about your choice to pursue writing?
They were skeptical and concerned that I’d just scrape along and have no real means of supporting myself. For years my father insisted that I go to law school, even after I’d been writing for major publications and had a book contract. He just never trusted it as a profession.
How do they feel now? Are they still concerned? I spoke with E.L. Doctorow who said something similar. Until the end, his mother could never stop being concerned about him and kept calling to ask if he was really getting by, long after he had become a hugely successful writer.
I think parents are always concerned, no matter what you do and no matter how successful you might be, but especially in a profession like writing, where success seems so subjective and so fleeting. My parents weren’t actively worried once I was at The New Yorker, but I think they always had a bit of parental concern about how stable a writing career could be.
Did you ever feel like, what am I doing?! I should do something more stable and practical with my life!
Yes! Sometimes I yearn for a job that’s very normal – where I’d punch in each morning, work for a few hours, and then go home and have nothing on my mind connected to work until the next day. A regular job, that is.
Yes, sigh. But have you ever felt like giving up?
Happy to say I’ve never felt like giving up – I’ve certainly lost faith in stories that weren’t going well, and grew tired of books I was working on, but I never thought that I wanted to give up being a writer. It just seemed like something that I am rather than something I choose to do.
What about early triumphs you recall?
Breaking into national magazines really made me feel like this idea of being a writer might actually work out. I wrote a story for the Village Voice, which was one of the first times I had approached a bigger publication, and it ended up as their cover story and got a lot of attention. I felt like I had just won the lottery. I think from that point on, I felt a kind of determination and confidence that buoyed me through the rest of my career.
And getting a piece in The New Yorker for the first time is certainly the ultimate sense of triumph – one that I literally couldn’t believe. It was such a dream of mine, and seemed so unattainable, and then there it was: my story, in that unmistakable New Yorker font, in that magazine. I floated for days – weeks! – after that. That marked the real moment that I felt I was on my way somewhere, no matter what ups and downs I might still encounter.
For many young writers, The New Yorker is a kind of Holy Grail. You are a staff writer there now and have been for many years. But it sounds like you idealized that publication a bit too, before you wrote for it. I read somewhere that what you wanted to do when you were younger was be “someone who wrote long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events.” The New Yorker seems to me to be one of the last places where, truly, long stories about interesting things are still able to thrive.
I absolutely idealized The New Yorker before I got my foot in the door, and to my surprise and delight, that idealized version of it was and remains mostly true. It’s been a place that has allowed me tremendous freedom to pursue those stories about interesting things – without regard to their ‘newsworthiness’. The place has changed over the years in many ways, but never in that fundamental way. It really is that place.
You have a son. Did your writing habits change significantly after you became a mother?
Having a kid changes everything, and especially writing habits, since I work at home and have hours that don’t conform to a regular schedule. It’s been a huge challenge reporting and writing since my son was born – and it’s changed as he’s changed. He’s now in school, so that has made it easier in some ways, harder in others.
Did what you write about change after your son was born?
I don’t write about different subjects. I don’t have plans to write a parenting blog or write about having a child. That just doesn’t interest me. But it’s possible that I’ll come across stories because I have a kid that I might not have thought of otherwise, and there are some stories that for practical reasons I won’t do, because I have responsibilities at home that control my time and flexibility.
Do you find that you have faced specific challenges as a writer because you are a woman?
No – except for the challenges I’d face in everyday life as a woman. For instance, there are places I’d be reluctant to travel alone as a woman. But I don’t feel it’s affected my work otherwise, and in some cases I think women have a great advantage – people are sometimes more open to a woman than they might be to a male reporter.
Adaptation, the movie based on your book The Orchid Thief, is a favorite of mine, and is in fact my fiancé’s favorite movie of all time. When I told him I would be interviewing you, the first thing he said was: “Tell her she’s so cool for being okay with the way that book was re-imagined as a film.” I wonder, what was your initial reaction to Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of your book and of your character? What did it feel like to see yourself, but not yourself, on screen in this hugely popular film? Having yourself played by Meryl Streep can’t hurt!
Tell your fiancé thanks! I did have to take quite a leap to allow the movie to be made, but I’m really glad I did. It was very strange – indescribably so – to see myself portrayed in a film, and especially in such a cracked, crazy way, and by someone as universally iconic as Meryl Streep. It’s impossible to describe. It’s just like going to the moon, I guess. Sometimes I still find it astonishing.
Any advice for young writers?
Write, write, write, and then read. Then read some more. Then sit down and write more. And love writing with all your heart, and that will make it sing.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Gaspar Tringale