by Susan Orlean, December 2, 2005 10:54 AM
I keep forgetting to mention my unique connection to Powell's ? I started my writing career in Portland, back when Powell's was a very nice store but hardly the monument to the written word that it is today. That was also back when Portland was the town that time forgot ? a land of bowling alleys and pancake diners and little things made out of wood. What a difference a few thousand years makes! I left in 1982, but I try to go back to Portland at least once a year ? my sister and one of my best friends live there, and it's a wonderful place to tool around for a few days, regardless. And these days, going to Powell's is a book person's heart attack-maker. I mean, don't you just want everything? Some years back (I might be wrong, but I think this is true) the biggest bookstore in Cleveland (my hometown), went out of business, and all of its stock was boxed up and shipped out to Powell's. Just like me, I guess ? although, for me, being boxed up and shipped from Cleveland to Portland was not a result of going out of business, but rather of going into business. Portland was a great place to start a writing career; big enough to be serious and competitive, but small enough to allow for a rookie to actually do something other than make coffee at the newspaper, and cheap enough to live on a starting writer's salary. I'm not sure if in its new incarnation ? bigger, more polished, more cosmopolitan ? it's still as good a place to scratch out the start of a writing life, but it's still one of the nicest cities I know, and my guess is it's still a pretty good place to get a foothold.
By the way, I'm still looking for opportunities to procrastinate on my pigeon story, and the fact that my Powells.com-blogging moment is drawing to an end (officially, anyway) fills me with sorrow and dread ? sorrow because I'm really enjoying this conversation (all me, all the time) and dread because I will be losing a really good excuse not to be working on my story. Damn! Should I try to floss the dog's teeth for a few hours? Isn't that more urgent than finishing the lead of my story? And writing my next book (a biography of Rin Tin Tin, which is due... ummm... soon...!)
To answer a few of your questions and comments: Yes, I sometimes look at a word so long that it starts looking like it's either spelled wrong or maybe in a foreign language I don't understand. Yes, I think the word weasel ought to be used somehow in a piece of published writing ? preferably in a story about weasels, but maybe in a story about personal injury lawyers or Republican lobbyists. No, I don't have any idea of how I stay current with music, since I honestly feel I don't have enough time to take a shower and brush my teeth most of the time, but I love music, and love listening to new, good music, so I just make it a priority. By the way, my first writing job was as a music critic, so I mean it when I say it's something I love. And one of my proudest moments as a writer was traveling with Bon Jovi on tour for two weeks, for a story I was writing for Rolling Stone. I still have at least one pair of panties that were thrown at the stage during one of the band's shows. I used to have the panties hanging from a bulletin board in my New Yorker office, right next to a little paper fan given out as an advertisement for a funeral home that I got when traveling with a gospel group in Mississippi, and a plastic resin bear nose I bought when writing about a taxidermy convention in Illinois. This is what a writer lives for ? or at least what this writer lives for, the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary life, and sometimes the extraordinary moments therein.
Okay, time to go. Thanks for listening to me babble ? and, hey, wish me luck on flossing the dog's teeth and teaching the baby Chinese and maybe even writing a few lines that someone out there enjoys???xxx
by Susan Orlean, December 1, 2005 12:18 PM
I was signing books the other day after a reading in Cleveland, and one of the people waiting in line said he wanted to pay me a big compliment. I'm always open to compliments, so I perked up my ears. I thought he might tell me that he admired what I was doing with my hair these days, but instead, he told me that he goes to lots of readings because he likes having books signed by authors, but that he doesn't actually read very much ? he just likes having signed books. The compliment was that he liked the lecture enough that he was considering breaking with tradition and actually reading my book. I was flabbergasted. Why would you want signed books if you don't read? And yet ? I don't think this guy is really such an exception; books are objects as well as forms of communication, and some people just like them as objects, I guess.
I'm sentimental about some old copies of books in which I've scribbled notes, and I love beautiful books, but I'm not a book-as-object person, particularly. On the other hand, I have several books that I use as rabbit's feet ? good luck charms, that is ? when I'm writing. I always have them on my desk when I'm working, and I constantly flip through them when I'm stuck, both as a way to distract myself from the problem at hand and to see if there's some fragment that will inspire me or provide me with a solution for the particular writing problem I've encountered. The books are Giving Good Weight by John McPhee; Great Plains by Ian Frazier; The White Album by Joan Didion; Big Sugar by Alec Wilkinson; Mr. Personality by Mark Singer. My copies are dog-eared and tattered from the many times I've pawed through them looking for insight. The bindings are busted and they are splotched with coffee stains, ink splatters, even a few lipstick marks (okay, I have, on occasion, smooched the books when I finally fixed a nasty sentence). And yet, I wouldn't dream of trading them for new, fresh copies ? there is something comforting to me about the creases and stains that have accumulated over the years, almost like belt notches from each story I've eked out using the books as auspicious companions. You wouldn't trade in a lucky rabbit's foot, would you?
by Susan Orlean, November 30, 2005 10:47 AM
...I wouldn't have anything to do today but read and listen to music. It's a drizzly day here in Boston; the sky is gun-metal gray and the light is flat. It's not an awful day, but it's dark and dreary. Which makes it, in my opinion, a perfect day to screw off ? to sit in the most comfortable chair in the apartment and pile up the books and the CDs (and food products ? I'm thinking Newman's Own Champion Chip chocolate chip cookies, personally, because I finished all the pecan tarts my mom gave me to bring home after Thanksgiving) and dig in. Here's what I'm reading right now:
- Little Children by Tom Perrotta ? funny, sharp, and (for the attention-impaired) easy to read in small pieces.
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett ? beautiful. Hypnotic. Requires attention but worth it.
- What to Expect in the First Year ? everybody warned me off these What To Expect books, but I kind of enjoy them. And they are actually useful, although on occasion the tone ("your baby should certainly be done using a bottle by the time he is one!") is terrifying to us slacker moms.
- Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt ? just bought it, so I can't report anything yet, but I'm excited. I just saw Kevin Spacey in Richard II and it reminded me (as any Shakespeare performance does) how unimaginably wonderful Shakespeare is.
- Getting Things Done by David Allen ? dorky, I know, but I read a fantastic piece by James Atlas (I think it was James Atlas???yikes) about Allen, the "personal productivity guru," as he calls himself, and I was completely intrigued. I spend many, many, many hours every day trying to figure out how to get myself organized and get more done, and even though I don't really believe a book can help do that, I was pretty persuaded by the profile of Allen.
So now I just have to find time to read the book.... And in the background, I'd want to have playing:
- A Ghost is Born ? Wilco
- Year of Meteors ? Laura Veirs
- Franco and TPOK Jazz ? any of their zillions of albums
- The Hour of Bewilderbeast ? Badly Drawn Boy
- Rabbit Songs ? Hem
- Bareback ? Hank Dogs
Okay, so there's my perfect day. Of course, this is the real world, slightly less than perfect, and I actually have to get back to
by Susan Orlean, November 29, 2005 11:04 AM
Well, teaching the baby Chinese didn't quite work out ? not his fault, of course; he's clearly a brilliant child, but I was focusing on Szechzwan dialect and my guess is he is more of a Mandarin kind of guy. And the grocery shopping didn't take nearly as long as I had hoped. So here I am, alas, facing my empty computer screen again.... At least I like my first sentence for the piece. It includes the word bunny
, and I always like to start a story with at least one word I like a lot. Let's hope the New Yorker
doesn???t insist on changing that to rabbit
? it just doesn't have the same feel as bunny
, does it? And yes, I know the story is about pigeons, not bunnies, but... well, if I ever get the story written, you'll see why bunnies fit in.
Of course, today, it's not a matter of Creative Procrastination: it's a JACKHAMMER outside my window that's been chewing up the concrete for the last three hours. I work at home these days ? I have an office at the New Yorker, but since I'm living in Boston, my New Yorker office exists mostly as a little shrine to my old notebooks and a collection of Mao propaganda posters that I thought gave the place a little pizzazz. Anyway, what is it with me and jackhammers? My apartment in New York (where I lived until 2 years ago) was at an intersection that had some sort of infrastructure problems, and it was jackhammered up and paved over and jackhammered up again about ten times in the course of my life there. And can I just say that the sound of a jackhammer is not exactly helpful during the creative process? And can I also say that I thought, when moving to Boston, I was more or less moving to a quaint small town, where there would be no such thing as JACKHAMMERING. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not only is Boston not a quaint little town, it's a town under construction. I live downtown, in an old machine-screw factory, right over the Big Dig ? the world's largest public works project (I'm not kidding; it really is) ? so something is always being blown up, or torn down, or dug up, or paved over. Maybe I won't be able to write this piece after all. Maybe I can just submit the word bunny to my editor?
One of you wisenheimers asked what I thought of the movie Adaptation, so, what the hell, I figure I might as well answer. I love the movie ? it's hilarious and a remarkable commentary on the nature of writing and of passion itself. I am a thousand times happier to have had a great movie made from my book, even though it's not faithful to the book (well, it's faithful to the book and then goes off on its own crazy path), than to have some boring, labored Hollywood effort to "accurately" adapt the book. And having Meryl Streep play me was an out-of-body experience. Literally.
Wait ? a break in the jackhammering! Back to work!
by Susan Orlean, November 28, 2005 11:48 AM
Editor's note: When we decided to ask an author to kick off our weekly guest-blogging spot, we knew exactly whom to ask. Longtime Portland residents may remember Susan Orlean as a contributor to the city's alt-weekly, Willamette Week. Loyal Powells.com readers will recall that the New Yorker columnist has twice been interviewed for the web site. (More recently, she completed our INK Q&A.) Our staff simply knows Susan as one of our favorite writers. Look for more from her on the blog each day this week.
Stuffed... Me, that is; post-Thanksgiving. We just got back from the holiday and I'm sort of surprised the plane was able to get off the ground ? the entire passenger load looked a little... how shall I put this?... well-larded. Of course, after four days of non-stop feasting, I have returned to an apartment that is supplied mostly with 1) mustard; 2) Equal; and 3) past-expiration-date Yo-Baby yogurt, so I guess at some point this afternoon I'll be heading to the grocery store. This will constitute Item Number One of my Creative Procrastination Task List for the day (or week or month or year, depending on how creatively I procrastinate). The reason for the CPTL is, of course, that I'm on a deadline. I'm working on a story for the New Yorker about homing pigeons, which I started this summer. Because of interruptions, vacations, reporting snags, and general low productivity on my part, the story has dragged on and on. Right now, with a cottony gray winterish sky hanging over us here in Boston, I'm re-reading notes I wrote in August on a day so blistering hot that my fingers actually sweated onto the notebook pages. I need to get myself back in the pigeon state-of-mind ? but I also need to go to the grocery store. And reorganize my sock drawer. And learn to play the cello. Teach the baby to read Chinese. And maybe repaint the entire apartment...
With my assistant, on the pigeon story's trail.
I gave a lecture at the Cleveland Public Library this past Sunday, and during the Q&A I was asked the single question that I am always asked, no matter when and where I give a talk: How do you take notes? I'm fascinated by the persistence of this question. I have literally never, ever given a lecture (and I've given lots and lots of lectures) when the question wasn't raised. Why are people so curious about this? I always feel like I'm disappointing them when I explain that I use a pen (cheap) and paper (reporters' notebook) and write in sloppy homemade shorthand; there's no magic, nothing technical or complicated about it.
Oh, I lied. There is another question I am always asked, every single time I give a lecture: What did you think of the movie Adaptation?
Okay, time to get started on the Creative Procrastination ? I mean, my pigeon story. Although I do think the window of opportunity for teaching the baby Chinese may be about to shut, so maybe I should just take care of that, and then start the pigeon