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Susan Orlean Returns with Stories from the Road

Susan Orlean Whether writing about an African king who drives a cab in New York City (her first feature for The New Yorker), a long-forgotten girl group whom Frank Zappa is said to have proclaimed "better than the Beatles," or a typical ten year old man in suburban New Jersey (originally published in Esquire), Susan Orlean immerses herself in the lives of her subjects. She explains in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, "An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain."

Just fifteen months after her last visit to Powell's, The New Yorker staff writer returned to talk about her new collection of profiles.

"What I wanted to write about were the people and places around me. I didn't want to write about famous people simply because they were famous, and I didn't want to write about charming little things that were self-consciously charming and little; I wasn't interested in documenting or predicting trends, and I didn't have polemics to air or sociological theories to spin out....The subjects I was drawn to were often completely ordinary, but I was confident that I could find something extraordinary in their ordinariness."

Having discussed The Orchid Thief at length the last time she was at Powell's, this time we caught up on her favorite reading of the past year, talked a bit of baseball, and looked forward to the feature movie due this fall in which Oscar-winner Meryl Streep plays the author (opposite Nicolas Cage).

"The best writers make you care about something you never noticed before," Anna Mundow noted in the New York Daily News. "Susan Orlean is a perfect example."

Dave: Did you know that until this past Saturday there was a picture of you on our Home page? You were the poster child for our interviews series.

Susan Orlean: A few times people have told me they saw the picture. I love the idea of being a poster child.

Dave: You've been replaced by Greil Marcus.

Orlean: I'm hurt.

Dave: Well, now you're actually the first person to be interviewed twice for the site.

Orlean: Really? I think some sort of recognition is due. I mean, c'mon!

It's true, it feels so quick to be back on book tour. It's been barely more than a year. I keep thinking, Boy, I have to keep up this pace. I feel so productive.

Dave: When in fact The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup collects material from more than ten years of your life.

Orlean: The oldest pieces in here are from 1987 and 1988.

Dave: Is it strange to tour the country being asked about stories you wrote ten or twelve years ago? Do you remember the older pieces very well?

Orlean: A few pieces surprised me when I read them, but I was equally surprised to see how clearly I remembered most of them because I don't ordinarily reread my stories - ever. I avoid it. I hate it.

When I was putting together the collection, I knew what I wanted: profiles. One or two I reread, but for the most part I just knew the pieces. I went on faith that my editor would reread them and let me know if something didn't belong.

As many pieces as I've written, the other day I had the experience for the first time of trying to remember whether or not I'd written a particular one - but it was a Talk of the Town; it was short. I told the person who'd asked, "I can't remember whether I wrote it or Mark Singer wrote it." That unnerved me completely. But I would never forget a long piece. They take too much time and too much emotion.

Dave: You mention in the introduction that Tina Brown recommended some of the subjects. Where do most of your ideas come from?

Orlean: Where ideas come's almost like trying to trace backward from the source of a headache. All of a sudden it just seems to present itself.

In the case of the pieces in the book, a few were suggested to me by other people. Someone had come to me with The Shaggs idea and said, "You should do this. This is your kind of piece." Bill Blass was a suggestion from Tina. The story about the show dog - remember this was years before Best in Show came out - I got seized by the curiosity, and there it was. But in the era of Tina Brown at The New Yorker, doing these eccentric stories that required a lot by way of execution, that was not her favorite thing.

The problem with coming up with ideas this way is that when I'm done with a piece, I just think, That's it. I'm done. I've written my last story. I have no other ideas. Nothing sounds good, everything's boring, until suddenly there's another idea. But there are ways to get your brain going and sometimes you realize that an idea has been there all along waiting to be expressed.

Dave: The piece about Kwabena Oppong, the African king who drives a cab in New York City - that's a story. There's a lot of meat to the subject. But some of the profiles in here, for instance the reporter of the small town newspaper, that's not an obvious subject in the sense that many people would look at it and say, "What am I going to write about her?"

You'd been familiar with that particular newspaper for a number of years. Had the idea for a piece been percolating or did you suddenly decide to write it?

Orlean: You mean the actual execution of the story?

Dave: How did you figure out how to make it a story?

Orlean: I think you have to look at these as two species of stories. Some are yarns; you know you have to put them together in a particular way. Others are very much statements of how I see the world. The small town newspaper is a perfect example. I just wanted to say, "This is not dramatic, but this snapshot of life is one you can pick up and hold to the light and turn a whole bunch of ways. It's funny and it's sweet and it's surprising, and it means something." That kind of story is more between me and the reader; the dynamic is more between writer and reader than between writer and subject. I'm going to convince you that this unpromising subject is much more interesting and rich than you think. The same with "The American Man, Age Ten."

Dave first interviewed Susan in January 2000 and discussed The Orchid Thief, The Orchid Thief an immensely readable true story about obsession, beauty, rare flowers, and swampland. "It's about orchids," Orlean admitted, "but it's not really about orchids."

I just finished teaching in the graduate school of journalism at the University of Oregon, and I was scolding my students - which of course is the prerogative of teaching, bossing them around and chiding them - and I was saying, "That's not a story! That's a topic!" Later, I thought, Oh, I should talk!

Those are not easy stories to do. The deceptively simple story: Gosh, a ten year old boy. How easy would that be to write. Well, it's actually the hardest story in the world. The easiest story is a murder. Characters, drama, narrative arc. I sometimes wish for an easy story, a story that has its own narrative, one with its own engine, rather than it being me pushing it out into the world. But I end up being interested in both.

Dave: You've written a lot of those pieces without the engine, and I'm sure you don't want to do it the same way each time, but there are a lot of people profiled in this book who, on the surface, aren't any more interesting than others you might have chosen. So how do you find new ways to make these pieces work? How do you avoid creating template portraits, one after the next?

Orlean: To use an example, the real estate broker in "I Want This Apartment" is an archetype and an individual. As an archetype, what could obsess people more than a Manhattan real estate agent? Many people are fascinated by real estate, and it's a great guilty pleasure peering into people's lives that way, so as a subject, at least in part, Jill is just a vehicle to explain her world, Manhattan real estate. But once you've chosen someone to illustrate a subject, they themselves become an individual. You keep it fresh by truly being curious. If I'm not really interested, I shouldn't do it. I have to have a lot of questions to make it work.

Also, I'm not sentimental. The worst, most stale "ordinary people" stories suffer from the tedium of sentimentality, which I actually consider patronizing and inauthentic. That's when you get stale; every story is kind of twee and charming. That's when it becomes predictable. It's why I almost never read a human interest story in the newspaper. I already know the true goodness of humanity, the nobility of poverty; you've heard it all before. But if you approach the subject a little raw and see what there is to see, most people are completely interesting and different. You don't end up repeating yourself.

I'm sure my voice as a writer has a certain consistency, but the stories each felt so different to me, and I assume and hope they read that way too.

Greil MarcusDave: The last person here for an interview was Greil Marcus, who in his writing is constantly providing critical input. Does he like something or doesn't he? Is a work of art successful or not? Whereas with your profiles, the perspective almost feels as if it's that of the subject. You, as a writer, are present, but I don't feel like a lot of judgment is being passed.

Orlean: That's true. Often what I end up doing is channeling, at least the voice. People's way of expressing themselves and their world is so revealing. And maybe this is all about worldviews and the view from inside one head versus inside another. Judgmental doesn't enter into it.

The thing is, I equally love and hate pretty much everybody. Sometimes I think I don't like anybody, and that as long as I don't like anybody, that's okay. Then I think, Actually, I kind of like everybody, and that's okay, too. As long as it's a level playing field?

I guess I'm lucky. Somebody said to me, "How do you manage to be so empathetic with so many different kinds of people?" I'm lucky because it's really not a conscious thing. I don't think of it as not looking down on someone or not being intimidated. While I'm in someone's world, I have to accept its parameters. What difference does it make how it compares to my world? My world isn't the standard by which others are judged.

Plus, I love the experience of adopting a different perspective and seeing what it looks like. It's like traveling to another country. And there are people who travel in opposition, constantly, to the places they visit, while others travel close to the place.

Dave: You spend extended periods of time with some of your subjects. Does it ever become awkward? When you were hanging out with Bill Blass and he had you try on the Richard Tyler blazer, I couldn't help thinking, What does Susan Orlean's wardrobe look like? You're hanging out with such different people - sleeping on the floor with teenage Maui surfer girls or cruising New York with the host of Yo! MTV Raps. You must try to acclimate to some degree.

Orlean: You don't want to go in costume, but you don't want to make people uncomfortable, either, so yes, I do spend some amount of time ratcheting up or down or young or old, depending on the circumstance. It's kind of funny because it's true, I have to think in advance when I'm reporting somewhere. It's not appropriate to take just what I like to wear. And the funny thing is that I'm very opinionated about clothes. I love my clothes.

Is it awkward? There are times. And it can be really lonely. Everybody's nightmare is being the complete odd one out. When I was working on another book, I saw a survey in which Americans were asked what activities they feared the most. First was swimming and second was going to a party with strangers. I thought, That's what I do.

It can be excruciating, but in a totally different way than when I'm in my own life and I go to a party where I don't know anyone there. Then I'm deeply uncomfortable and filled with adolescent feelings of wanting to die and trying to look busy. But when I'm with the surfer girls and they're yattering away and I'm the complete odd one, somehow I'm in a bubble; it doesn't faze me that much. There are times when I feel like I need a reality check, but I thrive on it a little.

I'm not a loner. I'm very attached to my friends and family. I think I consider it an achievement when I'm completely the outsider and I'm simply not reacting. It's like transcending a natural instinct, not being bothered by it and realizing you can will people into not seeing you as different. I like that. Maybe it's a perverse instinct because I definitely feel shy when I'm around a group of writers I don't know.

Dave: What happens when what seemed like an interesting story turns out to be not so interesting once you're out reporting it, once you're with the subject? Do you abandon stories at a certain point?

Orlean: It doesn't happen very often. It's more common that I'll abandon ideas before I even get started. I'm really fussy and I tend to have commitment anxiety. I come up with an idea and I start thinking, No, it's a terrible idea. I don't want to do it. There's no story. I have nothing to say. By the time I go through all that, I've usually filtered out weak stories.

There have been times when the particular individual could have been a more exciting person, but by then the story had its own life so it didn't matter. I've only abandoned one story in recent memory and only because the material got too old. But I'm asked that all the time.

Dave: It seems like if you're going to spend a week riding a bus around the South with a traveling gospel group, well, to most people, you're putting yourself in a somewhat vulnerable position.

One of the best experiences I've ever had was a round-trip bus ride from Lansing, Michigan, to Kane County, Illinois, with a bunch of minor league baseball fans: players' girlfriends and relatives, local retirees, injured auto workers... I'd never been to Lansing, and I knew nothing about the team prior to the day I arrived there. I'd never met any of the people on the bus. On a whim I left my car in Lansing and rode overnight with thirty people for a playoff game the following day.

People think it's the strangest thing when I tell that story, but it's not as if I'm doing it often. Plus, I was only gone a little over a day. You're doing this over and over again for longer periods of time.

Orlean: By the way, I went to a baseball game in the Dominican Republic in November, and it was an amazing experience. Unbelievable.

Dave: Did you write about it?

Orlean: No. I'd been taken there for my birthday, and we decided to go to a game. They are mad for baseball. They serve cheese and crackers in the stands, and grapes, and shots of whiskey. They have a live band playing and moving around the stadium, and the announcer screams and yells. It was a great experience.

At The New Yorker, we have the greatest baseball writer in the world on the staff so I wouldn't write about it, but it was amazing. The best player on the team, a young Dominican man, had just been killed in a car wreck, so it was a huge, emotional deal. People were wearing arm bands....

You would love it. A teeny-weeny ballpark. New, but teeny.

But I forgot your question.

Dave: So did I. It doesn't matter. Did you like the Dominican Republic?

Orlean: I loved it. I got to go horseback riding and to the baseball game. It's a beautiful place and the people were fantastically nice. I'd love to go back. Living in New York, it's close. It's an easy trip.

Dave: I read recently that you may eventually publish another collection of essays, one that would include profiles of places instead of people. I remember a while back reading a piece in The New Yorker about tourism in Thailand.

Orlean: I did a piece about Bhutan, then a piece about Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Dave: That's the one.

Orlean: I very much want to do another collection that would be "place" stories. A lot of them aren't just descriptive - "Figures in a Mall," the Tonya Harding piece in this collection, really could have gone in the "places" collection - but I'm really hoping to do it. My editor thinks I should finish my new book first, which I understand, but it feels so far away.

Dave: How committed are you to the full-length book? Are you working on it every day?

Orlean: Not yet. For the last four months I've been caught up in getting this going and doing my New Yorker stuff. I'm now at a point where I have to decide whether I'll take a leave for even just a month and do some intensive reporting or wait a few more months and take off a bigger chunk. I haven't decided yet.

Dave: It's about a choir in New York?

Orlean: A gospel choir in Harlem.

Dave: So it's local.

Orlean: Yes! That's part of the reason I'm doing it. I live in New York. Some would argue that it's an interesting city.

I wouldn't have just looked for a New York idea, but when I got excited about the idea I was thrilled that it was in New York. I like the interesting parallel with The Orchid Thief in that I'm entering a strange world, one that I don't know, but this one is only ten blocks from where I live. That's interesting in itself. Plus, it can be hard to maintain a normal life while you're working on a book far from where you live. Probably the best writers and reporters live alone and have no domestic life to which they're attached, but I'm willing to take the middle ground.

Dave: Speaking of strange, production is underway on Adaptation, the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman movie based on The Orchid Thief. Forgive me for speaking of you in the third person, but Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep, is one of the main characters in the movie. So are you going to see it when it comes out? Will you be there on opening night?

Orlean: Absolutely. I was mentioning to them the other day that it would be interesting to see some of the dailies, but I don't know if they'd really want me to. For them it's not some joke. They're serious about working on it. But it's going to be completely weird. I think I should go with one of those heart monitors on to record my pulse. I should have done that the first time I read the script.

Dave: When I last spoke to you, I think you knew about the movie but you hadn't read the script.

Orlean: I don't think I had because I didn't read it that long ago. Maybe. Once it gets going, it goes very quickly. They've been shooting for about three weeks and they're nearly halfway done. There's a long gestation period, then once it gets going, whoosh! Also, with the strike coming up, they wanted to get it filmed. But I never believed it would really happen.

Dave: It's been a year since you were last at Powell's. What are some of the best things you've read while you've been gone?

Orlean: A million things that I loved....I just reread This Side of Paradise because I'm writing an introduction for the Modern Library edition, but that doesn't count. The best book I've read, I'd say, is The Hours, which I worship. I love God of Small Things. I'm halfway through White Teeth. I read Amy and Isabelle, which I liked but I didn't love. And I started We Were the...whatever we were.

Dave: The Joyce Carol Oates book? We Were the Mulvaneys?

Orlean: Right. I'm about halfway through. It's interesting, but I started losing my way. Oh, and I just finished A Star Called Henry, which I really loved. I've had a great year of reading - mostly contemporary, which is not necessarily all I usually read. After I finished The Hours, I reread Mrs. Dalloway, which I hadn't read since college. It was such an amazing experience that I thought, I'm going to go back and read all this stuff that I read years ago.

I started rereading The Sound and the Fury, which is my favorite book. And I'm still trying to read Tristram Shandy, that's my goal. Every summer I get to about the fiftieth page and then the next summer I start again. It's a great fifty pages.

Dave: I haven't read it.

Orlean: It's the weirdest, makes you realize that what people think is modern, Dave Eggers and people who are doing great things? well, Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy around 1760 and it's so radical, so insane, it completely breaks out of any conventional form of narrative. It must have been so much wilder then. It's a hard book to read.

Dave: Clearly.

Orlean: The whole story is a shaggy dog tale. He's about to tell you something about his life when he says, "Well, I guess I should explain..." He's constantly backing up. It's pretty amazing. I doubt I'll ever finish it, but it's cool.

Dave: At least there's something to look forward to.

Orlean: Right. It's a goal.

Susan Orlean returned to Powell's on April 9, 2001. After the interview, she asked me to sign her book. The first few pages were filled with inscriptions from reporters and friends around the country. "It's like your high school yearbook," I said. "Much better," she responded. "My Orchid Thief is practically covered, every square inch. It's a great souvenir."

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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