Why is it that Susan Orlean could write about a traffic stop and make it compelling? No matter what topic captures Orlean’s interest—orchid thieves in Florida, Rin Tin Tin, a library fire in Los Angeles, a three-sister band called the Shaggs—her eye for detail, sense of humor, and affection for her subject entrances the reader and makes you suddenly as curious as she is about the matter at hand. In her latest book, On Animals, Orlean indulges her interest in both the exotic and the domesticated creatures among us, and so inviting is her prose that by the end of the book the reader can’t decide whether to raise chickens or free whales.
JIM KELLY: In your new collection, you explain how your fondness for all sorts of animals began at any early age, and included taking care of a gift mouse named Sparky. You made fake ribbons and trophies for her and told folks she had won them at championship mouse shows. Did anyone believe you? And, perhaps more to the point, how concerned were your parents?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Not as concerned as they should have been! As far as anyone believing me, I have a feeling there was a bit of skepticism about my claims, but no one tried to dox me. It would have been hard since information about mouse shows was so … scant.
J.K.: You pretty much cover a Noah’s ark of animals in your book, from rabbits and roosters to tigers and whales, but nearly always the story is as much about the people around these creatures as the creatures themselves. Was one character especially memorable?
S.O.: Keiko, the orca who played the lead in Free Willy, was something special. I spent some time with him in Iceland, and as cynical and detached as we journalists can be, I was truly moved by his presence. I can’t explain it. We just sat together, he in the water and me on the dock, and I felt a tug of kinship that really surprised me.
J.K.: You have an unusual gift in making folks feel at ease and opening up about their lives, which often turn out to be a bit oddballish. Any techniques you use to earn their trust as a journalist?
S.O.: I’m genuinely interested in hearing people’s stories, and I don’t approach my subjects with an agenda. I think people sense that, and they’re more comfortable opening up to me because of it. I also don’t overprepare—that is, I try to learn about the story from the folks I’m interviewing rather than pre-learning by doing lots of research before we meet. People like teaching you about what they know, and that inevitably creates more trust.
J.K.: One of my favorite stories of yours is “The American Man at Age 10,” in which you brilliantly capture the mind of a New Jersey boy named Colin Duffy. How did you find him? How did you gain the confidence of a 10-year-old? And have you stayed in touch?
S.O.: I didn’t know any 10-year-olds at the time of that assignment, and I had no idea how to find them. It was particularly hard because I lived in Manhattan and I didn’t want to profile a Manhattan kid; I was more interested in a kid who lived in the suburbs, as most American kids do. I started asking my friends if they knew any 10-year-olds. (I got a lot of spit takes when I asked, as you can imagine.) Finally, a friend of a friend connected me to Colin’s mom, and I met him and knew immediately that he was perfect.
Gaining his confidence was one of the biggest reporting challenges I’ve ever faced; kids definitely don’t immediately open up to adults! I had to be patient. I tagged along with him for several days, tolerating his ignoring me. Finally I just wore him down, and he started to talk. I lost touch with him for a decade or so after the story was published, but we reconnected a few years ago. I was shocked to realize he was no longer 10. He’s a grown man.
J.K.: Meryl Streep has played many memorable real-life women: Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child, Katharine Graham, and, of course, Susan Orlean! Streep portrayed you in Adaptation, the terrific film by Spike Jonze based on your book The Orchid Thief. “Based on” doesn’t quite capture the movie, since it really is about a screenwriter struggling to adapt your book to the screen. How did you feel about being turned into such a major character in the movie, and did Streep consult you on the character? Better yet, did you have a chance to give her notes?
S.O.: At first, I resisted being a character in the movie because I thought it would ruin my career. But Spike Jonze persisted, and eventually I threw caution to the wind and decided to see what came of it. It’s a remarkable movie, and I’m happy to report that, as far as I can tell, it didn’t ruin my career. I fully expected Streep would study every nuance of my being, but she decided to create the character out of what the script presented. I have yet to give her my notes, but I swear I will.
J.K.: Some of your New York friends resented your move to Los Angeles since that meant seeing you less. But then you wrote The Library Book, which begins with a 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books and quickly widens into a fascinating study of libraries and what they mean for us. All was forgiven, since I assume the subject would never have occurred to you if you had not been living there. How did the idea to write about the fire come to you, and were you surprised by the book’s success?
S.O.: I had long thought libraries would be a good subject to write about, but I didn’t have a narrative to give the subject shape. I toured Central Library right after I moved to Los Angeles and heard about the fire, and I knew instantly it was the narrative I had been looking for. I was astonished by the book’s success! Libraries seem to be such a quiet subject that I was worried, but I’m glad I was wrong.
J.K.: Can you tell us about two or three writers who have most influenced your work?
S.O.: My big three are Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and John McPhee. They’re obviously very, very different from each other, but they all marry deep reporting with a flair for tone and storytelling.
J.K.: Finally, a question about Twitter! Friend or foe for a writer like yourself?
S.O.: It keeps me out of trouble. I could be using the time I spend on Twitter doing something antisocial like tagging buildings or lighting small fires. Instead, I’m parked in front of my computer tapping out silly messages. So, on balance, it’s a win.
Susan Orlean’s On Animals will be published on October 12 by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL