Changeful Times: The Freerange Interview with Susan Orlean

by Claire Jeffers
October 22, 2012

Many would consider Susan Orlean to be the Goddess of Nonfiction. Through her sharp, incisive prose, she has made a career out of her own keen curiosity, telling stories about the every day – the strange and peculiar who walk among us. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992 and has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, and Vogue. She’s also the author of several acclaimed books including The Orchid Thief, The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup, and Saturday Night.
I caught up with Orlean in Portland, Maine, just steps from the harbor, while she was on tour for her newest book, Rin Tin Tin, a story about the iconic canine television hero. In her signature masterly way, Orlean explores the bond between humans and animals, the roles of dogs in the American family, and the unexpected tale of how the original (real-life) Rin Tin Tin came to be.
Claire Jeffers: In your new book Rin Tin Tin, you write about a character, a subject, who is no longer alive. How did you approach this story differently from your other stories and works where you are often living and breathing your subjects and characters?
Susan Orlean: At first, I was very daunted and I felt intimidated by the idea of historical research, but also by the idea of well, how do you write it then to be anything other than boring? But what I didn’t realize was when you really dig into archival material you are living and breathing the person and frankly, in some ways, you get a more intimate, uncensored version of them. You’re limited by your contact with a living person by their choice of what they share with you, the amount of time they’re willing to give you. There are a lot of restrictions that you can’t even know what there is that you don’t know.
With archives, it was kind of amazing, there was so much material in there that Lee Duncan, had he been alive, would never have shared with me. Personal things. Telegrams he sent his mother, invoices from people buying puppies, requests for money to Warner Bros. when he was broke – the kinds of things he wouldn’t have wanted me to see. The more I went through these archives the more I began feeling that I was actually the true fly on the wall because there was none of the sort of censorship and filtering that a person might do.
CJ: So do you think your role as the first person narrator was more essential in this case because of the fact that you really had to bring him to life?
SO: Yes. I just felt like I needed to explain to readers more of where we were going, rather than just presenting “here is the historical story of Lee Duncan.” Also because I didn’t want the story to read just as a historical book, but rather as an exploration of this iconic figure.
CJ: You’ve devoted nearly an entire career to one genre of writing and your opinion about it is worth a lot to those of us who attempt to do the same. I’m curious to know if you’ve noticed any trends, or if you can predict any about creative nonfiction as a genre?
SO: My predictions are worth probably exactly what you’re paying for them, which is nothing! But I think that we’re in an incredibly changeful time in publishing. The opportunities for publishing have never been greater, which sounds almost counter-intuitive, but actually the freedom that you get with electronic publishing is kind of thrilling in a way! It’s still complicated economically but in terms of opening up opportunities for publishing, it’s kind of amazing.
I think the single most exciting aspect of it is not the speed and ease and availability but the flexibility – that stories of virtually any length can find a place now. And that’s always been a little bit of a challenge with narrative nonfiction – that the stories often do well when they’re longer than what most magazines want to publish – or are able to publish. But they don’t necessarily support the length of a book and that has been a really orphaned category for a long time because there simply wasn’t a way to publish 30,000 words, you know? People would think, well, either the New Yorker publishes it or no one publishes it. And even the New Yorker doesn’t publish 30,000 words as often as it used to.
Electronic publishing and all of the boutique publishers like Byliner and the Atavist I think are making those sized stories marketable. And I think that’s thrilling! Very, very exciting and I think it’s the beginning of something that could truly mark a real renaissance of the [narrative nonfiction] form.
CJ: What are your thoughts on the different writing communities throughout the country, such as the writing community in New York City versus the community here in Maine?
SO: I think without a doubt you would look at New York as having the great advantage of having the largest community, the greatest number of jobs and outlets for writing, but also kind of by definition, more competitive – I don’t think it’s that people are mean and nasty – I think that there’s simply more ambition and as a result, a certain amount of friction or competitiveness. At the same time, I think there are people who are getting done what they want to get done. In smaller cities where the communities might be supportive, I also think there are maybe more people who feel frustrated or stuck or you know that they haven’t yet gotten where they want to go, so you’ve got a lot of other emotions.
I think in general writers are pretty nice to each other. And it’s not a zero sum game. I think that people understand that there’s always room for another good writer. I mean there is not a fixed amount of success to go around – it’s an ever-expanding and expandable quantity. I think in New York you are pushed to achieve more and I think that can be really good because writing you have to make the leap to really doing it and sometimes I think that if you’re in a smaller city it’s a lot harder to just push yourself to that one final leap into trying to make it work as a career. And you know in New York that’s partly out of necessity – everything’s expensive – you feel this great pressure to make it work, but I also think it’s a culture of achievement and there’s a lot moving you toward that and it’s a little bit easier to make that happen. You know, you’re living in New York, you’re more likely to be meeting editors and people who can actually give you work, so they’re such different environments. Whether the writing itself changes or not, I don’t necessarily think you could ever know that, and I happen to think that that wouldn’t be the case, but I certainly think that the experience of being a writer in New York versus a writer really anywhere else – I mean there simply isn’t another comparable city.
CJ: How do you think it’s different from when you were starting out in New York? If you were starting out as a writer today, would your career have gone in a different direction?
SO: I don’t know if it’s really changed all that much, actually. I mean we’ve certainly seen magazines tighten their budgets and newspapers shrinking and a general atmosphere of despair that wasn’t there – I mean I think writers have always complained about how hard it is to make a living! But I don’t think the sense that this was a, perhaps, endangered species, I mean, that certainly wasn’t there when I came to New York and I think more magazines were making more money, so there was a little more of kind of sky’s the limit attitude.
On the other hand, I think there’s been this huge birth of the web presence, of just about every newspaper and magazine that allows for a new opening for young writers that didn’t exist. You either got into the New Yorker or you didn’t. It was such a big jump to get actually published there. Now with the web there’s just more space to fill. So even though the recession has made the physical magazine shrink, the existence of the web means there’s suddenly this new, very ravenous appetite for material to go up there. That’s kinda cool.
CJ: I know you’ve said before that you never wanted to be anything other than a writer, but IF you could either go back or even start fresh, what would be another career of your choosing?
SO: Well, the problem is that’s limited by what I think I could have the capacity to do. If I just think idly, I think, well, it’d be so great to be an architect but I don’t feel that I have any ability at all. Actually – and this isn’t all that different from what I do – I could see working in documentary film or radio in some way, but that’s not really that different from what I do. I don’t know that I have this other secret career. I love music, I wrote a lot about music, but I can’t think of what career would be there for me in the music world except as a passionate listener. So, maybe that makes me unimaginative!
Now and again I just think “wow, I should go to medical school,” and this sounds really odd but I have thought about it at times but I just – I don’t think I could do it. You know, I never took science, I never…I think it would really be tough for me to get through medical school. It’s the only thing that’s dawned on me every now and again of thinking, “wow, that’d be so cool to be a doctor.” Isn’t that weird? I certainly never thought it when I was at an age when it would’ve been a possibility because I hadn’t taken science since I was in 11th grade. So, that’s more the if only – Walter Mitty kind of thing.
CJ: Do you think you’ll ever write a memoir?
SO: You know, I think about it and I have to admit I don’t think my life seems that interesting. Someone would have to convince me that it’s interesting because I think my life’s not that interesting.
Every now and again I think maybe I should just do a book that’s truly sort of “Memoir of a writer,” and then I think, I don’t know, would anybody want to read that? And actually, in terms of my really personal life, that I would never want to write about. I could certainly write about what it’s like to try to deal with being a woman and a mother as a writer. And that’s personal, but it’s not intimate details of my personal, personal life, which I just wouldn’t choose to write about. But I don’t know! Do you think anyone would read it?
CJ: Well, it’s funny because I imagine that’s the answer you get with so many of your subjects. The answer “well, my life’s not that interesting – why do you want to interview me?”
SO: I know, it is funny because it’s exactly what people say to me and you’re right! But part of me feels like NO, I know that I’m not interesting!
You know, probably the only way I could do it is if someone came to me and said, “I’m going to interview you and that will be the book” because I have trouble imagining myself saying, “Ok, I’ve had a really interesting life.”
I have sometimes thought about writing about writing because I do teach a lot and I do things like Salt a lot. I do like talking about what I think is important with writing. So, we’ll see…


Claire Jeffers is the senior editor at Freerange Nonfiction. She received her BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and recently attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. She still lives in Portland, where she’s worked and works as an editor, photographer, writer, cook, server, and babysitter.