The Deepest Stuff: A Q&A With Susan Orlean

Ben Arthur

I have been a fan of Susan Orlean since before I even knew I was a fan. An astounding proportion of my favorite stories in the New Yorker, where she’s been a staff writer since 1992, carry her byline. To read her collected profiles and travel essays, in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People (Random House, 2001) and in My Kind of Place: Travel Stories From a Woman Who's Been Everywhere (Random House, 2004), is like a reunion with old friends. Then there is the fascinating article on an African record store in Paris ("The Congo Sound"), the investigation into a bizarre illegal tiger sanctuary in New Jersey ("The Lady and the Tigers"), and the short and disconcerting piece on the mysterious Twitter account Horse_ebooks ("Man and Machine"). And there are the articles that are more directly linked to her personal obsessions, such as the charming personal essays on treadmill desks ("The Walking Alive") and the nouveau chic of chickens ("The It Bird"), and of course her bestselling book The Orchid Thief (Random House, 1998), which was made into the film Adaptation (2002), directed by Spike Jonze, with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, and starring Meryl Streep (as Orlean) and Nicolas Cage.

So when Susan Orlean was tagged on a Facebook post by a friend, I introduced myself, and not long after that concocted an excuse to work with her on a project that involved writing a song based on her writing. I called her to talk about the project, and about her process.

You’ve compared writing a strong lead to a stripper choosing which article of clothing to remove first. What’s a good lead question to ask you?
[Laughs.] Have you ever stripped for money?

Answer: No.

Though I notice you specified for money
Exactly. That’s your lead. You make it intriguing without being confusing. That’s the magic combination. I think it’s essential to have a come-hither quality to a lead, but people don’t like to be confused; they don’t like to feel like they’ve been purposefully misled.

So it’s the balance of unveiling a mystery without it being so obscure as to annoy the reader.
Exactly. With any work of art, in the beginning you’re fighting for attention, begging for a chance. The first order of business is to earn the next minute they’re going to give you, and then the next and the next. Your first obligation is not to explain everything you’re going to interest them in but rather to get them interested. At the same time, it’s annoying to feel like a writer is going out of her way to leave you puzzled. That’s the balance.

How often do you feel like you know the lead before you even start writing? Is it like with titles, in that sometimes they come easily and other times you struggle?
Yes. The lead for this book I’m working on just popped into my head, almost fully formed. And then there was a lot of work to make it fit.

And how early in the process did that come?
Not really early. Somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain you’re processing everything you’ve learned. I guess I would compare it to entering a room with a bunch of strangers and having a charming opening line.

I feel like a good chorus hook in music is something you’re always searching for in the background. But it doesn’t always come easily, or first.
That’s right. And I think in a way it comes as much as a surprise to me as to the reader. Or it should. If I read it and think, “Oh! I didn’t know that’s where I was starting!” then that’s a good sign. I think often I’m processing it as I’m talking to people about what I’m working on. I begin hearing that little melody of what I keep bringing up. I sometimes think, “How funny that I told that story about it, as opposed to this other one that I thought would be the obvious lead.” It’s this unconscious process of finding what’s interesting, what’s sexy.

So should we give a trailer of your upcoming book?
Sure! It’s a book about the Los Angeles Public Library and the arson that took place there in 1986, which was the biggest library fire in U.S. history.

And the lead? Can you share that?
It might be a little weird out of context, but…it’s about someone’s hairdo.

That will do! You’ve said your writing voice is influenced by the work of Joan Didion, Calvin Trillin, John McPhee, and even William Faulkner. Are there artists in other mediums whose work you feel influenced yours?
Very much. In part just because I’m a huge consumer of music and movies and visual arts. Music probably more than anything else, only because I’m so passionate about music, and also because there are so many valuable parallels in the way music and writing work. Like you say, this idea of a hook or a melody or the rising and falling of emotion in a song. And because I care very much about the musical quality of my writing, the rhythm of it and the pacing. Music has really…made me who I am.

You’ve said your writing springs first from personal curiosity, and you draw a line between a lack of curiosity about the lives of others and America’s unfortunate tendency towards xenophobia. In the self-curated feed of social media, particularly with today’s extreme political partisanship, how do you fight self-ghettoization?
I think it’s so hard. I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. You have to make a deliberate effort to not be that person who surrounds herself with homogeneity. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be that person. It’s like a moral choice. And I’m a little lucky in that my work requires me to exercise that muscle. I’m not saying this as if I’m a more evolved person. But it’s part of what my work is, and I’m grateful for that.

Follow up question: Would you rather have dinner with a rabid Trumpist or a rabid Bernie bro?
What a horrible choice! Can I opt to have dinner alone?

You’d rather have silence.
I think right now I’m so agitated about Trump that I couldn’t even handle it.

For the writers in the audience, what’s the life ratio you strive for with family, writing, business, research? What’s your golden ratio?
I sure wish I knew. My time is so project-based; there’s never a steady state of balance. Like many people, I try to shortchange each of those things, so at least it’s an even spread of inadequacy. There are times when I fantasize about having a job that ends at a specific time of day, and that has no ongoing…that you’d close up shop at 5pm and the time after that was yours. When I have a book or a piece due, it’s just always with me.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I don’t. Actually, I used to, but I found I got so distracted deciding what to listen to that I decided that I couldn’t do it.

Another opportunity for procrastination.
Right! For a while I would turn on NPR and just turn it on low, so it was just white noise…

NPR is the whitest noise…
Someone said that you can buy an album with the noise of a coffee shop, that clatter and buzz, and some people find that comforting.

I swear you could actually chart how well my writing is going by how dirty my kitchen is. If you walk in and see my kitchen counter is particularly disgusting you should be like, “Wow, congrats!”
The clothes in my closets have actually been color coordinated. One day I suddenly decided to organize my books by color. But…it helped me feel calmer, so it was useful.

Speaking of process, do you still use the treadmill desk?
Yeah, I do. I have it here in LA. In the summer in New York I sit at a normal desk. It will be interesting, as I spend longer hours now that I’m in the writing phase of my book…I’m curious to see how it feels to be on my feet for that long.

I bought one, after reading your article in the New Yorker, but I couldn’t quite make it work. I wasn’t able to get past the stumbling sense of distraction. For me, distraction is great for fundamental inspiration—I read that Joyce Carol Oates says that all of her best ideas come when she’s running. But for me, grinding out the words—the actual work, putting ideas to paper—takes all the focus I can muster.
That’s so interesting. It definitely takes some adjustment. And it’s not easy to try them out without buying one. When I got mine I thought, “What am I going to do if I don’t like it?” Though someone told me I could just sell it on Craigslist.

I think that 90 percent of the life of an average treadmill desk is being bought and sold on Craigslist. On another subject, in The Orchid Thief you describe searching local newspapers for small articles that might contain an interesting story—what’s your current-day equivalent?
That’s a heartbreaker. I don’t think there is an equivalent. I used to, when I had run out of ideas, go to this great newsstand near the New Yorker on 42nd Street, and they carried newspapers and magazines from all over. I used to riffle through the racks, as a way to discover stories out there. It’s hard! And I don’t think you wander around the Internet in the same way.

You’re missing that first curator.
Yeah, and there’s a quality of letting your eyes roam across the page and finding a thing tucked in a corner, that there isn’t quite an equivalent for on the Internet. Obviously there’s endless interesting stuff out there, the entire world’s knowledge dumped onto your screen. But I have not yet found a way to browse it the way I did newspapers. I’ve actually turned to other ways of finding stories, more boots on the ground, chatting with people, those accidental encounters with an interesting idea.

You had to go old school!
Very old school—actually walking out in the world. That’s a great way to stumble on stories, but it’s limited by your own ability to roam around. I really miss the local papers, especially from my local town in the Hudson Valley. That’s a huge loss, both professionally and personally.

A confession: I hated the ending of Adaptation when I first saw it years ago, and part of my interest in using The Orchid Thief as inspiration for this project was to tackle the problem myself, and what I found interesting is that after I had written my song (which was really, really hard) and had re-watched the movie, I realized that I ended up focusing on this small section of the book about loneliness and obsession that is all through the movie. Does that surprise you, or do you know exactly which section I’m talking about?
When I wrote it I certainly didn’t think I was writing a meditation on loneliness and obsession, and actually that was one of the fascinating things about seeing the movie, discovering things about the book that I hadn’t realized were there.

You mentioned that it may have identified your impending divorce before you consciously knew about it…
Oh, yeah! In fact it was almost spooky. It’s something that I never asked Charlie [Kaufman] because it feels almost uncomfortable. Anytime you’re making a piece of work, whether music or writing or painting, there’s a big part of it that’s reflecting your own state of mind at that moment, even if it’s not overt. If I wrote that book now, it might have been a very different book. And it doesn’t surprise me, because now when I think about it in retrospect I do feel like the book really is about this dichotomy of passion and loneliness.

Your initial reaction when producers talked about making a movie was that they were totally crazy.
I thought it was ridiculous. I just thought that this is not cinematic, I cannot imagine how you can make a movie about it. But like anyone with half a brain I thought, "Well, that’s your problem. If you want to option it, it’s not my problem to figure it out." At the risk of making it sound like I’m smarter than I am, I remember saying that they’re going to change it. Of course they’re going to change it. They’re going to make it a Hollywood movie. There’s no way they can make this really be the book. And actually I thought, they’re going to change the crime from being just that he was poaching orchids to be a murder. I assumed that would happen.

But Charlie Kaufman’s solution still came as a surprise to you.
Total, utter shock. Utterly baffling. I could not for the life of me figure out what this was. My first reaction was, “You can’t use my name. Whatever you want to do, that’s your business—I think it’s kind of nuts—but you can’t use my name in this madness.” And there was a lot in the original script that was me as a child, me with my parents. It was crazy! I never imagined there was a character of me in the movie. We then went around and around over whether they could use my name. And I caved when I realized that they would show the image of the cover of the book but use that fake name. And any writer who has even an ounce of ego would never allow that!

What did you think of his ending, initially at least?
Initially I didn’t like it. I didn’t get it. I’ve seen the movie twelve times now. It took me a couple of viewings to appreciate why the ending makes sense. I get it in a way that I didn’t the first time. Suddenly it just kind of clicked, and it felt like the correct ending.

It’s been fascinating for me, because I did have a sense of dissatisfaction when I saw it many years ago. But then grappling with the issue myself, trying to sum up the emotional content—obviously it’s a very different, and in many ways easier thing to write a song—but it was not easy. And in some ways the combination of how challenging it was for me, and maybe being older, too, watching it a second time, there was a sense of, “Oh, yeah.” I know what you mean by a sense of it clicking.
I do think with Charlie’s movies, the first time rarely feels satisfying. The second or third time they connect in a different way.

Although Anomalisa…have you had a chance to see that?
Yeah, and with that actually, it did feel very coherent the first time.

I thought it was amazing. And it’s funny, I was just thinking the other day that I wanted to see that again. I do think a lot of Charlie’s other movies, they really take some time before they sink in, the way a lot of novels can, too. When I think of the music and books that I really cherish, a lot of them were not instantly…I mean, I love pop music. But the music that I really embrace, it takes some time for my ear to get used to what I’m trying to hear in it.

The difficult stuff is almost always the deepest stuff. 



Ben Arthur has released seven albums and two novels, and is a producer of the songwriting video series SongCraft Presents. His new album, Call and Response, is a collection of “answer songs.”