Susan Orlean on archiving her life, nearly quitting books, and not keeping up with her subjects

Illustration by Darrel Frost.

Susan Orlean’s stories reveal what one reviewer called “the grandeur of the miniature.” She pursues her discrete subjects—a devastating library fire, a seemingly immortal dog, Girl Scouts and 10-year-old American boys and “All My Children”—to their surprising limits. In her books, one finds a collection of knowledge to rival The New York Public Library Desk Reference; her latest, The Library Book, is an arson investigation, an architectural history, a memoir, and a study of how information persists, among other things.

Orlean, 63, has made a singular career of her roving curiosity. She has published for nearly half her life at The New Yorker, where she became a staff writer in 1992. She is the sort of reporter one might entrust with, say, the unexamined contents of a storage locker. “Approaching people with authentic openness and interest is the only tool I’ve ever used to gain trust,” she writes in an email. “My theory is, be trustworthy and people will trust you.” She also regularly engages her Twitter audience, which tops 300,000, and uses novelty—from smartpens to treadmill desks—with gusto.

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In the first pages of The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean describes the short local-news story that launched her reporting odyssey into orchids and their obsessives. “I was interested to see the words ‘swamp’ and ‘orchids’ and ‘Seminoles’ and ‘cloning’ and ‘criminal’ together in one short piece,” she writes, with prose that evokes precision dance: simple, sharp steps executed in succession. “Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can’t believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.” Cultivated by Orlean, stories do not unfold so much as bloom.

I met Orlean on an early November evening in the lobby of a Toronto hotel. She was in the city to read from The Library Book and so, of course, we proceeded to the hotel “library”—a tall room bracketed by a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling shelves that held surprisingly few books. I asked her first about the ukulele, an instrument she has clear affection for and debated taking on tour with her. (She left hers at her home in Los Angeles, but acquired another during a tour stop in Virginia, she told me.) We then turned to other subjects, including the whereabouts of her life’s work, the lifespan of her relationships with her subjects, and what her son makes of her books. Things got a bit existential. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

You gave your papers to Columbia University a few years ago. There are documents from your work, personal correspondence. What was that process like for you?

I had all of the back material from my books. I was contemplating it one day, and was talking to a friend about what to do with it. Part of me felt that it had some intrinsic value. On the other hand, I didn’t need it anymore to be in my work space. My friend had sold his papers to an academic library, and recommended that I think about it.

A lot of work of mine is on syllabi, so it’s not a total vanity to think that maybe there would be value in it. I wanted it to be in New York—I’m not sure why, because I don’t live in New York anymore. Probably because of the connection to The New Yorker, and because I lived in New York for a long time. It just felt right. It was also a matter of the right institution, a place that had an interest in the kind of work I do.

 

How did you draw the line between what material you felt should be publicly attainable and what should not be?

Well, you know, I didn’t go through it carefully to begin with. It was sort of a sweep. I had this stuff in boxes, and I’d moved out of my office at The New Yorker and boxed everything up. And out of sheer laziness, I didn’t go through the stuff before the archivists came to take stock of what was there. Only after the fact did I start thinking, “Wow, I wonder if there’s personal stuff in there that I didn’t mean to have go into this.”

What was interesting is that they contacted me and said, There are a couple things in here that we think you didn’t really want to have go into the archives. Some pay stubs, some personal letters that they had the goodness to say, Hm, not sure this was meant to be part of it. I reclaimed those things after the fact. Everything that they pulled out, I thought, Oh, I’m so glad they pulled that out. I think they deal enough with this exact issue, where people are not going to go through piece by piece by piece. The vast majority of it was appropriate, the stuff that I meant to have go into their archives. My laziness was more or less warranted.

 

There’s a moment early on in The Library Book where you describe a feeling that you were done wrestling books into shape.

I have trouble being quick and easy with anything. I’m not that slow of a writer, but I’m a slow reporter. I always take on these subjects that don’t give me a roadmap. I have to invent the roadmap.

I wrote Rin Tin Tin [a narrative history of the famed German Shepherd and the figures who shaped his legend] when my son was an infant and a toddler. It was a challenge to have a very young kid and to be doing a book that required a lot of research. And also, that feeling of, Oh my god, do I really want to make another five-year commitment to something that feels like a slow-motion struggle? I’m not a tortured writer. I just think that books are a very big challenge.

So I thought, This is too hard. I’ll write magazine pieces. I wasn’t done with writing.

Part of that was very circumstantial, very much of the moment of being done with [Rin Tin Tin] and going, I’m not gonna do that again. Rin Tin Tin was such a struggle because of having a young kid at the time, and I couldn’t focus and couldn’t concentrate and it took me so long. When I felt myself compelled to write this book, there was a part of me that thought, Do I really want to do this? And then I thought, This will be the easy one. This will be the one where I can do the reporting in a year and then write it. Well, famous last words.

 

How long did the reporting take?

The whole process was about six years. The reporting was probably about four years. That wasn’t four years every day without a break. But it was a lot of reporting.

 

Is there a single, steady process you use for sorting your reporting and developing your roadmap?

I review my material multiple times, hoping that each time it sinks a little deeper in my head and begins taking shape. Then I actually try to see a physical shape—that is, I transfer most of my notes to index cards, and lay them out and begin to visualize a structure, moving the cards around like puzzle pieces until it begins to feel like the right shape.

 

What do you see as the thematic link that runs through your work?

I feel like I return over and over to a couple of things I’m very curious about. Thematic questions that come up for me over and over again. How do people form communities? What brings people together? How does memory work? What do we remember, and what do we forget? What is the nature of a passion, or a life’s focus? How much does it inform the way you live? It might seem funny to explore those things in completely different subjects, but I do feel like I come back to those questions a lot.

It might sound grand, but I’m interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the choices we make as humans. How you live in the world and make decisions, what you care about, what lasts. I think that idea of living on, and the way you do that, is definitely central to all these books.

 

I definitely am more used to talking to people for whom my name and credentials mean nothing, and who, for that matter, have no interest in The New Yorker.

 

How far back do you trace that curiosity in your life?

That’s a good question. It’s a concern that I remember having even as a young kid. Which seems like a sort of mature concern for a young kid, but the idea of what lasts, and what remains in the wake of a life, really possessed me.

You know, I think a lot of young kids are slightly morbid. I wasn’t morbid, but I did have this somewhat melancholy curiosity about whether anything mattered, and whether anything ultimately lasted beyond the immediacy of your life. What can I attribute that to? I’m not sure. It’s just something that, from a very early age, I was fascinated by—this question of permanence versus evanescence, and how that applied.

I sometimes think that’s why I became a writer. Because I’m creating something permanent, in a sense. Maybe this is just constantly relieving myself of this anxiety—that life comes and goes and nothing remains. Because certainly the permanence of a book, there’s something very comforting about that. To think, There it is. It’s a concrete thing that’s related and will keep going and will outlast me. Will have mattered.

 

Something that’s archived by the Library of Congress.

Right. Something that has an ISBN number.

 

As you reported on the Los Angeles Public Library, did you encounter people who knew your work and had expectations of what a “Susan Orlean interview experience” might be like?

This is the first book I’ve done where that happened. I don’t think I had a specific idea, or whether there was something I could point to, where they expected it to be like this or like that, because they had read my work. But I definitely am more used to talking to people for whom my name and credentials mean nothing, and who, for that matter, have no interest in The New Yorker. So this was definitely different, to have people familiar with other books.

 

I thought it might help you gain access, because you’re speaking with people familiar with your previous work.

This was not a tough group, in the sense that I’ve certainly written about people who are extremely press-shy and hesitant to talk to anybody, and it doesn’t matter—whether you’re from The New York Times or The New Yorker or whatever, they’re just a little bit wary of the press. My guess is that librarians, being well read and wise in the ways of the world, would’ve been open to any legitimate person. So I don’t think it gave me unusual access. I think it just meant I probably began with a little bit of credibility. I think people all along took seriously what I was doing. As the years would go by and I would say to them, I’m still working on that book, I’m still doing it, they were pretty tolerant of the long stretch of time that it took.

 

I want to hang on to credibility for a minute. In Rin Tin Tin, you set out to find Bert Leonard [the late Hollywood producer whose credits include The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin]. His daughter hands over a key to a storage unit in Los Angeles. Reading that, I had this feeling of, “Surely someone must have been inside that storage unit…”

[A quiet laugh]

 

“…surely someone must have asked for that key before.” And if not, that seems like a heavy thing to entrust a reporter with.

Yeah.

 

I guess I want to ask, “How?”

It really was an astonishing moment. Looking back, I think, Wow, I’m not sure whether I would have given someone a key to a storage locker without any idea of what was in it. I think people trust me because I’m trustworthy. I think they sense that I don’t have an agenda. I’m really just curious, and I want to learn as much as I can learn. There’s an openness I’ve encountered with a lot of people. I feel fortunate that I evince that emotion.

She had never been in the storage locker. The fact is, the stuff in there was very personal. I don’t think they regretted giving me the key. But I think if the daughters had gone through the material, they might’ve thought, This is dad’s scribbling different possible ways he’s going to divide money up among his kids. It was very personal stuff. I feel astonishingly fortunate it happened the way it did. I don’t think she was foolish in doing it, because I would like to think I used sensitivity in deciding what to include, what not to include. But I doubt they quite realized how intimate some of the material was, and how much there was.

 

There’s an openness I’ve encountered with a lot of people. I feel fortunate that I evince that emotion.

 

And the fact is that I really never enter a story with an agenda, so that trust isn’t wrong. I actually really want to hear what they have to say. I’m not looking for them to fill in pre-existing blanks. And I continue to feel very lucky that people will openly share things with me or give me keys to storage lockers and say, ‘Take a look. It’s up to you.’

When I met Harry Peak’s sister, that was another instance where she flat out said, I’m glad you’re writing this book, so we can have his story told. [Local officials suspected Peak, an aspiring actor, of starting the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire.] Now I’m not sure if they feel I told it quite exactly the way they’d like it told, but they were really eager to talk and to be heard, which is great.

 

Have Peak’s family members been in touch since The Library Book’s publication?

No, they haven’t, and… [Inhales audibly.] Who knows? I would hope that they feel that I gave him a chance to be heard. It’s certainly not an entirely positive portrait. But I made every effort to be as fair as I could, and also to share as much as I could, instead of saying, “He did it, it’s obvious.” It’s a much more nuanced story than that.

 

I wonder about the lifelines of your relationships with sources and subjects: how long they continue after the fact, whether you maintain correspondence with subjects.

I don’t know if this will disappoint you or not. I’m not really in touch with most of the people I’ve written about. I feel like that’s the more natural outcome—that our lives intersected for a very particular period of time that made sense in the context of the story. I write mostly about people I have nothing in common with. The Library Book will be different, because I think the worlds of a number of people I wrote about—mostly the people who work in the library—and mine, there’s already natural overlap.

But John LaRoche [a central Orchid Thief subject] and I, what are we going to talk about? For a couple of years, I spent a lot of time with him. But it’s circumscribed by the reason we were spending time together. I feel there’s no obligation either way. Lots of time I never hear from people, saying I really like the story, or I didn’t like the story. They don’t owe me that, either.

And similarly, we’re not friends. We’re not un-friends, but we’re not friends. We’re writer and subject. And it feels normal and natural to me that maybe you check in with each other at some point along the line, but maybe you don’t. I’m always happy and delighted when I hear from someone I’ve written about. But I definitely don’t consider it some strange breach if I don’t hear from them or if we don’t talk again.

 

Usually I start a story not knowing where it’s going anyway, so I can’t just show up and fire off my ten questions and leave. I don’t have my ten questions yet. That’s a big part of the way I report. To be curious about something and have the story reveal itself to me as I learn more.

 

When you profiled a 10-year-old for Esquire, he asked you on your final day of reporting whether you were going to come over again the next day. [Asked by her editor to write about Macaulay Culkin, Orlean replied that she “would do the piece if I could find a typical American ten-year-old man to profile instead—someone who I thought was more deserving of that headline.”]

Exactly. It’s a reminder to a writer that, when you’re being a good reporter, you make people think you’re friends. This is a subject most brilliantly and painfully explored by Janet Malcolm. It sounds kind of evil and manipulative, to say, “You make them think you’re friends.” There’s some other word. It’s not accurate to say you’re “friends” when you’re writing about someone. But there isn’t a word I can think of, except to say, they’re your subject, and you are their. . .accountant. [Laughs.] And you can have a very friendly rapport, but you’re not friends.

I hope that doesn’t make me sound evil and nasty. I don’t write things that are investigative in the sense of, “A-ha, I’m going to make this person trust me and then I’m going to skewer them.” But the dynamic between a writer and subject is a really delicate one. A lot of times, people will say to me, Are you still in touch with… And when I say, ‘No,” I always feel they’re thinking, Oh, you’re mean. And I think, What would we be talking about these days?

[Lights dim in the library]

Oh, now it’s getting very moody in here.

I probably react strongly because I feel a certain amount of guilt about it. Except, in a very practical way, what would be the meaning after writing about a 10-year-old boy, or about 15-year-old girls, of staying in touch? It sort of doesn’t make sense. And it would suggest that you lost a little bit of your objectivity. All of my stories are very subjective, so I’m not very worried about that. But I think it would suggest that you’ve lost yourself a little bit somewhere, if you think you’ve become friends.

 

Maybe it’s a testament to the intimacy with which you portray your subjects?

Well, the fact is, during the time I am writing about people, I do feel this great intimacy. And it’s OK to see it as encapsulated in this period of time. It’s very real, the relationship is very real. But unlike a normal friendship, it’s not on a continuum. It’s very specific to this time. I’ve parachuted into their lives, and tried to use all the tools that I have to very quickly advance to a level of intimacy that is open and engaged. And then it’s kind of done.

Maybe the pieces feel like this is an ongoing conversation with a friend. And I take that as a great compliment. And maybe that’s why people are shocked when I say, “No, I’m not in touch.” I’ll take it as a compliment now. Why not?

 

When you parachute into a place, how do you do that and show sufficient respect for your subjects? For their culture and place?

I try to build in a certain amount of time that’s completely unstructured, where I roam around kind of aimlessly and just try to suss out a place and get a sense of what it feels like. Ideally, I have time with the subject that is also equally unstructured and unscheduled. I don’t like feeling like I come in with a list of questions. I’m here for five minutes, so boom-boom-boom-boom. But rather, I’m here, I’m really curious about this story, but in the meantime, if you don’t mind, I’ll just hang around for a while. Sometimes it’s not possible for various reasons. But as much as I can build up some sense of where I am, what the place is, who the person is without immediately launching into the Q&A, that’s really important to me.

You make do with what you can get. Gone are the days when we had carte blanche from the magazine to go and spend as much time as we wanted somewhere, so that’s a reality. You don’t say, I’m gonna go for like a week and see. Now it’s, That’s a lot of days in a hotel. Do you really need a week?

Usually I start a story not knowing where it’s going anyway, so I can’t just show up and fire off my ten questions and leave. I don’t have my ten questions yet. That’s a big part of the way I report. To be curious about something and have the story reveal itself to me as I learn more.

 

What sort of things get cut or lost from your books during the editing process?

With The Library Book, in terms of what stayed in and what fell out, I would say I rearranged more than cut. I think it came in pretty clean, and so we worked more on strengthening the structure a little bit. I tend to be pretty tight with my writing. I don’t go on and on and on.

Of course stuff gets cut. But my typical problem is not writing too long. My problems tend to be writing too compactly and not sufficiently explaining things or airing things out because I just have this tendency to be very compact. Actually, it’s one of the things I’ve been working on the most, just to air things out a little bit more. Not to add huge amounts of length, but just to not rush so much through imagery and description and contemplation. To have a little more air in the room.

 

Is there writing that doesn’t just feed into your reporting projects?

You mean, do I do stuff that never gets published?

 

Stuff that you don’t intend to polish. That might be part of a writing practice.

No, I’m very much a mule in the traces. If I’m not on a project, I’m not writing. And I hesitate to say that, because I know everyone is always encouraging people to write. But I need to feel that I know where something is heading. So I don’t write unless I already know what I’m up to. Whether it’s a magazine piece or a book or something very specific.

 

How has the evolution of the internet changed your reporting?

I see it as an asset and not a replacement. It’s a great tool. It’s like getting a really good screwdriver when I only had pliers and thinking, Fantastic, now I can unscrew a certain number of things much more quickly. But it can be seductive and make you forget that there’s a lot more out there than what you might find on the internet. I mean, I used the internet a lot for a lot of material for The Library Book. But what I was really doing was boots-on-the-ground, interviewing people, digging through archives at the library that don’t exist online. You’re very foolish if you think that everything is digitized, because it’s not.

 

What questions does your child have for you about the work you do?

Well, he never asks me about my work. [Laughs.] You have kids right?

 

I do.

How old?

 

Four and almost two.

Oh. So, it’ll be interesting. You’ll see.

No, my son never asks me about my work, except to sometimes say, “Did you write a lot today, mom?” I think kids have a sort of allergic reaction to their parents’ professions. He just doesn’t ask me about it. He might later on, but at this point it’s just sort of the way it is. I’ll tell him sometimes about something specific with my work, and he’s like, Yup, interesting, whatever.

I think kids just aren’t attuned to their parents’ lives as professionals, really. I think they’re interested in you as their parent. My son’s never read my books. He told me he started Rin Tin Tin, but I don’t believe him.

I have a lot of friends who are writers, and we all have the same experience—that our kids don’t read our books, and they’re not especially interested in our work. I guess, in a way, I wonder why should they be more interested in our work than our partner’s work? And generally they’re not interested in any of it. Some day.

I have a very good friend, RL Stine, who’s written hundreds and hundreds—

 

RL Stine’s a very good friend?

—of books. And he has a son. And his son has never read a single one of his books. And I found it so funny because he was writing children’s books, so it’s even more an example of kids basically saying, “I don’t know, you’re dad, you’re not the author of this book.” And there’s probably a little element of thinking, “I don’t want to read your stuff. I don’t want it to mix up in my head with my idea of you as my dad.” I think this is not an uncommon experience.

 

I wonder what kids populate that “non-parenting” space with.

I just think you’re pretty busy, certainly through adolescence, focusing on your parent as a parent. And I think that’s just fine. My son comes to some of my events, but I also wouldn’t mind if he didn’t want to. I mean, my dad was a real-estate developer, and we’d drive around, and he’d say, “I built that, and I built that.” And we’d say, “Yeah. OK. Next.”

In LA, we have a certain number of friends who are actors. And I always think, Oh my god, how weird, for your parent to be an actor. And then I think, No, they’re parents. That’s how they relate to them. Which is good.

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Brendan Fitzgerald is an associate editor at CJR, where he directs the United States Project. His writing has appeared at Literary Hub, The Believer, Montana Public Radio, and The Morning News. He spent six years as a reporter and editor at C-VILLE Weekly.