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What Drives Susan Orlean?

Curiosity. That's what.


by Annette Nevins

 

Susan Orlean clutches the steering wheel of a black Mercedes and taps the screen of her iPhone while navigating around clogged traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway. She is stressed.

She is running late for her interview at the Los Angeles Central Public Library. Flashes of red flare as drivers jam on their brakes. A squad car’s blue and white lights flicker by a stalled vehicle. Susan’s iPhone pings repeatedly with alerts. A helicopter buzzes low overhead. Keeping her eye on a swerving utility truck, Susan switches topics about as often as she switches lanes. She talks about her move from rural New York to the San Fernando Valley north of LA, about the car trips she took in the Sixties with her parents, about the little books she penned for them as a child, and about her plans for future trips with her own son, Austin. 

The old convertible once belonged to her father. Today, the top is up and Susan is dressed to impress in a black-and-white belted dress that sets off her crimson hair. A red-and-white pillow in the driver’s seat gives her a boost to see over the hood, making her look small in the white leather driver’s seat. “My dad was a great adventurer,” she says, reminiscing. “He’d be the kind of guy who says, ‘That looks interesting. Let’s get off there.’” On vacation, they would hit the predictable tourist points: The West Coast beaches and the Grand Canyon. But he’d spice up their travels, she says, choosing the unexpected, the secondary highway. Following close behind would be Susan, taking notes and writing stories about what she heard and what she saw. Once, after the Cleveland riots, he piled the family in the car and drove cross town so they could understand the dynamics behind the upheaval. “My father was an unconventional thinker. We did a lot of things that aren’t in the guidebook. He definitely instilled that in me.” 

Traveling has always been a big part of Susan’s life. When she was 5, her mother and father took the family – her and her two siblings – on an “epic childhood journey” cross country in her dad’s 1960 Cadillac. Today, trips provide fodder for her stories in The New Yorker as they did for many of her eight books. “I see the connection to his way of looking at the world – his excitement to discover – whether high end, extremely beautiful, or extremely strange.” For her 1998 bestseller, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, she rolled up her pants and sloshed through miles of Florida swamps on a wide-eyed quest for the elusive ghost orchid – a quest she kept up long after the thief, John LaRouche, gave up. For her most recent book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, she moved to California and struck out for Europe alone to find the birthplace of the German Shepherd dog who became the famous TV star of the 1950s. It’s been her trademark from the beginning, traipsing after female matadors in Spain and girl surfers in Maui, traveling the back roads of the U.S. to explore dance halls and bowling alleys, writing about the darnedest subjects. She’s followed a monk in Bhutan, discovered a woman who keeps tigers in suburban New Jersey, and gotten inside the mind of a 10-year-old boy.

As the traffic clears, the Mercedes purrs past lanky palm trees, hurtling toward the skyscrapers of downtown LA as they materialize in the morning smog. Here in LA, Susan is steering her writing career in a new direction. At age 57, the woman who earned literary acclaim exploring the subcultures of America and beyond is delving into longer research-intensive historical nonfiction. Her latest quest is to transform the historic LA Public Library into a page-turner and to pass along her passion for travel and writing to her son. But balancing her busy career as a writer with her role as
wife and mother means Susan can’t afford to slow down even as she begins research on her book. There’s a trip to Mexico for a writer’s conference, a driving excursion through Sonoma Valley, a visit to Ohio for her mom’s 90th birthday. Then it’s off to Morocco with husband John, a retired investment banker
and entrepreneur in residence at the University of California, Los Angeles, to celebrate his 60th birthday. This summer, she and John are planning a cross-country road trip with their 8-year-old son, Austin. “Road trips. I have a real soft spot for them.”

On the jammed highway, she cranes her neck to watch the circling helicopter. Her quest to find adventure in the ordinary is what drives Susan’s stories. A woman’s robotic voice breaks in to calculate Susan’s route to her interview at LA’s Central Public Library downtown. She’s excited if secretive about the new book. When the library, constructed in the Roaring ’20s, caught fire in 1986, more than 400,000 books burned, galvanizing a city more used to supporting Hollywood films and pricey art. The refurbished library is her ideal place to begin journeys of the mind and to meet friends, a necessity for a writer working alone. “It’s like a Starbucks without the coffee,” she says, raving about the growing popularity of the library’s stacks as a place to hang out. With her turn signal ticking, she maneuvers into the next lane and smiles in anticipation of her interview. The nervous Susan is suddenly gone. She’s cranked up to immerse herself in a new tale, filled with all the intrigue, drama and quirky characters that make for a signature Susan Orlean story.

It’s the same feeling she got when her dad would pile his three kids into the car and set out from their childhood home in the Ohio suburbs. Where she will go even she doesn’t know. 

 

The vinyl seats are hot and sticky in her father’s 1960 Caddy with its massive chrome front grill and giant futuristic tail fins. There’s no air conditioning. Susan, the youngest, jostles with her older brother and sister in the back seat. No one wants to sit in the middle. 

Every year her father, a real estate businessman, would buy a different color car. Her mother worked at a bank, but still found time to bake cookies in the morning before the kids made it downstairs for breakfast. Most every winter the family would drive to Florida from Ohio. Summertime was for road trips. For their adventures, they would always pack books, piles of them, and Susan would bring her writing tablet. She remembers the wind rushing in through the windows, rustling its pages as the road rolled past. 

Susan was always that one student who wanted to write more on her book report. For some of her friends, writing was torture, but she loved retelling her family adventures: her first time to the Pacific Ocean, nights in an Arizona hotel with glow-in-the-dark stars glued to the ceiling, a wedding in Texas and the long ride back soothing itchy seaweed rashes. “Those were great memories,” she says. “We had a blast.” 

Susan started out writing short books for her parents. “From the first time I was able to write at all, I wrote,” she says. She even drew the pictures. Herbert the Nearsighted Pigeon was about a bird that everyone thought was unfriendly. But he just didn’t recognize his friends. Like Susan, he just needed glasses. When she was older, Susan started writing nonfiction instead of making stories up. She and her parents would go to the library at least once a week. Susan could usually be found in the nonfiction section or immersed in a magazine like Life, reading about real stories of policemen, doctors and lawyers. “I wasn’t interested in just the imagination but in telling real stories,” she says.  

 Her father, who studied law and liked to write, too, wanted Susan to be a lawyer, a “fallback job” as he called it, just in case her writing one didn’t work out. But Susan always had a passion for words. Every little story she wrote, her mother “celebrated it and was thrilled by it,” she says. “My dad challenging me had its own great value – in making me determined.” At the University of Michigan, Susan studied history and literature. She learned how to write concisely by writing poetry. Her interest in writing grew when a friend gave her a subscription to The New Yorker. She remembers a piece profiling three brothers who were building superintendents in New York City. That’s when she knew. She wanted to write long narratives about everyday people.

Susan’s a sharp social observer. Her friends point to her quick wit and sense of humor. Childhood friend Lawrence Riff, an LA attorney now, knew her as a shy middle schooler who blossomed into high school yearbook editor and emerged as a college prankster. He remembers her throwing water balloons from atop her dorm building. Born on the same day at the same hospital, the two grew up around the corner from each other in the idyllic Cleveland suburban neighborhood of Shaker Heights. Even now he lives a few minutes away from her in the hills of Studio City. 

Riff knew Susan when she was waiting tables and learning to cross-country ski in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’70s. She was thinking she would probably end up doing something practical like going to law school, but that idea made her cringe. She started pitching stories and landed a writing job that paid nothing, “but it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. She worked at the now-defunct Paper Rose monthly magazine, then wrote for the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week, covering everything from the eruption of Mount St. Helens to Hmong refugees. She freelanced for The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Her writing took her to Boston in 1982 to work for another alt weekly, The Boston Phoenix, and The Boston Globe. Her book Red Sox and Bluefish: And Other Things that Make New England New England is a collection of her Globe pieces. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2004 when she was finishing her second collection, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. 

The woman who’d been everywhere then set out from Boston, spending Saturday nights with hipsters in Los Angeles, the homeless in New York, car cruisers in small-town Indiana, a lounge band in Portland and quinceañera revelers in Phoenix — all for her book Saturday Night. She freelanced for Vogue and Glamour, all the while dreaming of the job she really wanted — writing for The New Yorker. Like the road trips she took as a child, she didn’t have a plan or strategy, she just sent in her clips. The magazine hired her to write whimsical vignettes of life in New York for “Talk of the Town.” (Her first piece was about how Benetton teaches its employees to fold sweaters.) She’s still there at The New Yorker more than 20 years later. 

 

The Downtown buildings of LA grow taller as Susan turns into their shadows, rounding the corner near her friend Riff’s office. While commuting from New York to work on Rin Tin Tin in California, Susan would stop by to visit him. “She was very pregnant then, nine months, as big as a house. I was amazed she could do it at all. She always came back with interesting stories after digging around in old archives.” At the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, she pored through papers belonging to Rin Tin Tin’s owner Lee Duncan – faded invoices, train schedules and telegrams, even paw prints. In a broiling shed outside Hollywood, she sorted through boxes of TV scripts, letters and photographs belonging to Bert Leonard, the producer behind the TV show, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin

Traveling between coasts complicated logistics. Susan took copious notes (she’s never recorded her interviews until now) so she would pack her papers in carry-on. At day’s end, she would organize her thoughts on note cards – 800 in all – spread on the floor of her hotel room. Occasionally on the way back from the museum or shed, she would stop to work in Riff’s law office, right across the street from her current destination – the central library. 

The GPS announces her arrival, but the repeated commands are beginning to annoy Susan. On this summer’s trip, she’s vowed to turn off the computer, to experience the road as her family did – without a guidebook. Starting out without directions, it turns out, is how she likes to see her stories develop, too. 

 

“It’s a little like baking. You have all these ingredients, but it doesn’t at all resemble the final product. You’ve got this slobby mess that is supposed to end up being a cupcake. It doesn’t look at all like a cupcake. But it will end up being a cupcake.” Susan is talking about her writing process. The not-knowing is what creates a better narrative, she says. She never writes a word until all the reporting is done. 

Susan spent her morning touring the LA Central Public Library, a majestic piece of Mediterranean Revival architecture that somehow blends a tiled pyramid and sphinxes with modern glass sculptures, chandeliers and books. Cameramen are filming a television show in the library garden. Susan came west to research Rin Tin Tin. Hollywood has optioned it for a film, but she’s no neophyte. Her first bestseller, The Orchid Thief, is the basis (sort of) for the film Adaptation. Her magazine article about surfer girls in Maui was made into the movie Blue Crush. 

Leaving the library, Susan aims her car down Ventura Boulevard, past walkups tucked in hillsides. Sweet jasmine hangs in the air as tanned pedestrians cruise the nail salons and coffee shops. Zach Efron and George Clooney have been spotted along this road. She pulls into a sushi bar and, over a green salad and diced fish, she reflects on storytelling. 

“One of the things about writing is you can be a great reporter, very good at digging through archives, but at the end of the day it is having a knack for storytelling,” she says. She cites Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm as examples of writers who are good at forming strong relationships with readers. Before a writer even begins to write, she adds, “you have to have a relationship with yourself, about how open you are, how genuine your curiosity is, how open you will be in helping the story unfold instead of making assumptions and you filling in the blank.” 

She felt intimidated when she set out to work on Rin Tin Tin. She had no idea it would take her 10 years of research. “I was used to writing stories about living breathing people. Now suddenly everybody’s dead. Who could I call and interview?” She used her reporter instincts to identify the story, using archives. “It made me, for the first time, appreciate how exciting and vibrant historical material can be.” There’s always been historical context in her stories. Without it, she couldn’t tell the story of a taxidermy convention or a woman matador. The archived material about Rin Tin Tin led her back to his birthplace in France. At one point, she ended up wandering through a cemetery of war veterans. “I was working on a book about a dog and instead I was touring a military cemetery.” What she found was her backstory: about an orphan boy who found friendship in an orphan dog born on a battlefield.

She brought her own childlike wonder to the story. Growing up, Susan thought the story of Rin Tin Tin was make-believe, a TV tale. But she had always been intrigued by the figurine of a German Shepherd dog that sat untouchable atop her grandfather’s desk. When he finally agreed to let her and her brother take the figurine home, they broke off one of the legs. Her grandfather was so displeased he put the broken toy in a cabinet and shut the door. She never saw it again. It was years later, when Susan was doing a story on animals in film for The New Yorker, that she realized Rin Tin Tin was an actual dog. 

Writing the book forced her to face her fears. “I had to really fight off the big misgiving. Why should I tell people about World War I? I’m not a World War I expert,” Susan says. “I have to remind myself that I have ended up miraculously in this job as a storyteller.” She had researched it thoroughly. All she had to do, she says, was tell it as if she had gone back in a time machine and met these people.

 

Susan is always writing, day and night. In her head. On her laptop. In hotels and airports. At writers’ enclaves where she escapes to write when deadlines loom. Her office these days is a sublevel room in a neighbor’s house across the street from her home. For visitors, she hurriedly scoops up toy cars and rocket ships left on the floor by her son, Austin. A Murphy bed stands against one wall, providing the backdrop for a desk holding her Apple computer. The desk is connected to a treadmill. Susan, once an avid runner, walks as she writes, recording every step – a goal of 10,000 steps a day – on a digital Fitbit pedometer. To Susan, running is an apt metaphor for the grueling task of being a good writer. “I used to go out running and think to myself, I can stop right now. But I kept going. You really need to be dogged to be a writer. You just need a certain kind of bulldozer confidence where you think, You know I’m just going to do this, learn this story, tell this story, and ask people to listen to me.”

Susan prints out all her stories for editing and revising. “I revise as I go along,” she says. She wrote the lead to The Orchid Thief more than 100 times. More than that for Rin Tin Tin. “I don’t feel like I could write the next part until I’ve got the first.” She often writes in her head, not on paper. “What’s important is the synthesis. What does it all mean? That’s where things get elevated. That’s where the bigger and deeper story is.” Once, she lost her work in a computer crash. But writing it a second time made it better. “In terms of working through a story and the narrative and thematic meaning and what it means to me, it should be here,” she says, pounding her heart. “What you don’t remember probably wasn’t that good.” 

Her iPhone pings repeatedly with emails and alerts as Susan walks on the treadmill. (She’s even writing a story about writing a story while walking.) She gets an email about the closing of her old paper The Boston Phoenix. Her phone buzzes. It’s the Boston Globe seeking an interview. She gets another email. The New Yorker wants her to write a story about the fallen paper. Another alert pings on her phone.

Susan, queen of the 140-character narrative on Twitter, keeps in constant touch with a quarter of a million followers who know the escapades of her cats and her rescue dog, who came with her family to the West Coast. One of her latest projects, Animalish, an e-book collection of essays, combines her lifelong obsession with animals and her recent one with technology. She got hooked on social media when she was working alone in her office in rural New York. “It’s sort of related to what I was saying about the library. If you don’t work in an office, it’s lonesome.” She tweets about her new guitar, her trips, the art of writing. “If the story you are writing doesn’t baffle you or scare you or surprise you along the way,” she tweets. “you’re not doing it right.” 

 

As Susan prepares for her summer trip, she lies awake at night worrying about who will take care of the cats and getting Austin’s medical forms sent in on time for camp. “You’d flip if you saw this calendar,” she says. “Sometimes writing feels easy in comparison.” When she’s not in the car, she’s in multitasking overdrive, cheering her son at soccer games, meeting with the gardener or house painter. Delivery trucks arrive with packages, which she tears into with childlike excitement — a new keyboard for her iPad, copies of Rin Tin Tin in Chinese, new comfortable shoes. With her own research/writing/speaking schedule and Austin’s soccer matches these days, Susan thinks hard about time spent away from home. 

The night before her library interview, Susan dodges soccer balls at Austin’s soccer practice. Her son, a freckled redhead, props his neon tangerine cleats on the car bumper for his mother to tie and then, as he takes off, she reminds him to take a water bottle. Peering out from under a floppy sunhat, she visits with parents. She jokes with the coach, recalling how she woke up one night worrying about how to iron on Austin’s team patch. Susan, who rode horses as a child but didn’t play team sports, loves to watch her son play. 

She calls out to Austin to pay attention. He’s just been benched for goofing off. Her sundress flutters in the breeze as she stands surrounded by bouncing balls, barking coaches and the chatter of children. “Oops, I didn’t think we were on the field,” she says. Just as she dodges the ball that bounces past her, she ducks a question about her busy life. “It’s been a changeful time,” she says. “It’s always true for me. I’ve had a pretty changeful life in general.”

After her first 16-year marriage dissolved, Susan was in her mid-40s when she married John. After a whirlwind courtship that whisked them off to Rio de Janeiro, Thailand and London, John proposed as fireworks exploded over a terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Two months after the 9/11 attack, they married in New York’s Explorers Club with 200 guests (and a stuffed polar bear) in attendance. Both are adventurers. Both are writers. John wrote for the National Lampoon at Harvard University and has authored his own book about business. “John’s my first reader. He’s my sounding board,” Susan says. “He has always been enormously supportive and in the trenches with me when I’m working hard and things are tough and I’m feeling discouraged.”

Now, like the Spanish missionaries and Hollywood starlets who came before her, Susan is charting new territory. She had Austin, her first child, when she was close to 50 while working on Rin Tin Tin. Her father died four years ago. Her mother is struggling with dementia. Two years ago, she and John moved to LA from their 55-acre home in rural Hudson Valley, New York, despite John’s early misgivings. They still maintain the place in New York along with a gaggle of geese, a rafter of turkeys, and a brood of chickens and ducks. It’s the destination of their summer road trip. 

LA may be home until Susan finishes her library book or until Austin, now in second grade, finishes elementary school. Why would she want to leave? In their Studio City neighborhood, hummingbirds hover over branches weighed down by oranges and lemons. Susan and John cherish walks with Ivy, their Welsh Springer Spaniel. The couple’s modernist house, built in 1946 by architect Rudolph Schindler, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, has drop-dead views of the San Fernando Valley. In the living room, a guitar stands ready for Susan while at the dining room table, Austin works on homework with Sophia, the au pair. 

 

Later, out to dinner, Austin shows off his technical savvy as he ticks off the amenities of the new iPhone 5 and Minecraft, his 3D video game. He jokes about being “grassed” (benched) during soccer practice and FaceTiming his animals that live in New York.

On the car ride home, he talks about school. Susan calls him her favorite storyteller.

John is driving the family SUV. He’s the calming source who makes sure everyone gets where they need to be. 

“In science class, I pulled hair off a wig. It’s hilarious how human hair is connected to the noggin,” Austin begins.

Susan roars with laughter. She sees a story unfolding. “Did you actually say that?”

“Noggin, it’s a technical term,” John explains.

“You know, the noggin,” Austin retorts.

“Do you know what the technical term for this is?” asks Susan, pointing to her nose.

“A proboscis. Like nose monkeys,” Austin says. 

“Funny. They look embarrassed to have such a flappy nose.” Susan wants to keep the story going.

“You know how they eat? They have to pick up their nose with one hand and shove leaves in their mouth,” Austin adds.

“No way.” Susan is hooked. She roars with laughter. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, that is hilarious.” Austin repeats the bit about how the monkeys eat. “It’s disturbing. It’s disturbing thinking about it.”

“That’s sad,” Susan says.

“It would be sadder if it were true,” John interjects.

“I actually believe him. I don’t know why. It just cracks me up,” Susan says. “That’s sad. Poor monkey, poor monkey nose.”

The exchange reminds her of the fun she and her siblings would have on road trips in the back seat of her father’s car. 

Susan, like her mother, encourages her son in his writing so she’s thrilled when he asks her to read him Rin Tin Tin, the story she fell in love with as a child. They’ll finish it this summer – on their road trip. 

 

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Curiosity. That's what.
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