The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean on crafting a story

susanorlean“I guess I’m an amateur anthropologist,” says Susan Orlean, musing on her two decades as a staff writer for the New Yorker. “It’s part of my nature to poke around in things.” Since joining in 1992 after writing for Rolling Stone, Vogue and the Boston Globe, Orlean has earned her reputation as one of the world’s great exponents of literary nonfiction by taking curious personal stories and mining them for universal truths. She recently published ‘Rin Tin Tin’, the tale of the eponymous canine movie star through which she explores, among other things, 20th-century celebrity culture. Her 1998 bestseller ‘The Orchid Thief’ focused on obsessive flower collectors and inspired Charlie Kaufman’s film ‘Adaptation’ in which a character called “Charlie Kaufman” is driven mad trying to adapt a brilliant book written by a character named “Susan Orlean”. Here, the real-life Orlean talks to me about what she made of Meryl Streep’s take on her, the book that changed her life and how holding court in a bar can teach you the secrets of a compelling story.

I notice you try not to embellish scenes which you’re describing but at which you weren’t present? ‘Rin Tin Tin’ was researched, rather than your usual experiential writing. Was that a challenge?

That was a huge challenge. I have always found the idea of recreating scenes that you weren’t present at to be borderline unethical. It just doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t feel that I need to write that way. I also feel that readers are very generous, and I don’t think that they’re disturbed by the idea that you confess to your limitations as a reporter. A certain amount of this simply can’t be known, or would require so much reporting that it would be a huge waste of time to establish one small fact. In this case I was using “inductive reasoning” to assume that at this time when dogs were popular in film there would have been an upswelling of interest in the idea that you could make a good living by having your dog in a movie and there would have almost certainly been other people treading the same sidewalk. I guess it just comes down to trusting the reader, and believing that the reader can trust me when I say that it’s a pretty good bet that that was happening, and move on from there as opposed to either embellishing when I don’t really have the information or skipping it altogether when I feel that I can still talk about it. It’s the way that you would talk about it to a friend, if you were saying: “Oh, I’ve been reading all about this dog Rin Tin Tin and there were probably other dogs trying to get into movies at the time, but he’s the one that made it.” It’s a very natural way that we communicate with each other.

Are you strict with yourself about not “smoothing the edges” of a story?

I am strict, and of course I feel like that’s the correct posture to take! I also think it’s the most unambiguous one. I’m going to tell you what I know to be true, and I’m going to admit when there’s information that I can’t get. I wouldn’t tell my friends a story filled with things that aren’t true. Why would you? You would tell them about an experience you’ve had or something you’ve learned that was interesting, and when you came to parts you couldn’t answer you would simply acknowledge that. That to me feels natural and I don’t believe in smoothing edges and writing as if you knew something, and I don’t like reading stories that involve recreated scenes that I know the person couldn’t have observed. I think they ring false.

I agree, I find it jarring.

If it’s fictional then you accept that it’s an imagined version, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that and read fiction and see movies that are built on imagined encounters, but nonfiction is not fiction. As a writer you have to have the confidence to be transparent, and I think that includes acknowledging when it’s not possible to know something. I think that then readers trust you because they know that what you’re telling them is real.

Recently a British writer named Johann Hari lost his job after he embellished his profile pieces.

Oh really? Ugh. I think readers have a gut reaction to things that feel fake. I just recoil from them, and question how people could know these things. It just doesn’t make any sense. We’ve had instances here of people spectacularly and flamboyantly faking what they were writing and mostly in memoir, which is a little bit different to reporting. I think as a reporter you’re one step even further removed from fiction. You’ve basically said to people that you’re taking an objective and honest snapshot of the world and showing them what’s really there. With a memoir already you know that you’re seeing it through the lens of memory which is a somewhat unreliable narrator to begin with.

Are you a good storyteller in person? Do you think that those are shared skills: writing and being able to tell a good story in a bar?

Oh, what a great question! The answer is, and I’m embarrassed to blow my own horn, I actually do think I’m a very good storyteller and I feel like the skills are absolutely intertwined. Not every writer enjoys the process of oral storytelling, they don’t necessarily like being the centre of attention. They may be shy or introverted, but I think that the art of storytelling is knowing both what a story is and what story might appeal to the greatest number of people, and then knowing the art of deduction of playing out a story, the timing of it. The way you do a striptease with information to keep people engaged. It’s about an audience and I think whether you’re in a bar telling a story or telling a story on the page, it’s about engaging an audience and luring them along and keeping them interested and tantalized, so I think they’re very much connected and I secretly think I’m a very good storyteller in a bar, especially after several drinks.

What’s your role as a character in your stories?

It’s related to what we were just talking about. One thing I’m very comfortable with is the inherent subjectivity of literary journalism. All journalism has some amount of subjectivity, but the kind of writing that I do is honest and factual, but I’m very clear about the fact that it is a story I’m telling you, limited by my vision of the story, my abilities as a reporter and frankly coloured by what I have come to feel is important, what I want to talk to you about. Sometimes my presence in the story is just to be the narrator taking you from one place to another, but sometimes, particularly in books, I feel like I want to reveal to you why I was drawn to the story. It’s not like writing a political biography, that there’s an acknowledged need for it, or stories that are understood to be significant. Many times I’m writing about something that I feel is oblique enough that I want to tell you why I thought it was important. I want to share my surprise about how I came to the story. I don’t really want to be a character, but I want you to understand going into it what drew me in. Sometimes it becomes part of explaining how I moved from one place to another in the reporting. It becomes a natural way of saying that how I got from point A to point B involved me learning this, that or the other. Just the way that someone telling you a story in a bar is very present and you’re very aware of them. Even if the story is not about them, it’s about them telling you the story.

Is there a pattern to what catches your eye and draws you in, in terms of finding stories?

I’m scouring newspapers and I think it’s part of my nature to simply be poking around and listening and reading and actually sometimes enjoying reading things that I’m not normally interested in or that aren’t part of my specific set of tastes and curiosities. I’m always thinking: “Huh, I wonder what that is like?” When an idea gets stuck and I find myself returning to it, or having the curiosity that’s very natural: “Gee, that’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about?” It’s such a pure response of my own curiosity that I don’t then think: “Gee, I wonder if this will be a popular story?” I tend to just get excited and the next thing I know I really want to write this story and I’ll simply make people interested in it. I won’t say it’s narcissistic, but I don’t focus group my ideas in any way. If I’m excited about it then I just feel sure that it’s exciting.

Do you ever then lose interest once you’ve started?

It does happen, but less often than you’d think. It may be because I’m so picky. I hear stories and think they’re kind of interesting but often they feel too narrow. The ones that really stick I tend to be devoted to. To be honest, I don’t write a million stories. I’m not looking for twenty good ideas, which would mean a lot of false starts. I can wait for that idea that feels genuinely interesting. It’s a very fortunate position to be in because I’m not trying to find a million ideas.

How do you write a good opening? How do you convince someone to read something if the subject itself isn’t going to convince them?

You just hit the nail on the head. Very often I’m swimming upstream. I’m starting with an idea that initially many people would react to by saying: “I’m not interested. Why would I ever read this?” That’s why I feel like the lede is so important. You’re a salesman, and at that moment when someone walks into the showroom you’ve got to immediately capture and keep them there. You have to show them why this thing they didn’t want to buy is in fact something they can’t live without. Where that lede comes from can be a whole lot of places. I always start writing with my lede, and I don’t feel that I can write a story and then come back and do the lede later. I feel it just sets the tone in such a powerful way that I can’t imagine going back later and sort of pasting a lede on. One really liberating thing for me was coming to the conclusion that a lede did not have to be a miniature encapsulation of the story. It could be a tiny sliver that was just sexy enough to draw you in, and then I’m going to tell you what the story’s really about. Sometimes I think it just has to be mysterious and intriguing enough that if you half-read the sentence idly you’ll think: “I have to read the rest of this.” A lot of times I’m embedding a joke or a twist or something odd in that first sentence, just so you think: “I’ve got to read the rest of this! What is this about?” It’s okay to be a little bit baffling. To go back to the bar that has become our metaphor, it’s like your opening line when you meet someone, and having it be sort of intriguing and curious and arresting. It doesn’t have to be: “Hi, my name is Susan.” That’s boring. That’s true, and it may be useful to know, but it’s not a very interesting way to begin a conversation. It’s a lot more about attention in that first sentence, and I feel like a lot of times it’s better not to tell people what the story’s about for a little while. Just get them interested and tease them with ideas that become fascinating. I feel like writing is very transactional. I say to my students: “You have to write every sentence.” There’s no moment in a story when you can get lazy. Every single sentence is selling the story. I don’t mean that to sound commercial, I mean it just in the same way that in the bar the minute your story gets boring people are going to drift off, and go and listen to someone else tell a story, or get another drink, or leave. I feel like every sentence is part of this process of saying: “Listen! Listen! Listen!” Ledes are very difficult, and a lot of times I’ll go for a long time without thinking of the lede. Believe me, the lede for Rin Tin Tin took me so long I don’t even want to think about it. The lede for a book has an enormous weight on it. I spend a lot of time waiting and thinking and then trying not to think, waiting for inspiration. Just to get the gears turning I’ll read ledes of a ton of different pieces, both old pieces of mine and those by people I really admire.

Do you have a stock of favourite writers’ books that you always go back to?

Oh yeah, and they’re all dog-eared from me flipping through them. Very often people come to stories from very unlikely directions, and it’s good to remind yourself that there are many ways to skin a cat. If it’s not working the way you think you should start the story then maybe throw that all out and come at it from a different way that feels fresh and different.

Who are those writers?

I have a stack of books on my desk that I go back to all the time. A couple of Joan Didion books, a couple of John McPhee books, a couple of collections of narrative journalism that I think are really good. They have an array of writers who I admire. One’s called Literary Journalism, which has a bunch of very good pieces. I keep AJ Liebling and Joseph Mitchell sitting there. Calvin Trillin. This is my stack, and they’re all pretty different writers, and they can all help me when I’m dry and I can’t think of anything.

Is it just as hard to close an article as to open it?

I think ends are easier because while you want it to be very satisfying, and a good way to bring it all to a close, I don’t think it has that same burden of getting people engaged. It’s a little less difficult, but I still think they’re pretty tricky. The best lesson for me was that I used to spend all this time writing these endings, and go to great lengths to work them out, and be very proud that I’d made them work, and I’d turn in my stories and my editor would say: “I really liked the piece, and I just cut off the last paragraph.” I was horrified! “What are you talking about?” He made the point that a lot of times you’ve already ended and then you do yet another ending. It’s okay to end in a less valedictory fashion. You don’t have to have the full orchestra blaring at the end. You can end with a slightly off-kilter tone. It was a great lesson for me, even though I was shocked by it at first, but it taught me that sometimes you’ve already ended and you’re just adding a little bit too much at the end. People are quite good at filling in that final note in their own mind.

artforeverybodyWhat is it that attracts you to write about topics that are popular but not critically acclaimed, like the painter Thomas Kinkade?

I’ve always had a kind of perverse curiosity about anything in culture that has become enormously popular and successful and I don’t know why. Frequently it’s something that I don’t like, or that I don’t consider especially admirable, and yet it had managed to become enormously popular. I’m very curious about populism in every way. What is it that connects with so many people? Thomas Kinkade was a perfect example of that, because when I first saw the paintings I thought: “These are absolutely horrible! I can’t believe they’re so popular. What’s the DNA of something that has communicated with so many people?” It absolutely fascinates me. In fact, I think I’m better at looking at these things when I don’t have an emotional connection to the content, because then I’m really looking at it from the distance of: “Explain to me how this connects.” Why and how did this become embraced? How did this become something that so many people care about? Especially if I don’t personally like it. I also think that we need to spend more time thinking about that. It’s very easy to be elitist and then miss the big picture. Thomas Kinkade is not a dumb guy, and he made some very salient points about modern art and how a lot of modern art simply has no meaning to many people, except for art critics, and that’s a real question to ask. What does that mean then? What’s the meaning of art if nobody takes any pleasure out of it apart from a group of people who’ve designated themselves as tastemakers? At the same time, not everything is valuable because it’s popular, but I think there’s a great story that you can tell about culture through those things that become embraced by great numbers of people. There’s a mechanism to it as well. It’s not purely organic, it’s marketed and it’s meant to be popular. It’s quite different from a viral video where something a guy made on his flip-camera is suddenly and unexpectedly embraced by millions of people. This is something that involved strategic decisions to make something popular, and I find writing about that very interesting. I also think it’s a real challenge for me intellectually to try to write objectively about something that personally is not to my taste. Thomas Kinkade was really a rewarding story, because he was not a fool. He asked questions which are legitimate about what popularity means, and what is art? If something makes people happy, how can you say that it’s not good? They’re all very good questions to ask, especially in an era where art in many cases has become so distanced from most people. They just cannot understand how it can be valued the way it is valued. I love those stories. I loved writing about music when I was at Rolling Stone. I stopped writing about the music I liked because I preferred just listening to it, so I then became very interested in groups who became hugely popular and how that came about and why, and for that matter what it was like for those musicians in those bands. I guess I’m an amateur anthropologist. What I look for are things that define culture, and those are in some cases very limited and elite, and in many cases they’re the things that are consumed in a much broader way.

I agree…

It’s so interesting. I love music and I can sometimes appreciate a very big, fat pop song that everyone in the world is singing all at once. At the same time, a lot of my taste is a lot less popular. That’s fine, it just happens to be the stuff I love. Sometimes there might be good stories to write about those musicians, but I am very interested in that bigger question of ‘What draws people together?’ What are the things that can connect in some unconscious way with a lot of people, and with a real variety of people? That intrigues me.

Do you listen to music while you write?

For a while I did, but then I just found that it was a little too distracting. Which is too bad, because that’s a lot of time when I could have been listening to music! I can’t listen to the radio because as soon as there’s talking it really distracted me. Then for a while once I discovered Pandora I would listen to that. It saved me having to think of what CD I wanted to hear. I didn’t even really want to hear music that I’d picked. So I listened to Pandora until I really felt that I was too distracted by it.

What do you listen to?

I listen to a lot of what I guess you’d call indie music. Alternative rock. I just went to a Wilco concert, I like Belle & Sebastian. I really love Eels. He seems fascinating and I’ve often thought he’d make for a really interesting profile piece. I like Laura Marling and love Mumford & Sons, and I really love African music. I love Congolese music. Franco sort of changed my life. He made a million albums, and some of those songs are just the most magnificent things I’ve ever heard. He was just the most incredible force. Amazing guitar player, amazing voice, amazing songwriter. I love how complex it is. People think of “world music” as kind of twee. I mean, “world music”? For crying out loud! You’re basically lumping a million different kinds of music together. Even just within Africa the music is very different. I did a story some years ago about an African music store in Paris, and at the time I kind of wanted to go to the Congo to write a little bit in addition about the diaspora, but things were very bad in the Congo at the time and the magazine didn’t want me to go so I kind of chickened out!

streepassusanorlean2Did Charlie Kaufman really come to New York to try and meet you, as his character does in ‘Adaptation’?

I think that he did exactly what he shows in the movie! I think he came to New York and that he sort of stalked me but never brought himself to talk to me. We met finally on the set of the film, and I think for both of us it was kind of embarrassing, although he told me that he felt it was much more embarrassing for him than it was for me! We then became friends, and he’s wonderful, but I’ve never asked him outright about that because it really did feel personal. Which is funny to say, given that it was on the screen and seen by millions of people, but I actually felt that it would be too embarrassing if I said: “Come on, be honest with me!” He was genuinely embarrassed when we finally and that made me feel that it was either true or that portraying it as true made him feel kind of exposed! I love the movie and give all the credit for the brilliance of it to Charlie and to Spike. I was very nervous about agreeing to it, and it was a complete shock to read the screenplay! My first reaction was: “Absolutely not!” They had to get my permission, and I just said: “No! Are you kidding? This is going to ruin my career! You can’t!” Very wisely, they didn’t really pressure me. They just let me think about it. They did tell me that everybody else had agreed, and that all the real people involved were okay with them using their real names. I somehow got emboldened and just thought that it would be interesting. I knew that the people involved were devoted to making a good movie, and that combination got me curious enough that I said: “Ok, go ahead. We’ll see.” It was certainly scary to see the movie for the first time. I was thinking: “Is it too late to change my mind?” and the answer, of course, was yes, it was too late to change my mind. I took a while for me to get over the idea that I had been insane to agree to it, but I love the movie now. I really think it’s one of the great postmodern American movies. It’s really quite special.

It’s actually very faithful to the spirit of the book.

Yes. I felt that a conventional Hollywood adaptation would have been much less faithful. While this was not meant to a cinematic recreation of the book, it was a meditation on the book and it felt to me much more real than if it had been turned into a Hollywood movie. What I admire the most about the film is that it’s very true to the book’s themes of life and obsession, and there are also insights into things which are much more subtle in the book about longing, and about disappointment.

streepassusanorleanAnd how did it feel to see yourself played by Meryl Streep?

She’s amazing. It was great because she wasn’t trying to impersonate me. She created the character just through knowing me from the book and inhabited the role in a way that really suited the film. It’s actually one of my favourite performances by her! Maybe I’m a little prejudiced, but how could I not be? But I think she’s really loose in the film and it’s really appealing to see her being so funny. I really like her portrayal… of this strange creature!

Can you recommend a good book?

Can I have two? One I’m reading now and I really like is called We The Animals by Justin Torres. It’s a collection of related short stories, and he’s a young American writer. Really terrific. The book that I proselytise about the most is actually a trilogy by Pat Barker: Regeneration, The Eye In The Door and The Ghost Road. It’s a trilogy about World War I, and they just affected me. They’re brilliantly written, and they just changed the way I looked at life. There aren’t that many books like that. Why is that? It’s hard to say. There’s almost nothing in it which would seem to relate to me directly. It follows two people’s stories through World War I, one is a soldier and one is a doctor, but it was just kind of mind-boggling. There are many books that changed my world, many of which I read when I was younger and which are classics, but this is something I’m always nagging people to read because it’s so fantastic! It’s great stuff.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Save your receipts, and have fun! I guess one suggests that one of those suggests you should be more professional, and the other that you should be less professional. I’m hitting from both sides of the plate.

An abridged version of this interview was published by GQ.