The Susan Orlean Interview

Today is the day to write a witty caption.

Today's interviewee doesn't really look like Meryl Streep, but that's who played her in the movie anyway. She is the author of The Orchid Thief, which you may know was, uh, adapted for the movie "Adaptation." She also writes really great profiles for the New Yorker, a compilation of which is out right now. I think she also wins the prize for least cranky pregnant woman I have ever known.

The Susan Orlean Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Of the stories in My Kind of Place, which are closest to your heart?
Ooooh, that's hard to say. The taxidermy story was special because I love examining bizarre subcultures and finding something sympathetic within them. The Keiko story ("Where's Willy?") had a great narrative that I wanted to play out. The trailer park story ("We Just Up and Left") I liked doing because I wanted to try writing a sort of melancholy folk tale about rootlessness. Those are probably the three that meant the most to me.

Which were the most difficult to write?
The story about Midland, Texas, was a huge challenge - it's hard to "profile" a city. And the Thomas Kinkade story was another huge challenge, because I wanted to write it objectively and inquisitively, and not as a smarty-pants put-down of Kinkade's art. That wasn't easy.

You are currently ripe with child. How is the pregnancy going?
It's been a breeze. I expected to be drowsy, clumsy, irritable, fat, and sweaty, and instead I've felt great. I highly recommend it.

Is this your first child? Do you anticipate motherhood changing our writing much, in terms of quantity or content?
Yes, this is Baby #1. I suspect motherhood will affect the quantity of what I write, at least for a while, but I'm not sure whether it will change the content - I'm not inclined to write about my own life, so I don't think you'll be seeing a book from me about modern motherhood or 101 Things to Do With a Dirty Diaper. On the other hand, any new experience I have usually brings new ideas to mind for stories I'd like to do, and I expect that's bound to happen.

Do you ever get sick of talking about "Adaptation"? (If so, I'm sorry for the next question.)
When I was doing back-to-back-to-back interviews about it, I grew a little tired of answering the same questions, but mostly I enjoy talking about it. It's a small price to pay for the pleasure I got out of the experience of having the movie made.

Did Meryl Streep spend any time with you to learn more about your persona, or did she just make the damn thing up?
She made it up!! Out of whole cloth!!

Obviously, you must get a lot of questions about "Adaptation." However, I didn't know that you wrote a profile of David Friedman…what questions do you receive about him and Capturing the Friedmans, if any?
I did a lot of interviews about Capturing the Friedmans. Andrew Jarecki started his film after reading my piece and thought it would be interesting to do a documentary about the life of a children's clown, and then… well, he eventually came upon the dark backstory of the Friedman family. I was asked most about how I felt not having "found" that story myself. The fact is I was writing a story about a children's clown, and while I did ask David Friedman a little about his family, it wasn't central to my piece at all, so I didn't pursue it beyond a few questions, and I don't feel I "failed" to get the story. All the subsequent news was pretty shocking to me, but I wasn't looking at David psychologically; my piece was much more anthropological.

You say in an interview on "Fresh Air" that a person of the faith who you were profiling offered to introduce you to his mistress. When somebody offers up something very sensitive or explosive like that, are they hoping to have it written about? Or are they just trusting that you won't make them look bad?
I suspect that they're not thinking at all. Revealing something very sensitive is, I think, a by-product of the intimacy that develops between a writer and subject - it's a desire to share something very private with me, without really thinking about the possibility that it will be published. I think it's very intoxicating to have someone (namely, a writer) listen and want to know all your stories and secrets, and at some point that's more powerful than the concern about what's going to be in the story. And somewhere in there is the expectation or hope that the writer wouldn't betray them or reveal anything that will come back to haunt them.

Do you think that your comfort zone has a further limit than most people? It seems that most people, even writers, will hit a certain wall and start feeling uncomfortable when immersing themselves in another person's personality or persona. Or are you just able to ignore it in favor of the story?
Hmmm…I haven't really thought about that. I must not get uncomfortable being close to people, because I'm not sure I could do what I do if I did.

When are you reporting and when are you writing? Or do you do it simultaneously?
I never do it simultaneously because I don't know what I want to say until I'm done learning what I'm learning through reporting. That means I do all my reporting before I've even written a word, which can sometimes make me nervous - there can be a very long time between starting a story (that is, starting the reporting) and actually writing Word #1.

You have also published a book of profiles, called The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. Do you often get profile subjects who are simply uncooperative? What do you do with them?
I've definitely come across ornery, uncooperative subjects - some I have to just give up on, and others have become more interesting to me because of their orneriness. I have several pieces in Bullfighter that were difficult, contrary subjects displayed in their full contrariness - and they ended up being some of my favorite pieces.

\Do you ever encounter profile subjects who are actually much less interesting than they seem? What do you do then?
It does happen, and if it's not too late, I'll bail out of the story if I think it's going to be flat or disappointing.

You say in an interview with Identity Theory, "I think as you [write] more there are certain bad habits that get more and more ingrained." Do you have any writing, reporting or researching bad habits?
Oh, millions of them, I'm sure. With researching, laziness is my worst bad habit, and then there are many more I'm not even sure I'm aware of. With writing, I worry about repeating myself, and about using too-familiar language and rhythms, and - gosh, I can hardly begin listing them. I am afflicted with plenty of bad habits -- I guess it comes with the territory.

Do you prefer writing on a deadline? I am working on a project that I came up with, so there is no deadline, so the lack of urgency is kind of frustrating because nobody cares if it gets done except my co-author and me.
Deadlines are blessings in disguise. Writing isn't easy - I do think you need some urgency and anxiety to get focused and to get it done. I almost never write without a deadline, and I'm used to the constraints and tensions - sort of like getting used to wearing a seatbelt. I think I'd feel a little lost and loose without one.

What was the path that led you to full-time writing, where you realized that you were a professional writer, that it was your 'day job'?
I've only been a writer and a waitress. I liked waitressing, but I liked writing even more, and it's the only real job I've ever had. I feel lucky that I never had to "pick" writing over some other profession - it was always what I did and always what I wanted to do.

You're a dog lover; what do you make of this tiny-dogs-in-designer-totes fad?

What are you working on now?
A bunch of New Yorker stories, and a biography of Rin Tin Tin.

What do you like to read? Any particular genre?
I mostly read fiction in my spare time. I'm on an Indian and Asian fiction kick at the moment - gorgeous stuff that reminds me of Faulkner in its complexity, which thrills me. I read lots of junky magazines for fun, and I do read the New Yorker avidly.

How does it feel to be the 111th person interviewed for
Excellent. I would have hated being 110th. And truly despised being 112th. It's been a pleasure.

There are more interviews here if you're interested.