Susan Orlean is not a fictional character. True, Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe for playing someone by that name in the 2002 film Adaptation, one of the loopier high dives in the annals of screenwriting, and seven years later, readers still tell The Orchid Thief author how much she resembles Streep. “Talk about power of suggestion,” Orlean laughs. “There is not one feature we have in common!”
The nonfiction Susan Orlean is a fine-boned, incandescently friendly redhead with a freckled outdoor complexion, wide-set blue eyes, and a welcoming smile. She opens the door of her Columbia County home in a lacy blouse over a turtleneck, jeans, and black cowboy boots. As she introduces her rowdy Welsh Springer spaniel, apologizes for her cold, and offers tea, it’s easy to see how she disarms her interview subjects: Somehow her manner simultaneously implies that she can’t wait to meet you and that you’re already old friends.
Though Orlean has done some celebrity journalism, interviewing such media-savvy subjects as Hillary Clinton, Bill Blass, and Martha Stewart, most of the people she profiles are not household names. When an Esquire editor asked Orlean to interview Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin for a feature titled “The American Man, Age Ten,” she offered instead to profile a more typical kid the same age, and chose one from the New Jersey suburbs.
“I often write about things where the first response is, ‘How weird—why would you want to write about that?’” she notes. But Orlean has made curiosity into an art form. As a writer for the New Yorker and other A-list periodicals, she’s toured the South on a gospel choir bus, climbed Mount Fuji in pounding rain, accompanied Spain’s first accredited female matador, and detailed an inventor’s tireless pursuit of the perfect umbrella. She has a gift for putting her readers right in the room with her subject; she gives good phrase. “It’s just that people are so interesting,” she wrote in the introduction to her 2001 collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People. “Writing about them, in tight focus, is irresistible.”
Orlean followed Bullfighter with My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. Its very first line, “I travel heavy,” gives the lie to the bookjacket photo, in which the unburdened author, wearing a natty black suit and stiletto heels, tips her fedora as she strides off on her next adventure. Orlean, who’s accumulated over a million frequent flyer miles, describes herself as a “reluctant packer” who ritually overfills suitcases, makes fruitless attempts to winnow, and winds up packing even more “just to be safe.” On the other hand, she says, “I’m a maniac unpacker. I find unpacking really tedious and just drudgery, so I get it over with as fast as I can.”
Orlean just returned from Morocco, where she was researching a Smithsonian piece about donkeys. She brought home a carved wooden donkey saddle, shaped like the roof of a tiny pagoda, which sits on a Chinese red end table. The house she shares with husband John Gillespie and their four-year-old son Austin is filled with mementos. It may be an architectural showpiece featured in the New York Times, with soaring glass windows framing a jaw-dropping view, but it’s also a place people live, with toys on the floor and crumbs on the table. There are books and rural-themed artifacts everywhere. Four Warhol silkscreens of cow heads overlook a transparent anatomical cow model, several vintage toy tractors, and a virtual aviary of carved ducks and geese. Even the bathroom boasts glass jars of feathers and bones, antique dice and mah jong tiles, and a chicken poster illustrating Mendel’s law of genetics.
Orlean met writer, Democratic Convention consultant, and investment banker Gillespie through a mutual friend in 2000. Their courtship was supersonic: Two of their first four dates were on different continents, and their wedding in 2001 made the Times “Vows” column. Orlean had owned a weekend cabin in Pine Plains since 1989, and when a 55-acre parcel across the road came up for sale, she and Gillespie bought it immediately, hiring Seattle-based architect James Cutler to design a house with “the feeling of being outside even when you’re inside.”
Orlean and Gillespie’s neighbors include Eliot Spitzer, Coach Goat Farms, and a thoroughbred stud farm; late mystery grandmaster Donald E. Westlake lived just down the road. At this point, they’re “90 percent local,” also spending time in New York and Los Angeles.
Orlean’s life wasn’t always quite so high-flying. She grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, attended the University of Michigan, and moved to Oregon right after college. “Portland was the town time forgot,” she recalls with affection. Though most of her friends moved to New York, “I wanted someplace groovy, where I could go camping. I wasn’t a hippie, but I wasn’t sold on the idea of living in New York.”
Orlean waited tables and worked as a legal aid volunteer before landing a job at a new magazine called Paper Rose. Though she’d only written a few book reviews for her college newspaper and some poetry, she was formidably determined, telling her interviewer, “This is all I want to do, you have to hire me.”
Since the magazine was a start-up, Orlean got to propose and write stories immediately. She was in heaven. Eventually she moved on to the venerable alternative Willamette Week and soon started freelancing for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Vogue. She relocated to Boston, where she wrote Sunday columns about New England idiosyncracies for the Boston Globe (collected in her first book, Red Sox & Bluefish), and then to New York. In 1990, she published Saturday Night, a cross-country portrait of America’s favorite night out.
Meanwhile, the New Yorker hired her to write “Talk of the Town” pieces; her first feature for the magazine was a profile of a Manhattan cabdriver whose other day job was king of the Ashanti tribe in America. She became a staff writer in 1992. With rare exceptions, she has free rein to write about whatever she likes.
It seems like a very charmed life, and Orlean enjoys it with palpable zest. She’s a world-class enthusiast, stopping in midsentence to exclaim over cardinals at a birdfeeder or the long-winged soar of a great blue heron over the meadow; she seems to be paying attention to everything at the same time. Indeed, she rarely sits still. She perches on her sectional couch with her legs folded under her, frequently bobbing up to refill a teacup, answer a phone call, or fetch a throat lozenge. When Austin charges into the room in his underwear, pursued by a laughing au pair, Orlean doesn’t tell him that Mommy is busy, but welcomes him onto her lap and gives him her undivided attention. It’s not just that she’s a doting mother; this, she implies, is the genuine stuff of the life she’s discussing—as is what to wear to tonight’s Yaddo benefit dinner, when she should feed her two chickens, or whether the cat’s gotten out.
“I like seeing someone’s life truly unfold, rather than asking about it,” Orlean says of her own interviewing technique. “I do a lot of throat-clearing–aimless, pointless chitchat, which isn’t pointless at all, really—it’s much more natural than specific questions.” She avoids tape recorders whenever she can, and often spends weeks hanging out with the people she writes about, preferably at their home or workplace. “What people do is interesting,” she asserts. “Ask them about their work or vocation, and in a roundabout way, they’ll tell you who they are.”
That approach won’t work with Orlean’s current project, a biography of canine star Rin Tin Tin. While researching a New Yorker piece about Hollywood animals, she was amazed to discover that Rin Tin Tin was an actual dog, born on a World War I battlefield, and not just a fictional character on a TV show (the nonfiction Rin, it would seem, had his own Meryl Streep). This won’t be the first time she’s profiled a dog—her New Yorker piece “Show Dog” begins with the unforgettable line, “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.” But aside from some juicy portraits of Victorian plant collectors in The Orchid Thief, it’s the first time she’s written about a subject who’s no longer living. “I welcome the challenge–I’m so used to seeing and hearing and touching what I’m writing about,” Orlean says. “It’s a learning curve for me to be writing this book. That’s probably not the worst thing in the world. It’s perfectly okay to put yourself in peril a little bit.”
Though she still writes poetry occasionally, and recently published her first children’s book, Lazy Little Loafers, Orlean feels no urge to write fiction. “I have a very concrete relationship to the world. If I see a door—a fiction writer might fantasize about the family who might live behind the door, their crises and dramas. My instinct is to knock on that door and see if the people will let me come in.”
Susan Orlean will read with Da Chen and Walter Keady at 3pm on July 19 at Maple Grove in Poughkeepsie. For more information: www.maplegroveny.org.