Woman of the World | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Woman of the World 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:53 pm

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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.”

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