Susan Orlean: On Writing

Susan Orlean is a writer and a journalist. She is the author of several books, including Saturday Night, Red Socks and Bluefish, The Orchid Thief, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, Throw me a Bone, and most recently Lazy Little Loafers, a children’s book.

Orlean has been a contributor to many magazines, including Esquire, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Spy and Vogue. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992. Orlean edited Best American Essays in 2005, as well as Best American Travel Writing in 2007. In 2003, Orlean was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She’s even been on Martha Stewart.

This interview was conducted by Corey Ginsberg on February 10, 2011, for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

CG: In the introduction of The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup, you write, “The subjects I was drawn to were often completely ordinary, but I was confident that I could find something extraordinary in their ordinariness. I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough.” I find this idea fascinating and inspiring—to find a story anywhere (like at the taxidermy championships, baby beauty pageants, or even sitting on an airplane reading Skymall). Do you generally set out to extract the extraordinary from the ordinary, or is this an inevitable part of the creative process for you?

SO: I’m not sure of the distinction you’re making. I don’t think it’s as self conscious as it sounds. I don’t think in advance to specifically look for something in order to prove a point. I think that I’m drawn to certain subjects and I don’t strategize in the sense of “Oh, good, this is ordinary; the trick will be turning this into something.” I think I’m drawn to subjects for some reason I can’t put my finger on. Even if they’re very ordinary, I feel convinced something will emerge.

CG: It strikes me as an incredibly daunting task, to transform a short piece of nonfiction into a book-length work. When you expanded “Orchid Fever” into The Orchid Thief, how did you know where to begin?

SO: This was a much more difficult task than it would seem, to go from at first thinking “This will be easy. I’m going to take the story and add onto it, like stringing beads.” But that’s not the way books end up being structured. So I really didn’t know where I was going to go with it. I started by going back down to Florida to follow up on what had happened with the specific case. Then, it started to grow into concentric circles from the story.

CG: At that time, did you have a filing system, or some way of keeping track of all the documents?

SO: I didn’t have a filing system. I mainly did notes by hand. Interviews were by hand. I didn’t have a good system. As time went on and it got bigger and bigger, it was terrifying to be faced with the rather disorganized mass of notes I was accumulating. That is one blessing of working more electronically; things can be searched. Though I still haven’t used a more modern system as well as I could. I used a pretty basic system of notes on index card, then sorted them, hoping it would begin to form some structure based on the cards. It’s a pretty primitive system. The next time I write something, I need to change that system a little bit. There are tools that allow you to make things more manageable, and I definitely want to use them.

CG: You have an active online presence, both through Facebook and Twitter. How do you think platforms such as these have changed things for writers?

SO: I feel like we’re still finding the answer to this question. One of the good things is that the Internet and all of the permutations of social media have made it much more possible for writers to develop an audience that knows them, that they can communicate with independently of whatever a publisher or magazine may do. It’s put a great deal more power in the hands of writers. It’s very difficult to build an audience, but if you can do it, you have a kind of control over your destiny. It can build interest in your work for the first time. I’m not sure there’s a downside. If you decide it’s not what you want to do, and you want to use more traditional ways of publishing, it’s not that it will hurt you, it’s just that you may not have the advantages these things would allow you to have.

CG: One of my favorite lines in The Orchid Thief is: “I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.” When tackling potentially “large” topics, does this idea help to ground your approach?

SO: Definitely. I like looking at the big topics, which range from history to society. The big, jumbo topics—like life and death. I think they’re most interestingly and most successfully looked at through a very narrow lens. Certainly as a writer, it gives me a way in, as opposed to saying “Let’s tackle the subject of the existential overwhelming nature of life.” I’m not an essayist, but I see an opportunity that interests me. These often lead to a bigger question and subject. I’m not usually interested in things if they don’t lead somewhere much bigger and more complex. I feel strongly, as a writer and a reader, that the way I can dip in is through something very focused. I like the feeling of learning of something very particular, and learning it well, then stepping back and thinking it actually taught me a lot more than was initially obvious to me. This provides a way in that’s so much more manageable. Slowly, then, it unfolds, as opposed to me taking on something overwhelming and enormous. I’m not even sure I’d begin to know how to go into something like that.

CG: Along these lines, I read that you used to write poetry. In your nonfiction, the language equity used in your pointed physical descriptions of characters feels poetic in certain ways. Do you consider this technique of rendering characters to be poetic at heart? And do you think any of the poetic techniques carried over into your prose?

SO: Definitely. First of all, I think sometimes distinguishing between genres is natural, but sometimes you just look at a writer and what they do. And it’s unified—it makes sense that one writer’s voice comes through, regardless of the specific medium. But I definitely think that most of the techniques that interested me in poetry—rhythm, word choice, and economy of description—are very much on my mind. Particularly in those descriptive sections. Everything that makes poetry wonderful is really effective in that context. This is the power of that kind of writing. In fact, the greatest compliment anyone ever paid me is that someone suggested to me that a certain section of The Orchid Thief could be pulled out and worked as a piece of poetry, without changing anything but the setting on the page. I considered that an amazing compliment. “Then, I’m doing something right,” I thought.

CG: When you wrote Lazy Little Loafers, did writing for a different audience (children) change your creative process?

SO: The piece was originally written for adults for The New Yorker. As I wrote it, never in a million years did I picture it as a children’s book. If anything, it was extremely insulting to children. When it was suggested to me that it would make a good children’s book, my first thought was, “That’s crazy.” Then the editor I worked with did the initial trimming to bring it into the form that would be more appropriate for children. Ultimately, it required little alteration.

It’s definitely different writing for kids. But good writing is good writing. Some kids writing that I’ve read to my son is crummy. Writing in a way kids understand doesn’t mean making it poorly written. You have to keep a lot in mind, such as what makes sense to a kid. More than anything, with an illustrated book, the idea of working with visuals was brand new to me. This was almost more dramatic and difficult than the writing. After we edited the manuscript, the illustrator got the pages and illustrated. He also made some changes in where pages were broken.

CG: Re-reading your travel stories and profiles, the first lines of many immediately jump out and pull me in. (“One characteristic of the Skymall customer seems to be an excess of body hair.” ~“Skymalling” “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.” ~ “Show Dog” “Of all the guys who are standing around bus shelters in Manhattan dressed in nothing but their underpants, Marky Mark is undeniably the most polite.” ~ “Short People”). Do you usually begin the writing process with these first lines first, or do they tend to come later on, after revision?

SO: I start with them, for better or worse. I find it very difficult to write without my first sentence. Not even just my first sentence; I write from the first word through to the last word. I certainly do lots of revisions and drafts, but it tends to be chronologically worked through. Even when I’ve wished for it, I’ve never been able to write a piece without starting from the beginning. Even if I’d wish desperately to drop the beginning and go on. A lot of times you know very definitely you are going to be writing a bunch of scenes, and you know exactly what you want to say. But I can’t start them without the beginning of the piece because it grows very organically for me. I write as if I were telling a story to real people. It would be really hard to tell a story by jumping in in the middle.

CG: I’d like to ask you about titles. When do they generally come to you, and how often do you tinker with them before arriving with the final version?

SO: I don’t write a lot of the titles. I write a few of them. Most magazines have an editor whose job it is to write headlines. There are usually space issues, and they need “X” number of characters. I don’t think I’m especially good at writing titles, and there are some people who are really good at it. I’ve suggested some, and with my blog, I do all the titles, but those are just little names.

CG: It seems that both writers and readers of nonfiction never tire of discussing the “ethics” of the genre. As the popularity and accessibility of nonfiction grows, the debate rages on. As a nonfiction writer, how do you define “truth,” and what contract do you have with readers to deliver it?

SO: I think this is a very easy question. I don’t see any gray area. Truth is the things that happen. A story can be extremely subjective and still be true. Your obligation as a writer is to indicate very plainly where the subjectivity comes from. I don’t see any confusion there. I don’t think composites are true. I don’t think conversations you are making up or imagining to be the way they were, are true. If you indicate that you’re approximating something you think might have happened, and the reader knows it, it’s fine. The reader is extremely generous as long as they know what it is you’re asking them to understand. But I just don’t see there being any king of gray area. It kinda drives me crazy, actually. What is true is what’s true. I’m often puzzled that there’s any confusion about this. I just don’t get the fact that this is debatable.

Visit Susan Orlean online at http://www.susanorlean.com.

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