Living in the Boston area I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading Susan Orlean on a regular basis when she wrote for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix. From here she went on to her now highly regarded work at The New Yorker and publication of The Orchid Thief (and its subsequent adaptation as the highly acclaimed film Adaptation). She has also published two collections of her journalism as well as a number of collaborations, and recently she was guest editor for Best American Essays 2005. Susan Orlean continues to exhibit her command of ingenious reporting and smooth, lucid and often humorous writing in her signature “oddball pieces” and brings those talents to bear on her latest project, a “biography” of Rin Tin Tin. Susan and I met for the second time [see previous IDT interview] at a neighborhood coffee shop in South Boston, not far from her downtown loft. We talked about being a New Yorker, The New Yorker, Rin Tin Tin and this and that.
This conversation appeared in a somewhat abridged and augmented form in Bark magazine, issue #32.
Robert Birnbaum: Shouldn’t there be an “s” at the end of your name? Do most people put an “s” at the end of your name?
Susan Orlean: Yeah, by accident. I don’t know why. People have a tendency to put “s” at the end of last names anyway. It happens so frequently that actually one of my relatives went ahead and changed their name and put an “s” at the end, [just] gave in.
RB: Is it of French origin?
SO: No, it was changed from Orlin, which is Russian-Polish, indeterminate.
RB: Eastern European.
RB: Are you a New Yorker?
SO: No, I’m from Ohio.
RB: I know—[points to the Cleveland Indian baseball cap]
SO: Yeah, I was very impressed when I saw that. Do I think of myself as a New Yorker? I guess I feel un-entitled to call myself a New Yorker. I haven’t lived there quite as long as I lived in Ohio but close. And certainly the longest I have lived anywhere as an adult. Somehow it seems you have to grow up there to really claim it. Or maybe in ten more years. I think I belong to a very large subset which is the relocated-but-feel-you-were-meant-to-be-there-New-Yorker. Of whom there are many.
RB: You don’t look at yourself as a Middle-Westerner?
SO: No and yet it’s interesting to me. I used to look around The New Yorker and note how many people there were Midwesterners. Cleveland is funny. It’s the Midwest but it’s not, compared to Chicago, it’s sort of rust-belt Mideast, in a sense. It has more in common with Pittsburgh and Buffalo than Des Moines and Kansas City. It’s really a very different world. It’s an industrial city [and] that makes it more connected to the Eastern part of the world. Growing up, I always looked at the East more than the Midwest. I grew up in Ohio and went to college in Michigan, so I spent a lot of time in the Midwest, and when I was in college I assumed I’d end up living in Chicago because if you liked big cities and lived in that part of the world, that’s a natural inclination. I didn’t think, “Gee, I’m moving to New York the moment I can get out of here.” It wasn’t really in my sights until a little later—until I started working as a writer.
RB: You mentioned Des Moines [Iowa], which reminds me that famously Harold Ross said that The New Yorker is not for the little old lady from Dubuque [Iowa]. How true is that today?
SO: The little old lady from Dubuque is a very different old lady these days—among other things. The world has shrunk and expanded simultaneously. You can be a little old lady living in Dubuque and be completely tuned into what’s going on in every possible way, in the arts, science, politics, everything. So what he meant by that had more to do with that particular moment in time, where being in Dubuque meant you didn’t have the chance to have the sophistication. It was not available to you. It’s just not true anymore. And The New Yorker also is more populist, not intellectually but socio-economically.
RB: Is that what the sales department claims?
SO: Actually they do. I once was invited to a sales department meeting—
RB: —Weren’t there sea cruises also?
SO: Yeah, I did that once. Well, they didn’t have cruises. There was a cruise line that offered all sorts of educational stuff and they had a cruise around the world and they wanted to have a New Yorker writer on each leg. So I did one of the legs. Which was fabulous actually. I don’t know how much the people on the cruise enjoyed it. I enjoyed the cruise.
RB: [laughs] I interrupted you—
SO: I was going to say that unlike Architectural Digest or Vanity Fair or a lot of other big magazines in the same category as The New Yorker, the readership is not particularly homogenous in terms of economics. Because you have people in academia who are not making lots of money. And yet you have very wealthy people reading it, too. It’s what made it, for a long time, hard to sell to advertisers. You couldn’t just put a Jaguar ad in and claim that all of our readers are really rich—you’re getting a big bang for your buck, because a lot of the readers are very sophisticated and intelligent and intellectual but they are not in big-money businesses.
RB: Especially those artsy types that read fiction.
SO: Right. So it’s a really different community of readers who are more unified by tastes and worldview, though not political worldview but interests in the world rather than a way of saying we are in the same social class. It’s a different kind of class.
RB: How New York is The New Yorker?
SO: That’s an interesting challenge in the magazine, to both acknowledge its origins and its uniqueness in capturing something about New York. Clearly it’s about the world and New York has become more of a concept. Although the listings are still New York, there has never been a thought of, “Gee, maybe we should have Los Angeles.” In fact, where the magazine sells is kind of interesting. I don’t know how current the information is that I have, but I know they sell the highest percentage of sales in Nantucket and San Francisco. It still has a real connection to New York but New York almost more as what that implies, what the place means to the world as a center of thinking and arts and culture rather than necessarily a physical place.
RB: You have spread your wings—you are writing books, some have been collections of past writings—now I am aware of three projects—as far as I know you are focused on a bio of Rin Tin Tin. Is it correct to say it’s a biography?
SO: I described it that way, tongue-in-cheek because it’s a funny thing to say. In fact, it is the story of a [pause] popular culture character that was also a real living being.
RB: Still is.
SO: Yeah and so there is this whole history of this particular dog and his offspring and they continued as a thread through American pop culture. I like calling it a biography, it’s sort of funny. In a creative nonfiction approach to biography you can be as broad as what I have in mind. It encompasses looking at this idea of this dog, both the real story—because his life was really amazing and interesting—and also how it is woven in to the culture in different ways.
RB: I want to get back to that, but I brought it up to inquire about how integral writing the magazine pieces is to you.
SO: I love writing for the magazine. I can’t imagine ever not making it an important part of my life. For a variety of reasons—first of all it’s an association that I am prouder of almost than anything. So it’s important to me emotionally and professionally and sentimentally to be connected to it. Also, there are a million stories I want to write that wouldn’t either work as books or I simply don’t—
RB: —or no one else would publish them. Or a limited amount of places.
SO: Yeah, exactly. I have often have said to people, “I am unemployable.” I feel like if I didn’t work for The New Yorker I wouldn’t have a job. And there are so many stories I really want to do that work as magazine pieces. They wouldn’t work as books. And I would never be able to write enough books to fulfill all of those interests.
RB: Assuming as I do, that you are well regarded for what you do, why aren’t there more venues for the kind of story you write?
SO: I have a two-part answer. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. First of all, I am only partly kidding when I say I am unemployable—let me say this differently. I used to talk with Tina Brown about this a lot. Her take on it was the most insightful which is, the kinds of stories I really want to do and really enjoy doing rely 99% on execution and 1% on having a good idea. 99% on pulling it off. Magazines and newspapers both correctly and unfortunately fear sending someone off on a story where doing it really well really matters. And Tina and I used to talk about this—it was of interest to her and to me. Her feeling was you can take an obvious subject, a profile of Tom Cruise. Even if it’s not done all that well, it’s easy to promote it. It’s easy to draw a number of readers to it because it’s ready-made. You have a certain audience who may finish the piece and say, “It wasn’t very good,” but they are going to read it. You take a piece about a guy who steals orchids—you begin with zero audience.
RB: A very small audience.
SO: And how does a magazine promote that? How do you guarantee that people are going to want to read it? The only way that works really, is if people look at the writer and say, “I trust that this writer can take me somewhere I want to go even though the subject doesn’t interest me.” I can’t tell you the number of times, I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times, people have said to me, “Boy, I never thought I’d be interested in that.”
RB: That is the earmark of a New Yorker story.
RB: I think what you said is arguable. I agree that execution is important. But I think that an idea can be interesting but not necessarily interesting to me. That is to say I thought something was a good story idea but for no clear reason I wouldn’t read it at this point in time—a lady who collects tigers, I see why that’s interesting, but I am not inclined to read it just now.
SO: That’s a funny thing. The fact is, I should probably change my percentages a little. The story ideas are very good but they come at you obliquely. They come at you sideways. So you go, “Wow, I never really thought about reading about taxidermy. Now that you mention it, that’s really interesting.” You have to have a knack for coming up with a story like that.
RB: Right, they are not obvious.
SO: There’s a refinement to it. You don’t just throw a dart at a board and say—even though I do believe every story could be interesting—I still think you need to process it a little and get to a story that has something, some—I can compare it to a folk melody. You hear it and think it’s obvious. How could I not think of that? And yet I didn’t think of it. But not every string of notes makes a melody.
RB: I agree with you that these stories are not obvious and they certainly require being done skillfully or they will not fly.
SO: But they are not stupid ideas. That’s where I have to be careful. I happen to believe strongly in them as ideas. And that they are not obvious and sometimes a little bit of explanation on my part to my editor about why this really is a good idea. Because there should be some surprise. In a way I like people resisting a little, saying, “Uh, I don’t know. Yet, maybe I do want to know.” But magazines get worried. A lot of magazines just don’t know what to do with that stuff.
RB: You say a lot of magazines, but we are actually talking about a handful of smart magazines.
SO: Right, where it would even be remotely possible. And then also newspapers. And funnily enough in this way newspapers are probably a little more open because they have more space and they are less locked in self-definition.
RB: And they are groping for readers.
SO: Right. Look at something like Vanity Fair and they have very strong ideas of who they are and what they write about and an oddball story—even though I hate that description of my stories, let’s say an eccentric topic—even they might say “It’s a great idea, it just doesn’t fit who we are.”
RB: When you return to New York will you go to the office regularly?
SO: Yeah. I went in and out of phases where I used it a lot.
SO: I would go in for the enjoyment of seeing people and hanging out and not so much to work.
SO: And there were periods where I actually got a lot done. It
was just a good place with fewer distractions and then I would go
through other phases I just wanted to get up in the morning and
go in for the social part of it.
RB: It strikes me as an attractive place to go running into some wonderful writers.
SO: Oh yeah. And I miss it a lot. There were a couple of years when I went in all the time. Every day. I just hankered to be around and have that kind of social interaction with people. I still would go in a lot. Actually, now I might even use it in a different way. Having a kid, suddenly going out of the house might be of value [laughs] for its own reasons.
RB: You have a young child and a dog—why would you want to move back to Manhattan or maybe Brooklyn?
SO: I feel like the longer we are away from New York the harder it is to picture what we’ll do. Because, as you said—of course, we live in downtown Boston where our life is not different in terms of not having a yard and being in the middle of—
RB: You’re over in Fort Point?
SO: We have a loft in one of those old warehouse buildings, so we are still living a totally urban life. When the dog needs to go out, you put on your coat and go on the elevator and take him out. And we go to the country on weekends and there are times when I think, “Boy, this really is a great way to live,” with a lot of space and you let the dog run outside and there’s room for the baby, so I don’t know. I’m not sure. I couldn’t really tell you where I think we will be a year from now.
RB: I was looking at your website and I didn’t see any mention of your dog Cooper’s book [Throw Me a Bone: 50 Healthy, Canine Taste-Tested Recipes for Snacks, Meals, and Treats]. Unless I missed it.
SO: There is, it should be—I should take a look. It should be in the list of books [it is, I was mistaken—RB]. That’s terrible. Wow, let me take a look. I’m a very bad website maintainer—maybe because my name wasn’t on the book, I might never have noticed it. There’s a beautiful picture of the dog. Wow.
RB: I wondered since I am somewhat sensitive to canine concerns. Speaking of which, why did you do that book? Was it Sally Sampson’s idea?
SO: Her idea, yes. It was really fun. And she suggested it to me and my involvement in it was writing the head notes. So it was a fairly low-impact involvement, letting the dog do the photo shoots. It was fun to collaborate and I have done a couple collaborations and when you work alone as much as I do, there is always an appeal if a friend says, “Come work on this with me,” and they’re little side projects and they’re fun. That book actually was a lot of fun.
RB: Sally took the recipes seriously and the mix of pictures and quotes was entertaining. I loved the Ed Hoagland quote to the effect, “People want their dogs to be like them when they should become more like their dogs.”
SO: It’s a great quote. It was also very funny because Sally is one of my very best, best friends and she said to me, “I know my next book, a cookbook for dogs.” And she doesn’t even like dogs.
SO: So we were a perfect match, “I don’t know anything about cooking and you don’t know anything about dogs. We really should do this together.”
RB: How was it received?
SO: It did well. They are going to put it in a quality paperback edition next Christmas. It’s one of those books that’s a steady seller.
RB: Was it hard to convince the publisher?
SO: They loved it. They just got it and—
RB: Working on the assumption that if you put “dog”
on anything it has a built-in market?
SO: Right, even if it was blank pages. I think they thought it was a funny idea and would be fun and they just got it. And the fact that it was also serious. We weren’t doing a silly throwaway book but something people would use. And you didn’t have to be crazy and neurotic but that people would enjoy saying, “Yeah, I’m going make some dog biscuits.” It was also a big gift book. Probably every copy I signed somebody was saying, I’m giving this to my so-and-so for Christmas. It was an easy gift book to give people and it looked great.
RB: Have you always liked dogs?
SO: I have always loved dogs and always loved animals. I grew up with cats when I was very little and then got a dog when I was 13 and then I actually got a dog when I was in college which was an insane thing to do. I had her for 13 years and then I had a break after she died and then got Cooper. I love animals and I really love dogs. But they’re an incredible pain in the neck to have them.
RB: So are children [laughs].
SO: It’s true, so is everything actually. It’s also a great deal of pleasure and he’s a great dog. And my other dog was wonderful so I have had—I like having animals around. It was interesting to not have a dog for that stretch. It was such a strange feeling. I didn’t have to go home after work.
RB: That reminds me of a wonderful song by Meg Hutchinson where she sings about being one of those people who only stays out for a short while and then goes home to take care of her dog and that her rolls of film have no humans on them and other familiar dog owner behavior. My relationship with my current dog is a lot different than previous dogs. I don’t even think of her in terms of “pet.”
SO: It’s a funny term.
RB: I consider her a member of my family and my son’s dog is treated the same way. We try to treat them with sensitivity.
SO: It’s so funny to see the dog and my baby working out their relationship. It’s been really interesting. I wasn’t quite sure. They are like two kids.
RB: How old is your child?
SO: He turned one on Tuesday.
RB: Is he into pulling on all parts of Cooper’s anatomy?
SO: He’ll pat the dog but not a lot. The dog doesn’t
really want to be patted by him, which right now is a good thing,
that they are interacting. But the one thing my son has figured
out that’s really fun is throwing his food on the floor.
SO: Now the dog has figured out it’s a complete gravy train. We are going to have to figure out something. It’s so distracting to the baby. It’s hard to get him to pay attention to eating. It’s much more fun when you give him food and the other day I saw him do this. I was saying, “No, no, no, don’t throw it to the dog.” He put the food in his mouth and looked at me and looked at the dog. Took the food out of his mouth and threw it in the floor and then watched as the dog came over and ate it. I thought, Alright, now we have to go to plan B. For him, it’s so interesting—
RB: My son still does it and he is almost eight. He still accidentally-on-purpose drops food.
SO: Because it’s fun. And Cooper sits there, staring. It’s fun but because Austin is at an age where we are teaching him to eat food, it’s so distracting I was talking to my husband about putting Cooper in the other room because of this little minuet between the two for them.
RB: Cooper will think he’s done something wrong.
SO: I know. When we are in the country it’s easier. We just let him out. He’ll go play and he’s happy but here I’m not sure what to do. And the food he’s eating is too much food he shouldn’t eat. We don’t give him any table scraps.
RB: I don’t either, but I do give her bananas and she is allowed to clean up things we drop. But it’s interesting out in the world how many people want to feed her. There are people who walk around with their own supply of dog biscuits.
SO: They [the dogs] can always tell. We really don’t feed him scraps and he is not a beggar, but he is becoming one, and he is discovering food he never thought he liked, that he never had before—crackers and Cheerios.
RB: Could you write this Rin Tin Tin book without having had your own dog?
SO: No, and yet I think it’s also sometimes attractive to me to do a story about something that’s totally outside my life. You often think of story ideas because there is something in your life that triggers a connection and a thought, so it’s inevitable—I actually like doing stories that are outside my experience—for one thing part of the appeal of the story is that I want to learn about this. I want to understand this thing that I know nothing about. And secondly that the journey through learning about it is very much embedded in the way I write the story.
RB: Well, there is a big difference between a story that may take you a few months to write and a book that takes a lot longer.
SO: And also a big commitment. And yet I knew nothing about orchids and didn’t like them when I started on The Orchid Thief, it was very much typical for me—
RB: [laughs] Was The Orchid Thief about orchids, though?
SO: No, actually very little about orchids but
it certainly was something where I kept saying, “I don’t get this.
I don’t understand this.” To me that was a very important part of
the process, “Why is this appealing? What’s the big attraction?”
On the other hand, working on a book requires feeling a great deal
of connection to the subject somehow. And maybe the connection can
just be “I don’t understand this” and what I am connected to is
the question of “Why do people care about this?” Or it could be,
“I’m very interested to begin with.” Maybe two different versions
of approaching a book. But books are tough and finding a subject
that you really feel can sustain a book and can sustain you through
the course of working on a book is very challenging.
RB: I recall you saying that you could really only work on one thing at a time. So are you not writing other things as you put the Rin Tin Tin story into a book?
SO: I did a lot of work on the book last summer
and then took a break. Actually more or less from the time when
my son was born and I’m just finishing a New Yorker piece
now. Over this year I wrote a screenplay with my husband. I am working
on this New Yorker piece. And I did a few small things,
and then actually on December 26 I am meeting with an independent
editor I have hired to work with me on Rin Tin Tin. I am kicking
off phase two on it. I hate working on more than one thing at a
time. I find it really tough. Sometimes you have to but it’s not
what I like to do. I want now to do a couple months where it’s just
the book and then I’ll probably take a break and then do another
New Yorker piece and go back to it. I feel like I really
need to be immersed in a subject or I have trouble feeling what
I need to feel to write.
RB: So there is this emotional imperative that’s perhaps implicit that people don’t normally consider or talk about.
SO: To me it’s essential—it’s funny because I’m working on this New Yorker piece and I have been very distracted over the last month or two. And I could not find a time when that was all I was doing. And I began to feel like it was this thing I don’t know or understand. I didn’t remember stuff about it. I didn’t feel the throb of the story and I started thinking, “Boy, I don’t even know if I can do this piece.” Finally, I finished the thing that was distracting me the most over the last couple of weeks and for the last few days all I have done is that story, and it’s a totally different feeling where I am suddenly back in it and I am back in it thinking about it and chatting about it in the course of my day, mainly with my husband, but I’m in it. And I have trouble writing if I’m not in it.
RB: This is a good argument against the contemporary artifice of “multitasking.”
SO: Oh my god. It’s not for me. I can multitask on stuff and I actually think, for what it’s worth, women are wired that way, that while I am sitting there working on my story I am remembering that we have to suspend the newspaper delivery for vacation and also [phone rings]—
RB: Who was more popular, Rin Tin Tin or Lassie?
SO: A very fundamental question—
SO: —that I have to deal with and it’s actually sort of funny. It has become a comical side track in the book because people think of them and even the people who manage the character licensing of the two animals are very sensitive about it. Even now.
RB: Who licenses Lassie, Disney?
SO: It’s called Classic Media. They own a lot of characters—Bullwinkle and Rocky and a ton of characters. Rin Tin Tin is a very complicated story. It’s not clear who really owns him. Because there was a real Rin Tin Tin, there was never a real Lassie. Lassie was a character and there was a dog hired to play Lassie. Rin Tin Tin was an actual dog. And also in some portion it’s public domain. Rin Tin Tin has been around much longer than Lassie. But it is really a funny thing—like who do you prefer, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
RB: Were there any other dogs of that stature?
SO: They are—even after all these years, they are the Uhr dog figures. There have been many dogs, Benji and Beethoven and all of these, but they just don’t have a place in the larger sense of people’s—maybe it’s a baby boomer thing.
RB: Well, their shows were on every week for years.
SO: Yeah, there hasn’t been a dog TV show in a long time. So these are movie dogs and they still are different. They are kind of silly and funny and cute, whereas Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were actually kind of serious.
RB: Right, they were family dramas.
SO: Yeah, they were dramatic—they weren’t funny.
RB: And the dogs were heroes. They did heroic things.
SO: Right and that’s the big difference. Even though I’ve never seen Benji, it probably has some story line in which the dog does something good—but they are meant to be cute and fun and adorable. Rin Tin Tin, in particular, was serious. There is a whole military connection. And on the TV show he was the mascot of the calvary. They were serious figures and they embodied differently but did both embody a notion of American identity that you would never say Benji does. It was also a period of time when Americans were beginning to think about what it meant to be an American. And weirdly those figures really, maybe because it’s easier to project a lot of stuff on to a dog—it’s timeless and all the ideas of strength and courage and steadfastness, they really were embodied in the two of them. And in different ways. Lassie was a girl and Rin Tin Tin was a boy—so they were different in that way. It’s really about an American identity and also at a time when the country was becoming more and more urban and our connection to animals became very different and much more atavistic. Much more connected to this memory of a more rural time.
RB: Do you know Mark Derr’s book, History of the Dog?
SO: I know the book. I don’t have it. I have to get it. Though I tend not to read that kind of material that much—although that will be a good research. Now that I think about it.
RB: I must say it’s a well written, anecdotal, sensible account and he does pursue the country/city switchover.
SO: That would be useful. Some of this, I just have to get the numbers. That’s one I should read. I start getting very squeamish about reading stuff I want to be writing. I don’t want to read something that is too much like what I am writing—not to have it in my head. I don’t want to inadvertently or advertently suck too much of it in. So I am trying to look at sources that are more primary, if I can. It was definitely a moment, also the move to the suburbs where you could have a dog and it became part of a whole life that people were buying and aspiring to but also a culture that goes from rural to urban, and it’s interesting how you start viewing animals differently. They become more precious in a different way—more emotional, then when you are farmer—
RB: —where they have practical roles.
SO: Yeah. I was talking to somebody with my sister-in-law and they said, “We always had dogs, but they were livestock, not in a bad way. They lived outside. We didn’t have dogs in the house. We had a million dogs but they were with the animals.” I thought, “You’re kidding” [laughs] and they just got a dog, she was nervous about it. “Aren’t they dirty and make your house a mess?” I didn’t know, I’ve always had dogs in the house.
RB: Think Peter Jackson will do a remake of a Rin Tin Tin movie?
SO: This is a very complicated issue because the rights are so, have been sliced and diced so much so that it’s very confusing to know who owns the rights. They are scattered to the four winds. It would make a great movie—whether the rights will ever be clear enough, so that someone will feel comfortable doing it, I’m not sure. There was interest in it when the book contract was first signed and they started doing a little research on it and they panicked and said, “The line of title is so conflicted that we are not going to rush on this. We have to figure it out.” There have been many people laying claims to it over the years. It’s a legacy that began in 1918, so you have many people who think Rin Tin Tin is theirs. Intellectual property is so confusing anyway but it would be great. It’s an epic.
RB: This book is coming out of Little Brown and I assume that being part of Time Warner which includes a film company—which would come from the so-called synergy that was expected with the original formation of the company.
SO: Right. I can’t remember what studio but they began doing some research and then there was also the realization that once the book is written they can option the book and have a little more standing. But Warner Bros was the original producer of the Rin Tin Tin movies, but over the years they sold off all the rights—they needed the money. So they now own nothing. And Little Brown was very excited and they may still be able to do this. They said, “When the book comes out, maybe we’ll also release a DVD film clip.” And there was interest in doing a film festival. It would be fun and very cool. Because they thought, we already have material, we don’t even have to pay for it and we discovered that they don’t. Some of that really early stuff is public domain so it didn’t matter that they don’t have it any more. But they sold off the farm—I think Viacom owns a little of the film library and Sony and I don’t know who else. It’s all over the place.
RB: How much time are you giving yourself to finish this book?
SO: [sighs] Oooh. It’s a good question. I would love and feel like I want to set some really hard deadlines now because I want to get moving on it. I’d love to be done with the reporting in six months, if I can. It’s very ambitious. I did a lot already. But I have a lot more to do. And then start writing.
RB: Is there any surprise in this story, for you? Will the story go some where that you don’t anticipate?
SO: I hope so. The whole story was so surprising to me to begin with, because I had no idea that this was a real dog with real person with a really interesting history. So there was already a big surprise. Every story I have ever done has had a moment where it turned and where I found myself astonished and I hope for that. Or I should say I am happy that happens. I think if I end up just having a punch list that I can work through, I got that and got that. I can’t imagine that it would have any real momentum. And I think having that is really important. For me, having that feeling of wanting to tug on the reader and say, “You’re not going to believe this.” And it needs to be real. It needs to come from really being myself saying, “Wow! I can’t believe it. I had no idea.” But what that turns out to be, I’m not sure. But usually I don’t even know until I’m done.
RB: After the first draft?
SO: Yeah. A lot of times it’s in the writing where you think. “Wow, I didn’t even realize that that was—certainly with The Orchid Thief and that’s the only thing I can really compare this to, I really didn’t know what the book was about until I was writing it. And found myself writing myself into an understanding of what I was doing. And I have some notions—
RB: How did you sell The Orchid Thief to Random House?
SO: I had originally written an article for The New Yorker
because I thought that’s all it was. And I took that and said,
“There’s a book here. There’s so much great stuff
I didn’t even begin to touch on.”
RB: How did you convince your [then] editor Jonathan Karp at Random House?
SO: I already had a book contract and came to them and said I want to do this instead, and I had the good fortune with them to have the same relationship that I have with The New Yorker, which is to say my conviction that it was a good idea, even though I couldn’t articulate why exactly, was sufficient to say, “All right, well if you are really sure, go ahead.” I needed to be told go ahead and do it. I’m spoiled I guess, I’m used to people saying, “We agree, so go do it.” Rather than doing it and coming back and saying here’s what I found, now will you buy it?
RB: Are you old enough to remember Rin Tin Tin on television?
RB: Who today, given the small windows of cultural memory, will remember Rin Tin Tin? What does he mean today?
SO: First of all, I am surprised by how many people do still remember him or know that they know the name. And they have that, “Oh yeah, now what…” Even kids. Not all kids but a lot of kids have some memory. There was a Nickledeon show in the 70’s or 80’s called Rin Tin Tin, Canine Cop. But first of all people are very interested in cultural history and I guess you can look at Seabiscuit and say that was even more of an obscure figure and I think people are drawn to a good story. Whether they can say, “I remember the show”? Tons of people do. Baby boomers—not that I think, “Oh gee, that’s my audience”—but when you look at the population, they either remember him specifically or certainly know the name.
RB: I guess when something is iconic in a culture it seems to permeate it in such far reaching ways even people who don’t have first hand knowledge, they somehow seem to know.
RB: Maybe there is an old book in the school library.
SO: Or something. They know they have heard of it. And I have actually found it interesting to ask people. I spoke at a class at Cambridge Ringe and Latin last year. They asked what I was working on and said I was working on a biography of Rin Tin Tin, partly because I wanted to see whether kids drew a blank or whether they knew. And the ones who knew the name I asked, “What do you think it is?” A few kids mixed it up with Rin Tin Tin, because that figure is pretty present in kid’s toys and books. Even if people don’t remember, I feel like what could be more appealing than a name like Rin Tin Tin and somebody says it’s about a dog. That’s sufficient.
RB: Earlier I had asked about your future and how you saw what you would devote yourself to—to writing for magazines, writing books, screenplays, and you told me you went to Breadloaf and lectured at Ringe and Latin [a Cambridge, MA high school]. And then recently the publication of Best American Essays 2005. How much work was that?
SO: A lot more than it seemed.
RB: [laughs] I thought Robert Atwan did all the heavy lifting.
SO: He does. He really does. The timing of it was a little difficult. I received most of the nominees two days after my baby was born. And they needed the introduction and the selections on March 1st. So I had originally thought, “Perfect, I have a lot of reading and be in with the baby, perfect timing.” But of course it’s not quite like that. March comes very quickly after you have had a baby on December 20th. But also it’s a lot of reading and it’s hard to make the choices. Even if you say I don’t care, I am picking twenty, you can’t do that. It does take time and you have to think about it. And you want them to come together in a nice way. So it was lot of work. I’m a really picky reader and I’m always really critical so initially I read a lot and was grumpy—”I don’t like any of these.” You know. So I had to re-read almost everything.
RB: He reads a thousand essays and you read how many?
SO: He gives the editor about a hundred and twenty, in that range. And also I made the mistake in the beginning of reading everything all the way through, even the ones I really didn’t like and you learn really quickly that’s silly. If you really, really don’t like it and it doesn’t work, you don’t have to read the whole thing. Some of them were very long. So it is a lot of work but I enjoy doing it. I am going to do Best American Travel Writing next year. It’s fun to be on the other side once in a while.
RB: In spite of my antipathy to the strategy and jargon of branding, it turns out that the Best American this and that turned out to be pretty good.
RB: Even the Best American Non Required Reading—I mean what is that? It looks like a pretext for putting Dave Eggers’ name on a book—they have been fine books.
SO: In a funny way, it’s like, they’re like annual magazines. And one of my neighbors came by and asked if I would sign her copy, she was giving it as a gift. And she said, “Oh God, every year I give a bunch of these as gifts because who wouldn’t enjoy it?” A funny part of that, in a sense, it functions like a magazine—if you don’t like the first story, you go on to the next selection. I think they are pretty cool, the fact that they use guest editors is great and they really let you pick. It’s not that they tell you what to pick. The only provision that they have is they don’t want it overly weighted to The New Yorker or The Atlantic. They just don’t want it to be the best of The New Yorker.
RB: Well, given that those are the largest magazines that still consistently publish good stories and writing. But it’s not like others don’t exist. In the Best American Essays 2005 my favorite was the Robert Stone piece on Ken Kesey. I wish he wrote more, or more of his writing was available.
SO: It was so good.
RB: I keep hoping that they do a collection of his nonfiction.
SO: Yeah, that was such a great piece. A few of the pieces I thought were so great. It’s interesting when you get people writing out of their genre and they are still really great. The Ted Kooser piece is wonderful—yeah, I’m really proud of it and I feel like it came together well and there are some nice surprises. It’s nice to have a mix and ending up with stuff from places you would probably never have heard of and they really were good. There were maybe two or three other New Yorker pieces I would have liked to include but we decided to keep it to just to—I forget what the number was. I just swapped those out. But they really do let you pick the pieces so it’s pretty fun. A little power.
RB: It’s encouraging—reading Robert’s introduction—talking about the origin of the series and that while people certainly have kept writing these kinds of pieces, that there are places that keep publishing them.
SO: It’s either very high-end or very handmade. It’s either The New Yorker and The Atlantic or these much smaller, much more specific journals. Those middle-range magazines don’t really have this kind of writing.
RB: Are you noticing what looks to me like renaissance in small literary magazines?
SO: I don’t follow that world that much, but I do think that it feels like that to me, I occasionally will get an email here and there from one of those journals asking me to send people in their direction and as you bring the cost of publishing lower and lower and lower, publishing in that small form and the Internet and amazingly there is more of a taste for it. It might be that blogging has reminded people that they really like reading personal essays. I’m not sure, but it does seem that way. What’s funny is that this is the worst moment for newspapers and newsmagazines. And these more particular publications seem to be having—not that they are drawing in advertising but in terms of having an audience, they seem to be really thriving. I’d rather work for Drunken Boat than for Time magazine, to be honest with you. I really do think—I don’t know where the future is for newsmagazines and small journals like that, if they are good they may have only a small number of readers but—
RB: —but they are readers, not page flippers. You took a piece from N+1, there’s also Swink, Open City, Black Clock, Land Grant Review…
SO: Yeah, and there are millions that we don’t even know about or never heard of and a million online.
RB: Do you have any fears about people stopping reading?
SO: No. That seems like it is never-ending—the form might keep changing in terms of how things are delivered but what you are talking about is basic human impulse to communicate. I just don’t see how you could assume that would go away. And people will always, there will be people who will want to be communicated to and people who want to do the communicating. Whatever the form is, who knows?
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing