New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean has published four books, Red Sox and Bluefish, Saturday Night, The Orchid Thief (which spawned the film Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep) and now her newest book, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. Susan graduated from the University of Michigan and has been a reporter in Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Oregon. She has also written for Esquire, Outside, Rolling Stone and Vogue. The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup is a collection of twenty pieces that includes profiles of championship show dog Biff, Bill Blass, and an African King driving a taxi in New York City. Orlean is an able and singular practitioner of literary journalism whose interests and curiosity delve into subcultures and places that vividly carry forward the mission of her craft: to entertain and to inform.
Robert Birnbaum: When I talk to writers about their short-story collections, there is some rhyme and reason for what is included and its order. How did you choose what was included in this book?
Susan Orlean: It was difficult. I had originally thought of doing a greatest hits. Then I decided I strictly wanted to do profiles...and I liked the idea of a gathering of a group of very unusual people. Then from among the profiles I've written — I left out any I didn't like or for one reason or another or I was unhappy with in the long run...
RB: Meaning you had to reread them?
SO: I did, although I didn't reread them closely. I am not an avid reader of my own stuff. Once it's done, I almost never read it. So I was doing it kind of from memory. I didn't want anything that seemed redundant. I didn't want pieces that were too similar. For instance, I profiled Fab Five Freddie and I had also profiled DJ Red Alert. Those were so similar in terms of the worlds they opened up that I decided I'd only pick one. When it finally came down to it, it actually seemed like a pretty obvious combination. When I went through and sorted out any pieces that seemed redundant — it made a natural grouping. It just seemed like these were the pieces. Amazingly enough, there were three-hundred pages, which I thought was very funny because that had been the number of pages tossed around before we got started. So it was actually hilarious that it ended up being exactly three hundred. Putting them order — I decided not to do them chronologically because that would seem that they were done in one order or another. Probably most writers would rather not have you look at their work strictly chronologically so that you don't come away from it saying, "Oh, they are going down. Or they got a lot better." I wanted them to stand next to each other in an interesting way. The first and last pieces were very obvious. For some reason, I knew all along that "The American Man — Age Ten" would be the first one and that "The Bullfighter" would be the last. They just seemed like good bookends. So it ended up not being that hard. Even though, the initial decision to limit it to just profiles was kind of tough. There were things I wanted to include that just weren't gonna fit in the category of profiles.
RB: What does 'greatest hits' mean? Greatest in your estimation? In terms of the response of the readership?
SO: That's a good question. It's a little bit of both. Generally my feeling about the piece and the public reaction to it are fairly closely aligned. But sometimes it's not. And what I thought was we would have some happy medium between the two. I've never written a piece that I absolutely loved and then felt like I got no reaction. On the other hand there have been some pieces that I have written that I didn't think people would necessarily react to and they really responded to — that always has caught be by surprise. It was frustrating, in a way, to leave out some pieces of mine that are particularly favorites but...it just made sense to me have this feeling of here's a group of people, here's a world of people that I had a conversation with and bringing them together in one book.
RB: Will it change your journalism to know that everything you write is a candidate for inclusion in a book?
SO: You know, it's funny that you say that. I just had the first piece come out since the book came out. This week. There was a moment where I thought, "Oh phooey, this would have fit in the collection." For one thing, there is the simple reality that publishers don't love publishing collections. So you can't assume they are going to say, "Sure, come with the next three-hundred pages worth of manuscript." We have a handshake agreement that I can do a collection next that's a collection of pieces about places. Of course, ultimately about people but that are more structured around a place. But the hope is that I'll do an original book before that.
RB: In this collection there were two pieces that really had an emotional impact on me. The Hawaiian surf girls piece and the Tanya Harding. Both were melancholy and bleak. Is there another benchmark besides subject matter when you select...do you look at the stories for emotional tone?
SO: Yeah. When I laid them out to try to figure out the shape of the book...to me it was orchestral. I do think the tone...there is a very distinct emotional tone. Some pieces are purely funny...I put them beside each other with that in mind, definitely. I'm always amused when people write reviews of things I've written or mention it, and say, "Oh my God it was hilarious..." — when it's a piece that I thought actually had a real undertone of melancholy... because a lot of them do. A lot of them are stories of impending loss. And even if it's about childhood about to end. Because that's sad. It's reality, but it's still melancholy when you see it and sense it coming. So I definitely wanted to have it shaped emotionally. And I wanted to end with a piece that was complicated, both strange and funny.
RB: What was complicated about the Bullfighter piece? It seemed straightforward to me.
SO: On one hand it's a triumph piece. She's in this man's world and managing to do well and she triumphing over these bulls. At the same time it's a very weird spectacle and one that was fairly depressing to me.
RB: You mean the bullfights themselves?
SO: Yeah, the bullfights.
RB: Do you feel like you have gotten better at what you do?
SO: Yeah. Yes definitely. I also think as you do it more there are certain bad habits that get more and more ingrained. But I have more confidence. I trust my perceptions and my instincts more.
RB: I am not asking so much about your writing skills as your story choices. Early in The Orchid Thief you mention how you scan lots of articles and that combinations of words will jump out at you and that's when you decide what you want to pursue.
SO: Oh, no, I don't think I've gotten any better at that.
RB: Could one get better? Or do you just have to follow some things past the obvious?
SO: I don't think so. I have this process that I go through every time I'm going to work on a piece. I hear an idea. I think, "Oh I love that. That's the greatest idea in the world." Then I completely panic and have commitment phobia and think, "Uhh, uhh, I don't know. I don't know." It's not as good as I thought and I don't want to commit to doing it. And then I get very estranged from the idea. And then I think, "It will be really short. That's what I'll do." And then while I'm working on it, I end up being surprised that the story opens up to me. I do it every time. I never even realized it until my editor said, "Now you're in that phase where you start thinking it's not a good idea." And I started thinking, "Oh, is that a phase?" I didn't realize. So I don't think I've gotten better. I think I get more worried when I choose stories than I ever used to. Because I am more aware of what's required of me.
RB: Is it that you compete with yourself?
SO: Oh, absolutely. On one hand it gets you all excited. And you think, "I can fly." I've done this story and it really worked out well, but what happens is I get performance anxiety. Then I'm always afraid that I can't do it again. I can't get a story to bloom the way that one did. Sometimes, it's actually difficult. I don't have writer's block. I get performance block.
RB: Are your stories written on deadline?
SO: Yeah, we do now. In this book there are a few pieces that were written at a time that we didn't have deadlines. The atmosphere of The New Yorker changed and we began having deadlines. At first it was a deadline we chose. Then it was not a deadline we chose. Usually they are pretty generous deadlines. Sometimes, I don't think the quality of the piece reflects the amount of time you have...sometimes just some chemistry that happens versus a time when it doesn't.
RB: And do you work on them one at a time?
SO: Oh yeah. I have a one-track mind. I don't like reporting. Putting the reporting aside. Reporting on another piece. Coming back to that one. I just feel like I lose the connection. These were, all of them, done one at a time. Right now I'm having to deal with some pieces that I had reported and that I had to put aside for different reasons and it's really uncomfortable for me.
RB: You work in the world of facts and journalism. Do you have any thoughts about writing fiction?
SO: I read fiction. It's what I enjoy the most. I think that I used to think that I would write fiction. At the moment, I'm not...I don't find it limiting or frustrating to do what I'm doing. And I like the mental puzzle involved with dealing with a real situation rather than one that you can just arbitrarily choose to change. And frankly I like the social mission of writing non-fiction. I think it is different writing non-fiction pieces, and they are perceived very differently because people know this is real and someone took the time to find out about that kind of person. I don't struggle with the issue. I'm very content. I love what I do. I would be happy to have a bunch of time where I didn't do anything. But I don't find myself chafing and thinking, "I wish it hadn't turned out that Tanya Harding didn't talk to me." I wish I could write a story in which she did come and talk to me and make this turn of events instead of what happened. It's interesting because I love fiction. I read it a hundred times more than I read non-fiction.
RB: Are there writers that have been stories for you? Have you profiled any writers?
SO: There was the piece about the small-time newspaper reporter. I haven't ever profiled a fiction writer. I think I would be a little intimidated. Partly because it seems like a very interior process and it would be intimidating to me to write about someone where what they were doing was so much an internal thing.
RB: How much do you think about writing as opposed to reporting and/or shaping what you've reported in something more than an accessible readable form? Do you want to be a great writer?
SO: Oh definitely. Although, I think to be a great non-fiction writer you have to be a great reporter. I don't think you can separate the two. I think you can be a great reporter and not necessarily a great writer...If I would want people to think about me, my wish would be that they would think, "She's a great writer." I think, all the time, about the art of writing and how I'm going to write the story. I had an editor who told me there are three parts to what you want to do: reporting, thinking and writing. Of those three, his feeling was that they could not be separated. I get the most pleasure about people remarking on the written part of it rather than the reported thing or the thought.
RB: How much do you revise? Do you afford yourself that luxury?
SO: I do. Well, I write from the beginning to the end. And I revise as I go along. In that irritatingly slow way where I write a sentence and then I tinker with that and tinker with it and I then go to the next. I feel like I can't think the next thought until I get the first sentence finished. It used to be when I got to the last sentence I felt like it was done. writing on a computer, having editors who encouraged me to fool around a little more with moving things... I'm not as afraid to move things around as I used to be. I used to structure stuff so tightly that I felt like I could not move anything or the whole thing would fall apart. I've gotten a little more relaxed about that. I do have time to polish stuff up. I did not re-write anything in this book, though. I printed them as they were with teeny-tiny...I can't even remember any corrections because most of them were printed without any errors or typos.
RB: Your first book was Saturday Night...no actually you had another...
SO: Well, I had a column in the [Boston] Globe Magazine that was collected and it came out right around the same time as Saturday Night. They were both published around 1990. Maybe Red Sox and Bluefish came out first. Anyway, I didn't write those columns with any expectation they would be collected and what had happened was that literally the week I decided to quit doing the column. I got called by Faber & Faber inquiring about collecting those. It was a funny coincidence. Saturday Night was the first book I wrote as a book, and although it was episodic, it wasn't quite the same as doing The Orchid Thief.
RB: You've alluded to doing another collection, do you also have your eyes on a bigger book along the lines of The Orchid Thief?
SO: Yeah, I've already started it actually. I've started the reporting. The teeny-tiniest bit. It's about a gospel choir in Harlem. It's a big single-piece book. It's intimidating to start another book that's a book book rather than a collection book. It's really hard. I was surprised at how hard it was to tell you the truth.
SO: The way I structure stuff is very intuitive, and I write as if as I am telling the story, and when you are doing a book the sheer mass of information you've got makes that really difficult. It's just exhausting. So I had to come up with a whole new system for how to keep track of notes and to think through how I was going to structure it. It's unbelievably laborious.
RB: This is not a story based on some kind of dramatic event? Nothing happened specifically. No building burned down, no money was absconded with? The heart of the story is about the group.
SO: No, right. What I'm assuming is that there will be — which is different from The Orchid Thief, which started with an event and expanded that way — this is starting with a small existing universe. A little group of people...
RB: And very foreign to you...
SO: Totally. That's part of what interests me. It's as exotic as the orchid world but more intensely and interestingly so because it's just right up the street from where I live. To the irony of that is richer and more challenging, actually. I'm not Christian either, so there's many layers of exoticness. In some part, the book is about why I want to do this book.
RB: In a sense, it's about you...not directly.
SO: I don't like to say that, but then again I also think all literary non-fiction in some way is about the writer or at least choice of what is worthy of examining.
RB: Can you list some standout works of literary non-fiction? What are the great works?
SO: That's pretty easy for me to say. In no particular order, Travels in Georgia, by John McPhee, which I've probably reread a hundred times. Over and over again, just a really remarkable piece of writing and reporting and voice and everything. Alex Wilkinson's Big Sugar. I don't want to say it's a classic, that sounds so stupid. It's the embodiment of what it's about. Up in The Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell. The White Album, by Joan Didion. Killings, by Calvin Trillin. Killings to me was really a terrific book and a great idea and I read that a thousand million times. There's a lot of non fiction that I love. I think Mark Singer is great.
RB: When is the movie of The Orchid Thief scheduled for release?
SO: They start shooting March 12, and I keep forgetting to ask them what that means. It seems that might mean Christmas time? I'm not really sure.
RB: Do you have a relationship to the film? Consultant?
SO: Yeah. I like the people involved very much, so I'm enjoying just spending time getting to know them and in a pretty informal way, consulting. I'm exactly as involved as I'd like to be. The only thing that I want to do now that they have a production office set up and are getting under way, I just want to go and hang out because it will be fun, because it's fun to see a movie get made. I am not involved in any more substantial way than that.
RB: How is your ability to do your work affected by a movie being made of your book?
SO: There's a little bit more — not pressure — attention that you get because people in Hollywood are fairly simple-minded and when one of your stories has been made into a movie the assumption is that all of your stories should be...
SO: Or looked at in that way. One has to work hard at ignoring that and not letting it get you riled up in any way. Good or bad. They've made me a big character in the movie, which is not at all what you would expect. A lot of the people I write about are never going to go see this movie. It's not their kind of movie.
RB: How can you say that? Nick Cage and Meryl Streep? You know the old saw about "even the worst movie is...
SO: The biggest flop is seen by 200 times more people than read a book. The fact that the character has my name...is that going to be a problem when I go somewhere...is that going to change the way they respond to me? Then I thought of the people I wrote about in this book how many would have gone to see that movie. It will probably break down in the same way as regular New Yorker readers versus not New Yorker readers. It will be different. I don't think I'm really prepared in any way for how different it will be. I don't see how you could be. It's a bizarre experience and a curious one. It's hard to resist it because you kind of think, "Why not have a weird experience?"
RB: How is it that you didn't end up at Talk magazine?
SO: I'll answer that backwards. I couldn't care less if no other stories of mine ever get sold to the movies. If someone said to me this would be a great way to sell stuff to the movies, it would be irrelevant to me. The reason I didn't end up at Talk, when Tina left none of the staff writers at The New Yorker went and none were asked. She had an idea in mind which was to start a magazine with a lot of young writers — as she put it, not marquee names — interpret however you want, it's partly money. I wasn't asked and I was in good company and I wouldn't have gone because I love working for The New Yorker. If she had asked everyone except for me I would have felt bad.
RB: Do have anything to say about the future of — for the lack of a better word — 'smart' magazines?
SO: It seems like since I have been writing the number of serious smart magazines have remained constant. What has changed is the number of books that are high quality, literary non-fiction that have been, not just published but read and supported, has grown. I don't feel worried about it. Everybody is screaming about the Internet, and people's attention spans...it may be the number with that kind of writing will be at a constant and it's never going to get bigger but it's servicing the people who want to read that stuff...
RB: It seems to be more about weight than numbers and impact rather than volume...
SO: Being at The New Yorker the last ten years — it has grown. In the sense that a lot of people who were getting The New Yorker would send their check in, and who knows if they read it or not and they were getting older and older. [They] were largely replaced or joined by a bunch of people who hadn't though about reading it before and suddenly were very involved. People comment to me about the magazine...I mean there is no comparison to how often people talk to me about The New Yorker now versus ten years ago. It's grown and been revitalized. To me that is more important than this mania for growth.
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing