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The Chance to be Surprised: An Interview with Susan Orlean

by Brendan Dowling on May 20, 2013

As a staff writer for the New Yorker, Susan Orlean’s witty and thoughtful essays have given readers a glimpse into lifestyles they might otherwise not have come across. Her books have tackled similarly offbeat topics: The Orchid Thief (which was later made into the movie “Adaptation”) delved into the world of orchid poaching and Saturday Night studied how people throughout the country spend Saturday night. Her recent book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” follows the story of Rin Tin Tin from his birth on a French World War I battlefield through his ascendency to become the biggest star in Hollywood. Along the way, it studies the humans who were in Rinty’s life while also examining the evolving role that dogs have played in North American culture in the twentieth century. Ms. Orlean spoke to Public Libraries via telephone on October 19, 2011.

Public Libraries: Rin Tin Tin seems to be a departure for you where you’re writing about figures of the past. What were the research challenges for this book?

Susan Orlean: They were huge. I’ve always tended to try to reach into the history of the subject, but my stories have generally been based on first-hand observations, on interviews, and on experiences that I was having. In the beginning, I was a little bit paralyzed thinking, “I don’t know how to do this. Nobody’s alive. What do I do? I’m not a historian. How do I even go about doing this?”

One of my first reporting trips was to the Riverside Municipal Museum, where Lee Duncan’s archives were boxed up. I’d never really done work with archives before and I didn’t expect to get much out of it. I’m just not sure what I thought was going to come out of it. But what I realized was that it was almost as if I had an even more intimate experience of being with Lee. In many cases, there were things in the archives that I don’t think he would have shared with me had I been interviewing him. So there was a whole different quality of intimacy by learning about [him] through these archives.

There was still the challenge of writing it though. I came away feeling that I knew Lee Duncan better than I would have had I gone and done an interview with him. Particularly because I don’t think he’s someone who wanted to be known, or knew how to be known. His interviews were mostly just discussions of the dog and talking about training him and not more than that. But there was still the challenge of how do I write this without the person expressing themselves in their own voice? It took a real leap of confidence to think,”You know, I do know him and I do have his voice.” I have his voice in his writings, in his interactions with other people. He carbon copied many of his letters. I [had not] only the letters he received but [also] the letters he sent back.  So it was almost more like eavesdropping on his life than doing an interview face to face. It was a real revelation. You have to keep your confidence up while you’re writing to feel that you’ve earned this knowledge even though you’ve never met the person.

PL: In the same sense I was struck by the sadness and poignancy of some of the things you can never know, especially the two female dog trainers whose relationship seems romantic from a modern perspective, but there’s no way to ever know what happened between them.

SO: I loved writing that section of the book. I found their story utterly fascinating and at the same time very sad. Maybe I was projecting but I thought, “It sounds like they were in love.” They had this mission to do this thing together, they lived together, they traveled together. But it was a different time. And perhaps it would have been absolutely impossible for them to have a different kind of relationship.

And maybe I’m just projecting. Maybe they were just great companions. But there was something strange about going from being so close to suddenly  never seeing each other again. And we’ll never know. A lot of the book ended up relying on some speculation on my part although I tried to be very frank with the reader [saying], “I don’t know, but this is how it struck me. This is what I’m imagining maybe was going on and you can choose to disagree with me.”  Rather than presenting something as fact when it was really just my conjecture. But there was something very poignant about it and to me that read as a kind of heartbreak.

PL: And you’ve talked in other interviews about how you try to be upfront with the reader and how you can’t know everything about the subject, but instead are presenting your own conclusion while also allowing for other theories to exist.

SO: I think that readers are very forgiving of honesty. And to say I don’t know is perfectly permissible and also far more honest than making statements where you’re not allowing for the fact that it’s subjective. Readers can even then have the freedom to come to their own conclusion but I feel like then they know what I’m saying: “I don’t know the answer to this. This is my guess.”

It’s a conversation, it’s not a treatise. I’m saying, “Here’s a conversation that I’d like to have with you about this amazing story of Rin Tin Tin and all the people that were involved.”  But as in any conversation you might say, “Gee, I don’t know the answer to that but this is what I think after my research.”

And that’s the way people talk. They don’t make flat statements of fact, and people are comfortable reading that. They’re willing to hear you out, at least I hope they are. As a writer I’m just saying, “I’m a very curious person and I’ve had the good luck of having as my job the chance to learn about things that I’m curious about and then to tell you about them.” I don’t pretend to be an expert. I mean, I’m very informed and I’m a good researcher. But I don’t pretend to be the authority except that I think that I’m a good storyteller. That’s my one authority.

PL: You’ve also talked about how since you can’t have this encyclopedic knowledge of the subject you eventually come to an understanding of it. How do you know when you’ve reached that understanding?

SO: How do I know when I’ve gotten to the point when I know I can tell the story? That’s totally intuitive. As I’m learning I have more questions than answers. I reach a point where there’s an equilibrium and then I go beyond that a bit and I feel that I have more answers than questions. That doesn’t mean I don’t have questions. I can tell in the way I talk about my work to those poor people who are around me. When I begin telling the story to them I realize, “Wow – I’m describing this with a certain kind of confidence and authority.” It’s almost a discovery in hearing myself talk and realizing that I’ve come to a point where I think I know enough to tell the story. There’s always more to learn but, in pure practical terms, you know enough to tell a good story.

PL: So the first stage in writing for you is when you’re able to tell the story orally?

SO: I’ve thought about this a lot because I talk a lot about my work, mostly to my husband and one friend. And I come home and I’m bubbling over. I’ve spent a day in the archives and I’ve found all this cool stuff and I can’t help but be spilling over saying, “You’re not going to believe what I saw today, and I found this incredible letter.” It’s just a natural thing.

But I also listen to myself. Sometimes you’ll do some reporting and think, “Well, this is the important stuff.” But then when you’re talking about the work I hear myself describing something else and the something else seems to be the thing that’s more compelling. It’s self-editing in a way. You end up finding the part of the story that’s genuinely interesting, not necessarily what you thought would be interesting.

But also I begin hearing it become a more complete story. I like that I do this out loud. I would like to think that I could tell you the complete story of Rin Tin Tin if we sat down for a couple of hours, that I know the story well enough. It’s not that I have to refer to my notes but that I know it, I’ve learned it, I’ve thought about it. And I have edited it in a very organic way so when I sit down to write I’m telling it the way I would tell you in conversation. I think when you first meet someone you have a first impression. You might talk about your first impression, but that’s different when you know a person very well and you’re talking to someone about them. I think people have a very natural measure for when they’ve gotten to a point where they know something well enough to talk about it with a kind of authority. And I don’t think writing is very different. You’re just learning about things that you’ve gone out of your way to learn and so there’s a little more deliberate effort. You want to know it so deeply that what you end up sharing with readers is what you’ve digested, what you’ve come to as the most interesting stuff. You know much more so you’re sharing with them just the most potent information.

PL: Were there any surprises when you were researching Rin Tin Tin’s story where you found an unexpected or more interesting aspect of the story?

SO: A million. You know when I started working on the book I didn’t expect to spend more than a few pages talking about Bert Leonard. I thought of him as just the guy who produced the TV show and not much more. And in fact I had done my reporting on Lee Duncan, I had done my reporting on Daphne Hereford, I felt that I was more or less done. I felt guilty thinking I should do a little bit of reporting about Bert because after all he was the producer and then two years later! (laughs)

I had no idea of his story which is almost the most dramatic arc of anyone’s in the book. He wasn’t really a dog person but he fell in the thrall of the Rin Tin Tin legend and the idea of the enduring story to such a degree that in certain ways it led to his ruin: not being willing to sell it and get himself back on some financial footing. This was something that I thought would be a couple of pages and it ended up being a good third of the book.

PL: Another aspect that struck me as sad was that Lee Duncan, who suffered so much from having an absent father, ended up becoming a distant father himself. How do you handle remaining impartial reporting these people’s lives when you’ve become so immersed in them?

SO: It’s hard. As much as writing about people who aren’t alive is very challenging it’s also very liberating. You feel so free to write about their frailties and failings because they’re not alive, but his daughter is. His grandchildren are. I felt that I wanted to tell the real story but I certainly felt aware of the emotions it might bring up especially in his daughter. And also in Bert’s case. It’s a fine balance between being honest and being hurtful. I think finally you have to think carefully about making those statements that could be painful for people who are still alive. But take a deep breath and do what you feel is right. I tried really hard to do that because my goal is not to make anyone unhappy. But it’s also to tell the real story as I could. And there are a few things you decide to take out because it doesn’t serve a great enough purpose for the pain it might cause. In the long run you have to feel you did the right thing morally.

PL: You’re a prolific user of Twitter and you’re probably the first author to thank her Twitter followers in the acknowledgments. How has Twitter been helpful as a way to engage with your audience?

SO: It was great. First of all it kept me company. I think that’s a huge huge reason to say thank you. I honestly felt as I was writing that any time I felt really stuck or lonely or bored there were people to talk to, people who if you just said, “Oh my gosh, I’m lonely and bored,” people would say, “Don’t be lonely and bored!” It provided a sense of community that was very valuable during the long and lonesome effort of writing a book.

Secondly it really made a difference. I announced on Twitter my word count a lot, and it was funny how many times people would say, “Yay, keep going!”  It was fun to have that kind of cheering and support and then also it made me feel that these are readers, and I’m talking to them a little bit about my book. It was a great feeling that I was connecting with people who might then end up wanting to read the book. And that’s a rare new option in our modern world, that you might keep in touch with readers in a way that felt like an ongoing informal book club slash book tour where you’re chatting with readers and then sometimes saying things like, “I just had a really bad cup of coffee.” Writing is so solitary that it’s fun to have the equivalent of an office community and the support and entertainment that you can get from that.

PL: Have there been any cons?

SO: I think it is another possible form of procrastination, but my theory is that there’s a specific amount of procrastination and distraction that you will always find and what it is changes but the amount doesn’t necessarily change. I could be totally wrong with that. But Pre internet, it’s not that I got more work done I did different stuff to waste time. I was on the phone all the time.  I would spend hours on the phone every day just blabbing to my friends. Now I’m never on the phone but I spend a certain amount of time goofing around online. And I think if you didn’t do any of that you’d be smoking cigarettes or cleaning drawers or all the time-honored procrastination devices.

PL: You’re currently on a book tour. Does it bear any resemblance to to the publicity tours Lee used to take with Rin Tin Tin?

SO: Actually that’s a really interesting point. It probably is. They would show the film and the he would come on stage with the dog, and it’s not very different than that – going town to town, they tended to go by train of course. When I think about it, if I had my dog with me in these hotel rooms, the kind of bond you would have would just grow and grow. It’s the two of you in the world together, and I’m sure that made their connection truly cemented, that kind of travel. I should bring my dog! (laughs)

PL: What are you working on next?

SO: Sleep! I’m certainly going to do some magazine pieces before I lunge into my next book. But I don’t have any book ideas percolating. My guess is that something will just hit me out of the blue as this one did, and it may be tomorrow or it may be next year or two or three from now, but I don’t know. I would be tempted to do a collection because those are fun to do. It’s totally different from writing an original book. But I would surely not go headfirst into a book project. It’s just a huge commitment and as much as I say, “Oh, this one will be quick,” they never are. I just would be very careful before I would be in really deep with a new book.

PL: There’s always a new Bert Leonard to prolong your process?

SO: When I got access to all his material I had this mixed feeling of can I pretend I never saw this and just walk away? It really was just huge. It put me back a year. Probably because it was all in California. I was in New York. I took several journeys to get the stuff, and of course I’m really glad. But I thought I was done with the reporting and I wasn’t.

PL: You’re probably the world’s first Bert Leonard denier.

SO: (laughs) There was no Bert Leonard. All that you read is not true!

PL: Finally, what role did the library play in your life?

SO: I grew up within walking distance of a wonderful library, we went there several times a week. It was my favorite place as a kid. The value was simply indescribable. It was even better than having books at home because they had everything. It had tremendous influence and value to me that I am forever grateful for. Working on this book, I used libraries a huge amount. It was very important to me, and the librarians were phenomenal. They were remarkable. They helped me dig for the things with immense generosity and patience. I thanked a few of them in my book because I was really grateful. I love librarians. I love libraries. I think there’s something really special about going to a place filled with books that you don’t know as opposed to the books in your own home that are books you’ve chosen, so there’s a chance to explore and discover and be surprised.