Writer Susan Orlean is driven to objectively explore unfamiliar slices of life. Her discoveries are inevitably insightful, surprising, and delivered with wit.
Susan Orlean is an acclaimed nonfiction writer, best known for her 1998 The Orchid Thief, which inspired Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning film Adaptation (2002).
Born in Cleveland in 1955 and raised in nearby Shaker Heights, Ohio, Orlean studied literature and history at the University of Michigan. She began her career as a journalist writing for the alt-weekly Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon.
Her first book, Saturday Night (1990), looked at American weekend habits. Her next work, The Orchid Thief, expanded upon an article for the New Yorker about a horticulturalist arrested for poaching rare orchids. Kaufman’s adaptation deconstructed the process of turning a book into a movie, creating a fictional storyline about Orlean herself (played by Meryl Streep).
A staff writer for the New Yorker since 1992, Orlean has also contributed to Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and other leading publications. An article of hers in Women’s Outside inspired the 2002 surf film Blue Crush. She is a writer for the HBO show How To with John Wilson and published her eighth monograph, The Library Book, in 2018.
Susan Orlean’s explorations of the world are clear eyed and curious. Observant, with a wry sense of humor she sniffs out the facts, more interested in truth than in fiction.
Susan Orlean: It’s a different challenge to see the world as it is and try to make a narrative from it as opposed to creating a narrative that is, fits more tidily or somehow ends the way you want it to end.
The bestselling author of 12 books and a staff writer at the New Yorker, Orlean feels a responsibility to examine even the most uncomfortable subjects.
Orlean: And I’m curious about both things that I like and also things that make me a little ill at ease. And particularly if it’s something that other people seem to enjoy, my impulse is I wanna learn about it because I’m curious that I find this thing off putting and yet other people find it appealing. I’m not saying I like everything that I learn about but I think the learning is the whole point of being alive.
For Susan Orlean, learning is taking a step into the unknown. She’s rarely sure where the journey will lead.
Orlean: It’s a little bit like getting on a plane. You don’t know the destination, you land, you don’t know the language. You don’t know the roads. You know nothing. And it’s misery, it’s absolute misery. And the whole time you’re thinking, why did I get on the plane? Over time, if you’re lucky, you begin thinking, oh, I see, this road connects to that road. And I have begun to understand a few words of the language. And if you have enough time, you arrive at a point where you think, oh, this is a wonderfully interesting place. I can’t wait to tell people about it.
And though she aims to educate, you’ll never catch Susan Orlean lecturing. Instead, her fascinating tales aim to touch hearts, to change minds.
Orlean: What it has to be is you’re at a dinner party telling the most interesting story that has a lot of factual information that people don’t realize, you know, it’s like boiling a lobster, they don’t realize that they’re actually learning all of this information. And people love facts. People love facts, but it’s more appealing I think, to feed those to them in a way that’s got the arc of a narrative and the pacing of poetry, you know, something that makes them, it’s the aftertaste, where they think well wow, now I know a lot about rabbits.
Orlean often writes about animals, a fascination that dates back to her happy and what she calls uneventful childhood in Cleveland, Ohio. In her 2021 essay collection On Animals, Orleans brings together a lifetime of observations about the critters we dote on and the ones we raise for food.
Orlean: Animals are everywhere in our world. They are woven into our lives. So writing about them to me feels quite integrated into the idea of writing about humanity. It just happens to be a different lens.
Susan Orleans’s animal stories are as much about the people and their capacity to care as they are about the animals in their care. In one story, “Show Dog”, an award-winning boxer named Biff Truesdale is shaped by his owners, the kind of people who make sure all of their pets have monogrammed Christmas stockings.
Orlean: There really isn’t a single story in the book that doesn’t include people. Even the one that I was determined to write without human interference, which was the profile of a show dog, is overwhelmingly about the people who manage this show dog. And of course, watching the crazy kind of subculture around show dogs was fascinating. The dogs in their own way were much, you know, they were dogs and they did dog things but the people were irresistible and revealing and funny and eccentric and passionate.
(Excerpt from Susan Orlean’s “Show Dog”)
If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children—actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun. What Biff likes most is food and sex. This makes him sound boorish, but he’s not—he’s just elemental. Food he likes even better than sex. His favorite things to eat are cookies, mints, and hotel soap, but he will eat just about anything.
Susan Orlean digs deep in pursuit of reality knowing that truth telling is a serious business. It just so happens though that under her gaze, real life often has a funny side.
Orlean: The assembling of facts to me is a very delicious part of the writing because I feel like if I arrange them the right way, I’m not making a joke, I’m not like using a pun or doing some wordplay, but the simple existence of this absurd list is funny and yet it’s factual. This dog liked to eat chocolate, pasta, and aspirin, and hotel soap. It’s like, why would you eat hotel soap? And also just the specificity of it being hotel soap which made sense because he travels a lot. He’s a show dog.
Orlean observes that people sharing a common bond often get along well despite their differences. At the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for example, she says that everyone is just a dog person and nothing else really matters.
Orlean: I think one of the uplifting facts of subcultures is they often do cross all of the other lines that we’re used to. If you’re passionate about orchids and you meet someone else who’s passionate about orchids, nothing else matters. And you know, this is a passion that attracts people of every sort.
AJC: And supersedes who you voted for in the last election.
Orlean: Yeah, and in fact, it doesn’t generally come up in those conversations.
Fascinated by the arrest of a renegade plant dealer, Orlean followed him through the swamps of Florida for an article in the New Yorker. The story became a 1998 non-fiction bestselling book, The Orchid Thief. In 2002, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, with an all-star cast and a character played by Meryl Streep who was called Susan Orlean.
Orlean: And they really wanted my name. I thought, and I said to people actively, this is gonna ruin my career. I mean, I’m gonna be portrayed as this lunatic and drug user and that I’m having sex with my subjects and it’s just insane. One day I woke up and just thought, oh, why not? I mean, it was just this, honestly, this weird thing where I went from being dug my heels in no, no, no, no, no, no, no, to suddenly thinking, well, whatever, I mean, what the hell.
But Susan Orlean enjoyed Adaptation. It didn’t hurt that one of the world’s greatest actors played a version of her, or that the film brought considerable attention to her own work.
Orlean: It’s really staggering to appreciate the sort of ripple effect of a film versus even a very successful book. It just is a different animal.
In the past two years, Susan Orlean says she hasn’t been able to write without tipping her hat to the new circumstances of the world, but rather than write about the human pandemic, in her story “The Rabbit Outbreak” she wrote about a virus that started in China and killed 140 million bunnies there while spreading elsewhere in the world.
Orlean: I felt like, how could I focus on something else when I was suddenly obsessed with what the day to day experience of wearing a mask felt like and the present was so, interfered so much with my ability to think, and that’s why it was so gratifying to come across a story like this story about the rabbits that I wrote during COVID. It was almost this weird allegory about COVID.
Susan Orlean believes that bringing order to a chaotic world is her job and the job of stories and books in general. And that is as important now as it has ever been.
Orlean: It makes perfect sense to me that we increasingly gravitate to stories that have internal logic and that make you think, okay, this is the way the world works, in a time when a lot of our feeling is how does the world work or does the world even work? It’s chaos, it’s confusion. It’s, you know, we’re in the middle of a story with COVID that everybody wants to know, how does the story end?
Susan Orlean will continue to bring order to chaos with humor and compassion, whether writing about people, places, or pets, and in the stories she chooses to tell, all roads will have been traveled and all noble facts unearthed, leaving her and us with a satisfyingly full understanding.