"Sadly, my chickens were all killed by a raccoon," writer Susan Orlean – a veteran of The New Yorker and a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow – tells me from her Los Angeles home. "In reaction to that, I found homes for the rest of my poultry. It was obvious that the coop was not secure, because this raccoon had broken in." When you commit the faux pas of inquiring about this witty wordsmith's deceased pets (yes, she was emotionally attached to her chickens), you're in for a dose of quirkiness and deadpan humor that you might not otherwise expect.
And that's exactly what makes Orlean's creative nonfiction so compelling. As a self-proclaimed tourist of the human condition, she has the knack for finding persuasive and endearingly amusing stories even under the most remote, unturned stones. Over her 30-year career at The New Yorker (she became a staff writer in 1992, after contributing for five years), Orlean has crafted stories about taxidermy, a Twitter prankster, captive whales, papaya stands, an ordinary 10-year-old boy, Rin Tin Tin and mules in the military (did you know that the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey is called a hinny?), among many, many other subjects. A keen observer, she positions herself in a peculiar sort of angle between curious observer and intrusive insider, from which she can report with accuracy and audacity, riding alongside her subject within the flow of the narrative, while often revealing her own presence and offbeat commentary along the way.
"If you look at the tradition of oral storytelling, you have an individual telling a story and it's very clear that they're your guide and that they're perhaps sharing their subjective perspective, but the story itself is very intact as a factual thing," Orlean says. "The real challenge is getting that on the page, but the tone of it is very familiar. It's really the way we talk to each other, and the more you can reproduce that on the page, the more natural and believable it is."
Having gotten her start in alternative newsweeklies – she worked at the Boston Phoenix, since folded but "a fantastic training ground for young writers" – Orlean has been recalcitrant toward the norms of typical journalism since her post-college days in Portland, Oregon.
"In the weeklies I worked for, there was a real excitement about trying to do work that was original; because we had the daily paper that covered the news of the world, it meant that we could make choices about what we wanted to write about, and have a little more imagination and be more enterprising," she says. "At the same time you had the chance to develop stories a little more than you might at a daily."
One of her notable New Yorker features leads off, "If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale." When she finally makes explicit, a couple of paragraphs down, that Biff is a dog, it's not that we haven't figured it out yet, but her playful approach has pulled us all the way into a strikingly unconventional narrative arc from which there is no taking a break, as we eagerly wonder what she's about to tell us next about the life of a 4-year-old prizewinning boxer – and, next, marvel that she's made us care about the life of a 4-year-old prizewinning boxer.
Orlean is one of four writers participating in Rollins College's annual Winter With the Writers who have Florida connections. Her best-known book, The Orchid Thief, digs into the obsessive John Laroche, a South Florida horticulturist turned orchid-poacher. Laroche was arrested and tried for removing rare flora specimens from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, near Naples. Expanded from a New Yorker piece, the book was loosely adapted by Charlie Kaufman into the clever meta-movie Adaptation, which documents the writing of itself. Author (Meryl Streep as Orlean) and screenwriter (Nicolas Cage as Kaufman) are added to the satirical take on Kaufman's real-life frustration of having to adapt – Hollywood-style – a book resistant to the treatment.
Orlean will be in attendance at a special screening of Adaptation this evening at Enzian Theater and for a Q&A session after the film. (Attendance is limited to Enzian Film Society members; visit enzian.org to learn more.) Tomorrow at Rollins College, she leads a master class and does an evening reading that will include excerpts from The Orchid Thief. She plans to focus her master class on two fundamental aspects of creative writing: how to choose the right story subjects, and how to craft the perfect ledes and conclusions. (The Feb. 2 events at Rollins are free and open to the public.)
Her appearance follows a long tradition at Rollins that dates back to 1927, the year when President Hamilton Holt founded the "Animated Magazine." The live program modeled after a print publication furthered interaction between faculty and students and high-profile writers, until its cessation in 1970; soon thereafter the English Department picked up the initiative of inviting well-known writers to give readings, which eventually became Winter With the Writers. Since Carol Frost's appointment as director in 2008, the festival has hosted a Nobel laureate, several poets laureate, and MacArthur Fellows, among other categories of literary luminaries.
Based on questions received from the audience, Frost conducts on-stage interviews with all the writers, which (on each subsequent Thursday of this month) also include Peter Meinke, Poet Laureate of Florida (Feb. 9); David Kirby, winner of a 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Humanities Council (Feb. 9); Chris Abani, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award (Feb. 16); and 2016 National Book Award finalists Jay Hopler (from the University of South Florida) and Chris Bachelder (Feb. 23). This year marks the festival's second collaboration with the National Book Foundation, whose celebration of the best of American literature fits snugly with the mission of Winter With the Writers.
"I keep in mind the diverse range of writing and writers," says Frost. "Contemporary writing is rarely meant only to comfort audiences but also to challenge notions of who we are and who we can better be."
Currently on leave from The New Yorker, Orlean is in the concluding stages of her next book, about the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire. She writes at a treadmill desk – "Drinking coffee is a known hazard," she tells me. "If you go too fast, phone calls will be punctuated by gasps for air" – and plans to get more chickens for her summer home in upstate New York, where she and her husband have 50 acres and tend livestock that includes Angus cattle, ducks and turkeys. "I really miss having them."
Although she has witnessed firsthand the decline of long-form creative journalism in print, she still encourages aspiring writers to work with editors who will improve their work, and to be conscious of an audience rather than blogging or self-publishing exclusively.
"It's like the difference between reading a book on your own and discussing a book in a class with a professor who's thoughtful and who will challenge you and force you to make your arguments more thorough, more thoughtful and more coherent," she says. "It's a sounding board that is an essential part of learning."
"We feel that it's a shrinking industry, but there will always be a need for people to write and to tell stories," Orlean continues optimistically, inspired to share with new audiences her hacks for good writing. "I'm afraid you just have to look a lot harder."
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