“I built a small writing studio about 100 yards from my house, on the downslope of a hill, so that I can’t see the house from the studio. I took this picture in the middle of a very cold day — snow was stacked up around the studio, and I could hardly open the door. The desk is my prize — a Herman Miller boomerang that is no longer made. I am obsessed with word counts, so I often keep track of my progress on Post-it notes that I stick up on the wall, along with snippets I want to remember to use. In the vase on my desk are six or seven feathers from my turkeys, Tom, Thom, Tommy, and Thomas, who have a coop just a few feet away from the studio. Sometimes I let them come down to the studio but they tend to peck at the windows.”
Susan Orlean is currently writing on American culture. Her subjects have included the designer Bill Blass, the Harlem high-school basketball star Felipe Lopez, the friends and neighbors of Tonya Harding, and taxidermy.
Before joining The New Yorker in 1992, Orlean was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and at Vogue, where she wrote on numerous figures in both the music and fashion industries. Previously, she had been a columnist, first for the Boston Phoenix and then for the Boston Globe Magazine. She has also written for the New York Times Magazine, Spy, Esquire, and Outside.
Orlean has written several books, including “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People,” a collection of pieces that was released in 2001; “Red Sox and Blue Fish,” (1987), a compilation of columns she wrote for the Boston Globe Magazine; “Saturday Night,” (1990), a collection of pieces that chronicle the Saturday nights she spent in communities across the country; and “The Orchid Thief,” (1998), a narrative about orchid poachers in Florida. “The Orchid Thief” inspired the movie “Adaptation,” written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. Her essay collection “My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere,” was published in 2004.
Orlean was a 2004 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She lives in Manhattan and Boston.
FROM YOUR DESKS: I’m currently under the impression felines love the warmth of the computer screen. Who is that cat?
SUSAN ORLEAN: That’s Mittens the cat, who just likes to be with me, wherever I am. Might like the warm computer screen, too, but I think it’s just love.
FYD: You are a master social networker. Are you more of a Twitter or Facebook fan?
SO: I wouldn’t call myself a master! But I get a kick out of social media, yes. I am far more of a Twitter fan than a Facebook fan.
I edit as I go along, sentence by sentence.
FYD: You’re a Cleveland native, schooled in Michigan, spent time in Portland, headed East to Boston and hopped over to New York. Would you have it any other way?
SO: I’m glad I’ve lived in a lot of places; I’ve loved learning about each one, and while I get very attached to wherever I am, I also get excited about digging into a new environment.
FYD: Are you still glad you didn’t go to law school?
SO: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
FYD: Does your New Yorker piece, advice to writers still ring true? Are writing degrees necessary or do they burn time and money but hook up great connections?
SO: I think writing degrees hook you up with useful people, and introduce you to the idea of editing, and encourage you to think of yourself as a writer, and might even teach you something. Are they necessary? No.
FYD: You just finished your book…Rin Tin Tin. Did you keep a routine? How long did it take to research and write?
SO: I finished it, yes indeed! And I’m just so thrilled to finally be done. My routine was pretty dreary and relentless; show up, sit, write for as many hours as I could bear, turn computer off, sleep. I spent several years researching it and several more writing.
FYD: Are you structured in that you edit yourself as you go along?
SO: I edit as I go along, sentence by sentence.
FYD: Do you read the sentences aloud to yourself?
SO: Always. Best, fastest, cheapest way to edit yourself, I think.
FYD: What is the feeling that describes being “finished” with your book?
SO: When I first declared that I had “finished,” I meant I had written through to the end. I revised and revised for the next several weeks and will continue to do more, but the feeling of finishing — of having written “The End” — has more to do with the first moment that finally happens.
FYD: Why are writers so critical regarding their own work?
SO: I don’t know if writers are generally critical of their work; I couldn’t really speculate on that. And I’m not sure writers are more critical than any other creative people; it’s just hard work, and hard to know if you’ve succeeded. I trust my instincts a lot, and usually know when I’ve written something that works — and also when I’ve written something that’s really not quite as good as it should be.
FYD: When I talked to Maud Newton, she talked about The Orchid Thief and how important it is to align herself with writers she aspires to write like. Do you carry the same sentiment?
SO: Absolutely! I think reading and rereading the work you care, and even breaking it down to serve as a template or model is essential — and useful. I write with copies of the books I really admire within close reach, so I can grab them when I’m sinking with a piece and use them to buoy me up; I get inspired, and even more concretely, I look to see how the writers I admire tackle whatever writing problem I’m having.
My routine was pretty dreary and relentless; show up, sit, write for as many hours as I could bear, turn computer off, sleep.
SO: John McPhee’s collection “Giving Good Weight”; Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains”; Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia”; and an anthology called “The Literary Journalists”.
FYD: Yankees or Red Sox?
SO: That’s easy! Red Sox, of course.
FYD: As a huge Yankees fan, I’ll begrudgingly give you the Sox because I love the rivalry. But please tell me you miss the dirty Red Sox of old…I’m thinking the Johnny Damon, Manny, Oritz, Pedro era.
SO: Yes, that’s my era of Red Sox. The whole crazy mess of them.