Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Exclusive Interview with New Yorker Writer Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean, Writer/Journalist/Author
Susan Orlean, 53, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992 who authored the best-seller The Orchid Thief, is one of the great literary journalists of the last quarter-century.
With sentences stunning in their purity and a droll sense of humor, Orlean has an amazing knack for not only revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary but completely immersing you into the world of her subjects.
Getting to know a subject very well “can lull you into a different sense of mission,” Orlean once said of her own immersion process. “The sharp edges blur and you're into the protoplasm of the person rather than the outline.”
In addition to publishing several books of nonfiction (Little Lazy Loafers, My Kind of Place, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, Saturday Night, Red Sox and Bluefish), she has also written stories for Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.
For more information on her life and career, please check out her Web site at:
The following is my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Orlean:
Mike: How did you become a professional writer?
Orlean: I can’t quite tell you how writing began, since I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t in my life. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. From the time I was able to conceive of the idea of writing, I was writing little books and always gravitated toward writing in school. And when the time came to think about professions after college—I didn’t know how you became a writer professionally or whether I’d make a living at it—it was the only thing I was excited about pursuing.
I was around 21 years old and living in Portland, Oregon, after college, biding my time before what I feared was my inevitable descent into law school, or graduate school for English, or something similarly practical but unappealing. Then, out of nowhere, I stumbled into a writing job, for which I was entirely unqualified, except for my absolute, utter enthusiasm about it.
I saw an ad for a little magazine that was getting started. I just couldn’t contain myself and immediately applied, saying that while I had no experience or qualifications, I was dying to do this.
I mean, I was the editor of my high school yearbook and an English major at the University of Michigan, but I didn’t work for my college newspaper because I never wanted to be a newspaper reporter. That just didn’t seem to me to be the kind of training I was after. So I didn’t have any clips, other than one book review for the Michigan Daily. I was just passionate, knew I wanted to write.
They were paying hardly anything and, luckily, they were hiring young people without experience. It wasn’t as if I got a job at The New York Times. But it was a real magazine, with a real budget.
In retrospect, I don’t think it was a bad hiring decision, or a foolish one. I think that being passionate is the most important thing. Everything else is useful and important, but not the critical element. And I had the critical element—-a true, honest desire to tell stories.
Mike: Did you think you had talent at the time?
Orlean: Yeah, I think I did. I mean, I was always told by my English teachers that I wrote really well. So I had gotten…
Mike: …positive feedback?
Orlean: Yeah. I felt I was a good writer. And in college, I did take a lot of writing classes, and poetry. And I read great writing.
Mike: What were you reading?
Orlean: Mostly fiction. I was really in love with James Joyce, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. The big guns.
Mike: How long did you work for that magazine.
Orlean: For a year, where I did feature pieces and came up with stuff that was fairly creative for somebody who didn’t know what they were doing. Then, from there, I went to an alternative weekly, where I was first hired to be the music critic, reviewing rock and pop, although very quickly I transitioned into doing features, because, for one thing, I didn’t like being a critic. I mean, I love music, but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do.
Mike: What did you write about at the weekly?
Orlean: I was working off assignments, like profiling a local city councilwoman. But then, at some point, my editor sensed that I had an instinct for coming up with stories on my own. And he let me do just that. So I did pieces like the one about the old main highway, which ran through Portland and had become a strip of cheap motels and prostitutes and refugees who were flooding into Portland at that time. Stories that weren’t different from ones I would be doing now.
I was really lucky. I had a fabulous editor who let me feel my own way, follow my interests. We had pretty liberal space to do longer stories on subjects that weren’t breaking news. There was a lot of freedom.
Mike: Could you describe your writing process?
Orlean: Well, the whole thing begins with coming up with the idea, because 99 percent of my stories are my own ideas. Generally, I throw myself into something, learning about it from zero up.
I’m attracted to subjects I know nothing about. So, the first part is learning, taking notes by hand—pen and reporter’s pad—and gathering as much information as I can. A lot of it is unlikely to end up in the story, but it gives me a richer sense of the subject or person or whatever I’m working on. And I report and report and report until usually I have to stop because the story is due. It’s hard to tell when you have enough.
My stories tend not to be so focused, so my reporting is very diffuse and broad. And while I’m working, I often think that I don’t even know what this story is about. So I have to keep going and going. There’s a point where I think, “Aha, now I know what it’s about.” Or, “Uh-oh, it’s due and I better figure out what it’s about.”
With most stories for me, the writing is the journey. I’ve learned about something or someone intimately. The writing of it is often when I start thinking, “Why was I interested in this, of all the stories in the world? I’m able to write about anything I want. Why this story? What was it that interested in this? Why do I feel there’s a story to tell?”
I generally don’t figure that out until I’m actually writing. So it can be a little bit of an unnerving transition from reporting to writing, because I don’t know where I’m going with the piece. The writing has a very transformational quality, because I’m finally putting two and two together, understanding why a story interested me and seemed important.
Mike: When you begin a story, do you have to have a lead before you go on?
Orlean: Yeah, I do. I sure wish I didn’t. I write stories in succession, from top to bottom, beginning to the end: first sentence, second sentence, third sentence. As often as I dream how it would be much easier for me to write it in chunks and assemble them, I’ve never even been able to do that. And it’s partly because it is storytelling. I cannot imagine in the normal, oral conveying of a story that you wouldn’t need to first tell the first sentence.
Mike: Does it have to be a fully-polished lead or a sense of the lead?
Orlean: I really need it done and have it ready to roll. There are times, when it’s all said and done, where I’ll go back and tweak it a bit. But generally it’s done and with very little changes.
Mike: You have so much material to organize. How do you do it?
Orlean: My memory is, surprisingly, good. And part of it is, I am really genuinely learning the material, not just recording it.
That’s why I don’t like using a tape recorder. I like to feel like I am really listening, really thinking, really paying attention. So, for example, if all my notes got burned up, I could probably still tell you the story. I would have to look up the facts again, of course, and obviously it wouldn’t have quotes, but I would know it just as well.
My method is this: I write a lead and that first chunk—the extended lead of around 300 words that moves you to the body of the piece. And then I review it all in my head until it all sounds right and make an informal punch list. Not an outline. Just things I know that need to be told.
For example, I just did a story about a guy who invented a new umbrella and my punch list said simply: 1) Have to tell the history of the umbrella 2) his connection to umbrella. Etc., etc.
It’s all in longhand and sits next to me as I’m writing.
Then, after I’ve typed up all my handwritten notes and highlighted everything I think I’ll use—the stuff that seems to have a place in the piece—I have all the material printed out and spread out in front of me, so visually I have it all there.
Mike: What hours do you work?
Orlean: I tend to work best in the afternoon when I’m working on a book. I’m less formal about this when I’m working on a magazine story.
But my writing process always includes a per-day word quota. I can’t knock off for the day until I’ve written 900 words. And I’m pretty tough about that quota (although I’ll give myself credit for revision). I use it as both a punishment and reward. By doing this, you can project when you’ll be done with the piece. I know that if I keep up that pace, I’ll be done by such and such a day. I find that very helpful, because it can existentially be very distressing to be looking into the void and think, “Oh, my god, I’m never going to be done with this.”
Mike: Are we talking about just 900 written words or 900 fully-polished words?
Orlean: I don’t write a rough draft. I tend to write a rough sentence, then tinker with it and tinker with it and correct it, and then move onto the next sentence. I feel like I can't think the next thought until I get the sentence finished. I’ll tweak and revise a lot as I go along, but I don’t do a super rough draft initially.
Mike: Do you have any ritual before you sit down and write—like Hemingway did by sharpening pencils?
Orlean: The only thing I do, if it’s a magazine story, is read what I wrote up to that point. Usually out loud. I want to hear the rhythm of it, hear the awkwardness, the parts that are boring. It’s the only way to edit what I’ve already written.
Mike: Do you work on a laptop computer or desktop?
Orlean: I have both, but I prefer working on my big computer, even I’ve written a lot, for better or worse, while I’m not at home. I’m not fussy about that. I am not somebody who needs a very, very particular environment. All I need is my notes. I can be pretty adaptable.
Mike: Did you ever read any how-to writing books?
Orlean: No, I never did. The only thing I ever read along those lines was an interview with John McPhee, where he described about how he writes, how he transfers notes onto index cards—-which is how I do books, laying them out in front of me. That interview was very helpful. I followed that system and it was a comfort to think that John McPhee does it, so it must be good.
I’m pretty much self-taught. I sometimes wonder how much I would’ve benefitted from a little bit more formal training. I learned from good editors and from trial and error. And, at this point, I kinda do it the way I do it. Every time I look into something that supposedly will help me organize my stuff better, it doesn’t feel natural to me and so I just haven’t done it.
Mike: For the young or new writers out there, how does one become a professional?
Orlean: I say to people: Go anywhere you have to and write. Go to the smallest town newspaper and just start writing and writing and writing. The more you write, the better you’re going to get.
And make yourself indispensable, either by working really hard or thinking of great stories. Make yourself the person that has to be on a staff.
I urge people to go to a small town, or a place where they can afford to live as a writer from the very start of their career, just so that writing is what they’re doing full-time.
I’m not a great believer in going to The Big Place and taking any job you can and wiggling your way up.
I’m a believer in getting good anywhere, developing your style and voice, and then when you’re ready, getting the good job at The Big Place.
Of course, it’s different for everybody. You have to do what temperamentally is going to work for you.
Mike: Do you still worry about rejection?
Orlean: Oh my god, yes. I’ve had this experience a few times lately, where I’ve turned something in, even something fairly minor, and I didn’t hear back from the editor quickly. I was really nervous and upset and imagining that they hated it. Instead, it ended up they simply assumed that at this point, I didn’t need (the assurance).
I think that as you get more experienced your standards just get higher and your appreciation of how success and failure feel is much more acute.
I also think that there are certain bad habits that get more and more ingrained. But I obviously have more confidence. I trust my perceptions and my instincts more.
Mike: What’s the biggest difference between your writing from years ago and your writing now?
Orlean: Aside from normal maturity, I used gimmicks back then that I would never use now.
Mike: How you ever gone through writer’s block?
Orlean: No, not in any big way. I mean, I’ve certainly spent time staring at a blank page. But I never not gotten a piece done, or been significantly late on a deadline.
I feel that true writer’s block is a neurotic problem, has really nothing to do with being a writer. I think it’s got some deep psychological stuff happening. It would certainly be a distressing thing to experience, and while I’ve been at times really stuck, I never thought I had writer’s block.
Mike: Do you think you’ll ever write fiction?
Orlean: In a perfect world, sure. It would be fabulous. But I have a feeling I won’t. Only because, as much as I love fiction and read it avidly, I’m not sure I have the tools to do it.
I’m a bit of a workhorse. So, if someone said to me, you have an assignment to write a short story and get it in by next Friday, I think I could probably do something passable. The lack of structure, where I idly think about fiction, but without any specific urgency about it, I’ve never been patient enough to try.
I do write poetry, however.
Mike: Has your poetry ever been published?
Orlean: No, and I’ve never tried. I’ve thought about it occasionally. I would be thrilled, gigantically thrilled. It would be so cool. In fact, I talked to the Poetry Editor at The New Yorker a couple of years ago and said, “Could I show you some stuff?” But I didn’t follow through. I guess if I feel really strongly that I have something ready to show, I’d be delighted to do it. It just hasn’t happened yet.
Mike: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Orlean: It’s not one of those big, sweeping spiritual things, but long ago, a good friend of mine, a wonderful writer and a highly perceptive reader, said to me once, “Loosen up a little. Not everything has to be so tight and perfect.” At that point, I was so used to building my stories like dry-laid stone walls, where you couldn’t budge a piece of it without the whole thing collapsing. That advice really stuck in my head. To me, it addressed more the issue of confidence. That you can play a little, that you can relax a little, that the reader is listening to you as long as you’re telling a good story. It’s the piece of advice I think of the most often. It’s not profound, but it’s the most significant.
Mike: What advice do you give to others?
Orlean: To really try when you’re working on a story to look deep inside yourself and try to figure out why you’re drawn to this story or this take on the piece. Like being a method actor. What’s your motivation? What’s really interesting about this subject? What resonated for you? If your notes were burned up in a fire, what would you remember about this?
Also, don’t be afraid to enter stories unprepared but to let them happen to you. Let your learning happen.
That’s the way I go about my stories, although I’ll concede it might not the best approach for everybody.
Mike: Do you ever pinch yourself that you have the dream job of writing for The New Yorker?
Orlean: Oh, yeah. I do all the time. Listen, it never gets old. It’s totally thrilling. I feel enormously lucky with the way my professional life has turned out. It’s been fantastic. I’m amazed in a good way. I’m not jaded at all. I genuinely feel fortunate. But it’s not like someone sprinkled fairy dust on me. My good luck was coupled with working very hard along the way.
Mike: Why did you succeed, do you think?
Orlean: Well, I think it’s a combination of things. My mind and temperament are quite ideally suited to what I do. Writing is just an extension of who I am. How I look at the world. How I like to tell stories. It’s just a good fit. And that’s not always the case for people. The naturalness of me in this career is very significant.
I have a pretty good sense of how to get on in the world, to deal with the sort of annoying career stuff. That’s a necessary part of succeeding. Knowing how to get by when it comes to the practical stuff. I have a decent instinct for that.