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Susan Orlean: The New Yorker author discusses Rin Tin Tin, writing and the obsession with both

First lines are particularly important to Susan Orlean, which makes it that much tougher to start an article about someone who has written about almost everything herself. The New Yorker author's most recent book, released more than ten years after her last extra-long-form non-fiction endeavor, The Orchid Thief, begins with "He believed the dog was immortal." The bold line took her a long time -- "20 billion drafts," she estimates -- but it's worth it. In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Orlean chronicles one of the movie industry's favorite canines while rehashing a territory familiar to a great deal of her work: obsession.

When she talks about it, however, her mind is back on dogs -- this time her own, a Welsh springer spaniel named Ivy who lives with Orlean's human family and two cats. "She has a very good life," Orlean says. "She plays and naps, plays and naps, play, nap, play, nap. I'm kind of jealous, really."

Orlean will read from and sign copies of Rin Tin Tin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Tattered Cover LoDo (1628 16th Street).

Westword: One of the strengths of your writing style is your ability to get inside your sources' heads. How did taking on a canine subject challenge you?

Susan Orlean: It was an altogether different project, not only because the protagonist was a canine but because 99 percent of the human characters were dead. I'm so used to spending time with people and relying on them as where my story stems from, so this was a really different project. In that way, the dog was easier than the people. That's partly why the book took me so long: What do you do with a book that is about a figure that is not a person and people who aren't alive? I'm not sure if I ever really answered that.

The book really changed, and I wasn't really sure where I was going when I began. I just loved the idea of a character who had such a different story than I thought he would. I really wasn't sure what I was looking for, and that, of course, is what I like about stories. I like that I don't know what they are, that they kind of unfold. I certainly didn't imagine that I'd be writing so much, for instance, about Lee Duncan's personality. I pictured him as a kind of interesting secondary character.

What issues did you foresee stemming from the change in reporting style?

I was really worried and intimidated by the idea of bringing the story to life, both literally and figuratively. Writing from archival materials requires a confidence -- that you really know the material, that you can speak in a way that feels authoritative about material you've learned in a way that isn't boots on the ground, so to speak. How do you tell the story, and how do you make it feel alive? I refuse to recreate scenes that I didn't observe. It's just something I don't like reading and I don't like doing. It was a huge writing challenge. The solution was something that emerged as I went along: At some point, I really truly did have enough confidence that I could tell the story without wondering how I would make this work. It became very natural, and I was saturated with it.

How do you know when a story idea is ready to become a Susan Orlean story?

I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse, but when I get excited about a story, I don't apply the kind of metrics of practicality or ease to it. I get excited, and I think, "Oh my god, this is a great story," and everything that might argue against doing it, I just don't really notice. Except if it required going to battle or something you'd have to be a fool not to notice. I think every writer kids him or herself into thinking, "This story will be easy. Yeah, there's a lot of writing and reporting, but somehow it will be easy." That's insane, of course, but all that matters to me is being excited. If I'm not excited, there's nothing. If I'm not curious, there's no way to convince myself.

What qualities must be present in a story for you to take it on?

I think it's purely a visceral kind of reaction to the idea, where I just react with this feeling of, "Oh, wow! That's cool." I know it sounds simplistic, but every story I've done and really felt close to, there was a feeling of excitement and curiosity. The thing that I feel always is that there is some hairpin turn, some quality of the story that undoes my expectations - and that, that is where I find myself drawn in. It's when I feel surprised, when I find something unexpected.

With the tale of Rin Tin Tin, when did you know your reporting was done?

I had gotten my third extension on a deadline, and I had trouble believing anyone could live through a third extension. But I also felt that I had come full circle, that I was at a point with the story where I could tell it in a full way. Of course there's no ending. It's not a story that requires an ending, but it has a feeling of completeness. I had a false ending before I got access to Bert Leonard's storage unit. I thought I was done, and I thought I knew the shape of the book, but suddenly the whole book changed. That whole section of the book felt complete after that. I keep picturing a moment when you round a corner and see the end, and it's a very clear feeling that you've told a story that has a satisfying completeness and you can end there with not an end but a resting point in the narrative.

Do you think about Ivy any differently now?

I do and I don't. I look to her and think that I don't see how anybody trained a dog to do what Rin Tin Tin did. I feel appreciative of how obedient and responsive he was to his training. You realize that if you have a pet and you're a little bit lazy, your dog doesn't get there. I realize how much it took for Lee to have trained the dog the way he did.

The dog I had before Ivy died while I was working on the book, and it made everything I wrote about Lee losing his various dogs and the first Rin Tin Tin dying much more poignant. It reminded me of the very cruel mathematics of dog lifespans and people lifespans. I look at Ivy, and she's young, and to me she'll be this age forever. But I know how fast that time goes, where you suddenly wake up and your dog isn't one and a half, she's 9 or 10. It made me look at her more tenderly.

So I take it she won't be going into show business anytime soon?

I have a few friends who have Welshies who say to me, "You better not put her in movies because they'll get too popular," and we all know what happens when a breed gets too popular. That would require turning her over to someone who could train her, too, which might be tough. I wouldn't mind her being a model, if she could just be photographed. She could just support us, and we could be like Macaulay Culkin and his parents when he was a kid. We could live this lavish life supported by our dog. A lot of people fantasize about it.

A lot of dreamers hire dog agents for their pets. A lot of people were suing this agent near where I lived because he never got any parts for their dogs. People are so crazy.

The theme of obsession also plays a part in this book, as it did in The Orchid Thief. Did you notice any other similarities as you wrote it?

It's so interesting because, of course, starting on it I thought this book couldn't be any more different. It's a complete departure. I think most writers who get to choose what they write about are attracted to certain themes that repeat, and maybe that's a good thing because they're creating a body of work that addresses a couple big issues through different works. I don't think it's a bad thing, but you do it more unconsciously than you might think. I was really drawn to the story, not the passion or the obsession or the single-minded commitment to an idea. I'm very interested in trying to capture a sense of popular culture through a sort of oblique angle, and I think orchids and Rin Tin Tin are similarly lenses that did that, that attracted a range of people that have lasted through trends and social change. People have been collecting orchids for hundreds of years, and people fell in love with Rin Tin Tin in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. There's that ability of an object to connect people to it from really different cultures and times. That really interests me. There's also the idea of immortality, which comes out in the Orchid Thief as well, the idea of people living outside the bounds of time.

My little boy hung up a bird feeder, and I was really skeptical of whether it would work. A hummingbird just came up to it and fed, and this is so cool.

Congratulations, that is a big deal.

He's going to be so excited, and I can't wait to tell him. Sorry for the interruption. It's a big event here.

At one point, you write about visiting Rin Tin Tin's grave in Paris. What was the most difficult aspect of your role as the author?

The lead was the hardest, without a question. I'm usually pretty adept at leads, and this just had me tied in knots. I found it incredibly difficult because I wanted to somehow telegraph the span of time that the book took on, and I wanted to make clear immediately that it was not some goofy nostalgia book about '50s TV. While they're always important, this one was really challenging. I rewrote it 20 billion times, to make a rough guess. It was dreadful, but when I got it I was so excited. I just felt like, "This is what I was trying to do." I put a lot of elbow grease into it. I felt like I couldn't move forward until I got it right, so it was a slow start for the book. For me, it only feels natural to do it chronologically.

Along the way, you archived some of the production process yourself through your Twitter account. How does social media add to the literary experience?

I had no intention of really getting very busy on social media and only joined Twitter because my assistant said, "You should do it. You would enjoy it." I said, "Whatever," and I didn't see it as something I'd be very involved in. I was working alone, thrashing around and suffering through this book. And we were also living up in the country in this isolated setting. Once I sort of figured out how Twitter worked, it became a nice companion.

And it's a particularly good venue for complaining, so if you're having a bad day and you really just want to moan and whine, it's a good venue for that. People agree with you, and there's a lot of sympathy for you and your moaning and groaning without annoying your family nearly as much. That's the way I sort of first connected to it, just through the chatter you might do in an office place coupled with the great, friendly feeling in Twitter of people cheering each other on. That's definitely part of the spirit of it, just lots of people cheering.

Without even having thought about this, it occurs to me that it might be interesting for people to see how the sausage is made. Some writers might find that unpleasant and weird and they night not want to show their hand, but I found it kind of wonderful and interesting, and I felt it was really nice to talk about how I was working and where it was going and see people's response. It was like being on a book tour or teaching, both of which are things I do and enjoy, but in a very loose forum like that. I didn't see any downside except that you can spend an awful lot of time goofing around. On the other hand, I've always found plenty of ways to do that. So I don't think it increased my goof-around time.

The new book marks a substantial and distinctly different contribution to nonfiction from your last. Do you continue to learn things about yourself as you write?

I'm definitely still learning things, both as a writer and as a person. I think a lot of what you're always wondering about as your writing is, "Why are you writing?" It's a bit of a strange pursuit in ways that some other jobs are not. That's always going to be the case, and there's a funny way that writing reminds me of when I'm running and I think, "I could stop this minute and go home." But I don't, and I wonder why.

There's this conversation you have with yourself that's like, "Why am I doing this strange thing, and what do I get out of it?" The pure act of creativity, the fact that you're producing a new thing that hadn't existed before, and what that demands of you, means you can't help but wonder why you're not doing something easier. I'm not sure that any job is easy, but there are certain ones that are so quantifiable that they have a different set of emotions. Writing is not quantifiable. There's never a feeling of absolute completion, even when the book is done.

Did you come up with any more answers this time?

No, not really. I just like to think that the way I phrase the question becomes more sophisticated and complex. And in the case of Rin Tin Tin there was no question that I saw a distressing parallel between the stubborn devotion and my being involved in my book and pushing forward even at times when it would have been so much easier to say, "This is too hard. I'm going to bail." For those people in my book like Lee and Burt and I'm going to include myself in this, it's different. There were certainly times when I though, "Wow, this is taking too long, and it's too hard." On the other hand, you obviously wouldn't be able to be a writer if you let that happen because it just wouldn't work. It's just part of the pursuit. It's challenging, and it's difficult.

Did you reread the book when you finished it?

I read it a lot, but never like a writer. You always wonder how doctors can examine a nude patient without relating to them, and I think you just dissociate and look at it piece by piece. I don't read it as a reader when I'm editing. I'm looking at it like, "Here's the liver and here's the kidney, and we need to mend this and repair that." I lose the ability to read it as a reader, and I don't like re-reading my stuff anymore because I always see the things I would still like to change.


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