ENCOUNTER: Susan Orlean

A conversation about CNF and teaching between Lee Gutkind and Susan Orlean

“I’m in the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House—58 West 10th St., near Sixth Avenue (if I remember correctly!),” Susan Orlean wrote. “The door is locked, so probably the best thing would be for you to give me a call on my cell … and I’ll come let you in. If for some reason I’m not answering, buzz the front door and tell the secretary you’re coming to see me, and they’ll probably buzz to let you in. I think my office number is 312, but the building is impossible to navigate, so it’ll be better for me to meet you in the front room. Cheers.”

Surely, I thought, she was complicating the situation; I would simply walk into the building on the NYU campus in Greenwich Village and locate 312. After slipping into the building behind a student, however, I realized I couldn’t even find the third floor without some help; it seemed as if I had to go downstairs before I could go up.

When I finally found Orlean’s office, she was in a conference with a student, so I sat outside, listening to the familiar conversation of a professor trying to help a student who seemed to be lost—not necessarily because of a lack of talent, but because of procrastination. It has always surprised me that students attempt to research and write long-form narrative nonfiction as if they were pulling an all-nighter before finals.

After the student left, Orlean swung open the door with a look of relief. She was teaching an undergraduate creative nonfiction course this term, commuting once a week from her home in Columbia County in to the city. I have worked with Orlean before in a writer’s conference situation, and she is known as a very giving teacher, who makes herself available as a counselor and editor to students not only during the class, but for months afterward.You might say Orlean is an overachiever. She has been one of the few women to make her name as a writer in the world of long-form immersion-based narrative. A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, she has gravitated toward stories that combine precision reporting with personal experience. Among these has been “The Orchid Thief,” later adapted into a film, “Adaptation,” in which Orlean was portrayed— loosely—by Meryl Streep.

Her new book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” will be published in October, following years of work that—as it happened—overlapped with a very busy period in Orlean’s life. She explained: “I got the book contract right around the time I got pregnant, … and the journey of becoming a parent—which in itself would be a full-time job—was paralleling this experience of writing the book, so it has just been six very intense years.”

We left the Writers House and strolled up Seventh Avenue, seeking a quiet place to talk where she could also eat a late lunch. This was not a particularly easy task; we ended up in a nearly abandoned Sushi House, where we talked for nearly two hours about writing, teaching, parenthood and literary politics. Orlean is outspoken, honest, highly knowledgeable, humorous and delightfully opinionated. At the time of our conversation early this year, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts had just released “The Count 2010,” a breakdown by gender of authors published and reviewed in a number of mainstream publications, which seemed to demonstrate that men’s writing receives a disproportionate amount of literary space and attention. –Lee Gutkind

ORLEAN: That was a real challenge that I just had not taken into account: Traveling and weird hours are part of what confronts you when you’re doing a sort of immersion in a subject, and those don’t fit very well with the life of a new parent— or any parent, frankly. And there’s all this controversy going on right now about why there aren’t more women appearing in magazines like The New Yorker, and so forth, and a call to boycott The New Yorker. My attitude toward it is that we’re looking at the wrong problem.The problem isn’t The New Yorker; the problem is the unrealistic expectation that women can actually do everything, that you can have a profession that requires travel and immersion and complete absorption in a subject and also be a parent, which … I just think it’s a different set of issues.

It’s true that there are few women appearing in magazines that run long narrative nonfiction, but I don’t think it’s the magazines forming a conspiracy to keep out women.

CNF: There are long pieces by women, but they’re not the same kind of pieces, right?

ORLEAN: There are two controversies unfolding right now. First, there was a study recently released about book reviews: How many books by women are being reviewed in major publications? And who is writing the reviews—is it men or women? Then, there’s a second question: In particular, a woman wrote a letter complaining to The New Yorker, saying, “You never have any women in
the magazine. I’m going to boycott as a result, and I’m going to ask everybody else to boycott, too, until you can remedy the situation.”

CNF: That’s not true that they don’t have any women in the magazine, is it?

ORLEAN: I have not sat down and counted, but they certainly don’t have. …

There are many issues where there might be only one or two, or only one woman appearing in the magazine.The funny thing is seeing it from the other side:The majority of the editors are female, or, at least, more than half of the editors are female.The people in executive positions— the head of the art department, the head of the cover department, the executive editor—they’re all women. So it doesn’t feel like a male-dominated place to me at all. My editor is a woman, and most of the editors I’ve worked with there have been female.

CNF: Does it have to do with the demands of long-form narrative nonfiction?You and writers like you have to disconnect. If you’re an editor, you’re still in the same office, and you’re still working basically the same amount of hours, and not Saturday and Sunday.

ORLEAN: Right. Certainly, the editors all put in long hours, and there are times when it requires crazy long nights, but generally, being an editor suits a normal schedule much better than being a writer. Editors don’t travel; they don’t go to weird events at weird times, places where you wouldn’t take a child.

CNF: Their lives are much more structured; the demands are back at the office.

ORLEAN: Yes. I don’t spend all sorts of time looking at things in terms of gender anyway—that’s just my tendency—but is
it a job that’s easy to do as a woman? No, I don’t think it is. My son loves my husband, but the bottom line is he really wants me to pick him up from school.

So it makes me really think about what is next for me in this profession. I’m saying this, of course, coming off of too many years with a book hanging over my head. It’s like the minute you give birth, you think, “I’m never having a kid again, never; remind me: I don’t want to have another baby.” And then in a little bit of time and with a little distance, you start forgetting that it was really painful, and you begin thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a baby?”

CNF: You wouldn’t do it again. But would you do it again?

ORLEAN: Have another baby?

CNF: Yeah.

ORLEAN: I actually said something about having another child to my husband, who said he thought I needed to be institutionalized.

CNF: Was it your idea? You were 48, 49, which is unusual.

ORLEAN: It was a combination, actually. My husband definitely encouraged it and wanted to have a kid and wanted us to have a kid together, and I had been one of those people who kept saying, “I definitely want a kid, but I’ll wait until. …” I always had a list of the things I was going to take care of before I had a kid, and then one day, you wake up and think, “Oh, my god”—you know that great cartoon—“I forgot to have a baby.”

I think that when I first came to New York and first got really engaged in the magazine world, I felt I couldn’t afford to take a break. Not so much a break of time, but I was not yet at a point where I could say, “I’ll write my itinerary.” There was probably some truth to that, and certainly, personally, I didn’t feel. … I feel so different now. Partly it’s feeling confident that if I decide to take off a year, what’s going to happen? The worst thing that could happen is nothing. It will be what it will be. Ten years ago, I didn’t even imagine that as a possibility because I felt I had to get enough things sort of nailed down before I had that freedom to say, I’m taking a break or I’m … whatever it will be. Now, I’m very Zen; I really am: one great thing about growing up is being so much more comfortable. … I’m really happy with where I am professionally, and what I care about is getting better at writing, and Place X will either take my work or they won’t, and whatever.

CNF: Maybe it’s really better to be an older parent than a younger parent. Last year, I wrote a book with my son, and it had to do with being an old new dad and how every summer, since 2003, we went away. Many times, we got in a pickup and drove around, just kind of experienced whatever happened. Maybe I won’t be around as long as the dads of his friends, but I don’t have to worry about working so hard to achieve anymore.

ORLEAN: I’m sort of shying away from saying the word ambition because it seems so crass, but I was ambitious. I had a goal: I wanted to be in a position to write about what I wanted to write about, and I wanted to direct my own work and be in a position that magazines or publishers would trust my judgment, so that if I said, “I want to do a book about an odd guy who collects orchids,” they would say, “If you really like it, if you think it’s a really good idea, we’ll trust your judgment.” That was my ambition, and once I got to that point, which (knock on wood) I feel I have, I’m not sure what other ambition would make sense except that I really hope I write better and better.That’s my own problem. It’s not a matter of making sure I meet this editor or that editor, or lay the groundwork professionally; It’s just my own private issue: How do I make my writing better?

So, I have the luxury of feeling Zen because I did actually manage to get to that position. I do feel it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to say I write the things I want to write. I’m delighted to discover I’m not a piranha; I really am content. I mean, that’s what I wanted, and I was very driven, and it is also gratifying for me to discover that once I got to that goal, I didn’t then set another. It wasn’t just pure ambition; it was specifically to get somewhere.

I remember asking a friend why certain Wall Street maniacs get themselves into trouble, why once they’ve earned 500 million dollars, they don’t say, “All right, I have enough money, and I can stop, and I don’t have to keep ripping off people or acquiring companies,” and he said the problem is that the drive that got them there, there’s not a governor on it; they don’t have a way of turning it off. It’s never enough. So for me, it was comforting in a character-logical way to discover that it was enough. Now, my ambition is so specific; it’s simply to try to make the writing better. It’s not that I’m still simply moving forward, driving to drive, to be ambitious, to … what? I don’t know.

CNF: Think back to that time. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about was whether or not this drive that you had,
and that many other writers had, not so many years ago, is duplicated or instilled in those students you’re teaching or in young people, generally, who say they want to write.

ORLEAN: I have to say—not to sound like an old fogy wagging my finger at young folk—I’m a little astonished by
the lack of ambition and the lack of savvy about going about a writing career. It isn’t something I have to be reminded of, and you’re talking about people who are 20 who have never been out in the working world, but there’s a different perspective. All of them can start blogs, and in their minds, they’re being published, and they’re just waiting for their blogs to be discovered.

I don’t want to be too harsh, but I don’t see that drive, and I’m surprised by it. I’ve had some students who are really good writers but don’t seem to have the enterprise that is, I think, actually really necessary, and I’m kind of puzzled by that. It’s not that I think young people are lazy or … I don’t know. I think part of it might be that they’re discouraged: They feel that everything they know about print journalism suggests it’s a shrinking profession; they’ll never get a job; it’s not even something they think about or consider as an option. I don’t know whether the perspective of blogging and free content makes it seem more like a hobby than a profession, and so you don’t have to be enterprising and entrepreneurial. I’m not sure, but I certainly think there’s less … less of that drive than I would expect.

Most of my students are seniors, and I’ve done a lot of writer-in-residence things with MFA students, and—this
will definitely make me sound like an old fogy—a lot of people whom I teach don’t appreciate the idea of paying dues and starting small and making themselves useful. I think they picture themselves writing their memoirs, and they don’t even seem to walk logically through the idea: Why would someone want to run a 20,000-word piece of a memoir by a 22-year-old? They don’t seem as interested in the world around them as they are in themselves, and as a result, I don’t think they see how they can be useful as reporters. I do think the whole memoir mania has had a certain effect on that. People 20 years ago might have thought, “I want to write nonfiction, so I’ve got to learn about the world,” and now they’re thinking, “I really want to write nonfiction, and my memoir will be called. …” Nobody I knew thought about writing a memoir when I was getting started. No one.

CNF: You had to be 60.

ORLEAN: There was nothing appealing about it, even.

CNF: That was the last thing, anyway. ORLEAN: What people thought was, “If I get to be a writer, I’ll get to go to cool places and see cool things,” not, “I’ll get to detail how my boyfriend and I broke up.” When that’s what you’re writing about, I think what you’re doing is thinking someone will discover the wonderfulness of this thing you’ve written rather than thinking, “I’m part of an industry of learning and talking and communicating and writing; how can I find my way in that industry?” It is a very different perspective.

CNF: How much do you think that writing programs have contributed to this?

ORLEAN: I have what is probably a fairly cynical take that I’ve modified a little bit. I’ve never been a big supporter of writing programs, not out of any antagonism, but I think I always wondered why you should pay for something to be edited when you could be out there in the world, writing and getting editing as part of it—and being paid. But, also, the stakes are more real; when you’re writing for publication, it’s more real.

A few things happened to change my perspective: One, it’s harder and harder to get those jobs; two, the reality of the good editing being there for you … I’m afraid I got very lucky in the early parts of my career. I had very good editors; I really learned. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I got jobs, and I had editors who basically taught me and gave me the equivalent of a graduate program. I’m afraid that doesn’t really exist except by luck. Not to mention that the job itself may not exist, and if you’re writing for a Web site, almost by definition there’s no editing.

I was a writer-in-residence at a couple of MFA programs this year, and I thought, “This is where this is happening now,
the chance to get your work really read and edited.” In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be the case, but I’m not sure you would still get the apprenticeship. The model I always looked toward was that apprenticeship model from the 1900s: When you work for a cobbler, you’re actually fixing shoes, but he’s right there, correcting your mistakes, and there’s a customer who’s waiting for his shoe.
I’m not sure that exists much anymore, so I’ve softened my position on writing programs because I think they are filling a need that maybe isn’t being served that way.

In the interest of not appearing to be tech schools, writing programs are emphasizing still less the practical part of what you’re doing. I’m really talking about MFA programs, not journalism schools. I really haven’t done much teaching in journalism schools, but I’m sure they certainly emphasize the more practical parts of coming up with story ideas, reporting, so on and so forth.

It’s a combination of what’s happening in the world of writing and publishing and then writing programs sort of falling in with that.They’ve created a kind of force field of “what writing is about” that’s led people off a little bit. When I say to my students, “Come up with a story idea,” they are blank; they don’t have a clue about what a story idea is.They cannot think of an idea that’s not entirely personal.They’re not journalism students, but I also think, isn’t there anything you’re curious about that’s not your own life? Maybe when I was 20, I felt the same way, but I don’t think it’s a good instinct for somebody who wants to be a narrative nonfiction writer.

CNF: We’re sitting here in the Village, and I’m thinking, “What did Kerouac do? What did Ginsberg do?” They had experienced life, and they thought it out all alone with their rolls of paper or whatever. They thought it out, and they wrote and then tried it out on their friends and then had more experiences, and maybe they read their stuff here in the Village. My first book: I jumped on a motorcycle and traveled the country for three years because that was the experience I wanted to have, but there was nobody around who would help me.

ORLEAN: That’s sort of what I did.

CNF: Suddenly, you were writing “Saturday Night”—I don’t know if anybody gave you $100,000 to do that.

ORLEAN: I did have a contract, but I don’t see people doing that.

CNF: They get on a plane, and they fly to wherever they have been accepted for their MFA program, and that’s the adventure.

ORLEAN: Yeah.You know, it’s really funny. I’ll give you an example of this and why it was really on my mind: I was just a writer-in-residence somewhere, and one of the students was really bright, a good writer, had a tremendous amount of energy and enterprise, and I thought, “Boy, she’s the kind of person who I think will make it.” She had a good idea, she had a couple of good ideas, and I just thought this is the kind of person who is going to make it. She had done writing for some alternative newsweeklies, and
so forth, so she sent me a story that she was planning to submit to a bunch of big magazines—and it was a very long piece about a breakup with her boyfriend, and I thought: What makes you think this is a story? What is it that you’re thinking readers would want or a magazine would want? How did this not connect for you, that this isn’t a story that’s going to make sense until you become a world famous novelist and you’re 90 and you’re writing your memoir? I was completely flabbergasted. Is it just pure narcissism that you don’t realize that what’s interesting to you is not interesting to other people? I don’t know.

CNF: Did you ask her?

ORLEAN: No, I just gave her a quick response: I said she should send it everywhere and get it out there, and I was just going to give her my quick take on it, which was that it was much more personal than The New Yorker tends to look for in their stories. In a way, I thought I had to say this. It’s a puzzle.

CNF: Another question: Are they reading like they used to? Writers used to read like crazy because that’s where you learned.

ORLEAN: I don’t know. I assigned Joan Didion to my class last year at NYU, and most of those kids had never read Joan Didion.They’d all read David Foster Wallace—and I think part of what’s happened is that the writers whom students have begun looking to as models are people who are so particular and whose subject matter—I mean, he did a lot of reporting, as well, and pieces that were even quasi- journalistic, but. … They’d all read David Sedaris, occasionally Malcolm Gladwell, but are they reading a lot? I don’t think so. Do they have subscriptions to The New Yorker? I’d fall over dead with surprise if that were the case.Yet, these are people who want to do this kind of writing, so that’s kind of discouraging and a little puzzling to me.

CNF: I’m always amazed by people who want a Master’s degree or an MFA in creative nonfiction but don’t know who Gay Talese is, or Norman Mailer, or John McPhee. This is your field? It’s weird.

ORLEAN: Yeah. Then, I look at the writing programs and think, “You’re not drawing from this tradition; you’re not having people read A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell.” I don’t get it. Half of them haven’t even read Tom Wolfe. Talk about something that you figure is jazzy and fun for young people. I don’t know what they’re reading, and do they seem like voracious readers? No, they’re not.
I will say as an observation—not at all scientific—that there was a moment when I realized not a single one of our babysitters read the newspaper. They were a range of young women who were bright: When we lived in Boston, a lot of them were at BU, and then some were out of college, but none of them read a newspaper. That’s a huge change. I didn’t get a subscription to the newspaper
when I was in college, either, so I won’t completely point to that as the sign of the end of Western civilization—but I just think the reading habits of people under 30 are so different. It’s such a divide. I just think it’s a completely different universe, and I’m not sure what will come of it.

CNF: I have the description for this course you’re teaching now, and you’re teaching all these old guys.

ORLEAN: I’m torturing my students.

CNF: How are they responding to not reading today’s new writers?

ORLEAN: It’s funny: A few of the kids last year said to me how grateful they were that I turned them on to Joan Didion, whom they had never read and really loved. John McPhee:They’re respectful, but not blown away. That’s actually last year’s list, and I would say, in general, none of them liked “In Patagonia.” “Great Plains” got a sort of mixed response. They loved “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which is very interesting. A middle-aged person reflecting on marriage, but they did really love it. I would say they had mixed feelings about everything else.

CNF: But you wanted to introduce Joseph Mitchell and the rest of these people to them.

ORLEAN: Yeah, and I thought, I’m going to look at the works that sit on my desk and that I return to again and again, trying to figure out how to solve problems in my writing, and that I think of as masters of this particular genre. I probably assumed that most of this would be new to them, that this was kind of a chance to introduce them to some of these writers, but, in fact, I changed my reading list this year because I found it simply too depressing. “In Patagonia,” which I know is really an odd book though I love it, but I could just tell that they did not get it. I actually went backward and assigned “Hiroshima” and “The White Album.” I didn’t do “The Year of Magical Thinking” this semester; I only did “The White Album,” which they didn’t like as much. I assigned both literary journalism and the literary journalists, both of those Mark Kramer collections, rather than doing whole books; I thought it would fit better because we’re so short on time anyway in the class, and it seemed like it would also expose them to a whole bunch of people at once.

CNF: Do you use them as texts or examples for their writing?

ORLEAN: We’re workshopping their writing, so they’re reading with the idea that, at any moment, they should be able to talk about the work. Because the amount of time we have ends up feeling so limited, though, we’re so behind already workshopping their pieces, and I came to feel that doing the workshop format with their work is important. They’re more comfortable analyzing and criticizing each other’s work. I found that our discussions of the books were really flat. I think they felt self-conscious criticizing or challenging them.

CNF: I noticed that you talk about structure. Did you construct these pieces so that they understand. …

ORLEAN: You mean the assigned reading? I think structure is the one thing I most want them to begin thinking about because they come into the class without the idea that a piece is structured. Maybe they’re good at writing descriptions or they’ve got a part of it, but they’ve never thought about pacing and structure, and that’s why I really like them to look at “Travels in Georgia,” because it’s so clearly structured.That’s a good example of saying to them, “You should look at the way this works: It’s not just day one, day two, day three.” I also notice that I often talk to them in the language of film, which I think is applicable and I think it’s fine.They’re more comfortable with the idea of how a film works. It’s their medium almost more than print.

CNF: Can you give an example?

ORLEAN: Today, I was talking about how in one of the pieces that was turned in, everything was given exactly equal weight and the piece just unfolded like this. In a film, you have a variety of shots—you’ve got close-ups; you’ve got panoramas; you’ve got moments where the camera follows in terms of point of view and then in terms of chronology; you focus on a scene in the present and then you can move backward in time and bring us back up to that moment in the present—and they were all scribbling as if this was genius. I think they hadn’t been thinking about mixing up the shots, so to speak.These kids are bright, and they were chosen—I mean, I chose them out of a lot of applicants.

CNF: Is that what it means by “Master Class”?

ORLEAN:You have to apply and submit a writing sample, and there are a limited number of spaces. Twelve is the maximum. I don’t know if there’s a requirement of another lower-level course that they have to take before they can apply. I’m not sure; all I know is they send me the batch of writing samples, and then I read them and select.

CNF: They’re all nonfiction people?

ORLEAN: Some of them are focusing on fiction, but yeah, all nonfiction. Mainly, they end up being seniors, with one or two juniors.

CNF: So these are undergrads?

ORLEAN: All the writer-in-residence gigs I’ve done are with MFA students, and I’m about to do a couple more, but this is with undergraduates, which is kind of fun. I do try to remind myself that they’re kids.

CNF: You see that much difference between seniors and some of the MFA students?

ORLEAN: Yeah, because a lot of MFA students didn’t go directly into graduate school; it seems like more and more of them have at least a year or two before they go into the program. Also, in a lot
of these programs, they’re teaching. I was just at Penn State, and that’s a fully funded program where everybody is teaching, and that just seems to mature them a lot more. And, at least half of them were married.

CNF: But then again, it also takes them away from the road, right?

ORLEAN: Yeah. You could stay in graduate school for a long time, and actually, if you are in a funded program like that, it’s a far better deal than being out in the world, trying to get a writing job. That’s where I got it, where I thought: If you want to be writing and getting edited and getting good input from people you respect and get paid, this is probably one of the better opportunities for doing that. My old standby advice is to go find a small town somewhere and get a job at a newspaper, but I am very reluctant to give that advice anymore because I don’t think it’s actually possible.

But, in staying just in academia—I loved being a college student, and I enjoy being back here, but by the time you’re 28 or something, if you haven’t been out experiencing the world and you want to be a nonfiction writer, I think you start running into problems.You’re getting a little long in the tooth not to have adventured a little or learned about something. Colleges are a wonderful terrarium, and I can see where you might just think, “Hey, I really like this, and this is where I’m going to stay.” That’s fine, but if your idea is that you’re going to be out in the world writing forThe NewYorker—as is often the ambition that they describe— you’re getting further and further away from being part of a world that would be interesting to write about.