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Author Podcast: Susan Orlean

abstract: Susan Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her style of journalism is among some of the best prose written in the country today by a new breed of journalists. Author of five books, three of which are compilations of her collected articles, her book, The Orchid Thief  (Ballantine Books 2000) about an environmental controversy in the protected swamps of Florida inspired the film Adaptation.  BookBuffet caught up with this intrepid travelor, dog lover, and new mother to talk about  her writing.


October 02, 2005


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The Adaptation Of Your Book


 Part I  BB: Susan I came at your book The Orchid Thief backwards, that is, I saw Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman’s movie Adaptation (Sony 2002) (view trailer) first and thought it was brilliant – but had no idea how different the treatment was until (a) I went to find The Orchid Thief  in the book store and it was filed in the "Nature Writing" section instead of where I was looking in the alphabetized "Fiction" section, and (b) I started reading your book aloud in the car to my husband on a drive and we both became entranced by the history, minutiae and human drama surrounding the topic of orchids, the state of Florida itself, and the Seminole Indians, while waiting for the whole drug/mystery to unfold – which of course it doesn’t. 

What was your reaction to the script Adaptation, and can you tell us how you were involved in the process?

SO: I should begin by saying that I loved the movie. I think it’s a fascinating meditation on the whole idea of creativity. It deals with a million issues, and I certainly feel glad that a wonderful movie was made from my book—regardless of whether it’s faithful to the book or not. I’d rather have a wonderful movie made from my book, than just a movie that attempted to recreate the book.

In many ways it [remains] true to the book because the themes are about passion, about what it means to be deeply engaged in something in your life – that part of the movie was very close to the book.  So I kind of appreciate its philosophical connection to the book almost more than the specifics of the plot, because obviously the whole story-within-the-story is not in my book.  That is what happened when the book was optioned and being developed into a film.

I was only involved in the most peripheral way.  I gave my permission to have the book adapted, and when the script was completed, I had to give my permission for the movie to go forward the way it did, since it was so different from my book, and I gave some very specific, but small number of comments and changes.  Other than that, I sat back and let the whole thing unfold, and went to the theatre and had the surprise of my life seeing it finally completed.

BB: Well you’re right it was a brilliant movie and I am not of the stream of thinking that believes that a movie has to be an exact replication of the book, I was just interested in how you were involved; wondering how you were included in the process because you also have another movie adapted from an article of yours that became the movie Blue Crush [from her magazine article "Surf Girls of Maui"] and so the comparison between those two treatments were different again.

SO: Right exactly, and that was a much more conventional sort of experience where the material was optioned and, even though there is a lot of the movie that isn’t in my story, it didn’t diverge in the same way.

BB: While the acting in Adaptation is incredible—and I think Chris Cooper’s portrayal of John Laroche personifies your description of his,

“Tall, stick skinny, slouch-shouldered, sharply handsome despite his missing front teeth and with the posture of al dente spaghetti.”

Do you think that the movie is able to convey what I thought was one of the important themes in the The Orchid Thief, which is the nature of obsession? I know you talked about passion, but really that book is about obsession, and of course the greed versus environment element.

[It’s interesting to note that another plant, the tulip, was responsible for a whole other “tulip fever” in Europe in the 1600’s as compared to what Susan describe as “orchidelirium” in The Orchid Thief.]

SO: I think that it deals with the issue of obsession very well, and being consumed by something.  It is very interesting because in the movie everybody becomes obsessed with something; Whether it’s Charlie being obsessed with his screenplay, or the Susan character [being] obsessed with John Laroche, and so on and so forth, it really does portray that I think, very well. 

The issue about the environment and some of the legal conflicts that I wrote about in the book were a little too complex and subtle to go into in the film, so they were kind of simplified, which was fine.  They just needed to make it clearer, and they couldn’t get into that.  It was a very fine legal point that was difficult to make in the book – let alone trying [to convey] in a movie.  So that wasn’t a big part of the movie. I think that is the case when you are doing an adaptation, there are some things that you have to leave, and some things that you are able to amplify. 


Character Study in John LaRoche


Part II  BB: I wanted to hear more about John Laroche because he struck me as such an amazing person – I kept switching psychiatric diagnoses on him from obsessive compulsive to mania with delusions of grandeur and of course he must be quite brilliant with his encyclopedic memory of all the Latin names of orchids and bromeliads and the botanical processes to extract DNA and replicate plants and hybridize species, his study of Florida laws looking for loopholes to all his other fascinations with turtles, fossils. He must have been a fascinating person to meet and get to know.

Do you think that your book in a way has captured his unconventional altruism as you say, “folding virtue and criminality around profit,” and brought more attention to the environmental issues, the legal loopholes that mainstream society may have overlooked because of the packaging of a man like him?

SO: Pretty much, I hope so. It’s a pretty subtle point how some environmental laws do more harm than good.  It was a pretty interesting piece of research for me.  I just took it on faith that any environmental laws were just “good”.  In fact they are complicated, and can do more harm than good.  In the case of John Laroche there is this other issue of who gets immunity from laws about endangered species? This has been a very hotly debated topic for many years about whether Native Americans or people with certain cultural standards should then be exempt from laws that are protecting plants and animals.  It’s a complicated issue, and one that I don’t have an answer for it. That I don’t think anyone does, but it is important for people to think about it, and to try to understand why it is controversial and what the issues are.

John Laroche had this very unusual idea, which was he going to be able to profit hugely but at the same time underscore and bring to the public attention a very bad law. It was the nature of what made him so interesting as a character was that he could actually hold both of these thoughts at the same time. It was OK for him to make a lot of money off of, sort of an environmental crime, but that he was making a very interesting point.  He was revealing a huge problem in Florida law that still hasn’t been resolved.  He didn’t make his million dollars growing orchids, but he did bring a lot of attention to these laws and how deficient and contradictory they are.


What is Literary Journalism?


Part III  BB: Susan you are credited as one of the new voices shaping Literary Journalism as a genre; (and it is interesting to note that Capote, the movie comes out this month as adapted from Gerald Clark’s biography, and Capote is the writer attributed with starting the genre with his novel, In Cold Blood) Literary journalism is a style of writing somewhere in between immersion reporting, technical writing and biography in a fusion that at once focuses on the narrative voice of a story and brings out dramatic irony and hidden patterns and what you describe as “the dignity of ordinariness.” 

Can you speak to the evolution of the genre and your own style and contribution?

SO: I think literary nonfiction is a form that has been around for a long time.  There have been great leaps as you get practitioners like Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell and John McPhee, who really take it to another level.  The idea of writing true stories but in a way that employs the techniques of fiction in terms of narrative story telling, that’s been around for a long time.  I think we’ve come to understand it more and more as a specific genre, as something that has its traditions, at this point, and its practitioners.

I also think that when you have a magazine like the New Yorker, which has been around for eighty years and has really been the bedrock of that kind of writing, you now are looking at something with a real history.  It’s not something that just came up out of the blue.  Obviously Truman Capote was writing his books in the fifties and sixties.  It’s a form of writing that’s got a great tradition at this point.

I think each new generation shapes it differently and as you get people who emerge with really strong voices, it keeps evolving.  But the general form has now really become established in a way that we can really understand it.  It is telling true stories and factual stories, but telling them as stories and developing a voice of narrative in them. 

It’s the kind of writing I’ve always wanted to do, and I am thrilled that I get to do it.  I can’t quite imagine at this point doing any other kind of writing.  I find real life so interesting, that the idea of writing fiction—as much as I love fiction—I feel like real life is so amazingly interesting that I can’t imagine making up stories as good as the stories I get to see.

I guess as I’ve gotten more experienced and more mature as a writer, I’ve just tried to develop my own voice as a writer, and tried to bring a certain sensibility to my pieces regardless of what the subject is, to kind of present a consistency to how I look at the world.


Journalism:Process, Remuneration, Rights

Part IV  BB: Susan you’ve been a staff writer and contributor for the New Yorker, Outside, and Rolling Stone among other magazines and newspapers, and three of your books are compilations of those articles bundled in creative ways indicative of whole periods of your life, the writing and travel.

I wonder if you can tell me the process of being given an assignment from your editors, (or finding a topic you want to write on) and how that gets pitched, priced, published, the whole intellectual property rights aspect and rights to re-purpose stories in view of the web?


SO: Well I’ve been a staff writer at the New Yorker since ’92 so partly some of that is already established in the way that I am involved with the magazine, which is that I agree to write a certain number of pieces each year, and it really is up to me to come up with a topic.  Occasionally something will be suggested to me, but a big part of what I do is try to find interesting stories.  As soon as I am done with one I start looking around for the next one, and usually come to my editor with a number of pieces – a number of ideas to see what I am going to work on next.


How it is priced is something that is established in the beginning of the year for me with the magazine because I am not out in the world trying to sell pieces.  So it’s just a little different being a staff writer.


How I pick the stories is really a very inexact science.  Something will just really appeal to me and it will keep sticking in my head and I will try to put it to the back of my mind, and it will push its way forward, and I will sit down with my editor and say, “I really want to do this story because it just keeps nagging at me.” Why is it nagging at me? I’m not sure but certain subjects I’m just curious about. I become fascinated and I’m writing the story for myself in a way.  I want to answer the question, “What is this story about?”


It’s an interesting question about putting stuff out on the web.  I feel very conflicted about it because it’s a confusing situation for writers right now.  We earn our living by selling books and having the magazine get sold because people want to read our writing and so I am sometimes confused about why it makes sense to put it out for free on my website or on the magazine’s website, and yet there’s a way that we’re all trying to figure that out right now. 


More and more people feel you should put lots of your stuff out for free on the web because they will want to go buy a copy of it – I’m not sure? I certainly think I’m a great populist.  I love as big an audience as is out there because I like telling these stories to as many people as I can, and maybe the new form of reaching people is through the web. 


But I write the pieces in my mind’s eye picturing them in the New Yorker, on newstands, in ink rather than on the web, but that’s something that will be evolving more and more over the next years. 


When I write I am also in the midst of working on a book and that’s a kind of different process. Writing a proposal and linking up with a publisher who really believes in the book and will offer an advance to work on the book for however long it takes. 


It’s something I am fortunate enough that I don’t write anything just on spec.  I would find it hard to do that, and I admire people who do it, because I think it take a lot of gumption to just go write something and see if someone will buy it.


BB: See if it sticks.


SO: Yeah. But I’m lucky and I feel it would make me uncomfortable to do it any other way.  



Becoming Inspired and Following a Story


Part V   BB: Susan I am interested in what catches your attention. The Orchid Thief derived from a news article you read about a man who was charged with stealing protected and endangered plant species out of the Fakahatchee, a State protected swamp.

 “…I was interested to see the words ‘swamp’ and ‘orchids’ and ‘Seminoles’ and ‘cloning’ and ‘criminal’ together in one short piece.” Pg 6

And I understand you spent two years on the project visiting the area, climbing around in the swamps, getting to know the native bands and the unusual characters – you’re obviously an intrepid person (I can’t think of many people that would go through that swamp in that get-up.) 

What from that total experience have you taken with you?  What continues to haunt you? Or do you just find yourself entranced in the next assignment, the next project with nary an orchid plant or an eye batted at the environmental dilemmas of Florida flora and fauna?

SO: You're absolutely right.  There are two parts of this job and one of them is being out there in the world doing things that most people wouldn't dream of doing.  You do have to have a bit of an appetite for adventure because whether it's actually walking into the swamp, or travelling with strangers, or going to places that you don't know anything about, you're out there in the world, and it can be -- for some people that can be very uncomfortable. For me it's a tremendous thrill and a kind of endless adventure.

What I do then is come back to my computer and try to tell about this adventure knowing that they probably will not have the opportunity to do the same thing.  And I am convinced that I can explain it to them well enough so that they'll feel like they had the adventure too.

It's very much a two-part process. One is really exterior and external you're really out in the world. And the other is the interior process of sitting down and thinking, how can I tell this story well?

BB: It's a wonderful balance. I am interested to know what happens to you after you've created a project, for example after you completed The Orchid Thief, you say in the book many times over that you refused and declined any offer of plants. Does anything in your experiences hold-over in your life?

SO: It does, absolutely. Part of that was a kind of  sense of ironly about resisting, because Laroche kept taunting me, saying "You're going to get hooked," and I would say to myself, "No, I'm not, I'm just going to prove to you I'm not."  But I feel like each experience is prominantely woven in my sense of who I am and what my life is full of.  It's inevitable that each story changes me in some way, and usually leaves some imprint that never goes away. 

Whether it's just the knowledge of a place or experiences that are unforgettable, or even new interests and tastes that I find I can't quite shake, even though the story is over.  It always happens that way. I think if you really throw yourself into a story, you can't really help but have it really change you and stay with you.

BB: Well I am excited to look at your new book


Raising a Family

Part VI   BB: I think everyone is well acquainted with your canine typist Cooper Gillespie, who happens to be a Welsh Springer Spaniel (Throw Me A Bone: 50 Healthy Canine Snacks) but I’m not sure people know you’ve got a 7 month old baby at home. 

How has becoming a mother changed your life?

SO: Well as anyone who has children knows it changes your life utterly, top to bottom. In my case because of the way that I've had such an unconventional life.  I've spent time travelling so much, keeping hours that are not nine to five, by any means.  There were times when I would think that [motherhood] would be so easy because my time is so flexible. But in fact my job is so unconventional that it's almost harder to figure out how to manage a little baby around hours that can sometimes be completely un-family friendly. 

I spent Saturday meeting somebody I was interviewing at 6 am and basically spending the day with him, and then the next night having to be somewhere at 8 pm and it's a real challenge. 

I'm lucky because my son is young enough that at this point he's happy if he has somebody playing with him, he doesn't notice that it's not me some of those times. But he's already a well traveled baby. He's been on about twelve fights because he's has come with me on a lot of assignments. 

I hope the good part of this is that he'll be a very adventurous boy, and that he'll inspire me in everyway as I go forward just seeing the world through his eyes now as well as my own.

BB: Well congratulations... and thank you so much for speaking with BookBuffet today, I've enjoyed your book and enjoyed learning about all of your writing.

SO: Oh well, thank you...


Links To and Books By Susan Orlean

Susan Olean's Website

U of Oregon Interview: About Style and Technique

Best American Essays 2005, Susan Orlean (Editor), Robert Atwan (Series Editor, The Best American Essays TM ) The Best American series has been the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction since 1915. Each volume's series editor selects notable works from hundreds of periodicals. A special guest editor, a leading writer in the field, then chooses the very best twenty or so pieces to publish. This unique system has made the Best American series the most respected--and most popular--of its kind.

My Kind of Place: Travel Stories From a Woman Who's Been Everywhere (Random House 2004) From an African music shop in Paris, a grocery store in Queens and a fertility blessing ceremony in Bhutan, Orlean approaches her subjects with intense curiosity and fairness, has an unusually good ear for language and dialogue, and arrives at perceptive conclusions about human behavior. She casts ordinary people in extraordinary light.


The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (Random House 2002) 20 essays and profiles. Designer Bill Blass, figure skater Tanya Harding, Kwabena Oppong, a New York taxicab driver who also happens to be the king of the Ashanti living in the United States. Disarming but disciplined, Orlean's style is unobtrusively first person, with deft leads: "If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale," she writes, opening a story on a prize show dog. As well as teenage Hawaiian surfer girls with offhand fearlessness; a female Spanish matador. If you're into SO, or just into studying great journalism - get this compilation in addition to the one above.

The Orchid Thief, (Ballantine 2000) Exquisitely researched nonfiction piece that lays out the history of the orchid from the age of exploration when orchid seekers traveled the world in search of new plants that could be shipped back and hybridized into the dazzling varietals we purchase from green houses today. The controversy of obtaining these rare plants is of course the basis of the story as told through the lives of the people Susan captures in her skilfull journalistic eye. As well it is a fascinating look at Florida's struggle with development and attempts to preserve areas like the Fakahatchee swamps. The history of the Seminole Indians and their relationship to the land, wars and treaties with the government.



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