Storyteller Strategist: A Conversation with Susan Orlean




SUSAN ORLEAN, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and author of eight beloved nonfiction books — including a biography of the canine actor Rin Tin Tin — understands that animals are complex and captivating: “They seem to have something in common with us, and yet they’re alien, unknowable, familiar but mysterious.” Orlean’s On Animals, a collection of 15 essays written over a span of 26 years, turns a tender light on the author’s personal life with animals, made up of her own backyard chickens, a speechless show dog, homing pigeons, Keiko the whale, rabbits, pandas, donkeys, and more, illuminating the material with thoughtful examination and reflection.

Orlean’s “animalish” curiosity touches upon the unexpected and genuine in ways that make us realize something bigger about life. In mid-March 2020, when the CDC told us to wash our hands and hum “Happy Birthday” from beginning to end twice, I bought a bicycle, a non-sporty, mint green, basket-and-bell Grandma-cruiser that I rode through empty Miami Beach streets. Lizards, snakes, and single drifters — including an opossum and a hilarious Muscovy duck that did his damnedest to fit in with a pack of pigeons — accompanied me on different days. Those animals grounded me, offering humor, hope, and daily lessons of resiliency. As the pandemic continues to wade into our lives, this collection resets our attention. Over Zoom, Susan and I talked about craft, her assemblage of domestic and wild animal profiles, and philosophy.

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YVONNE CONZA: Your sentence structures are amazing. You’re a storyteller strategist who works every line with tremendous care.

SUSAN ORLEAN: That’s the level at which I take the greatest pride. I feel like a lot of times people will read something and say, “This or that was so interesting.” And I know that these are interesting stories. My part is really the story of making it happen. You don’t want readers to be overly conscious of that.

What was the organizing principle of this collection?

Beginning with the obvious, I gravitated regularly to stories about animals when left to my own devices over the years. It interested me to see them all in one place, to see whether there was concordance among them, whether there were themes and perspectives that would be strengthened by having the pieces together. After organizing them, the answer was yes. There’s a different impact to reading 300 pages about a subject rather than individual pieces.

Putting a collection together is tricky because you want there to be an ebb and flow of the reading experience in a collection. Even though people may choose not to read it from start to finish, I arranged it assuming they would. The beginning and end are very first person, representing my personal life with animals. Then within those bookends, I liked having species diversity. For instance, I didn’t want a story about mules next to a story about donkeys. It was important to mix the domestic with the wild so the reading experience would have that diversity, and the shape of the book would stay organic.

As a child, you read the “For Sale: Dogs, Cats, Etc.” classified section of the newspaper, circling ads and then showing them to your parents. Classifieds have a quirky style. Did that unconventional style influence your writing?

According to my mom, I learned to read when I was very young by reading the newspaper. Most kids read storybooks and I certainly read my share, but the newspaper, where I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, was a source of interest to me and I fell in love with true stories. 

I found a lot of romance in the notable-ness of real life. It’s never been a matter of looking for the freak, odd story, but instead the story where I felt compelled to say, “I want to know more.” When people say to me, “Oh, you love quirky stories,” I cringe. It implies that I’m looking for the thing that’s just funny, odd, or how adorable and quirky. I don’t think of it that way. There’s something deeper to me than that. It’s more, “Wow, this is fascinating.”

Where it encompasses the human condition and the vulnerability of people.

Absolutely. Writing about animals, in particular, you’re always writing about people, unless you’re a scientist and you’re really documenting the absolutely untouched life of a wild animal. That’s always a question that I have, which is what do we care about? And why do we care about it? Our relationship with animals is a perfect template to examine that.

Yes. It’s a way removed from judgment.

Right. People interacting with other people are very interesting too, but there is something about interacting with animals where you feel like you’re seeing people in a very natural state. That they sort of show themselves to be who they are.

What about the movement in your work? How does that evolve in your profiles?

It’s very important to me. I feel duty-bound to take people on a ride. That pulsing movement of a piece is meant to be a kind of propulsion, a flowing river that the reader won’t leave. My other concerns are a musical quality that I hear in language and in description, as well as the shape of sentences, the way they bump up against each other. If you listen to a song, there’s never a point where it seems to stop, it’s always moving forward, toward a crescendo. There’s something very innate about that rhythm.

I think about rhythm a lot when I’m writing. I hear it in my head that way and I want it to be that way on the page. It’s a dimension of the reading experience that is necessary, at least to me. I want people to feel that they’re reading not effort-fully but effortlessly. That they’re being transported through the story’s engine and whether it’s a combination of the literal sound of the words, the unfolding of the narratives — all the elements work together to get you to the end. 

I looked at “Little Wing” to see if there were any revisions from 2006 and I found a few there were slight, and some extraordinary ones which added a different sound quality, or layering:

I don’t reread my pieces once they’ve been published because I don’t want to find those things and think, “Oh, I should change that.” In this case, I wanted to make sure there’s no anachronistic language. It took me a really long time to go through all these stories with a scalpel. My husband kept saying, “Aren’t you done?”

Overall, I was happy with the work. I’m a pretty tough self-critic, but oh my God, making these tiny changes was huge to me. Many of them were a slight shift in a single word choice, or changing up a sentence rhythm that, with perspective, and distance from it, I noticed.

The other thing that I was careful about was repeated words. You write one story in 2006, then you use the same adjective in 2010. It’s not a big deal, but when you put them together, and you read an adjective in one story, and then you read it again in another you think, “Whoa, no. I’ve got to switch that out.” Some changes, a minor amount, were related to having the stories together and echoing each other. More happened as a result of my going through each of them with a fine-tooth comb and thinking, “You know what, I never loved this, I’ve got to fix it.”

Then there’s reading a story now that I wrote years ago and evaluating it for clarity. “Is this really precise?” Because when you’re in the thick of it, it’s harder to read it as a reader. When you do a collection, you might think, “Oh, this is easy: cut and paste and boom, I have a book.” You could do it that way, but if you take it seriously, it’s not like that at all. Doing it the way I wanted to took time. To me, those changes were massive. I actually love editing my own stuff. I wasn’t looking to do major structural editing. I really felt like I wanted the stories to run essentially as they appeared, but it took me till the 11th hour to smooth out the things that were glitchy.

It’s incredibly important that you did it. Writers today work too fast, and sometimes lose that exceptional and beneficial attention to their pages. Reading The Library Book for the first time, I was impressed by its craft and lapidary, strategic storytelling. Your success comes from the work you put in.

There’s no way to shortcut that stuff. In reporting, you either do that work, or you have a thin wobbly piece. That’s mathematics: you put in X hours and gather X amount of information and you cull from that the very best stuff. There’s no way to do that fast. To do it right I think you need that kind of time, and that kind of immersion. Whenever I teach, I always think it must sound funny to students, but I say to them: You have to write every sentence.

It’s not that you write one flashy sentence, and then you can slap down a bunch. There’s a way you can write a sentence that’s super easy. Like: He stood up and walked to the door. Sometimes you do use a super simple sentence — I’m not saying that everything has to be embellished, but each sentence has to have your attention. There’s no way to do that fast. I am not the slowest writer in the world, but I don’t see how I can do it fast. When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of time to look at a sentence, and you think, “All right, I need to get the character from here to there and describe this movement or this piece of behavior.”

If you want the writing to feel original and fresh, I also don’t think you can cruise. I don’t think you can say, “Oh, this is the easy part.” Obviously, certain parts of a story can come faster, and other areas of a piece are going to naturally require a great deal more time, like the lead and the ending. But I don’t think you’re really off the hook anywhere. It’s all got to work. When I reread my stories, I spotted where my energy was fatigued, and that’s what I was doing in this revision process, addressing where a line got a little lazy and tuning it up.

Writing a piece on deadline, you do get tired and there are times where you’re like, “Oh, this is all right, this one’s fine. Let me just keep going. I need to get to the harder part of the piece.” But when you have that chance to go over it again, and where you’re not under that immediate deadline, it’s really nice to feel like each sentence is carrying its weight.

Listening to you, I hear your passion. You’re still very much in love with writing.

I do love it. I love it in all of its forms. I’m on Twitter writing these little short things and I’m doing a column for Medium with fresh and more immediate responses to things I’m thinking about. They’re different kinds of writing. Hunkering down to do something like The Library Book was daunting, but it’s also really gratifying where you think, “Oh, I really get to roll up my sleeves.”

I’m interested in life and subjects that exist to be in the margins, in those places where there’s cognitive dissonance, where what you expect isn’t what you find, or what you hope for is not what you end up with, or what you imagined to be true turns out to not be entirely true. To me, that is where there’s a lot of intellectual richness and that’s where my curiosity is really piqued. I think if you’re simply confirming what you already thought, it’s not that interesting. You can certainly do that kind of journalism. It’s there to do, but that isn’t what interests me.

Touching on writing forms, I’m curious about the drunken pandemic tweet regarding the newborn colt that nursed on your hand. “He tasted life’s infinite tragedy.” What did that mean to you?

It meant that I had too much to drink, but more particularly, it was really this strange moment where a newborn colt was trying to nurse on my hands. I thought, “Oh my God, he’s two hours old and he’s already had a disappointment—”

[Politely interrupting Orlean.] I’m talking about your writing arsenal. You could have five bourbons or none and the writerly-ness of the line stands strong. Put it in a short story, anywhere, and it holds up as a well-crafted sentence.

 I have to say, given that I was really inebriated as I was writing, I’m proud looking back and thinking, “I kept it together.” Also, I think that deep inside me I like thinking in philosophical terms while in my normal, un-inebriated condition. I feel like I have that impulse but secret it into stories rather than laying it out bluntly. A lot of what I strive for is something philosophical, yes journalistic, yes literary, yes to all those other qualities, but ultimately, philosophical. That statement about the colt was me laying it out and not trying to be subtle, thinking, “Isn’t that what life is all about, it’s full of tragedy and disappointment.”

That’s what I honored about it. Hilarity aside, you are a stellar writer. The line is intellectual and emotional, getting to the heart of why we write — to get to those lines. Did that tweet-night gift you with the feeling that you don’t have to tiptoe into philosophy?

I wrote all of that totally as I was in bed in the dark tapping away on my phone, bleary-eyed, no filter. I’m probably a little bit more constrained than I wish I were when I’m writing. That sort of modesty might be something to push against a little more. It’s one of the great challenges of writing, feeling, who am I to make great declarations about the meaning of life? That’s what you struggle with as a writer all the time, giving yourself permission to feel, “Well, yes, why not?” People can disagree with me, but I’m as entitled to make those sorts of statements as anybody. Feeling the confidence that you’re entitled to say what you want to say is a huge part of writing.

Was this collection a stepping-stone toward writing your memoir?

Yes. While compiling this book, it was interesting to me to think, “Oh, wow. This is a lot of this first-person memoir stuff to which I always say no, no, no — I’m not going to do that.” I actually feel self-conscious telling people I’m writing a memoir. The first thing I have to do is get over feeling self-conscious about writing a memoir. There’s a part of me feeling, “Who cares about my life?” I haven’t had such an amazing life. I’ve had an interesting life. I haven’t had huge peaks and valleys that you might associate with someone who’s had abuse or substance problems. My day-to-day life is quite orderly, but I have a very odd job and it’s yielded millions of amazing anecdotes that don’t end up on the page because they’re more about me and less about the story. I have to get over feeling of why should anybody care.

Writers often race toward writing a memoir before they even know what that means. Whereas you’re going toward it fully realizing everything that Mary Karr said was true, where if you do a memoir right, there is no safety net underneath you. I’m excited for you.

Thanks. It’s a little bit like being on a diving board, like when you see Olympic divers standing still for a while and think, “Come on, let’s see the dive.” I’ve read interviews with divers who talk about all of the mental work that they do before they go to the end of the board and dive in, and so I have started writing it, but I threw out what I’ve written because I thought, “I don’t like this at all, and let me try to do this more authentically.” I started it again and feel so much happier because I do think that I’m working out that sense of it being an interesting story worth writing about. It doesn’t make me a narcissist to choose to write a memoir. It’s an interesting story and I’m not forcing anybody to read it. It will require me to push myself, but if I’m going to write a memoir it’s going to be genuine, heartfelt, and infinite.

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Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in LongreadsThe BelieverElectric Literature, LARB, Bomb Magazine, AGNI, The RumpusJoyland MagazineBlue Mesa ReviewEx/Post, and elsewhere. London’s Dodo Ink and Scotland’s Epoch Press have included her work in the 2021 anthologies Trauma: Art as a response to Mental Health and Aftermath.

 

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