Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean is one of our first international guests on The Garret.

Susan lives in Los Angeles, and has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including The Orchid Thief (1998), which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation (with no less than Meryl Streep playing Susan in the movie).

Susan's most recent work, The Library Book (2019), is about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library. It is also an exploration of libraries and the role they play in our communities. If you love books and words, this is an interview for you.

Susan Orlean_The Garret


ASTRID: Susan Orlean is a master of non-fiction. She has been writing for The New Yorker for decades and has written for all of the great magazines, including Rolling Stone and Vogue. She has also written seven non-fiction books, including The Orchid Thief, which was later turned into a movie adaptation where no less than Meryl Streep played Susan. She is in Australia in May, 2019 to talk about libraries, the most beautiful of places, and her latest book, The Library Book.

Welcome to The Garret, Susan.

SUSAN: Thank you. I'm really happy to be with you.

ASTRID: I just love your accent.

SUSAN: That makes me feel less self-conscious about it.

ASTRID: This is a book about the biggest library fire in the United States, the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library. As soon as I saw it, I thought of the Great Fire of Alexandria, you know, Caesar 48 BC. Why is a library fire is so haunting?

SUSAN: That was one of the things that I really wanted to pursue, and it was a theme that I really kept revisiting in the book because nobody feels good about any fire. Nobody feels good about a civic building that's on fire. The idea of a library burning, it gets us in our gut, and that's because libraries have been burned for symbolic reasons since the beginning of time. Ever since we've had libraries, there have been people who have chosen to burn them as a statement of anti-intellectualism, of repression, of erasing memory.

Our connection to books is so human that the destruction of books feels... We feel it very deeply in a way that we don't feel many other things. When you're working on a book like this, I think it's very important to have some thematic concerns that are deeper than the superficial ones. And certainly, this was very much of a recurring question for me. Why did it matter? Why did it disturb me so much to imagine the library burning?

ASTRID: In chapter three, you actually catalogue the books and other artefacts that were lost in this fire, things I would never even have considered being in a library: patents, aircraft manuals, of course all the microfiche, but also 400,000 books were destroyed, and 700,000 books were damaged. I love books, and that's obviously a huge amount of knowledge and information, but what surprised me was the lengths the librarians went to save those 700,000 damaged books.

SUSAN: It was an extraordinary effort. This was actually the largest book restoration project ever undertaken. Now, there were practical reasons which was, if you could save those books, that would be well worth the effort. The library had insurance on the building and not on the books, so the loss of the books was a total loss. There was a real value, just purely monetarily value, in trying to save these books.

But I think it was more than that. I think for the librarians, this was a collection that they had built. This was the work of many generations of librarians choosing and curating what was in the library. Libraries don't have every single book ever published. They have curated collections that represent the work of librarians. For them it represented their work over all of this time that they had been part of the library. It wasn't just a matter of saying, ‘Well, we can get new books’, because yeah, you could get new books, but these were the books they had chosen to be part of this collection.

ASTRID: And I recommend all listeners read the book, but some of the actual processes to restore the books was incredible. Essentially deep freezing them for years?

SUSAN: Right, and then thawing them and squeezing them and subjecting them to very low air pressure and then very high air pressure. I mean, it was a real science experiment.

ASTRID: Completely. And also, look, I'm a reader and I'm a writer and I love the physical object of a book. And yet your book and your research continually surprised me, throughout the last century or so how these librarians were caring for and curating the books. I can't stop thinking about how the librarians would fumigate a book if in the Depression in the 1930s, a patron told them that they had had plague or diphtheria.

SUSAN: Right. You know, it's really interesting, because books are both symbolic and metaphoric forms of communication, but they're also physical objects that we share. For a long time, there was this paranoia that if somebody was sick and they handled the book, actually they were required to tell the library that they had been sick so that the book could be sanitised. And this represented a kind of ignorance about how disease gets spread, but still, the idea that you're sharing an object with strangers is something that gets to some basic worries about the idea of shared possession.

It was something that I saw a parallel to contemporary time where a lot of libraries have issues with bedbugs, because people will come to the library with their possessions and those possessions might have insects of some kind, particularly bed bugs. Bed bugs get into books, and then people borrow books and take them home. So, while nobody wants bedbugs, it's interesting to think that these books become these objects that are passed along in... You know, if you have a city of millions of people, it could be millions of people borrowing the same book, which is kind of fascinating.

ASTRID: It is fascinating. Now, Susan, both of us are actually sitting here smiling, talking about books and the physical objects and the love that we have for them. But you almost didn't write this book, and you're very clear about that. In chapter eight you describe how you thought you were done with books, and I'm actually going to quote a sentence for you. You write, ‘Working on them felt like a slow-motion wrestling match, and I wasn't in the mood to grapple with such a big commitment again’.

SUSAN: Right.

ASTRID: You clearly did. What happened?

SUSAN: Sometimes I ask myself what happened. When I finished my last book, I was really exhausted. I thought, ‘I can't imagine that I would want to make another five or six or seven year commitment to a project again, having it hanging over me every day’. You know, waking up and still having the same commitment hanging over me. I thought, ‘I can just write magazine stories’. I wasn't done with being a writer, but I didn't feel that I wanted to commit to the sort of immersive nature of a book again. It's a little bit, I suppose, like getting divorced and saying, ‘I don't want to get married again. I'm happy to date, but I don't want to get married’. Either I didn't mean that as sincerely as I thought I did, or what happened was I heard about the library fire and it was just so irresistible, I felt that click in my head that is very particular that makes me think this is for me. This is a story I want to write. In this case, I knew that it was a book-length project. I couldn't imagine it as anything shorter than that. And it was almost like it spoke to me and I answered in spite of the fact that I had thought I don't know if I want to commit to another book project. And exactly as I feared, it took me six years. All of my worry about the length of the commitment and the depth of the commitment, it was all true. It just happened that I couldn't resist.

ASTRID: Can you describe for me that click? So that click means it's the right subject, it's the right time. It's the right everything for you. To put the kind of factual to you, have you tried to take on a project and it didn't feel right, you didn't have that click?

SUSAN: Well, I'm very lucky in my professional life in the sense that I now generally don't have to take on projects that I don't feel that connection to. Certainly, when I was beginning as a writer, I did many, many assignments that were assignments that, you know, I was making a living and getting my work published. So when I was asked to do something, I said yes, whether or not I had that gut feeling of oh my God, I can't wait to write this. Though I will say, what I tried to do, even in those assignments that were not necessarily by choice, I tried to find within them something, some question that connected viscerally for me that made me think, ‘I really want the answer to that’. Even if it was an assignment to profile someone who I didn't really care about, but I needed to do it to pay my rent, but I felt that I could always find something within that that did raise a question that I wanted to answer.

In the case of where I am now professionally where I choose my stories, the feeling is very particular. It's something that... I almost can visualise it like a cartoon, that something with a little hook gets hooked into my brain and I have this feeling of gee, I'd like to know more about that. Now, often my first thought is, ‘Oh, I'll put it out of my head’. I try pushing it out of my head, and it comes back. And again, I find myself saying, ‘I'd be curious to know a little more about that’.

And initially I try to... I actively try to push something out of my head out of curiosity, and if I succeed in pushing it out of my head, I think, ‘Well, that must not have been the story for me’. If I push it out and it comes bounding back, and I do that a few times where I keep being nagged by this feeling of hmm, I'd like to know the answer to that, then I began feeling like this is for me.

I don't usually look at a story idea and assess whether or not it will be popular. And I have to say, I'm glad that I don't do that. I think that as a writer, you need to lead people to a subject rather than following people to a subject. If I think it's interesting, that matters. In fact, I almost feel that my task as a writer is to show people why it's interesting rather than saying, ‘Oh, people find this interesting, therefore I'll write about it’. It's really the inverse of that.

ASTRID: So how do you feel now that you've completed the book, a work that you thought you may not do?

SUSAN: Well, I'm amazed, because it became so engrossing, and it's been so rewarding that I'm a little bit astonished by how much I had resisted it.

ASTRID: You open the work with three quotes from Faulkner, Borges, and Bradbury. All resonate throughout the work, of course, but the quote from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 had a particular... I kept coming back to that. And of course, as you describe in the work, Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature that paper burns, very apt for a book about a library fire. As a writer, how did you weave through all of the different elements of your research, literary and non-fiction?

SUSAN: This was the biggest challenge of the book, because it was more than any other book I've written. It had multiple strands, it had multiple timelines. It had many more characters than other books that I've written, many more who had importance in the story, even if they came and went and didn't last through the entire book.

It was a bit like orchestrating... I had this image of somebody juggling plates and needing to keep each plate in the air spinning, but the entire thing had to spin as well. And you don't want to drop any plate because the book is dependent on each of those being held aloft and made animate. The question was how do you structure that? And usually with a book or a story, there's one person and one storyline that dominates and everything else is secondary. This was a little different. While the story of the fire was nominally the centre of the book, it really had equal weight to the history of the library, to the story of the library today, to the saga of each of the people who have run the library. There was a moment where I thought I have many, many medium-sized stories, as opposed to more typically you have one major story and then lots of minor stories.

How do you structure something like that? I went with what I think is ultimately the solution to whenever you're puzzled over a structure. And this will sound very simplistic, but usually the structure that works the best is the one that's organically, the most... Reflects what is truly there. So in this case, instead of fighting against the idea that I had many medium-sized stories, I embraced it. And I just thought, ‘Well, that's what this book is’. It's a collection of these interrelated stories about this place and it doesn't require that one dominate. It's nice that the story of the fire becomes a throughline and it was a great organising principle, but it felt like a revelation to suddenly think, ‘Well...’ I mean, this will sound very reductive, but it is what it is, and instead of forcing it into a structure that I had anticipated that it would have, instead I thought, ‘Oh. Well, this is the way it's turned out’. It's many, many stories that each need their due, and they can live harmoniously in the same book.

ASTRID: Tell me about how you researched all of these medium-sized stories.

SUSAN: I began with the... I think of it as kind of a scatter shot, which is that I took the central issue of the fire and projected out from it every possible way to think about it, to talk to firefighters, to learn about arson, to learn about the building. What was the condition of the building at the time? To learn about the young man accused of the fire. To look at this as part of a timeline, which was okay, this happened in 1986, but what was happening in 1985? And oh, well, that takes me back to 1925. I think of it as a series of radiant inquiries from the central question, which is what happened in this fire? What is the story of the fire? How can I look at it from every different possible angle, and follow each of those to their natural conclusion and do as much reporting as I needed to do in each of these specific alleyways, and then sit down and look at it all and figure out how it fits together.

ASTRID: So, one of these stories that is integral to The Library Book is that of Harry Peak, who most likely, but maybe not, started the fire.

SUSAN: Right.

ASTRID: If I can summarise it terribly like that.

SUSAN: Perfectly, perfectly.

ASTRID: That involved interviews with his family. How do you go about that kind of research on a more personal level?

SUSAN: Well, this was challenging, because when I began the book, I assumed that I would be talking to Harry. I discovered very quickly that he had passed away, and at first, I was not sure I could continue the book. I couldn't see how I could write a book about this incident where the prime suspect wasn't available to talk to. But having done books before where central characters were not alive, it was a real realisation for me, particularly when I was working on Rin Tin Tin, understanding that you can learn a huge amount about someone by talking to the people around them, by reading any of the material that they may have generated in their life, that you can really get to know somebody very intimately and sometimes more intimately than you might get to know them if they were alive.

Actually, one of the very first phone calls I made was to Harry's family. Fortunately for me, they were eager to talk. I think they felt that Harry had never been fairly treated, that he had been villainized, and they were very eager to tell me their story, which interestingly, rather than convincing me that he hadn't done it, just enriched my idea of him as somebody who might have indeed, because of his own needs as a person who wanted attention, might have ended up doing something as stupid as this. I know that his family believed that I was doing a book that would exonerate him. This wasn't because I said that, but I think their thought was, ‘Finally, we're going to get the attention and Harry's name will be cleared’. But mainly I just said, ‘Tell me about Harry, tell me about what happened’, and I never made any promises, of course. I just said, ‘I want to tell this story because I don't feel that it's been fully told’.

Of course, I would have loved to have talked to him, and his death was tragic. There was a certain amount of frustration in the process of reporting and feeling like I would never get to talk to him, but I did feel that I could report around that absence and still make a holistic portrait of him.

ASTRID: Have you heard from any of Harry's family members since the book's been published?

SUSAN: No, oddly enough, and I tried to reach his sisters to just make sure they had copies of the book or send them books, and both of them... Both of the numbers that I had for them were no longer working. I didn't talk to them. And that's an odd feeling. Certainly they don't owe me any sort of response. But when you do a book where you're describing someone quite intimately as this does, there is a strange feeling of closure that you don't get if you don't say to the people, ‘Here's the book, I want to make sure you have it’.

ASTRID: Where did you write this book? I mean, I want to ask, did you write it in the LA Public Library?

SUSAN: I did write some of it in the LA Public Library. I have a writing studio at home and I wrote the majority, or certainly the first two-thirds, there. I then reached the point, as many people do, where I thought, ‘I have got to get out this space and write somewhere else’. I did two things. One is that my husband and I have a place out in the country, and I went there for a number of weeks just to work. But I also rented a coworking space just to get out of the house and have somewhere to work. One day I didn't feel like going all the way over there, so I went to my local library and worked there and suddenly thought, ‘Why am I paying for a coworking space? I should just work in the library’. I finished... I wrote the last maybe quarter of the book on and off in the library.

ASTRID: We are, of course, recording at the State Library of Victoria because libraries make things possible.

SUSAN: Yes. Well, that's the amazing thing. You write a book in a library, you talk about a book in a library.

ASTRID: Now, in the acknowledgements of The Library Book, you actually thank two of your previous editors at The New Yorker, David Remnick and Virginia Cannon. And as a very accomplished writer, I'd like your opinion on what makes a good editor.

SUSAN: I think a good editor understands your voice, can understand the writer's voice even when it's quite different from the editor's own voice, but to have the ability to understand what this particular writer sounds like. And consequently, the editing will just increase and amplify and support that voice. That's very important.

Some of the other attributes, I think, is editors who are really good identify the structural issues in a piece. I feel like most writers at a certain level can craft a very good sentence. You know, you're not often editing on that sort of sentence molecular level. And what I think is the hardest thing in writing is structure. Does the story make sense logically? Is flow propulsive? Do you have the rhythm of the piece working to keep people staying with the story and moving forward through the story? An editor's in a really good position to assess that, because they're removed enough that they can see the whole lay of the land, that the piece doesn't move the way it should move, or the logic of how you reveal information isn't as efficient as it could be. A good editor is also going to correct your work on that sort of sentence and word level. But I think that their insights in the overall shape of a piece become really important.

I think what's really valuable, too, is the honesty of being able to... I mean, you need the trust that your editor's instincts are in your best interest. And I think an editor who knows how to earn and cultivate your trust so that you can say, ‘This works, this doesn't work’, and the writer can hear it. That's really essential.

ASTRID: So, you have just given a beautiful description of what makes a good editor. How can writers, particularly new and emerging writers, do their best to work well with an editor? What does an editor need from the writer?

SUSAN: Well, the first thing that I think is really important is for emerging writers to have the humility to hear an editor. And yes, there are times you're going to work with an editor who does not understand what you're trying to do as a writer. But I think it's essential to begin with the assumption that it's a collaborative process with your best interest as the ultimate goal. I know so many young writers who say, ‘Oh, editors are always messing with my work’. And I think, ‘Well, that's kind of an arrogant notion, that your work is so brilliant that nobody can touch it’. I mean, I remember when I first got to The New Yorker and seeing Roger Angell, who is one of the greats of The New Yorker's entire history, being edited and going back to do a revision. I thought if Roger Angell is being edited, then obviously there's nobody who's too good to be edited. So, start with some humility and accept the fact that an editor ultimately is a reader. And if as a reader this person says to you, ‘This doesn't make sense to me’, that's a legitimate point to make.

Secondly, I think that it's important for a writer to learn how to articulate what he or she is trying to do with their work. It's one thing to write a piece, it's another to be able to say, ‘What I was trying to do is create a sense of suspense or bring people along on a journey’, so on and so forth. I think you need to be able to articulate to an editor what you're trying to do so that the editor in turn isn't working at cross-purposes and can say, ‘Well, it didn't work that way. Instead, this piece feels like such and so’. I think having a good relationship with an editor is pure privilege. This is somebody whose one and only goal is to try to make you look good. So, remembering that might help with that.

I know when I was younger and I was getting started as a writer, I was a lot edgier about accepting input from an editor. And I thought, ‘Well, I know better. I know what I'm trying to do’. And I'm much more open to it now, which I find interesting, because in theory I should be better than I used to be, but I'm much more willing to say, ‘Hmm, if that didn't work for you and you're an intelligent person reading my work and you're saying to me that it makes no sense, maybe it doesn't make sense’. You know, maybe this is something I have to listen to. So being able to articulate to your editor what you're trying to do, and really take a moment to accept the fact that yes, you need tremendous confidence to write anything, but you also need a lot of humility to realise that maybe on the first time you don't get it right.

ASTRID: I've asked you about your research, your writing, and your editing. Now I'd really like to ask you about the publicity trail. I mean, you've finished your book, it took six years of your life. You invested a great deal of yourself in it in terms of time and resources, and now you can't put it behind you. You are now on the other side of the world. You've just been to the City Writers Festival, Melbourne, going to the Oakland Writers Festival. How do you do it?

SUSAN: It's a lot, a lot of energy. And it's interesting, because I realise now that I finished the book a year and a half ago, and yet it's very much present in my life. I'm talking about it every day. I'm going out around the world, reading from it, discussing it. You know, it's an incredible honour, of course. What could be more wonderful than to have a book take on a life of its own and require you to be engaged with it on an ongoing basis?

One thing that I think keeps me really energised in this regard is that to me a book is just a written form of what I am trying to say to people. It's a convenient way of delivering this story to lots of people, because I can't meet individually with each of them and tell them this story.

But the publicity trail for me is the version of it where I'm telling the story of the book aloud, alive, in the moment, which actually feels very natural to me. The book is the permanent record of telling it, and so it's a natural part of the process for me. I'm not tired of it. I'm still excited about it. I'm excited to have that direct human experience of telling the story to people and seeing them respond. It's what I hope happens when they're sitting quietly and reading it themselves, but this is my chance to actually see them respond, which I love.

ASTRID: I have to say, in addition to the book being gorgeous, the cover is beautiful as well.

SUSAN: It's exquisite, I must say. And the US edition, which is hardcover, is... And it looks exactly the same, but it's a beautiful, hard cover that's somewhat textured, and it's quite exquisite. And it's wonderful to have a beautiful book.

ASTRID: Perfect for a book about libraries. Susan, you've written so many things over the course of your wonderful career, and we've really only spoken about The Library Book. We could have spoken about so much else. But I just wanted to thank you, and thank you for coming to Australia.

SUSAN: Oh, my pleasure. I'm really happy to be here. It's just been wonderful.

ASTRID: Thank you very much, Susan.

SUSAN: You're welcome.