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.
Courtesy of Gaspar Tringale
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.