Susan Orlean
Nieman Class of 2004

Susan Orlean

The celebrated author has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1992, and she contributed to the magazine’s Talk of the Town section for five years before that. She spent the earlier part of her career at Rolling Stone, Vogue, the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe magazine, and at Willamette Week, in Portland, Ore. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times magazine, Spy, Esquire and Outside, and recently she redid her home office, and got a new treadmill desk. Her books include, most recently, Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the LegendRed Sox and Blue Fish (her collected Globe pieces); Saturday Night;The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, and the bestselling The Orchid Thief. A movie, Adaptation, was loosely based on the orchid book (and let it be known that Hollywood took liberties: Susan did not get romantically involved with her story subject, okay?). A highly sought-after and generous speaker, she’s likely to address an auditorium of thousands, or a classroom of dozens. “I’m always interested in not knowing,” she told an audience this summer at the Mayborn Conference, an annual literary-journalism confab in Texas. “I’m interested in being a student, of learning something new.” Her curiosity has taken her into the world of chickens, pigeon racing, taxidermy, umbrella design, origami, Cuban baseball, skeet shooting, surfing, real estate and mules (the animal, not the shoe), subjects all rendered with Orlean’s signature detail and wit. “I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough, and that the best and only necessary justification for writing any particular story was that I cared about it,” she wrote in the introduction to Bullfighter. “The challenge was to write these stories in a way that got other people as interested in them as I was.” For Meredith Maran’s book Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, she talked craft: “Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar. Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.” She’s now at work on a book about the Los Angeles Public Library.


—“Lifelike,” about the world of taxidermy. Her opening:

As soon as the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships opened, the heads came rolling in the door. There were foxes and moose and freeze-dried wild turkeys; mallards and buffalo and chipmunks and wolves; weasels and buffleheads and bobcats and jackdaws; big fish and little fish and razor-backed boar. The deer came in herds, in carloads, and on pallets: dozens and dozens of whitetail and roe; half-deer and whole deer and deer with deformities, sneezing and glowering and nuzzling and yawning; does chewing apples and bucks nibbling leaves. There were millions of eyes, boxes and bowls of them; some as small as a lentil and some as big as a poached egg. There were animal mannequins, blank-faced and brooding, earless and eyeless and utterly bald: ghostly gray duikers and spectral pine martens and black-bellied tree ducks from some other world. An entire exhibit hall was filled with equipment, all the gear required to bring something dead back to life: replacement noses for grizzlies, false teeth for beavers, fish-fin cream, casting clay, upholstery nails.

The championships were held in April at the Springfield, Illinois, Crowne Plaza hotel, the sort of nicely appointed place that seems more suited to regional sales conferences and rehearsal dinners than to having wolves in the corridors and people crossing the lobby shouting, “Heads up! Buffalo coming through!” A thousand taxidermists converged on Springfield to have their best pieces judged and to attend such seminars as “Mounting Flying Waterfowl,” “Whitetail Deer — From a Master!,” and “Using a Fleshing Machine.” In the Crowne Plaza lobby, across from the concierge desk, a grooming area had been set up. The taxidermists were bent over their animals, holding flashlights to check problem areas like tear ducts and nostrils, and wielding toothbrushes to tidy flyaway fur. People milled around, greeting fellow-taxidermists they hadn’t seen since the last world championships, held in Springfield two years ago, and talking shop:

“Acetone rubbed on a squirrel tail will fluff it right back up.”

“My feeling is that it’s quite tough to do a good tongue.”

—“Orchid Fever,” the story that became the bestselling book The Orchid Thief. Her opening:

John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. He is thirty-four years old, and works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery on the tribal reservation near Miami. The Seminole nicknames for Laroche are Crazy White Man and Troublemaker. My introduction to Laroche took place last summer, in the new Collier County Courthouse, in Naples, Florida. The occasion was a hearing following Laroche’s arrest for illegally taking endangered wild orchids, which he is passionate about, from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, which is a place he adores. Laroche did not dress for the occasion. He was wearing wraparound Mylar sunglasses, a cotton-blend shirt printed with some sort of scenic design, and trousers that bagged around his rear. At the hearing, he was called forward and asked to state his name and address and to describe his experience in working with plants. Laroche sauntered to the center of the courtroom. He jutted out his chin. He spoke in a rasping, draggy voice. He stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and said, “I’ve been a professional horticulturist for approximately twelve years. I’ve owned a plant nursery of my own. … I have extensive experience with orchids, and the asexual micropropagation of orchids under aseptic cultures.” Then he grinned and said to the court, “I’m probably the smartest person I know.”

Laroche grew up in Miami. He says he was a weird kid. This is not hard to believe. When he wanted a pet, he bought a little turtle, then bought ten little turtles, then tried to breed them, then started selling turtles to other kids, then decided his life wasn’t worth living unless he acquired one of every species of rare turtle, including a three-hundred-pound exotic tortoise from the Galapagos Islands. Suddenly, another passion seized him. He became immersed in late-Ice Age fossils. Then he dropped turtles and Ice Age fossils and became obsessed with lapidary, and then after a while he dropped lapidary and got into collecting and resilvering old mirrors. His passions boil up quickly and end abruptly, like tornadoes. Usually, the end is accompanied by a dramatic pronouncement. When he was in his teens, he went through a tropical-fish phase, and he had sixty fishtanks in his house. He even went skin-diving for the fish himself. Then the end came. He didn’t merely lose interest in collecting fish: he renounced it, as if he had kicked a habit. He declared that he would stop collecting fish forever. He also declared that he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was fifteen years ago. He lives a few miles from the Atlantic, but he has not gone near it since.

—“The American Male at Age 10,” her classic profile of a young boy, which ran in Esquire. Excerpt:

If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Colin would be better than me. We would have some homework, but it would not be too hard and we would always have just finished it. We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home. We would win the lottery and then buy land in Wyoming, where we would have one of every kind of cute animal. All the while, Colin would be working in law enforcement — probably the FBI. Our favorite movie star, Morgan Freeman, would visit us occasionally. We would listen to the same Eurythmics song (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) over and over again and watch two hours of television every Friday night. We would both be good at football, have best friends, and know how to drive; we would cure AIDS and the garbage problem and everything that hurts animals. We would hang out a lot with Colin’s dad. For fun, we would load a slingshot with dog food and shoot it at my butt. We would have a very good life.

Here are the particulars about Colin Duffy: He is ten years old, on the nose. He is four feet eight inches high, weighs seventy-five pounds, and appears to be mostly leg and shoulder blade. He is a handsome kid. He has a broad forehead, dark eyes with dense lashes, and a sharp, dimply smile. I have rarely seen him without a baseball cap. He owns several, but favors a University of Michigan Wolverines model, on account of its pleasing colors. The hat styles his hair into wild disarray. If you ever managed to get the hat off his head, you would see a boy with a nimbus of golden-brown hair, dented in the back, where the hat hits him.

The Nieman Lab’s chat with her about her popular Twitter feed. Excerpt:

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

And watch her talk about the art of the profile:

The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.

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