Thursday, June 26, 2003

The New Orlean from Shaker Heights

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."
--Dorothy Parker

Susan Orlean is the kind of writer who slowly sneaks up on you. She's not flashy, not showy, doesn't pick subjects designed to automatically draw your attention. And yet over time, she has become something of a minor legend, a true writer's writer. It's happened so slowly that one tends not to notice it's happened. It helps, of course, that she has the platform of the New Yorker, where she's been a staff writer for years. But that hardly tells the whole story of one Susan Orlean.

In an interview she did several years ago, I think she put her finger on what it is that makes her different from most writers, far too many of which think more about their careers (seeking out a sexy beat like the White House, say, where there's almost no chance of getting anything worth getting) or about following the pack. Here's what she said:

Q: What is it about so-called ordinary people that attracts you as a writer?
A: Writing about "ordinary" people is about following my own curiosity. After doing celebrity journalism, I realized I was more interested in the things I walked past every day, the stuff people usually miss. I'm primarily interested in the tiny master--a person with a tiny domain over which they are the master. I wrote a piece about a NY City cabdriver who is also the king of the Ashanti tribe in America. After that experience, I realized--you never know. Any other cab driver I meet, any ordinary person, could be a king. It made me step lightly.

Though I had read her work for years before, I may have first noticed her in a big way about six years ago, when I read a remarkable piece she published in Esquire about the subculture of 10 year old boys, of all things. Besides being amazed at the superlative writing and the powerful observation in that piece, for which she simply hung with a small group of 10-year-old boys over several days or weeks, I was charmed by the freshness of her very story idea and unique approach. And having been all too aware of the low-brow, anti-intellectual reductionist orientation of the average magazine editor (Esquire, for instance, has since gone shockingly downmarket, sexed up and schlocky in a relatively short period), I marveled over how she could have wangled this imaginative subject into print in the first place.

Anyway, I'm glad that Susan at last is having her day in the sun. While she's been a household name among writers and close readers of the New Yorker for at least a decade, she's now broken into that far larger realm of consciousness (that of the general public) with the adaptation of one of her books, The Orchid Thief, into the movie "Adaptation," with Nicholas Cage playing the part of a frantically imbalanced writer. It's pretty good (though not as good as her writing), and I recommend that you go see it.

Susan was on NPR's Fresh Air the other night, being gently grilled by the best interviewer in America, the bookish Buffalonian (like Alice Demyanik) Terry Gross, and as always (except for her disastrous but hilarious tangle with Kiss's Gene Simmons) the conversation quickly worked its way to some fascinating themes, at a level of depth way beyond what you tend to hear or see or read in most journalism.

At some point, she said, "every writer has to struggle with the fundamental fact that you never really can arrive at the truth, and the moral responsibility you have of acknowledging that fact." She went on to recount a great war story about how a profile subject grew so comfortable with her that he volunteered information that could well have been gravely damaging to him, seemingly forgetting that this was a person who could instantly ruin his reputation with a few keystrokes (every writer has these, but this was better than most). She was writing about a major religious figure in a fairly conservative faith community, when the married man suddently volunteered to introduce her to his mistress. Besides being a little stunned, she said, she was forced to confront whether her role as a writer (responsible for unflinchingly getting at the truth on behalf of her audience) or as a feeling human being (not eager to hurt another) would take precedence. "I had to struggle with the question: 'did I really want to write a story that would tell his wife he was having an affair. As a writer, you're still a person, and you struggle with those moral questions." In the end, I'm happy (though not unconflicted) to report, she chose to keep that information to herself.

This kind of feeling and thinking and especially seeing comes from a rich lifetime of experience and connection. On her website, Susan talks about her "happy and relatively uneventful childhood" growing up in Shaker Hts. in the '60s (I think she's now in her early to mid-40s), "back when the Indians were still a lousy team." Time to update that site, Ms. Orlean. The Tribe is back to being pretty lousy...

(My thanks to my colleague Dott Schneider for graciously pointing out that the occasional extra line between paragraphs would be easier on the eyes. Thanks for noticing, Miss Independence).


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