Thursday, February 19, 2004

Orlean in the Flesh

Back in June, as you may recall, I enthused at some length about Shaker Hts. native Susan Orlean, a writer's writer who brilliantly labors on the staff of the New Yorker, regularly serving up gleaming little gems on the most surprising subjects. Yesterday, to our delight, we got to see her live, in all her understated glory, speaking in a generous-sized room (on the CWRU campus) that was nevertheless not nearly large enough to comfortably accomodate all the people crowded in to listen and learn from the master.

To call her elfin doesn't really do her justice. Yes, she's tiny. But her spirit and energy for her craft makes her seem so much larger. She told any number of charming stories, and I won't try to recount them all. But a few cry out for retelling. She nicely dramatized her by now well-known aversion for dreary celebrity journalism by recounting an early tale of profiling Tom Hanks. She admitted that while it's fun to meet famous people, and it's the obvious path to get into large national magazines, "after a while I began to ask myself 'what am I really learning?'" She played the "Cleveland card" with Hanks, warming him up by noting that she had seen him years earlier perform at the Cleveland Playhouse. And for all of that alloted half hour, he seemed to be taking the bait, graciously telling her that, what the heck, they should have lunch together as well. And over lunch, he subsequently stroked her writerly ego by telling her something he said he'd never told anyone before: that he secretly thinks he's ugly. She ate it up of course.

But she soon learned that he had ladled out the same faux-intimate juicy detail to her two other colleagues, whom the magazine had, in traditional Darwinian fashion for rookie writers, also assigned the profile to. For her, the essential early lesson was this: he's not a bad guy at all, and didn't mean to be untruthful. It's just that by the stilted conventions of celebrity profiles, "you get those tidbits doled out to you" along with the small fragments of a subject's time. And time is what you need to get to the essence of someone. So she has decided to leave coverage of the J Lo/Ben breakup and the like to the thousands of others who ventilate after those kinds of stories. And she's struck off on a different path.

Instead, her beat has become the non-beat, what she calls "the human beat," before correcting herself with "the life form beat," since she's also written about non-human subjects that interest her. The New Yorker even had to invent its own category for her work, because it otherwise defied all their classifications. "Because I don't cover a beat, there are days when I feel there are no more stories. So I'll have to walk down the street to find some. And some days it actually kind of works that way." She's now working on a story, for instance, about pigeon racing, something she first learned about from a little girl she met while walking her dog one day. She went back to her desk and googled the subject, and learned there's a giant subculture. She wanted to learn more.

The heart of her idiosyncratic genius, though, as I wrote about last year, is more an attitude (coupled with a good work ethic). She put a sublime name to it: "non-judgmental curiosity." She credits her dad for much of that inherited impulse, noting how he would insist that they drive through some of Cleveland's worst riot-torn neighborhoods during her formative years, so as to be reminded that not everyone grows up as comfortably as they. "If anything has formed me as a person, and as a writer, because they're not very different," it was moments like those.

And of course, she had to do the obligatory New Yorker inside stuff story for fans of the magazine who can never get enough of that. But even there she came up with her own splendid twist, a fresh tale for even the most jaded veteran New Yorker fan. She recounted how when she first began writing during the Robert Gottlieb era (late '80s), the atmosphere was more like a graduate school faculty than a magazine. She wasn't given any deadlines, story length nor even told how much she'd be paid. When asked about her deadline, her editor responded "Well, when will it be done?" Story length? "However long it has to be." And most importantly, she wanted to know what she'd be paid for writing it. He dryly responsed: "It will be sufficient."


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