Susan Orlean on ‘The Library Book,’ her Aspen bear encounter and the ideal story
IF YOU GO …
Who: Susan Orlean
Where: Aspen Words Summer Benefit, Hotel Jerome
When: Wednesday, June 19, 6 p.m.
More info: aspenwords.org
Susan Orlean had sworn off writing books before “The Library Book” lured her back.
The insatiably curious Orlean, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, had resolved to stick to magazine work and shorter pieces after finishing the all-consuming “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” published in 2011, while raising a toddler.
“I was really exhausted,” Orlean recalled in a phone interview from her home in Upstate New York. “It was a huge challenge to do a book that was heavily reported when I was also parenting for the first time and managing a very lively young person. It just felt like an overwhelming commitment and I’m not going to do it again. … I felt that certainly.”
But then, on a whim, she took a tour of the downtown Los Angeles Public Library and heard, for the first time, about the 1986 fire that destroyed it along with some 400,000 books and collections.
“I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to write another book, so I’m going to keep resisting,’” she recalled. “But hearing about the fire I thought, ‘I can’t not do this. It’s calling me in. I can’t resist, despite my best intentions otherwise.’”
What came of it in “The Library Book” is more than a true-crime mystery about the historic fire, who set it and why — it’s a history of libraries and how they work, a portrait of the many eccentric characters who populate them and a study of the meaning of libraries, a full-throated celebration of the idea of a library: this common civic space where we all share books, where children and families mingle with scholars and the homeless.
Published in October, “The Library Book” became an instant bestseller and one of the most acclaimed books of 2018, quickly optioned for a television series (Orlean is now at work on the screenplay). She has been surprised and gratified by its reception.
“There were moments when I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m writing a book about libraries,’” she recalled. “It just sounded so boring. There was part of me that was worried about that, what the reaction would be — that people would think, ‘Who wants to read a book about a library?’”
But “who wants to read about that?” is a common place for Orlean to start from.
Her far-flung subjects often sound mundane at first glance — like her social biography of the movie star dog Rin Tin Tin or her research on orchid poachers that led to “The Orchid Thief” and the film “Adaptation” — but with her wit, her eye for telling detail and her personal style, she crafts page-turning nonfiction. As she put it in a 2017 talk about curiosity at the Aspen Ideas Festival: “I would say that everything I’ve ever written about, most people’s first reaction is, ‘That’s a really bad idea to write about.’”
Her classic 1992 Esquire story, “The American Male at Age 10,” offered a meticulously detailed portrait of the day-to-day life of a pre-adolescent kid in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Orlean said that kind of seemingly dull subject, with fascinating depths that have yet to be plumbed, is still her ideal.
“The stories that appeal to me are those that have a certain familiarity, a world that we know very well but have never examined closely,” she said. “So that story represents the zenith of my interests as a writer.”
On a previous visit to Aspen, a black bear broke into the home she was staying in, trashing the kitchen and living room. A bear break-in is a hell of a story for any tourist to leave town with. But for Orlean, it made her think about what she might learn if she dug deeply into what it means for Aspenites to live in bear habitat.
“What fascinated me was the idea of living in nature in a situation where nature appeared to be winning,” she said. “It instantly became something I thought about. It would be an incredible story and an interesting way to look at a place like Aspen as being on the very brink of being reclaimed by nature.”
Orlean is back in Aspen this week for the Summer Words literary conference, and will give a talk at the Aspen Words Summer Benefit tonight.
Eight months after the “The Library Book” was released, Orlean is still criss-crossing the country talking about it. With libraries on her mind, addressing supporters of the local literary organization is the perfect audience, she said.
“The thing that’s ideal is talking about it is a way of talking about the meaning of books and writing in general,” she said “It fits nicely for a conversation that’s more generally about writing, and that’s the point of this event.”