Aspen Times Weekly: The Clueless Genius of Susan Orlean
October 26, 2017
No matter who or what she's writing about, every Susan Orlean story is a must-read.
Anytime I see her byline, I'm on board. A social biography of Rin Tin-Tin? Sure. Orchid poachers? Sign me up. An in-depth profile of an ordinary 10-year-old boy? Of course. A walk through New York's flower district? I'm in.
I'd always assumed Orlean's mastery as a storyteller resulted from an encyclopedic knowledge of the world, from deep study and an ability to pluck out the most compelling stories we haven't heard or thought of yet.
This summer, in the subterranean confines of Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, I learned exactly the opposite is true. Orlean, in an Aspen Ideas Festival conversation with comedian Pete Dominick, celebrated cluelessness and detailed the ignorance she arms herself with as a writer.
"I've never covered a beat," Orlean told Dominick and the assembled crowd. "Every time I do a story I'm learning from the bottom up and I'm actually drawn to subjects that I know nothing about."
For her best-known work, the book "The Orchid Thief" — which was adapted into the hyper-meta film "Adaptation" by Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman and featured none other than Meryl Streep as Orlean — she began with as little information as possible.
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"I actually went to a lot of orchid growers and I said, 'So, I skipped a lot of science. How do flowers have babies?'" she recalled. "They immediately assume you're an idiot, which is very useful as a reporter."
She's taken the same approach to writing about gospel music and children's beauty pageants and myriad stories for The New Yorker. Orlean doesn't want to show up with her own expertise and biases. She doesn't want to talk to people as if she — the great writer descending from on high from a Manhattan skyscraper — has deemed them worthy of interviewing. She wants to approach everyone and everything with an open mind and her curiosity firing.
"To me, coming in unprepared and doing it very deliberately knocks me down, brings a lot of humbleness to my position and allows me to say to people, whatever their situation in life, 'You know something that I don't and I'm here to learn about it,'" she explained.
The approach has made Orlean — who is currently working on a book about arsonists — one of the most compelling nonfiction writers of our time. Her far-flung subjects often sound mundane at first glance, but with her rare eye for telling details, her empathetic style and her ability to infect readers with her insatiable curiosity, she makes them work. As she put it, her mindset is "I'm going to make you find this interesting, damn it. … 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.'"
The open-minded cluelessness and curiosity with which she approaches reporting, Orlean suggested, also is a useful way to go about living.
"Not only is this true for writers, I think, but for all of us," she said. "I feel like we need to challenge our assumptions and push to those uncomfortable places because we are ignorant."
Talking to Trump supporters or listening to alt-right commentators, for instance, without dismissing their point of view, she suggested, would be a small step toward healing a bitterly divided America. In tiny towns like ours and like the one Orlean lives in in upstate New York, she noted, people are naturally forced to consider varied experiences and viewpoints ("That's what small towns are. You've got the doctor and the drunk guy who is wandering Main Street all day," she put it.) In cities, she observed, birds of a feather often flock too closely together and only interact with people who are just like them.
If you're not lucky enough to live in a small town, she suggested, then force yourself to be a little clueless and ask somebody you don't know about who they are: "It reminds you that there are a range of opinions and perspectives and reasons for those perspectives."
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