e2fab7c0-ea0c-4bb7-993b-0d2faab5f30e

dc7fb26f-55ad-4632-895a-65ea413b7726

Susan Orlean takes what appears to be ordinary corners of everyday life—and brings them to the page with startling wonderment and wit.

Design Matters: Susan Orlean

Design Matters: Susan Orlean

AUTHOR / JOURNALIST

7.6.21

Susan Orlean / writer / writing / The New Yorker / The Library Book / The Orchid Thief / journalism

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

It’s just about impossible to predict what Susan Orlean is going to write about next. Maybe it’s an article and then a book about an orchid thief. But then years later, she comes out with a book about a library fire. It almost doesn’t make any sense until you start reading and see how the same intense, passionate attention is given to all the subjects in her body of work. She literally writes nonfiction that reenchants the world. In addition to her many books, she’s a staff writer for The New Yorker. And her Twitter feed is hysterical. Susan Orlean, welcome to Design Matters.


Susan Orlean:

I’m so thrilled to be with you.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Susan, are you still teaching yourself how to play the ukulele?


Susan Orlean:

I moved from ukuleles to drums.


Debbie Millman:

I understand that you learned how to play The Grateful Dead, “Uncle John’s Band.” So both on the drums and the ukulele?


Susan Orlean:

Well, my drum career had me just learning the basics of drum rolls and how to hold my drumsticks properly. I was really starting at ground zero. And my teacher encouraged me to play along with songs, but I was so much a diligent student that I simply did these exercises, which I’ve really enjoyed. But it was simply an exercise book that I followed through. There was no music involved.


Debbie Millman:

Well, I’d love to see you behind the drum kit. That would be an interesting visual.


Susan Orlean:

Yeah. Well, I have a couple of pictures of me playing drums, and I look very legit. It made me really happy. I thought I don’t look like somebody who’s just learning, I look pretty natural sitting there, and I thought this is … this could be the cover of my album. This really looks pretty good.


Debbie Millman:

Well, now you’re really piquing my interest. And maybe we might be able to get a photo to share with our listeners?


Susan Orlean:

Absolutely.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, fantastic. Fantastic. Susan, you were born in Cleveland and have said that you were the product of a happy and relatively uneventful childhood. But I understand that your mother Edith won the Palm Beach Seniors Tennis tournament when she was 80. Sounds like quite the dynamo.


Susan Orlean:

She … wow, you’ve really done your research. My mom was quite exceptional. She was a real athlete at a time when it wasn’t that common for women of her generation to be really avid athletes. She was a really good tennis player; she played several times a week. It was inspiring to me, and she continued at the point when she was in her 80s, she was playing doubles with partners who were sometimes in their 30s, and she was very competitive. And it gave her a lot of pleasure and purpose that I really admired.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve said that your father was really the author of your particular personality. In what way?


Susan Orlean:

My father was the ultimate curiosity seeker. He was open to learning, he was open to being surprised. He was somebody who really shunned the sort of usual expectations. For instance, if we were traveling as a family and there was a very typical tourist attraction wherever we were, my dad was not interested. He was much more interested in wandering around, seeing what he came across. What he used to do when he would visit me in New York, well into his 80s and 90s, is he would just get on a bus. He wouldn’t know what bus route it was, where the bus was going. He just felt like this was an interesting way to see the city. And it was in retrospect to me the behavior of a real journalist, and he wasn’t a journalist. He was a lawyer and a real estate developer. But he had that instinct, which was life happens in the margins—things that are not the celebrated, the big capital letter attractions, that’s what’s interesting. And he loved talking to people, he loved talking to people of every stripe.


Susan Orlean:

He was very curious to ask people where were they from. What were they doing? How did they end up there? To me, that’s the ultimate tool of journalism, and he really embodied it.


Debbie Millman:

He must have absolutely loved your writing.


Susan Orlean:

Well, my dad being my dad, of course, he did not believe in spoiling us with praise. So, I knew that he was really proud of me. And I knew that he loved the kind of writing I was doing. But he was from a generation that believed that you simply said “good job,” and that was it. And he didn’t make a big fuss about what I was doing to a degree that, of course, I yearned for more. But luckily, I knew that he really felt it. And he was tough on me in the beginning, and very skeptical about whether this could work as a profession. He was never negative, he didn’t criticize my work or act as if it was trivial. I think he just looked at it very practically. And thought, “Are you going to be able to support yourself? Is this going to sustain you?” My parents were products of the Depression. And they knew how much it mattered to be able to take care of yourself. And my dad wanted me to go to law school. That was his mantra. “If you want to be a writer, that’s fine, but in the meantime, go to law school.”


Debbie Millman:

And you considered it. I know that you seriously thought about doing that.


Susan Orlean:

He put it to me in such a way that I thought, Well, I guess I better do this and have that safety net. I begged for a year between college and when I would go to law school, but I had taken my LSATs, and in this year I thought I will just be doing stupid jobs to pay my rent and then I’ll go to law school, because I really didn’t have great expectations that I could get a writing job. I had absolutely nothing to recommend me. I didn’t have any clips, I didn’t have any training. I had nothing. I certainly had no reason to think anyone would hire me. And really, nobody had a reason to hire me.


Debbie Millman:

But you seem to be quite certain. I think from a very young age, I think it was 5, that you never wanted to do anything other than writing. You said it was like being a magician, taking words and making pictures with them, taking readers to places and into situations they’d never be in otherwise. So, you started writing very young just for yourself.


Susan Orlean:

I always felt that there was a truly alchemic quality to writing that fascinated me. The idea that you could read words on a page and feel, really feel, that you were somewhere else or you were inside someone’s head, or that you could see an exotic place—to me that was extraordinary. I couldn’t ever, and still have never gotten over the wonder of that. Of course, when you see something really powerful, it’s appealing to think, I want to do that, too. Even though … it was a time in my life [where I] was way too young to have any really thoroughly developed idea of what that might mean. The magical quality of writing drew me in from the very beginning. And I never fantasized about doing anything else. I just wanted to be a writer.


Debbie Millman:

I understand that your high school encounter with Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was transformational. You compared it to hearing jazz for the first time. Was it Wolfe’s writing or the story that you felt so compelling, or somehow the sort of interweaving of both?


Susan Orlean:

That’s a great question. I think that it really was the writing. The story was amazing. And I think for people growing up in that era and learning about this incredible, crazy, merry pranksters and this wild, wild social experiment that they were doing, of course, it was incredibly exciting. I was a Midwestern suburban girl, so there was a certain allure of a life I was never going to have that grew out of reading that. But what really astonished me and made me read the book over and over again was the writing. And Tom Wolfe, he really did shake up the idea of what you could do with nonfiction. There were great nonfiction writers before him certainly, but his complete freedom and willingness to throw away every convention and inhabit the language in a different way, was like nothing I’d ever read. And at that point actually, I didn’t read a lot of nonfiction. I was a high school kid, and we all read fiction in English class. I read lots of magazines, but I wasn’t reading the nonfiction of A.J. Liebling or Joseph Mitchell.


Susan Orlean:

There were lots of brilliant nonfiction writers who were writing books at that time, but I had never read any of them. So to read a book like this, that was not only in terms of form so radical, but the idea of what it was writing about was so astonishing. That combination, to me, was literally mind blowing. And I read the book, I started reading it again immediately. I carried it around with me. I’m not exactly sure why, but I carried it around with me for most of 11th and 12th grade, I just always had it with me. And I would flip through it. Sometimes just reading little bits of it here and there. And of course, I loved The Grateful Dead. There were aspects of it that also connected to things I was interested in anyway. But part of what I also found thrilling was the idea that this was a worthy subject, that writing about this unusual band of unconventional outliers was a good subject. That really blew my mind.


Debbie Millman:

You said that you wanted to be someone who wrote long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events. Was that influenced by Tom Wolfe in his work?


Susan Orlean:

Absolutely. I think he—and later, as I began reading Joan Didion and other writers of that generation—I realized that I didn’t have an instinct for news, I wasn’t somebody who was a news-breaker, I didn’t care about it. And I remember when I was in college, a lot of my friends were on the college paper and they were amazingly driven to learn things that people didn’t know yet. It was a revelation to me where I thought, I don’t really care about being first to know something. That isn’t what excites me. What excites me more is that element of discovery of zeroing in on something. In fact, I think that I’m as interested or maybe more interested in looking at something incredibly familiar that everybody knows, and saying, “Well, have you ever considered it this way?” Or, “You think you know this, but do you really know this?” It’s been my curse in a way, and blessing, I’ll say, but definitely a curse in the sense that, on first glance, a lot of what I write about would draw from people the reaction of who cares? Or why would anybody write a book about that?


Susan Orlean:

Why would anyone write a New Yorker story about that? I kind of love that. I sort of love the contrarian aspect of that, of saying, “Well, actually, I’m going to surprise you because you’re going to discover this is actually incredibly interesting.” I almost found it more enticing to take on that challenge.


Debbie Millman:

I read a really interesting quote from Charles McGrath about your job interview at The New Yorker. He says this about you: “She came into my office and in the space of a 20-minute conversation, had about 100 ideas for stories. And about 80 of them were good.”


Susan Orlean:

Wow! That’s actually thrilling.


Debbie Millman:

I was wondering, how on earth did you have 80 good ideas? I’m still waiting to come up with one good idea to pitch The New Yorker and I’m 60.


Susan Orlean:

Oh, that’s so funny. Well, one of the great things about me certainly back then, and to some degree, this is still true, but I was so uninhibited. It’s almost like being willing to try out a joke without any fear of whether people will laugh or not. So, I threw out a mil … the fact is, if you sat down and just said quickly off the top of your head, “tell me 10 things that you thought about today,” and you didn’t sit there and think, Well, will there be an audience for this? How will I do it? What’s the point of the … Just uninhibited throw it out there and see if it makes any sense. And I think that when I went in for that interview, I sat down and just without any fear of embarrassing myself, because I was simply too naive to understand that that could happen, I just spewed out all of these things that I was curious about.


Susan Orlean:

And I do think that the lack of inhibition is really important when you come up with story ideas. I think we’ve all become used to the idea that you have to sell an idea to an editor, and the editor has to sell the idea to the magazine, and there has to be an audience, and there are a lot of factors that weigh on it beyond, just, “are you excited about writing about this?”


Debbie Millman:

Well, I think that the real beauty and sort of magic of your work is you make these things interesting. I’m not sure they’d be quite as interesting without your perspective sort of attached and associated to them. But I’m curious because talking about lack of inhibition, is it true that you got the job interview at The New Yorker by writing Charles McGrath about a job on the strength of a rumor?


Susan Orlean:

Yes. It’s actually one of the stories that sounds very enchanted, because you can’t believe it happened. But at the time, I just moved to New York and I was sharing an office with another writer, and we didn’t really have a wall between our workspaces, so we could really hear everything that the other person said on the phone. And one day I overheard him in a conversation that sounded from my eavesdropping nosiness like he was talking to somebody about The New Yorker looking for new Talk of the Town writers. And when he got off the phone, I said to him, “Did I eavesdrop this correctly that The New Yorker is looking for writers?” And he said “yeah,” that he had heard through this other friend that maybe they were looking for writers.


Susan Orlean:

So I just was off to the races. I gathered up my clips, because of course, in my mind, I had spent the last five years preparing to apply to The New Yorker. The New Yorker did not know this. I believed it. I believed it was happening. So, I put together my clips, and I decided to treat myself to taking a taxi. This was my early days in New York and taking a cab was a splurge. I dressed up because I thought that I would walk into this bustling newsroom and present my clips. And I guess, evidently, I thought that they would look at my cute outfit and say, “Well, we’re going to hire you.” The absolute innocence of this undertaking still amuses me. So, I walked in and there was a tiny little foyer, and a receptionist sitting behind a glass window that had a little slot, and my heart fell immediately.


Susan Orlean:

And I said to her, “Well, I’m here to drop my clips off for Mr. McGrath.” And she barely looked at me and simply sort of batted her eyelashes and said, “Just put them here.” Indicating that I should slide them through this little slot like at a bank. And that was it. And she was done. She took them and barely spoke to me. And I say this laughing because she and I became good friends, but she was very cold. And I ended up walking home because I was so blue; I walked from Midtown to my apartment on the Upper West Side and just felt like I’ve just wasted all that money on Xeroxing. And when I got home, there was a call on my answering machine from Charles McGrath, saying, “If you’d like to come in tomorrow, we can talk about some of these ideas.” I almost died, literally.


Debbie Millman:

Your very first piece in The New Yorker was titled “Folding.” It ran in the May 25 1987 issue of The New Yorker. And it was, believe it or not listeners, from one of those 80 original ideas that you presented to Mr. McGrath. It was about clothing folders working at the Fifth Avenue Benetton store. And I read that you stated that while you had worked with good editors before, you’d never been in a situation where the quality of the work was all that mattered. How did that impact the kind of stories that you were pitching and writing in those early years at The New Yorker?


Susan Orlean:

There is nothing that gives you more confidence than to have someone who you respect tell you that your ideas are good. Not an individual, specific idea, but that your way of looking at the world has merit. The Benetton stores had as their kind of aesthetic vibe these stacks of sweaters folded perfectly and stacked up; they didn’t even look like sweaters. It just looked like this array of color. And I don’t know why, I guess I was in a Benetton store and I saw one of the employees doing a gorgeous job folding a sweater. And I thought, Oh, God! I don’t know how to fold a sweater like that—do they hire people who already know how to fold sweaters really well? Or do they train them? And if they train them, how do you train someone to fold a sweater like that? And you could say, well, this is … well, who cares? But to me, the texture of everyday life matters. How does life turn out to be the way it turns out? And in this case, it actually turned out to be incredibly funny.


Susan Orlean:

And talking to these young people who worked at Benetton, and how they all became obsessed with folding and Benetton trained them to fold, and they would go home and fold all their clothes and fold their parents’ clothes. And I think what was great for me with The New Yorker was having them say, not that … or, this is funny and kind of silly, and it will be a nice balance to our otherwise serious important work, but that it was legitimately important. It doesn’t have global impact, but it has real impact. It’s about the way life presents itself. It was really intoxicating to have that sense of what made a story validated.


Debbie Millman:

I think that what makes your stories and your writing so interesting is the notion that until you bring it to somebody’s attention, they don’t even necessarily realize that they’ve been realizing these things all along. I’ve been shopping for sweaters my entire life. It’s part of the uniform that I wear; I’m wearing one now. To this day, Susan, I can’t go into a store and look at a sweater and pick it up out of a pile and not feel guilty when I return it because I’ve not been able to fold it in as nice. And it’s like my whole life. And then I read this article from 1987, I’m like, “Why didn’t I read this then?”


Susan Orlean:

That’s so funny. And it was also about mastery. I became very interested in mastery and how important it is for everybody, no matter where they fall in the giant range of socioeconomic and professional strata, to feel that they have mastered something. And I ended up writing a lot of stories that sprang out of that same curiosity. What does it feel like to yearn to master something? What do you get from it? Why do we do it? And certainly I came to feel that it really is an essential piece of contentment. And I came to feel that those stories were really important to tell, because they got at this very essential piece of human nature.


Debbie Millman:

Your third book, The Orchid Thief, grew out of an article for The New Yorker. The thief of the title is John Laroche; you describe him as skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all of his front teeth. And I understand that you first came upon a short article about him in a local Florida newspaper. And I was wondering how you found an article in a local newspaper, a small local newspaper. Was that a way you looked to research story ideas?


Susan Orlean:

I’ll begin by saying yes, there are times when I’m casting about trying to jog my brain and think of a new story idea. And I used to go—back in the olden days, when there were magazines stores—I would go to a huge magazine store right on 42nd Street near The New Yorker called Hotaling’s. And they had every weird specialty magazine and newspapers from all over the world, and I would just kind of rifle through them, hoping that something would just pop out. In the case of The Orchid Thief, though, it was really accidental. I had just finished a New Yorker piece, I don’t remember which one. And I had gone on a little vacation to Mexico, I believe. And the flight back, someone had left Miami Herald in the seat pocket. I immediately saw this headline, “Local Nurserymen and Three Seminoles Arrested in Swamp With Rare Orchids.” And talk about click bait. It was like, “How many words can you put in one headline to make a person like me go, “what!” It was just like everything, everything about it.


Susan Orlean:

And it was a short piece that just gave very little information and just said this, “John Laroche should have been arrested in the Fakahatchee Strand, and he had a crew of three Seminole men with him and they had five pillowcases filled with orchids, and that there would be a hearing coming up.” And literally the minute I landed, I tore the story out of the paper; I landed the next day, I went into work and went right into my editor and said, “I have no idea what this is about, and that’s why I want to go right about it.” Because I cannot unpack this story at all. I can’t make heads or tails of it. I can’t figure it out. And I knew nothing about orchids. I didn’t know that they grew wild in the U.S., I didn’t know why this particular guy was with a crew of Seminoles, I just found it mysterious in a way that was irresistible. I went down that same week, I believe. I went down to the initial hearing.


Susan Orlean:

It was off to the races at that point, because Laroche instantly struck me as a fascinating character; the little tiny bits that I was able to learn quickly all intrigued me. I wrote this first as a story for The New Yorker that was a pretty long piece. But when I was most of the way done, I felt like I really needed to keep going, that the story had so many layers, and the layers were so complex. And these aren’t easy stories to write. Once Tina Brown said to me, “What you do is a high-wire act. These stories, if they’re not executed properly, would be a disaster.” And I understood what she meant, which was these are buoyed up by the passion that I feel for them and the connections that I draw from them, because otherwise, on the face of it, nobody got killed, this guy got fined for stealing some orchids. It’s not the stuff of drama. And yet to me, it was so compelling. But it makes it a little scarier to write because the burden is so much on the writing.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, absolutely. In the article, and the book, you talk quite a lot about the passion John has. And you just talked about this passion. And you write about how you envy this passion and this organizing principle for life. Ultimately, do you think that you were writing about passion and devotion as opposed to just the sort of pursuit of orchids?


Susan Orlean:

100%. I would never set out to write a book just about orchids. But I’m glad that the subject of this book happened to be in and of itself interesting. But ultimately, I think the book works as an emotional exploration. It isn’t a dramatic crime, it’s a crime that makes sense if you begin thinking about this compulsion and obsession and in its more moderate form, passion for the imperfectible, namely, to collect every orchid in the world or to possess in some permanent way a living thing, which is by definition impossible. And I think that it became clear to me as I was writing this, that the power of it was this emotional exploration that grew from this very eccentric, very odd subsect of the world of passion.


Susan Orlean:

And I feel like the discovery that I collect stories, and that I was going to the extremes, the exact same extremes that John Laroche was going to … I had a moment that I wrote about at the end of the book of being very exasperated because he kept promising to take me into the swamp and show me the ghost orchid, and kept canceling on me, and I was really fed up. And finally, I forced the issue and he took me in and we got lost; he had claimed he knew his way around and he didn’t, and we were lost. And I was just looking and I’m thinking, “What kind of idiot goes hiking in this godforsaken place for an orchid when you could go to Home Depot and buy one?” Just this feeling of, “What is the point of doing this and going through such hardship for this stupid flower?”


Debbie Millman:

Which you don’t even end up seeing.


Susan Orlean:

Never. Never. Never seen.


Debbie Millman:

I had to Google it to see what it looked like.


Susan Orlean:

Never, never. So, looking at him and being so puzzled—what on earth? What would drive you to do this ridiculous trump through the swamp? And pausing for a minute and thinking, OK, there are two of us here.


Debbie Millman:

Both on a quest.


Susan Orlean:

Both on a quest.


Debbie Millman:

You appear throughout the book and tell the story in a first-person voice. You’ve said that you hate to pretend objectivity of some journalism, that omniscient third-person voice. When you’re investigating a story, do you have to keep notes on what you were doing and thinking and feeling in the same way as what you’re observing in your subject? One of the things I’m struck by in your writing is the level of detail you include about essentially everything. Even somebody that’s hopping on the desk—I just read your new piece that was published today. That Amazon Original stories launched, and I’ll talk to you a little bit about that at the end of the interview. But I was so struck by the level of detail that you capture about being hypnotized. So you were hypnotized, and yet you were able to talk so succinctly and so detailed about the doctor and his fingers and his lumpy chair and I was struck by it. And it’s in all of your work.


Susan Orlean:

Thank you. I feel a few things. First of all, I’m blessed with a good memory, although I always worry that that’s just something that can be failable, and I take notes in a pretty clunky way with my pad and my pen. But I also … and this will sound a little touchy feely, but I care more about being in the experience. And I feel like your memory of experiences rely very much by how focused you are in them. I often say to people, think about when you took a trip and you had an incredible experience, and you’re able to talk about it very fully. People remember details when they’re very engaged in experience. And for me, that’s really essential. And I don’t like being distracted by the mechanical devices and worrying whether my tape is working. And I’m noticing a lot of those … the texture of the experience, and that stays with me. And it’s easy for me to conjure that when I sit down to write.


Debbie Millman:

You recently sold your house in the Hudson Valley, and are now living in LA full time. Back in 2011 when you first moved to California part time, your son had an assignment that required you to take him to the Studio City branch at the Los Angeles Public Library. This excursion not only reignited your childhood passion for libraries, which you really didn’t talk about. And I’d love to ask you a couple of questions about that. It inspired you to write your ninth book, titled The Library Book. Yet at the time, I read that you had decided to give up writing books. Why?


Susan Orlean:

My previous book had taken me so long, I felt so worn out. I remember thinking, I can just write magazine stories. And this is one thing I want to make clear. It’s not that I thought, I don’t want to be a writer anymore, I just thought taking on a book project is such a commitment. It’s a marriage, it lasts forever. There’s so much stress, it’s very much alone. And I thought … and I remember having coffee with a friend, who said, “You don’t need to write any more books; you’ve already written a bunch of books, you don’t have to write any more books.” And I thought, Oh, that’s kind of a relief. Well, I guess I’m not going to write any more books. And I felt like, Oh, my God, life is so easy now if I’m just doing magazine pieces. But of course, I heard about this idea. And I thought, Wow, this is really kind of a great story. And I thought to myself, I can do this really quickly. Like a year.


Debbie Millman:

Famous last words.


Susan Orlean:

Right.


Debbie Millman:

It took you five years, right? Three years of research and two years of writing?


Susan Orlean:

Yes. No book … maybe some books are quick and easy. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s inherent in the form.


Debbie Millman:

When you first heard the story about the Central Library in Los Angeles, did it bring back early memories of your own library experiences, or were you really just transfixed by this epic, epic fire that occurred in 1986?


Susan Orlean:

It really was a combination of the two. I think that when I took my son to the library, I had a very profound reconnection with the memories of going to the library with my mother. It threw me … it surprised me. I hadn’t thought about it in years. And it’s not that there was something so unusual about our trips, but the emotion that welled up was so profound. It really caught me by surprise. It made me want to understand why a visit to a library had so much impact. It was soon after that when I found out about the fire and it was completely accidental. I thought, Oh my God, this is incredible. I had no idea that there was this huge fire and the library was closed for seven years. This is amazing. And so those two impulses wedded very nicely. I got a narrative for this other exploration, which was, why do libraries mean so much? Why did they bring out in us such tender feelings?


Debbie Millman:

I found a quote that I love that I felt really represented that early passion that you had for going to the library when you were a little girl, and you’ve written how you loved to spin around with your eyes closed, and then stop and see what strange and wonderful and unimaginable things your gaze landed on. What kinds of things we were attracted to reading at that age?


Susan Orlean:

I loved reading about animals, that was probably my great passion. I read every iteration of My Friend Flicka that was ever published. Books about dogs, books about horses. I’m talking about books to read, not just picture books.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, of course, yeah.


Susan Orlean:

And then over time, I sort of evolved as a teenager into reading Victoria Holt, all of these kind of romances. They’re not quite at the level of what we think of as romance novels now, because they were very chaste, very G-rated, and I love those. Absolutely love them.


Debbie Millman:

Why did you title the book The Library Book, and not just “The Library”?


Susan Orlean:

Ah. Oh, that’s a good question. I guess I liked the very meta quality of calling a book, a book. And—


Debbie Millman:

Oh, I get it. Oh, I get it. OK, that’s wonderful.


Susan Orlean:

There was something sort of playful about the design, making it look like a library book. And just reiterating that Russian doll quality.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, the centerpiece of the book is this catastrophic fire the Central Library suffered in 1986. And the fire exhausted most of the city’s fire departments, it consumed three million gallons of water, it was finally extinguished after burning for seven hours and 38 minutes. When it was over, more than 400,000 books were burned. The cause of the fire remains unknown even to this day, but arson was initially suspected, and arson is one of the hardest things to investigate. I learned all of this from your book.


Susan Orlean:

Right.


Debbie Millman:

You bring to life the story of the suspected arsonist, a complex man named Harry Peak, who was initially interrogated and arrested, and then released. And then the city of Los Angeles filed a civil suit against him, he filed a civil suit in return and then Harry Peak died of AIDS. The case of arson in the Central Library fire is technically unsolved. What do you think? Do you think it was arson? Do you think it was an accident?


Susan Orlean:

I change my mind on this regularly. And I’m not being coy. I argue with myself, Harry Peak had no reason to start the fire, and yet, he loved attention. He never provided a consistent alibi, and at the same time he knew facts about the fire that would have been very hard to know had he not been there. On the other hand, in the most extreme instance of this, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense that it’s very difficult to investigate. It’s easy to start a fire. Someone said to me the other day, “Well, he must have had some sophisticated fire-starting device.” And I said, “Really? I think you could start a fire with a match.”


Susan Orlean:

In a library filled with books and papers—


Debbie Millman:

Dried-out papers.


Susan Orlean:

… if you take one match, light one thing on fire, and just give it a little time. Listen, there have been huge, huge forest fires in California that were started with one cigarette. In the case of a library, this huge building that was packed with flammable material, it seems to me that there is still the possibility that this was an accidental fire that, put aside Harry Peak knowing too much stuff about the library that he shouldn’t have known, I think, perfectly reasonable to imagine that this was an accident in a building that had all sorts of fire code violations that was overly full. So, I don’t have an answer.


Debbie Millman:

You bring to life this story of Harry Peak in such an interesting way. And your portrayal of the eccentric allows us to marvel at what seems to be ordinary, but realize isn’t. Going all the way back to folding and the sort of intricacy and detail and beauty and magic of something so quotidian, or invisible, even. But you also give us these open-ended stories about people. What’s so interesting about so many of your characters is that you don’t provide a conclusive ending. You and John Laroche don’t ever find the ghost orchid you were hunting for. Harry Peak wasn’t convicted, and we’ll never know for sure how the fire was started. And you seem undeterred by lack of closure. And your writing somehow feels better for it. I don’t know if it would be quite as interesting, even in your most recent story, your essay for Amazon—it feels to me like not knowing if you ever sort of were able to be hypnotized again. And I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. It seems like that not knowing is part of the beauty of what you do.


Susan Orlean:

When I started The Library Book, I thought Harry Peak was alive. And my publishers thought I would solve the crime. And I, of course, encouraged my publisher to think I was going to solve the crime, because that’s a good way to sell a book. When I discovered that Harry Peak was not alive, and that the chance of really having a concrete resolution was unlikely, there was a point where my husband said to me, “Doesn’t that kind of ruin the book?” And I don’t know whether this is my eternal optimism or whether I’m a fool or what, but I just said, “Oh, no, I think it makes it better.” I’m not sure that it makes it better as much as I felt very comfortable with it not being resolved. Because, I don’t know, life is not usually resolved. The thing with the ghost orchid, I was a little worried to see it because I didn’t think it could possibly live up to what had been years of me pursuing it.


Susan Orlean:

How could it live up to it? It was in the end just a flower, and there are lots of pretty flowers in the world. So not seeing it actually kept it in this realm of mystery and desirability and unattainability that would have been made very ordinary by seeing it. I’m not daunted by there not being an answer. And I feel like readers accept that, accept the ambiguity.


Debbie Millman:

I think that’s really what … well, that’s one of the many things that that makes your work so unique and so special. I’m one of these people that always likes to know the answer to everything before I experience it. What is this going to be like? Let’s Wikipedia the movie plot, so I know that when somebody is going to die, or I’m not going to be surprised, or I’m not going to be sad, because I’ll be prepared for that. But I do have to say that I see going through your work in anticipation of our interview has really allowed me to see the beauty in the process in a way that I haven’t quite been able to muster before for my own well-being.


Susan Orlean:

Well, and I do think you’ve just expressed it perfectly, which is in every instance it is about the process, it’s about learning about something, it’s not about solving it. And to me writing is about teaching people about something I’ve learned about. So there’s much less of a demand for there to be an endpoint.


Debbie Millman:

Susan, the last thing that I want to talk to you about is your Twitter feed. And one series of posts in particular, which you’re probably anticipating my being curious about. One evening a few months ago, you maybe had a little bit too much to drink while meeting a newborn colt. And while the rest of your family was watching a movie in your living room, you went to bed and started tweeting. Your thread began with a simple but candid one word, which was “drunk,” and ended with one that said, “I am goi F to sleep. My husband has asked me 500 rimes if I’m all right, that means it’s go to sleep o’clock.” Cheering the thread, you criticized your cat for not wanting to cuddle and tweeted this about seeing the birth of the colt:


Debbie Millman:

“OK, a newborn colt rocks it totally, and he thought my hand was his mom. It was not. He has tasted life’s infinite tragedy. As I mentioned earlier, I am inebriated.” So, the response from the media was immediate. Entertainment Weekly stated you stole our hearts with a drunken tweet storm. Vogue declared it the pandemic comic relief we needed right now. Somebody compared it to Ina Garten’s Instagram posts with the giant martini glass. The comedian Craig Cackowski even performed a dramatic reading of the thread. I didn’t know if you knew that. Were you surprised by the reaction? And how do you feel about all of this sort of in retrospect?


Susan Orlean:

This was one of the strangest, funniest, most unexpected and unexpectable experiences of my life. I was really drunk and I was in bed with my phone next to me, which is never a good idea. And actually someone … I’m very anal about typos, I just hate having typos and misspellings. So just writing this as I did, it was in the dark. And I was not correcting my typos. And I made lots and lots of mistakes because I was sort of doing it blind. And then I fell asleep. So, there was a point where my husband came in and said that someone had gotten in touch with him and asked if my Twitter feed had been hacked. And I was for some reason, I was really irate. I thought, “Well, that’s outrageous. No, my Twitter feed hasn’t been hacked.” And then I sort of shooed him away, “Leave me alone, I’m drunk and I want to be by myself in bed.”


Susan Orlean:

And the only thing that I was embarrassed about, was wondering if my neighbors who were the owners of this little foal, if they could tell how drunk I was. And it hit me like a sledgehammer—I was smashed. It came over me very quickly; it was very hot out and we were sitting out in the sun drinking, and they kept pouring more and more and more wine. And when I stood up, I almost fell over, and I thought, Oh, geez, this is embarrassing. But let’s just assume they didn’t notice. So, I went to sleep blissfully ignorant. When I opened Twitter, which I do early on, I really almost fainted. And then I had a bunch of requests from different publications, from a newspaper in Australia from this from that, and I thought, What is going on? And then somebody said to me, “Were you performing?” And I said, “Oh, my God, I wish I could perform that well. No, I was not performing. I could never have done a drunk tweet as well as I did it drunk.”


Debbie Millman:

I think people enjoyed it. People knew you were drunk.


Susan Orlean:

Yeah. It was funny because I thought, also, How cynical, I would never do something like that. And this is somewhat embarrassing, though they were very good-natured about it. My neighbors, the ones who had had us over for drinks, emailed, and said, “Sounds like you had a fun night.” And these are people I would never have thought would have been on Twitter. Because my first thought was, Oh, at least they won’t know that I was so drunk and they’ll never see the Twitter feed because they’re not the kind of people who are on Twitter. And in me Ideally in the morning, it was like, “Sounds like you sure had fun. You want to come over again tonight for more drinks?” And I thought, Oh, my God! And then our next-door neighbors who we had never met because they just bought the house, somehow … I guess they messaged me on Twitter, saying, “Hi, we live next door, would love to meet.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” It was actually really funny.


Susan Orlean:

I will say that I never felt embarrassed. I think I felt like, “Look, we’re all at the end of our rope, everybody’s drinking too much.” I didn’t say anything I’m embarrassed of having said. It was mostly me ranting about my cat, and this is one of the weird things about the modern world. Broadcasting being drunk, I guess, is the first piece of this. But the way something like that spreads is so astonishing and so odd. And I had one little flicker of thinking, Oh, my God, I’m a serious writer, and are people going to now think I’m a flake. But this has happened in my career multiple times. Agreeing to let The Orchid Thief be made into adaptation, I had a moment of thinking, Now, people are going to think I’m … it’s going to ruin my career and I can’t let them do this to my book. And then I had another moment of thinking, Well, what the hell. And I guess that feeling that it’s all part of the package. It’s sort of revealed me in a way that I don’t reveal myself so much really, but it was also very authentic.


Susan Orlean:

So, I can’t say I regret it. I find it still so much of-the-moment that I just laughed when I think about the doldrums of summer and the pandemic and everything that we’ve all gone through, and drinking at four in the afternoon. And the whole thing was just so much the moment in time.


Debbie Millman:

I think it was the perfect thing to help us through that moment in time. I watched it live as it was unfurling and was just belly laughing. That’s how much I enjoyed. So, thank you for that. And Susan, thank you so much. So, so much for joining me today. Thank you for bringing so much beautiful work into the world. And thank you for having this conversation with me today on Design Matters.


Susan Orlean:

Thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure in every way.


Debbie Millman:

You can find out more about Susan Orleans books and articles on her website, susanorlean.com. She also has a brand-new story that launched today. It is titled, “You Are Ready for Takeoff,” and it is part of Amazon’s original story series that also features work by Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay and Emma Donoghue, all of whom have been on Design Matters. “You Are Ready for Takeoff” is a hysterical and educational true story about Susan’s foray into hypnosis. I highly recommend it. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman