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Susan Orlean on how our relationship with animals reveals our humanity

 February 23, 2024 at 7:36 AM PST

S1: Welcome back. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. Writer Susan Orlean has been writing for The New Yorker for more than three decades , and rose to fame when her book The Orchid Thief inspired the Spike Jones movie adaptation. She's the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books , including The Library Book about the 1986 fire and the Los Angeles Central Library , and On Animals , a collection of her essays about creatures of all kinds and our relationship with them. She's part of the Writers Symposium by the sea this week , and will be interviewed with Nick Hornby on Friday. She spoke with Kpbs Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Here's their conversation.

S2: So in the book on animals , we have a collection of long form essays about animals. But I wanted to start at the very beginning with your introduction. You give us this little taste of your own fascination with animals. And not just pets , but definitely pets.

S3: I think it's since the beginning of time , there's been this curiosity about what would it be like if people from another planet landed here , and would we be able to talk to them ? And what if they were like us but not quite like us ? And what if we could communicate , but not in the conventional ways that we're used to communicating ? Well , we already have that , since animals sort of provide us with. This life form that you certainly know you can communicate with , but not in the traditional way that you communicate with humans. It's also invariably a reflection when I write about animals , but I think from the very beginning it it brings out something very human in our interaction with animals. And you're almost more human when you are relating to a creature than when you're relating to other people. It's very unselfconscious. You just are who you are. So from the time I was a kid , I just always loved every kind of animal , both the typical pets of dogs and cats and hamsters and mice. But also I love livestock and I loved wild animals. So this was the entire range. I love the way animals look. I love the way they feel when you touch them. I love them on that totally sensory level. I just think it tells you a lot about being a person when you relate to animals.

S2: This book spans decades of work , and I'm wondering if there's a story that over time , you've had the most questions or comments about.

S3: The big surprise for me probably was the story I wrote about having chickens , and I wasn't even convinced that I should do the story. I had chickens , I loved them , I thought about them a lot. I talked about them a lot , but I didn't imagine writing a story about it. And my editor convinced me that this was a great subject. The rise of backyard chickens , and what seemed to be a bit of a newfound passion for keeping chickens , which is pretty funny when you think about it. So I wrote the story about my experience , why I ended up with chickens , what it was like having them , and the reaction was a complete surprise. Namely , it was as if I had tapped in to some massive desire on the part of everyone I knew to have chickens , and people simply couldn't get enough about having chickens and how I got them. And what was it like , and how would they have them , and where could they keep them ? But it also fit. The whole point of the story , which was that there was a very particular reason that at this moment in time , people were yearning to have small livestock. I don't think it morphed into people wanting cattle or a big herd of sheep. It was very specific to chickens , and there was a fascinating kind of history connected to it.

S2: Now , this one is a very different story. The lady and her Tigers. This is a story about a woman who lived in this otherwise quiet town in America , with a large collection of actual tigers.

S3: There was a little news report that I happened across one day that in this suburb in new Jersey , which is sort of between Newark and Trenton , that in the middle of the day , a tiger was seen walking through the middle of the town. That in itself was , of course , pretty amazing. But more strangely , no one could identify who the tiger belonged to. And you kind of feel like. There wouldn't be that many places tigers might come from and end up in the middle of a suburb. Lo and behold , it is revealed that there's a woman in the town who has 27 tigers that she keeps as pets. She didn't have permits for them , and you would never be able to get permits for them. It's 100% illegal. And it was an insane story. It was both , you know , just an absurd notion that there's a woman living in suburbia with almost 30 tigers. It was also fascinating because I began looking into how would you acquire tigers ? And to my shock and dismay , it's incredibly easy to get tigers. Arguably easier to get a tiger than a French bulldog these days. Wow. So it was just it was just an endlessly interesting story to me. And and talking about , you know , our relationship to these exotic animals that really no one should have even one , let alone 27.

S2: I want to shift gears and talk just a little bit about the library book. This is an astonishing book that's about the massive 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library , but it's also about the history of the library system in LA and the very strange characters who've passed through the ranks , but also about other lost archives. It struck me as a massive undertaking of research.

S3: Why do we feel so affected in such a deep way at the destruction of a library ? More than we would feel about City Hall burning or , you know , many other parallel institutions that we might imagine being destroyed ? I don't think you have the same feeling that you have when you imagine books being destroyed , a library being destroyed , and that's what propelled me from the beginning. Why do books mean so much to us ? Why do libraries mean so much ? And as a consequence , why did this fire affect people so deeply , including me ? And ultimately it was a book about memory and what memory means to us both the collective memory , which is what a library really is , and the act of creating a book , which is to make a permanent record of thought process. So you're you're sort of outsourcing memory into this form of paper and ink. Uh , and we've been doing this literally since the beginning of time. So there's something really , really , really human about the act of creating books and the act of creating libraries.

S2: I'm wondering if over the last 25 , 30 years , throughout your career , if you have felt the media landscape change for the kind of long narrative essays that you write , the kind of books you write , um , you've likely seen magazine culture changed dramatically since the internet.

S3: It really is. Sometimes I'm writing a memoir right now , and when I'm writing about the early days of my career and thinking about even the like , the fact that I used to write on a typewriter and we would literally cut and paste stories , and then desktop publishing came. And , you know , now , obviously the internet has completely changed the media landscape. I feel like the interest in longform narrative absolutely is there. I don't see anything suggesting that people aren't interested in stories that unfold in a , a really expansive way. We're all used to the idea of the attention economy and people wanting things quick and short and fleshed up on a screen and scrollable and all of that. But I , I think that the counterpoint actually is that. You get a certain amount of stuff now telegraphed to very , very quickly. It's almost means that you look forward to that chance to really think into a story.

S2: I have one more question about craft , and you're talking about these expansive stories and most of these things you dive into because there's an element of mystery to them. I'm wondering how you know when a story is finished , especially when sometimes there's not a tidy resolution or an endpoint.

S3: Actually , it's it's I won't say it's a big problem. It's a big part of the writing process that really matters , especially because it's so rare that you truly have a conclusion or a neat , tidy end to your story. Um , and most of my stories , most of my books really don't have a definitive conclusion. Um , I didn't solve the mystery of the library fire. I never saw a ghost orchid. All of these events that were meant to be the kind of culmination of my work didn't happen. How I knew I was done , though , was that it's more of an internal clock of. Feeling that I've learned my subject well and I'm ready to tell it to readers. I'm not looking for that tidy end , because life isn't like that , and most stories don't. Have that packaging where every loose end is tied up. It's really more , um , on the writer's side , that sensation of thinking , I'm ready to tell the story. And that is just a gut feeling. It's a moment of thinking , I'm ready. I'm ready to tell this. And I see the narrative coming. To its conclusion , even though it's not with a neat ending.

S1: That was writer Susan Orlean , author of The Orchid Thief and on animals. Speaking with Kpbs Arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Orlean will appear at Point Loma Nazarene University Friday at 7 p.m..

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Author and journalist Susan Orlean stands with donkeys on a farm, 2021.
Corey Hendrickson
Author and journalist Susan Orlean stands with donkeys on a farm, 2021. Orlean is one of the featured authors in this year's Writer's Symposium by the Sea series, hosted by Point Loma Nazarene University.

Susan Orlean is one of the most prolific nonfiction writers in the country, having rose to fame when her book, "The Orchid Thief" inspired the 2002 movie, "Adaptation." Her other nonfiction books include "The Library Book," about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library and "On Animals," a collection of her essays about creatures of all kinds — and our relationships with them. She's also a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker.

Orlean is one of the featured authors in this year's Writer's Symposium by the Sea. On Feb. 23, she will be interviewed alongside Nick Hornby. (Tickets can be found here.)

She sat down with KPBS/arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans to talk more about the themes in her work and how our relationships to animals, books and libraries may reveal more about our humanity than we think.


  • Susan Orlean, author of "On Animals" and "The Orchid Thief"