Interviews

Before ‘The Library Book,’ Susan Orlean Thought She’d Never Write Another

"It was just too big of a commitment. It’s just too hard to write books."

If you’ve read any of her previous books, you know that New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean is deeply skilled at excavating the details of a particular subject that simultaneously reveal or reflect our culture. That was the case in her deep dives on orchid hunters or cab drivers, and you can certainly see it in The Library Book, her latest, centered on the 1986 arson at the Los Angeles Public Library–an event many of us (including this librarian) hadn’t known about at the time because it occurred during the Chernobyl accident.

The Library Book explores the labor that powers public libraries and the different types of people they serve. It also investigates the biggest U.S. library fire in history in such a thorough way that you can almost smell the smoke as described by staff 30 years later. It’s a story of resilience and impact in one of our country’s most valued symbols of civic engagement. But it also co-exists perfectly with the rest of Orlean’s work (The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend) because The Library Book excels at sharing individuals’ lives with interest and empathy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Orlean about her latest work, living forever, Misty of Chincoteague, and writing backwards.

Stacie Williams

One thing that really struck me was as you considered this book you were clinging to memories of your own mother because of her dementia. This is something I’m going through with my father. I’m pondering this idea of whether a memory is still a memory if only one person shares it, and what does it mean to live forever. So with that, what are some books or memories that most remind you of your mother or those trips to the library in Shaker?

Susan Orlean

I’m sorry, it’s a very difficult experience for sure. When I think about those trips—I was very young—so the memories I associate with her in that period of time are all books that I read when I was a little kid that I loved dearly. I was a big fan of books about horses. Like any kid, I loved reading about animals and all that stuff. So I think I really associate it with that era of where I reading books like Misty of Chincoteague. That period of my life, which was a very tender memory, and those were books that I was really passionate about.

Stacie Williams

So even though you were younger during those times, I imagine your mom was grabbing books for herself. Do you know what type of books she loved reading? And did her tastes impact you later on?

Susan Orlean

She was a big reader of fiction, I’ve got to admit I can’t conjure specific books. She just liked reading books. I think exclusively fiction, but I can’t remember a particular title. I think just seeing a parent reading a lot is very influential. I’m not sure that I turned to her to be inspired to read specific books, but I think just seeing her reading really had a big impact on me.

Stacie Williams

You mentioned that before writing The Library Book you thought you were done writing books completely. Can you elaborate on why?

Susan Orlean

I had worked so hard on my last book and it was when my son was a toddler and the combination was pretty intense—I mean just to be writing a book that was very research heavy at a time when I had a young kid. And when I was done I thought it was just too big of a commitment, it’s just too hard to write books. I know for a fact that it wasn’t that I was thinking I [didn’t] want to be a writer anymore, but the effort of writing a whole book felt overwhelming to me and I really was not looking to write another book.

I just remember thinking I’ll write for [The New Yorker] and I’ll enjoy that and that’s sufficient. When this idea kind of fell into my lap I was hesitant in a way, thinking “Do I really want to do this again and go knee deep into a book when I was vowing that I would never do it again,” and at the same time, it felt so natural and automatic. So I think it was a feeling that the impulse to not write a book was a sense that the effort was so extreme and I wasn’t convinced that the reward warranted the amount of effort. And I really was reminded as I was writing the book that to write a book and write something permanent is something special and really does warrant the effort that it takes. It’s not that I somehow convinced myself that it wasn’t as hard as it really is. It really is hard, but you’re creating something that, in theory, lasts forever and that’s a pretty extraordinary thing.

Stacie Williams

Harry Peak was a really interesting, enigmatic person. Going back to your analogy about the library being a place where all kinds of stories can live forever, your book made me think that Harry Peak will get to live forever in this story. This book will go into a library and people will read his story and in that way he’ll get the recognition that it seems like he wanted. Have you considered that through this book you’ve given him the recognition he may have always wanted?

Susan Orlean

Oh yes, there’s no escaping the irony because his story—while it’s not that it was obscure—time had passed and there was every reason to feel that certainly not everyone in the world knew his name. And committing his story to the pages of a book gave it a different kind of life that it never had before. The story was covered in the paper here but his story, his life was never deeply examined. It was more that he was looked at as “This is the guy who’s been accused” but in a passing fashion.

Stacie Williams

What did you learn about libraries that didn’t make it into the book? Because I have to say that you got to talk to a broader cross section of people who work in a library than most people. Like, most authors of mainstream publications don’t make time to talk to a metadata specialist. What were you surprised to learn overall about how libraries work or what they do?

Susan Orlean

I think the thing I was fascinated by and knew nothing about was the back office. Part of what drove me initially was this curiosity of “I wonder how libraries actually function?” How do they go from A to B? How do they move books, how do they choose books? That all felt like a revelation to me.

Stacie Williams

So one of the things you also touched on, and this was much later, was library outreach for homeless patrons. You touched very briefly on your discomfort around homeless people and that’s something I wanted to come back to as a librarian myself. I wondered if that changed for you at any point.

Susan Orlean

I think it changed considerably. Like anything, the less you know the more intimidating or frightening it is. But I think my exposure made me also realize that there are a huge range of people who are homeless for a huge range of reasons and among them are a lot of people whose life isn’t so different from the lives of other people you might imagine. And then there are people who are very troubled and the primary issue is a mental health issue and that’s a whole different category and the library gets all types. There are many different reasons that result in homelessness and seeing homeless people as a complicated group as opposed to a simple entity with no nuance.

Stacie Williams

Your work has been about peeking into these unique corners of America. Orchid lovers, canine actors, people out on Saturday night. What are the unifying threads that drew you to these stories and what is the line at which you know a book had to come out of it?

Susan Orlean

That’s a very good question. Something I’m always trying to figure out is why do I go from subject A to subject B? What’s the connective tissue? I can see clearly certain things that draw me in: an interest in subcultures, an interest in looking at things that feel overlooked, that are in plain sight but have never really been examined closely. But I do spent a certain amount of time baffled by my own choices. I think I come across a subject and it feels like I just know immediately that that’s what I’m doing and I can’t explain precisely what that emotion is, but it’s a very specific feeling of knowing that I’m going to write. And I hear a lot of good story ideas. Some I think That’s a good story, but there are certainly those where I think—it’s not even a conscious thing it just becomes clear to me—that this is book that I’m going to be writing. It’s just a gut feeling. This is my story. I think it’s probably appealing on some very unconscious level, it’s clicking with something that I’m not even aware of.

Stacie Williams

How do you begin your writing process?

Susan Orlean

Usually I just begin by trying to learn the basics, because I’m usually writing about something I know very little about. In this book, the first thing I did was try to get as much information about the fire and the incident itself. Once I was able to learn about that, now I have to backtrack because I’m learning all about this story but I don’t know anything about how the library evolved. And then it’s a matter of saying I don’t know anything about arson, so I have to backtrack and learn about arson. I usually find myself heading backward in time a lot because it’s hard to understand something from the present moment if you don’t know how you came to that point. I didn’t go into it thinking I’d learn a lot about L.A. history and I didn’t think about that, and then I thought Oh, I guess I’m going to be learning a lot about LA history. Because how can I write about this fire without that context and that history of the city? So I always feel like it’s a wheel turning backward in many ways.

Stacie Williams

That’s a really interesting way to describe that. As I read this and it was the same when I read The Orchid Thief, I felt like I was going down a lot of rabbit holes. Not in a unpleasant way, but as a reader I’m backtracking with you, like “I don’t know a lot about arson, how do you prosecute that?” Is there anything else that you would want people to know about The Library Book?

Susan Orlean

What I’ve found interesting is how emotional our connection to libraries is and that was what first drew me to the story, and what I have found being with people talking about the book, that’s a common emotion. I’m not the only person who feels deeply connected to my memories of libraries and that’s an interesting thing for a municipal institution to bring out such strong emotions, and I think it tells us a lot about our relationship to books, to the written word, to a shared civic space. To me that’s fascinating. We don’t feel that way about City Hall. And we don’t feel so uniformly emotional about many places, and I found that really interesting and kind of marvelous.

Stacie Williams

It’s always exciting to see people shine a light on the work that you do and talk about it in a value-added way. You made some really strong observations about the evolving role of the library as more than a place to get a book. A lot of mainstream pieces you read will be “Oh the library is a wonderful place of magic” or people saying “Libraries are dead!”

Susan Orlean

The extremes are really funny and I think the truth is far richer than either of those answers which is yes, there are places full of magic; yes, some of the functions they have in the past are no longer relevant, but they seem to survive and thrive in ways that we never anticipated, which is pretty cool.

NONFICTION
The Library Book
By Susan Orlean
Simon and Schuster
Published October 16, 2018

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in upstate New York.

1 comment on “Before ‘The Library Book,’ Susan Orlean Thought She’d Never Write Another

  1. Stacie, I really appreciate the thoughtful questions you asked, particularly about “whether a memory is still a memory if only one person shares it.” As a writer and book lover, I enjoy learning about an author’s background and writing process. I just finished reading (and reviewing) The Library Project. Thank you for adding to my enjoyable experience.

    Like

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