Susan Orlean on what her writings on animals really say about humans

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In 1995, Susan Orleans, the New Yorker personal writer who would soon become a literary sensation for his book The orchid thief, has taken on an unusual challenge: writing the profile of Biff, a champion show dog approaching retirement. In the introduction to his new book, About animals, she explained what happened when she finally found herself alone with Biff, balancing with her notepad in hand. Of course, she realized that he couldn’t talk to her, and his usual housekeeping methods would have to go through the door.

“When you do a report on something, you think, ‘I don’t want your manager in the room, and I don’t want your agent in the room, and I don’t want all these people to be in the room. mediation between me and my subject. . ‘ I wanted to interact with this animal, just me and the animal, ”Orlean said in a recent interview. “It was really that moment of thinking, okay, I don’t know how to do that. It was really fun. I felt like I was so caught up in my journalistic protocol that I forgot this fundamental fact – that we interact with animals through a high profile relationship.

Orlean took on this challenge and emerged with a text that artfully captures Biff’s ways while meditating on the network of humans who manipulate and manage him. It’s one of 16 pieces brought together in the new book, which arose out of the fact that she often wrote stories with a specific animal or species at their center – and that doesn’t even count her 2011 biography of the famous canine actor, Rin Tin. Tin.

If you are familiar with Orleans’ work, you know there is no subject that she is not willing to imbue with wisdom – just think of her indelible profile of a ten year old boy – but in the work gathered in About animals, she writes about her personal affection for dogs, goats and chickens, and the farm she bought with her husband where she eventually acquired a menagerie. She also explains how being a self-identified animal lover influenced her decision to tell stories about how humans and nature interact, to some extent. “Until I collected these coins, I didn’t see this aspect of them,” she said. Vanity Show. “Each room has been made larger by being around the other rooms.”

In July 2020, a wider audience was exposed in Orleans when a series of his tweets documenting a drunken pandemic night went viral. By expressing some of the frustration and rage that overwhelms many of us (“WHO’S SICK AND TIRED OF EVERYTHING,” the most popular tweet of the evening read) and adding a few select details : the fennel seed candy she ate, the yogurt she forgot made, being briefly shunned by her family – the thread actually looked a bit like a formal story of Orleans in dramatic miniature. It’s only fitting that the fateful evening began when she visited a neighbor’s newborn foal while drinking a few glasses of wine. She woke up the next morning and, realizing exactly how far her ramblings had come, graciously tweeted a live hangover.

About a year ago, Orléans also found a slightly more sober way to connect with readers, starting a book club through Literati, a book subscription company that also connects club members through a social networking platform. So far, she has chosen a selection of fiction and non-fiction writers like Jesmyn district and Carmen Maria Machado, but this month she will guide her club members through About animals.

Orléans spoke to Vanity Show on why she got involved with the Literati Book Club, her experience revisiting her past work during the pandemic and why she is so drawn to animal stories.

Vanity Fair: How did you feel last year when you kind of became the mascot of what so many people were going through coming out of quarantine last summer? I feel like it was a really relatable moment.

Susan Orleans: Who knew! It was my unique experience that I had no idea was something that was widely felt. During the pandemic, I don’t know about you, but at five o’clock every night it was like, “Oh my god, pour me a glass of wine.” It was so stressful, and I’ve never done this before, checking my watch and thinking, is it time for a glass of wine so we can say, “Oh my god we’re living in a nightmare. “. Honestly, I never imagined in a billion years that it would explode in any way, not at all. It was my own little and crazy experience.

When I woke up the next day, besides having a hangover, I had a moment of thought, what did I do? Did I do something embarrassing? And then I thought no, I was really drunk, it happens! It was more a matter of thinking, okay I guess people now saw a side of me that I might not normally display, but the reaction was overwhelming, like, I can smell you, sister . I thought, Oh, okay. I guess it was good.

You also edited this collection during COVID. What was it like revisiting all those essays – especially since some of them were very personal – in this open space?

It was a real pleasure, and for me, a particular pleasure because I do not reread my work as a rule. I feel like once in the world, if I read it, I’m going to have reviews and things that I want to change. It was also very poignant because we were leaving our farm, and we ended up selling this house this year, so it was really very personal and touching to go back and read these plays. The patches were really interesting to review. Although some of the pieces that were very old didn’t seem dated to me, as the subjects are sort of eternal.


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