A bestselling author of eight books and staff writer for the New Yorker, Susan Orlean tends to produce “long stories about interesting things,” in her words, “rather than news stories about short-lived events.” She’s exceptionally good at choosing her subjects, in other words, and she has an astonishing range.
In one of her most beloved pieces, "The American Male at Age Ten," she profiled an everyman—or, actually, an everyboy. "He is old enough to begin imagining that he will someday get married," she writes. "But at ten he is still convinced that the best thing about being married will be that he will be allowed to sleep in his clothes."
Eccentric, singular characters are Orlean's specialty, and one of the most eccentric is John Laroche, a scheming horticulturalist in Florida whose story she told in the New Yorker and later in her best-selling book The Orchid Thief. The book became the inspiration for the even more off-beat 2002 Spike Jonze movie Adaptation.
Orlean found another great character in an artist and inventor named Steve Hollinger, who was her neighbor in Boston. In her 2008 New Yorker article “Thinking in the Rain”, she chronicled his efforts to re-imagine the umbrella as a tear-drop-shaped fashion accessory that would (yes, please) be less prone to popping inside out or poking strangers in the eye.
Part of what makes Orlean’s writing so vivid is her ability to sit back and observe, with an anthropologist’s eye for ritual and culture. Her 1998 article “Life’s Swell” follows a tribe of surfer girls on Maui and became the inspiration for the guilty-pleasure Kate Bosworth movie Blue Crush. “The Place to Disappear,” about Bangkok’s Khao San Road, examines the carefree lives of backpackers.
These days Orlean lives in the country near New York City. She’s an animal lover, and she’s taken up raising chickens in her backyard. ("I suddenly found myself wanting chickens," she writes, "and wanting them with an urgency that exceeded even my mad adolescent desire to have a pony.") Animals are a frequent subject for Orlean—she’s written about dogs,orcas, homing pigeons, tigers…
Her latest book is about a legendary movie star—but of course, not an ordinary one. Rin Tin Tin is the unlikely tale of a German Shepherd that became a fixture in American pop culture.
You can explore Susan Orlean's full archive of stories at Byliner.