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Genre bender
Looking for Orchid Thief author Susan Orleanís latest? Too bad thereís no bookstore section for ĎInteresting Narrative Nonfiction About Weird Subcultures.í
BY TAMARA WIEDER

IF YOU KNOW Susan Orlean simply as the woman who wrote The Orchid Thief, well, thatís fine with her. After all, it was a New York Times bestseller, and the book on which last yearís Oscar-winning film Adaptation was based. "Itís a good thing to have as the benchmark," she says, "because I am really proud of it."

But Susan Orlean has plenty else to be proud of besides having been portrayed by Meryl Streep in an Academy AwardĖnominated performance. The New Yorker staff writer has published work in Rolling Stone, Vogue, Outside, and Esquire. Her collection of profiles, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (Random House, 2001), included the piece "The Maui Surfer Girls," which spawned the 2002 film Blue Crush. And her latest collection, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Whoís Been Everywhere (Random House), is full of Orleanís famously unconventional glimpses into the lives of people and places from Queens to Bhutan.

Weíd also like to think sheís just a little bit proud of the fact that during her early years in Boston, in the 1980s ó she still lives here "90 percent of the time," with the remaining 10 percent spent in New York ó her byline appeared on these very pages, as a columnist for the Boston Phoenix.

Q: How did you choose these particular stories for the book?

A: My previous collection was profiles. While I donít think my stories often fit neatly in a genre, they tend to sort of lean one way or another, even though there are several pieces that couldíve gone in either collection. With that in mind, and knowing that this doesnít traditionally answer the question of what is travel writing, I went through all my pieces looking for the stories that I felt had place or environment as a character.

Q: So youíre comfortable with this being marketed as travel stories?

A: Some of that is just to be simple. I mean, honestly, frankly, some of that is that when you publish a book of narrative nonfiction or whatever you call this stuff, you need to explain to bookstores where to put it on the shelf. And believe it or not, itís a huge problem. I mean, look, I find The Orchid Thief in the gardening section. Because there isnít a section in Barnes & Noble called "Interesting Narrative Nonfiction About Weird Subcultures." So some of the identification of a book like this is to help bookstores understand, within their universe of descriptions, what you might call this.

Q: So this book might end up in the travel section.

A: Yeah, which is great. I think itíll end up in Travel, and Current Affairs, which is the other weird, sort of generic category in bookstores. Itís great because, if youíre just again thinking about it strictly for marketing reasons, the travel section is very well-visited in a bookstore, and those books have a kind of timelessness, so there is something very good about ending up there. But am I comfortable with it? Labels to me arenít really relevant at all to what I do, but you need a label just because thatís the way the world works. So if you have to pick a label, thatís okay. I donít know what else I wouldíve called this. Thatís about as close as it gets.

Q: And in theory, this will be on display at the front of the bookstore before it gets moved back into the travel section.

A: Oh, yeah. I mean, you certainly hope so. If not, you have to go out and jump off a bridge. You know, it says "travel stories," which I think already tips you off to the idea that this isnít a guide to the best restaurants in Bangkok.

Q: In the book you write that the most valuable lesson youíve learned from all your traveling is how to bear being lonely. How do you bear it?

A: Itís a combination of things. When Iím traveling alone and Iím traveling because Iím working on a piece, I have the advantage of feeling like thereís a reason that Iím suffering through this. Because there is a reason. Itís not like, gee, I thought I was having a fun vacation and instead Iím really blue and lonely. I also think the other thing that helps me through it is realizing that itís an inevitable part of reporting. I think itís the writerís burden, in a way, that through being lonely, you reach out a little more, you work a little harder on your story, you feel more distinctively aware of "Iím in a different universe, and what is this universe?" So youíre able to see that thereís a reason that youíre suffering through being lonesome. That it has a benefit, there is some value to it, even though itís not pleasant. Itís hard! Itís really hard. I just went down to Corpus Christi for some reporting, and I arrived there and I thought, I canít believe I do this for a living! I mean, here I am in a place where I am truly by myself, and the desire to not be there is so profound, and it just pushed me to think, look, this is why Iím here, to figure out what this world is about that Iíve come down to see. It makes it worthwhile. But you know what? I donít think it gets any easier. Sometimes I think it gets a little harder. I think even though you know that youíll get over it, and once you get into the reporting, youíll begin to feel less lonely, and youíll have fewer pangs of wanting to get back on the plane and go home ó I think youíre so much more aware of the fact that youíre about to feel really lonely that you kind of think, do I have to go? Do I really have to go?

Q: Have you ever gotten back on the plane and gone home?

A: No, I havenít, even though Iíve really wanted to. Thereíve been a few times when I went somewhere and the story looked like it was falling apart, and I thought, oh, man, Iím just going to go home. And then I kind of steeled myself and thought, all right, look, just give it a day. None of the ones in this book, actually, but two of the pieces in The Bullfighter were ones that I arrived and the story seemed to have simply evaporated, and I thought, I canít believe this; Iím going to leave. In one case, in fact, it was "The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup" [story]; the photographer and I went together, and the same day, the story just fell apart, and he left the next day. He was really homesick; he had a new girlfriend and he wanted to go back and see his girlfriend, and I thought, Iíll just stay another day. And then the story all came together, and he got in trouble for leaving.

Q: Did he come back?

A: No, they hired a different photographer. They were not pleased.

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Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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