David: How's it going?
Susan Orlean: How are you?
David: We're going to talk about my absolute favorite subject in the world.
Susan: Critters. You're such an animal person, right David? You have so many pets.
David: Okay, I may not be an animal person exactly, but Susan Orlean most certainly is. Her books include a biography of Rin Tin Tin, as well as The Orchid Thief and The Library Book. Susan is also the author of a million great pieces in The New Yorker. Some of which appear in her new collection of essays. The book is called Simply and Accurately on Animals. It includes a profile that ran in The New Yorker called Show Dog. Listen carefully because Susan's opening here is pretty much unbeatable though it does feature some language that is, let us say polite only in dog circles.
Susan: If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He's friendly, good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He's not afraid of commitment. He wants children-- Actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun. What Biff likes most is food and sex. This makes him sound boorish, but he is not, he's just elemental. Food he likes even better than sex. His favorite things to eat are cookies, mints, and hotel soap, but he will eat just about anything.
David: I have to tell you when I first read this, which is some time ago, I thought, and I think I'm right, that you were doing a lot of things at once. One of them is a parody of the profile form of human beings. Tell me a little bit about this piece.
Susan: I began my career like many of us did doing a lot of celebrity profiles. That was the grist of the mill of journalism and the magazine world. They have a very formulaic quality. When I decided I wanted to profile Show Dog, I thought of it almost as if I were being dispatched to profile Linda Evangelista. Is there a real person beneath the layer upon layer of the posse that is there to make this thing stand as an article of perfection? I loved elevating the profile of the dog to that same degree of scrutiny and seriousness that you would apply to a person.
David: I always talk about the gods of nonfiction providing actual facts becoming almost too good to be true. One of them begins with the name of the dog Biff Truesdale. It's like the name of the star of a surfing movie in the '60s like Troy Donahue or something like that.
Susan: I know I know it's so funny. The fact that it is such a human name, and I agree with you I think the miracle of writing nonfiction is that facts are just so fantastic. If I were writing a fictional profile of a dog, I wouldn't have the nerve to name him Biff Truesdale. I wouldn't have the nerve to have some of the elements or some of the quotes from the people around him because they're just too fantastic and too funny.
David: Now we've known each other for a long time. We used to have offices right next to each other. I didn't really know this about you. In fact, I don't even think certainly when you lived in the city full time that you were that much of an animal nut. Here what's happened is that a whole bunch of pieces have accumulated over time in The New Yorker and occasionally elsewhere on animals and your love for them. Let's just say I can't relate, but I love the book. What's your history with animals? How did this turn out to be such a passion?
Susan: I always just found animals delightful. I liked looking at them, I liked interacting with them. I fantasized about being around them. I didn't have the desire to become a naturalist or somebody who was out in the woods, but I happened to have a real soft spot for working animals. That gives you a little bit of a tip-off where a lot of these stories come from which is the place where animals and people actually work together.
David: What does that even mean?
Susan: I think animals-- Wild animals are amazing and fascinating. I'm more interested in the animals that we live closely with, whether it's our pets or whether it's a mule that is delivering anti-aircraft missiles in Afghanistan. The idea that we've crossed species to create some agreement that we are going to work together. To me, it's a source of endless fascination or animals that are meant to be wild that we have brought into our sphere, and then we're stuck with the problem of what do you do with that?
David: I guess this is what I innately as a child didn't understand. Whatever chaos was in the house I didn't understand why is there also a dog here? Where did that come from?
Susan: Right. Although occasionally the dog is the quiet place in the household, and the place with the least complicated emotional baggage. That you come home, your dog licks you whether you've done good or bad things that day out in the world. There is a simplicity to our relationship with animals.
David: What was the hardest animal to have? I have expected to read soon that you're going to have a panda bear in your backyard.
Susan: Oh my God, I would love that. Actually, in a way, the hardest was having chickens, not because they're hard to take care of, but because everyone in the natural world likes chicken. It's the only animal I've ever had that many times had killed by other animals.
David: I remember in your essay, The It Bird, you said that you could not kill and eat a sickly chicken, you had to take it to the vet.
Susan: Yes. This was the moment where I fancied myself a farmer. I was having my Ever Gabo, Green Acres moment of living up in the country and thinking, "Well, I'm a farmer. I go and get hay and feed." My chicken developed a neurological ailment. She couldn't stand up, she wasn't eating. I asked a neighbor who was a long-time resident of the-- This was the Hudson valley of New York. He was a guy who had lived up there forever and I said, "What should I do? My chicken is sick." He made a motion that indicated the wringing of the neck of the chicken.
David: That's what I would've thought.
Susan: Yes. Which is you have a sick chicken you kill it. Being a suburban girl who really had only experienced interacting with animals as pets, I thought, "I'm not killing her. I'm going to seek the finest medical attention." I took her to the vet who--
David: I got to ask you, how much did the veterinary care of the sick chicken cost?
Susan: I am going to withhold that answer because it's a source of conflict with me and my husband who pointed out the price of rotisserie chicken at the supermarket-
David: I bet he did.
Susan: -versus the price of taking care of my chicken. There was really nothing to do for her so I had her euthanized. Again, this was something where my husband could not believe that I was paying $150 to euthanize my chicken.
David: Susan, I've always thought of you as a writer who's a very- is a comic writer, but very cunning about it. In other words, you use your comic skills when needed, or it comes and it goes like your book on the library in Los Angeles obviously is not a comic subject. Not all these pieces on animals are innately comic. Talk to me about the role in your writing life of the comic voice as opposed to a more serious narrative voice?
Susan: First of all, I think what you try to do as a writer is to move ever closer to your actual authentic voice as a person. I like making jokes, I like seeing the irony and things and even things that are very serious, I invariably find some twist of the story that gives me a moment of laughter or at least a chuckle.
David: It seems to happen in all your work and the orchid thief in your book on Rin Tin Tin, the serious has comic undertones and the comic has serious meaning at the moments you want it. In the essay, The It Bird, you write, many philosophers, including John Berger, maintain that what we consider modernity began at the moment when we no longer relied on animals for utility, we didn't ride them or raise them or milk them and they were absent from daily life except as ornaments, so are these animals ornaments really? And ornaments of what?
Susan: We were attracted to animals in part as texture. There's a pleasure in having your eye land on a living being that's not a person. There's a great pleasure in communicating in some wordless way with another species and whether you like animals or not, there is something miraculous and marvelous about being able to cross the divide of species and communicate. Then there are some animals that we like just because they're amazing to look at. When we were living on our farm, my husband coined the phrase, landscape animals, because he felt like part of the reason for having some animals was that you could look out and see them. They were an attractive part of the landscape a little bit like kinetic sculpture. I do think there's a way you collect animals when you live in the country and you have enough space for them that's a bit antic and crazy because why not bring a donkey home.
David: I have to tell you as an editor and you as a writer, every Tuesday afternoon at four o'clock, we have an ideas meeting and people come to the meeting with three ideas and we should do more about the war in Afghanistan, or we should write a profile of this person or that person, or whatever it might be, I can't ever think of an instance where somebody came in with what I would call a Susan or lean type idea and I guess the silliest question that writers get or songwriters get, or whatever it might be is where do you get your ideas, but I've got to ask you, where do they come from?
Susan: It's flotsam and jetsam. It's the sign hanging on a telephone pole. It's an overheard conversation. It's a magazine, a specialty magazine that mentions some odd thing and it's bur that gets stuck on your jacket and it just clings and you think, wow, what is that? I need to know more about that. It can be so random. When I think about the story that I did about taxidermy, I was visiting a friend, who's an artist, a painter, and he had a taxidermy catalog for taxidermy supplies. I love gear, and I love any hobby that has a lot of gear and I thought, oh my God you can order bear noses. That's amazing and I said, "Oh my God, how could there be a five-inch thick taxidermy supply catalog? Aren't there only two or three taxidermists in the world?"
I got home that night and thought, "Wait, I'm still convinced there are only three taxidermists in the United States so I googled taxidermy and I got up like 11 million hits. The first thing that popped up was that the world taxidermy championships were coming up in a week or two. To me, it's like--
David: That's manna from heaven.
Susan: Yes. Like the top half of my skull just lifted off and I'll never forget because I came running into the office the next day, and I didn't have any idea of what the story was about and I said, "Can I cover the world taxidermy championships," and you said, "Let me think if I've already assigned that to someone."
David: Susan Orlean. Thank you. The book is, On Animals in case you haven't guessed. Thank you so much.
Susan: Thank you, David.
[00:15:17] [END OF AUDIO]
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