Born October 31, 1955, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Arthur (a real estate developer) and Edith (a bank officer; maiden name, Gross) Orlean; married John Gillespie (an investment broker), September 15, 2001; children: Austin Arthur. Education: University of Michigan, B.A. (with honors), 1976.
Home— New York, NY, and Boston, MA. Office— The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, New York, NY 10036. Agent— Richard S. Pine, Arthur Pine Associates, 250 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected]
Boston Phoenix, Boston, MA, staff writer, 1983-86; Boston Globe, Boston, MA, columnist, 1986-87; Rolling Stone, New York, NY, contributing editor, 1987—; New Yorker, New York, NY, staff and freelance writer, 1987—. Also worked as reporter for Willamette Week, Portland, OR.
Authors Guild, PEN.
PEN/New England Discovery Award, Pen American Center, 1984; New York Times Notable Book designation, 1990, for Saturday Night; six Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service awards for reporting, Society of Professional Journalists.
Red Sox and Bluefish: Meditations of What Makes New England New England, Faber & Faber (Winchester, MA), 1987.
Saturday Night, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Sally Sampson under pseudonym Cooper Gillespie) Throw Me a Bone: Fifty Healthy, Canine Taste-tested Recipes for Snacks, Meals, and Treats, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Esquire.
Orlean's magazine article "Surf Girls of Maui" was adapted as a screenplay by Lizzy Weiss and filmed as Blue Crush, directed by John Stockwell, Universal Pictures, 2002; The Orchid Thief was adapted for the film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, Columbia Pictures, 2002.
Work in Progress
A biography of canine movie star Rin Tin Tin.
Journalist Susan Orlean has parlayed a skill with magazine profiles—many of which have been published in the pages of the New Yorker— into a winning career as an author, with best-selling collections of her articles and expanded book-length renditions of themes inspired by her journalism. The latter was the case for her breakthrough book, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which was turned into the award-winning film Adaptation. For that work Orlean expanded a 1995 New Yorker profile in a work that "shows her gifts in full bloom," as Ted Conover noted in the New York Times Book Review. Conover also described Orlean's winning magazine-article formula: "It would have a narrow focus....It would be stylishly written, quirkily detailed and full of empathy for a person you might not have thought about at all. It would be lightly first person. . . . yet the whole would feel somehow suffused with her personality." Similarly, Julie Hale, writing in BookPage.com, noted that "Orlean's presence is always gently felt . . . and there are long stretches of text in which she is absent." However, Hale also felt that "Orlean's stories wouldn't be the same without her."
Karen Valby declared in Entertainment Weekly that Orlean's profiles "are among the best in the business." Orlean, writing in her book, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, explains the underlying assumption to all her work: "An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain." And speaking with Hale, the author explained part of her interviewing technique, so vital to profile articles: "I try to ask the questions that if readers didn't feel self-conscious they would want to ask. . . . I think it's the way little kids are. They'll go up to a person and ask them a blunt question. . . .I'm not uncomfortable asking those obvious but somewhat sensitive questions."
Dreams of Being a Writer
Orlean noted on her author Web site that she is "the product of a happy and relatively uneventful childhood in Cleveland, Ohio." With dreams of becoming a writer, Orlean went to the University of Michigan, majoring in literature and history. The author called her time at Michigan a "happy and relatively squandered college career." Graduating with honors, and with her dreams of becoming a writer bumping up against the reality of actually becoming one, she decided to take some time off and then do what many other college graduates do when they are unsure of their future: enroll in law school. Moving to Portland, Oregon, however, she was permanently derailed from this course of action. A job on a local monthly magazine led to features writing on the Willamette Week. She learned the basics of putting a good story together while in Portland, and also began freelancing for publications such as Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.
In 1982, with a portfolio full of published stories, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts, writing first for the Boston Phoenix and then for the Boston Globe. Her columns at the Globe were ultimately collected in her first book, the 1987 Red Sox and Bluefish: Meditations of What Makes New England New England. These essays take a look at unique aspects of the Northeast, including its language, food, and drivers.
New York and a New Yorker Career
In 1986 Orlean left Boston, moving to New York City, where she became a staff writer on the New Yorker. Orlean's second book, Saturday Night, was inspired by an article she read about a mayor in Elkhart, Indiana, who was trying to ban the time-honored
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practice of "cruising" on Saturday nights in an attempt to avoid congestion on the city streets. The mayor's attempts had drawn angry rebukes from local cruising clubs. Speaking with Alvin P. Sanoff of U.S. News & World Report, Orlean explained, "I went to Elkhart to find out what the dispute was really all about; it interested me that people could get riled up about their leisure time." This story in turn led to Orlean's interest in the concept of Saturday night recreation and how important that night is in most people's lives. She decided to chronicle the manner in which people across the United States spend their Saturday nights.
The result was the eponymous Saturday Night, a series of essays that took Orlean from Indiana to Oregon and back again to New York. She visited a fancy shopping mall in Beverly Hills, a polka dance hall in Maryland, a soup kitchen in Manhattan's Bowery district, and even a nuclear missile silo in Wyoming. Reviewing this work in Time, Stefan Kanfer called it "lively nonfiction," and "reading, just for the pleasure of it." Ralph Novak, writing in People, found Orlean's premise "inspired." However, Novak also commented that "at times, Orlean seems to have despaired of finding enough to talk about and to have decided that digression was the better part of valor." For Novak, an example of such a digression was the essay about a quinceanera, or coming-out party, for a Mexican-American fifteen year old in Phoenix that parts company from the Saturday-night concept, according to Novak. But, Novak added, when the author stays on subject, "this book of essays about how various people spend their Saturday nights is fun and thought-provoking." A contributor to the Economist thought Orlean's book had something for everyone: "Americans apart, this is a book for the prejudiced foreigner. Yankophobes will love hating Miss Orlean's smorgasbord of Saturday-night Americana: such trivia, such tackiness, such wastefulness. Lovers of America will be confirmed in their belief that it is a country of astonishing and unabashed diversity."
Another newspaper account inspired Orlean's third nonfiction work: a 1994 report of the theft of two hundred rare orchid plants from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in the swampland of southern Florida. The flowers had been taken by John Laroche and several Seminole Indians to supply a nursery that Laroche ran for the Seminoles. Laroche, a self-taught botanist, had not only convinced the Seminoles to hire him, but assured them that they had a legal right to pick orchids from land that had once belonged to them. Orlean met and interviewed Laroche, attended the trial, and penned an article titled "Orchid Fever" in the New Yorker. This might have been the end of the story. However, increasingly fascinated by the subculture of orchid lovers, some of whom will pay up to $1,000 for a single plant, Orlean returned to Florida and continued her research for the next two years, expanding the article into The Orchid Thief. This was Orlean's first book-length narrative; her earlier books collected shorter pieces. Describing the process of writing the book to Dave Weich of Powells.com, Orlean stated: "I'd come across a report of a crime that was so peculiar, that touched so many seemingly incongruous places, communities, and subjects, that writing the book was largely a matter of unpacking those elements. In the process, each element became a story in itself, much more interesting and involved than I would have ever imagined." In an interview with Robert Birnbaum of IdentityTheory.com, Orlean expanded on the difficulties she had with this initial full-length title: "The way I structure stuff is very intuitive, and I write as if I am telling the story, and when you are doing a book the sheer mass of information you've got makes that really difficult. It's just exhausting. So I had to come up with a whole new system for how to keep track of notes and to think through how I was going to structure it. It's unbelievably laborious."
In The Orchid Thief Laroche emerges as a disturbed personality who monomaniacally pursues one passion after another—photography, turtles, fossils, orchids, designing Web sites—and who has deluded himself into thinking he is smarter than anyone else. Yet as Orlean related to Weich, the book delves into more than the trial and conviction of Laroche. In the course of her narrative, and in fact to fill it out, Orlean discusses topics including the passion for orchid collecting that swept through Victorian England, the fanaticism of contemporary orchid aficionados, the Seminoles' ongoing battle with the U.S. Government for control of their tribal lands, and the destruction of Florida's swamps by land developers. Orlean even treks into the swamps herself in an unsuccessful search for a ghost orchid. Conover remarked that The Orchid Thief 's "true subject" is neither orchids nor Laroche, but the "monomania of collectors." Likewise, Brian Lym in Library Journal observed that Orlean's "narrative forays underscore a central theme—the costs and consequences of the single-minded pursuit of an ideal or passion." Similarly, Sally Eckhoff, writing for Salon.com, noted that "there's a rollicking history of orchidmania in here," and that "Orlean's buoyant, self-assured style makes the journey fun."
Other reviewers found Orlean's historical and sociological digressions less effective. Megan Harlan, for instance, in Entertainment Weekly, thought that though the "portraits here are finely drawn and certainly a pleasure to read, . . . ultimately they don't lead anywhere. The effect is like standing too close to a pointillist painting." Also, for a Publishers Weekly reviewer, the book "is not so much an expose as a meandering survey of the peccadilloes of the local orchid breeders." Still other reviewers found more to like in The Orchid Thief. Time magazine's John Skow felt that Orlean is a "superb tour guide through the loony subculture of Florida's orchid fanciers," and that her sentences "can glow like rare blossoms." And Donna Seaman in Booklist concluded: "In prose as lush and full of surprises as the Fakahatchee itself, Orlean connects orchid-related excesses of the past with exploits of the present so dramatically an orchid will never be just an orchid again."
The Orchid Thief was adapted for the film Adaptation. The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, decided to infuse more drama into the book by making himself and Orlean characters in the movie. The character Susan Orlean in the movie behaves less than professionally at times, falling in love with her subject and using a drug derived from a rare orchid. At first Orlean was put off with the script, fearful that such a depiction would compromise her journalistic work and integrity. In the end, however, she was won over to the project. Actress Meryl Streep played her in the movie.
Books of Faces and Places
From original book-length work, Orlean returned to collections of her essays in two further titles. The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People delivers exactly what its sub-title promises. Compiled mostly from a series of profiles the author penned for the New Yorker, the collection's twenty subjects include Biff the championship dog, designer Bill Blass, figure skater Tanya Harding, a New York cab driver who is also the king of the Ashanti tribe of Ghana, Orlean's own hairdresser, Hawaiian surfer girls, the female bull-fighter of the title, and a typical ten-year-old boy from New Jersey. Reviewing The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, a writer in Kirkus Reviews commented: "Some essays work better than others, but in general the collection is marred only by a few too many run-on sentences and the occasional quick ending....Well-paced and good-humored; a page turner." A more enthusiastic response came from Booklist reviewer Seaman, who stated: "Orlean's curiosity, faith in improvisation, fundamental respect and fondness for humankind, and a ready sense of humor inform each of these well-crafted pieces." A Publishers Weekly critic dubbed most of the twenty essays "gems," while Pam Kingsbury, writing in Library Journal, found the collection "eclectic, engaging, and satisfying." Similarly, Book contributor Ted Waitt wrote that the selections "glow with the author's keen observations and finely crafted prose," while Time reviewer Michele Orecklin called the pieces "wryly detached yet not dispassionate."
Orlean's 2004 collection, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, acts as a sort of bookend to The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. While one book deals with people, the other focuses on places, albeit told through very human stories. Orlean gathers thirty-one travel essays published over the course of two decades and includes destinations from Paris to Queens, New York, and from Midland, Texas, birthplace of George W. Bush, to exotic Bhutan. Seaman, writing in Booklist, found this book an "enormously pleasurable gathering of canny, vivid travel pieces and sprightly essays." A critic for Publishers Weekly also had praise for these essays that "are rich in color, metaphor and crafty language," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor described the book as a "gathering of savories, many revelatory, each a delight and a small work of art." And Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, writing in Entertainment Weekly, described Orlean's voice as "filled with wonder and a wondrous sense of humor."
If you enjoy the works of Susan Orlean
If you enjoy the works of Susan Orlean, you may also want to check out the following books:
Eric Hansen, Orchid Fever, 2000.
David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, 2000.
Mark Singer, Somewhere in America, 2004.
At the end of 2004 Orlean embarked on a new sort of creative venture, giving birth to her first child at age forty-nine. In an interview for Zulkey.com a
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couple of weeks before the birth, Orlean commented that her pregnancy had been "a breeze. I expected to be drowsy, clumsy, irritable, fat, and sweaty, and instead I've felt great. I highly recommend it."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Orlean, Susan, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
Book, January, 2001, Ted Waitt, review of The Bull-fighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 72; January-February, 2003, Karen Butler, "The Screenplay Thief," p. 13.
Booklist, December 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, p. 634; October 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 387; September 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, p. 178.
Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1990, David Finkle, review of Saturday Night.
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), January 12, 2001, Emiliana Sandoval, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.
Economist, June 9, 1990, review of Saturday Night, p. 91; March 27, 1999, review of The Orchid Thief, p. 87.
Entertainment Weekly, January 15, 1999, Megan Harlan, review of The Orchid Thief, p. 58; January 26, 2001, Karen Valby, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 96; April 16, 2004, John F. Baker, "Rin Tin Tin," p. 80; October 8, 2004, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of My Kind of Place, p. 121.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2000, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 1533; August 1, 2004, review of My Kind of Place, p. 730.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 13, 1999, Chuck McCartney, review of The Orchid Thief, p. K7163.
Library Journal, January, 1999, Brian Lynn, review of The Orchid Thief, p. 126; November 15, 2000, Pam Kingsbury, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 78; October 1, 2004, Alison Hopkins, review of My Kind of Place, p. 102.
New York Times, January 4, 1999, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Orchid Thief.
New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1990, Scott Simon, review of Saturday Night, p. 9; January 2, 1999, Ted Conover, review of The Orchid Thief.
Organic Style, October, 2004, Jessica Lothstein, review of My Kind of Place, p. 64.
People, May 7, 1990, Ralph Novak, review of Saturday Night, p. 39; January 25, 1999, review of The Orchid Thief, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, November 23, 1998, review of The Orchid Thief, p. 51; November 13, 2000, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 92; April 5, 2004, "New Orlean on Rin Tin Tin," p. 12; August 16, 2004, review of My Kind of Place, p. 49.
Time, July 2, 1990, Stefan Kanfer, review of Saturday Night, p. 67; January 25, 1999, John Skow, review of The Orchid Thief, p. 80; February 19, 2001, Michele Orecklin, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 77.
U.S. News & World Report, June 4, 1990, Alvin P. Sanoff, "The Culture of Hanging Out," p. 70; January 29, 2001, review of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, p. 53.
Washington Post Book World, April 22, 1990, review of Saturday Night, p. 3.
BookPage.com,http://www.bookpage.com/ (January, 2001), Julie Hale, "Susan Orlean: Unveiling a Cast of 'Extraordinary' Characters."
IdentityTheory.com,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (January 11, 2005), Robert Birnbaum, "Susan Orlean: Bestselling Author of The Orchid Thief Talks with Robert Birnbaum."
Official Susan Orlean Web site,http://www.susanorlean.com/ (January 11, 2005).
Powell.com,http://www.powells.com/ (January 14, 2000), Dave Weich, interview with Orlean; (April 9, 2001) Dave Weich, "Susan Orlean Returns with Stories of the Road."
Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (January 11, 2005), "Susan Orlean."
Salon.comhttp://www.salon.com/ (January 13, 1999), Sally Eckhoff, review of The Orchid Thief; (February 26, 2001) Chris Colin, "Susan Orlean."
Zulkey.com,http://www.zulkey.com/ (December 3, 2004), interview with Orlean.*