Photo: Susan Orlean for Grub Street / New York Magazine
The New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean has been called “a national treasure” by The Washington Post. Her deeply moving—and deeply humorous—explorations of American stories, both familiar and obscure, have earned her a reputation as one of America’s most distinctive journalistic voices. A staff writer for The New Yorker for over twenty years and a former contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Vogue, she has been praised as “an exceptional essayist” by Publishers Weekly and as a writer who “approaches her subjects with intense curiosity and fairness” by Bookmarks Magazine.
Orlean is fascinated by tales of every stripe. Her profiles and interviews for The New Yorker have covered such wide-ranging subjects as Jean Paul Gaultier’s design inspiration, urban chicken farming, the friends and neighbors of Tonya Harding, the contemporary painter responsible for capturing “the art in the Wonder Bread,” and the World Taxidermy Championships. From the everyday to the outlandish, she has an eye for the moving, the hilarious, and the surprising.
In The Orchid Thief—the national bestseller that inspired the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation—Orlean delves into the life of John Laroche, a charismatic schemer once convicted of trying to steal endangered orchids from a state preserve in southern Florida. A horticultural consultant obsessed with rare orchids, Laroche is the unforgettable, weirdly appealing heart of The Orchid Thief. Orlean spent two years researching the book, going so far as to wade through a swamp in hopes of spotting the elusive ghost orchid. The result is a story that The Wall Street Journal called “a swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great,” citing “visionary passions and fierce obsessions; heroic settings; outsize characters [and] entrepreneurs on the edge of the frontier.”
In 2011’s Rin Tin Tin, Orlean examined how the iconic German shepherd captured the world’s imagination and, nearly a century later, remains a fixture in American culture. Praised by Rebecca Skloot for weaving together “history, war, show business, wit and grace,” Orlean’s portrait of the beloved dog tells an “incredible story about America.” On NPR’s Weekend Edition, Scott Simon reflected, “Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too.”
Orlean’s newest work, The Library Book, an exploration of the history, power, and future of these endangered institutions, is a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Nonfiction. The Library Book is told through the lens of Orlean’s quest to solve a notorious cold case: who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, ultimately destroying 400,000 books? Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake, wrote, “After reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I’m quite sure I’ll never look at libraries, or librarians, the same way again. This is classic Orlean—an exploration of a devastating fire becomes a journey through a world of infinite richness, populated with unexpected characters doing unexpected things, with unexpected passion.”
In a career spanning more than three decades, Orlean has also written for Outside, Esquire, The Boston Globe, and more. In addition to The Library Book, Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, she is the author of Saturday Night, a portrait of the varying experience of Saturday night in dozens of communities across the United States. Entertainment Weekly concluded, “I can’t think of a better way to spend Saturday night than staying home and reading this book.” Orlean has served as an editor for Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing, and her journalism has been compiled into two collections: The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. Orlean’s work has inspired two successful films: Blue Crush, the story of young women surfing in Maui, and Adaptation, the metafilm directed by Spike Jonze. Meryl Streep, who portrayed Orlean in the film, was nominated for an Academy Award, as were costars Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper and writer Charlie Kaufman.
Orlean is currently Rogers Communications Chair in Literary Journalism at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada. She is also the host, with actress Sarah Thyre, of the podcast Crybabies, a series of candid conversations with creative guests about the books, music, TV, and movies that make them cry. Orlean’s lectures are marked by the same wit and vivacity that have made her writing such a success. She lectures on her books, her encounters with extraordinary people, her experiences traveling the world, the value of ignorance, and women and the media.
For more information on Susan Orlean, please visit www.susanorlean.com/.
More praise for The Library Book: “This is a book only Susan Orlean could have written. Somehow she manages to transform the story of a library fire into the story of literacy, civil service, municipal infighting and vision, public spaces in an era of increasingly privatization and social isolation, the transformation of Los Angeles from small provincial hamlet to innovative collossus and model of civic engagement—and the central role libraries have always and will always play in the life and health of a bustling democracy. Beyond all that, like any good library, it’s bursting with incredible tales and characters. There could be no better book for the bookish.” —Dave Eggers