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Arts & Entertainment
12/07/03, G-01

An Interview with Susan Orlean

Author Susan Orlean still remembers that glorious day back in 1986 when her first story was accepted by the venerable literary magazine The New Yorker. "It was just unspeakably exciting," she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Boston. "The thrill was truly everything I hoped it would be. I saved every scrap of paper from that article, every draft, and every proof, and when I saw my writing and my name appear in that New Yorker typeface I felt like I had really become a writer."

Orlean eventually became a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1992, and has now written more than fifty "Talk of the Town" pieces, as well as numerous articles and profiles. "The New Yorker has been a fantastic place to work over the years," she said. "I've been there through three different editors, but it still remains a remarkable place to work. It's a magazine that respects, admires and encourages excellence in writing."

Orlean has also written several books including the bestseller The Orchid Thief, which became the basis for the critically acclaimed film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.

On Tuesday, she will conduct a public reading at the Reading Recital Hall at 8 p.m. at the University at Albany's uptown campus. The talk, which is free and open to the public, is part of The New York State Writers Institute.

"I've spent quite a bit of time in Albany," said Orlean, "and I've gotten to know William Kennedy so it's going to be nice to come up for the reading, but I'm not quite sure what I'll read yet. I'd like to read something new, something I haven't read in public before, but I'm sure I'll also read from The Orchid Thief.

It was 1994 when Orlean went down to Florida to investigate the story of John Laroche, an eccentric plant dealer who had been arrested along with a crew of Seminoles for poaching rare orchids out of South Florida swamps. "I sensed it was an interesting story," she said, "but I never imagined I'd spend almost two years hiking through swamps and surrounding myself with orchid fanatics."

She wasn't looking to write a book about the subject since she was already under contract for another book at the time. "But the story was far more complex than I originally thought," said Orlean, "and I was so beguiled by what I was learning that I ended up going to my agent and explaining that this was a book I wanted to write. It was an eccentric idea, but my book editor and my agent both trusted me. They encouraged me to write the book, and the result was The Orchid Thief."

Orlean knew the book had been optioned for a film, but she didn't know that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman would take it in such a different direction. The film follows main character Charlie Kaufman, portrayed by actor Nicholas Cage, as he struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief into a film. Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean in the film, and Chris Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of poacher John Laroche.

"I loved the movie," said Orlean, "but when I first read the screenplay I was completely baffled. When the movie first came out I was a little worried that people would think I was really the Meryl Streep character, who in the movie has a drug problem and a relationship with one of her subjects, but over time I stopped caring, and now I think it's kind of funny when people confuse the real me with the movie character. Some people probably think of me as a slightly dangerous woman."

Although she loves reading fiction, she has never been particularly tempted to write any. "I really enjoy what I do," said Orlean. "It would be a thrill to one day publish a book of fiction, but I love my life of reporting and stumbling upon a world that I didn't know existed."

She began her writing career right out of college working for newspapers in the late 1970's before finding her way to magazine writing. "Newspaper journalism has many restraints to it," she said. "You're often not at liberty to really explore a topic, but as a magazine writer I can hang out with a person or research a topic at length."

Before arriving at The New Yorker she wrote for Rolling Stone, the Boston Phoenix, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. "I usually come up with my own story ideas," said Orlean, "but I'm not opposed to getting suggestions from other people."

Currently she has a fellowship at Harvard. "For a year I'm one of twenty-four journalists who are here attending seminars and workshops," she said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for me to learn and meet some fellow writers."

She is also at work on a new book about animals. "But I'm really just in the reporting stage of that book," she said. "The reporting stage is one of my favorite parts of my job because I get to discover things, but I also love the writing stage because it can be so exhilarating especially when it's going well."

Susan Orlean has no formula for becoming a successful journalist. "I just tell people to bring passion into your writing."

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