Susan Orlean, ON ANIMALS

Susan Orlean, ON ANIMALS

Journalist and bestselling author Susan Orlean joins Zibby to discuss her new collection, On Animals, which was inspired in part by her quarantine puppy. Susan and Zibby talk about Susan’s Literati Book Club, how the underlying question of her collected work is “What is it like to coexist on a planet with these other creatures?,” and why this collection was a nice go-between her last novel and her upcoming memoir.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Susan. Thanks for coming back onto “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” for your latest, On Animals. Congratulations.

Susan Orlean: Thank you. I’m so happy to be with you. It’s such a pleasure to be back again.

Zibby: I know last time we were in person, so it’s not quite the same. Your publicist sent me a copy, but I also subscribed to your Literati box, I have to say, so I got it from that. I love it. I love your Literai box.

Susan: Thanks. Thank you. It’s so much fun. As you know, it’s such a pleasure to turn the spotlight on different books. It’s just a treat.

Zibby: Can you share another one coming up?

Susan: We just started Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. Amazing book. It’s a little older than some of the titles I’ve been choosing. Luckily, that doesn’t matter. I feel like anybody who missed it the first time around, this is a great chance to introduce them to this magnificent book.

Zibby: Amazing. Anyone listening who loves Susan Orlean, which is probably most of you, go to Literati, and you can get a box of her picks every month. Right? Every month?

Susan: Yeah.

Zibby: Okay, let’s talk about On Animals. I did not realize you were this much of an animal person, animals of all shapes and sizes and types and everything. Tell me about why you wrote this collection. Why now? All of it.

Susan: This is an interesting experience —

Zibby: — I know many have already been written. I didn’t mean to suggest you sat down and wrote them.

Susan: Oh, of course. Some of the material was newly written for the sake of doing a collection. Doing a collection is a wonderful pleasure. It’s a privilege, really, to take work that’s been published in magazines and put them together, both because it’s a different experience to have the material in a book — it makes it a permanent document. That’s wonderful. If it’s a thematic collection, as this one was, there is a bigger story that you’re trying to tell. In this case, it also came about, interestingly, as a result of COVID. I think many of us during this period of time have been looking back on our lives and being kind of reflective about what we’ve done, what we want to do, what matters, what doesn’t matter, the impulses that come from being in rather extreme circumstances. I was looking back over my career and just thinking about, what have I really addressed regularly? What are the things that have mattered to me? Coincidentally, I also did what a lot of people did during COVID, which is, I got a puppy. Into my menagerie of a dog and a cat, I got a puppy. So did just about everybody I know during COVID. I thought that was kind of interesting. Why is that so many of us had this impulse during a time of great anxiety to get a pet?

That began coalescing with this other idea of looking at my work and thinking, what have I addressed regularly in my stories? It emerged almost instantly that I’ve written many, many pieces about animals. Those pieces look at current themes about animals and about our living with animals. Putting the stories together seemed to me to actually emphasize the underlying themes about, what is it like to coexist on a planet with these other creatures? What is our responsibility to them since we are kind of the apex predator? What is our responsibility to the animals that we share the Earth with? What are the questions that arise out of captivity? Do we do it right? Is it right to ever keep animals captive? Then the question of what our relationship is with those animals that work for us. That may sound like a funny phrase, but when you think about it, there are lots of animals that we have a kind of working relationship with, livestock, horses, donkeys, chickens, these animals that we don’t keep as pets, exactly, but that we have a relationship with. Over the years, I get to pick my own subject matter, and I just keep gravitating to these stories about animals. It became very natural to me to put them together.

Zibby: Interesting. When I talked to Dani Shapiro a while ago about Inheritance, she was saying when she looks back, so much of her work is about this search for identity and father and whatever. It all made sense later. Do you have something that makes it all make sense? Yes, you’ve identified the theme of the work, but do you know deep down where it really all comes from? Not that you’re really related to a chicken or something, but do you know what I’m trying to say?

Susan: Yes, absolutely. I think that the themes that I’ve really returned to regularly are about how we strive to have some sense of what our place is in the world. From The Orchid Thief on, a lot of the things I’ve written about have been about, what is it that we do to make ourselves feel like we have a sense of where we fit into the chaos of existence? Whether it’s collecting every orchid species known to man, whether it’s, with The Library Book, about preserving stories, there’s something that we need in our lives to make us feel that they make sense. What is it that we choose for that purpose?

Zibby: It’s so interesting, wow. I had never personally thought about my relationship with animals this much. When you shine a light on any area, when you start evaluating your own interests from the outside, it gets even more interesting. I feel like that’s what you’re doing.

Susan: The opening and closing essays in the book are personal. They’re first-person about my long history with animals and then about my life on our farm in the Hudson Valley when I had more animals than I’ve ever had in my life. Then the stories in the body of the book are more journalistic where I was writing about stories that had emerged or scenarios that really interested me that had an animal at the center of it. Many of these stories seem to be about animals. They’re really all ultimately about people because the people around the animals are the ones that are revealed the most explicitly. Whether it’s, you’re an animal biologist whose goal is to see the whale from the Free Willy movies set free or if you’re the owner of a show dog and your dream is for this dog to achieve stardom, there’s a way that these relationships give the life of that person a certain order and meaning and purpose. I certainly can relate to that. I think there’s no one who doesn’t understand that fundamental need to feel that you have a goal, that you have some purpose in your life. In the past for many people, that purpose would’ve been religion or the raising of children. Beyond that, there’s this bigger urge, which is, what does my life mean? What matters to me in my life? Quite often, we find that meaning through a relationship with animals.

Zibby: That’s very well-said. I love that. When you market a book like this — you’ve been writing so successfully for a while. This is obviously very different from your last novel. When you go out on the road to sell a new book or think about what you’re even going to do next, what kinds of considerations come into your — do you try to alternate? What’s going to come after this? Is there an overarching strategy? Is it what moves me or, what am I feeling?

Susan: It’s interesting because collections are a completely different entity than a book that’s a single story. I happen to think they’re kind of wonderful because they’re bite-size pieces as opposed to a commitment to a single topic. I don’t think you want to release collections back to back. They almost serve as a kind of mid-course palate cleanser because they’re just different. It’s previously published work. These pieces are all very long by the standards of a magazine piece. I don’t think you want to publish collection after collection. I had just published The Library Book, which was a single topic that got the full three-hundred-page treatment. I’m working now on a memoir. Part of what was nice was to put together a collection to come out between those two.

Zibby: Like a teaser.

Susan: A little bit, yeah. Collections are a lot more work than they would appear. It’s funny because you think, oh, easy. You just take all your clips and put them together between covers. There you have your book, but it’s not like that. It really is a lot of work and a lot of thought that goes into putting them together. It is nice, particularly for me, because I really think of myself equally as a magazine writer and a book writer. This represents that range that a magazine gives you. You can spend a certain amount of time on a story and then move on to the next one and the next one. I love the way that a collection informs you of that big range of subjects. I think people overall really love a book that digs into one subject deeply. I think people sit down with a book and want that deep dive into a single topic. Putting out collection after collection, it would be hard to market that. If we want to talk purely commercially, I think overall, single-subject books just sell much more than collections.

Zibby: Tell me about the memoir. I’m so excited to hear you’re writing one.

Susan: Thank you. It’s funny because I’ve made my entire professional life about writing about other people’s lives. I’ve always felt a little shy about writing about my own life and feeling like, oh, who cares about my life? I don’t have such an extraordinary life. Yet when I think about what I’ve done and my experiences, I really have had a very interesting life. Not everybody gets to do what I get to do. This has been a process of persuading myself to not undervalue the stories that I have to tell. Even telling the people the backstory of the pieces that I’ve written I realize is quite interesting. It’s not like the life that everybody leads. I’m so often asked about the backstory behind The Orchid Thief and the resulting film adaptation. It’s a very funny story. It’s a very interesting journey to have been on. I think having grown up in an era of memoirs, I have a little bit of a resistance feeling like not everybody’s life is that interesting. Not every memoir really needs to be written. I’ve been very resistant to this idea until finally, I thought, I think I’m being a little overly resistant. These stories really are interesting. I have had an unusual life.

Zibby: I’m very excited to read it. I love memoir. The little snippets that you revealed about your mom and everything in The Library Book, I can’t wait to dig in. Do you have a title yet?

Susan: That’s been the tricky thing. We’ve been called provisionally, True Story, but I’m not sure if we’ll end up with that title. To be honest with you, every book I’ve ever written had the title change between the time that we conceived of it and the time it’s been published. In this case, it’s useful to have a provisional title, but I would be surprised if we stayed with that. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t love it.

Zibby: I think it’s cute. I have a memoir coming out in July I’m super excited about, a little bit nervous. I’m really excited. I changed the title a million times, a million. Now it’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. I’m very excited about where we ended up. It was called The Book Messenger. It was called Booked. It was called, I don’t even know. I just couldn’t be happy with it until now. I’m finally happy with it.

Susan: I love that. Titling a memoir is tricky. Part of my problem with the title True Story is I feel like there probably have been a million books called True Story. It sounds like there have been a million books. It doesn’t feel distinctive. It’s hard. The range of possible titles for a memoir feels fairly constrained. A lot of them sound a little bit alike. I do think book titles matter. I really do. I think book titles matter. Book jackets matter. You want to get it right.

Zibby: Yes, very true. There was just a really interesting article about that in Lit Hub about the importance of book covers. Obviously, they are very important.

Susan: The nature of the creation of a book, it’s interesting because you write the book and you do as good as you can possibly do, and then there’s the entire physical presentation of the book that is what readers interact with first. They interact first with the cover, with the title, with the feel of the dust jacket. When you write a book, you sometimes forget how important that is and how that makes a difference between whether someone may pick up a book or not or remember it or not. I’ve been very lucky. I feel like I’ve had fantastic packages for all of my books. I’m very involved in it and feel also like the designers have been fantastic. Coming up with the title is a really tricky thing. Being good at writing a three-thousand-word piece doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at coming up with the book title. It’s this little telegraphic bit of information. If you’re used to writing long, lovely sentences, you may not have the talent for picking out two or three words that really convey what a book is about. I’m lucky because my publisher is an incredible writer of titles. When I wrote The Orchid Thief, I had a different title for the book that I was bound and determined to use because I thought it was amazing.

Zibby: What was it?

Susan: The title that I had that I thought was amazing was The Millionaire’s Hothouse. I was convinced that this was the best title ever. My publisher got the book, told me he loved the book. He said he had one issue. He didn’t love the title. I was just shocked. I thought, what do you mean you don’t like — it’s the best title in the world. He said, “What about this? The Orchid Thief.” I said, “That’s just horrible. That’s a horrible title.” He said, “Why don’t you just sleep on it?” I went to a bunch of friends and I said, “What title do you think is better, The Orchid Thief or The Millionaire’s Hothouse?” All of them said The Orchid Thief. At that point, I was worn down. I just felt like, obviously, people are missing the obvious, which is that this is a terrible title. Of course, I have been told a million times by people, oh, my god, that’s the best title ever. I always say, thank you, it was hard to come up with.

Zibby: I love that story.

Susan: It’s funny because it’s an art form, and it’s not necessarily one that comes along with the art form of writing a long story. It’s short. It has to have a different quality to it. I don’t think I’m very good at it.

Zibby: Good thing there are great editors.

Susan: Right, exactly. Thank god. I’m going to knock on wood as we’re saying it.

Zibby: Susan, thank you so much. Thanks for coming back on my podcast. I hope one of these times our paths will connect on the West Coast.

Susan: Fingers crossed. We’ve had bad timing, but I’m hoping that will change because now we’re kind of here full time. It’s always such a pleasure to talk to you. I love it so much. You’re so wonderful to support books the way you do. It’s just a real treat to see you.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. I feel the same way. Great talking to you. Have a great day.

Susan: Bye, Zibby. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Susan Orlean, ON ANIMALS

ON ANIMALS by Susan Orlean

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