Of all the nonfiction writers out there, Susan Orlean seems among the best candidates for a memoir. For one, her passport has enough stamps to rival Bono's. And let's face it, most people haven't had Meryl Streep play them in a feature film.
But while the trend in nonfiction seems to be writing about one's own life, Orlean has been obsessed with the lives of other people, ever since reporting her first story, about what it was like to live as a pregnant teen-ager. It was during that first assignment, she says, "that I really felt like I was in my element."
Orlean, who speaks Oct. 9 at the Drue Heinz Lecture Series, admits that it's her compulsive curiosity that has motivated and sustained her throughout a prolific career. The Cleveland native began as a reporter at a tiny Oregon paper and since 1992 has worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Orlean is perhaps best known for her 1998 book The Orchid Thief, a tale of orchid fever in general and eccentric orchid smuggler John Laroche in particular. (The book was the basis for Adaptation, the movie in which Streep plays her -- albeit with several liberties taken.) Orlean's profiles have ranged from the presumably mundane -- a 10-year-old suburban boy -- to the downright wacky: a New Jersey woman who managed, somehow, to accrue dozens of tigers in her backyard. Orlean has also written travel essays that offer compelling snapshots of life in locales including Cuba and "incredibly beautiful, magical" Bhutan, a tiny country situated between India and Tibet.
Orlean's prose style tends to be sharp, funny and oratorical, packed with telling details and gripping first sentences. (One of her pieces, "The Three Sisters," begins: "In Bulgaria, some tennis balls are like dumplings.") Currently, she's working on a biography of canine superhero Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd featured in movies, serials and the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin television series.
Her latest investigation is proving fruitful, if bizarre. "Right now I'm reporting on World War I, and I found a photo of a dog in the trenches wearing a gas mask," she says by phone from her home, in Boston. It's clear Orlean is relishing the research. But sometimes, she jokes, "It's annoying when most of the principal characters in your narrative are dead."
Orlean was motivated to write this latest book largely because of what she didn't know. She says she was "tickled, surprised, and thrown off-guard" upon discovering that Rin Tin Tin was based on a real dog that American World War I soldiers found on a battlefield, and not just the figment of a television producer's imagination. "Wait a minute -- are you serious?" she remembers wondering.
"Rin Tin Tin was a subject I thought I knew something about, but I didn't -- which was great," she says. "I love learning about things and writing about them." Orlean also notes that she really enjoys putting her subjects -- human or animal -- into some sort of cultural context. "This book will have quite a lot of history in it, rather than, 'Here I am, walking through a swamp with a guy.'"
Yet while Orlean is known to occasionally include herself in her pieces, ultimately they are always about someone, or something, else. "Sometimes I think it's too bad I'm probably not the kind of person who would write a memoir," she says. "I just don't tend to write personal stuff in an overt way." For the time being, then, it looks like Orlean's vision will continue to extend well beyond her navel.
Susan Orlean 7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 9. Drue Heinz Lecture Series, Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $19 ($8 students). 412-622-8866