How the “Tiger Lady” Profoundly Changed Susan Orlean
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Susan Orlean about her latest book, On Animals.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: Did anything change for you as a writer or thinker after writing all these essays about animals?
Susan Orlean: They each presented different challenges, without a doubt. I wouldn’t say that one specific one changed me as a writer versus the others, because each one was a very particular kind of challenge. When you’re writing about creatures that don’t speak, you’re constantly coming up against some of the same challenges, which is you have a voiceless character in a story. So, they each presented a lot of challenges, and each of them presented the same challenge of how do you write about animals in a way that’s both full of affection but that doesn’t sentimentalize them?
That is both appreciative of them having a kind of existing essence and consciousness but doesn’t anthropomorphize them? Because a donkey is not a human, a whale is not a human, and you don’t want to slide into that kind of interpretation of the animals. So, the tone of each of these presented the same issue: how do you write lovingly about animals but not in a way that’s sentimental, or that in at the end of the day, reduces them to being basically animatronic toys? Because they’re not. So that presented itself in each and every one of these stories.
I will say that writing about the tiger lady, the woman in New Jersey who had 27 pet tigers, it changed me as a thinker in a pretty profound way. Because until I wrote that story, I knew very little about some of the very dark facts about captivity and the zoo economy and issues that once I began learning about them, I realized that I suddenly have very different feelings about patronizing zoos and animal entertainment. It really did change me, and I have to say it’s made me into a bit of a crusader on this topic, because once you learn about it, it’s very hard to unlearn some of the facts that are pretty bleak.
Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including On Animals, The Library Book, Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in Los Angeles and may be reached at SusanOrlean.com and on Twitter @SusanOrlean.