“Is This Really a Good Idea?” Susan Orlean on Getting Over Her Own Skepticism
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks Susan Orlean (author of On Animals, The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and those hilarious tweets) about finding the right way to tell a story, taking risks in the hopes that an audience will come along, and starting out as a beat reporter writing about the drudgery of city government.
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From the episode:
Susan Orlean: It’s a lot safer to do a celebrity profile than to write a story about a couple of oxen in Cuba. You have a built-in audience. There are people who want to read about celebrities, for better or worse, and also people innately feel like, ok, this is a story about a celebrity because celebrities are interesting. Whether they are or not, we just have a kind of universal idea that famous people, rich people, beautiful people are worth writing about.
When you take on a story that begins with some skepticism, like, “Why should I read this? I don’t live in Cuba, and I’ve never seen an ox in my life, and I don’t really care about farming.” That’s a risky undertaking. I generally have a thousand misgivings about every single story I’ve ever done. I first hear the idea and I am really excited and think, oh my god, this is the best idea that anyone has ever had ever. And this is urgent. I have to do it. This is fantastic. Inevitably, then there’s a second wave of emotion where I think, what is this even about? No one’s going to care. Is this really a good idea? Maybe this is a terrible idea.
And there are plenty of times where I don’t get past that misgiving. I lose my nerve; I lose that conviction that it’s a good idea. And the minute you lose that conviction, it is really hard to go forward, because these stories rely 100 percent on my enthusiasm for the subject. They simply can’t go forward without me saying, oh my god, I want to learn about this. So if at any point I lose my nerve and think it’s too obscure, too marginal, whatever reason might pop up in my head, I can’t continue.
Now I don’t discard a million ideas, but they do have to pass through that circle of fire before I’m really committed. Many times I will even go to my editor and say, I don’t know, I’m beginning to doubt. And I’ve sometimes had my editors say, no, no, no, and they’ve pulled me back from the break and said, no, you were so excited about it. You seemed so interested in it. And I think, oh, well yeah, I guess I was interested in it. Some of it is performance anxiety, some of it is genuine—and I think healthy—skepticism. Is this going to work as a story? Is there enough here? Am I genuinely interested enough to make this work and to carry readers along with me? Knowing, as I do almost every time, that the story is going to depend an awful lot on my execution of the story. You don’t go into a story about oxen in Cuba with a built-in audience.
Maybe a few people who have oxen, but it’s not as if there are a million people who think, oh, I’ve been dying to read a story about oxen or about orcas or about any of these subjects. I did tons of celebrity profiles when I first began my career, and you don’t ever go into a profile of Tom Hanks doubting yourself. You just think, well, people are interested in Tom Hanks. All I have to do is do a good job.
Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of eight bestselling books, including 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 Twitter.com/SusanOrlean.