Susan Orlean: “Is It Possible to Be Truly Wild?”
The Author of On Animals in Conversation with Ann Leary
It was great fun to catch up with my friend Susan Orlean to talk about her new book, On Animals. It’s a collection of essays on—well, animals. But so much more. A famous whale, a martyred lobster and a sexy stud named Biff are just a few of the characters who’ve caught Susan’s famously curious eye and inspired her to look a little closer at them. And then to look even closer. I know I’m not the only one who shares Susan’s obsession with animals and her desire to know everything about them.
What emotions do animals experience? What do dogs or chickens or orcas think about? Most importantly (for me, anyway)—what do they think about us? These essays were written for the New Yorker and other publications over 20 years, but they revisit central themes as if they were written specifically for this collection. In the end, they were a beautiful reminder that our bonds with animals are like those we have with our fellow humans. We love some, we fear others and quite often, unfortunately, we hurt those we most want to help.
Ann Leary: OK, your new book is called On Animals. And I love the name of the introductory chapter, Animalish. Yes, I am a worshiper. That’s my religion, Animalish. But I think even if a person isn’t obsessed with animals, they’d still find most of these essays, if not all of them, really compelling. What made you decide to do a collection specifically about animals?
Susan Orlean: I had been in a sort of reflective moment looking at my work, especially during COVID just having that kind of “Hmm, what have I done? What will I do next?” sort of moment. As I was looking at my work, I noticed that animals have been a persistent topic for me, one that I’ve returned to over and over again in the course of my career. It’s a subject that is infinitely complex—and obviously stories about animals are about more than just animals. Returning to it has been very easy. But it struck me that it would be really wonderful to see the essays that I’ve written over a span of 20 some years all together. It’s interesting to see how they reflect on one another, how they enlarge each other. I wondered what sort of bigger message and, thematically, how they could resonate with each other. It was a real pleasure to put them together.
AL: In the introduction you say that you think you’ll always write about animals because—this is a quote: “their unknowability challenges me.”
SO: The thing about animals is their alien nature—whether it’s an animal that you think you know, like a dog, or if it’s an animal that seems much more mysterious, like a tiger or a lion. And, good for them, if you know what I mean.
AL: Give them something to keep to themselves.
SO: Right, exactly.
AL: You write that you try not to anthropomorphize them, but you bring a very curious and interesting human perspective to an animal’s emotional makeup.
SO: This is a big challenge. On one hand, your dog looks at you with his eyes rolling up and his lips look like they’re in a frown and you think, “oh, he’s sad because he knows we’re going out of town and he’ll go to the kennel.” To me, that’s a certain amount of anthropomorphizing. On the other hand, if you see their behavior, you know. Our dog is 11 and this year we got a puppy. And we’ve been observing our big dog’s reaction to the puppy. And I think that our observations are legitimate. There’s some amount of jealousy and rivalry and anxiety on her part. And she gets sick of him being a pest. And I don’t think that’s anthropomorphizing.
AL: I want to quote the opening sentence in your essay Show Dog: “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.” To me, it’s a classic Susan Orlean opening line. It grabs you. You cannot stop reading. You have to read on until the very end, which, in this essay, I think, you have a very Susan Orlean kind of ending that stays with you. How do you get to a great opening line?“I think observations are legitimate, I don’t think that’s always anthropomorphizing.”
SO: I start writing from the beginning. For the story about Biff, I knew that at some point I had to describe him. And when I was sitting in front of my computer and hadn’t written a word, I could have thought, “All right, I know I’m going to have to describe him, so why don’t I write that section first and I’ll just have it.” But I find that very hard to do. It’s such a linear process. I can’t figure out how I will introduce the idea of describing him if I don’t know what I’ve done right before that and I don’t know the tone of the piece or the perspective of the piece. I end up writing from the beginning to the end. And obviously, once I’ve written, I do lots and lots of editing. For me, writing is just the process of putting down on paper the way I would tell the story if I were telling it to you in person.
AL: As if you’re telling a great story to a friend who gets you. I think a lot of writers struggle with that. You trust the reader gets your humor, gets what you’re saying, and then it allows for a really good read.
SO: Right. If you invited me over for dinner, I could tell some funny stories and anecdotes. I’m pretty good at that and I know how to pace those anecdotes and keep them entertaining and interesting. Writing is the desperate effort to take that same natural tone and commit it to paper. We all know the minute you pull out a piece of paper, you freeze. You lose all your instincts about how to tell a story in a natural way.
So what you’re trying to do is just go back to something that is actually very natural. The hard part is you have all of these gears turning that tell you how you should write and how to make a writerly sentence and a writerly lead. As far as your question about ledes, those are the magical things that you can’t begin to figure out how you come up with them. It was very liberating for me to realize, “oh, the lede doesn’t have to really tell you what the story is about.”
AL: It can take some of the burden off the lede.
SO: For a very long time I thought the lede had to be a synopsis of the story and that you had to make all of the points in miniature and then expand on them. But reading some of the writers who I love and seeing the way that they approached the lede, using it more as a “come hither,” changed my perspective. I began to see the lede as a seductive entry point.
AL: Absolutely. You want them leaning in from that first line. OK, yeah. I want to hear the story.
SO: Yeah, exactly.
AL: I love your essay, “Where’s Willy” so much. You don’t ever actually meet Keiko, the Orca who was the actor in the movie Free Willy. But there’s this beautiful, poetic thing you do at the end. You zoomed in on the issues surrounding Keiko, which involved a lot of dilemmas about what should happen to this Orca. He had become a celebrity. Then you zoomed out in a very beautiful way and just let it be. I love that you explored the illusions and imagination and the way that he was turned into a celebrity. Everyone loved him, but nobody really knew much about him. He was what people made him out to be in their minds. But who was he really? You weren’t trying to moralize or tell the reader what to think. You just presented it in the most captivating, and very thoughtful, way.
SO: That was a story that I really loved working on. And it was a fascinating way to examine a couple of issues, namely, the nature of celebrity, because even though he was a whale, he was experiencing a phenomenon that we normally associate with humans. Nobody knew him, but everybody wanted him. And his welfare was objectified in the classic way that we objectify celebrities while worrying about their welfare. And it was also a meditation on the nature of wildness. What does it mean to be wild and what does it mean to be captive? And can you move between those states of being or not?
AL: That was a theme throughout this collection because you touch upon it again in the essays “The Lion Whisperer” and “The Lady and the Tiger” and other essays — the idea of whether there is room in the world for wild animals anymore.
SO: That was something that I noticed bringing these pieces together, and that’s partly why it was so pleasurable to see them in a collection, because I thought, oh, that’s a persistent curiosity: is it even possible to be truly wild? And how do humans really deal with the issue of captivity and wildness? That’s why writing the piece about rabbits was also interesting, because they hover in this weird world between being wild animals and being domesticated animals. So that theme was compelling for me. And even in the case of Biff, the show dog, what could be more domesticated than a dog? And yet it was interesting to me to see him behaving just as a dog, as a beast, as this other thing that isn’t a human, it’s another ungovernable creature.“Something that I noticed bringing these pieces together, I realized a persistent curiosity: is it even possible to be truly wild? And how do humans really deal with the issue of captivity and wildness?”
AL: He would still go out and roll in roadkill if he had the chance.
SO: Yeah, absolutely right. I would say that would probably be his number one favorite thing to do. There are so many stories that cross our paths about our uneasiness with the question of wildness in a world is not really so wild anymore. One of the more shocking things to realize is that in Africa there really aren’t wild spaces that are completely untouched by human management. And in some instances it’s been very valuable. But it’s just kind of sobering to feel like, wow, we’ve really put our fingerprints everywhere, haven’t we?
AL: That domesticity versus wildness is carried on throughout the book to the end, where you describe moving to L.A. and you’re in a city, and yet there are coyotes on your front step. I found it to be a theme that you were exploring throughout. It’s interesting that you were doing it for 20 years without probably even knowing that you would see them published together.
SO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was done very unconsciously and then suddenly I realized this is a subject that I continue to return to. I mean, the story of Keiko was probably the most complete encapsulation of that conflict. You know, this whale that was as wild as can be and yet completely not wild. And he didn’t seem that interested in being wild, much to the dismay of the people who were trying to make him wild again.
AL: To live among wild animals was always a dream of mine as a child. Those were my favorite stories and books. But I have to say, one thing I love about your essays is you pull the reader into your adventure and sometimes it’s a little scary. I was afraid for you in this collection a couple of times. For example, I think you got a little too close to the lady with the tigers. But it also brings this really rewarding element to your stories: that you were there and you got to smell the lion.
SO: I don’t think of myself as brave at all, but I think that when I’m in the middle of reporting something, I have this feeling that I need to do this.
AL: You have a hunting drive that probably overrides.
SO: When you are in the midst of reporting, you’re on a mission and you do things that are outside the range of what you ordinarily feel you can do. You’re pursuing something and you’re hunting and you’re prowling. You’re driven by something that’s bigger than your own personal fears or limitations or discomfort. To be honest, I think it sometimes gets people in dangerous situations. There were many times when I was reporting on stories when I would feel like I was looking at myself from outside. I always thought of it as the moment when I would picture what my mother would think if she had seen me, and she would be having a heart attack. I would think, wow, that’s the sign that I’m really working hard and putting myself out there. And other times I would think maybe I’m being kind of crazy and foolish.
AL: Right, but you are, in fact, just doing what needed to be done for that particular story. We can’t get in without you going in. I was afraid of you being closer to the lady, than the tiger.
SO: With good reason! She was a challenging individual. And, truth be told, the scariest things I’ve ever encountered in reporting tend to be human.
AL: I’m sure. So these are very timely. I’m sure you saw the documentary about the Tiger King.
SO: Yes, it came as no surprise to me. I mean, one real reveal in the course of doing the story, “The Lady and the Tigers,” is that unfortunately animal hoarding is not an uncommon phenomenon. And what’s really scary is how easy it is to acquire wild animals.
My story, “The Lion Whisperer,” was particularly sobering because I had once paid to pet a lion cub at a county fair. And I was thrilled. What could be more fantastic? I paid five dollars or whatever at the Dutchess County Fair, where a concession had some leopards and lion cubs. You got to have the lion cub on your lap for two minutes and pet him. And, look, it’s amazing. They’re exquisitely beautiful and they feel fierce and wild. And yet you’re holding them and petting them. And I did it very unwittingly, participating in this very, very, very unfortunate process that basically ruins these animals. They have no future. It’s just horribly sad. Of course we want to touch a wild animal. Of course we do. I get it. It’s incredibly, incredibly appealing. But we shouldn’t do it.
AL: I wanted to ask about the “Rabbit Outbreak,” which was published at the height of Covid. Were you researching that or did you just stumble on it? It’s so much about viruses and vaccinations. I found it fascinating and I understood on a much higher level than I would have if we weren’t experiencing what we’re experiencing.
SO: Like all of my stories, it fell into my lap somewhat serendipitously. Part of what sparked my interest was thinking it was the time to write about viruses. During Covid we were in our house in New York with my stepson and his wife and their pet rabbit. I don’t know anything about rabbits, and to be honest, I don’t have a lot of interest in rabbits. That is, I just didn’t think about rabbits very much. And my stepson mentioned in passing how they couldn’t take their rabbit to the vet because the vet had been closed because of an emergency. I said, what kind of emergency? It just sparked my interest. Maybe all of us had a heightened sensitivity to the word “virus” at that point. I did a tiny bit of reading about the rabbit virus, and thought, oh, my God, this is uncanny—the fact that the virus originated in China and that the U.S. government refused to acknowledge it as an endemic disease. I mean, the parallels were just there.
AL: I was floored by the way this was going on. And we were too busy looking at our own outbreak to notice this was happening. It’s just as devastating.
SO: What was chilling was the realization that this disease has passed from domestic rabbits into wild rabbits and that will have repercussions throughout the animal world.
AL: Most of your essays in this collection are much lighter and sometimes hilarious. Another thing you do is talk about the hierarchy we place animals in—in your essay “Animal Action,” you write about the animal wranglers on movie sets that count the cockroaches that come in and out. I thought that was hilarious. The Humane Society now is protecting even ants on a movie set to make sure they’re not mistreated.
SO: Right. Right.
AL: The lobster?
SO: I know. I know.
AL: Tell that story. It’s so hilarious.
SO: Oh, it’s very tragic. This was a story that came up in relation to the Tiger Lady, because I was writing about animal law and some of the advances in protecting animals. There was a young prosecutor in Oregon who had pioneered some of the prosecution of animal hoarders. He had made his name in a case involving a very big lobster, a 25-pound lobster. The lobster’s name was Victor, and he lived at the Oregon Aquarium. And one day, a guy stole Victor out of his pool at the aquarium and tried to dash out with him, but he tripped and dropped Victor. Victor’s shell cracked and he died three days later from his injuries.
AL: I don’t mean to laugh—it’s very sad. I think there was some attempt to find a veterinarian. And there was all this intervention to try to help him. It’s so sad, but I also know that I have accidentally dropped a live lobster. It’s this thing we do where somehow we elevate certain animals.
SO: The only good part of the story is that the thief was prosecuted not only for theft, but for criminal mischief, because he harmed the lobster. It set legal precedent, to extend legal protection to the lobster.
AL: You can’t abuse any animal, even a lobster. I loved the end of On Animals when you got personal and talked about your animal chores, when you had chickens and cattle and other livestock in New York. I guess you do not have livestock in L.A.
SO: We’re looking into it. But so far it doesn’t seem to work in Hollywood Hills to have Black Angus. But I’m not giving up. I still feel we can figure it out somehow.
AL: But come on, it’ll be the new trend I’m sure!
SO: Actually some of my neighbors here have chickens, but I’m too worried about attracting coyotes and I feel like you’re just asking for trouble. I loved taking care of livestock. I love the satisfaction of responding to their needs. Some of the pleasure is knowing that they look at you and trust you, even though you are an apex predator higher up on the food chain than they are. And they’re aware of that. Animals certainly have a sense of who could hurt them.
AL: It’s restorative. And I think it’s kind of vital. We have a need to have that kind of these rhythms. We need to nurture and I think we always will. And that is something that, again, you touch on in these essays. I just wanted to say what I love the most is how there were very poignant moments and there were very, very funny moments. But you never got sentimental. I’m just not a Rainbow Bridge kind of person. Do you know the Rainbow Bridge?
SO: Oh, yeah. Oh, God. Insane.
AL: I just don’t like the over-sentimentality people attach to animals, this kind of saccharin way people have of writing about animals, which I think is disrespectful of animals.
SO: I feel very much that way. And I’m always cringing when I see yet another Facebook post about Fluffy has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. And I think, no, Fluffy hasn’t crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Fluffy died.
AL: Fluffy died, it’s part of nature. We provided for Fluffy. You balanced on that fine line between really sweet, such as feeling the loss of animals you love and wrote about the loss of the animals you love without going beyond.
SP: The Hallmark card version, yeah. You know, over the course of years that I wrote this book, I lost two dogs. I lost a cat. These are real losses. I suffered deeply when they died. The emotions you feel are very real. I think you have to confront the realness of it and not make it seem like some hallmark moment.
AL: Yeah, it almost strips them of their dignity, I think, when people make it too Hallmark-y.
SO: Thank you. Thank you.
AL: I was sad when I got to the end of the book. I can’t wait until it comes out because I know everyone’s going to be very excited to read it. And what are you thinking of next?
SO: Well, I’m working on a memoir, believe it or not. And I say, believe it or not, because I have trouble believing I’m writing a memoir, but I am. And I am also working on adapting The Library Book for television, which has been very fun and very challenging.
On Animals by Susan Orlean is available now from Avid Reader Press.