The famous writer spoke to students and faculty about her career as a journalist
Writer Susan Orlean visited Trinity to read excerpts of four of her works. Before her lecture in Ruth Taylor Hall, Orlean met with roughly 30 students in the Waxahachie Room for an hour-long Q&A.
Many of the questions involved her relationship with these subjects and the effects of those relationships on her work. One student asked how her personal judgments of a subject interferes with her writing.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge, as a writer, that I am viewing the world subjectively, that of course my perspective is particular to me, that I can’t write objectively. I’m not judging the people I’m writing about because it’s not really who I am as a person; I wouldn’t write about a person simply to support an opinion I had already about them. In fact, I often will do stories especially because I think there is a perceived idea of what this person or this subculture might be like,” Orlean said.
Orlean mentioned a tour she went on with a gospel group called the Jackson Southernaires, called “Devotion Road.” Although she developed interest in writing about a gospel group for a while, it wasn’t until after she read about the group’s late lead singer whose funeral caused traffic in Jackson, Mississippi, to come to a halt.
“I just had this urge to see what that world was all about; it couldn’t be more removed from my world. I think the reason it stuck with me was I couldn’t have been in a more different world. I was also really struck by how people welcomed me without blinking an eye, even though it was rather noticeable, and that was a real lesson to me about a certain kind of openness that I really value,” Orlean said.
Orlean said she was inspired after she had read the negative bias that beauty pageants are given. She intends to open her eyes rather than to react based on a social bias.
“I like writing about worlds [that] are not my world because I can open up and see how open I can be to a perspective that’s not my own. You may come out to the same point, but there’s a value in exploring it and really knowing something about it. I think as opinionated as I am, I’m also really open to learning, and I think that’s all you can hope for. Everyone’s entitled to be judgmental, but you need to want to learn more,” Orlean said.
Orlean discussed the emotional connection that is made with her subjects and how it can be tough for them to let go of the intimacy once she is done researching and is ready to write the story.
“You create a bond with people, and it’s a very particular kind of bond where it probably mimics the relationship between a therapist and a patient more than anything else,” Orlean said of the relationship.
Orlean also credited her inspiration to the work of others, expressing the importance other’s work should have on one’s own. She listed “Giving Good Weight,” “Great Plains,” “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and the collections Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism as books that always remain on her desk for inspiration.
“These are my teachers, other people’s work, and when I’m writing, I have a stack of books on my desk by the people I really admire, and I can’t tell you the number of times I open them up and look at the way they structured a sentence or made a transition from one place to another in their story. I think imitation is a great way to learn,” Orlean said.
Orlean read from “Shooting Party,” “The American Man at 10 Years Old,” “Orchid Thief,” and “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.” Before each reading, Orlean briefly described the backstory of each, emphasizing the moments that influenced her work the most.
“One of the interesting things about starting work on a new project is you never know where it’s going to take you, and you certainly don’t know what your passion for doing a good job on the story will result in,” Orlean said.
She spoke of how she immediately rejected the idea of getting into a swamp to follow the story she outlines in “Orchid Thief,” but how in the moment, she knew there was no better way to present what happened.
“I remember at the time feeling like, as a writer, my job is always to remain at a distance, and that I write about people that are passionate, then it suddenly hit me that I had been fooling myself. This thing that drove John Laroche to go into Fakahatchee Strand and steal these orchids, the passion that he had, was exactly the same thing that drove me to follow him into the swamp “” a place that I would have never wanted to go,” Orlean said.
The audience marvelled in Orlean’s ability to relate to them despite the peculiarity of her stories. Even non-English and non-journalism majors appreciated her honesty and were inspired by her readings.
“I enjoyed it. I’m not so much into journalism, but I like to read, and now I want to go buy more books. I was really interested in all of her stories,” said Laurel Fitzgerald, undeclared first year.
First-year Delia Rogers, an avid reader of the New Yorker, mentioned that both of her parents alerted her and insisted she attend Orlean’s appearance on campus. Other students who were unfamiliar with her work enjoyed the readings equally as much.
“I thought she was brilliant. I really liked her stories about engaging with unordinary people; it’s a very relatable way for aspiring writers to learn,” said Chris Glennon, senior political science major.
Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for more than two decades, has written articles for numerous magazines “” including Esquire, Rolling Stone and Vogue “” and has written six books. Her work focuses on profiles of interesting people she meets.