Susan Orlean: How I Write

The author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, now out in paperback, talks about her life among the beasts and what she does before she can write a lead.

10.17.12 8:45 AM ET

Where did you grow up?

In the political tipping-point state of Ohio.

Where and what did you study?

University of Michigan; majored in English, boys, and whiskey sours.

Where do you live and why?

I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes I’m in the Hudson Valley of New York, with the birds and the beasts; sometimes I’m in Los Angeles, with the ... beasts.

Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

In other words, which of my children do I love the most?

Describe your morning routine.

Check pulse; check email; drink coffee; fend off my dog and my cats until coffee kicks in; feed dog and cats.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Being a redhead.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

A well-fitting bra.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road, and Regeneration, all by Pat Barker. Life-changing.

What book do you wish you had written?

See above.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.


Describe your writing routine.

Vacuum entire house. Reorganize all closets and drawers. Paint exterior of house. Ask neighbors if they would like their house painted. Re-vacuum house. Write lead.

Do you have any unusual rituals associated with the writing process?

See above.

‘Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend’ by Susan Orlean. 352 pp. Simon & Schuster. $16.

Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?

A collection of feathers that I’ve collected from my chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl; a napkin dispenser I found in China that has written on it something about the glory of work.

What is the view from your favorite work space?

A woody hillside, populated by my pet chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl, trying to find their missing feathers.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

Weed the garden.

What do you do to relax?

I don’t relax.

Do you have any superstitions?

I dread saying out loud anything that resembles a boastful prediction. I am convinced I will be smote down for being prideful.

What is something you always carry with you?

Something, anything, to read.

What is your favorite snack?


What phrase do you overuse?

“At the end of the day ...” meaning, “in conclusion” or “I am now bored by this conversation.”

What would you do for work if you were not a writer?

I’d be a typist. It’s my only marketable skill. I once dreamed of being an architect, but then discovered it required math.

Tell us something about you that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I ran a marathon, and my time was faster than Paul Ryan’s real time. So there.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“She Saved All Her Receipts”