Author of ‘The Orchid Thief,’ inspiration for Meryl Streep movie shares stories about perseverance
By Grayce Trevino
To succeed in freelance journalism, writers must commit so there is no turning back — much like the Vikings did when they invaded a new land, a longtime writer for The New Yorker said last week at Trinity University.
“Burn your boats,” said magazine journalist and nonfiction author Susan Orlean. “There’s no halfway.”
Orlean read from several of her books and articles Feb. 22 at Trinity.
She spoke to a crowd of roughly 100 people. Her articles have been published in magazines including Rolling Stone and Smithsonian. Freelance journalists work independently selling their stories to different publications.
While she read from her writings and told adventurous “stories behind the stories,” there was a theme of perseverance.
Orlean read a condensed version of “The American Man at Age Ten,” her 1992 Esquire article.
When approached by the magazine to write a story on child actor Macaulay Culkin being the age of 10, Orlean requested to instead do a story on the average 10-year-old, “not a boy with an agent, a manager, a driver, a plane,” Orlean said.
“And then, you know, I thought, ‘I don’t know any 10-year-old boys,’” Orlean said.
The audience bellowed in laughter when Orlean said she asked her friends “do you know any 10 year-old boys?”
“Well, maybe I could go to a mall and find one,” Orlean thought to herself. “That’s probably illegal.”
Through a friend of a friend she met Colin Duffy and followed him around for a week after getting the affirmative from the parents and Colin.
She showed up for school on a Monday morning only to be shunned by Colin, embarrassed that a grown-up would accompany him to school.
After a couple of days Colin took pity and included her more.
Orlean spent a week with Colin, and she realized 10-year-olds are their own world.
She read from the article’s introduction: “If Colin Duffy and I were to get married…We would sleep in our clothes…we would have some homework, but it would never be too hard and we would have always just finished it…we would always have pizza and candy for dinner.”
Orlean asked Colin to describe the best thing about being an adult.
“And he said, ‘The best thing is that grown-ups can go wherever they want. … You’d have a car and drive somewhere and get candy.’”
For the sake of a story, Orlean has trailed a variety of subjects and immersed herself in their worlds — from a 10-year-old boy in suburbia to a ruffian who stalked Florida swamps to poach precious flowers.
“The Orchid Thief” was published in 1998.
“I could read about a swamp, but I’m not going in a swamp,” Orlean said was her first impression of researching the story.
Orlean immediately continued, “So the first time I went in a swamp,” and the audience roared with laughter.
“I knew there was no way to do this story without going into the swamp. I went in many times,” Orlean said.
The 2002 movie “Adaptation” starred Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage and was loosely based on the “The Orchid Thief.”
“This might make me sound prescient, but I told my husband they’re crazy and they’re going to change it,” Orlean said. “They’ll make the crime more dramatic and they’ll figure out a way to have a romance — that’s Hollywood — and I was right.
“When I first read the script … my first reaction was, ‘look, you know guys, we absolutely have to change my name. This will ruin my career. …'”
She ultimately approved the use of her name, and her career has still kept her busy in the 15 years since.
Orlean participated in a Q&A after her readings. Audience members asked for advice on reporting, tips on writing and her take on fake news.
“I’m glad you asked,” Orlean said. “It’s a crisis, and I began reading about fake news and began thinking ‘only stupid people get sucked into fake news.’ … It’s terrifying. … I could make up a story right now and get a certain amount of traction. … So what do we do? No. 1, I think the accountability. The people have to demand it.”
Orlean started writing professionally for a weekly newspaper in the late ’70s and early ‘80s. Orlean moved to Boston in 1982 and worked for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe. In 1987 Orlean wrote articles for The New Yorker and became a staff writer in 1992.
Orlean published her first book, “Saturday Night,” in 1990. The book is about what people do on Saturday night when they have no obligations.
Orlean went around the country to learn what people do on their Saturday nights. She specifically looked for the common person who works, the dancers, musicians and convicts.
Orlean has since published several other books, including “Rin Tin Tin” in 2011. To research the book about the World War I German shepherd that inspired a 1950s TV show, she traveled to Fleurie, France. She was met with thousands of graves from the soldiers killed in action during World War I.
If you are passionate about something, you can exceed your limits, Orlean said.
Even if that means stepping into a swamp along the Fakahatchee River.
After she had completed “The Orchid Thief,” Orlean was in Florida with a friend and returned to visit the river. Her friend tried to coerce her into saying she never went in, and for a moment, when Orlean was looking at the water, she almost didn’t believe it herself.
“I did really go in, but I knew that I couldn’t do it again just casually,” Orlean said. “I did it because I knew I had to do it to do the story the right way.”