Zibby Owens: I'm here today with the legendary Susan Orlean who is the staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and the author of eight books including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation. Her latest book, The Library Book, was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie nonfiction prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She currently splits her time between Upstate New York and Los Angeles.
Welcome, Susan. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Susan Orlean: I'm thrilled to be with you.
Zibby: Especially on a Saturday. This is a huge, very nice thing you're doing. Thank you.
Susan: It’s great. It’s actually a great way to get yourself up and out on a Saturday.
Zibby: You've written a million amazing things. Let's talk about The Library Book first. What inspired you to write The Library Book? Tell listeners who might not know, what it’s about.
Susan: The Library Book is a nonfiction book that actually has several narrative threads. On one level, it was a book in which I wanted to explore what the daily life of a library was all about. I was focusing on the Los Angeles Public Library, the main branch downtown. I had that in mind when I discovered, quite unexpectedly, that the LA Central Library was the site of the largest library fire in American history. This took place in 1986. It was an arson fire that destroyed 400,000 books. It damaged 700,000 books. It closed the library for seven years. What had begun as this more general curiosity about, what is the daily life of a library like? became a story about the near-death and rebirth of a library and an investigation into who did it and why. At the bottom of that as well, to add one more thread, was the thing that probably got me interested to begin with. I have an incredibly emotional response to libraries. I feel like it isn't entirely rational or logical. It’s some feeling that's much bigger and deeper and more touching than just saying it’s a building with books in it. There's something about libraries that feel really emotional. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling. The book also was an attempt to explore that. Why do we feel so attached and connected to libraries? Why does the idea of one burning down feel so deeply distressing?
Zibby: I love how you mention at the beginning of the book that many libraries in the past were based after the designs of religious institutions and churches and cathedrals. There's almost something holy about the design, even, of a library.
Susan: They do have this feeling of being a sacred space. We all feel that there's something in the air in a library that feels special. That's really interesting. We all feel wonderful walking into bookstores, walking into an art museum. There is this quality of being out of normal life that you feel in a library that is quite wonderful.
Zibby: I feel like it’s more museum-like. It’s more like going into the impressionist wing in the Met. You interact, obviously, much more in a library with the work. It’s some sort of reverence that you have to bring to it when you go into a library, I think.
Susan: I also think it’s more like a museum in the sense that it’s not a place of commerce. I love bookstores. This isn't meant to be a competition between libraries and bookstores. Bookstores are places of commerce. That's wonderful. They're delightful, great places. Going into this preserve of human knowledge that is available to everyone has a very special, sacred quality. It’s elevating. You feel like there's some great good being done in this place the way you do walking into a museum where there's amazing work that's available to anybody to enjoy. There's something wonderful about that.
Zibby: You wrote in The Library Book about how your mother used to take you to libraries as a young child and how you have continued that tradition onwards. Then it was excerpted in The New Yorker when you said how you actually became a little evangelical about book ownership, perhaps as a response to the libraries of your youth. Can you talk a little about that?
Susan: This is funny. It was something I hadn’t really thought about until I was writing the book. My parents were products of the Depression and had a very practical attitude towards book ownership, which was you read a book to read it. You don't read a book to then have it on a shelf. If you could take a book out of the library and read it, why not do that as opposed to owning the book? They were certainly, thank goodness, able to purchase books. It wasn't a matter of the specific economics of it. It was something that had grown out of their childhood of feeling like that's silly. That's what libraries are for. You go take books out. It drove me crazy as a kid, partly because with kids, when you something, you want it immediately. You don't want to be on the list for waiting for the people ahead of you to finish reading the book. You want it instantly.
Also, I feel so deeply in love with books. I just wanted them around me. When I started college, I began buying books, both the books that I was buying for school, but then also I started buying more and more books. Then I thought, I want a house filled with books. Like a lot of things you do when you're a young adult, it was probably in part a reaction to my parents feeling like, “You don't need to own all these books.” I loved the story that it told about what I had read and what I cared about. That aspect of it really did matter to me, whereas I don't think my parents thought that they needed to show their friends what their interests and tastes were. It’s very funny because I bought tons and tons of -- I'm so old that you bought music as records back then.
Zibby: Oh, stop. As did I. No old speaking here. [laughs]
Susan: It matted to me when I made a new friend or was going out with a guy for the first time, to see his record collection and his books to figure out, do we have much in common? When we all transitioned to using Walkman and ways where your music collection was no longer something sitting out on your shelf, it was a whole huge chunk of a person’s character that you no longer got to see, which was really interesting and initially very disconcerting to me. I became a crazed book-buyer. I loved the physicality of a book so much. Just having them around me, it really was something that I hadn’t had a lot of as a kid. I doubled down. Books were cheaper. I don't remember how much a hardcover was then. As a college student, it was not a big reach to be buying books. They were affordable.
Zibby: And used books and all the rest.
Susan: Right, a lot of used books. Certainly, records were really cheap. I bought records practically every day, I was buying them, books and records.
Zibby: One negative that's been said about e-books is how you don't know anything about the person reading them. If you go on vacation on the beach, it used to be everybody would hold up a book. You would say, “Gosh, I read that. That was so good.” You could start talking. Now if everybody's on their device, it’s a glimpse you don't get to get into somebody else.
Susan: I've been traveling a lot talking about The Library Book. One of my favorite things when I get on an airplane is everybody's reading. I love seeing what they're reading. The fact is ninety percent of them are reading Dan Brown or these crime and suspense novels. I would say that's overwhelmingly the case. It’s still fun to see what people are reading. If they're reading on their phone or on a Kindle, you don't get that same chance of glancing and seeing what they're reading.
Zibby: I feel like people are reading far less on planes, though. As were talking about, we both travel a lot. We go out to LA a lot. I feel like most of the time, people are watching movies. I bring book after book just in case I end up with a book that's not enough to hold my interest for the whole flight. Sometimes I walk the aisles. How many people are actually reading? This is such a good time to read. You're stuck here.
Susan: It’s perfect. It’s quiet. Nobody's going to bother you. I see a lot of people playing Solitaire on their phone and doing timewasters. I do still see a lot of people reading. I'm always so happy. Even if they're reading a book that I don't particularly find interesting, I think, how nice to see that people are reading. It makes me feel good about the world.
Zibby: Maybe there's some way to partner with the airlines and hand out books. Have twenty books on a flight. You just keep it in one of the overhead compartments. Then it’s like a little library. Everybody on the plane could dip in. Why not?
Susan: Actually, it’s a great idea. Airlines used to have magazines. It was a huge loss when they no longer had a variety of magazines. I always read magazines when I flew. Now they have the airline magazine and that's it.
Zibby: SkyMall is a little more entertaining sometimes than the magazine.
Susan: I know. Now I really miss it because they don't have SkyMall anymore. That was my favorite reading material.
Zibby: Especially with little kids even. We could look. “What would you want?”
Susan: “You can pick anything in this catalog.” I would do that with my son too.
Zibby: I’ll talk to JetBlue when this is over. We’ll see what happens. There's one quote you wrote that was so beautiful about libraries that I just have to read it now. “It wasn't that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries -- and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up, not just stopped, but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality. In the library, we can live forever.” That is so beautiful. Tell me a little more about writing that passage.
Susan: When I was drawn to doing this book, I was trying to understand what that magic was about a library. It really began with this notion that it was a communal memory. It was the place where everything that a culture knew and dreamed about and fantasized about was collected. At the same time, it’s a gathering place of people, each of whom have come there for their own reason. It began feeling like this layering of stories. In the course of a day in the library, you have somebody coming in doing genealogy research and somebody doing work on their MBA and somebody teaching their child to read. Everybody is coming in with their own story in a place filled with story. That wonderful nesting doll quality began seeming richer and richer to me the more I thought about it.
The library’s remarkable ability that no human can possibly achieve is the eternal memory. A library is filled with these stories that are permanent. For all intents and purposes, they can remain there forever, whereas human memory is limited to our lifetime. It became part of the book in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I associated going to the library so much with my mom. My mom always took me. She loved libraries, loved librarians. I began working on the book. She was delighted that I was doing a book about libraries. Not long after I began working on the book, she was diagnosed with dementia. Her memory began eroding. The idea that a library could last forever and hold these memories forever versus me witnessing in real time, the disintegration of a person’s memory, became really emotional for me and made the book feel like my effort to put down the page, the memories that I shared with my mom.
Zibby: That's beautiful. Did she read it?
Susan: No. She passed away before I finished the book. That was tough. It was tough because the book felt so much a part of my relationship with her. I would've loved for her to read it. I'm glad she knew that I was working on it. That meant a lot to me.
Zibby: Maybe this is what you needed to do to help yourself through that time.
Susan: It certainly comforted me. It did. Feeling like there was this reaching back to those memories that I shared with her at a time when she was receding, it really was comforting.
Zibby: That's so nice. Yet you also have this whole, not crime fiction, but investigative aspect of the book. It’s not just an ode to libraries past and a mother-daughter story. You delve deep into everything that happened. Was it arson? The fire code in the building, could this have been avoided? Which fireman went up which staircase? All the different lawsuits back and forth. I could not believe happened with -- I'm forgetting his name. I have it here.
Susan: Harry Peak.
Zibby: Harry Peak, yes. He kept changing his facts around. I almost finished this book being like, did Harry set this fire? Did he not? I don't even know. I don't know what to make of this.
Susan: It was very much a crime story. You have this gigantic, catastrophic fire that was determined to be an arson. The first question is, my god, who would do this? Arson’s funny. A huge percentage of arson is done for financial gain. You insure your business. You set it on fire. You get your insurance money. I'm not recommending this. That is a very common scenario that somebody stands to gain financially, or it’s a rival setting someone's business or home on fire. That's also a common scenario. Burning a library, nobody has anything to gain by it. You remove this giant motivation. Nobody's going to gain anything financially. Who would do this? We've got people who have mental illness that causes them to light things on fire. That's one possibility. Then there's this free-floating question of, in this case, who would've this done and why?
Harry Peak was a young, unemployed aspiring actor who by all accounts was a very charming, likeable guy. No one I spoke to spoke ill of him. They say, “He drove me crazy. He was always rate on his rent,” but he could charm anybody. Everybody liked him. He was not the classic image of a spooky loner. He was a very well-liked guy. He loved attention. He was very braggy and tried to put himself at the center of drama all the time. There was nothing that indicated that he was somebody who had an attraction to fire or had any grudge against the library, nothing. The problem was he began telling his friends that he had started the fire.
Zibby: That is a problem. [laughs]
Susan: Yes. I will say I learned a lot about what not to do in terms of committing a crime in the course of working on this book, which was pretty funny. He started bragging to people saying that he had started it. His story was constantly fluid. It was never quite the same story to each friend that he told. First, it was that he was there. Then he was there and he started it. There were many iterations of the story. There was a reward for information about the fire because, of course, there was a huge investigation in LA to try to determine who had done this.
Zibby: Although, I love how you put in the book that in New York there was only this tiny little mention of it in the back of a newspaper. I loved that part. Sorry, go on.
Susan: I know.
Zibby: It was no big deal. [laughs]
Susan: Just tucked on page A22. He also had done a few things to change his appearance -- he had shaved his mustache; he had cut his hair -- enough that one his roommates decided there was something fishy. Coupled with the fact that he had claimed that he started the fire, she contacted the fire department and said, “I think it’s him.” He produced, over the next several months, seven different alibis for where he had been that day. This is another thing I learned about crime. It’s not very convincing to have seven different alibis. If you had one alibi, that would be convincing. He kept changing his story elaborately, not just a little bit different but totally different.
Zibby: This can be your next book, Susan Orlean’s Guide to Committing a Crime. How to: Insurance Fraud, Part One; Arson, Part Two.
Susan: I've got it all. I've figured it all out. The pursuit of the truth about the fire and the legal pursuit of Harry Peak was so convoluted, fascinating, ultimately unresolved. Following the legal case was fascinating to me. There were a lot of things that came into the play, including the fact that even though he was arrested, the district attorney had had some significant failures in prosecution in LA right before this case came up. There was a lot of fear in the DA’s office about pursuing a case that wasn't a guaranteed win. There are other facts. There wasn't ever any hard evidence connecting him to the fire. It became fascinating. I found it really interesting to learn not only about arson, which is a really complex, confusing crime much of the time, but also the history of the burning of libraries, which has, sadly, a very extensive history.
Zibby: In the book, you said you actually experimented with burning books just to see what that would look like and that it was as hard for you to do that as throwing away a plant, for example.
Susan: Yeah. I thought, I've never seen a book burn. For the sake of writing about it, let me just burn a book so I can have a visual image. Also, I was curious about the taboo. It felt like, I can't burn a book. Then I thought, that's silly. I can burn a book. I can go buy a replacement. This is just some paper. There's nothing special. I could barely do it. That, to me, it supported this notion that we feel something about books and libraries that isn't purely logical. It’s something emotional, spiritual, magical that makes a book feel almost as if it has a life of its own. Burning a book was one of the more uncomfortable things I've ever done, to be honest.
Zibby: I feel like there's two parts of losing books. One is losing them this way. Another way is in the books that were never written that should have been written from the loss of people. A library can be emptied out by tragedy in the flesh like with the burning books, as you saw, but also the sadness of who didn't write the books that they should have, with things like the Holocaust and the AIDS crisis. I remember interviewing Will Schwalbe. He wrote about this in his book about how the sadness of the books -- the stories were never told. That's another element to this.
Susan: It’s huge. That's where this idea that books are these documents we produce that say, “We lived. We existed. We knew things. We dreamed of things. We imagined things. We’re sharing that now in perpetuity,” each time you remove that possibility of those stories, it’s a real loss.
Zibby: Does that motivate you? What motivates you to write? You've been writing for a long time, all these amazing books, books that have been turned into movies that are now staples like we were talking about earlier, like Blue Crush and Adaptation. Now The Library Book -- can I say that?
Zibby: The Library Book is going to be a TV show. Why do you do it? Why did you start doing it? What is it about it that gets you excited to do it day in and day out?
Susan: From the time I was really very young, I thought there was some absolute sorcery in writing and reading. The idea that I could read a book and feel like I was somewhere else and living in another place or inhabiting another universe was so extraordinary and so transporting that I thought, I want to do that. I want to be the sorcerer who makes that happen. Being by nature somebody who's really curious and imagining digging into something that wouldn't normally be part of my life, that was irresistible. Then there’s the other side of that, which is wanting to tug on someone's sleeve and say, “I just did the most amazing thing. Let me tell you about this. Oh, my god, I just spent six years in the LA Public Library. Let me tell you the amazing stories that unfold in the library.” It’s both acquiring the knowledge, which I find really intoxicating and wonderful. Then there's the performative part of it of saying to people, “Oh, oh, let me tell you, I just saw something incredibly cool and interesting that I want to tell you about.”
Zibby: How do you do your writing? Where do you do it? Do you actually work in a library? Do you work at home? Was this book any different?
Susan: This book was different. Normally, I do all my research first. The first half of whatever I'm doing is out in the field researching, interviewing people. Then for many years when I lived in New York, I had an office at The New Yorker. I would work in office. Then I left New York and started working at home. Then when my son was born, suddenly working at home became a little more challenging. It was a constant race to figure out where could I work where I could really shut off and focus? As my son has gotten older, that's become less of an issue. Still, working at home has its challenges. Now I split my time between LA and Upstate New York. In both places, I have a little freestanding building, a little office. Even just being ten yards from my house makes it feel separate.
In the case of working on The Library Book, I had been working at home. I was stuck. I was distracted. My husband works at home too, which meant an additional distraction. For a while, I rented a coworking space. I thought, I've got to get out of the house. I can't be working at home. Then one day I was working at the library because for whatever reason I didn't have a chance to go to this coworking space. I thought, why don't I just work at the library? It’s free. It’s very peaceful. It’s a perfectly good place to work. I thought, oh, my god, I'm writing a book about libraries and it only occurred to me now that this is a great place to work, which really cracked me up. There are specific reason that I wasn't -- when you're working on nonfiction book, you often have lots and lots of material. Obviously, you can't leave that in the library. It means, every day, having to pack up and take your stuff home and back again. There are certain ways that it’s not ideal, but I was toward the end of the book. I didn't have as much files and stuff to cart around with me. I'm now back to working in my little studio. The only thing is to keep my husband and son out and to make it clear to them that it is not a clubhouse for them to come hang out with me. I like the fact that it’s just my space and that I can lock the door and nobody comes in.
Zibby: The other day, I was trying to get something done. I went to a coffee shop. Then I realized I couldn't plug in my computer there. I didn't have enough power. It was a whole thing. I had told everybody I wasn't going to be home. I snuck in and hid out in my son’s room -- I closed the door -- my son who’s away at boarding school. Nobody would think that I was in there. [laughs] I just don't want anyone to bother me a little bit. I have to get this done.
Susan: I also, in the course of finishing this book and my previous book, did residencies at Yaddo and MacDowell. It was something that I never quite understood why people sought them out. I didn't quite understand why there were so necessary. I don't think I would've gotten the book done if I hadn’t had those residencies. I didn't ever go for a long time. Even going for two weeks or three weeks where that's all I did was work and be able to get focused and make a lot of headway on the book, I'm so grateful for having had the chance to do that. When I got home, I was already then in the groove. It was a lot easier for me. When my son was little, I built a little writing studio. We were living in the Hudson Valley at the time, full time. I would say goodbye to him and then sneak to the studio because he couldn't see it from the house. I thought, as long as he doesn't know where I am, he thinks I've gone somewhere far away. Then one day I hear a little tap on the window. I look up. He's there. He looked so excited like, “Mommy, I found you!” I said, “Hi! Oh, my god.” That was the end of that. It’s challenging. It’s hard enough to get yourself to focus. Then when you've got family and all of the regular day-to-day stuff that comes into your life to be attended to, it can be really hard to buckle down and work on a book.
Zibby: You mentioned you were back in your studio. Can you mention what you're working on now?
Susan: I'm working on this television adaption of The Library Book. I'm going to go back to doing some magazine pieces for The New Yorker. I'm toying with working on a book that would be more of a writer’s memoir, a memoir of my experiences writing.
Zibby: Do it! Please do it. I would love to read that. I'm sure I'm not the only one. I would read that in a heartbeat. People would love that. Do that.
Susan: Thank you. That's so nice to hear.
Zibby: Put it up the list. Move it up.
Susan: At this point, I've been writing for -- it doesn't feel like a long time to me, but it’s been a long time. I've had some really interesting experiences. It would be fun to write about the writer’s life that I've led. It’s been quite interesting. I hope it would be interesting to other people.
Zibby: I'm sure it would be. Save it for your book, but do you have any gems, little pieces of advice for aspiring authors now?
Susan: What I've said to people -- these are evergreens, but I think the number one thing is read as much as you possibly can read. I was talking to a young woman the other day who said, “I'm trying to develop a voice as a writer.” I said -- this sounds absolutely shocking -- “The best thing is to imitate the writers you really like.” Eventually, you won't be imitating them. You will begin finding your own voice. It’s almost like apprenticeship. You take the work you really admire and try to see how it works and try to use that same mechanism. Eventually, it will become yours. You'll do it your own way. I do think the most important thing is read as much as you can. Write as much as you can.
Zibby: I have one question, which you don't have to answer. I feel like you have green in your hair.
Susan: I do.
Zibby: At first, I thought, she just missed a piece of gray or something. No, it’s actually green. Tell me the story. Why do you have this one --
Susan: -- It’s so funny. It’s kind of faded right now. It’s normally a little more vivid. Gosh, I think I did this three or four years ago. I just was feeling like doing something different with my hair. I'm too much of a chicken to cut it really short or do something like that. I had this crazy idea that I wanted to put in a streak of color. I have a very adorable hairdresser who said, “I think it would look great. We’ll just bleach out a chunk and do a color.” I was incredibly nervous. It was so funny. She kept saying to me, “Don't worry. You can always dye it back to your own color. It’s not permanent if you don't want it to be.” What I found really funny is I was really nervous. She did it. I came home. I hadn’t told my husband or son that I was doing it. Neither of them noticed for ages. Then one day my husband said to me, “You've got green in your hair.” I said, “Yeah, I've had it for three weeks.” He said, “You can take it out, right?” I said, “Well, no. It’s actually my hair.” I think he thought I had clipped in a little lock of hair. He looked at me and said, “It’s cute.” I thought, okay, fair enough. That's the best that I can hope for. It’s fun to do. It requires a little maintenance. I enjoy it.
Zibby: I love it. It’s awesome.
Susan: Thank you.
Zibby: You're welcome. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for all your time.
Susan: Thank you. This was such a pleasure.
Zibby: Good. Thanks.