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The WD Interview: Susan Orlean on The Library Book and Finding the Red-Hot Center of the Story

Susan Orlean talks to WD about the challenges of researching and writing The Library Book, and how libraries are meeting the needs of 21st century patrons.

Susan Orlean thought she was done writing books when she heard about the 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library. The story so intrigued her that she spent four years researching and writing about it. The Library Book tells the story of the fire, which destroyed or damaged more than a million books, but also delves into the role of libraries throughout history and around the world, as well as Orlean’s personal love affair with libraries, which started when she was a little girl visiting the library with her mother.

A long-time staff writer with The New Yorker, Orlean has seemingly written about everyone and everything, from the weird subculture of orchid fanatics (The Orchid Thief) to Hollywood’s most famous dog (Rin Tin Tin) to profiles of unusual individuals, such as Spain’s first female bullfighter. Her dedication to story has made her one of the most admired figures in contemporary journalism.

Orlean talked by phone to Writer's Digest about the challenges of researching and writing The Library Book, why the story intrigued her so, how libraries are meeting the needs of 21st century patrons and a few thoughts about craft.

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WD: The title of The Library Book can be interpreted different ways. What does the title mean to you?

I’d like to think it means all of the things that it could mean. It’s a very meta title, which is partly why I loved it so much. It’s a book about the library, and it’s about library books. It means all of those things at once, and that’s the great appeal to me. It’s rare when you have a title that on one level is so simple that for a minute you stop and think, well, that’s not a very good title because it’s so simple—then it kind of reveals itself in a clever way to actually describe what the book is about.

WD: Was that always the title you had in mind?

Yeah, and it’s very interesting because none of my other books ended up with the title I was working with initially. When I proposed the book, I believe it was both my editor and my agent who simultaneously said, “Oh, and it’s going to be called The Library Book.” Before I had a title, I would refer to it as the library book, the book about the library. And when the time came to actually design the cover, everyone said, that’s the title—you can’t improve it.

WD: You note that you weren’t looking to write any more books when you became aware of the Los Angeles Public Library fire. What made you feel that way?

Well, I was certainly not done with writing. Writing a book is such a challenge, it’s so overwhelming. I had finished Rin Tin Tin, which had taken me about five years to do, and at the time my son was just a toddler. The number-one take away I have now is that you can either write a book or have a toddler, but it’s not a very good idea to do both. But I just thought, look, I don’t know if I’m ever going to fall in love with a topic enough to feel that I want to spend five years or six years working on it, and maybe that’s not so necessary. Maybe I’ll just do stories for the magazine and that will be sufficient. I think I simply felt that I didn’t know if I had the energy to push myself through another project as big as a book.

WD: What was it about the Los Angeles Public Library fire story that triggered your interest to the extent that you had to write a book about it?

I had begun thinking there was an interesting book to be written about libraries. We haven’t seen a book written that would take on the day-to-day life of a library. It just struck me as a very rich subject, but I’m not looking. In addition, I had this feeling you needed a narrative arc or it would be simply too free-form and it just didn’t feel it would work as a book.

When I heard about the fire, I was so fascinated. The two categories of story that I cannot resist are, one, the examination of something that seems very familiar but that I realize I don’t really know anything about. And that was definitely present in this story. And secondly, the discovery of a big story or subculture that I never knew existed, and that was true of the fire. So this combined the two genres of story that I find almost irresistible. The so familiar that you don’t notice it, and so hidden that it’s a discovery.

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WD: You worked on The Library Book over four years. What were the greatest challenges during the research phase? And what were your greatest challenges while writing it?

The biggest challenge in the research was the fact that one of the most important characters in the story, Harry Peak, was no longer alive. I never anticipated that I would write the book without him being available to me. So I had to sort of take a step back and think, “Okay, I have to rethink this. This is not what I was expecting.” I’m kind of proud of how I worked around that. It felt like I was able to make a virtue of a necessity.

In the case of the writing, the biggest challenge was structure because it informs everything. You can write beautiful sentences, but if you don’t have a flow and a forward momentum, it doesn’t matter. You have a pile of beautiful sentences, but you have no momentum to move the reader through the story.

In this case, I realized I was essentially working on four storylines. And the challenge was, how do I make these live together naturally and happily within a book? I had the history of the library. I had the story of the fire, which was a totally different time period. I had the day-to-day life of the library, which I very much wanted to write about. And I had this more meditative storyline of what do libraries mean, what is their importance, what has been their importance? So how do you put those together? I was very challenged to figure out how do I bring these four stories together? To me, they were very natural to live together in the same book, but I had to figure out how to move the reader from one time line to another, from one story to another.

WD: I especially enjoyed the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. It was such an odd and fascinating story.

I’m so glad to hear that, because I thought it was utterly compelling. When you tell people the story of a library is utterly compelling, you can imagine them rolling their eyes, but I thought it was phenomenal. I went into the book not expecting that I would spend so much time writing about the history, but it kept getting more and more interesting, and more and more necessary in terms of understanding the library today. It felt enriched by knowing the story of the library’s history.

WD: Why was this story so important to you personally?

The idea of a library is very deeply connected to the idea of being a writer, and that is making permanent a narrative, a story, that lasts for eternity. So if you’re a writer and you have any of the impulse to be putting down on paper something that will survive you, you’re in a sense inextricably connected to what a library means. So that was very meaningful to me. But in addition, it was really deeply connected to memories of my mother, who I associate so deeply with my love of libraries because I spent so much time going to libraries with her. It felt like I was responding to memories of her, which then became very urgent in a way that I hadn’t anticipated, since over the course of working on the book she was diagnosed with dementia and her memories began disappearing like smoke. I never anticipated that, of course, but suddenly the idea of putting down on paper some of our memories that were so intrinsic to my experience of her as a mother became a huge piece of the motivation for me to write the book.

WD: Did this project change how you viewed the function of libraries in any way? Did you come away with a change in perspective?

Oh, very much! I think that it really filled me with delight to see how vibrant and contemporary libraries are, and how they have adapted to the very obvious changes in the way we read and borrow books. But it also made me appreciate libraries as physical places. I mean, suddenly the idea that it was just a place where you could go if you wanted to work or read and just didn’t want to be at home, and that it was so much like going to a park if you wanted to get out of the house and go for a walk. It had the sense of being a destination that I hadn’t really thought about before. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think we’re increasingly in a society where people don’t go to offices to work, and you sort of yearn for some human contact, not necessarily that you want to get together with a friend, but you want to be out in the world a little bit. And libraries are a perfect place for that. They are the perfect third place, as they say—not home, not work. And they demand nothing of you. It’s not like you are going into a store or even a coffee shop, where there is a transactional nature to the visit. This is part of what makes libraries so attractive, that they are there for us as places to go, and they demand nothing and offer everything.

WD: You spend quite a bit of time discussing Harry Peak, the aspiring actor many believe set the library fire, but toward the end you suggest that he likely was not actually involved. Tell us why Harry was such a compelling figure to you.

Harry Peak was, for better or worse, a storyteller. He was a very important figure because I would not wager to say he had nothing to do with the fire. I think it is inconclusive. I went back and forth throughout the course of working on the book, but in many ways he embodied that human desire to be noticed and to be remembered. That thematically was so linked to what I was looking at with the library, the fact that they exist because of this human need and wish to be remembered. Harry Peak, whether he lit the fire or not, certainly his whole life was about being noticed and remembered. It’s interesting because the question of whether he started the fire or not almost becomes irrelevant when you simply look at him as a figure who embodied an uncontrollable desire to be remembered.

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WD: Have you heard from Harry Peak’s family following publication of The Library Book?

No. I tried to reach them a while ago and both of his sisters have changed their phone numbers. I don’t know why, but they did. Clearly it had nothing to do with me, but as a result, I have not been able to get in touch with them. Of course, I’m curious to know what their sense was in terms of the portrait I created of Harry.

I’m hoping that the book will find its way to them. You never can predict what people will think about your portrait of a family member, so I’m fully prepared for them to have mixed feelings about it. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m prepared for their reaction to be anything from “Wow! You really caught Harry and you gave him a fair shake,” to feeling uncomfortable with the intimacy of the portrait.

WD: What do you believe was the true cause of the Los Angeles Public Library fire?

I don’t know. People ask me, and I keep thinking I should have a simple answer, but I really don’t. I’ve considered many versions of this in terms of what do I think is the most likely outcome. There was a while where I thought maybe it wasn’t arson at all, and maybe it was just misdiagnosed. And I think there is a reason to take that seriously as an option. And then I just go back to the question of how did Harry know the details of what happened that day if he wasn’t there? It just doesn’t make any sense. I certainly think that if Harry was in the library and struck a match, he didn’t do it thinking it would cause $22 million in damage. I think if he was there and if he lit a match, it was a dumb sort of petulant gesture that he didn’t think through and the result was never what he anticipated. But I just don’t know, and I’m okay with not knowing.

There was a point when I was working on the book where I felt I had to have a conclusion. And then I thought, no, I’m not a detective. I am a reporter and I can learn a lot and take this to the next level in terms of investigation, but I felt what was interesting was this sort of Rashomon quality of it to say this is one version, this is another version, there is even a third version where this is not arson at all. That is the nature of the situation, which is that nobody feels resolved and my goal as a writer was to illuminate the story rather than solve it.

WD: Did the Los Angeles Public Library fire result in any significant safety improvements among the nation’s community libraries? Was there any kind of silver lining to this tragedy at all?

Certainly there had been changes in the mid ‘80s in terms of recommending sprinkling system, which had never been recommended before. In terms of disaster preparedness, that was not really something libraries spent time thinking about before that. Now there is great awareness of that and far more expertise in dealing with it.

Interestingly, I met a woman at one of my readings the other day and that’s her specialty, disaster preparedness for libraries. And I thought, boy, we’ve come a long way. There was nothing in place in terms of what the library could do should there be a fire. And this isn’t because the people who ran the library were negligent; it simply wasn’t something people thought about. Now, the recommendation for sprinklers and other fire suppression has been updated, and we have better fire suppression. There have been a lot of changes, and I think we can look to the library fire and think there was some good that came out of this catastrophe.

WD: After Harry Peak, my favorite character in The Library Book is Wyman Jones, who was the Los Angeles City Librarian for 20 years. You say talking to him was like engaging in a fistfight with someone gazing at himself in a mirror while punching you. What did you mean by that?

Wyman Jones—who passed away before the book came out, so he never saw the results—was a fascinating narcissist and one of the most argumentative people I’ve ever encountered in my life, in a way that is almost comical. I mean, he would argue about everything and anything, but he was so completely wrapped up in himself as he was arguing. So I just couldn’t help but picture this; it was almost as if he was always observing himself arguing. I mean, he was beyond argumentative. Whatever I said, he would dispute it and basically yell at me, which I found almost funny because it was so extreme. So there was just this element of narcissism and self -assuredness and arrogance that characterized my interaction with him. I also felt a great deal of affection for him, which seems counter intuitive except it was almost funny because he was so extreme. He was a very interesting guy, and a very smart guy. Just talking to him, I learned so much, even though it was begrudging. I mean, he didn’t tell me anything with the interest of telling it to me as much as making a point that I didn’t know anything. So I was getting all this information almost in spite of himself, which also cracked me up.

WD: The theme of this issue is Villains. Is there a villain in The Library Book?

Fire is the villain. I think you can say with real assurance that fire is a frightening beast that is always present and always lurking in Southern California. I think the other villain, which is a little more of a conceptual villain, is time, and the loss of memory that comes with time. The greatest achievement of libraries is to try to fight that villain, and to save for eternity the stories that make up who we are.

WD: You use the Los Angeles Public Library fire as a springboard to discuss the role and value of libraries around the world and throughout history. What do you say to those who believe that libraries are no longer relevant? What do libraries bring to the 21st century?

What I usually do when I’m having this conversation, which comes up frequently of course, is to point that not everything that we know or care to learn about is on the internet. That simply is the fact. There is an enormous amount of material and ephemera and books and newspapers and all sorts of material that is still not on the internet. So if you care about really knowing what is out there in the world, a library provides that.

Secondly, isn’t there a place in our culture to have a portal of knowledge and information that exists and is treated as such? We have public parks even though many people have private backyards. We all have the equivalent of a private backyard in our computers at home, but isn’t there value in having a space that the community has designated as our shared place of knowledge?

WD: In what ways are public libraries working to better serve today’s patrons? What kinds of positive evolution have you witnessed?

I’ve seen so much evolution that’s been really encouraging. Libraries have really embraced their role as places where knowledge is shared. And I want to emphasize the word place, because that’s where it’s different from saying “Yeah, but I can look up XYZ on my computer at home.” Libraries have exploded with programming, with events, with services all going on in their space in a way that has made them indispensable. Literacy, book groups, a speaker series—there is so much going on that I would say there is more to go to a library for than there ever has been.

WD: The Orchid Thief, which you published in 1998, is among the books for which you are best known. How have you evolved as a researcher and a writer since then?

I feel I have evolved a lot. I think I have become a better researcher and simply more resourceful. It’s one of those things where the more you do it, the better you get at it. I’m more aware of what I need in terms of material that is going to end up being valuable and useful to me. But I think the real evolution has come in my writing. I have a confidence in my writing, which is just a matter of, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I feel more willing to take chances with my writing and to play a little bit more.

Structure remains the thing I find the most challenging, and that will, I suspect, remain unchanged forever. But with the actual crafting of sentences, I feel looser, more willing to be playful and take chances. I’m much better at trying things and throwing them out if they don’t work. When I was younger, I needed to get it right on the first try, but now I feel what could be better than to throw things out and try them again? And that’s confidence, I think. It’s easier for me to take chances, to edit myself. I think the best thing I have ever learned is to look at something and know it’s not as good as it can be. Some of that comes from working on a computer as opposed to working on paper. When I started my career, I was typing on paper, and changing something was so hard to do. On a computer, it requires nothing to say, I’m going to try this from a different angle.

WD: You did a tremendous amount of research for The Library Book. Please take us through that process.

I began as a newcomer to Los Angeles, so the first thing I had to do was figure out how to get to the library. What I generally do in the beginning is throw my net wide in every direction, though in this case I also knew that I wanted to begin by learning as much about the fire as I could right off the bat. So I began simply digging up all the newspaper coverage I could find, talking to people who were either at the library at the time or reporters who covered it, and just getting the most basic background. What happened? What was that day like? I talked to a lot of firefighters, and to a lot of former librarians who had been there on that day, and just began getting the basics on the day of the fire itself.

Then I took a step back and thought, All right, I’m learning about the fire. How did we get to this point? What was the library’s status in 1986 that made it ripe for this kind of event? And then I stepped back again. Now I realize I have to go to the very beginning. How and when was this library founded, and how did it end up in a situation where it had a building that was in disrepair, that had been the center of all this civic debate for so long about whether to get rid of it or not? It’s almost as if I took this super-focused center, which was the day of the fire, and kept radiating out from this incident further and further. So it was a series of concentric circles in the reporting.

Then I had this additional kind of overarching curiosity, which is, what is it like to be in the library day to day? So I made a very long list of all of the departments at the library that I was curious about, and arranged to spend a day or two in each, which took quite a while. So I was really reporting the book in a series of concentric circles with this day-to-day life of the library arc kind of over it like a rainbow, basically.

WD: How do you decide what to write about when it comes to books and magazine articles? What factors typically inform that decision?

I have a very simple rule, which is, am I curious about it? Is this something I am really dying to know about? There is really nothing more strategic or calculating than that. I will hear about something, and I will find myself thinking about it and wondering about it, and the only way to solve that curiosity is to write a story about it. I don’t usually spend much time thinking Hmmm, is this a story anybody else is going to be interested in? because if I’m really excited about it, I feel like, of course other people are going to be interested in it. I just take it on faith that my excitement is going to motivate other readers. I fall in love, essentially, with an idea. I don’t sit there thinking People in Baltimore aren’t going to care about a fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, are they? That’s not the point. If I feel it’s interesting, I need to stay focused on that excitement and not worry if it’s a story other people are going to care about. When I’m in the middle of working on a story, I am absolutely confident that it’s the single most interesting thing in the world. And I think you need to believe that. It’s all about being passionate about the story. You have to love the idea.

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WD: How is your approach to books different from your approach to magazine articles? And in what ways are they the same?

They are the same in the sense that I think you need the same essential passion. I think that is what writing requires, and it doesn’t matter if you’re writing something short or long. The difference in working on a book versus an article is how many of those concentric circles of knowledge are you able to include? If you have just 5,000 or 8,000 words for an article, you’re not going to keep extending the circle of knowledge further and further because you’re not going to have room for it. Whereas with a book, I feel you can go until those circles bleed off the page. There is no limit except your own sense of storytelling. With magazine articles, I don’t think it’s a matter of it being shorter, I think it’s a matter of being at the red-hot center of the story.

WD: Which nonfiction writers do you most admire? Who do you look up to as a writer?

The list is long: John McPhee. Joan Didion. Ian Frazier. Mark Singer. Tom Wolfe. Lillian Ross. Many of the people who formed the heart and soul of The New Yorker for many years.

WD: What advice can you offer nonfiction writers who are just beginning their careers? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started out?

The advice I feel the most passionate about is, you have to really fall in love with storytelling. If you’re not in love with the idea of being a storyteller, it doesn’t matter what other tips and tricks I share with you. I think you need to understand what that means and explore it and embrace it, and it will carry you through the stories you choose for yourself and are excited about, and it will even carry you through those assignments that you hate and can’t believe you’re stuck doing. The job is storytelling; it doesn’t matter what the nature of the story is. So you have to truly understand what that means and love it.

I think in a practical sense, developing systems to stay organized is critical. That sounds very unromantic, but in terms of being a good writer, you’ve got to have systems of note taking and material organizing and phone lists. I wish I had from the beginning been better at that because it actually affects your ability to write well, to be organized, to know where your material is.

You are a small factory, and you’re the factory owner and operator, so you need to be mindful of each of those roles. On the pure practical side of writing, if you set up systems for keeping yourself organized from the beginning, it will pay you back 100 fold. It’s something I still struggle with, but the more material you work with, the more you’ll thank me if you think in advance to number your note books and keep a master list of phone numbers. There is a practical side to writing that is very important and we never talk about it because it seems so uninteresting. But it’s essential.

WD: What is the greatest piece of writing advice you have received over your career?

It was from a friend who is a writer I really admire. One day she said to me, “You don’t have to be in such a hurry as you write. Have more fun with the writing.” At the time I thought I don’t know what you’re talking about. But it really made sense to me later. I think if there’s any improvement in my writing over the last set of years, it’s in large part because I’ve been able to say, I don’t have to be in such a hurry, I can have fun, I can expand on a thought and marinate an idea a little bit more in the writing.

WD: Have you ever desired to write fiction? Do you have a novel in you?

No. I love fiction and it’s what I read the most in my spare time, but I just don’t see me writing fiction at the moment. I may surprise myself, but at the moment I don’t see it. There are too many true stories I find too interesting. And I think there is a fundamental mission in my writing, which is to show people the world in a way they haven’t looked at it before, that feels best served by nonfiction.

WD: What do you have in the works right now? Despite your earlier view, do you believe there will there be more books in your future?

Yes, I suspect so, even though the initial aftermath of writing a book is the feeling that you could never do it again because it required so much effort. But I’m toying around with some ideas, so it wouldn’t surprise me.

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