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Susan Orlean on writing 'Rin Tin Tin'

September 27, 2011 |  3:52 pm

Susan Orlean's book "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend" publishes today. The New Yorker staff writer recently sat down in her backyard with Carolyn Kellogg to talk about writing, dogs and her family's recent move to Los Angeles. Here is more of the conversation.

Jacket Copy: How did you start thinking about Rin Tin Tin?

Susan Orlean: When you're a writer, the things that are in your immediate world often trigger you to think of story ideas. Having a new dog, I think, just refreshed that whole interest. And then one story led to another.

I can't imagine being excited to do something that I already knew the parameters of: It grew and grew and grew. I start the story in the late 1800s when Lee [Duncan, Rin Tin Tin's trainer] is born. In order to tell the story with any authority, it required me really learning a huge spread of history. I began thinking the story is really Daphne [Hereford, who sells puppies descended from Rin Tin Tin] and the present day, then no, of course not. The story is Lee and Daphne. And then, really in the 11th hour, I thought, "Oh no, the story is Lee and Burt [who produced the Rin Tin Tin TV show] and Daphne." There was another span of about 40 years and the whole beginning of television. It was a lot, a lot, a lot.

JC: How do you maintain your curiosity?

SO: It's just the way I look at the world. I don't do anything to fuel it or engage it -- I think it's hard for me to not enter a situation and think, "I wonder about that, or I wonder who that is, or if you took that road instead of this road, I wonder where you’ll end up." It's a habit of mind that is instinct.

JC: It seems like obsessives feature frequently in your work; they definitely make a strong appearance in "Rin Tin Tin."

SO: First if all, I think people who are obsessive live their life almost like on a billboard. Their dreams and desires are so capitalized, that as a writer they're very attractive. They've got this defining psychology that makes them appealing and dramatic. One hopes that as a writer, you never portray them as being so simplistic that they become a caricature.

I’ve always felt really, been put off by people saying, "Oh, you're a dog person," and I think, "Yes, but...." I've always felt hesitant to sort of pinpoint myself that way, because the fact is I have an enormous range of things I care about a lot and am interested in a lot. People who like to define themselves narrowly interest me, because it feels very alien to me. In that sense, I'm not a joiner. Even though I'm also very engaged, I get very put off by the idea of defining myself, and saying, "Oh, I'm a whatever," even, "I'm a chicken person." Of course, I am, but I think, "Yeah, but rather, I'm a person who loves chickens and has them."

JC: Your pieces in the New Yorker have a certain scope, but this book is deeper and broader -- in some ways, did you yourself have to become an obsessive about Rin Tin Tin to maintain the attention and drive for this book?

SO: I think books require an altogether different engagement by the writer. It can't just be that you take a magazine story and plug in a bicycle pump and pump it up; if you took a story and just made it longer and longer and longer, at the end it's  exhausting for a reader. It just doesn't have the same effect as reading the book that really draws you in. 

I think that the motivation and curiosity of the writer has to be more profound. It has to be driven out of some conviction, a real need on the part of the writer to understand the subject. You can do a magazine piece and just do it because it's fun, or because it's interesting without it having, at its heart, a real need to resolve a question that you have. I think the writer has to be pulled in, to say, "I've got to figure this out, I have to understand this." Sometimes, it's sufficient for it to simply be an emotional feeling.

I think that's why I came to this book. There's something that feels important to me to understand about Rin Tin Tin. I need to figure it out. I need to learn as much as I can about it, and understand what I've learned, and then tell the story and say, "I'll tell you what I learned."

I learned about the very profound question of the persistence of ideas and the ability for some things to deeply matter, and to last. How does that happen, and why does that happen? And I think that's what I was trying to figure out: Why this character, this long and this unlikely set of circumstances? A few people have said to me, "Why don't you do it about Lassie?" And I'm not -- it just doesn't have the same emotional depth at all. Rin Tin Tin is truly a more interesting story.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Susan Orlean in her Los Angeles back yard. Credit: Jay L.Clendenin / Los Angeles Times