- Jennifer May
Susan Orlean is not a fictional character. True, Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe for playing someone by that name in the 2002 film Adaptation, one of the loopier high dives in the annals of screenwriting, and seven years later, readers still tell The Orchid Thief author how much she resembles Streep. “Talk about power of suggestion,” Orlean laughs. “There is not one feature we have in common!”
The nonfiction Susan Orlean is a fine-boned, incandescently friendly redhead with a freckled outdoor complexion, wide-set blue eyes, and a welcoming smile. She opens the door of her Columbia County home in a lacy blouse over a turtleneck, jeans, and black cowboy boots. As she introduces her rowdy Welsh Springer spaniel, apologizes for her cold, and offers tea, it’s easy to see how she disarms her interview subjects: Somehow her manner simultaneously implies that she can’t wait to meet you and that you’re already old friends.
Though Orlean has done some celebrity journalism, interviewing such media-savvy subjects as Hillary Clinton, Bill Blass, and Martha Stewart, most of the people she profiles are not household names. When an Esquire editor asked Orlean to interview Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin for a feature titled “The American Man, Age Ten,” she offered instead to profile a more typical kid the same age, and chose one from the New Jersey suburbs.
“I often write about things where the first response is, ‘How weird—why would you want to write about that?’” she notes. But Orlean has made curiosity into an art form. As a writer for the New Yorker and other A-list periodicals, she’s toured the South on a gospel choir bus, climbed Mount Fuji in pounding rain, accompanied Spain’s first accredited female matador, and detailed an inventor’s tireless pursuit of the perfect umbrella. She has a gift for putting her readers right in the room with her subject; she gives good phrase. “It’s just that people are so interesting,” she wrote in the introduction to her 2001 collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People. “Writing about them, in tight focus, is irresistible.”
Orlean followed Bullfighter with My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. Its very first line, “I travel heavy,” gives the lie to the bookjacket photo, in which the unburdened author, wearing a natty black suit and stiletto heels, tips her fedora as she strides off on her next adventure. Orlean, who’s accumulated over a million frequent flyer miles, describes herself as a “reluctant packer” who ritually overfills suitcases, makes fruitless attempts to winnow, and winds up packing even more “just to be safe.” On the other hand, she says, “I’m a maniac unpacker. I find unpacking really tedious and just drudgery, so I get it over with as fast as I can.”
Orlean just returned from Morocco, where she was researching a Smithsonian piece about donkeys. She brought home a carved wooden donkey saddle, shaped like the roof of a tiny pagoda, which sits on a Chinese red end table. The house she shares with husband John Gillespie and their four-year-old son Austin is filled with mementos. It may be an architectural showpiece featured in the New York Times, with soaring glass windows framing a jaw-dropping view, but it’s also a place people live, with toys on the floor and crumbs on the table. There are books and rural-themed artifacts everywhere. Four Warhol silkscreens of cow heads overlook a transparent anatomical cow model, several vintage toy tractors, and a virtual aviary of carved ducks and geese. Even the bathroom boasts glass jars of feathers and bones, antique dice and mah jong tiles, and a chicken poster illustrating Mendel’s law of genetics.
Orlean met writer, Democratic Convention consultant, and investment banker Gillespie through a mutual friend in 2000. Their courtship was supersonic: Two of their first four dates were on different continents, and their wedding in 2001 made the Times “Vows” column. Orlean had owned a weekend cabin in Pine Plains since 1989, and when a 55-acre parcel across the road came up for sale, she and Gillespie bought it immediately, hiring Seattle-based architect James Cutler to design a house with “the feeling of being outside even when you’re inside.”
Orlean and Gillespie’s neighbors include Eliot Spitzer, Coach Goat Farms, and a thoroughbred stud farm; late mystery grandmaster Donald E. Westlake lived just down the road. At this point, they’re “90 percent local,” also spending time in New York and Los Angeles.