The Rumpus Interview with Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean is best known for being portrayed by Meryl Streep in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. However it’s her obsession with other peoples’ obsessions (not her momentary stint in the limelight) that makes her long-form journalism shine.

A staff writer at the New Yorker, Orlean investigates individuals and their obsessions. Her two collections, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup and My Kind of Place, assemble her excellent magazine writing, but her long-form journalism in The Orchid Thief and her latest book, Rin Tin Tin, show how one person’s narrow tale can tell the story of the whole world.

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The Rumpus: Rin Tin Tin is your first foray into long form non-fiction since 1998’s The Orchid Thief. When did you know this subject was going to be more substantial than a magazine article?

Susan Orlean: Unlike The Orchid Thief, I never considered it as a magazine piece. What happened is that I knew immediately that the scope was too big to be a magazine story. I always envisioned it as a book. I came across this story, picked up the phone, called my agent and said, “This is an amazing story, I’ve got to do a book about this.” And this was on a normal day where I hadn’t really been thinking I was going to come across a new book idea, so it came as a surprise to me as well as to my publisher.

Rumpus: And once you had this idea, you spent nearly a decade completing this text. Aside from how busy you are on a day-to-day level, was there any particular facet of the project that required such an immense amount of time?

Orlean: Definitely. I began with the idea that it was a book about the early days of Rin Tin Tin and that I needed to know Lee Duncan’s story. That pulled me back further and further into his childhood, which I felt ultimately was really important. Then when I thought that I had gotten that all nailed down, I began to realize that Burt Leonard was an incredibly important piece of the story and just when I thought I had gotten all of the material on Burt, I happened into this storage unit of his that was just filled with material, literally floor to ceiling. It was a moment of a mixed blessing where I thought: on one hand, this is amazing material, and on the other hand, “Oh my God I’m going to have to start all over again,” which I practically did. And then, no small fact is that I had a child in the course of the reporting, so that added a little bit of time. You know, after my son was born, I just couldn’t take off the way I was used to, to do the reporting I was doing because I suddenly had a very large responsibility and desire to be with my family.

Rumpus: Now you mentioned Lee Duncan a moment ago. Your book is not only the story of the dog, Rin Tin Tin, but also Duncan, his owner. Did Duncan see his dog as a member of his family, or was it more in the onset that the dog was going to be a means to some sort of fortune or wealth for him?

Orlean: I don’t think it was ever that the dog was his meal ticket. I think he felt that the dog was his soul mate. It was almost, I won’t say an afterthought, certainly after he had bonded very deeply with the dog that he began thinking, “Gee maybe he can be in movies.” And I would say that in the long run, he probably felt more of a connection to the dog than he ever did to his human family. You know, for better or worse, I think it was a different kind of connection that was just deeper.

Rumpus: One of the publicity blurbs for your book describes Rin Tin Tin as “a dog who was born in 1918 and never died.” What was it about him that was so thoroughly captivating to the world?

Orlean: Some of that is unanswerable. He had charisma. He had some quality that captured people’s imaginations, that made him stand out at a time when there were many other dogs making movies, which is funny for us to think, but there were. He was captivating on an emotional level. And then, very significantly, he had the people in his life, namely Lee Duncan and then Burt Leonard, who saw no choice but to do whatever was necessary to keep his story alive. So I think it was all of those things combined, but I think you have to start with this essential, which is that there was something about this dog, there was a quality that would be hard to describe which is what made him so special, that made him come to life off the screen and be remembered for so long.

Rumpus: Speaking of our relationship with dogs, part of your book traces the evolution of the role dogs have played in American society. Based on what you’ve researched, how would say our relationship with canines has changed between the 1920s and today?

Orlean: It’s changed a great deal. In the 1920s, a large number of Americans lived in rural areas, where animals were an everyday part of life, and dogs were valued, but often were seen as just another one of the animals on a farm. The culture of pets wasn’t as firmly entrenched as it is now. Starting in the 1950s, as people made a rapid move from rural areas to cities and suburbs, the dog population grew even faster than the human population. Obviously there was something—people perceived a complete life as including a dog—and dogs became family members much more than they ever had when we were more agrarian people. So our relationships with them—obviously dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years—so they’ve always been companions. The way culture changed, dogs changed with it, and they became really an extension of the family, rather than a primary animal in the barnyard.

Rumpus: Even for authors who strive to avoid thematic similarities in their work, there are usually a few common threads woven between their books. Are there connections between Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief that you’ve noticed, in content or in message?

Orlean: Oh definitely, definitely. I think the idea of what people will do in order to service something they’re obsessed with or passionate about is very much a part of both books. I think in terms of my own interests. I love telling history through an oblique tale—and this book certainly had that as part of it, as did The Orchid Thief. You’re telling the story of a whole world but through an unusual window. I’m very interested in people who narrow their focus to something so intently, and how they do it, why they do it, and what it means in their life once they’ve done it.

Rumpus: The point in the career of an on-screen animal where the original creature passes away and must be replaced is a fascinating exercise in morality and ingenuity. What occurred when the original Rin Tin Tin died? Were replacement dogs already lined-up?

Orlean: No! That’s one of the amazing parts of this—even though the dog was already thirteen, Lee simply couldn’t imagine that he would ever die, and consequently made no provision for his departure, so when the dog died he was caught-off guard. Of course it seems ridiculous. You think if your dog is thirteen, you know, you should be thinking about this but he put forward the idea that he had trained one of Rinty’s puppies, and that the puppy was ready to step-in, but that was not the least bit true. He was a very young dog who was not at all ready, and they actually delayed the filming of the next movie because everybody knew that the dog wasn’t primed or ready to go. He just wasn’t.

Rumpus: Do you feel Rin Tin Tin’s breed was a factor in him becoming an icon? Why do you think we as a society are so welcoming to certain breeds but quite apprehensive of others?

Orlean: Well, German Shepherds were a very new breed at the time he became such a success, so some of it was just the excitement about this new breed of dog that was also proving to be unusually smart and cool-looking. They were very appealing to people and they looked different than the dogs that had existed before. I think that, on some very simple level, some breeds of dog look mean, and they may not be mean, but they have mean-looking faces. That wasn’t the case with German Shepherds, although they’ve had their time where they were associated with police and the military, and so what had seemed noble started be perceived in a somewhat different way.

Rumpus: Is there one film, radio serial or television episode that most enduringly captures the essence of Rin Tin Tin to you?

Orlean: I’m partial to Clash of the Wolves, which is one of the six silent films he made that’s still in existence. Unfortunately you can’t say that this was the best, but it is one of the few that we have. I think the film really captures the essence of the first wave of the dog. I think the episode of the television show called “Legend of the White Buffalo” is very good—it probably stands as the quintessential episode from the TV series.

Rumpus: Now I worked for several years at a veterinary hospital, and I consistently met pets with extraordinarily odd names. What’s the origin of the name Rin Tin Tin?

Orlean: There’s a bit of mystery in that. It was the name of a good luck charm that was very popular with soldiers in WWI. The problem is that we don’t know exactly why that name. I mean, that is the direct origin of the name, but where that name came from is a a mystery. Someone actually emailed me today and said that he had heard it was meant to reflect the sound of soldiers’ dog tags clanking against their helmets. I think that’s a bit of a reach, but unfortunately we don’t exactly know, except that it arose from this folk tale about this boy and girl who survived a bombing in WWI, and their names were Rin Tin Tin and Annette.

Rumpus: In a world where every week seems to bring us a new animated film about surfing penguins or woolly mammoths, do you think Rin Tin Tin could’ve had the draw here in the present that he did in his heyday?

Orlean: I think dogs have always been very popular in film and television, and they’ve evolved in what their typical role is likely to be. I think dogs will always be popular because we love them and they’re the animal that we first domesticated and continue to have authentic relationships with. It’s really hard to say though.

Rumpus: I understand. I’m young, and the only show I can recall watching as a child that featured a real dog was Wishbone, where this dog acted out the plots of classic novels and plays.

Orlean: I think that’s partly because something like Rin Tin Tin has to fit in the moment, and in the 1950s it fit a moment: a post-war moment that was of ideal for that kind of hero. I mean, could a dog again be a star? Yeah, of course. I think so. But, it really does matter what the context is.

Rumpus: On your website, you fondly recall a figurine of Rin Tin Tin you saw on your grandfather’s desk as a child. How has your relationship with animals evolved as you’ve grown older? Do you still harbor the same kind of unadulterated adoration for them that you felt then?

Orlean: I’ve always loved animals, and actually I’ve grown to love them more. I think now that I’m an adult, I can decide to have them when I want, and they become different kinds of companions for you. You can have a richer friendship with them. I’ve now had dogs that have spanned whole lives, in a sense, with me, so I’d say I like them more and more.


Zack Ruskin resides in San Francisco, where he works as a bookstore administrator and freelance reporter. His interviews and essays have appeared digitally on Goodreads and Unreality Magazine and in print in The Believer. He also writes as a Featured Columnist covering the S.F. Giants for Bleacher Report. You can follow all the loose threads of his writing endeavors at http://www.zackruskin.com/. More from this author →