Susan Orlean is a little frog now; She has an old-fashioned cold. (Yes, she did get tested for COVID-19, and no, it’s not an Omicron variant.) Yet even from the bed in her Hudson Valley home, the famous writer still plays the part to chat about her latest book, “About Animals,” a collection of Her favorite creature-related articles she has written over the years for The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 1992.
It is not the first Aurelian book to focus on the relationship between creatures and humans. Among her bestselling titles—which include “The Orchid Thief” and “The Library Book”—the biopic “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” about the German Shepherd who starred in the 1950s television series.
A self-proclaimed animal lover and host to pet dogs, chickens, and many other members of her fauna, in the latest book, Aurelian sets her sights on all kinds of creatures and their relationship with their fellow human beings, from homing pigeons to caged tigers, mules, sick rabbits and more.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. To hear her live chat, join her with host Sandra Tsing Loh on Friday, December 17 at 5 p.m. on Bookish, the virtual program about books and authors produced by Southern California News Group. Go here to register for the event.
s. So I have to tell you, I took “on the animals” with me on a safari to Kenya recently.
Wow, how perfect!
Q: The only thing your book taught me about seeing all these animals in theme parks is that there is human intercession. Wild animals are accustomed to the people around them.
indeed. It was worrisome when I was in South Africa at a theme park and they were basically saying that all of the animals, or most of the animals, in Africa now are managed to some extent. And that there is no real wilderness. It is partially necessary [to have humans manage and protect wildlife], but it’s also the fact that there isn’t much habitat left.
Q: Your book contains great stories about all kinds of animals. But behind the stories, there was this sense of humans’ relationship to them. Were you aware of this when you started putting these pieces together or did this topic come up while putting them together?
I was very aware that I am not a naturalist, so I was not observing these animals in a vacuum, nor was I influenced by human experience. And frankly, I think the stories would have been less interesting if it weren’t for the sometimes uncomfortable space inhabited by both animals and humans. I think my interest in a lot of these stories was seeing how humans struggle to have that relationship. And what is the correct terminology for the relationship with wild animals in particular – but also with domestic animals? I think my ultimate concern is really people. So, even though these are stories about animals in every case, people were a big part of the story.
Q: Can we call “animals” your epidemiological project?
It sure is. This is not at all inaccurate. I think like a lot of people thought I was very reflexive during COVID-19. Everyone I knew had the same reaction, “I need a puppy.” [in her case, a fox terrier]. I started thinking, Wow. I’ve written really a lot about animals, and these pieces, in a way, are each amplified by being right next to each other. So it was absolutely an epidemic project.
Q: Did you have a sense of what you were going to collect? Or did you have to go back and remember, “Oh, yeah, I wrote that…”
I had some that came to mind right away. I mean, some of these pieces are among my favourites, like this story about Kiko [the captive killer whale that starred in the movie “Free Willy”] And the story of the woman with 27 tigers. But it was really interesting to go back and look at the years of work and see some of the things that I kind of forgot. I mean, not because I wasn’t so proud of them, but just because it’s been such a long period of time. It’s funny because it makes you think, well, I’ve probably been doing this for a really long time…
Q: Do you think our relationship to animals, and our perception of our relationship to animals, really changed during the pandemic, or is it just a comfort right now?
a little bit of both. I think there is no doubt that in a really perplexing and scary time, people wanted that comfort that comes with having a puppy or a kitten. And there’s also the satisfaction of upbringing, something in which you feel like the world is out of control. Although the truth is that owning a pet is very expensive and not necessarily the smartest thing you can do when you feel like everything is in the air. But this feeling of something to be taken care of and nurtured I think is very comforting –
[Orlean’s dog, as if on cue, starts barking wildly in the background.] Ugh. Talking about it. clings. [To the dog] Come here. Thank you, thank you for saving us from the gardener.
…I believe there is a real and legitimate psychological basis for owning pets. There is a reason we have done this for centuries. It doesn’t serve a useful purpose, but it does provide a lot of emotional lube, and I think people have been craving for that during this time. I would say, as you know, owning a pet is a luxury – owning an animal not only provides any purpose, but actually involves expense, effort and time. I think people who live marginally think it’s crazy. But people all over the world, in every culture, including developing countries, keep pets. I think it’s just human motivation.
Q: What is your next project?
Well, I do two things. I’m writing a TV excerpt from “The Library Book,” I’ve just started an obituary column for The New Yorker and I’m writing a memoir.
Q: Yay! What prepares you for the diary?
You know, I’m not really sure. I guess I finally got over my slight self-consciousness about it, because I’ve always been thinking, Who wants to read my diary? divine. It’s a boring topic. But then somehow I overcame my resistance. God knows why or how. I think I somehow convinced myself that I actually had experiences that people might find very interesting. So, this is what I’m working on.