Lewis Frumkes, Director, Marymount Manhattan College Author Series Hosts Susan Orlean
Though she looks nothing like Meryl Streep who played her in Adaptation, a quasi-fictional account of the difficulties faced by a diffident and blocked screenwriter in trying to adapt her nonfiction prose tale, The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean delivered her own teasing ambiguity when she appeared at Marymount Manhattan College (MMC) on January 9 to usher in its Best-Selling Authors Series. The literary program, now into its 13th year, and hosted by the irrepressible Lewis Burke Frumkes, Director of the MMC Writing Center, presents leading authors who represent a variety of genres. In Ms. Orlean,the 2003 series may have found its most exotic lecturer. Slim, long-haired, attired in a Gaughin-colored chiffon skirt, Ms. Orlean, with knowing, affable charm, managed to answer and not answer inevitable questions about the autobiographical elements in the movie version of her best-selling book.
Acknowledging delight at being in a city “where all kinds of book-related events are forever going on,” Ms. Orlean noted that this was “a most interesting time” of her life because she is regarded as an author with both a real life and a movie life, thanks to “Adaptation,” which takes liberties (ah, but how many?) with her best-selling story about her adventures in Florida tracking orchids, under the seductive tutelage of one John Laroche, obsessive lore-gatherer, egomaniacal eccentric, and orchid thief. Sensing that many in the audience had seen the movie, she asked for a confirming show of hands (well over half) and then declared that most of them probably would want to know if she had slept with Laroche or taken drugs. Her answer was No, to both, but the smile that accompanied the playful tone was guaranteed to keep in mind the possibility of a closer relationship than the book lets on.
The talk, conversation rather than prepared script, addressed other anticipations as well. A well-published author of four books (including The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, a collection of her favorite profile pieces, many from The New Yorker, where The Orchid Thief made its first-chapter appearance), Ms. Orlean said she was often asked when she knew she was a writer. Her answer: when she was three or four, but it was less fancy that led her on than fact. She always loved “real” stories, writing about subjects “that would otherwise pass under the radar,” following the peel of an onion, where layers unfold of fascinating new facts – which is how The Orchid Thief took shape. A chance reading of an item in The Miami Herald about John Larouche and three Seminoles being arrested for poaching orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand piqued her curiosity. At the time she knew nothing about orchids or about Florida swamps or real estate land scams. Nonetheless “something in the story” didn’t make sense. Enter the curious researcher. The challenge was to interest readers who presumably didn’t care about orchids. She certainly didn’t.
A professional writer for The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vogue, with a past life as a reporter in Boston, Ms. Orlean decided after one last celebrity interview that she had had it parceling out artifice, writing the 20-minute PR piece. Her first article for The New Yorker she noted was on an African royal who was driving a cab. The everyday began to fascinate her. “Every small thing may be something grand and beautiful.” The irony of her success, of course, is that she has become a celebrity and the subject of the kind of writing she herself gave up. But unlike the movie stars she profiled who would give her tidbits about their private lives they were also sharing with the world, Susan Orlean’s revelations are about the writing life—well, up to a point. The movie, she well knows, resonates with suggestions she keeps a bit at bay. Coy as well as serious, Susan Orlean knows how to turn out good PR as well as finely crafted sentences. Besides, she is already deep into the composition of her next book—wild animals in the suburbs.#
The Best Selling Authors Series continues at Marymount Manhattan College with the appearance of Howard Gardner, Harvard cognitive scientist and author of The Disciplined Mind, Intelligence Reframed, on Thursday, February 27 at 7:30,in the Theresa Lang Theatre at MMC. Reservations a must: (212) 774-0780.