I headed into the smoky, sultry Rocky Mountains to hear Susan Orlean in conversation with Ian Brown at the Banff Centre. She read four excerpts of her work, jammed with detail. (No surprise that her husband has had to shame her into packing light when she travels. Reformed, she told Brown she came carry-on to Banff.) In the Q&A, no one asked about her note-taking technique, but she did dish about how she gets people to talk: be pure of heart, she says, come to a story without knowing anything. Outline? Agenda? Structure? “I begin with nothing.”
She looked a little like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, petite and pretty in a polka-dot summer dress and white sandals. A person you could get chatty with.
And what about the blank page, after a 25-year career? No writer’s block, but she does admit to performance anxiety. “You don’t build equity as a writer.”
I came home with The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, a collection of “encounters with extraordinary people” published in 2001. First stop for me when I dig in? “The American Man, Age Ten.” She spoke at length about that piece with Brown: a profile of the young McCaulay Culkin assigned by Esquire that turned into something else entirely. Why the change of direction? A different story caught her imagination and she chased it down.
“I’m just curious,” Orlean said last night with a girlish grin. “I’m a tourist of the human condition.”