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Susan Orlean: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend was published in October 2011 by Simon & Schuster.

How did you become interested in Rin Tin Tin, and when did you first realize that you wanted to write a book about him (in all his various incarnations) and those connected with him?

I became interested in Rin Tin Tin when I happened across his name quite by accident while working on a story about the Film and Television Unit of American Humane, which monitors how animals are treated on film sets. I was shocked by how deeply I was affected just by hearing his name, and how many memories came surging up as soon as I started thinking about him. Once I realized he had a long history and a fascinating story, I decided on the spot that I wanted to write a book about him.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Rin Tin Tin in the research process for this book?

The most surprising thing was also the simplest thing: That he had been a real dog and not just a television character. The mere fact that he had actually existed and been someone's pet amazed me.

You write that after spending some time researching Rin Tin Tin, "... I began to feel like everyone I met or heard about in connection with Rin Tin Tin was a little crazy—even the side players and background people and definitely the main characters in the narrative. Every one of them had a facet that glinted with just a bit of madness." You've dealt with characters before who were "a little crazy," of course (I'm thinking in particular of some of those you profile in The Orchid Thief, for example) - did you find those associated with Rin Tin Tin even more obsessed than others you've encountered?

The people devoted to Rin Tin Tin weren't more obsessed than other people I've written about, but the depth of their devotion and the duration of it was exceptional. Lee Duncan spent his entire life devoted to Rin Tin Tin—that kind of steadfastness is unusual. The craziness in the commitment to Rin Tin Tin was amplified by the fact that there was so much money and fame associated with him. He wasn't just a private hobby the way orchids were for most of the obsessive orchid collectors. He was a global icon.

I thought the parallels between the archival collections of Lee Duncan and Bert Leonard, both of which managed to survive sort of by pure chance, were striking. You have a wonderful description in the book of what it was like working with those archives; can you share a little of that experience? And do you know whether Bert Leonard's papers have found a permanent home?

Some of Bert's papers were in the archives at UCLA, and some were in the Lee Duncan archives in Riverside, but as far as I know the material that I happened upon in his storage unit is still there. It had never been formally organized or sorted out; it was just big boxes of stuff that he had cleared out of his office and home. I had never worked so extensively with archived material before, or, as in Bert's case, the flotsam and jetsam of a deceased person's life. I assumed it would feel very academic and that very little of the essence of the person could be felt in those files and papers. Instead, I found them as vivid as real life—sometimes they were far more intimate than real life, because there were things in those files that I doubt I would have ever seen had Lee or Bert been alive. It was a revelation to see how much life could be contained in such material.

You describe quite an array of Rin Tin Tin-inspired merchandise that made its way into the market over the decades of the dog's popularity: what's the most interesting (or weird) item you saw?

The merchandise was mostly what you'd expect: toys, games, lunch boxes, costumes, comics, Viewmaster reels. I am partial to the dog-related merchandise: the water bowls and leashes and collars. I suppose if your dog wasn't Rin Tin Tin, at least he could have all the proper accessories of a Rin Tin Tin.

Do you have a favorite Rin Tin Tin movie or t.v. episode?

I love "Legend of the White Buffalo", among the TV episodes, and "Clash of the Wolves" among Rinty's films. "Clash" really gives you a glimpse of why Rin Tin Tin became such a star.

It's been fascinating to follow this book through the production process via your Twitter feed, which is both active and interesting (a rare combination indeed!). Have you noticed that Twitter has changed anything about how you do your work and/or the way(s) in which you interact with readers?

Twitter is my water-cooler break, my office gossip, my procrastination activity, my sounding board, and often my cheering squad. It's made working alone (which I do) so much more friendly and fun—and of course distracting. I also feel it's given me a relationship with a lot of readers that I enjoy—a feeling of connection, the same sort of lift that I've always felt after I do a reading and have met a lot of readers, however briefly. It makes concrete the idea of writing as conversation, which I really believe in.

You've got quite an impressive animal menagerie yourself ... if one of your animals were to have a Hollywood career, which would it be? Why?

My cat Gary has real star power. But my turkeys are better at posing, so maybe they have the real Hollywood potential.

What's on your bookshelves? What are you reading now (or what have you enjoyed recently)?

I just bought Michael Ondaatje's new book, The Cat's Table, and I'm finishing Ann Patchett's State of Wonder. And I can't wait to read Joan Didion's new book. So many great books out there right now!

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

My next project is to sleep a lot and play with my son, who has made me promise that I'll only write children's books from now on since they have so few words. But I might end up breaking that promise.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

Books by Susan Orlean

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (402 copies)
Saturday Night (78 copies)
The Floral Ghost (2 copies)
Animalish (1 copies)

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About author interviews

Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.

 

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