“There appears to be nothing in the world that doesn’t interest Orlean, and she has such a companionable way of conveying her fascinations that readers can’t help being fascinated too.”
–The New York Times
New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean has been called “a national treasure” by the Washington Post and “a latter-day Tocqueville” by the New York Times. Her deeply moving explorations of American stories both familiar and obscure have earned her a reputation as one of America’s most distinctive journalistic voices. A staff writer for The New Yorker for over thirty years and a former contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Vogue, she has been praised as “an exceptional essayist” (Publishers Weekly) and a writer who “approaches her subjects with intense curiosity and fairness” (Bookmarks).
Orlean is fascinated by tales of every stripe. Her profiles and interviews for The New Yorker have covered such wide-ranging subjects as Jean Paul Gaultier’s design inspiration, urban chicken farming, the friends and neighbors of Tonya Harding, the contemporary painter responsible for capturing “the art in the Wonder Bread,” and the World Taxidermy Championships. Her Esquire piece “The American Man, Age 10” has been taught in classrooms across the country. From the everyday to the outlandish, she has an eye for the moving, the hilarious, and the surprising.
In The Orchid Thief—her breakout national bestseller that inspired the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation—Orlean delves into the life of John Laroche, a charismatic schemer once convicted of trying to steal endangered orchids from a state preserve in southern Florida. A horticultural consultant obsessed with rare orchids, Laroche is the unforgettable, strangely appealing heart of The Orchid Thief. Orlean spent two years researching the book, going so far as to wade through a swamp in hopes of spotting the elusive ghost orchid. The result is a story that The Wall Street Journal called “a swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great,” citing “visionary passions and fierce obsessions; heroic settings; outsize characters [and] entrepreneurs on the edge of the frontier.”
The line of inquiry into flora and fauna continues in her latest, On Animals, which gathers a lifetime of musings, meditations, and in-depth profiles about the creatures we share our homes, lives and the world with. Since the age of six, when Orlean wrote and illustrated a book called Herbert the Near-Sighted Pigeon, she’s been drawn to stories about how we live with animals, and how they abide by us. Now, in On Animals, she examines animal-human relationships through the compelling tales she has written over the course of her celebrated career. Her first essay collection in nearly two decades, it was one of The Washington Post‘s notable works of nonfiction and USA Today‘s Best Books of the Year. As The New York Times raves, “every essay in the book is magnificent.”
Orlean’s instant New York Times bestseller, The Library Book, is an exploration of the history, power, and future of these endangered institutions, told through the lens of Orlean’s quest to solve a notorious cold case: who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, ultimately destroying 400,000 books? Writing in The Washington Post, Ron Charles urged “Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book…. You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.” It named one of both The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018, The Washington Post’s Best Books of 2018, and was awarded the California Book Award and Marfield Prize for Arts Writing. Orlean will adapt The Library Book for a forthcoming series with Paramount TV.
Her previous book also touched on an aspect of LA’s cultural landscape, albeit their far more well-known export of Hollywood and its attendant fame. In 2011’s Rin Tin Tin, Orlean examined how the iconic German shepherd captured the world’s imagination and, nearly a century later, remains a fixture in American culture. On NPR’s Weekend Edition, Scott Simon reflected, “Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too.”
Orlean’s work has inspired two successful films: Blue Crush, the story of young women surfing in Maui, and Adaptation, the meta (and meta-) film directed by Spike Jonze. Meryl Streep, who portrayed Orlean, was nominated for an Academy Award, as were costars Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper and writer Charlie Kaufman. Paramount+’s coming-of-age film Little Wing, starring Brian Cox and Brooklynn Prince and based on Orlean’s 2006 New Yorker article, will be released in 2024.
Orlean was also the host, with actress Sarah Thyre, of the podcast Crybabies, a series of candid conversations with creative guests about the books, music, TV, and movies that make them cry; and the podcast Book Exploder, a miniseries from Song Exploder, where award-winning and bestselling authors broke down a passage from one of their books, and discussed the creative process that went into writing it. Orlean served as Rogers Communications Chair in Literary Journalism at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada. In 2022, her work on the HBO show How To With John Wilson earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing For A Nonfiction Program.
In a career spanning more than three decades, Orlean has also written for Outside, Esquire, The Boston Globe, and more. Orlean has served as an editor for Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing, and her journalism has been compiled into two collections: The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. Currently, she writes the Afterword column for The New Yorker, an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost. She is at work on a memoir.
Orlean’s lectures are marked by the same wit and vivacity that have made her writing such a success. She speaks on her books, her encounters with extraordinary people, her experiences traveling the world, the value of ignorance, and women and the media.