Orlean at the 2018 Texas Book Festival.
October 31, 1955
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
|Education||University of Michigan|
Susan Orlean (born October 31, 1955) is a journalist and bestselling author of The Orchid Thief and The Library Book. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to many magazines including Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.
Orlean was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the daughter of Edith (née Gross 1923-2016) and Arthur Orlean (1915-2007). She has a sister, Debra, and a brother, David. Her family is Jewish. Her mother's family is from Hungary and her father's family from Poland. Her father was an attorney and businessman.
She graduated from the University of Michigan with honors in 1976, studying literature and history. After college she moved to Portland, Oregon, and was planning on going to law school, when she began writing for the Willamette Week. She married lawyer Peter Sistrom in 1983, and they divorced after 16 years of marriage. She was introduced by a friend to author and businessman John Gillespie, whom she married in 2001, and she gave birth to their son Austin in 2004.
She is also step-mother to John's son from his previous marriage, Jay Gillespie.
She later went on to publish stories in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vogue, Outside and Spy. In 1982, she moved to Boston and became a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix and later a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Her first book, Saturday Night, was published in 1990, shortly after she moved to New York and began writing for The New Yorker magazine. She became a New Yorker staff writer in 1992.
Orlean authored the book The Orchid Thief, a profile of Florida orchid grower, breeder and collector John Laroche. The book formed the basis of Charlie Kaufman's script for the Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Orlean (portrayed by Meryl Streep, who won a Golden Globe for the performance) was, in effect, made into a fictional character; the movie portrayed her as becoming Laroche's lover and partner in a drug production operation, in which orchids were processed into a psychoactive substance.
In 1999, she co-wrote The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!) under her married name, Susan Sistrom. Her previously published magazine stories have been compiled in 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. She also served as editor for Best American Essays 2005 and Best American Travel Writing 2007. She contributed the Ohio chapter in State By State (2008), and in 2011 she published a biographical history of the dog actor Rin Tin Tin titled Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
When her son Austin had an assignment to interview a city employee, he chose a librarian and together they visited the Studio City branch of the Los Angeles Public Library system which reignited her own childhood passion for libraries. After an immersive project involving three years of research and two years of writing on the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, The Library Book was released in October 2018. Orlean hired a fact-checker to ensure the book was accurate, explaining "I don't want a substantial error that changes the meaning of my book, but I also don't want silly errors". She collaborated on the adaption for television.
Orlean was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2003. She received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Michigan at the spring commencement ceremony in 2012. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.
Olrean joined Brendan O'Meara on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast for Episode 61 to talk about the entrepreneurial nature of a writing career.