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March 1st, 2006 Karla Starr | Books
 

The $10,000 Dinner Guest

Talk of the Stumptown with Susan Orlean.

     
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After watching the New Yorker staff writer and author of The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean, emerge from the elevator of Portland's Westin Hotel and spryly walk to the lobby, the first thing that pops into mind when she reaches me is how easy it would be to beat her up. She's a tiny sprig of a woman, 5-foot-2, 110 pounds, with long red hair cascading in sunny, strawberry waves past her shoulders. Her jeans are darker and much more expensive than mine; her black cardigan has a pattern of large holes, not unlike Swiss cheese.

"I was thinking we could go in there, but," she says, pointing and shrugging towards the door to the hotel's restaurant, "is it cold outside? I forgot my coat upstairs." She crosses her wee arms in anticipation of a shiver. But it's a warm day—albeit an overcast one, she agrees—and triumphantly coatless we head to Portland Coffee House for caffeine and chairs.

Susan Orlean is known as a writer who finds mountains hidden within molehills, huge gems of stories in seemingly tiny or mundane topics. Her first piece for The New Yorker explored the obsessive folding culture at Benetton, the upscale clothier; her latest, the world of homing pigeons. She is a tiny woman who has the power to see big things in everything.

"It's sort of a state of mind, asking questions about what's behind things, how things work in a place that seems so obvious you wouldn't think there's anything there," the former Willamette Week writer says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. As she says that, I notice her left ear is pierced twice; the top earring is a diamond-studded clover. Meanwhile, her left wrist is adorned with a digital Timex watch. "It might not look like much, but there's a story underneath."

Orlean enjoys testing out anecdotes on friends during dinner parties, finding which stories resonate and make people laugh. She's been to Cambodia, she's climbed Mount Fuji, she's friends with Meryl Streep and has just finished writing a screenplay with her husband, John Gillespie Jr., that was commissioned by Steven Spielberg. How could you not want this woman as a dinner guest? And how could I miss her lecture that night, "Finding the Extraordinary in Everyday Life"?

After being introduced by Portland Tribune Life editor Audrey van Buskirk (who, ominously, ran out of the auditorium when her cell phone rang two minutes into the lecture, never to return), Orlean takes the stage. She's wearing a black shirt with elbow-length sleeves and a red and peach-striped skirt that's layered and fit for dancing, her trademark locks smoothed and shiny. She warms up the crowd by turning her need to stand on a wooden box behind the podium into a wildly received joke.

"I could stay here for a couple of days! You're such a wonderful audience," she professed before reading "Shooting Party," an essay from her latest book, My Kind of Place. Within minutes, the audience is head-over-high heels in love. Of the 800 guests, at least 90 percent are white women over the age of 55; bejeweled cardigans and heads of poofy white hair abound. In my row is someone who resembles a highly plucked Regis Philbin in a purple pillbox hat. Orlean is the eccentric, lovable friend everyone in the room wishes they had—or were.

"When I was working on The Orchid Thief, I thought, am I the only not-crazy person in Florida? And I can answer that, 'yes,'" she says before reading a passage from the book that was made into the award-winning movie Adaptation. (Take note: Old people dig Florida jokes.)

Of all the stories she reads in between her musings on how lucky she is to do what she's so passionate about, the night's moment of most understated irony comes when she reads an excerpt from "King of the Road." Specifically, the moment she reads this sentence from the profile of clothing designer Bill Blass: "Like most successful, wealthy people, he knows how to deploy a sort of captivating brattiness, to which other people quickly yield." After the essay, a coordinator from the lecture series, Voices Inc., asks that she shift her podium reading light.

"Ow! That's hot.... I burned myself for you," she jokes, holding her perfectly poised hand up to a crowd of chuckles. Is Orlean captivating her audience? Yes. But bratty? She did indict herself, after all, because yes, she's successful—and wealthy, to boot. Her newly built, $2.1 million vacation property was recently featured in The New York Times' Architecture section. And getting her to speak for 90 minutes requires you to make a reservation through American Program Bureau, an agency that boasts "the most diverse speaker roster in the lecture industry," including Gorbachev, Ted Turner, and Omarosa from The Apprentice.

Not including required travel expenses (airfare, hotel), you'd need $10,000 to hire Orlean as a speaker. Minus an industry-standard 15 percent agent's fee, that's still a $8,500 paycheck awaiting her for a 90 minute lecture. $8,500. And yes, I paid for her nonfat cafe au lait, despite being a cheap bastard. But I was the one thrusting cash at the barista, unasked, before she could even find her wallet. That's just a part of her magic, an infectious warmth and excitement and ability to engage any audience that, while talking to her at the counter, I forgot to get a receipt. My broke ass will never see that money again.

We discussed women in the media (why aren't there more?), having children and having a career (friggin' hard) and her upcoming projects (Rin Tin Tin bio!). We talked about why it is that writers never talk shop with their writer friends, the pros and cons of living in New York while young (making connections vs. having to pay sky-high rent). We went on about the importance of passion and ambition and a fundamental belief in one's abilities. We talked about the idea of generating story ideas as being indistinguishable from a fundamental curiosity about the way the world works and a desire to share those findings with others.

She discussed these things with wide eyes and a warm smile—unless, of course, she was just placating me and pretending to be interested. But either way, it's not every New Yorker writer who would graciously give up nearly two hours of a short business trip to talk to an anonymous brat like me, six hours before her speaking engagement, at the end of which she reminds audience members that extraordinary, attention-grabbing things are all around them, as long as they're willing to look deeply and listen attentively to everything.

Finally, during the lecture's Q&A period, the audience does not wait to dig for the deep, difficult questions they'd spent weeks preparing: "In the words of Bill Blass, can you tell us about that amazing skirt?" Orlean chuckles. "It's my favorite! I've worn it on a couple of book tours. It's actually from Japan," she says, using what may be an envy-evoking code of the rich.

Another woman asks how motherhood has changed her writing. She smiles and mentions that her 14-month-old son, Austin, has just discovered the joy of pounding on a keyboard. She's certain that this will cause problems in the future. She also mentions that motherhood prompted her to write a humor piece exploring why babies don't have jobs; soon after, an editor from Abrams, a publishing company, called and asked if she had any interest in turning it into a children's book.

"It's funny, because it seems that after a lot of celebrities have babies, they think, 'I'm going to write a children's book,' like Madonna did."

My friend's eyebrows crinkle. "Did she just compare herself to Madonna?" she whispers. I shrug and return to my notepad, soaking up every last word.

 
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