Susan Orlean

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Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean 2018.jpg
Orlean at the 2018 Texas Book Festival.
BornSusan Orlean
(1955-10-31) October 31, 1955 (age 65)
Cleveland, Ohio, United States
OccupationJournalist, author
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 .


She is best known as the author of the 1998 book The Orchid Thief, which was adapted into the film Adaptation (2002). Meryl Streep received an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Orlean.


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. [1] 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 started contributing to The New Yorker in 1987 and became a staff writer in 1992. [2]

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. [3] Orlean (portrayed by Meryl Streep, [4] 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.

She also wrote the Women's Outside article "Life's Swell", published in 1998. That article, a feature on a group of young surfer girls in Maui, was the basis of the film Blue Crush . [4]

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. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6] The book uses the context of the April 1986 fire to explore the role of the public library, who uses them, and the void created if they are lost. [3] 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". [7] She collaborated on the adaption for television. [8]

Personal life

Orlean was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, [9] the daughter of Edith (née Gross 1923–2016) [10] 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. [11] [12]

She graduated from the University of Michigan with honors in 1976, [1] [13] 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 . [1] 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. [4]

She is also step-mother to John's son from his previous marriage, Jay Gillespie. [14]

Awards and honors

Orlean was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2004. [2] [15] She received an honorary Doctor of Human Letters degree from the University of Michigan at the spring commencement ceremony in 2012. [2] [1] She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 in the "General Nonfiction" field of study. [16] [17] Orlean was the winner of the 7th Annual Shorty Awards in the Author category, which honors the best social and digital media. [18]



Essays and reporting

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  1. 1 2 3 4 "Six to receive honorary degrees at U-M spring commencement ceremonies". University of Michigan News. March 15, 2012. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  2. 1 2 3 "Susan Orlean". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  3. 1 2 "The Library Book by Susan Orlean – what LA lost when its library burned down". the Guardian. February 16, 2019. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Haldeman, Peter (April 12, 2019). "Havens: Susan Orlean and R.M. Schindler, a love story in two chapters". Los Angeles Times . Retrieved April 13, 2019.
  5. Lewis, Michael. "The Library Fire That Ignited an Author’s Imagination", The New York Times , 15 October 2018. Retrieved on 3 January 2020.
  6. Kellogg, Carolyn (October 11, 2018). "Who started the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library? Susan Orlean investigates in her new book". Los Angeles Times . Retrieved April 13, 2019.
  7. Alter, Alexandra (September 22, 2019). "It's a Fact: Mistakes Are Embarrassing the Publishing Industry". The New York Times . Retrieved September 25, 2019.
  8. Schaub, Michael (April 2, 2019). "Susan Orlean's book about 1986 L.A. library fire headed to television". Los Angeles Times . Retrieved April 13, 2019.
  9. Orlean, Susan (October 5, 2018). "Growing Up in the Library: Learning and relearning what it means to have a book on borrowed time". The New Yorker . Retrieved October 27, 2018.
  10. Edith Orlean Obituary accessed October 30, 2016
  11. Susan Orlean's parents marriage certificate retrieved March 20, 2015
  12. Arthur Orlean obituary
  13. USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences
  14. Shattuck, Kathryn (December 2, 2001). "WEDDINGS: VOW; Susan Orlean, John Gillespie Jr". The New York Times. Retrieved July 23, 2018.
  15. "A Conversation with Susan Orlean". Nieman Foundation. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  16. Guggenheim Fellows announced accessed March 20, 2015
  17. "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Susan Orlean" . Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  18. "Author in Social Media - Shorty Awards". Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  19. Brendan O'Connell.
  20. Online version is titled "The surreal comedy of internet art".

Olrean joined Brendan O'Meara on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast for Episode 61 to talk about the entrepreneurial nature of a writing career.