To help celebrate the publication of The Library Book, Narrative has a few burning questions for our friend Susan Orlean.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
I’m dazzled by Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, who lives her life over and over again, with different outcomes at each juncture. Who doesn’t wonder what her life would have been like if things had proceeded just a little differently (or, in Ursula’s case, a lot differently)? In real life, my favorite character, so to speak, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s like the guard at a door that leads to disaster. I suppose she and Ursula Todd embody a kind of resilience that I admire, especially when faced with a world in chaos.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
“Frank Sinatra had a cold.”
3. What story, book, or poem do you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. It was my first Faulkner, read when I was in high school, and the effect it had on me was like a drug: I felt like I could see the world and history and families and the American South and life in a way I had never seen it before, and could hear language and even sentence structure in a new way. I started reading it again before I had even finished it, so I was basically reading it in two places at once simultaneously. The sheer, utter thrill of encountering that work for the first time is something I’d love to experience again. Since then I’ve read many great books, of course, but that might have been the first one I read that blew the top of my head off.
4. Best part of the day?
I’m kind of partial to 5 p.m., if I’ve had a productive day and can punch the clock and relax and feel I’ve earned it.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
A long walk with a nice dog.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
On the page: (1) Bemused (2) Shoulders (3) Slap (4) Low-slung (5) Say (6) Amazed (7) Astonished (8) Forever (9) Moment (10) Tall. And in life: (1) Maybe (2) Kind of (3) Like (4) Wow (5) Whatever (6) Really (7) Nevertheless (8) Freak (9) Over (10) Time.
7. What’s your current obsession?
African mud cloth.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
In my work, to slow down and savor the language and scenes more. In my life, to slow down and savor everything more.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish that when I was twelve I knew that the days are long but the years are short, and that nothing was as dire as it seemed at the moment.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
If I had the truth about love, I would share it, believe me!
Finally, is there a short passage from the new book you’d like to share with our readers?
From The Library Book:
In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited—it takes on a life of its own.
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