Andromeda: Travels with Charley, John, and Susan — or, the indefatigable Orlean and the defatigable Steinbeck

Thanks again to the 49 Writers volunteers who helped pull together the Crosscurrents event, including Deb, Karen Benning, Jen Walker, and Mariah Oxford, and to our event co-sponsors, Copper Whale Inn and ATIA; and especially to the Alaska Press Club, which was responsible for bringing Susan Orlean to Alaska with help from the UAA College of Arts & Sciences and the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts Graduate Program.

Friday night after her fantastic Crosscurrents talk at the Anchorage Museum, Susan Orlean looks around a still-crowded Ginger Restaurant in downtown Anchorage and announces rather suddenly — as if it’s a surprise even to her — that she is tired. And she should be: it’s about 11:30 (and that’s AK time, not East Coast time) and dinner took well over two hours, slowed by drink re-orders and difficulty deciding on appetizers and table chatter that preceded the slow-arriving entrees. The volunteers responsible for getting the generous and talented writer fed will wake up tomorrow feeling sheepish: the dinner probably drained our guest’s energy more than the public talk. (Third-person pseudojournalistic mask aside, I’m talking about me here. I will feel guilty that we kept Susan up for so long.)

But in her company, it’s easy to lose track of the time. Conversation bounces around, from writing and reporting to raising children to raising chickens. Thousands of people must ask her about those chickens, but Susan Orlean really doesn’t seem to tire of the subject — or of anything.

She has worked on her Rin Tin Tin book, from which she read at the Friday night event, for seven years. She worked on her first book, about traveling the country in search of how people spend their Saturday nights, for five years. I read Saturday Night the same year, 1990, that I read several other works of creative nonfiction (before I understood what the term meant, only that it was precisely what I dreamed of someday doing, if only I could figure out how) that encompassed travel and quirky first-person reportage, including Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere and Coyotes, and John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Many things surprised me about Orlean’s talk, including the fact that she is one of the few writers who doesn’t fear or resent Twitter and blogging. (Every form, even the 140-character form, seems to challenge and charm her; she’s as willing to write short as she is to write long.) But what surprised me most was realizing what it really takes to get the stories she writes — and especially researches — alone. You can’t really get a good story if you’re accompanied by a friend our spouse, she seemed to be telling us. Those years of Saturday nights, spent in the company of strangers who were enjoying a social night out among friends, were for her solo adventures, and intense ones at that. It takes incredible energy to listen to people, to not judge, to not even take notes much of the time, as she revealed to the Crosscurrents talk audience.

Susan Orlean is the true immersion journalist, and her willingness to put up with a very slow downtown Anchorage dinner following a very long day of lecturing, answering questions, and chatting with fans demonstrated her capacities as a natural extrovert and an indefatigable observer. Many of us in the writing trade simply aren’t that way.

Turns out, John Steinbeck — to consider a man who also did what Orlean does, which is travel the country and try to get to know real people and write about them creatively but authentically — was quite a bit more defatigable. (Or fatigable. Yes, they’re both words.) Yesterday, and quite coincidentally, writer and friend Doug O’Harra sent me a link to a New York Times article about a writer who fact-checked Steinbeck’s classic Travels with Charley and found that the Nobel-winning author probably didn’t do much that he reported doing. Conversations seem invented. Steinbeck stayed in hotels, including fancy ones, more often than in his folksy camper. Despite the portrayal of the trip as a man’s journey of reflective solitude, he probably traveled with his wife Elaine far more than he admitted. One of the best of the article’s lines: “Even Steinbeck’s son John said he was convinced that his father never talked to many of the people he wrote about, and added, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”

I was surprised that the article never mentioned Steinbeck’s other famous travel narrative, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Written twenty years earlier, at another key turning point when Steinbeck was feeling tired of life and desperate to reconnect with a place and its people, it is also a hybrid of fact and fiction, masquerading as simple fact. My own 2002 travel narrative, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, was a retracing of that 1940 journey, as well as a fact-checking expedition, which convinced me how much of the Log represented not the ideas (sometimes, not even the words) of Steinbeck at all, but those of his friend, biologist Ed Ricketts. This commingling of two men’s ideas and creative selection or excision of certain trip details resulted in a masterful and eccentric narrative that remains one of my favorites. And yet, and yet: reading about the inventions in Charley, I did feel disappointed, especially because Steinbeck used the same insulting trick twice: he wrote out a wife. Just as Elaine evidently accompanied him for more of the Charley trip than we’d known, earlier wife Carol accompanied him for the Cortez trip. (They fought and the crew had trouble warming to her, but there is no question that she was an essential member of the expedition.)

That excision, though publicly known and written about, persists. A few years ago, another writer who planned to reenact the Steinbeck expedition contacted me and explained why his book would be different from mine, more authentic: I had taken my husband and kids. He wasn’t taking a wife. And that was more like the original 1940 journey, which had been more of a “guys’ fishing trip.” Except that it wasn’t. I reminded the writer — again — about Carol.

Steinbeck needed Elaine and needed Carol. He probably wasn’t as good about talking with strangers — at getting the pulse of a place — as we wanted him to be. It was easier for him to hole up somewhere and make things up, or use other people’s journals (like Ed’s) as source material. As a Steinbeck reader, I can live with that, but it makes me even more admiring of a writer like Susan Orlean: a woman who really has traveled alone, for years of Saturdays, into the hot swamps of Florida and more recently, all the way up to the cold streets of Anchorage. If you don’t do that footwork, don’t spend time alone among strangers, you just won’t get the same stories, she was telling us at her talk. But few of us are brave and indefatigable enough to take that advice.

1 thought on “Andromeda: Travels with Charley, John, and Susan — or, the indefatigable Orlean and the defatigable Steinbeck”

  1. Great post, Andromeda. I love Travels with Charlie so much I don't want to believe the news…plus I tend to discount any information received when the person under discussion is no longer around to defend him/herself. Good points about Orlean's work – I, too, was taken by her dedication to immersion research. Though I imagine she, too, has a behind-the-scenes support system.

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