How far would you go for a story?: A Guest Post by Karen Benning

On Friday April 1, New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean joins Julia O’Malley in a literary conversation, “To Tell the Truth: Writing People and Place.” The second in our CROSSCURRENTS series, the onstage discussion will be at 7 pm in the Anchorage Museum at Rasumson Auditorium, followed by a book signing. The event is free to 49 Writers members and Anchorage Museum members; for others, a $5 donation is suggested.  Many thanks to our event co-sponsors:  the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Bookstore, the Alaska Travel Industry Association, and the Copper Whale Inn.

Orlean is in Anchorage to keynote the Alaska Press Club Conference. All workshops are open to the public for a $15 per workshop drop-in fee. Kim Severson’s food writing and feature writing workshops might be of particular interest to our readers

An unabashed fan of Orlean’s work, local writer Karen Benning is our volunteer coordinator for this event. She is also one of the Directors on the 49 Writers Board.

Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I have a theory that most people, faced with a man who had run-ins with the law, was missing his front teeth, and said things to a judge like, “Frankly, your honor, I’m probably the smartest person I know,” might not go out of their way to spend time with said man. Maybe they would cross the street to avoid him. Most people would not travel across several states to track him down and then decide to spend two years of their lives hanging out with him. But that’s the kind of decision that sets Susan Orlean apart from most people, and even most writers.

Orlean saw in John Laroche, a dreamer with schemes of huge proportions and low returns, a great story. She was right. The Orchid Thief is a strange and often surreal, yet true story. In it, Orlean ventures into an entire subculture dedicated to, of all things, a type of flower.

Early in The Orchid Thief, Orlean writes, “I wanted to want something as much as these people wanted these plants, but it isn’t part of my constitution…. I suppose I do have one unembarrassing passion – I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.” One only has to follow her into Florida’s alligator-infested swamps or along on a trip in John Laroche’s van (“I kept my eyes glued to the road because I thought it would be best if at least one of us did”) to deduce that Orlean must care about at least one thing passionately: stories of real places and real people, but more than that, the deeper stories most of us miss. Orlean always manages to find, in the many pieces she has written for The New Yorker and other national publications, the strange in the mundane, the unique story underneath the everyday life.

Her collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup illustrates part of what makes Susan Orlean a great nonfiction writer: her ability to reveal the multi-layered aspects of a fellow human, including the less likeable characteristics, without ever coming off as judgmental or poking fun. Reading her profiles, you can get with the sense that if Susan Orlean were to call you a loser, you’d probably smile, thank her, and come away feeling like she had paid you a compliment.

In one piece in Bullfighter, a mini-profile called “Nonstop” about Peter Benfaremo, the self-proclaimed Lemon Ice King of Corona, she finds a way to convey the kind of personality who never lets you get a word in edgewise. She does this by removing the narrator’s voice completely. The entire piece is in the subject’s directly quoted words, taking “Show, don’t tell” to an entirely new level for nonfiction. The effect is stunning. It is as if she has eliminated the need for a narrator by crawling inside the mind of her subject.

Which brings me back to The Orchid Thief. Often, it does feel like the reader is being taken along for a weird ride in John Laroche’s obsessed, quirky, yet oddly fascinating brain. It took a commitment of two years hanging out with Laroche to fully develop that story, which, as it turns out, is so much more than a tale of flowers and the people who love them. Perhaps nothing says it better than the book’s subtitle: “A Tale of Beauty and Obsession.” And who better to dig into the subject of obsession than a writer?

4 thoughts on “How far would you go for a story?: A Guest Post by Karen Benning”

  1. Hi Anon,

    We are hoping to get this recorded; I'm working right now with some tech-savvy folks to see if we can make it happen. Thanks for asking!

  2. Thanks, Karen
    I will be calling all angels (or whatever your equivalent is, for it to happen.)
    I am a mega fan of Susan Orlean.
    Best wishes for the evening of April 1st.

  3. I LOVE SL but don't think I can make it up from Seward. If you do record it, will it be available on DVD?
    Thanks so much,
    P.S. Karen–how in the heck are you?

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