Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, got her start in journalism in 1979 at Willamette Week in Portland.
“The first place you live after college has a very meaningful place in your personal history,” she said.
(If you’re wondering, Orlean didn’t venture into Vancouver back then. “It felt like a whole other world to me,” she said. “I had my hands full exploring Portland.”)
From Portland, she moved to Boston and then New York City. She went on to write for Outside, Esquire, Rolling Stone and Vogue.
A New Yorker story she wrote about the 1994 arrest of a horticulturist for taking a rare orchid from a Florida swamp evolved into “The Orchid Thief,” published in 1998. The book inspired the Academy Award-winning film “Adaptation,” starring Meryl Streep.
Orlean’s other books include “On Animals,” “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” and “Saturday Night.”
“Each came from a very strong personal desire to explore a world or answer a question. Each one had certain things that were incredibly hard and satisfying,” she said. “I think that it’s a little bit of a contrarian streak of mine to enjoy the idea of surprising people, knowing that they are maybe going to look up and say, ‘I had no idea I would read a whole book on orchids.’ ”
After her family moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and she took her son to the library there, she was reminded of how much libraries mean to her.
“When we stepped in, the thunderbolt of recognition struck me so hard that it made me gasp,” she wrote in “The Library Book.” She was whisked back to the days when her mother took her to the library in their neighborhood outside Cleveland.
“Nothing had changed — there was the tsk-tsk-tsk of pencil on paper, and the muffled murmuring of patrons at tables in the center of the room, and the creak and groans of book carts, and the occasional papery clunk of a book dropped on a desk,” she wrote.
Before she learned about the fire at Los Angeles’ Central Library, which destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more, Orlean had been thinking she was done with writing books.
“I knew part of what hooked me had been the shock of familiarity I felt when I took my son to our local library — the way it telegraphed my childhood,” she wrote. “It was wonderful and it was bittersweet, because just as I was rediscovering these memories, my mother was losing all of hers.”
Orlean spent five years reporting before she started writing “The Library Book.”
“I need to learn the whole story backward and forward before I feel ready to write,” Orlean said.
Part of that reporting included setting fire to a book.
She couldn’t choose anything off her own shelves to burn, so her husband gave her a new copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” which she found fitting. The 1953 novel, set in a dystopian society where books are illegal, is named for the temperature at which paper burns.
Burning a book wasn’t the wildest thing Orlean has done in the course of research.
That honor goes to “walking waist deep in a swamp full of unknowns that had the possibility of containing crocodiles and alligators and poison snakes” for “The Orchid Thief,” Orlean said.
“When I went back a year or two later to show a friend, he literally did not believe me. In a way, I didn’t believe myself. Now as a civilian, I would never volunteer to do that,” she said. “You override certain fears and qualms when reporting. Then when you’re back to normal life, you can’t believe you did it.”
Orlean said she’s currently working on a memoir of her career.
“It’s very challenging to write about myself,” she said. “The funny thing is that I’m much better at arguing why writing a book about a library is more interesting.”