Susan Orlean’s nonfiction best seller, The Library Book, on one level is about the massive fi re at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 and the mystery surrounding who started it. More than 400,000 volumes were destroyed and another 700,000 damaged. Authorities later arrested 28-year-old Harry Peak on suspicion of arson. Peak was eventually released after the district attorney’s office declined to file charges against him.
On another level, the book is a tribute to Orlean’s mother and, on yet another level, an homage to all libraries. “I love hearing how much people love libraries,” Orlean says. It gives me great hope for the future of humankind.”
Orlean was born in Cleveland, grew up in Shaker Heights, and graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1973, where she was editor-in-chief of the school’s yearbook, The Gristmill. Orlean went on to graduate with honors from the University of Michigan in 1976. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992.
Orlean is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film, “Adaptation.” She lives with her family in upstate New York.
The Library Book was applauded by critics when it debuted in October 2018, hitting the best-seller list shortly thereafter. Shaker Library and the Shaker Schools Foundation will sponsor the author’s visit to Shaker Heights on Tuesday, October 15 at 7 pm at Shaker Middle School, where Orlean will speak and sign copies of her books. Tickets are free; however, registration at shakerlibrary.org is required. Margaret Simon, public relations manager for the Library, interviewed Orlean shortly before her visit.
We were thrilled to read in The New York Times last year that the Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Library remains your favorite library. Can you share any particular memory?
All of my many visits blur together as one big memory of the experience of being at the library – that feeling of anticipation and excitement and possibility. I also remember the first time the children’s librarian realized I was able to look at books that were more “adult.” I’ll never forget her walking me over to pick a book off those shelves. It felt momentous!
How did your Shaker upbringing help to form you as a writer? Did certain teachers or classes inspire your writing?
I had incredible teachers at the Shaker schools, and I credit them with encouraging me to write and making me feel the magic of words. Ms. Buehler and Mr. Heaps, who I had for English in high school, were my greatest teachers and inspirations.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
From the time I could read I knew I wanted to write.
How did you prepare to write The Library Book? When did you first learn about the fire and how did you research it?
I prepared by talking to as many staff members as I could, including a score of retired librarians, and reading everything I could find about the library – its history, the reporting about the fire, the quest to reopen the library. I had first learned about the fire when I was being given a tour of Central Library, and the person giving me the tour mentioned it casually. I immediately seized on it – who wouldn’t? – and wanted to know everything about the fire, about how and why it happened.
Did you start with a focus on the library and then discover the characters, or did you intend to write about the characters from the start? I always knew that the heart of the story was the people. I couldn’t imagine writing about a library without making it a story about people.
Did you intend to include the personal touch about your mother at the start or did that evolve?
My childhood memories were central to my interest in writing the book. But I never imagined that the book would end up being so much of a meditation on my mother – it simply evolved that way. And when my mother developed dementia and began losing her memory, it became even more connected to the story I was telling. It was very emotional to write that part of the book, but it also was an essential element of why I was drawn to this story.
You don’t draw a conclusion on who started the fire. Why is that?
I didn’t draw a conclusion because I couldn’t reach one. I remain absolutely torn on the question of whether Harry started the fire or not.
Can you talk about community and the role the library plays in it?
Libraries are the heart of our communities – they’re the centers of information and knowledge and stories, so they’re both actually and symbolically the key to who we are and what we know. While we can access information in many ways these days, libraries remain vital and meaningful places where we can gather and share and learn together.
What is the significance of the book titles and library catalog information at the beginning of each chapter? How did you select the titles?
The book titles are meant to foreshadow the contents of the chapters. Sometimes the connection is very obvious and sometimes it’s more subtle. They’re all books that are currently in the collection of the Los Angeles library. I chose them to give readers a bit of the experience of browsing through the catalog before they land in the chapter.
Your description of how the fire traveled reads as if you were there. How did you manage that amount of detail and who kept those records?
I interviewed many firefighters who were at the library the day of the fire, and asked them detailed questions about the experience. I also got lucky and found the logbook that the fire department kept of the event, which detailed minute by minute what happened. Combined with newspaper accounts of that day, I was able to craft that description.
What writers have influenced your writing?
John McPhee, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, and countless others.
How is your writing day structured? Do you have any writing rituals or quirks?
I try to sit down by 10 am to start writing, and I have a daily quota of 1,000 words that I try very hard to reach. Sometimes that comes fairly quickly and other times it takes forever. I like to write in a quiet space – no music, no background noise – but otherwise I’m pretty flexible.
What is one of your biggest challenges as a writer?
Reaching those 1,000 words every day.
What are you reading now?
I just started Kate Atkinson’s new book, Big Sky, and when I finish that, I’m going to read Vivian Gornick’s book Fierce Attachments.
What’s your preference: books, audiobooks, or ebooks?
I prefer a gorgeous hardcover book to anything, but I use ebooks when I’m traveling for the sake of convenience.
We know you were a card carrying member of the Shaker Library. What library card does your son carry?
He has a library card from his school and a Los Angeles Public Library card.
Originally published in Shaker Life, Fall 2019.