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New York Is Dead, but Flowers Are Forever: An Interview with Writer Susan Orlean

Mar 22 2016 4:45 PM
New York Is Dead, but Flowers Are Forever: An Interview with Writer Susan Orlean

Photo by Noah Fecks

To mark the publication of her collaboration with the artist Philip Taaffe, "The Floral Ghost," we talked to the award-winning nonfiction writer about New York's disappearing Flower District, gentrification, and whether the city that never sleeps has gone dark for young writers.

A staff writer at the New Yorker since 1992, Susan Orlean is known for her deep, fascinating investigations on everything from how people across the United States spend their Saturday nights to the German shepherd celebrity Rin Tin Tin to south Florida orchid thieves. Perhaps best known for her work on this last topic, the basis for her 1994 book The Orchid Thief (which was eventually adapted for a film in which Meryl Streep plays a version of the writer), Orlean has turned her attention to flowers again this week with the publication of The Floral Ghost, a collaborative book illustrated by the artist Philip Taaffe. A reflection on Orlean's first experience of New York's now-disappearing Flower District, the short, poetic essay is structured like a children's book—a form in which Orlean has also dabbled—as it guides the reader through Taaffe's dreamy floral monotypes. Although Orlean held her launch party for The Orchid Thief in a shop in the area, Orlean's memories of the Flower District are intertwined with her first weeks in the city years before. Like so many young writers, Orlean moved to Manhattan as a "callow girl hoping to make something" of herself, and her piece goes beyond her initial wonder at the idea of "a district of flowers" to wax nostalgic, but never sentimental, about a part of New York that many young writers today will never get to experience. The occasion for The Floral Ghost's publication is, after all, melancholic: The essay was originally part of a 2014 show at the Planthouse Gallery, commissioned because they had been priced out of their space.

We spoke with Orlean over the phone—she was in her car on the 101 in Los Angeles, where she now lives for most of the year—about how she got involved in the project, whether New York is a bad place for a young writer these days, and the ephemeral yet enduring appeal of flowers, which my boyfriend just doesn't understand.

All artwork by Philip Taaffe. Courtesy Planthouse Gallery

BROADLY: Your essay is kind of about New York's past, and many people would say New York's future is Los Angeles. Would you agree?
Susan Orlean: I thought it was so appropriate to talk to you while driving—it's very much a Los Angeles experience. There is a quality of Los Angeles that reminds me of the New York that I remember most fondly—it's a little grittier and a little less homogenous, and everywhere you go there's some odd little business and some funny little district of some sort or another. New York has become so expensive that that kind of quality is not as present anymore.

I've only lived here for a year and a half, and it kind of feels like I've "missed it." Do you think that young people today have "missed it," or does every generation believe they just missed the great heyday of the city?
I think that New York is built a great deal on the nostalgia of the period that [one] just narrowly missed, and I think that's what attracts people to coming there—the mythic notion of what New York has been. I hesitate to say, "Oh, it used to be great, and now it's not good anymore," but I think that there's no question that it has become a city defined in part by how expensive it is, and expensive cities become less diverse and less interesting, because the interesting stuff tends to be the stuff around the margins.

And I think that if everyone works all day—and then is really tired from being at work all day—it's really difficult to have a vibrant culture.
Yeah, and in LA it seems like no one actually works. It's kind of hard when the weather's so beautiful and so many people here work from project to project so they don't go to an office and they don't punch a clock. I mean I'm being very broad here, because obviously there are tons of people who have routine jobs, but I think that with New York being a financial capital, you've got a huge amount of people who report to a desk early in the morning and stay there until the end of the day.

Do you think New York can be beneficial for a young writer today?
I think it always will be because of all the great publications that are based there. But I worry that the pressure of the cost of living makes it a lot harder to come there with a dream and a dollar and be able to support yourself just by writing and not having to take up a bunch of other jobs. I've always felt that writing or art is something that, at some point in your life, has to be the only thing you do, or it will be really hard to make it sink in for real. If you're just doing it in the late evening after you've come home from your job, certainly there are examples of people who make it happen, but it's very hard to do that.

You never did anything else, right?
Yeah, I was always just working as a writer, and I feel really lucky that when I first got out of college and was earning so little, I wasn't living in New York; even then, when it was a lot cheaper than it is now, it was still too expensive for somebody who was just earning a couple of bucks.

In The Floral Ghost, you characterize yourself as pretty inexperienced and write that you came to New York with a dream of "making something" of yourself, but you'd been a writer for awhile before you moved to Manhattan, right?
Yes, I had, and I'd been working as a writer for about eight years, but New York has a way of humbling anybody. Even though I had a fair amount of experience, it was still a whole different thing to come to New York, the city of literary giants, and feel very small. Also, just the fact of living in a city like New York—it's just such a different place to live and a different way to live. No matter how sophisticated and smart you think you are, no matter how worldly you think you are, it's a big surprise to get to this very different city.

Did you have journalists or other writers who you looked up to, or who you were trying to model your career off of? Did you set your sights on the New Yorker?
Oh yeah, very much. My dream, like so many people's dreams, was that I would somehow land at the New Yorker. There was a cohort of writers at the New Yorker who were maybe five to ten years older than me, so I could dream into their shoes more easily than I could dream into, say, John McPhee's. They were actually really great. They took me under their wing and were really important mentors—Mark Singer and Alec Wilkinson in particular. I also had an amazing editor who was very kind and didn't find my ignorance too appalling.

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How do you feel about being edited?
I like being edited. I feel like, wow, what a treat to have a smart person make my work better. I've had great editors, so I'm lucky—I think if you had bad editors who were ruining your stories it would be terrible, but I also think a lot of people need more humility than they have. Of course, my first reaction is how dare you? but then I kind of gather my ego and put it in its appropriate place.

How did you get involved with the Floral Ghost project?
It was kind of a wonderful surprise because it was so organic and unexpected. I got contacted by a friend who said that she was putting together a group show at her gallery [Planthouse Gallery]; they were being displaced from their space in the Flower District as it was gentrifying, and she wanted to do a group show that was sort of a look back at this neighborhood. She asked me if I would write an essay, and it happened to have a lot of resonance for me because I don't live in New York anymore, because I felt this sentiment about the way the city had been when I lived there.

It's fun to do a book that's really different in terms of how it's perceived than what I've done in the past. It wasn't meant to be a history of the Flower District as much as it was about the emotion of seeing this extraordinary place. As a newcomer to New York, it so surprised me that it even existed. And then there was this sort of melancholy that [the place] was disappearing, much as it was my own reflection on the idea that I've left New York as well.

In New York, from my limited historical understanding, it seems like there used to be this culture of getting flowers, and having nice flowers in your apartment, and having flowers as a casual presence in your life. But now that has really shifted to aggressive plant trends, like houseplants. Are you aware of this? Do you have any opinion on the rise of the houseplant?
That's funny, because when I was in college and after college, I had a million houseplants. When I moved east, it was like I was done. First of all, it was a pain to move them. I really had a lot of houseplants, and they were big and involved a lot of work. I didn't move them to Boston when I moved to the East Coast for the first time, and I found it really liberating. I also think it was the first time when buying cut flowers didn't feel too decadent; the cost of cut flowers started to come down. I started shopping at Trader Joe's, and they had these beautiful bouquets for five dollars. When I was a kid, cut flowers were a super luxury and indulgence—not something you would just buy everyday. Coming to New York and seeing cut flowers on every corner... also, I think [cut flowers are] prettier than houseplants. Buying flowers was such a pleasure—it felt luxurious. To me, buying cut flowers feels like buying perfume. Part of what I love is that it's evanescent; you're simply getting a beautiful thing that you will enjoy and then it will be gone. In a way, part of what makes flowers so appealing to us is the fact that they are not here forever.

I do not know about a trend for having houseplants—that's kind of interesting. A friend who lives in New York recently emailed me and said, "I just bought a hundred little plants!" I thought she was totally out of her mind. It's very different in LA; the quality of wanting greenery in your home in New York had to do with being in a place where no one had a backyard and the weather was chilly. Here it almost seems like, why would you have houseplants? You have a yard.

Having something growing in your living space is fantastic, though; I totally understand it. When I buy an orchid plant and then it stops flowering, I kind of hate the fact that I feel guilty throwing it out, but I also don't feel like I gotta take care of this plant forever and hope that it will bloom again. I'm happier having a cut flower that I can be done with when I'm done with it, but I think there's something really irreplaceable about having a living thing and having some sort of greenery.

Did you start buying orchids after you wrote The Orchid Thief?
It's funny because I never liked orchids, never had orchids, thought they were kind of weird. For a couple years of seeing the most amazing, beautiful orchids in the world, of course there were times where I started to really appreciate them. I'm slightly ashamed, but I think it's inevitable that you grow to appreciate something you spent a lot of time writing about. You sort of understand it in a different way, and I'm glad of that. It's been a treat, really.

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