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Susan Orlean Gets to Work with the Dead

The longtime New Yorker staff writer on how she’s holding up after enlisting to write a weekly obituary column for the magazine. “David Remnick really wanted me to do Betty White.”

Susan Orlean has been writing more steadily than ever since The New Yorker started publishing Afterword, her obituaries column, in November. “I am overwhelmed. A weekly deadline is really intense. You don’t realize how fast a week goes by until you’re doing a column,” she told The Fine Print. “The pace is very unrelenting. The minute you finish one, you get five minutes to sit on your laurels and think, ‘Wow, great, I got that one done, and I nailed it.’ And then boom, ‘What am I doing next?’ That is very, very intense.” The decision for Orlean, who has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1992, to pick up her pace at a publication where once upon a time a staff writer like Joseph Mitchell could peck away at a story for years without publishing anything, was not hers alone. “I didn’t really want to do a column,” she said. “My conversation with David [Remnick] was that he wanted me to be appearing more often. I said that I was happy to do it, and I wanted something that I didn’t have to invent from scratch each time.” A column was the obvious solution, but it was a scary proposition for Orlean, who’s always been allergic to settling into a beat. She brought the editor two ideas that were expansive enough that she would never have to repeat herself. The first was a regular letter from California, where she lives. The second was, as the text at the bottom of each column reads, “an obituary column that pays homage to people, places, and things we’ve lost.” An increased ambient awareness of death has pervaded the pandemic, but Orlean’s thoughts turned to the form after she lost someone in the summer of 2021. “I was waiting for his obituary, feeling that it was a kind of essential part of the process of seeing someone’s life in retrospect,” she said. “So when David said to me, ‘What do you think? Do you have any ideas for something you could do regularly?’ I instantly thought about obituaries. I’m a fan of obituaries. I read them all the time. I just think that they’re great windows into peoples’ lives.”

However, Orlean knew from the start the sort of obituaries she did not want to write: “I’d like to think that these don’t sound like they might have been in The New York Times. Those are meant to be cool and arm’s length — they’re meant to be very objective, cool, reportorial. The tone that I’ve tried to develop is a little more of a story that I’m telling you about this very interesting person or wolf or tree that is now gone from this world,” she said. “There aren’t any rules with an obituary, or certainly not when I’m doing them. There may be rules if you do obituaries for The New York Times. Luckily, that’s never been part of the program at The New Yorker.”

Even so, writing about the recently deceased was intimidating. “When I made the commitment to do the column, I started having dreams about it, because I was really nervous. I thought, ‘What am I doing? I don’t know how to write an obituary,’” she said. “The tone is sensitive and while you want to make them entertaining, you don’t want to diminish the idea that this is the end of someone’s life. So I got really nervous.” When she made her first call to a bereaved person for the column, to Harry Kokkinis, the president and general manager of Table Talk Pies and son of Mary Cocaine, her discomfort surged. “I thought, ‘This man just lost his mother,’” she recalled. “I was suddenly very, very conscious of the way reporting is always an intrusion, and, in this case, very much an intrusion at a sensitive moment.” They started off with mutual discomfort. Kokkinis wanted to know how she’d gotten his number. But as they got talking, Orlean began to understand that her call didn’t necessarily disrupt her interviewee’s grieving process. “He was thrilled to think that his mother was being recognized,” she said. “It occurred to me that as sensitive a moment as it is, there’s also something really satisfying to feel that someone you’re close to is being recognized in a larger format.”

Orlean’s most recent Afterword column, her tenth, was published on February 8. By now, she’s settled into a rhythm. She starts working on a new column on a Wednesday or Thursday, trying to gather as much reporting as she can as quickly as she can. She has to be sure from the start that a subject’s story will come together. “There’s no buffer built-in. If I start reporting one that kind of fizzles, I don’t have enough fat in the week to allow me to go, ‘Alright, this one isn’t working, so I’m going to pivot and find someone else.’ I don’t think I could do that. If I get the inkling that one might be a problem, I just drop it immediately because I just can’t risk it. I don’t have enough time,” she said. “In the beginning, I had had this fantasy that I’d write a bunch and have them banked for those possible log jams or times where one wasn’t working out, but I would have needed a runway of four or six weeks to write four or six to have in my back pocket. I certainly would love if I had one or two that were there as my safeties, but I just haven’t had that opportunity yet.” When she’s done with most of her reporting, she takes a day to let what she’s learned marinate before jumping into writing. “These are not long. They’re between 700 and 900 words, roughly,” she said. “In theory, it should be something you can write in a day if you catch the wave early on and are tonally solid because there’s enough information to impart that that alone fills up part of the obituary. But it’s really important to have it sorted out in your head before you start writing.” Generally, she files on Tuesdays, and then each column goes through editing, fact-checking, and a copy edit before it runs in the next issue.

The frequency of the column’s publication doesn’t demand long days and busy weeks without providing some consolations: The regularity has also proven to be paradoxically liberatory. “The continuity gives you a certain freedom. Your reader has pulled their chair up to your table and is listening to you tell stories about different people, places, and things that have left this world. It’s an ongoing conversation,” she said. “As a writer, I think your tone can be much more individual because you’re building on it week to week. People get used to the way you’re telling the story. If something appears very occasionally, it has to adhere to a kind of formality, especially an obituary. If we ran these once a month or once every two months, it would have to run as a more formal obituary.” It wasn’t until she turned away from people that she discovered the liberties temporal strictures could grant. “When I wrote my obituary for the tallest tree in New York State, I think probably because it wasn’t a person, though it was actually really sad, I felt like I could loosen up as a writer in a way that I hadn’t yet,” she said. “To me, writing is all about confidence, and that gave me a lot of confidence about how I could write these pieces.”

Mostly, Orlean has written about people and things that were gone before a lot of readers heard of them, but she made an exception for Betty White. “David Remnick really wanted me to do Betty White,” she said. “That was almost harder than writing about a Japanese doll-maker, who nobody’s heard of and there wasn’t some vast amount of coverage of her death. This was someone who was written about on the front page of the paper and every entertainment blog, and it was a little intimidating. And then I thought, well, it’s a good challenge. Can I possibly say something that hasn’t been said already a million times? I was actually very proud of it because I didn’t feel that it felt like I was rehashing what was in every single one of the other stories about her. It really just involved a little bit of a different attitude and looking a little differently. And some of what I found, I found absolutely amazing. I mean, who would have thought she was a friend of John Steinbeck?” The Betty White column is also a bit of an outlier because it’s the only time Orlean’s brought her own experience into the column on the surface. “I think when someone is as well known as she was, their death is something experienced by lots of people who have some sort of ownership and feel a certain amount of grief, even though they don’t know her,” she said. “The other ones, I feel like they reflect a discovery of a person, rather than a sense of loss of the person.”

Orlean’s contract is for 47 columns in a year. “It had built in some off weeks,” she said. “I haven’t taken one yet, except for the week over the holidays where basically everybody took the week off, but I definitely will need it. And also, I need that for the week where one just doesn’t work.” It’s the least relaxed contract she’s had with The New Yorker since at least the Tina Brown era when she gave up the traditional staff writer contract, which stipulated a set word count. (New Yorker staff writers are traditionally freelancers.) “You agreed to an annual word count in the beginning of the year, and then you had to write your way to that word count,” she said. “In the olden days, everybody was very forgiving and said, ‘Oh, gosh, you know, alright, you didn’t write as many words, but you wrote good ones, and you kept this one short at our request, and let’s just call it even.’ Then there was a big change, and it was no longer ‘let’s call it even.’ It was you still owe us 8,000 words, so keep going and we’ll start your new contract in February or March or whenever you get done with those additional words.”

Orlean’s current staff writer contract sets a word rate, and she just gets paid when she writes. She’s well aware that the ability to give up the stability of a monthly paycheck was a privilege, but she was making money off her books, optioning film rights, and taking on speaking engagements. “Before I had gotten to that point, I really liked getting a monthly paycheck, believe me,” she said. “Some people, they prefer that. They just would rather say, ‘I’m going to do four pieces a year, I’m going to get X amount of money, and you’re going to pay it to me in monthly chunks, and then I know that I’ve got my rent covered and my health insurance covered.’ So yeah, it was a big leap, but it was the right one for me. I was feeling the pressure as the year would be drawing to a close, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have to write 16,000 more words.’ I didn’t like that feeling.”

Now Orlean is trying to balance the contract for the column with work on a memoir she owes her publishers. “Probably my biggest challenge is to figure out how I’m going to get the concentrated time to work on the book because really the obituary column is full time,” she said. “I’ve put it on hold for the moment, conceptually, because I can’t figure it out. So I’m just being very Scarlett O’Hara and saying, ‘Well, I’m just not going to think about it right now.’” She knows that someday when her book deadline creeps up, she’ll have to think about it. “Certainly, it will be an issue. I’m going to have to get it done. And I want to get it done, obviously,” she said. “What that’s going to mean for the column, I haven’t figured out yet.”