Susan Orlean stood in a crowd facing the Los Angeles Central Library. We were supposed to meet in the rare books room, but as I was setting up and Orlean was arriving from her son’s dentist appointment, somebody pulled the fire alarm. At the LA Central branch, fire alarms trigger deep memory. On April 29, 1986, this dignified and eccentric building in the center of downtown burned for over seven hours. Four hundred thousand books were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands more were damaged, by the fire and by the water used to fight it. Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend and a New Yorker staff writer since 1992, learned about the fire when a librarian lifted a book to his nose, inhaled, and said, “You can still smell the smoke in some of them.” Then she found Harry Peak, the “ditzy” out-of-work actor who confessed to some friends that he had started the fire. His story, and that of the 1986 fire—the largest library fire in American history—makes up one of the central threads in Orlean’s newest work, The Library Book.
Orlean had already been interested in how modern libraries function, with their complex networks of departments and branches, but the 1986 fire gave her book a center. From that year, she moved forward into the present day, and back to the nineteenth-century origins of the LA Public Library, providing an alternative history of a city known more for movies than for books. The library also became a portal into Orlean’s personal history. The book is dedicated to her son—her future—and to her mother—her past—who first brought Orlean to the Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library, outside Cleveland, when Orlean was a young girl, and who died during the writing of this book.
After a few minutes out in the sun, Orlean and I decided to cross West Fifth Street to a Starbucks. It was Yom Kippur, and Orlean was, as she later tweeted, “fasting except for coffee. I know that’s technically cheating but believe me you would not want me without coffee.” By the time we got our drinks and settled into a spot in the Starbucks courtyard, the fire department had arrived, and a PR person from the library texted that it was safe to reenter the building. This interview was conducted in the rare books room, with a brief follow-up over email.
A very eventful way to begin an interview.
If one knows you only through your writing, it seems like this kind of thing happens to you all the time.
I feel it a lot where I think, Whoa, how auspicious. This is amazing. Do you know that E. B. White quote, something like, “You have to be prepared to be lucky”? I think that writers have to be hyperattuned to eventfulness, and notice it more, and make something of it.
It also feels as though you have a sense that, no matter the subject, if you dig a little, there’s going to be an interesting history behind it.
Right. Before I knew about the fire, I had been sort of toying with the idea of writing a book about libraries. My guess is that there would have been something interesting in the history of whatever library I chose. This was especially dramatic. It’s not just that there was a fire, it was the biggest fire. In addition, the backstory was unusually interesting, and that’s partly because of the nature of California. I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve written two books now that are set primarily in California, and one book that was set in Florida. These are places where people go to reinvent themselves.
When you discovered Harry Peak, did he remind you of John Laroche, from The Orchid Thief? Or Lee Duncan, from Rin Tin Tin?
Yeah. He’s a fabulist. He’s an inventor of self. There’s a genre of people that are yarn spinners about who they are and what their world is, and he falls into that very neatly. In his case, I think he blundered more. Laroche had a little more savvy about taking care of himself. Harry was a lot more vulnerable and got himself in bigger trouble. But I guess I’m fascinated by people who create their persona, and who write their stories in living color.
Do you relate to that instinct, to spin yarns and make your own identity?
I think that while I don’t make an identity for myself that’s grander and more dramatic than reality, the desire to write your story is a pretty human impulse. Writing about Harry, I’m sort of wagging my finger, Oh, he wanted attention, and he wanted to be at the center of big events, and I think, Well, okay, who else does that? Hmm.
What did you think when you found out he had died in 1991? He didn’t write a memoir. As a writer, did you fear for the project?
I was shocked, because he wasn’t very old. My first thought was, That’s a huge obstacle to writing the book. I would have loved to have met him and heard his version of the story, but the thing about nonfiction is, you’re handed a set of puzzle pieces, and that’s reality. Sadly, he came of age as a gay man at a moment when AIDS was an absolute death sentence. That he died of AIDS, when you look at the time line of when he lived, makes sense. But on a human level, it was kind of awful.
Did you feel, as you were writing, that you had to solve the case of how the fire started?
There was a moment when not being able to solve it or come to a conclusion worried me—and then suddenly it felt completely natural. Life is full of uncertainty. The purpose of the book was not singularly to resolve the question of who set the fire but to examine everything surrounding this incident three-dimensionally. This isn’t unlike being asked whether it ruined The Orchid Thief that I never saw a ghost orchid. It was sort of the same thing, where I thought, Well, that was never really what it was about. It was about the pursuit, and not seeing it almost seemed more appropriate than seeing it.
Harry’s sister said that he was grinning when he came out of jail, and that made him look guilty. It reminded me of the Amanda Knox case. She was making out with her boyfriend right outside the crime scene, as the body was being discovered by the police, and this played a big part in her trial. We take people’s reactions as proof.
Harry was a guy who sees a camera, he sees ten photographers, and he can’t help but give his best side and his best smile, instead of being a little bit more canny and thinking he should look as if he’s suffered in jail. He just didn’t get it. And yet that guilelessness is what made him not an evil person but someone you wanted to take under your arm. You wanted to say, Harry, let me tell you a little bit about the way the world works. Play the part of being the wronged person, as opposed to looking handsome.
Is there an element of performance in getting people to open up and tell you their stories?
Reporting is performance in the sense that you have to be able to read the room. You have to bridge the difference between you and the person you’re interviewing so they’re not overly distracted by the perception of you being a stranger, being a reporter, being the person with the power in the dynamic. You have to make yourself quiet and small, in a sense. And receptive. I think people have an extremely finely tuned sense of whether you’re just checking a box or really listening. I had no idea what Harry’s sister was going to say. I was completely fascinated. And I’m not judgmental. Whatever she had to say was valuable to me. The performance part of it is that it’s not enough just to be open, you have to make sure that they feel that you’re open. You have to have genuine interest.
When reporting, you’ve gotten to know people in all these different communities. Are past subjects constantly reaching out to you?
When you’re working on a book, or even a piece for a magazine, there’s an intense connection. It may be brief, but it’s deep. But I think people generally understand on a very elemental level that a relationship with a reporter is real but circumstantial. I have very warm feelings toward all the people I’ve written about, and I’m often curious about what’s become of them, but it’s rare that they misperceive. Now, it’ll be different with the library, because I have more in common with the people who work in the library than I had with people I’ve written about in other stories, and I’m more likely to see them. I think for the first time it feels to me like, wow, I’ve written about a lot of stuff. Not that I feel that I’m so super antiquated, it’s just that I’ve been writing for a long time, and I never write about the same thing twice. Unlike somebody who covers a beat, where they may keep going back to the same people, I go from one sort of silo to another. So I know people who invent umbrellas, I know people who are origami masters, and I know librarians, and I know orchid thieves.
Did you write this book at your treadmill desk? How many steps do you rack up on a book like this?
I did work on my treadmill for most of the book. I walked around six thousand steps on a typical day. Times five days a week. Times two and a half years … I’ll leave the math to you!
That comes to 3.9 million steps. Wow. Were there specific books on your desk while you were writing that you turned to as models, or for inspiration?
I always have a certain pile of books that never changes. I have to replace all of them at some point because they’ve gotten completely decrepit. Joan Didion, The White Album. Ian Frazier, Great Plains. Giving Good Weight, John McPhee. And then two collections, one called The Literary Journalist, one called Literary Journalism. I wanted to find a book that could be my structural model, and I didn’t find one. Certainly Great Plains moves between history and present day a lot, and I would look at that often, but there was nothing that had these three time lines, of deep history, then an event in 1986, then the present day. I didn’t find anything.
How did you come to that structure?
From the beginning, I knew I couldn’t tell the story of the fire without telling the history of the library. In 1986, the library was in great flux, and it wouldn’t make sense to tell you that it was embattled and decrepit unless I told you the history first. Plus the history was so interesting. And then I thought, there’s this third story to tell: What’s the day-to-day life of a big-city library? I knew a strictly chronological time line was never an option. That would be a buzzkill, the first line of the book being, “In 1886, a group of people in LA …” I worried about braiding, which was really what I ended up doing. But I thought, let me just try it and let me see whether you can follow each time line independently, and they can illuminate one another. I had a giant board and I pinned up my note cards—the big index cards that are, I think, five by seven—with this proposed structure of moving among the three different time lines, and suddenly it felt very natural. As long as each thread in and of itself had integrity and was clear, you could move among them. This is probably the most complexly structured book that I’ve done. It’s interesting: I read a lot of books where the time frames are fractured. I think that the writer has to have a very firm hand on your back, saying, Okay, now come here with me. And now, Okay, let’s go back here to Charles Lummis, and, Oh, you know, let’s take a little break here and go visit an abandoned library. I think the writer has to feel very much in control. It’s a matter of confidence, to think, Okay, yeah, I’m in charge. I’m the tour guide.
One thing that I thought was very moving is the library fire as a metaphor for dementia, and the fact that your mother suffered from that disease and passed away while you were writing the book.
When I came across the Senegalese idiom, that when someone dies, their library burns down, I put it into my phone. I would look at it all the time, because I thought, The analogue of a brain and a library is precise, it’s exact. Libraries are our collective brain. I really saw that with my mom, losing these volumes of stories, losing the organization of that information. I would have loved for her to have seen this book come out. Losing her was like a slow-motion loss, which was very painful. I remember thinking that it would be unimaginable that your parent wouldn’t recognize you. When it happens, you feel like the unimaginable has happened. And even though, if she were still alive, showing her the book wouldn’t have meant what it would have meant previously, I wanted her to see it, and hold it.
Jews are called “people of the book.” Today is, coincidentally, Yom Kippur, and the saying associated with the holiday is “May you be sealed in the book of life.” Did you feel a particular connection to your own Judaism, writing this book about books, and books being burned?
I thought this was a very Jewish book, actually. Jews fetishize books in a way that I find kind of adorable. I mean, you’re not allowed to have any sort of images of god, and yet you take a Torah and you put on the most beautiful kind of silver cladding, and you kiss it, and if it is worn out, you make a casket, and you bury it and have a funeral. I didn’t feel that I needed to hit you over the head with that, but I do feel like some of my feelings about books probably comes out of a culture in which books are considered precious. It’s part of this idea of books having a soul. And I don’t think that’s peculiar to Jews, but I do think it’s particularly acutely felt by Jews. When you look at the long history of book burnings, that sadly illustrates how all people acknowledge that books are something special. I love that Milton quote, that a book has the “potency of life.” I’m not somebody who thinks of myself as being super spiritual or supernaturally minded in any way, but it was weird to burn a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451. I could go buy another one in one second, but it still felt like such a taboo that I really had trouble doing it. The technology of books has changed so much. They’re not a laborious work that requires somebody hand-setting type and printing—it isn’t related to that at all. I don’t think that we see it as any less disturbing to burn a book even when they’re easy to produce.
When I read your descriptions of the books burning, they’re so vivid and sensual. You sound almost like a pyromaniac.
Well, I mean, fire is beautiful. And it’s weirdly animate. I wrote the description of the fire here, as if it were an animal prowling the building. The way it consumed so much, it was almost as if it was the voracious creature, kind of stalking through the building and fighting actively against the effort to control it. It was a lot of fun to write those descriptions, I have to admit. But I’m not a pyromaniac. Though I do like a nice fireplace.
Brent Katz is a writer and musician. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and other publications.
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