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.