Author, New Yorker writer, and Pine Plains resident Susan Orlean has made a career out of chronicling other people’s obsessions (most notably the passionate work of orchid fanatics, which she describes in The Orchid Thief). For her latest book, she tackles one of her own. In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend — out this month from Simon & Schuster — she tells the story of a German shepherd rescued from an abandoned World War I encampment, who found fame as a silent-film star and begat a television show — as well as a line of real-life descendants that continues today with Rin Tin Tin XI. Here, from her impressive home — which she shares with her husband and son — Orlean chats about Rinty and her own motley collection of animals.
In the book, you write about your grandfather’s Rin Tin Tin figurine, which you prized as a kid. When did the idea attract your attention as a writer?
I use a very selfish method for choosing subjects: I love to write about things that I am myself curious about. I came across the name Rin Tin Tin while doing another story about animals in Hollywood. I started reading about him, and I came across this mention that he had been real; that he had been a silent film star found in the war. And I thought, you’re kidding! It’s very rare to find something that’s both extremely familiar and has in it a great mystery and surprise. That, for a writer, is very enticing.
Throughout the book, you give a running history of Americans’ relationship with dogs over the course of the century. One fact that shocked me is that people donated their dogs to the military during World War II. And they would get them back after the war!
It’s funny, because I can project onto my own dog, and think, “I would send her to Afghanistan? Are you kidding?” But people did it. It’s just a way of relating to the war effort that has never existed in my time.
Now, considering how much this country loves dogs, combined with the fact the Kardashian sisters have something like four of their own shows…
My next book is about the Kardashians, by the way.
I’m kidding. I think I’d kill myself.
Anyway, there’s this hunger for reality television and celebrity. Yet there aren’t really any celebrity dogs on the level of Rin Tin Tin in the 1920s. Do you think a real dog could be a celebrity again?
I just don’t think our suspension of belief can be what it was. I think we are still able to regard them with awe. But the world has changed. Our reaction to what happens in entertainment is different, because you know that it doesn’t need to be real. Back then, it had to be real. There was nothing that you could have the dog do that he couldn’t really do.
You spent years researching these dogs and their owner. Did it change the way you look at Ivy, your own dog?
Only in that I briefly looked at both Ivy and the dog we had before Ivy and thought, “Gee, they could be in movies. That’s a really good-looking dog.”
It’s funny, I thought the same thing about my dog when I was reading the book.
It’s terrible! There was one really funny section that I didn’t end up putting in the book because it just didn’t fit, about how there are still tons of people who want to get their dog in movies. People feel very comfortable being very vain about their pet, more than their kid.
You write quite a bit on your New Yorker blog about all of the animals you have. A dog, cats, turkeys, 12 cattle…
13 cattle! And one fish. There was this long stretch where two of the cats didn’t like each other, so it was like living in Baghdad. There’d be mornings where I’d feed the dog, go out and take care of the chickens, and the dogs are chasing the cats, and the cats are fighting, and you think, “Ahh! It’s a circus!”
What does that do to your writing?
I’ve ended up blogging about it a fair amount. I mean, animals are just funny. They provide me with a lot of material.
Okay, let’s say you’re hiking in the Taconics, and by some unfortunate happenstance you fall into a well. Would you rather have Lassie or Rin Tin Tin at your side?
Rin Tin Tin! Lassie would go get help; Rin Tin Tin would get you out, then maybe just salute and take off. I think I could go for that.