Writer Susan Orlean has a knack for turning ordinary sounding subjects into extraordinary stories. Her inquiries into the arrest of an orchid thief in south Florida became a best-selling book that was eventually adapted into the film, "Adaptation," starring with Meryl Streep as Orlean.
In addition, her article about young surfer girls in Maui became the inspiration for the film "Blue Crush."
Recently, Susan Orlean relocated to Los Angeles where she's found the subject of her next book: the Central Library.
"What made this the one that attracted me so much was, number one I love being contrarian, nobody thinks anyone in L.A. reads and of course that's not true, so it's much more fun to write a book about the L.A. Public Library," said Orlean. "This library has a fascinating history, most significantly is its near death experience is what made me think, 'wow this is a great story.'"
Orlean has been spending hours at the historic building on Flower Street in downtown L.A. studying the library's history and interviewing librarians past and present. We recently had the chance to join Orlean in the rare books room where she told me about her earliest library experiences.
On her favorite memories of libraries:
"I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, there was a branch library almost walking distance from my house and we went multiple times a week. To me it was a magical place. It has this charged feeling and everything s free. I looked at librarians as these almost saintly creatures who wanted to help you find great books. It was probably my favorite place."
On the fire that almost killed the L.A. Central Library:
"In 1986 at a time when Downtown L.A. was really in the doldrums, the library itself was absolutely jam packed, had run out of space, had faulty wiring, it was kind of a bit bedraggled at that point in its history. In 1986 a fire broke out in the library, it spread very quickly, it burned for about seven hours and was the largest structural fire in the history of Los Angeles. It destroyed close to half a million books. The damage of putting the fire down resulted in 700,000 volumes either being water or smoke damaged. The library then was closed for six years. That's a huge event. It gave me this fabulous narrative drama and also hearing it was arson...I mean we all love true crime stories and in this case you can't help but wonder why would someone want to burn down a library?"
On how she found out about the fire:
"The way I first heard about the fire, when I was being given a tour of the library the person who was giving me the tour took a book out and sniffed it and I thought, well, people have all sorts of odd habits, I wonder why he's sniffing the book. He said, 'Some of them still have the smoke smell in them.' I said, 'from what,' and he said 'Well, you know, the fire.' So if you see a small red-haired woman in the Central Library sniffing books, it's me and it's for my research."
On what research she's doing for her new book:
"I've been talking to a lot of retired librarians who were here at the time of the fire and of course each one of them is fascinating. If anything I'm going to have trouble sorting out who I'm going to focus on. I've been spending a lot of time talking to a gentleman who had been the head librarian for 20 years and he was here at the time of the fire. He is a real character, he's a magician, he's a jazz musician, he's a bit cantankerous and a challenging person, but those tend to be the people who I find the most interesting."