Only a writer such as Susan Orlean could take a historical event like the devastating 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire and from it create a fascinating, multilayered, meticulously researched, personal story that seamlessly weaves Los Angeles history, a politically charged arson investigation, and a cast of unique characters. The Library Book, Orlean’s latest, was just selected as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The acclaimed author of numerous books, including The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, Orlean spoke recently with the Santa Barbara Independent ahead of her appearance on UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Speaking with Pico series, on Thursday, March 14. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
The cover and interior design of The Library Book is unusual. Were you involved in that process? I was involved far more than I usually am because I had a very strong sense in my head of what this book should look like. I pictured it without a dust jacket. I wanted it to look classic, but not old-fashioned. I wanted it to have a look of timelessness.
You describe in some detail your attempt to burn a book. Which seemed simple enough but proved incredibly uncomfortable. I’m pragmatic, I was doing it for the book, but I couldn’t even decide what book to burn. It was so strange, really strange. It felt like such a taboo that I began to think I couldn’t do it.
There’s a beautiful passage in the book about the sound of a library. Can you talk about that? It’s something I’ve noticed in libraries all over the country, in Canada, and in other countries. Libraries everywhere seem to have the same quality of busyness, a purposeful, bustling, purring sound.
Your relationship with libraries and your mother figure prominently in The Library Book. I hadn’t really thought about it, but as I worked on the book, I was flooded with memories of visiting the library with my mother. At the risk of sounding touchy-feely, these trips were almost sacred to us. They felt different from going anywhere else, and they always had this quality of being a combination of adventure and sacrament. I hadn’t thought of this in a long time.
Libraries stand as one of the last true public spaces, open to all, free of charge, and yet they are uniquely vulnerable. Libraries are often targeted by vandals because they preserve the memories of cultures and societies. While libraries are, or seek to be, permanent repositories of knowledge, their openness makes them vulnerable. This contradictory quality is quite interesting.
In all the research you did about the Central Library fire, was there some fact or individual that intrigued you more than another? I became smitten with Charles Lummis. I hadn’t heard of him before I began working on the book. He’s not an unknown figure in Southern California history, but he was unknown to me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough of him. He was a romantic, dramatic, and eccentric character. I found myself sort of in love with him.
Best-selling author Susan Orlean will appear on UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Speaking with Pico series on Thursday, March 14, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.