Author Susan Orlean on writing, resonating, and ‘Rin Tin Tin’

Susan Orlean, staff writer at the New Yorker, described her life-long love of writing and her recent book, “Rin Tin Tin” before a roomful of students and professors at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Nov. 13.

Orlean began by explaining her inspiration for her most recent book, which has as its main character a movie star German shepherd.

“I love dogs, but I certainly never dreamed I’d be writing a book about a dog,” she explained. Yet while researching for a New Yorker piece about the American Humane Association and its work in the film industry, she happened upon a name that, though familiar, had not crossed her mind in decades. “I had a Proustian, ‘oh my god’ moment. It surprised me to be so emotional about Rin Tin Tin,” she explained.

As she spent more and more time doing research for what would eventually become her book, Orlean realized what had drawn her into the subject: The story of Rin Tin Tin  “was simultaneously familiar and surprising. That quality is irresistible to me,” she said.

Like so many of the other quirky or under-reported aspects of history and culture about which Orlean has written, the history of Rin Tin Tin led her to bigger, deeper questions. she said. “I ask myself, why am I interested in this? Why did this resonate? Why do people care so much about this? People need to feel like something means something.”

Throughout “Rin Tin Tin,” Orlean recounts the driving passion of Lee Duncan, Rin Tin Tin’s owner, who worked to make the German shepherd a timeless icon with a lasting legacy. This was, said Orlean, a goal that resonated for her. She realized she was carrying forward Duncan’s objective by writing this book and keeping Rin Tin Tin’s name and history alive and relevant.

“As a writer, I know that feeling of wanting to make something that lasts,” she said.