A veteran staff writer for the New Yorker who is likely best known for The Orchid Thief, which became the acclaimed film Adaptation starring none other than Meryl Streep, Susan Orlean returns with Rin Tin Tin. In the famous canine character’s biography of sorts, Orlean walks readers through an intimate look at the beloved dog, from the original Rin Tin Tin’s discovery on a World War I battlefield to the cultural phenomenon he would become spanning 50 years. Here, Orlean tells us about her book, a decade in the making.
Searching for more reality-inspired nonfiction? Read Death in the City of Light by David King.
What is Rin Tin Tin today?
At this point in time, he is a piece of American cultural history—a pop culture icon and a timeless embodiment of certain qualities of heroism, nobility, loyalty. While he isn’t as active a pop culture character as he was in the past, I think he still conjures up those same emotions and, as a subject for a writer, he certainly is a through-line in popular culture that’s very unique. As far as I know there is no other pop culture character that has morphed and transfigured as much as he has.
One of the overriding themes in the book is a sense of legacy. How important is that theme at this point in your career?
When I started the book it hadn’t occurred to me as I was working on it how deeply personal it would be, partly because so much of the history took place before I was born. But I did have my own actual experience with Rin Tin Tin through the TV show and starting to work on the book flooded me with all of these memories of early childhood.
But even more than that, just the idea of things lasting became really profound to me. Just the timing of having lost my dad and being naturally preoccupied with questions of “what does that mean?” What lasts from any individual life and why was Rin Tin Tin able, as an idea, to last? And even in his own actual life, why did Rin Tin Tin last and 80 other German shepherd actors disappear? So maybe that this was very much a midcareer, midlife sort of preoccupation of “what are you going to leave behind, and what is it that you’re going to create that might last beyond you?”
Another theme is kind of one of obsession. All of the people involved with Rin Tin Tin were consumed with this dog and what he stood for.
I’ve always been preoccupied with obsessives. Particularly because I feel like I’m not an obsessive. Except, maybe, for being obsessed with obsessives. Had there not been a Lee Duncan [who discovered the original dog in WWI], there would not have been a Rin Tin Tin. So had [Duncan] had a more balanced life…Rin Tin Tin might have been in some movies and that would have been it. He would have had a moment of prominence and then it would have ended.
[Producer] Bert Leonard, same thing. If he had decided, “This is crazy, I should just sell off my rights,” then that would be it. It would have been a very different story. It just wouldn’t have that singular burning momentum. Look at Lassie. Someone could have written a book about Lassie, but there’s no saga, no feeling of great emotion behind the story of Lassie. Lassie was just a Hollywood creation.
So I think we’re all very devoted to something in our lives, but there are people who live in this heightened state of devotion that goes beyond the ordinary, and the rest of us kind of get the benefit of what they’ve done to keep something alive.
This is one of the few things you’ve written that didn’t start as a New Yorker article. How did that change your approach to the research?
It’s very different to start with something as an article. It’s something that I learned with The Orchid Thief. The structure and the demands of a magazine piece are really different from a book. A successful book can’t just be longer, it has to be deeper and there has to be a different arc.
So this was something where I couldn’t imagine how to whittle it into the size of a magazine piece to begin with. But also I felt like I wasn’t anywhere near understanding what the story was, and it was going to take me a long time. So it was just all that time and research, and I don’t really think that it would have worked as a book otherwise.
You mentioned your main experience with Rinty was the ’50s TV show, which, by that point, wasn’t even a Rin Tin Tin dog. In the course of the research, were you surprised by just how insanely popular the first Rin Tin Tin was at the turn of the century?
I was flabbergasted. First of all, I didn’t even know that there had been an incarnation of the dog before the TV show. I was absolutely astonished. Had that discovery not taken place, I would not have ever thought of this as a book. But it was like “Whoa!” I thought this was just a TV show in the ’50s. What are they talking about, a silent film star? But not just any silent film star, but a huge silent film star.
I remember I called my agent the minute I stumbled upon this mention of a silent film and said, “This is a book. This is amazing.” And mainly because I thought that many other people would have the same reaction as I did, the same surprise. This was like discovering that Santa Claus had really existed and had been a silent film star. Which, when I find that out, by the way, that will be my next book. “Santa Claus: The Life and the Legend.”