Interview: Author Susan Orlean on her life with the iPad
Susan Orlean has become a geek, something that simultaneously amuses and mildly horrifies her. Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992, and is known for her richly detailed features about places and people. Orlean’s focus is often on individuals outside the public eye, whom she dissects in the gentlest of ways to reveal what makes them tick. Her book The Orchid Thief, looking at how orchid collecting and cultivation leads people to odd acts, was made into the quirky film "Adaptation."
Lately, however, Orlean has been tearing up the techie side of things. The writer, who lives with her husband and 5-year-old son (and 10 chickens) in the Hudson Valley in New York, has amassed 70,000 followers on Twitter, and writes regular blog entries for The New Yorker.
Orlean used Twitter to document her anticipation of a 3G iPad, and its ultimate arrival. As a part of our "Living with iPad" feature story in the September 2010 print issue of Macworld, we caught up with her a month after she’d received her 64 GB model. She is currently at work on a biography of dog movie star Rin Tin Tin.
(The interview has been edited for length, including questions being condensed for clarity and brevity.)
I can’t really picture you with a laptop out trudging through the swamps and bogs in Florida. What was your setup before this last few weeks?
Susan Orlean: I work at home with a desktop. I have an iMac… and a MacBook. And I travel a lot so I used to bring the MacBook with me. But two years ago, I was about to go on a trip and I thought, Boy, I really don’t want to carry this MacBook. First of all, it’s heavy; secondly, I really don’t want to lose it, or have it be stolen, or dropped or whatever. …
So I bought a little netbook, an ASUS netbook… Laptops are portable within your house, but they’re not so great for carrying around. And they don’t have great battery life, which is a significant thing if you’re sitting on a plane or a train where you don’t have electricity available easily. So the netbook seemed like a brilliant solution. It was small, it was really light, it went for such a long time without a battery.
Well the problem is it was awful. Teeny, tiny keyboard. Tiny, tiny memory. I just had problems with it. I took it with me to Morocco and I loved the fact that the built in camera worked really well, and I used it for Skype very comfortably. But as for any other purposes, it just didn’t work that well. It didn’t seem to go online very easily, I couldn’t download anything. I tried to put my music on it and I couldn’t. It just wouldn’t fit.…
I started working just on my iPhone, which by that I mean I would check my email, and do Twitter and Facebook. But I couldn’t do anything. I could read things that I had put in Dropbox but I couldn’t actually do anything beyond that. But I was often traveling with my iPhone rather than my MacBook because I just didn’t want to schlep around something heavy.
And so how often did you curse Steve Jobs for not allowing external keyboard support on the iPhone at that point? [laughs]
Well, I was mystified because before my iPhone I had a Treo, and I had a keyboard, and I actually worked on that a fair amount. I thought, Wow, it’s not ideal but the keyboard was good, and I could work and I did work on it a fair amount.
But I was puzzled. I felt this seems like the most natural thing in the world that you would have a keyboard for the iPhone and I didn’t quite understand that. Had they developed just a keyboard, my avidness for the iPad would have been a lot calmer because the huge issue for working on the iPhone was just, I’m a really good typist and I’m even a really good thumb typist, but there’s a limit to how much you can do.
But in addition, I began reading a lot on my iPhone. I got the Kindle application and I stopped using my Kindle, and I was reading books on the iPhone. And I actually didn’t find it to be that much of a problem. I read tons of books on it. But in the back of my mind I always thought, Wouldn’t it be great if there were a jumbo iPhone, because I was really very happy with everything the iPhone could do but the size limited some of that just in practical terms.
…I’ve just recently done my first couple of trips just with my iPad and no laptop. And except for the problems with Flash, which I don’t care who says that it’s not a problem, it is a problem. Something has to change because that’s ridiculous.
This was your trip out to WITS in Minneapolis? [Orlean was interviewed in front of an audience by John Moe, the host of American Public Media’s Future Tense at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. The interview will air on public radio stations in the summer.] How did it turn out to be what you needed on the trip?
It was great. I got the 3G model. Driving down to the city [for the flight], which is two hours for me, I was able to use it the whole time. I wasn’t driving. I was being driven, I should say…
I was already feeling sort of very braggy, thinking, “Oh, this is awesome.” Two hours of wasted time that I can now use, which was great. I didn’t have to take it out of my luggage, which I loved.
Not that it’s a big deal, but flying is such a pain in the neck now that anything that you can eliminate as far as the headache of going through security is wonderful. The fact that I didn’t have to give the battery one moment of thought on the plane was great. And that it was light and it just was great.
And the fact that I have on it my whole iTunes library. I didn’t download any movies. I could have and I wish I had because they didn’t have any on the plane. But I was really happy. And I worked in my hotel room. They did not have Wi-Fi.
… I keep my manuscript in Dropbox. I was able to open the Dropbox file and work on it in [Apple’s] Pages; getting it back to your computer seems like it ought to work a little more easily than it does. Dropbox doesn’t allow you to email things into Dropbox.
… I know that they are being hounded by people to offer that option. But it wasn’t such a big deal when I got home, I plugged in the computer. I dragged the file into my Dropbox and that was that. I feel like there’s still a few things that don’t make perfect sense or aren’t quite as seamless.
But I was really happy with it. And I was so happy not carrying a heavy laptop. It’s not that iPads are so light. But I can keep it in my handbag. I think for women, they’re great. Because I always have a handbag.
My husband wanted to get one, and he was sort of going back and forth. Because he doesn’t carry a briefcase. He wasn’t quite sure that he wanted to commit to having to carry something.
But I have a feeling that he’ll end up getting one once he finds some briefcase kind of thing that he is comfortable using that’s light, like briefcase ish rather than handbag ish. So it was great. I actually think that it is ideal for women and children.
I have a good video of my three year old playing Pickin’ Time on an iPad. It’s an iPhone game at double the size. And he’s, like, this is the best thing since sliced bread.
Yeah. And when my son first saw it he said, “Ooh, it’s a giant iPhone. And I have a lot of the same games that I do on my iPhone.” And he said, “But it’s better on the iPad because it’s bigger.”
And I thought, well, there you have it. Like a lot of these things like reading The New York Times in bed. I hate sitting there with my laptop. I don’t know if it’s just the laptop is hot, it’s heavy, and makes me think that I ought to be working.
I’m always afraid I’m going to break it if it’s in bed and the hinge gets caught in the blanket or something. So I snuggle into bed with it and I’m reading and I’m very happy. I’m waiting for a case. …
The case I ordered, which looks great and it has a stand built in, that’s for either horizontal or vertical, and you can charge it with the case on. I was about to order the Apple one and a friend who was here said, you have to take it off all the time to charge it, and I thought, eh, I’m going to wait. [Orlean later said that she had ordered the Cloak from quirky.]
… I can see why some people would scratch their head and say I don’t understand how it makes sense. I have my laptop and I have my phone. I can understand that, too. I think it’s like carrying around like a little window with you, and you can peak through that window into this huge gigantic world that is the Internet.
And while you can do that with your phone, it is so much more visual, and almost tactile and alive doing through the window, the iPad. And that’s how I feel. I just feel like it’s a window. Literally, it even looks like a window.
I’ve heard from a lot of people talked about how it disappears; the iPad when you use it, there’s nothing there. You are conscious you are holding a device but there is no other anything there.
But that’s why to me the analogy or the metaphor of a window feels very accurate. Because I feel like the Internet is like this ocean of information and images and communication.
It’s just this vast, fluid, thing. And this is like the window onto the aquarium. Or rather you are in a tunnel underwater, and this is your window and through it you see this gigantic ocean and you can beckon what you want to that window.
I was reading somebody’s rant about apps and they make you stupid and they put things there instead of making you go out and get them. And I just think, eh, get over it. If you want to be somebody who goes out and digs around online, good. Go do it. For the average person this makes the Internet a utility.
You were talking about working on a manuscript. I know you are always out in the field interviewing people, gathering data. Is the iPad suited for that? Or are you still going to carry a notebook and a recorder?
Well, I don’t really see it replacing that because I take notes with a pen and a pad and while there are pen and pad apps, I wouldn’t want to carry around a fairly valuable piece of technology when I’m out in the field, so to speak. I rather have my notepad and pen and not have to think about the technology. I don’t even like using a tape recorder because of not really liking the technology.
I think the typing takes some getting used to and is still a little complicated.…If I’m sitting in bed and I kind of have it propped in my lap and I want to reply to email it’s still slightly awkward to type. I try to thumb type holding it vertically and I can kind of do that, and then I think, no no no, I’m going to type like a normal typewriter, and I turn it horizontally, and put it down on the bed and type.
… I wouldn’t imagine that I’d want to take it and type notes in a interview. And I’ve never liked to do that anyway. I think it’s too weird to talk to someone and be looking at them and typing. I find it just really strange.
Are you going to wind up using the iPad constantly, or can you put it down and walk away?
I think, you know, that’s a good question. I do think I can walk away. I think that life demands enough of one’s attention that I don’t know whether having a kid is part of that, that there are just times when you’re just not online. And it doesn’t matter how glamorous a device you have, that’s just not what’s happening.
I don’t think of the Internet as a danger. Its funny…we just bought a new car and we were looking at getting a DVD system, a built in one, factory installed. And they’re ridiculously expensive of course, and all they do is play movies. So a friend of mine said what a waste. Just get Austin an iPad.
And that way if I get him just the small one without 3G, loaded up with a bunch of games and download some movies for him, it would take us like three years before we come close to the price that you pay for DVD. And she said its old technology anyway and it will be useless and they charge about $2,000 for them.
…If you’re on a road trip and you have a $2,000 built in DVD player in your car, and first of all, all they can watch is DVDs. They can’t do interesting educational games, they can’t draw, all they can do is watch a movie, totally passive….and then you get to the hotel for the night and you go inside and you don’t have anything. You buy an iPad and you’re reading books, you’re drawing, you’re doing puzzles, you can watch a movie, and then you get to the hotel and you bring it in with you.
…I’m not going to buy my son a laptop, he’s five. … I’ve got a ton of things for him to play and read and that isn’t what a laptop would do.
Laptops are going to start seeming like work tools. And iPads will be the sort of interesting, exploratory, adventuring, device. And not so much work but functional for work. And laptops are going to start seeming really drab and functional but its interesting it wouldn’t have occurred to me to get a laptop for my son to use in the car.
…He never asked to use my laptop, there’s nothing fun about that.
Having followed you on Twitter for so long, it’s clear that you’re somewhat of a geek, but this seems to mark your transition for you into becoming more of a geek. John Moe said you were going to be reviewing gadgets for his Future Tense radio show. So are you going to forget about the international reporting, and wind up becoming a tech geek like the rest of us?
Oh, that was so funny. It’s funny because I am like a consumer geek. I don’t know anything. I mean I just don’t know anything. I’m merely an avid consumer. I’m willing to try anything. And I kind of love stuff. So I think he liked the idea of somebody who is quite unexpected.
But aren’t you the new audience?
Right. It was funny, because when my husband got his iPhone, he said to me, “I want to read the manual.” And I said, “There is no manual. That’s the point. There is no manual.” It’s funny. The ease of using it.
…I think it’s great for women for certain reasons. But I also think it’s great for children and old people. Because it’s not about technology. It’s about just sort of playing around with this thing in a way that’s so different from a computer.
I mean for a long time I’ve been thinking, man, I wish I could get my mom to get a computer but she’s very un mechanical. I just thought no, this is never going to work. But this is the one, I actually thought about it, and I’m sorry that there is not Skype on it, because if there were, I would get it for her.
…My dad would have gotten one in one second. He was totally fashion forward when it came to technology in spite of being 92. He had an iPod, and would have loved an iPad. He would have loved the simplicity and the fact that you didn’t use the mouse. Which is something that, I think for old people, it’s very weird. Like, they don’t get it. They don’t understand what a mouse is.
…Lots of people just don’t like new things. They find them intimidating and distressing. And then there are people like me that just think it’s all fun. I mean, why not? What could be more fun. I am happy to try it early and experience it before I’m bored hearing about it. Even though sometimes it means you’re, as I said in one of my posts, an unpaid beta tester. But, that’s life.
You have visited so many different cultures and some that are not untouched by technology. Have you thought about it would be interesting to go into these places now, bring an iPad and see how this introduction to technology affects people in those communities?
Well, I think you can look at it in a really positive way, which is, as computers get simpler and simpler which is one version of describing this. It’s the simplest and most accessible way of interacting with the Internet.
So I think that it could be a fantastic opportunity to open up that window for people in cultures where…most people in most cultures are far more used to living on their cell phone than we are in a sense.
And for them it may just be a very natural evolution but it gives them an opportunity to access things that they may not otherwise have available.
I was really interested in this One Laptop Per Child movement, because I think the more people are not able to get online, the more they will be left out of the future, and growth, and the world marketplace, because so much stuff is gravitating there.
It did seem to me an incredibly smart way of attacking the problem of lack of development in certain countries. You got to be able to get people online.
If Apple can sell us the lowest end iPad for whatever it is, $499. They had one laptop per child, the one they were developing was solar powered and adapted for environments that were going to be in deprivation, so that you didn’t want to rely on electricity and stuff.
It would be kind of fantastic and probably blow your mind if you were a Zulu bush person to see an iPad because it really is magical looking.
But the simplicity of it seems to me ideal for breaking down barriers between what we can do online and what people in other cultures might be able to do online. Because it just makes it simpler.
Updated at 3:46 p.m. PT to update the number of Susan Orlean’s Twitter followers.