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Loyal Lead

Ohio native Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin book recounts the story of the canine that captured America’s heart.

Before Lassie, Benji and Scooby-Doo, there was Rin Tin Tin. Discovered by U.S. Air Corporal Lee Duncan in the ruins of a dog kennel in France during World War I, the half-starved puppy grew into a stately German shepherd headed for Hollywood. He starred in 27 movies, was nominated for an Oscar and reportedly lapped milk from a champagne glass. In 1954, the iconic canine became the basis for a TV show that spawned a legion of baby-boomer followers. Susan Orlean is one of them. Her latest book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, is featured on the Choose to Read Ohio booklist for 2015–16. We recently talked with the 59-year-old Orlean about her fascination with the clever canine and how his name and image have lived on for the better part of a century.   

On your website you mention that you’re “the product of a happy and relatively uneventful childhood in Cleveland.” Did growing up in Ohio influence your desire to become a writer?
I grew up in Shaker Heights, which had a fantastic school system. From an early age, I had an interest in writing and was fortunate to have teachers who really encouraged me. But I also think that being a Midwesterner made me ... curious about parts of the world that seemed more dramatic. I think that’s a great quality of Midwesterners: We don’t have the myopia of people who grew up in, say, New York City, where they feel that’s the only world and the only place worth knowing about. Being from Ohio made me open to anything. I feel that’s a quality that’s really important for a writer to have.

Your interest in Rin Tin Tin started when you were 4 years old. What made you decide to turn that curiosity into a book five decades later?

When I was a kid, my grandfather had a figurine of Rin Tin Tin that I was fascinated with, but he wouldn’t let me play with. Even though I didn’t watch “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” [which originally aired on ABC from 1954 to 1959] since it was a little ahead of my time, the subject was deeply embedded in my consciousness. When I came across Rin Tin Tin’s name many, many decades later, I had this profound sense of familiarity and nostalgia. All along, I thought he was just a character in a TV show. I was shocked to discover he was a real dog with an incredible backstory.

Research for your book took you to locations ranging from a cemetery in France to a ranch in Texas to a storage facility in Los Angeles. How long did it take you to complete your research and write the book?

I started the book in 2003 and finished it eight years later. Rin Tin Tin was a much bigger subject than I ever imagined he would be. There were points along the way when I thought I was done with the research and could start writing. Then, I’d come across a huge amount of additional material, which would set me back a few years.

What surprised you about the journey and the facts you uncovered?
Frankly, the entire book was a matter of surprise. Having imagined that the dog was simply a character in a television show that I had a crush on when I was a kid to discovering the saga of a silent film star and a young soldier in World War I amazed me.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend has an emotional literary depth that makes it more than just a story about a man and his dog. How did you balance accuracy with the need to craft an appealing narrative?
I’m a stickler for total accuracy and factual integrity. I believe facts are poetic, and crafting them into a narrative that’s appealing comes from the excitement I feel about what I learned and the desire to tell people an astonishing story. I do think a book ought to stand on its own merits, not solely on the fact that [the reader] has a pre-existing interest in the subject. I really wanted very much to write [the book] in a way that it didn’t matter if you like dogs or if you were familiar with the TV show. No book is easy to write, but the feeling that this was a wonderful story was the engine behind the writing for me.

On the surface, it appears that Lassie has acquired top-dog status over Rin Tin Tin in pop culture. Do they present two very different portraits of man’s best friend
Very much so. Lassie was a character of fiction who served as a companion. Rin Tin Tin [who was discovered by a young American soldier in France during World War I] had a strong military connection that was very real. In his early incarnation in movies, Rin Tin Tin was the leading man, almost more human than the humans [who were supporting players]. He wasn’t the companion, he was the actor. Rin Tin Tin’s genesis came at a time when dogs really weren’t considered pets. For the most part, they were looked upon as working animals used for herding sheep on farms or cattle on ranches. Lassie came of age in the 1950s, when the idea of pet ownership exploded and dogs were looked upon as companions.

Does Rin Tin Tin have a place in our life today?

That’s an interesting question. I think the attitude toward dogs has actually moved back in some ways to the way it was during the heyday of Rin Tin Tin. Dogs have begun to once again be perceived as heroic. In recent years, they’ve become a significant part of the military. Dogs assisted in the raid on Osama bin Laden and participated in search-and-rescue efforts following 9/11. Today, they’re doing everything from detecting cancer to providing help to autistic children. We’re getting more appreciative of them. It’s definitely a new era in our relationship.

Your books introduce readers to a variety of eclectic topics, ranging from fashion designer Bill Blass; to Cristina Sanchez, the first female matador of Spain; to a taxidermy championship in Illinois. How do you choose your subjects?
They choose me. What happens is that I literally stumble across something and can’t get it out of my head. Whether I want to be or not, I become excited and curious about the subject. It’s usually very hard for me to predict where my next story will come from.

In 2002, your book The Orchid Thief — the story of Florida orchid poacher John Laroche — was made into the movie “Adaptation” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. How did that come about?
The book had been optioned by producers Jonathan Demme and Ed Saxon. I had no idea what exactly they were going to do with it. The script [which was a huge departure from the book] was quite a surprise. My first reaction was a great deal of hesitation, thinking, “I don’t know. This is kind of crazy.” But then I decided to go along for the ride because I really respected all the people involved. I thought it would be a real adventure, which it certainly turned out to be.

What’s next?
I grew up going to libraries, and I love the fact that they bring so many different kinds of people together in one place. So, right now I’m in the middle of working on a book about the life and times of the Los Angeles Public Library. In 1986, an arson fire destroyed part of [the central branch], and it took seven years to restore it. I can’t wait to see where the story takes me.

The State Library of Ohio, the Ohioana Library Association and the Ohio Center for the Book developed the Choose to Read Ohio booklist. The 20 selections on the 2015–16 installment have either been penned by native Ohioans, authors living in Ohio or writers who are strongly associated with the Buckeye State. For more information about Choose to Read Ohio and the other titles that made the 2015–16 list, visit library.ohio.gov/ctro.

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