On the “Books, Books and More Books” section of Susan Orlean's website, you can find information about her acclaimed nonfiction works, her children’s book, and the cookbook she co-wrote with Cooper Gillespie, who is her dog. What you cannot find is anything about Susan Orlean’s diet book. In 1999, Orlean published The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!) with fellow New Yorker writer Patricia Marx. After I discovered The Skinny during a late-night Google fugue, I got a bit obsessed with it—so I was delighted when Orlean agreed to an interview about her long-lost oddity.
At first The Skinny struck me as something I wasn’t supposed to know about. The book sold poorly upon its release and soon went out of print, and it was easy to imagine that came as some relief—at least to Orlean, who had used a pseudo-pseudonym (Susan Sistrom, her married name at the time) and appeared alongside Marx in the author photo as a petite, black-and-white blur.
In the late ’90s, Orlean was already viewed as a serious writer: The Skinny came out just three months after The Orchid Thief, which became a best-seller, the inspiration for Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, and a new classic of contemporary narrative nonfiction. Marx has long written humor and style pieces for The New Yorker (her new book, Home Colleging, is in a similar vein), so the book seemed like less of an oddball entry on her backlist. But still, I snagged on this: What had compelled two female writers for the toniest magazine in America to employ their time and talent in the service of amping up already-deafening cultural messaging about ideal bodies and psychotic intra-female rivalry?
My confusion only increased when my used copy of the book arrived, reeking of what I chose to believe were Virginia Slims. The Skinny has a chatty, girlfriend-to-girlfriend feel, only the girlfriend is not an erudite pro journalist; she’s of the arm-fat-punching, “HAHA, OH MY GOD, I HATE YOU! JUST KIDDING! LOVE YA, BITCH!” type. Some of Marx and Orlean’s advice sounds like something your friends probably told you in high school: Hungry? Smoke a cigarette instead of eating! And some of it sounds downright psychotic: Tempted by leftovers? Sprinkle ’em with bleach!
Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams reviewed The Skinny in 1999 and revisited the book after I tweeted about discovering it earlier this year. “I don’t think I’d co-write an advice book these days,” Orlean told her in an interview. “I think I’d prefer really sitting around with my friends gossiping about how we feel about how we look, and not committing it to print.” I had a few more questions for Orlean about the book, which she fielded gamely.
Slate: I was wondering if you could tell me what your recollections are of how you guys came to work on this.
Susan Orlean: I was out to dinner with Patty and we were saying, “We should really collaborate on something.” We were talking about how one topic that women know so much about is dieting. No matter whether you’re the most advanced feminist in the world or not, it’s just a subject that women tend to know an awful lot about. So we started talking about doing a book that would be a combination of humor and actually informational stuff that friends might discuss with each other. I was working on The Orchid Thief at the time, so my publisher didn’t want to publish another book before I finished one that I owed them, so we struck this compromise that I would use my then-married name—which would not be like a pseudonym, because it wasn’t a pseudonym, it was my name. In a sense it was suitable, since it was so different from anything else that I worked on.
I was reading The Orchid Thief when I discovered The Skinny, and I was like, “Oh my god, these things were produced by the same person at the same time?” How did that work for you?
It was a collaboration and Patty did a full 50 percent—frankly, I would say she probably did a little more than half, to be really fair. But I’ve always written humor, and that has such a totally different feel than some of the reporting that I do. I’ve never found them incompatible. It’s like, you play tennis and you go bowling. They’re very different muscles, but I think it’s entirely possible to possess them both. So it didn’t feel incompatible, and to some degree it was like a palate cleanser from working on The Orchid Thief.
Do you remember how the book was received when it came out? Did people know it was you, or did you care?