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Interview: Author Susan Orlean on her life with the iPad

Orlean has been tearing up the techie side of things

By Glenn Fleishman, Macworld
August 08, 2010 04:01 PM ET

Macworld - 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, who 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 55,000 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 2009 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. ...n'

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.

Originally published on www.macworld.com. Click here to read the original story.

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