6 questions on "Rin Tin Tin" for Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin was a magnificent German Shepherd with a great backstory and an unmatched Hollywood career. But more recently he was looking a bit like a fading babyboomer memory. Then, this fall, came the publication of Susan Orlean's book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Suddenly, Rin Tin Tin is trending on Twitter – and finding a whole new place in our hearts. I recently asked Orlean six questions about her book and its regal subject. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

1.You ended up spending a decade researching "Rin Tin Tin." Did that surprise you?

I never dreamed that it would be anything like this scope. Part of the way that I write stories is that I’m satisfying the scope of my own interest about something, so I don’t go into it knowing what I’m going to find.

I had no idea. I didn’t know [Rin Tin Tin's] story. I didn’t know anything except that I had some gut reaction to thinking, “I really want to know more about this." The more I learned, the more I felt that I needed to learn, and the more I found sidetracks that became essential to the story. And the more the story became a bigger tale about 100 years of American culture, really, and the history of entertainment, and the story of our relationship to animals.

At one point when I thought I had finished my reporting I found another treasure trove of material. That was both wonderful and vexing, because I thought I was done, and I was given the key to [Rin Tin Tin's TV producer] Bert Leonard’s storage locker. And he had been a character but not a very fleshed-out character. I just saw him as the guy who produced the show but the story didn’t seem that complex to me. Then very quickly I realized that it was.

Looking back, I couldn’t think I would have been happy doing it any other way.

What did you learn about Rin Tin Tin that surprised you most?

The moment that put chills down my spine was discovering that – after having worked extensively on discovering the Nazi Party’s fascination with German Shepherds as part of the Arayan nation – to discover in Anne Frank’s diary her musing on how much she would love to have a dog like Rin Tin Tin and how she dreamed that she would take him to school with her and how she dreamed that for her birthday she would go to a Rin Tin Tin movie, even though Jews weren’t allowed to go to theaters anymore.

The dog speaks to so many different people in so many different ways – and to so many people who, in the saddest sort of way, couldn’t have seen the world very similarly. But to cut across that chasm – it was just one of those moments when I actually had to stop and take a deep breath. It was very profound and totally unexpected.

Whatever point in my life it was that I read Anne Frank’s diary that point did not stick in my mind. So this was just a bolt out of the blue and very sobering. It tells you something kind of heartening as well, which is that animals, the character of Rin Tin Tin, animals in general, have a capacity to connect us when by every other measure we are not connected.

Legend has it that Rin Tin Tin was found as an orphan puppy on a World War I battlefield. You suggest that this may not be true. Could he have been a star without this backstory?

That’s a good question. I think that the creation myth that Hollywood biographies often present – if we knew that Cary Grant’s name was really whatever it was – could we have believed in him as Cary Grant? That’s a tricky question.

The story of how Rin Tin Tin was found was not always told in the same way. That story was often rejiggered depending on which press agent was managing the account. I don’t think it was sufficient to make him a star. I think it certainly added a mythic quality because I think people were thrilled by the idea that it was almost pure luck that made him a star as opposed to a dog like Lassie who was trained to be a star and was a dog from a kennel. There was nothing mythic there. Rin Tin Tin seemed to embody something about myth and dreaming and aspiration and the story of how he was found contributed to that.

But I still think that his popularity came from both his actual talent for looking great on screen and the fact that he starred in movies that hit a certain note with the public. I think that at the end of the day it was that he had [his owner] Lee Duncan absolutely devoted to him and that the story grew over time. As Rin Tin Tin moved into generations of his character the idea that he could endure in itself became part of the legend.

Will we ever see another canine star the likes of Rin Tin Tin?

I wonder about that a lot. I wonder whether our sophistication makes that impossible today.

I do think that the equivalent has become Spiderman and superheroes although I don’t think that it’s got the same emotional appeal that Rin Tin Tin had. Could we embrace that again? I think that we certainly respond to real-life hero dogs with a great deal of emotion and amazement. So maybe it’s just that we haven’t yet, that no one has managed to write that character with the contemporary mentality that [could work today.]

There was something naive about the idea of a dog who could solve crimes, Dogs do perform pretty amazing, heroic tasks, but they are tasks that are unique to being dogs. I think that’s what’s different now. We’ve come to understand dogs better. I think a hero dog could be created today if it were one who relied on abilities that dogs have and that people don’t. Their incredible ability to smell and to hear and tremendous bravery. Those are heroic.

You probably could create a character that was a dog-dog, not a human-dog. I think in those silent films, Rin Tin Tin was just like another one of the characters. He happened to be a dog, but he did things that we wouldn’t take seriously today. To figure out crimes better than people could. I do think that you could create that character but you’d have to create it understanding what we know now, a story that we could believe today as opposed to what people could believe in 1923.

Rin Tin Tin's owner Lee Duncan always wanted a film to be made about his life with Rin Tin Tin. Do you think your book could inspire that?

There was something very emotional for me when I thought, “Well, I’m really doing that.” At least in the form of a book if not a film, I am telling the story.

It became very emotional for me thinking that I really am doing what [Duncan] dreamed of – and maybe that will be translated into a film – but I am telling the story and I’m fulfilling that wish that was so poignant because it never felt egotistical to me as much as it felt [as if Duncan were] saying, “The most amazing thing happened to me. You have to hear this.” And it wasn’t for [Duncan's] own ego as much as this feeling that he had lived a dream, a story that was hard to believe, and he wanted people to hear it.

Have you become a part of the next chapter of Rin Tin Tin?

Yes, in a way I have.

It’s not that Rin Tin Tin had disappeared but he’s been dormant. Not to aggrandize myself but I think that I’m telling the story and there are a lot of people who either have no memory of him or only the faintest memory of him and they are now going to be brought along yet again and he’s sort of proven, once again, that just at the point where you could pretty much have written off the thought of Rin Tin Tin as an ongoing character, he’s back.

Which is great, hilarious. I have this tendancy to discover, midway through my books, that wittingly or unwittingly I’ve kind of become this character – unwittingly in this case – and I’m wondering, gee, is Rin Tin Tin still alive?

And, as I’m spending 10 years writing the book, I’m making the argument that there was still something remarkable about the fact that this story has endured. There is something marvelous and I have to say this kind of dawned on me only at the end of the book and that was very much what the end of the book was, was this sort of realization that, we have proven Lee’s hypothesis that there will always be a Rin Tin Tin.