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If I Were Susan Orlean

Jennifer Paull

Staff Writer

Jennifer Paull walks quickly.

I don’t usually fantasize about being in someone else’s shoes. No green-tinged daydreams about what life would be like if I could be Cate Blanchett, Jeff Tweedy, Zaha Hadid, or Laird Hamilton for a day. It’s safe to say I’ll never wish to take someone’s place on stage or on TV. My exception: famous authors. “If only!” I wonder. “How would it be?” I imagine what it would be like to slip into their daily routines, their tastes, their wit, their writing practices, their favorite chair.

Sometimes I fasten onto a factual detail I’ve read somewhere. (Harold Ross had a big crush on Ginger Rogers!) More often, I invent and happily spin a little realm of possibility.

For instance, if I were Jhumpa Lahiri, I’d be thoroughly sick of people asking me when I’m going to be writing about something else besides Indian immigrants in America.

If I were Joan Didion, I’d have my dark glasses on at all times. Even when I wasn’t actually wearing them.

If I were Edith Wharton, I would think Jonathan Franzen is an ass.

If I were Albert Camus, I’d know that I looked devilishly handsome in that photo by Cartier-Bresson. I could keep a cigarette wedged into the corner of my mouth while talking, even at a fast clip. No kiss would be as satisfying as a well-written page.

If I were Mark Twain, new ideas would pullulate every time I took a bath or combed my mustache. I’d remain convinced that my publishing scheme really had merit, even though it bankrupted me. My dinner party conversation should have been more faithfully recorded. I detest cuckoo clocks.

If I were Vladimir Nabokov, I would relish my polychrome synesthesia. Every word, no matter how ordinary, would be haloed by color. “Laundry,” for instance, would shimmer with cream, gold, and egg-yolk yellow.

If I were Martha Gellhorn, I’d have a throaty, infectious laugh, rich and amber. I’d never be seasick or bothered by turbulence while flying. However, I’d be a sore loser at tennis.

If I were Susan Orlean, I would mull over an idea for years and then in ten minutes, synthesize it in a few limpid, inevitable sentences. Also, I would wonder why the cover of my latest book only shows the back of Rin Tin Tin’s head, rather than his face.

If I were E. B. White, I’d mentally correct all the sloppy signage I spotted.

If I were Maira Kalman, I’d secretly write trenchant observations on the undersides of shelves, mantles, and tables.

If I were Orhan Pamuk, I would become paralyzed in a flea market, deafened by all the stories inherent in and suggested by each object around me. My friends would have to pull me away from every china figurine and broken clock.

If I were Lady Antonia Fraser, I would have private and public phone lines. My favorite compliment would be the assessment that I’m both joyous and dangerous. I’d drink smoky tea and have bubble and squeak for dinner. I’d have Rolling Stones albums hidden behind my Mozart and Brahms records.

If I were Zadie Smith or Garrison Keillor, I would talk to myself all day long, to hear my own mellifluous voice.