Susan Orlean takes us behind her drunken Twitter whirlwind — and the wild responses

Susan Orlean is photographed in the Los Angeles Public Library's 2nd floor rotunda. Her recent novel, "The Library Book", is one of the most frequently-requested library books in the county.
Susan Orlean went on a Twitter whirlwind Friday night, careening from the state of the world, to doubts about an in-progress memoir, to the location of her cat, Leo. And: candy. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Quarantine cocktail hour(s) rule No. 1: Don’t put the stool softener next to the Tylenol.

But let’s back up.

Susan Orlean went on a bit of a bender last night. The author and New Yorker staff writer, who doesn’t typically drink heavily, was fed up — with COVID-19, the grim economy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg being back in the hospital and the lack of suitable candy on hand. Among other things. Wine seemed an appropriate response. Lots of it.

Fueled by several glasses of a light, summery rosé, Orlean turned to her iPhone and, lured by the flickering backlight of an empty Twitter field, she went on an inebriated, comical rant, waking this morning to find — along with a raging headache — that she may have won quarantine-era Twitter.

Orlean sent 27 entertaining, if typo-infused, tweets (read: “I do r e we. Know who is I my house”) that careen from the state of the world to the location of her cat, Leo, interspersed with frequent nods to her progressing drunkenness and her husband’s mounting concern for her well being. Taken together, the tweets feel oddly in tune with the tenor of the times — surreal, raw, a little unhinged.

And on a particularly bad news day, one that saw a record number of new COVID-19 cases in L.A. County and the death of civil rights movement pioneer John Lewis, they provided a much-needed social media distraction that generated a storm of gleeful reactions, including from comedian Kathy Griffin, offering to be Orlean's new best friend.

“If you’re a little tipsy I may look like Reba or Kathie Lee Gifford, but I promise we will have fun,” Griffin wrote.

Or was it all just carefully crafted performance play from a media savvy writer who’d found a seemingly unguarded and goofy way into the cacophonous cultural conversation?

We chatted with Orlean on the proverbial morning after to find out what really happened. Here's the edited conversation.

So how are you feeling this morning? I feel like I should feel worse than I do! I slept late. I had pancakes for breakfast — a tried-and-true hangover cure — and have been slamming back the Advils. I decided to have a really wholesome day. I gardened, watered the plants, did all the healthy Girl Scout things you feel you should do after a night of debauchery.

When you woke up and logged onto Twitter, were you cringing or laughing? I was laughing. I didn’t think, "Oh my god, I can’t believe I said that!" There was nothing horrible — it was loony, it was goofy, the only person who might’ve looked crazy was me. Social media is like yelling into a mountain valley. If you choose to treat it this way, it’s almost like notes to yourself and it just happens to be broadcast. So I wasn’t mortified. I just thought: "I was so drunk!"And when I read it, I was baffled: At what point did I remember I’d made yogurt that morning?! I guess I went out to the kitchen. I must have.

How much of the Twitter rant was real versus what some people might call performance art? It was all real. I wish I were that good at crafting a fake drunken rant. This was what really happened: I came home and wanted my cat and I wanted candy and everyone was watching a movie and ignoring me. It was all completely authentic. I think it would be very hard to create a sort of loopy stream of consciousness rant and have it seem real. The spontaneity and the leaps your brain takes when you’re just uninhibited — it’s harnessing a kind of creativity. Like: It would be hard to create a child’s painting as an adult; it would look clumsy, you’d be too self-conscious about trying to look un-self-conscious.

What led up to the Twitter rant, then? I hadn’t eaten much yesterday, it’s very hot, we’re in New York [in the country] and we went to visit our neighbor’s mare who’d just had her baby. And they said, "Come have a drink." I’m not blaming them, but they definitely serve a heavy pour. I’ll probably never drink rosé again.

At home, I said to my husband, "I am really drunk." I gobbled down a taco and went to bed; it was early, like 8:30. So I was laying there in semi-darkness typing on my phone. It was total stream of consciousness. At one point, my stepson came in and brought me some candy, because he was reading [the tweets]. And then my cat showed up, which was good because I was annoyed.

Did you produce all those wonderful typos on purpose? They were very not purposeful. I’m actually a very good typist but I was doing it from a prone position, never the best way to type. Normally, if I make an error, I’m sort of anal about it; but I just typed, l didn’t reread things or go back to correct anything.

What’s your relationship with alcohol, typically? And was “one glass too many” what pushed you to the “WHO IS SICK AND TIRED OF EVERYTHING?” tweet or vice versa? I’m just a social drinker — if this were a regular practice, I’d need help. But I also think getting drunk occasionally is not the end of the world. I think many people are drinking more during the pandemic — we’d just been to the liquor store and the [attendant] said his sales are up 100%.

As for [sick and tired of] everything — the fact is, for the last four months this has been front and center on all of our minds, whether we’re drunk or sober: “Can things get any worse?!” I was laying in bed and just ruminating. It was bubbling up. But I’m not sure why I went from fennel candy to the state of the world.

Susan Orlean's cat, mentioned in her drunken Twitter whirlwind
Susan Orlean's cat, Leo, mentioned in her tweets Friday: "I'm falling down drunk. First time in ages. Where is my kitty? He is my drunk comfort animal." (Susan Orlean)

Were you surprised by the lively reaction to the thread? Oh my gosh, yes. Sometimes you write a tweet purposefully to gauge a reaction or get a response. This was just blathering with no particular expectation of a response. I was totally laughing and scratching my head and marveling and looking at the number of likes and retweets and comments [this morning], none of which I was looking at last night. It was astonishing. If you could reverse-engineer something going viral, you’d be a genius, it never works. This completely surprised me. It kind of reminded me what Twitter felt like long ago, a little more playful and positive.

Do you think that’s what Twitter is for — consolation and amusement, as opposed to rage and polarization? I think Twitter is an agnostic platform and some people can rage and rant, and other people can joke. I don’t think it needs to be one thing or another. The mood of the nation has been filled with such peevishness and heartache and anger over the last three years that Twitter naturally has been affected by it. But I don’t think it needs to be a place where you go and say "I love you, here’s a daisy, you’re my brother." It would be nice if the world was a little bit of a happier place, without as much rage and polarization. But Twitter just reflects what’s going on in the real world.

Some commentators seemed to feel your tweets were so beloved because you weren’t like J.K. Rowling or Lorrie Moore, causing trouble and getting yourself Twitter-canceled. Do you have your own rules for using Twitter? I followed J.K. Rowling scratching my head the whole time. I’m not on Twitter to get into fights with people, that doesn’t appeal to me. I say what I mean and feel, but I’m not trying to engage in an argumentative way. But the issue with people like J.K. Rowling is that she’s saying what she’s saying, not that she’s saying it on Twitter.

Kathy Griffin asked to be your friend in one tweet. Did you know her already? Kathy Griffin may not remember, but we have met. I got the feeling she didn’t remember. But that’s OK, I got a kick out of having her extend a friendship hand. I’m always looking to make new friends.

So, per your last tweet: Did you take Tylenol or the stool softener? How’d that work out?  I took the Tylenol. The stool softener is in the same exact shaped bottle and same color — a white plastic CVS container. So first I grabbed that and thought: "Whoa, wait a minute, that’s not what I’m looking for!"