Orlean's fascinating 'Orchid Thief' will steal your time away

January 16, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

"The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean (Ballantine, $14, 2000), is just what everyone says it is, a great nonfiction book that at first glance appears to be about the world of orchid collectors in Florida.

But it is much more. Subtitled "A True Story of Beauty and Obsession," this book takes a look at orchids, yes, but also at the ecology of South Florida's Fakahatchee Strand, the role of Seminole Indians, the history of land scams in Florida and myriad oddball characters.

Orlean is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine and her book was first published two years ago. A paperback edition has just been released and plans are under way in Hollywood to turn "The Orchid Thief" into a movie.

Orlean grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated from University of Michigan in 1977, majoring in English. She worked as a reporter in Portland, Ore., and Boston before moving to New York City where she has worked for the magazine since 1992.

You'll learn a lot about orchids in this book, but don't expect a scientific treatise.

"I was a very conventional English major in college," said Orlean in a recent phone interview while she was on a book tour. "I studied classic literature. I was definitely not a botany major. In fact when I started this project ("The Orchid Thief") I bought a high school botany text to make up for everything I didn't know. There is also a lot of great published material on orchids for the serious grower that's fascinating but dry.

"I would never call myself a person who knows botany. I would never use the word expert. But I have no ego about asking questions, about stepping into stories about which I know nothing," she said.

The anti-hero of her book is John Laroche, a man who first came to her attention when he was arrested with two Seminole Indians for stealing orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp. A small newspaper article about this event caught her eye and she flew to Florida to meet him. It was the mercurial, undependable, brilliant Laroche who introduced her to the world of orchids, taking her tramping in the swamp and introducing her to other quirky orchid collectors.

"I got some criticism from people who thought I made Laroche a hero and glamorized poaching," said Orlean. "I also got criticism from those who thought that publicizing information about the Fakahatchee would draw too much attention to it and that it would be overrun by tourists wading through the swamp." She gave a short laugh.

"I think bringing attention to a place that deserves attention is more likely to protect and preserve it," she said.

Orlean only heard from Laroche once after her book was published ("I read it," was about all he had to say) but thought that he was going to come to one of her early book readings in Miami.

"He never made it to the Miami reading, which I should have known," she said. "And that was some time ago. It's funny how you can be very connected to someone for a while and when (the project's) done you find you don't have much to talk about. The intensity is very specific."

Maybe she'll hear from him again when the movie is made. While Orlean warns that nothing in Hollywood is done 'till it's done, Jonathan Demme is producing the picture for Columbia. A screenplay has been written by Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze wants to direct it. Kaufman and Jonze just finished "Being John Malkovich."

"These are very auspicious signs," says Orlean. "There's an office pool on who might be picked to play John. Brad Pitt, Jim Carey, these are some of the names that have been thrown around. But I'm a little more interested in who might be playing ME. Maybe Nicole Kidman? I think she's a wonderful actress...and she has red hair (as does Orlean)."

Orlean said she is back at work at The New Yorker, taking time out only for her book tour.

"I do a certain number of pieces a year for the magazine," she said, "and I'm putting together a collection of magazine pieces that will be published a year from now. It's called 'The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.' "

She's also beginning to write a new book of nonfiction about a gospel choir in Harlem called "The Gospel Singer."

Since Orlean is from Cleveland, I asked her if she loved The Drew Carey Show.

"I don't not love him," she hedged. "Anything to promote Cleveland is good. Actually, I'm not a big TV viewer. I've never seen his show."

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