Excerpted from The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Copyright © 2000 by Susan Orlean. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992 and has also written for Outside, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Vogue. She graduated from the University of Michigan and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles and upstate New York with her husband and son.
Q: If there were one question you wished an interviewer would ask, but never has, what would it be?
A: There is no question I wish I had been asked. There is a question I wish I could answer: how does the creative process work? Often people will say, where in the world did you get the idea for that lead? And I wish I could answer it, because it is very intuitive, and I think it would be a comfort to imagine that it wasn't sheer accident, that there was a very specific process by which writing took place, but there isn't.
Q: This book had its gestation as a report in a Florida newspaper article. Then you wrote a piece on the subject for The New Yorker. What was it that made you decide that it warranted 282 pages?
A: When I originally went down to write about it for The New Yorker I felt like I was peeling an onion. Every aspect of the story seemed richer than I imagined. For instance, at the Fakahatchee Strand where the original poaching took place, I casually asked one of the rangers how long it had been a preserve and what had been there before it was a preserve, and I stumbled on an entire story of Florida land scams that I felt was fascinating. I loved the idea of taking a single event, something very specific and examining it thoroughly and deeply rather than a big, sprawling event. That's a task, to take a very tight focus and make a book out of it.
Q: Your published work is all based on actual happenings; it is reportage. Have you ever considered novelizing your experiences?
A: I never have. People have asked me this, but I think real life is so interesting. I don't think I could have imagined a character as eccentric and fascinating as John Laroche. I also think there is a discipline in taking true stories and making them engaging to a reader. You have to deal with what really exists. That is a greater challenge than thinking, "Gee, it would have worked out better if he had gone to jail for a year; I think I'll just have him go to jail for a year." Instead, this is reality.
There is also a part of me that likes the pedagogical part of writing. I like that challenge of bringing knowledge to readers, material they didn't know they would actually want to know.
Q: One of the themes of the book is: what is the nature of passion, how it is that people can shape their lives around a particular obsession. Are you a passionate collector?
A: No. I am fascinated by it, partly because I never have had that kind of devotion to a single interest. Obviously at the end of the book, I realize I do have a single-minded passion. It is the passion to be a writer and a reporter. But I think the detachment was to my advantage. I don't like writing about things I am too invested in initially. For me, part of the process of writing is the journey to understanding. Orchids were to me a complete cipher--just flowers; how could anybody care about them? The journey was to try and understand how people could come to care about them, and why.
I am not being perfectly honest when I say I am not a collector. I am not an orchid collector. I collect many things, many kind of strange things. I have just never surrendered my sense of myself to say that I am a collector of things. I have a lot of odd collections: for years I collected toothpaste from around the world, American pottery of a certain color, tin globes. I have started lately to collect dice. And yet I would never describe myself as a dice collector or a pottery collector. That's the big difference between me and the orchid people who think of themselves as Orchid-people. It defines their lives
Q: John Laroche may be the title character of the book, but he is only its object; Susan Orlean is its subject. It is about you; it is a form of autobiography. If you were to consciously write an autobiography, which element of your life would you focus on?
A: I can't even imagine.
When people say, "you always put yourself in your stories," well, I am in my stories. It is a matter of acknowledging it. The fact is I do not write news that must be reported. I choose to write about whatever captures my curiosity. Simply choosing what you write about is a subjective choice.
Q: In the context of orchids--interdependence between species, their parasitic or epiphytic relationships--you might consider your focus to be living off the desires, aspirations, happenings of others. That is how you make your living. As a common parasite, really.
A: Thank you. My subject is, in one form or another, 'family' (in a very loose way). We are put on earth, we don't know why and we need to figure out how to make it feel meaningful, how to find some niche that we fit into comfortably. People go to great lengths to do this. They might focus on work or some interest like orchids, or be propelled by a desire to make lots of money or to raise their children in a certain way. And my passion is to examine and interpret that and convey it to other people. And yes, it is very much a matter of connection and disconnection and belonging and not belonging.
Q: Beneath the overriding theme of the nature of passion, the thought that surfaces with regularity is the nature of the parasite. You describe Florida as "less like a state than a sponge." John Laroche himself lives off other people's weaknesses. What is your ultimate estimation of his parasitic pursuits?
A: I think his whole episode in pornography was very telling. If people were foolish enough to come to him and offer him lots of money to post naked pictures of themselves on the web, he felt that his mission in life would be to charge them as much as possible. That's parasitic profiteering: making money off of people's fantasies.
Q: With the title The Orchid Thief, you immediately raise the question of John Laroche's morality.
A: This was the question that dogged me throughout my reporting. There were certainly moments when I thought: this is really just an ordinary greedy guy who is a little bit more clever than the ordinary greedy guy. Yet, there was a certain strange logic in this greediness. He had discovered a law that was so badly written that he could abuse it and take advantage [of it]. I also think it was a way for him to justify his own ends which were fairly simple: he wanted to make a million dollars. But he would not have wanted to do it had there not been an interesting complexity to it. I don't think he is a charlatan. I think he's a person who can't seem to live within the conventional bounds that most of us feel comfortable living within. And it is probably something to do with needing attention. He can't just succeed, he needs to succeed in a complicated, interesting, unusual way.
Q: John Laroche shares with so many Americans a "lotto" mentality of getting rich quick. But not every get-rich-quick scheme ignites the same degree of passion in him. Although he recognizes its potential, he disdains, for example, the white-striped lawn grass that he is offered from South America with "Oh, I'm not into lawn grass." It is like him looking for a Friesian cash cow in a meadow full of Holsteins. Like Don Quixote, he is the ultimate loser. Do you regard Laroche's particular fetish as a noble, quixotic trait?
A: I think noble would dignify it too much. I think he has a grand self-image. It would be enough for an ordinary person to get rich with something unspectacular like lawn grass. But Laroche has a vision of himself as something larger than life. When he steals orchids, it isn't sufficient that he steals orchids, it is also necessary that the Florida State legislature stops dead in its tracks and rewrites the law, recognizing what he has done.
He is a loser if you compare him to normal standards of success. In his own mind he is not a loser because he really is living the life he wants to lead.
Q: You paint Florida as the ultimate America, the land of plenty, and yet one gets the strong sense that you find its profuseness more than just a little vulgar. Did you retain a sense of remaining a distinct and separate being, or were you ever in danger of becoming part of the exotic blur?
A: I will forever be an outsider to Florida. I am not a hot weather person. I think you have to learn to melt into the Florida landscape if you are to learn to become 'Floridian'. On the other hand I think I am a person who is typical of Florida. I came down there to find my own fortune. Like so many people I came to Florida with a scheme in mind: I wanted to write this book about this peculiar event that had taken place. But my connection was impermanent. It surprises me to realize I have written easily over half a dozen pieces down there. Part of that is the fact that interesting, strange things happen in Florida. It is a bubbling-stew of a place. And the kinds of stories that interest me, people starting new lives, creating new communities, happened in Florida.
Q: Let's talk about your relief when you know that you will not be seeing the ghost orchid after all. Fate intervenes. Disappointment is deflected. And you are grateful. Is that how you rule your life?
A: I think about this all the time. I try to figure out if there is destiny and fate or if life is just haphazard. What we search for is a kind of order and logic in what is the chaotic and illogical experience of being alive. I think you grab on to little footholds that make you think that there is logic and that there is some sense of order in your life. It is very funny how much we crave that. I am almost delighted to have a fortune teller say to me, "Nothing is going to happen until January" because I feel relieved of that anticipation. I can't believe there isn't a grand design that is always unfolding in front of us. It is a comfort to think that there is something. Sometimes I wonder how it is that I ended up as a writer. It seems, looking back on it, almost fated. On the other hand I am not sure. Do I believe that? Or, aren't we all inventions of our own choices and decisions?
Q: Do you still have the desire, unrequited as it was at the end of the book, to see a ghost orchid?
A: Now I am a little afraid to see one. I had gone for such a long time thinking I was going to see one, and being thwarted over and over again, that towards the end of my reporting, I began to think it was better that I didn't see one. It could never have matched all of the expectations that I was bringing to it. A ranger from the Fakahatchee called me after the book came out and said, "If you want to see a ghost orchid, I will take you to see one. I'll call you when I know there's one in bloom. You can come down." And I realized I didn't really want to. I like just imagining it, as something irresistible and unattainable. One of these days I suspect I will see one. It would be nice if it were by accident.
Q: Have you seen or talked to John Laroche since the book was published?
A: I haven't seen him. I have talked to him. In fact he called me after the book was first published and he said, "Well, I've read the book."
And I said, "U-huh," and naturally I was a little apprehensive. I wasn't sure what his reaction would be. It wasn't an entirely flattering portrait.
And he said to me in his usual way, "You know, if you write a couple more books, you could turn into a pretty good writer."
Q: There is never anything in the book that unambiguously paints Laroche as an attractive individual, yet he seems to have exerted a strong almost pseudo-antagonist influence on you amid the sexual imagery that pervades the descriptions and activities of orchids--growing in the crotches of a pop ash tree--Laroche lusting after orchids--the passion for them being the catalyst for divorce and so on. Did you analyze your fascination with Laroche going beyond the objective interest in his passion?
A: There was a lot of sexual imagery in the book. I only realize this now. As a matter of fact, it was a bit of a challenge to find a photograph of an orchid for the cover that wasn't too sexual. Certainly, when I set out to write a book about flowers, I never thought it would be sexy.
But our relationship was strictly reporter and subject. It is certainly true that you develop a kind of intimacy with someone you are writing about. You spend an enormous amount of time with them. You want to hear everything they have to say. It is a kind of idealized relationship. By definition, everything he had to say was interesting to me, because that is what I was there to do: to find out about him. I think you can become very attached, very connected to each other. Going back to the parasitic theme: you are each serving a purpose. He was my subject. His cooperation made it possible for me to write a book. I was his witness to whom he could describe his life's ambitions and get attention for them. I think one of the great questions in non-fiction is: what does that relationship mean? Because the relationship ends when the book ends, is that a betrayal? There was never any flicker of romantic interest on my side, and I suspect on both sides. But you do develop a connection that is unusual. It is hard to imagine any relationship that is similar, except that of a confessor, I suppose.
There was a great piece years ago written by Janet Malcolm, that argued that there is a mutually exploitative relationship between a reporter and a subject. I have to agree with her. That does not mean that it is evil and corrupt. It just means that to not acknowledge that you are each using each other for a reason and that that is the context of the relationship, is just naïve. It is not a natural relationship. It is a very unnatural relationship. You are not having a friendship with John Laroche. You are having a relationship within the context of the reportage. I don't think it means that it is false. It means that you always have to be aware that it is an unnatural circumstance.
Tim McHenry edited and contributed to the Bloomsbury publication The Lost Voices of World War I. His travel writing on Madagascar, Borneo and East Timor has appeared in The Daily Telegraph, London.
1) Is there a hero in The Orchid Thief? An anti-hero?
2) Is the book subjective? Objective? Or a different genre altogether?
3) Some people describe this as "literary non-fiction." Is that how you would characterize it?
4) Susan Orlean resists the temptation to feel possessed by the orchids but she is willing to undergo great trials in order to satisfy her passion for reporting. Is this passion evident in her writing?
5) The passion for collecting is described in the book as a means of infusing meaning into life, subjecting the vicissitudes to some order, acquiring the ability to mold and change the nature of things, i.e. create life itself. What other means do humans employ to achieve the same ends, and how effective are they?
6) John Laroche would not describe himself as an orchid person. To him the orchid is a temporary albeit very intense passion, a means to an end, not an end in itself. How would you analyze the difference between Laroche's motives in collecting orchids and the regular orchid collectors we visit in the course of the book?
7) Laroche wrestles verbally with the thought that acting within what he considered the bounds of the law for his own immediate gain was ultimately an act of altruism. His rape of the Fakahatchee would force the law to be changed and close the loophole that allowed him to poach rare and wild orchids form an Indian reservation in the first place, thus protecting the species in the wild, and securing it for the marketplace at the same time. Is this the thought process of an amoral character? Or is he just an everyday charlatan? Discuss.
8) Laroche makes a very telling statement: "When I had my own nursery I sometimes felt like all the people swarming around were going to eat me alive. I felt like they were that gigantic parasitic plant and I was the dying host tree." Is Laroche playing the role of the victim, the martyr to a (preferably lost, but grand) cause or is he in control of his life by making a living off other people's weaknesses, whether it be a passion for orchids or pornography? Discuss.
9) Orlean seems fascinated by the story of Darwin and the study of the orchid with the eighteen inch nectary and the moth with the eighteen inch proboscis to feed on it: the idea that two totally different life forms evolved specifically to serve each other; that neither could have existed without the other. What has the evidence of the orchid's adaptability altered your perception of the theories of evolution?
10) Orlean interrupts her central narrative of John Laroche with stories of the orchid hunters of the past, the contemporary state for Florida and other histories. How does this affect the pace of the work?
11) Is the framework she has devised successful?
12) The Native Americans on the reservation are entitled by one law to remove protected species from their land. Is this law justified?
13) Orlean seems surprised by the abundance of sexual references to orchids in their book. Yet the flower is the prime sexual organ of most plants. Seek out a florist with a good representation of orchids. What alternative descriptions of these exotic flowers can you devise?
14) What is the real core, the central character, of the book: Laroche? Florida? Orchids? Native Americans? Darwin? Orlean?
15) As a reader, what did you expect from a book about orchids?
16) How did your experience for reading The Orchid Thief compare to what you expected?
17) The working title of The Orchid Thief was "Passion." What does that suggest about the themes in the book?
18) What, besides orchids, could generate a book like this?
19) Are there other subcultures or other objects of desire that might be as provocative?