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Susan Orlean Revisits 'The Orchid Thief' 20 Years Later

Susan Orlean
Gasper Tringale
Susan Orlean is a staff writer for the New Yorker and has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone and Esquire. She is the author of several books, including "The Orchid Thief."

Author Susan Orlean revisits her wildly popular book "The Orchid Thief," about an orchid hunter living in South Florida. It's this month's Sundial Book Club selection.

Susan Orlean never could've imagined a story about a flower collector in South Florida would become a widely popular New Yorker article, a bestselling book and be adapted into the Oscar-award winning film Adaptation starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep.

"You know, it's not that easy to come in and say, I want to do a book about a toothless guy who's poaching orchids in South Florida. It doesn't instantly grab you as a great story," she told Luis Hernandez on Sundial.

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More than 20 years later, the book is continuing to find new audiences, especially those who are rediscovering the outdoors in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The story follows John Laroche, an eccentric plant collector who travels around the Everglades seeking the rarest forms of orchids on the planet. He finds himself consistently at odds with law enforcement and the judicial system, as some rare orchids are federally protected.

That never seemed to stop him, even after he was arrested.

"He had come to court wearing a dirty t-shirt and jeans. And yet, stood up in court and announced that he was the smartest person in the world. So I thought, 'this guy has an arrogance and ego that's fascinating,'" Orlean said.

We spoke with Susan Orlean about her memories of Laroche and traveling through the Everglades. Her newest book, "The Library Book," is now available online.

If you want to join the Sundial Book Club, click here and become part of the conversation.

Here's an excerpt of our discussion with Orlean.

WLRN: You were inspired to write about orchids because of an article that you read in the Miami Herald. Do you remember that day when you read that article?

ORLEAN: I remember it vividly. I was flying back through Miami. I began just looking to see if there was anything to read in the seat pocket. As it turned out, someone had left a copy of the Miami Herald. My eye fell immediately on a headline that said, something to the effect of, local nurserymen arrested with rare orchids.

And I thought, "Oh, that sounds like an interesting story." I started reading it and it was really a baffling little news story about the arrest of John Laroche. And none of it made sense to me. I couldn't understand why someone would be arrested for having orchids. I think that was my first question. And my second question is, "why would someone steal orchids?" I mean, orchids are are pretty easy to get. And I couldn't imagine why you would steal orchids rather than just going to Home Depot and buying them.

When did it become a book or when did you decide there's more here?

As I was working on the story, I was constantly aware of how many more directions the story seemed to point to. Even though New Yorker stories are quite substantial and pretty long for a magazine story, I just felt like there was so much more to say. As I came to the end of writing the New Yorker piece, I called my agent and I said, "I know this sounds crazy, but I want to do a book about this." I knew that my publisher would be a little puzzled.

You know, it's not that easy to come in and say, I want to do a book about a toothless guy who's poaching orchids in South Florida. It doesn't instantly grab you as a great story, but I was really passionate about it and I felt certain that there was a great book in the story.

In the book, you hint at wanting to be careful not to fall into the obsession like all the other characters that you introduce us to. But I wonder, after finishing the book, did you understand what that obsession was? Why do they have it?

I think for me, this was a journey into understanding the function that a passion for anything fills in our lives. Orchids happen to be fascinating. I mean, they really are genuinely fascinating. They could provide you with an almost unlimited source of curiosity and learning, and they're so diverse and strange and marvelous looking. So just as as a thing that is interesting, I understood it much more than I did before, or before I began the book.

But in addition, I became very aware of of the value of feeling — feeling passionate about something, about anything. And whether it's orchids or collecting china or raising dogs or whatever it is, for many people, it's a passion for their family or religion or politics. The function is what really is important. And it's it's a way of feeling your place in the world.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.