SILVER MEDAL WINNER, FLORIDA BOOK AWARDS
Releasing today in paperback, The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid unspools like a riveting mystery novel, stranger than anything in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief or the film, Adaptation. Discovered in Peru in 2002, the Phragmipedium kovachii quickly became the most sought-after orchid in the world. Prices soared to $10,000 on the black market and otherwise rational people bent rules and broke laws in their obsessive quest to possess it. Award-winning journalist Craig Pittman shows how some people can become so obsessed—with beauty, with profit, with fame—that they will ignore everything, even the law.
“Some people will do anything for beauty or fame.”
In this Q&A, Craig offers the behind-the-scenes scoop on his research and his inspiration for this thrilling book that critics have praised over and over again.
I got a tip about the court case from an orchid expert and it sounded pretty intriguing, so I went over to the federal court and started pulling the documents. I ended up covering the story for my newspaper, then writing a long magazine piece. The more I learned about the case, the stranger and more interesting it seemed.
Not many people realize that orchids would be worth smuggling into the United States. What is it that makes it so compelling to illegally import them?
This particular orchid was regarded as the most spectacular discovery in the orchid world in at least a century, with tremendous commercial possibilities for both sales of the plant itself and for creating hybrids that could also be sold. That’s what drew so much attention to what came to be known as the Phragmipedium kovachii.
Much of the scandal behind stealing orchids involves the struggle to conserve these wildflowers. Why is it so crucial that we save orchids, and what steps can we take to aid in conservation efforts?
Often the difficulty with saving wild orchids is that their habitat is destroyed by new roads, housing developments etc. Save the orchids and you end up saving the habitat that’s home to lots of other species. In addition, the orchids help to support a variety of pollinators, and vice versa.
Your book has been praised as “a page-turner” (Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas) with the “pace and tension of a great detective novel” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune). How did you manage to make this nonfiction work feel like a nail-biting crime novel?
I’ve been reading thrillers since I was in my early teens and got hooked on Sherlock Holmes. It’s a family tradition—my grandfather read everything Erle Stanley Gardner ever wrote, my great-aunt was a fan of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, and my mom devoured all the Agatha Christie novels about Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. So after several decades of reading these kinds of books, you pick up a few of the tricks of the trade; for instance, ending every chapter with a teaser to the next one so people will keep turning the pages.
What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
I hope they will read it and wonder what kind of stories are behind other flowers that we see every day. The world is full of stories—you just have to look around and find them.
What did you like best about writing this book?
Talking to the orchid folks. They were all smart, very articulate, and very open and willing to discuss the case with me, even though many of them disagreed with each other about what happened and what it all meant. Even the one guy who went to prison talked to me.
What are your three favorite fiction books?
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler; and the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.
Do you have one sentence of advice for aspiring journalists?
You can’t write unless you read.