December 20, 2002
By Peggy Earle
The Virginian-Pilot

MIKE D'ORSO SHARES his roomy, elegant Tudor home on Norfolk's Lafayette River with a cat - a rough and tumble tabby called Nippy. The battle-scarred feline, who was sprawled sleepily on a sofa cushion when I met him, soon proved worthy of his name. D'Orso stroked the cat's head as he chatted about his new book, "Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands.'' The monologue stopped abruptly when the hand of D'Orso became the target of a sudden attack and, with teeth clenched, he had to unhook his housemate's claw.

Nippy's critique notwithstanding, in its starred review of "Plundering Paradise,'' Kirkus called it "stunning,'' and Publisher's Weekly pronounced the book "a stellar study of the alchemy of man and nature.' D'Orso will present some of his photos and stories collected on the Galapagos during a slide show at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk this Sunday.

So, what makes "Plundering Paradise'' different from all the other books written about the legendary equatorial archipelago?


D'Orso's subjects are not the islands' very particular wildlife, nor their endangered ecosystem. The giant tortoises, iguanas and sea lions, the constant threat of devastating oil spills, overfishing, mega-tourism, as well as the surreal political situation in Ecuador (the country that owns the Galapagos), have been written about extensively and are certainly germane to D'Orso's book.

But that wasn't why he made four trips to the islands. He went to find out about the people, the odd mixture of hardy souls who have made their homes in such a strange, remote and fascinating place.

D'Orso doesn't take all the credit for the great stories and astonishing openness of those he encountered in the Galapagos. He thinks the fact that the islands' inhabitants had rarely, if ever, been interviewed gave them a guilelessness that did away with any personal barriers.

Nevertheless, D'Orso's writing career is a testament to his talent for getting people to reveal themselves. His many "as told to'' books include the autobiography of Congressman John Lewis, for which he received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; "Rise and Walk," the story of former New York Jet Dennis Byrd's recovery from paralysis; and "Winning With Integrity,'' with Leigh Steinberg, the sports agent whose life inspired the movie "Jerry Maguire." D'Orso was nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize and has written one book a year for 13 years. He co-authored "Body for Life'' with Bill Phillips and said it is the best-selling fitness book of all time with sales topping the 3 million mark.

I asked D'Orso to share some of his interviewing secrets. He spoke with eyes closed:

"When I interview, I'm myself. I don't pretend to know things I don't know. I try to be respectful and humble. ... I should be the one who feels stupid.''

He never uses a tape recorder, believing, he says, that it makes the interviewer lazy, less spontaneous.

It all comes down to this:

"When people like you, they help you,'' a fact that made his Galapagos book possible. D'Orso speaks no Spanish but was always able to find willing translators.

Before long, he knew he had what it took to make a non-fiction book read like a novel.

"If you've got good characters hanging around, something's going to happen. But you've got to have someone to hang the hat of your story on.''

Now, with the book just beginning to make waves, D'Orso finds himself the subject of interviews, something he said he quite enjoys. In 1984, he began working at The Virginian-Pilot full time and stayed until 1993, taking occasional leaves of absence to write his first books. Since then, except for the times he misses the "reward of being read two or three times a week,'' he hasn't looked back. He said he's been invited to present his "funky slide show,'' which came about at the suggestion of his editors, to the National Geographic Society in Washington, something that clearly thrills him. In addition, that presentation will be broadcast nationwide, on C-SPAN.

Take that, Nippy.