John Vaillant is a man with an eye for detail. Or perhaps an ear, or both. Regardless of where his knack for the meticulous comes from, it is a talent well worth remarking upon. The Canadian freelance author has published two books so far, both non-fiction, and each has tackled a very specific incident from every possible angle imaginable. His first book, The Golden Spruce, was published in 2005. It purports to tell the story of the Golden Spruce tree found on Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands). It was the only tree of its kind - a giant spruce with a genetic mutation that caused its needles to grow a luminous, radiating gold instead of the usual green, and in 1997, a disturbed former forest engineer named Grant Hadwin stealthily felled the tree in a bizarre act of protest against logging practices. Vaillant not only examines the biology of the tree, the powerful myth surrounding it, and the community left to grieve its elimination, but also the history of the man who cut it down, the origins of the land upon which it grew, and much more. Every facet of the book reveals Vaillant to be a thorough and curious mind, and the reader is treated to much more than they might expect from the title.
Vaillant's latest book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, is every bit as riveting, fastidious and eloquent. An Amur tiger in Primorye province, Southeastern Russia has been killing people in the forest. But what is especially chilling and worthy of a story is the slow realization that the killings do not appear arbitrary or food-based but rather premeditated and even personal. A terrifying tale of man versus nature soon unfolds as an in-depth and extremely thoughtful exploration of Russia's political and socioeconomic history, including the fallout from the perestroika movement in the 1980s. Vaillant explores the superstition and truth behind the myth of Amur tigers, the struggle by conservationists and the tigers themselves to keep the species alive despite the best attempts of poachers and human encroachment, and much more.
And critics agree that Vaillant's writing is remarkable and noteworthy - The Golden Spruce took the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2005, as well as The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction and The Tiger won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for 2010, and the Best Book for Science of 2010 by the Globe and Mail. Most recently it was selected as one of five contenders for the first ever non-fiction competition of Canada Reads.
Read on for our interview with the author of two of the last decade's most fascinating reads.
John Vaillant: My kids, mostly. And I think the TV series Father Ted is hilarious.
AbeBooks: Both The Golden Spruce and The Tiger take a very specific topic and then approach it from every possible perspective. What kind of research did you have to do for each?
John Vaillant: Both books took about two years to research and write. For both, I spent about two months in the field and the rest of the time reading, interviewing and writing. I try to approach a story as holistically as possible, through every medium and sense available to me. This is how we experience the world, and I believe stories should reflect that.
Abe: In The Tiger, when you went to Primorye, what did you encounter in terms of superstition around tigers to this day?
John Vaillant: I found that what some call superstition is largely experience-based and practically sound. For example: 'If a tiger has decided to kill you, you won't see it coming'. This is true. Likewise, tigers can disappear in plain sight. There is no rational way to explain this, but it happens.
Abe: Was that superstition contagious at all – were you nervous being there?
John Vaillant: I was not worried about tigers because I believed, as the locals do, that 'if I don't touch her, she won't touch me'. I was most concerned about the police because they could shut me down on a whim.
Abe: What about those subjects (the Golden Spruce and the Tiger) attracted you and drove you to write the books?
John Vaillant: Their uniqueness. I never would have imagined I'd write a book about trees or tigers - no matter how much I might have wanted to - because they've been 'done'. But both of these stories break the mold. I feel privileged to have had the chance to tell them.
Abe: What makes you laugh?
Abe: What are some of your favourite books to read for pleasure?
John Vaillant: Some of my favourite reads are Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. More recently, I enjoyed Ian Weir's Daniel O'Thunder, and Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers.
Abe: What writers have inspired or influenced you?
John Vaillant: Evan Connell (Son of the Morning Star), David McCullough (The Johnstown Flood), Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams), Herman Melville (Moby Dick), Holling Clancy Holling (Paddle-To-The-Sea, The Tree in the Trail), Virginia Lee Burton (Life Story, The Little House), Peter Matthiessen (Shadow Country) .
Abe: If you weren’t a writer, what other careers would you explore?
John Vaillant: Truck driver? Therapist? Ad man?
Abe: The Tiger was one of the nominees battling it out in Canada Reads 2012? What was that like to be part of?
John Vaillant: Surreal, but good for sales.
Abe: What are you working on now/will you work on next?
John Vaillant: I'm working on a novel, which I hope will see the light of day in 2013.