Q&A: Author John Vaillant talks about tigers, "The Wire" and the crossroads of journalism and art



The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant, is about a man-eating tiger that was terrorizing a village in a remote part of the Russian Far East in the late 1990s. In the book, Vaillant uses first hand accounts and video from the actual hunt for the tiger to re-create the chilling events and build a narrative that not only serves as a thrilling story, but discusses the clash of conservation, culture and the use and abuse of natural resources.

The Tiger was Vaillant’s second book and it was picked this year for the University of Montana’s First Year Reading Experience—a decade-old program that aims to facilitate community building through the sharing of a single book that may be used across departments. Vaillant’s first book was the award-winning nonfiction title The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. His latest is The Jaguar’s Children, a novel about a group of Mexicans trapped inside a tanker truck abandoned on its way to smuggling them across the border into the USA. Vaillant took some time from his home in Vancouver, B.C. to be interviewed by telephone.

Five years removed since it was published, are you surprised to still be doing events focused on The Tiger?

John Valliant: Not really. I welcome it. It’s just part of the kind of life that a book takes after publication. People are still discovering The Golden Spruce, my first book, and contacting me about it. Books just trickle through all these hidden channels, or get caught in currents, kind of like messages in bottles washing up on beaches, where people can find them.
It also helps to be writing about real people, especially, and issues that are still alive. With The Golden Spruce it’s logging and deforestation, for example, and then with tigers it is the lingering threats against them. There is also something about tigers—they are really celebrities among animals. Both the violence they are capable of and the violence against them.

The Tiger is a fantastic book, and an example I would offer—with plenty others—to prove we are kind of living in a golden age of nonfiction.

JV: That’s funny, because I said essentially the same thing. I blurbed the Canadian edition of Hector Tobar’s excellent book Deep Down Under, about the 43 trapped Chilean miners. I cited it as further proof that we are living in a golden age of nonfiction.

Do you ever worry that with so many people proclaiming the death of journalism, that we may start to see fewer of these kinds of books? That many of the bright people who might have gone into journalism will go somewhere else? So many of these stories come from writers with chops established from years spent as journalists.

JV: Yeah, you know, I kind of do. A perfect example is David Simon. He spent a dozen years at the Baltimore Sun, then went on to write something as great as “The Wire.” He couldn’t have done that without knowing those people, being immersed in that environment. I was a late starter. I didn’t publish my first book until I was 42, after working in journalism. I never worked for a newspaper, though, I wrote for magazines.

You learned the story of this tiger you wrote about from the film Sasha Snow made called Conflict Tiger, right? In a bit of reciprocity, I know he was making a film about The Golden Spruce, too. What’s going on with that?

JV: Yes, it’s called Hadwin’s Judgment. Well, it’s done! It’s in the festival circuit, out in the world. In fact, just a few days after I leave Missoula I am going to be in Eden Mills, Ontario, near Toronto. They have a wonderful book festival there and we are actually going to be screening it. Then later this year Sasha and I will both be at the film festival in Banff, where it will be showing.

Your latest book, The Jaguar’s Children, is a novel, but it seems like it could have been written as nonfiction as well. What made you decide to write a novel this time?

JV: It was the voice. I was living in Oaxaca, and the first line of the book, “Hello, I am sorry to bother you, but I need your assistance,” just came to me and I took it from there—that voice, Hector’s voice, just kind of living in my head.

I imagine you must have used a lot of the same journalistic/investigative skills for this book as you would a nonfiction work?

JV: Yes, there was some overlap in the details. Novels come from a different place. I’m a writer, and this might sound presumptuous, but I consider myself an artist. Art comes from a different place than journalism. I was living there, and knew a lot of what these people were dealing with, but I didn’t always trust the voice, that what he was saying was entirely true. I wanted to tell Hector’s story, as he told it. In nonfiction you’re not allowed to improve on facts, obviously. Some people have done it, and they’ve gotten in trouble for it, too.

John Vaillant discusses The Tiger at the Dennison Theatre tonight, Wed., Sept. 9, at 8 PM. Free.

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