The Windham Campbell Literature Prize winners: John Vaillant

Windham Campbell Literature Prize winner John Vaillant
Windham Campbell Literature Prize winner John Vaillant
John Vaillant’s writing is equal parts adventure story, history lesson, investigative journalism, and eco-philosophy. Best known for his two nonfiction works, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger: A true story of vengeance and survival, Vaillant uses ecology, historiography, cultural anthropology, and geography to explore the tensions between economic necessity and natural resource sustainability in temperate rainforests of British Columbia and the far Russian east. His other-than-human characters, which includes trees, tigers, forested landscapes, and water bodies, constantly invite the reader to reflect on what it means to be human.

Vaillant’s books have won numerous awards including Canada’s 2005 Governor General’s Award for nonfiction, the B.C. National Book Award for Non-Fiction, the CBC Award for Best Overall Book, the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize, the Globe and Mail’s Best Book for Science 2010, the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and France’s Prix Nicolas Bouvier. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vaillant and his family live in Vancouver.

John Vaillant is a 2014 Windham Campbell Literature Prize winner for nonfiction.

SAGE Magazine’s Timothy Brown spoke with Vaillant about his work.


SAGE: Congratulations on being awarded a Windham Campbell Prize!

John Vaillant: Thank you.

SAGE: What was your reaction to finding out that you had won?

JV: It was so far out of left field, something so completely unexpected, that I just didn’t have a place to put it. You know what I mean? In the intervening days and weeks, it sort of sunk in. And looking at the other folks who are joining me in this, I’m really thrilled at the idea of getting together with them. You know, it’s a beautiful vindication. I think there’s that feeling as a writer you’re kind of wondering, Is anybody actually reading? What kind of impact are you making? It’s a pretty elaborate process to go through as far as the whole Windham Campbell jury; and it’s very reassuring that there are people whom you don’t know and have never seen thinking that hard about what you and your colleagues do. That means a huge amount. There are people who are seriously considering the craft, the content, the purpose. It really keeps you going to know that people care about it as much as you do because there’s lots of evidence to the contrary. It’s a little glow that wasn’t there before. I haven’t seen any check yet, but it’s going to become a lot more concrete.

You know, the work I do, the type of job I have, and the way I live is very precarious. I’m the sole breadwinner, and keeping the family and the house together at that level is intense. There’s a lot of worry, and anxiety, and uncertainty involved. And so to have a kind of angel like this just land on your desk is a dream come true really. These are things that writers truly fantasize about, and it generally remains a fantasy. So I feel extremely fortunate, and am really excited to meet the people behind it.

SAGE: As a closed process, you didn’t even know you’d been nominated, correct?

JV: I had no idea. That’s what I mean. You know, when Mike (Kelleher, Windham Campbell Program Director) called and I heard the word “library,” it was eight in the morning, and I’m thinking overdue library books. My mind was completely somewhere else. I was getting the kids ready for school, and then, it’s like somebody calls from a completely different planet with this extraordinary news. It was a lot to take in.

SAGE: Well, congratulations, it’s quite a testament to your accomplishments as a processional writer.

JV: You know, it has never been easy make a living at writing, but that whole world is literally changing under our feet right now. And in that sense, I’m coming almost from another generation, having started in the late 90s when the internet wasn’t such a presence. But I gotta say, I can’t think of a more important thing to be doing now, at this time, in the history of our species and this planet, than to be drawing attention to the environment. It feels like the most important task, the most desperate need. Everything else hinges on it. There’s a Chinese adage: may your child not be born during an interesting time We, for better or for worse, have been born into a very interesting time. It’s a kind of a burden, too. You and I are going to be witnessing incredible changes, and we’re going to need people who can convey and explain what is happening because it’s gonna be big. It already is.

SAGE: You obviously have a strong ability to connect with your readers, and your books have won many awards. What do you think it is about your work that most resonates with today’s readers?

JV: Well, I think it helps to be topical. I’m trying to write about something that’s actually happening now, at some level, and a story that is larger than it appears to be. Maybe The Golden Spruce is set in the Queen Charlotte Islands or Haida Gwaii, and maybe The Tiger is set in Russia, but they actually are representing–kind of standing in–for a whole host of much larger, systemic global issues. This is the limitation of my own mind and intellect. It’s really hard for me to grasp what’s happening at the global level, and so I try to find small, intimate, microcosmic stories that have the quality of a parable, a more universal resonance. And so that’s part of it—biting off something that an ordinary person can chew; picking a story that’s kind of containable, both intellectually and geographically.

Both the environments where the golden spruce lived and the Amur tiger live now, are really quite small areas, and they’re both islands of a kind. Being able to talk about these very contained worlds that both I and the reader can really get to know, as opposed to talking about Asia or even the Arctic that are huge subjects; approaching it from the microcosmic perspective, with individual characters whether it’s a tree, or a tiger, or individual humans; characters who we can get to know and become invested in—you know, that’s just how we work as people, in terms of how we relate to things.

The other thing, too—and this I learned from magazine writing (I kind of started out in the “adventure journalism” line): people like exciting things. There needs to be something at stake. For me, mortality or the possibility thereof, is a powerful engine. And when there’s some kind of individual, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a tiger or a tree or a person, if their lives are at stake at some level, we’re more likely to invest ourselves as readers. As a writer, you’re trying to create a narrative engine. So to write a book about forestry, or to write a book about tiger conservation, I don’t know if I’m even capable of doing that. But if I can find a story that has a driving narrative built into it, then I can explore that topic of tiger conservation or forestry in a way that keeps my attention and I hope keeps the reader’s as well.

SAGE: You’ve certainly found great stories that grip the reader’s attention and become page turners, and like you’re saying, your books are about much more than just Grant Hadwin or Vladimir Markov, a specific tree or a specific tiger. Your books are set in a larger political and ecological context. They are extensively researched, and I’m wondering, when you’re researching a book, how do you know when you’ve got enough material to tell your story?

JV: (laughs) Yeah, that’s a real tricky one and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. And it’s easy to overwhelm the weak reader, too. You know, I think there are definitely some readers who are like, I thought this was about a tiger hunt, and you’re talking about Yakov Van whoever-he-is, and ethology; that’s not what I signed on for. But at the same time, I feel like context is everything. And none of these stories—The Golden Spruce or the hunting of that tiger or why it attacked people—has any meaning unless you understand these other dimensions and these other forces that accumulated and concentrated to facilitate these specific events.

There’s this kind of larger ripple effect coming multi-dimensionally through history, mythology, ecology, geography, current events, economy—all of these forces are playing out. It’s a holistic view. I think some of it’s, honestly, instinctive, in the sense that I’m reading about it, I’m talking to people about it, and listening very carefully to what they’re concerned about, and, you know, like when a guy’s telling me: Well, I don’t work for the logging company anymore because I was being paid millions of rubles and I couldn’t even buy food with it. But if I can get a tiger to the border and get paid in hard currency, maybe it’s by the mafia, but it’s money that I can actually feed my family with, it’s like, okay, so economics are clearly a factor; the relationship with China is clearly a factor; organized crime is clearly a factor. And so, in a way, the story will sort of tell you what’s important and needs to be included.

I feel like every time you step away from the narrative, it’s a little bit like diving underwater. You know, the moments that we’re with the tiger or with the men hunting the tiger or being hunted by the tiger, we’re getting, as readers, these potent infusions of energizing oxygen that drive us on. That’s what keeps you whipping the pages over. Then, when you go into exchange rates, or ethology, you’re drawing on that supply of oxygen. It’s like I’m taking the reader underwater, and we’re all going to have to hold our breath for a while, but where we’re going to come out, I hope, is a place that’s going to make that next blast of oxygen that much richer. That’s kind of how I think of it. And so every time you go off on one of these digressions, you’re kind of cashing a check on the reader’s patience. I just try to make it quick enough, and interesting enough, that they’ll feel like they didn’t waste their time, and that these are things that are so bizarre and so amazing that you would never hear about otherwise.

In a way, I’m also cherry-picking from the tremendous amount of work that’s already been done on the Russian Far East and northwest logging. I might read a whole book and pull out one very cool fact, but if it’s a fact that jacks me up, if it makes me stop, then I have to assume that a number of readers are going to be moved by that, too. So it’s got to pass an interest test. If I write and start to bore myself, I know it’s time to change the subject, to go back and revisit what I just wrote. So, again, it’s the magazine writer that has been kept on a short leash of 3,000 words or 5,000 words; that’s such a good discipline because everything really has to count, and you can’t take long detours just because you know it or just because you want to fill the space with it. I feel like there’s also that constant awareness that you’re entertaining, you’re serving the reader. And reminding, remembering continually that you are first and foremost a servant to the story, and then to the reader; serving yourself is very low on the list of priorities. You have to focus on how this is going to play with others.

You know, one example that I sort of struggled with that in The Golden Spruce was talking about chlorosis, and golden needles, and pigmentation, and how this tree became the way that it did. I had to deal with photosynthesis, which is probably the greatest, full-on magical miracle in nature. I mean, to take sunlight and water and carbon dioxide and minerals and turn it into the world that we live in and know is so extraordinary. So how do you convey it? It was so difficult, and I think I’ve got two or three paragraphs on it. And those were agonizing, and I still don’t think that I conveyed how extraordinary and miraculous that process really is. I struggled, and tried not to bore myself, and was terrified that I’d bore readers, but at the same time, I had to deal with it. You simply cannot write about trees without dealing with photosynthesis, and I think it’s going to take perhaps a more gifted and knowledgeable writer to truly convey the kind of wonder and magic that photosynthesis represents. Most topics aren’t that difficult. But exchange rates, Russian exchange rates and inflation are another, except that they’re so large, the numbers are so big that it can be entertaining in a kind of horrific way. You’re just making a call: Is this something that I’d want to tell friends over a dinner table, Hey, I just learned this amazing thing today. And if it doesn’t really pass that test, and if it doesn’t add to the foundation that will support the readers and move through the story then it can’t go in. But there are so many amazing anecdotes that came out of the woods that come out of eastern Asia that you would never encounter otherwise, and that there’s no other context for. As you can probably see, I tried to squeeze as many of them in as I could.

SAGE: Yeah, right. I mean, in The Golden Spruce we don’t really meet Grant Hadwin until nearly page 90. There’s this incredible description of the landscape, and the history of the Haida, the history of resource exploitation, of the sea otters and so forth, and I got to page 87, and was like, Oh yeah—there’s this guy, this logger. And it felt like something constantly new evolving and opening up.

JV: So, Hadwin coming up on page 90 in the U.S. edition, he comes up a bit earlier in the Canadian one—you know, I think that’s probably a flaw in the book. At the same time, when I talked it over with my editor, I was thinking about trees and I was thinking about landscapes, and I thought, I want to grow this story organically. I’m moving through history, and there comes a point in history in the 1960s when Hadwin organically enters the picture. I was always sort of frustrated with Hadwin being, just because he’s human, the focus. I mean, he’s always what people focused on. And actually, some people have said, My favorite part of that book is the logging history. But I do think that represents a structural flaw, and at the same time, if you’re looking at it as a living thing, if you’re growing the landscape, you know, Hadwin doesn’t come until a certain point; he’s just a part of it. There are all these other forces that are playing into and influencing and he’s standing on the shoulder and feeling the ripple effects of the otter trade, of the attitude toward the forests, of the attitude toward First Nations. And he’s absorbed all that by osmosis, you know, practically in the womb, and he’s living it out and also obviously reacting very strongly to it. My hope is that the reader has a deeper insight into his motives and his responses by having that background. But from the perspective of craft and structure, I don’t know if it’s the correct or proper solution.

SAGE: Personally, I really liked that approach. As a student at one of world’s premier schools of forestry, I was fascinated by how the book takes the reader back to the forests of the Middle East, and explores how the conquest of forests has driven Western civilization. I think readers want to understand how a story fits into a larger unfolding of place, the larger understanding of humanity’s relationship with the land.

JV: I feel like it has no meaning otherwise. You know, we can get all upset about what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri right now, but we’ve got to go back a couple of hundred years, and look at that sweep. Because in some ways, it’s that same story repeating itself. It feels new, and it’s very upsetting, but there is a deeply ingrained pattern in our culture that facilitates and perpetuates this. Journalists and authors have the luxury to step away from the daily news cycle, which is very absorbing and distracting, and really look into origins and history and nuance. It kind of clears your head. It’s a kind of rarified place to be, and as crucial as the daily news cycle is, we also need that counterbalance of historical context and looking at all the tributaries that got us into this stream.

SAGE: Both The Golden Spruce and The Tiger are stories that had been covered in other media, in other forms, including Sasha Snow’s film, Conflict Tiger. What were you most surprised to learn while researching these stories?

JV: You’re kind of prospecting in a way. You see the mountain and you say, there’s probably going to be gold here, but you don’t exactly where it is. You’ve heard stories, and then you start to dig. And you encounter other people—miners, if you will—or new veins of information. It’s really in those intimate details that we become truly amazed. I really felt that again reading Héctor Tobar’s new book about the Chilean miners, those thirty-three guys who were trapped a couple of years ago in the goldmine in Chile. A lot of us watched that unfold day in and day out, their rescue and everything. But Héctor Tobar goes into the mine, in this almost Dantean way. He got to know those thirty-three guys very intimately, to the point that the mine becomes almost this collective unconscious that they’re all inhabiting, and we get to see into it. It’s really an amazing book. So basically, I think what good nonfiction books and long-form articles do is they take a story that you thought you knew at the superficial, CNN level, and show it to you again in a way that is astonishing and much more deeply satisfying.

As I’m researching a story, I have antennae that are attuned to that, but there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get those things. For example, with Conflict Tiger, I saw the film, called Sasha up, and got his blessing to go check that story out for a book, but as far as I knew, he’d already told it. I didn’t know what else there was. So I went on my own hook with this amazing translator, Josh Stenberg; we went for a month, basically to prospect. I didn’t know what there would be. I didn’t know how people would receive us. And I realized very, very quickly that there was plenty left in this story to carry a book, along with his wonderful film. There’s no guarantee of that, and there’s a number of stories I’ve tried to do where I just couldn’t find anything to justify writing about it, even though it seemed like a good story on the surface. Some of that is luck, and some of that is your own skill at investigating the story. But the surprises are often the individual things that people will say, and most of those are in the book. There are some beautiful quotes in there, and those are the things that surprised me and moved me, and brought me into the story.

One of my best finds, if you will: I’d heard from a Russian historian that there was this game called “tiger hunting” where men would turn out the lights and basically hunt each other in the dark with live ammunition. I wrote to him (I actually had a contact for him) and I said, Where is the source for this? And he said he couldn’t remember. I believed that this existed, and he had this book of historical essays, but it was completely un-sourced. So I’m in this situation of trying to find this 130-year old story, in Russian, in a part of Russia where not a lot has been written anyway. And I found this book in Russian called Our Usuri, which is what that region was called because of the Usuri River, which is a major tributary of the Amur. I sat down with a Russian translator and had him read through the chapter headings. He didn’t know what was in this book—he just knew it was a nineteenth century journalist’s history of that region and of the people. I said to find anything with the word tiger in it, and we started reading those sections and he uncovered that conversation between the journalist and the veteran of that game. It was really like going blind because I can’t read Russian. I’d told this guy sort of what we were looking for, but it’s a very cumbersome thing to go into a 400-page book and just start trawling around. So to be able to find that and to verify that, especially in a book that has been forgotten by Russians, and certainly by everybody else, was a huge victory. I felt like I’d found something valuable, and beautiful, and amazing that was truly lost to history and brought it back. You know, it’s just so bizarre and it sort of gives you an insight into Russians, and into the frontier mentality, and into the role of tigers. It does so much, and I feel incredibly lucky and proud.

SAGE: Absolutely, and it gives you insight into Vladimir Markov and why he allowed himself to confront this tiger. Talking about tigers, poaching is a serious problem around the world, and you’ve become a staunch anti-poaching advocate. I’m wondering whether your passion for tigers is something that came out of writing the book?

JV: Oh, not at all. I started writing professionally in 1997, quite late in my life, I was 35. In the bowels of my old desktops that I’ve saved, I’ve got a Siberian tiger file that goes back to 1997. So, I was kind of collecting stuff on it, but at the same time, there was nothing new to say about tigers. The man-eating stories all got written in the 1930s and 40s, and conservation stories were ongoing. I didn’t really have anything new to add and I kind of despaired and gave up on it. I mean, what new could I possibly say here? Sy Montgomery wrote a beautiful book about the man-eaters of the Sundarbans called Spell of the Tiger. That’s a really amazing book and she really got into it in a deep and powerful way, but I didn’t know that story. It wasn’t until Sasha’s film came along that I thought, Oh wow. There’s something new to add to this narrative. And once that idea came up, I couldn’t think of anything else; I became obsessed by it, which is what you kind of have to do to see these things.

I’ve always really been interested in animals. As a kid, when other kids were playing with G.I. Joes—this is back in the 60s and 70s—I had a whole menagerie of plastic animals that I played with. And there were certain animals that I really identified with. I was very into whales, tigers, buffalo. I actually had a very intense experience as a six-year old at a farm outside of Boston where they had a small herd of buffalo. We were there getting pumpkins, it was in the fall, and my mother went off to get pumpkins and I went off to look at the buffalo, and I climbed over the fence and went into the herd; it was one of the most intense and scary things I’ve ever done. I don’t really know why as a six-year old I did it, but they were out there and so exotic and fascinating and huge, and I just wanted to be near them. So I think that the allure, and the identification with animals, have been there for a long time.

You know, I’ve done some fundraisers for tiger conservation and things like that, and the book came at a good time because 2010 was the Year of the Tiger, and there were these huge convocations of these tiger nations as they’re called, the tiger states. I hope the book has been able to do something; I hope that I have been able to do something. But there are journalists who have hit a story that side-tracked their lives and it became the thing that they devoted themselves to, and The Tiger hasn’t been that for me. I mean, once you write a book like that, you have a responsibility to that topic forever, and in some ways it’s kind of like having a child. You’re always invested in them and you need to keep tabs on them, and at some level, care for them. I’ve tried to stay tuned into what’s going on in Haida Gwaii and the northwest forests, and likewise with tigers, but honestly, there’s more I could do. At the same time, I’ve written another book since then, and the rest of the more immediate concerns of life—house and kids and spouse—these are all pressing. There’s no one thing; it’s all very pluralistic. And by trying to stay in touch with a number of different things, a number of different threads, it weakens the impact that you have. That’s something I wrestle with. Is there more that I could have done to capitalize on the attention that The Tiger got? To have stumped, if you will, on behalf of tiger conservation? I try to do some good through readings, but there are people for whom that’s a full time job, and I’m not one of them.

SAGE: You’ve said that you consider yourself a writer. At PEN Canada, where you shared the stage with Wade Davis, you said, “It’s not enough to just look at this moment. Writing is the only tool to deal with this enormity.” What do you consider to be the role of the writer in today’s world?

JV: Someone has to gather the information and present it in such a way that’s comprehensible and useful. That said, it’s only a piece. I think it’s invaluable, but it’s not the only thing that’s invaluable. There also need to be people standing in the streets in Ferguson, or getting arrested in front of the White House, or lobbying in D.C. or Ottawa. All those are crucial too. Or calling their old rich friends and fundraising. There are so many different pieces. The needs are so enormous, and here I’m thinking really at the environmental level. The Tiger is almost like an avatar for a lot of environmental ills, but there are many avatars and many ills. I mean, think about the kind of impact that a book like Silent Spring had, and still has. Sometimes it’s the zeitgeist. There are these times when the culture’s ready for the message, and the right messenger comes along. And when that dovetails, a tremendous, planet-changing synergy that can happen. In that sense, the writer has a unique role. A Tweet isn’t going to substitute for it; a blog isn’t going to substitute for it. You need some kind of container of information that is vibrant enough, radioactive enough, that it moves through the culture and illuminates and energizes the people who touch it; a combination of the message, of the messenger’s ability to convey the message, and absorption of that message.

You’re a part of a larger system, of a process between the state of the world and the ability/interest/effort/knowledge to change it. It doesn’t feel like enough to me. It often feels like this very safe place, and I should be out on the front lines more. But I’m just not the kind of person who’s going to stand on the steps of city hall and bellow through a bullhorn. There are people who are really good at that, and that’s just not my personality. At the same time, staying in your little office and quietly writing doesn’t feel like enough compared to the enormous need that’s out there. But I do feel a kind of moral responsibility. If I’m going to take the time, the luxury, really, to write a book, it has to be about something that, in my view, matters deeply to the health of this world. It needs to make a contribution. It needs to contribute something that is valuable and actionable. But it’s something I am very uneasy with. I am a writer, I identity as a writer, as opposed to an activist or a scientist or a scholar or a teacher. And I see as many limitations as I do strengths associated with that title or identification.

SAGE: When did you first realize that you are a writer, and that this was how you wanted to engage?

JV: I think it was something that I dodged for a long time. I think the writing was on the wall, so to speak, when I was probably seven or eight. You know, I wrote my first tiger poem when I was six, and still have it by chance. And I got a lot of encouragement. I went to schools that really valued writing, where I had teachers and fellow students who encouraged me. There are many members of my family who are writers; it’s not quite a family business, but it’s something that the family resonated to and admired. The reason why I got started so late was, it takes a kind of courage and humility to write, and I didn’t quite have those yet in my twenties. Also, when I saw the path that other aspiring writers were taking, which, in 1985 was: you go do your internship at Harper’s or at Doubleday or whatever, and that idea of being a minion in an office building—I couldn’t handle it. So I hitchhiked to Alaska. I wanted to be as far away from that as I could. You know, I wasn’t really dialed into Gary Snyder then, but there are some are some definite parallels. He would have been a really good companion for me if I’d known more about him back then. But I wanted to do real work, and I wanted to be with real people.

I worked with commercial fishermen and also did fishing boat construction and repair in a very remote village in western Alaska. I learned a lot there about the world, and about myself; about nature and exploitation. I wanted to see the Wild West, a place where people took what they wanted and often solved problems with firearms. It was a very intense and rough place, and that’s what I wanted to experience. It took me a long time to circle back, and now I make my living by interacting with those office buildings in New York, and I’m deeply indebted to my editors there. I never went to graduate school, but I had some editors at Sports Afield, and Men’s Journal, and The New Yorker, and The Atlantic who really taught me about writing, and some friends who were already in the profession and were doing well. But it really comes back to courage and humility. I think those came later to me than to some people.

SAGE: What would you say to someone who wants to become a writer, and engage in that way?

JV: Well, the thing about writing is there is an apprenticeship we all have to go through. And before you can write a book, you’ve got to be able to write a chapter, you’ve got to be able to write a paragraph, you’ve got to be able to write a sentence. The beauty of those short, 500-word, front-of-the-book pieces, is they help hone your mind and become a good editor, and figure out what should stay and what should go, especially in such a limited space. It’s how I’ve survived, because I’m not affiliated, right? If there were a big story, someone from Time or Outside Magazine would be on it. I mean, I got The Golden Spruce because it was so obscure, and it was in Canada. The U.S. is pretty egocentric about its stories, and there is amazing stuff happening in other parts of the world. There’s really no shortage of those stories, but you have to find them.

How I found them was by nibbling around the edges and finding stuff that was too remote or too weird the big guys hadn’t gotten to yet. I got that by not living in New York and by traveling on my own, which is a lot easier to do as a young, single person. But the power is in the story and the writing. The first pitch I did, I worked for about seven months on it, and I sent it cold to a bunch of magazines. I had no clips—I had no history as a writer. But the writing was strong and the story was interesting enough, that they said, Oh wow. Well, we’re already doing something on this but send us something else. When you start out with all these nibbles, you get a lot of, No. You know, Bob Dylan said nobody really needs another folksong, and we don’t need another novel, and maybe we don’t need another environmental story, but you have to create something that people didn’t realize they needed. No one had ever heard of the golden spruce, I honestly had so little faith in it. I had not written a book before, and agents don’t want to represent you if you’re a magazine writer because there’s no money in it for them. They want you to sell a book; that’s where they make their bread and butter. My agent was exhorting me to pitch it as a book, and I thought, I can’t work on something for two years that nobody’s going to read. I wanted to do it as an article first as a kind of market test. And I had quite the extraordinary fortune to get that into The New Yorker, which is kind of the ultimate ad for a prospective book. Immediately publishers saw it and editors saw it and I said, Ok, people in New York are interested in a golden tree off the west coast of Canada. But I needed that confirmation and assurance before I could stomach the idea of doing a book, which is intimidating and very time consuming. It’s a huge undertaking, especially your first one.

My first pitch, I believe, was to E/The Environmental Magazine. Back in the 90s they were offering something like twenty or thirty cents a word. It’s not something you can really expect to make a living on. I could make a living as a magazine writer only as a single person with very low overhead, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t really do magazine articles now. Relatively speaking, they take almost as much effort as a book. To do a five thousand or seven thousand-word piece for Outside or The New Yorker, you’re spending months, or at least I am. Other people are faster perhaps, but I’m not. And in two months, I could get a lot of the background research for a book done. And a book pays exponentially more than a magazine article. And the other thing, too, especially in the first few years: if I looked at the hours I spent writing compared to how much I was paid, I might as well be making soccer balls in Pakistan. But I love to do it. It’s a very weird way to spent time, to get off being alone for eight hours a day, stuck in your own mind. It’s almost a pathology, really. I think that most healthy people don’t have it, but I do have it. It’s like being a portrait painter, really; it’s probably one of the harder ways to make a living.

I got a meeting with The New Yorker, a personal meeting with an editor there that my agent set up. And I had no qualifications to write for them yet; I had published maybe ten articles in other much lesser magazines. But it got me in there, and I came with ideas and he was enthusiastic. I pitched ten or fifteen times before I hit, and a New Yorker pitch takes weeks and months to craft. And I did it over and over again. Even now, to get in there again, I would have to sort of start over. They’d read the pitch and take it seriously no doubt, but it’s not like, Oh, John sent us something; let’s run it! It has to go through the same gauntlet. It’s a little different if you want to be a staff writer, though if your dream is to become a staff writer at The New Yorker, I can send you a piece by a former staff writer that might disabuse you of that.

There is a beautiful meritocracy to writing. No one asked where I went to school; no one asked who my dad was. It’s, can you do it or not? It’s brutal that way, but it’s very honest. If you can write, and you’ve got a good story, then they’ll take it.

A book is this kind of gradual process of learning how to write and learning how to construct a narrative. There’s the footbridge over the creek; and then there’s the one pier span over the river; and there are these colossal suspension jobs crossing San Francisco Bay. You just work up to it. But the main thing is that there’s got to be joy in the sentence, that thrill, the conceding of the clause that captures exactly the exhilaration, or the horror, or whatever it is you were trying to get across. And it has to be in the body, in the tissue compulsion to communicate, to connect with other people through that medium. That’s kind of what it takes, or at least what it takes for me. And if I didn’t have that, I don’t think that I would do it. But there’s something about that that is so moving to me. There’s something to me about that process that is extremely joyful.

SAGE: You have a new novel coming out early next year, The Jaguar’s Children. I’m curious about your move from narrative nonfiction, books that are subtitled A true story of… to fiction. How was the writing process similar and different, and what compelled you towards the novel genre?

JV: I have to say that the Windham Campbell Prizes are wonderfully evenhanded about it, but with most contests, the novelist is kind of like royalty and with nonfiction you feel a little bit like a stepchild, or I have. It doesn’t seem fair to me. I think we’re in a golden age of nonfiction right now, and nonfiction writers have learned so much from novelists about how to construct stories, so they have the elegance and beauty of fiction, and the satisfaction of fact. To me, it’s just the best of both worlds. And there are just a lot of really good craftspeople out there right now. For me, personally, part of it is trying to find a container that’s appropriate to the story you’re trying to tell. I started another novel and got sidetracked by The Tiger, and both that one and this one came as visitations where the voice just showed up in my mind, and I started to listen to it. And at the same time, my family lived down in Oaxaca for a year in 2009-2010.

Oaxaca is a lovely place for stories and travel articles, and I was finishing The Tiger and had no interest to write something else. I wanted to read other people’s writing because I was so sick of reading my own. I wanted to refill the well. Then, around January, this voice came into my head, which is the first line of the novel, and I just stayed with it. I was seeing so many things in Oaxaca and Mexico that were moving me deeply that I didn’t want to write a travel piece or an article exactly. And there was a story that I was researching down there, which didn’t quite pan out. But as I was listening to this voice, the story began to take shape. And the novel was sort of this container for me to include all of these things that I was seeing that I love about nonfiction—things that I had no idea that existed or, Wow—they do that?!—I’ve got to put all that in. But I also got to address a couple of issues that are very pressing—immigration and GMO corn–that have been heavily written about. But I found a new way to do it. So for me, it fulfills the obligation of giving the readers information that I think they really need to have, but also the supreme challenge, as a writer, of doing a novel.

I do, in that sense, think that nonfiction is sort of practice because, you’re not quite painting by numbers to do nonfiction, but there’s an armchair that’s already there. It’s an actual narrative. In a way, a lot of the work is already done for you. It’s not to diminish it at all, it’s just you’re working off a script as it were, whereas with fiction, you’re creating a world in its entirety that has to completely sustain itself. All the parts have to be there: it’s got to have oxygen, and it’s got to be in orbit, and it’s got to be completely believable. It’s very challenging to do that. For me, the novel felt like a kind of an ultimate mountain to climb. And for long-form prose, I think it’s the most difficult thing to do, and that was part of the appeal. I read a lot of novels where I sort of want to pat the writer on the back and say, It’s hard, isn’t it? But every now and then I’ll read a novel like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and I’ll think, God, that guy just wrote a perfect novel. And so it’s irresistible to me to try. And this voice that came to me was strong enough and had enough to say, so I just tuned into that. That’s a very different mind to be in than with nonfiction. With nonfiction, you’re describing something that is; you’re out there on the landscape trying to render something, and you’re paying very careful attention to accuracy. With fiction, it’s more like a guided hallucination. Where you start out at eight in the morning and end up at four in the afternoon can be radically different places, and in that time period, you may encounter people and places you never thought of before. That sense of adventure and discovery, and mystery and surprise, are really kind of wonderful, and definitely habit-forming.

Timothy Brown

Timothy is Editor in Chief at SAGE Magazine. A former high school environmental science teacher, Timothy now studies environmental anthropology and writing at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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