For the love of the craft

John Vaillant talks non-fiction

By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor

On February 23, local Vancouver wordsmith John Vaillant met with creative writing students in Douglas College’s Aboriginal Gathering Place to discuss the writing and publishing of his award winning books The Golden Spruce, The Tiger, and The Jaguar’s Children.

After a brief introduction, Vaillant discussed the research that went into the writing of his first novel, The Golden Spruce. He was inspired to write the story after hearing about Grant Hadwin, a logger who cut down the Kiidk’yaas—a sitka spruce tree with golden needles—in the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Hadwin had intended to make an anti-logging statement, but the tree was of special significance to the Haida people. Although he was arrested for his crime, he later disappeared.

Vaillant visited the Haida Gwaii people to ask permission to tell the story on their behalf, and he was invited to take part in a pole raising ritual in honour of a fallen Haida tribe member. Vaillant included the funeral ritual in The Golden Spruce, and made his description of it a selected reading during the talk. The reading was very engaging, offering an excellent sample of Vaillant’s imagistic writing style, as well as his concise and poetic prose.

Such writing may seem effortless when read, but Vaillant stressed that this is always the result of many revisions. He reportedly completed his first draft of The Tiger in six weeks, but it went through two years of revisions before it was finally published. For this reason, Vaillant emphasized the importance of staying passionate about the work. “The readers can sense your boredom,” he said, “and they can sense your excitement, too. There’s nothing worse than getting a hundred pages into a story and giving up.”

Vaillant also spoke about The Tiger in the context of writing non-fiction. As the story was based on a series of man-eating tiger attacks in eastern Russia, he took it upon himself to create the most detailed rendition possible, going above and beyond merely seeking out documentaries and historical accounts. He travelled to Primorsky Krai, the actual site of the attacks, to experience the environment personally, as well as to seek out friends of the deceased for secondhand information. He went so far as to find out what phase the moon was in at the time of the attacks, just to be sure that a single line of prose about the crescent moon was accurate.

Despite his evident dedication to storytelling, Vaillant remained quite humble and self-effacing when asked about his thorough method. “It’s almost a kind of pathology,” he said. “I mean, why else would you spend eight hours on a story? Is your own company really that intriguing? I think of it almost as a birth defect that I’ve managed to turn into something positive.”

John Vaillant’s most recent novel, The Jaguar’s Children, was released in 2015. It received similar acclaim to his other novels, including a nomination for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.