Malahat volunteer Kelly Bouchard talks with our 2013 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize judge, John Vaillant about his work and his thoughts on creative nonfiction and contest judging.
In a 2010 interview on Shaw TV, you described how your last book was born out of a chance viewing of the documentary film Conflict Tiger, which tells the story of a man-eating tiger in Russia’s Far East. You seem to have left the theatre convinced you could write a book on the same subject, and soon began the process of researching what would become The Tiger. This makes me curious about how you position yourself to encounter and recognize the stories you want to tackle. Are you consciously and constantly scouring the landscape for a good story, or do you wait for a story to come to you? Do you typically recognize a good subject right away, or was The Tiger an exception in this regard?
I’m an opportunistic filter feeder. Think of a barnacle in a tidal channel – all this material sweeping through – four times a day, in vast quantities, most of it irrelevant. But every now and then – who knows when – something irresistibly nutritious will sweep by within reach. The true test – the gift, if there is one – is being able to recognize that thing and seize on it. Both The Golden Spruce and The Tiger were serendipitous, in this sense. The latter, partly because it was my second book, was easier to recognize as a book. The Golden Spruce started out as a series of questions that I eventually saw was a story, and later a book, which was a huge step for me at the time.
There’s a lot of talk amongst writers about voice: establishing one’s voice, finding one’s voice, sticking to one’s voice, etcetera. It’s an enigmatic subject that seems to be a bit of a catch all for a lot of things. When I read your work I definitely get a sense that you have a kind of style and structure that clearly works for you. If I was handed something you’d written without knowing who it was by, I like to think I’d throw your name out as a possible author. Would you say that you’ve found your voice? Could you pinpoint the moment or article in which you discovered a way of writing that was authentically yours, or is voice something that develops gradually over time and, in a sense, is always changing?
At this point, I think of voice coming naturally, organically, but I think I’m forgetting a lot of early experimentation and failure, which is no fun to dwell on. My first published stories were personal experience of the adventure travel type. They were lighter and funnier than what I’m doing now, and I found a tone that worked without too much difficulty. Being 35 when I started probably helped. I did adventure travel for two years and then I got a story in The New Yorker, which was another order of magnitude. It wasn’t a fun a story; it was serious business (“The Ship That Vanished,” Oct 11, 1999), and the arduous researching, writing, and editing process was kind of like my MFA. TNY was my dream venue and failure wasn’t an option because I knew they wouldn’t give me a second chance. TNY has its own style, which I happen to love, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for voice in there, you just have to use it judiciously. The bottom line though is that, interest- and topic-wise, I was and am writing with myself as the Guinea pig, in a voice I would like to hear. I operate under the assumption that I’m not all that different from potential readers beyond the fact that I’m willing to obsess over a topic for years at a time. So, when I amuse myself, I assume others will be amused too, and when I bore myself, I know it’s time to change the subject or rewrite. I learned a lot from my magazine editors, so that by the time I got to the book-writing stage, I had enough experience, discipline, and maturity to make pretty good choices about what to say and how to say it. The joy (and the terror) of the book is that it’s yours to make of what you will – for better or worse. At this point, I feel I’ve found my nonfiction voice, but that doesn’t mean I’m content with it, or that it’s not subject to change. Fiction voice is another subject entirely: in my experience, those come from outside in the ether somewhere, which brings us back to filter feeding . . .
Your books and articles often examine particular instances of conflict between humans and the natural world, but you always couch individual actions and events within the flux of overarching social phenomena. For example, in The Tiger you at once acknowledge that poaching has been instrumental in the decline of the Amur tiger population, illustrate that for many poachers killing a tiger represents a chance to escape crushing poverty, and point out that poaching is predicated on a kind of voracious consumerism which is not limited in its appetite to tiger parts alone. And in your essay “The Archetypal Walrus,” you condemn the callous slaughter of animals by Alaskan fisherman, and admit that you yourself are no stranger to the sense of entitlement that underpins such callousness. You tend to offer an expansive view that defies distinctions between “us (the moral ones)” and “them (the immoral ones).” How important is this expansive perspective when it comes to generating positive change and how important is investigative journalism in propagating this kind of perspective?
Unless you’re a saint or a psychopath, you’re operating somewhere (often several places simultaneously) on a universal human spectrum of desire, ambition, love, hate, fear, etc. I have to live with myself, and that is not always easy to do. So, when I write about others, I feel a moral obligation to approach them with compassion, which doesn’t mean I always succeed, or even want to. But empathy is my ideal. As I see it, it is the only way through - the only way to heal the wound. It’s also the only way I know to get the “Other” to listen. Once you start Us-ing and Them-ing, pieces of the truth, your soul, the world, are compromised, weakened and/or destroyed. We’ve seen it with slavery, civil rights, and all the “isms,” and we’re seeing it now in our relationship to the Earth. To deny connection and interdependence is ultimately fatal. This is Humanity’s supreme challenge at this point in our collective history.
In 2007, you, Deborah Campbell, J. B. Mackinnon, Alisa Smith, Charles Montgomery, Brian Payton, and Chris Tenove, (all British Columbian Authors) sent a collective letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), urging them to “regulate the [media] environment to the benefit of the Canadian Public by capping cross ownership of media outlets.” You and your fellow authors stated that “In this increasingly concentrated ownership environment, we find that media outlets are paying less for freelance work and demanding more extensive control over copyright than in the past.” Has the situation changed for journalists and freelancers in the time since that letter was sent?
No, unless it’s gotten worse.
You and the other authors who wrote that letter to the CRTC were part of a writing group called the FCC. What was the FCC? Does it still exist? How important is it for writers, specifically freelancers, to be part of writing groups or writing communities?
The FCC was a loose affiliation of journalists and authors who shared certain ideals about writing, specifically but not exclusively nonfiction. It has been officially dissolved, mostly due to inertia: because members have left the profession or established themselves to the point that they don’t feel the need for periodic meetings. That said, I think it’s really important for freelancers to have some kind of alliance. The trouble is it’s almost a contradiction: freelancers aren’t typically joiners. I rarely shared my work with anyone in the FCC, but we’re friends and I admire them. If I needed it, I wouldn’t hesitate to seek their counsel, and it’s really nice to have people like that in your life, however peripherally.
In your nonfiction you often play the role of investigator, but the book you’re working on now, The Jaguar’s Children, is a novel. How does your approach to fiction differ from your approach to nonfiction? Are you still in some sense playing the role of investigator, or do you come at it from a completely different angle?
A lot of the best novelists research and interview just as hard as their nonfiction counterparts. Pretty much everything in The Jaguar’s Children is real – either I witnessed it, I heard about it from a reliable source, or I assembled it from existing parts. That said, there is an equally important unconscious element that is strange and wonderful to experience. For example, the narrator’s voice and name just came to me out of nowhere, and many of the scenes were discovered as opposed to plotted. That’s what makes fiction so much fun while at the same time raising the stakes so terribly high: it’s easy to go wrong.
You’ve written for magazines like The Walrus, National Geographic, Outside, and The New Yorker, all of which publish excellent creative nonfiction but none of which have an explicit literary emphasis. You are now judging a creative nonfiction contest for a literary journal. Is there a difference between literary CNF and non-literary CNF and, if so, what counts as literary and what doesn’t?
I have to say I really stumble over this notion of “creative nonfiction,” literary or otherwise. To me, CNF sounds like what Michael Frey did, what John D’Agata does, and what it now seems my heroes Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski made a career of doing. My training – that is, my fact checkers – taught me that if you take facts and get them wrong, or mess around with them to suit your purposes, then you’re lying or writing fiction, pure and simple. If you’re going to call it nonfiction, someone else has to be able to go to that place, person, photo, recording, and see and/or hear what you saw. It has to be verifiable and repeatable. If I say that a burning mask appeared to be weeping molten tears, that’s because I’m 100% sure the person next to me, witnessing it from my angle, saw those flaming cracks appear under the eyes as well. As for literary or non-literary, in my view, there is news – the kind of nonfiction you read in a daily newspaper; there is the scholarly, topical essay; there is memoir (a hazardous and often fictive medium), and then there is longform literary nonfiction: true stories that have something of the universal in them, that are both accurate and beautiful, and that stand. In other words, you could read them with confidence, comprehension and pleasure a hundred years from now and admire their substance and style. I am trying to write the latter. Knowing this, Malahat may want me off the jury . . .
Name two creative nonfiction authors you admire, and two pieces of short CNF that really blew you away.
Not sure if these qualify as CNF, but off the top of my head, I loved Gene Weingarten’s “Pearls Before Breakfast” (Washington Post, April 8, 2007), and I loved Scott Anderson’s “Prisoner of War” (Harper’s, Jan. 1997); Douglas Preston’s “Woody’s Dream” (TNY, Nov. 15, 1999) is terrific, too. But there are so many good ones out there. It’s daunting as hell. My idol is probably Peter Matthiessen, as much for his principles as for his writing, but Barry Lopez is way up there, and so are Luis Alberto Urrea and Adam Hochschild and Evan Connell and Seamus Heaney . . .
In agreeing to judge this contest you’ve signed yourself up for a difficult task: having to painstakingly compare and rank works written in disparate styles and centering on disparate topics, having to justify your choices through some kind of explanation, and knowing that, no matter which piece winds up the winner, there will be people out there (not least of all the non-winners) who will claim you are seriously misguided. All this undertaken for what will probably amount to less than minimum wage. Agony. Sheer agony. Why are you doing this to yourself Mr. Vaillant?
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, and because folks have done the same and more for me.
Speaking of agony, I wanted to ask you one last question I ask just about every writer I meet. Sometimes when I write it’s painful. Progress is agonizingly slow and doubt about my abilities (not to mention my sanity) creeps in with every word. Has writing ever been like this for you and, if so, have you found a way to transcend, or at least manage, these kinds of feelings?
Mostly, what I feel is fear, which is a terrific motivator. But when I get past that, I find myself in a place of exalted stillness where all the negative comparisons and nattering voices that say you shouldn’t, you can’t, you suck, are silenced. In that sense, writing is my querencia. I cannot explain the source of this confidence because I felt it even as an unpublished and rejected writer, but I think it is founded in joy. With very few exceptions, writing is simply my favourite thing to do.
* * * * * * * *
Read guidelines for the 2013 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize here.