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Specialists of the "Tiger" Special Inspection Organisation investigated the case of killing an Amur tiger - a rare species listed in the International Red Book. (Sayapin Vladimir/ Itar-Tass Photos/Newscom/Sayapin Vladimir/ Itar-Tass Photos/Newscom)
Specialists of the "Tiger" Special Inspection Organisation investigated the case of killing an Amur tiger - a rare species listed in the International Red Book. (Sayapin Vladimir/ Itar-Tass Photos/Newscom/Sayapin Vladimir/ Itar-Tass Photos/Newscom)

Year of the tiger, to the power of three Add to ...

John Vaillant, a 48-year-old Vancouver author, stalks the progress of his new book as it is distributed across the continent.

He is promoting his remarkable The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Knopf, $34.95).

After years or preparation it is now time for the public to pass judgment.

How much does he have riding on the book?

"Everything," he said.

"You spend three years on a project and everything's on the line. Financially. Professionally. Domestically. Everything's riding on it."

For him, it has been the year of the tiger followed by the year of the tiger followed by the year of the tiger.

His wife, Nora, has handled the home front as he has travelled afield for research and, now, publicity. He has sold only a handful of magazine pieces since winning the Governor-General's Literary Award five years ago for The Golden Spruce, a superb retelling of the destruction of a tree in Haida Gwaii by a man gone mad. He has had the good fortune of spotting another terrific tale, though it, too, has demanded he stake a lot on its outcome.

"If this book crashes and burns," he said, "the chances of getting another good project, of getting the ear of publishers and getting their financial backing is compromised." As if that was not pressure enough on a writer, he also hopes The Tiger will promote conservation efforts for a creature as magnificent as it is endangered.

He not only seeks another book contract, but he's also out to save the tiger.

Perhaps that's the attitude inherited when your family name is pronounced like valiant, which means to be strong, heroic, courageous.

Born and raised at Cambridge, Mass., where his father became a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, Mr. Vaillant first tried his hand at professional writing at age 35. Earlier, he laboured in Alaska as a commercial salmon fisherman and as a boat builder. He worked with juvenile delinquents on a remote island off the Massachusetts coast.

He hopped from job to job every year, "dodging my destiny," he said.

He moved to Vancouver in 1998 so his wife, a potter and anthropologist, could do graduate work at the University of British Columbia.

For his latest book, Mr. Vaillant trudged through frozen Siberian forests. He studied the literature on the endangered Amur tiger. He befriended the unforgettable Yuri Trush, a Russian whose hands look like "knuckled mallets," a squad leader of a local Inspection Tiger unit, a tracker whose responsibility it was to investigate forest crimes, usually involving poachers.

Of the three main characters in The Tiger, the only one still alive by the time of the author's arrival in the taiga is Mr. Trush. The other human character has been eaten, and tigers don't do interviews.

Happily, extensive videotapes, combined with a tracker's ability to see evidence in the displacement and melting of snow - a crouching 400-pound tiger leaves a distinct imprint - allow the author to recreate in riveting fashion such terrifying scenes as the poacher's final moments.

The life of a writer is more slog than glamour.

Mr. Vaillant left his home in Kitsilano by car earlier this week for an event at the public library in a forestry town in Washington state.

Actors go to Los Angeles. Authors go to Port Angeles.

He is scheduled to be in Seattle Thursday, followed by Bellingham, Wash.; a California swing to Palo Alto, Corte Madera, and Berkeley; Portland, Ore.; Colorado stops at Boulder and Denver; and a New England circuit, before returning home for an event on Oct. 21.

So far, the reception for the book has been solid, the reviews rapturous. The Tiger is No. 2 on The Globe's bestsellers list.

"The people you find yourself in company with, especially on the non-fiction list, is so weird," the author said. "It's surreal, frankly, to be between Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang and Shit My Dad Says and Going Rogue. Strange bedfellows."

The movie rights have been optioned by Brad Pitt.

A movie, especially a successful one, cannot help but move books. The more books sold, likely the more money raised to preserve the Asian forests in which the tigers live.

How ironic. The success of a book of significant literary merit may depend on Hollywood.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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