John Vaillant's real-life thriller about a man-eating Siberian tiger has won Canada's richest prize for non-fiction. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival was named the winner of British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction on Monday. The prize is worth $40,000.
"I'm very honoured that the judges would be moved by a story from so far away by people who are so unknown to us in so many ways who live in such courageously anonymous ways," Vaillant said after being announced the winner.
"It is a page-turner," said jury chair Philip Marchand during an interview. "It was really such a compelling story, combined with his facility of language and style and all the narrative gifts that you would want in a story like this."
Vaillant's book follows the extraordinary man-against-tiger story, which began in late 1997 in Russia's far-east Primorye region. A tiger, who had earlier been shot and wounded, was killing people. The massive creature, as it turned out, was not just hurt and hungry; he was seeking revenge. The story's human protagonist is Yuri Trush, a middle-aged former soldier who heads one of the region's Inspection Tiger Units and is charged with tracking down the tiger before it kills again.
"You wonder: What is going to happen to this animal and this tracker?" said Marchand. "It's just an incredible story."
It's incredible enough for Hollywood; Brad Pitt has optioned the film rights.
Like Vaillant's earlier celebrated work of non-fiction, the Governor-General's Award-winning The Golden Spruce, this is a cautionary tale arising from the clash between humans and the environment.
The Golden Spruce, Vaillant's first book, told the story of a legendary old-growth Sitka spruce on Haida Gwaii and the logger who cut it down as a mad act of protest against contemporary logging practices.
Vaillant (which is pronounced "valiant") was at the Banff International Film Festival to talk about The Golden Spruce when he saw British filmmaker Sasha Snow's documentary Conflict Tiger. Vaillant was fascinated. "This story was the freaking Golden Spruce with stripes," he wrote in The Globe and Mail last year.
On Monday, Vaillant returned to the idea that The Golden Spruce and The Tiger have strong similarities. "There's this urgent need to shift the axis of our relationship to this planet from a vertical one of dominance and submission to a horizontal one of co-collaborators," he said in a speech, before receiving the award.
Vaillant, 48, lives in Vancouver, but the award is open to all Canadian non-fiction writers. The other short-listed books this year were all written by Ontario-based authors. They included Stevie Cameron's On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women; James FitzGerald's family memoir What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son's Quest to Redeem the Past; and Mordecai: The Life & Times by Charles Foran, an exhaustive biography of Mordecai Richler.
"It was fiendishly difficult to choose between them," said Marchand. "It was almost an impossible task because they all demonstrated such high literary skill and a great story and massive research and everything you want in a prize like this."
Born in Cambridge, Mass., Vaillant has lived in Vancouver for 13 years. He has written for many publications, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Walrus.
He spoke Monday about being commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to write about the Pickton story but had a disagreement with his editor about what the story was about.
"Eventually I killed the story and I'm so glad that it survived in your hands," Vaillant said, indicating Cameron.
Moments later he was announced the winner of the prize.
The award is presented annually by the British Columbia Achievement Foundation. The independent foundation was established by the province in 2003 to celebrate excellence in the arts, humanities, enterprise and community service.
"We are fortunate to live in a country like Canada that actually encourages people to show us our world in ways that we wouldn't want to sometimes imagine," said B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who established the foundation and serves on its board.
In a speech, Campbell spoke about each of the short-listed books, including FitzGerald's memoir about his father's suicide. "Like James, I was the son of a doctor," said Campbell. "Like James, my father took his own life. And I know what happened when that happened with me. It was quiet. It wasn't just quiet. There was silence. I didn't discover my father had taken his own life till years after that had happened."
Also on the jury were author and broadcaster Noah Richler and Alma Lee, the founder of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival. They chose the winner from more than 150 submissions.