Thursday, September 23, 2010

Year of the tiger to the power of three

The men of Inspection Tiger return from the taiga with their prey.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 23, 2010


The book has been written and edited, the folios have rolled off presses to be cut and folded, the bindings have been glued and the dust jackets wrapped around boards pressing together 352 pages of adventure.

Pallets of the product have been shipped around the world, boxes making their way to stores, where clerks place them on shelves to capture the attention of a buying public with no shortage of reading options.

With each purchase, a pie chart established by legal contract divides the proceeds among publisher, retailer, and author. No need to guess who gets the thinnest slice.

Trailing the book around the continent is its creator, John Vaillant, a 48-year-old Vancouver author who has crafted the remarkable, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Knopf, $34.95).

Now, it is 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 seeks not just want 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 (val-yehnt), a word whose Middle English roots stem from the Old French vailant, from the Latin valere. It means to be strong, heroic, courageous.

Like the ancestors of football player Brett Favre, his people maintained the integrity of the original spelling while compromising on the pronunciation.

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 learning disabled children at a special education school and with juvenile delinquents on a remote island off the Massachusetts coast. For a time, he led workshops on race and gender issues for corporations seeking to diversify.

He hopped from job to job, “dodging my destiny.”

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

He sold pieces to Sports Afield, Men’s Journal, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

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.

So far this month, he has appeared at readings and signings, done interviews for print and television, engrossed radio audiences of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and CBC Radio’s “The Current” with his true-life tale.

The life of a writer is more slog than glamour.

He 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 today followed by Bellingham, Wash.; a California swing to Palo Alto, Corte Madera, and Berkeley; Portland, Ore.; Colorado stops at Boulder and Denver; 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, as it is on the Maclean’s list, up from No. 7. It appeared briefly on the New York Times’ list, then slipped off. He hopes it returns as he crisscrosses the continent.

“The people you find yourself in company with, especially on the non-fiction list, is so weird. 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, who is preparing a treatment with the producer of The Wrestler and the screenwriter of Babel.

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

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

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