Meeting the Minds – John Vaillant

AU’s Writer In Residence, Part II

This is part two of The Voice Magazine’s Barbara Lehtiniemi’s interview with AU’s 2016-2017 Writer in Residence, John Vaillant. You can read part one of the interview here.

Mr. Vaillant will give his first AU presentation on February 2, entitled “Reckoning the Present: Mediating the tension between the muse and the news.” AU Students are invited to attend in person, by phone, or online.

Your books so far revolve around the intersection of man and the environment. What particularly attracts you to that theme?
I just think it’s the dilemma of our times. It’s our relationship with nature that keeps us alive. If we don’t come to some accommodation with nature, our experience of life is going to change dramatically. There’s tension between human goals and the pressing need to maintain natural systems so they can sustain us. I find it the most compelling, powerful issue.

Your last book, The Jaguar’s Children, is your first fiction book, and in an interview with Heidi Staseson from AU you mentioned another novel in the works. Do you see yourself moving more into the realm of fiction rather than non-fiction?
I really admire Peter Matthiessen, who goes back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. Some stories lend themselves to fiction rather than non-fiction. I’d like to be a competent fiction writer as well as a competent non-fiction writer—both have their place. I think each medium resonates with readers in different ways. It’s like taking a boat rather than a car—different vehicles, different ways of approaching a story, and moving through it.

As AU’s Writer-in-Residence, you’ll be available to give feedback to students on their own writing. What would you personally like to have achieved by the end of your residency?
I would love to connect with students. It would be wonderful if students choose to share their writing efforts. I hope to meet some students February 2 when I’m at the Edmonton campus.

Have you been contacted by any Athabasca University students yet?
One so far.

What is a question from students you don’t want to get?
I’m pretty open to questions. Doesn’t mean I’ll answer, though! I don’t have a no-go zone in advance.

How valuable is it for writers to find mentors early on in their career?
I think it really depends on the person. Some prefer to work privately out in the woodshed. Assuming it’s work to be shared—to bridge a gulf between people—then you eventually have to show it. It needn’t be another writer. Just someone with intelligent interest, someone who can value what you write, be moved by it, be interested in it. If you’re an aspiring writer, find someone like that, it doesn’t matter whom: a family member, a friend.

If you have a particular goal in your writing, if you want to focus on writing op-eds, or sonnets, or short stories, for example, find a writer who has that skill. Ideally, find someone who can appreciate what you’re trying to do and hopefully has the breadth of experience to give you guidance. Above all, read.

The first part of your recent interview with AU garnered a number of harshly negative comments for your views about President-elect Donald Trump. Is that type of criticism something you need to pay attention to as a writer?
Well, if you’re going to express opinions, you have to be prepared for that. I haven’t seen those comments yet. But I’d be happy to engage anyone in rational dialogue.

How closely do you follow Canadian politics?
Selectively—some issues more than others. For example, I tend to follow policies that affect immigration and the environment. And of course I follow issues on energy for my book.

I’m a bit split between the two political scenes. I was born in the U.S. and many of my views were developed there. But they have evolved a lot since I moved to Canada.

What kind of books do you usually read?
There’s not a particular kind of book I read. Right now, I’m reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, a late 18th-century explorer. Von Humboldt was one of the first Europeans to recognize that nature was an enormous, integrated system. I’m quite interested in his views and I’ve been reading some of his original writings, too.

I read poetry often, for its phrasing, structure, and economy of language. And I usually have a novel on the go. But right now, I’m reading mostly about fire and oil.

For more information about John Vaillant, visit his website at, or visit AU’s Writer in Residence biography page.

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