Meet Top 10 author John Vaillant

The panelists are in the process of deciding which book they want to bring into the ring for the February debates. We'll reveal who they are — and the titles they choose — on November 23 on CBC Radio's Q and right here on CBC Books.

In the meantime, we want to introduce you to the authors you voted onto the Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10 list.

Today, get to know John Vaillant, author of The Tiger. He and Q host Jian Ghomeshi chatted in front of a studio audience in Vancouver on Dec.2, 2010. You can listen to their conversation in the audio player below.

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John Valliant has published two books of non-fiction, and both have been prize winners. His first book, The Golden Spruce, picked up the Governor General's Literary Award in 2005, and The Tiger won the 2011 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.


The Tiger is a gripping read with all the elements of a thriller, but its drama is based entirely on a real-life incident. For several weeks in 1997, a man-eating tiger terrorized a small village in a remote region of eastern Russia. The book chronicles the hunt for the murderous beast, but it's also an account of the social and economic forces that played a part in the situation.

Vaillant first learned of the story when he was invited to the Banff Centre to do a presentation on The Golden Spruce in November 2006. While there, he saw a documentary by British filmmaker Sasha Snow called Conflict Tiger, and was inspired. "About 15 minutes into it, my reaction to it really was, my god, this is The Golden Spruce with stripes...the issues, and the way they blended together, and the intensity all meshed for me and I had this really powerful sense of recognition," he said.

In his book, Vaillant depicts the tiger as an awe-inspiring creature, and for good reason. "The Amur [a.k.a. the Siberian] tiger is the largest cat alive today," Vaillant explained. "They can grow over 10 feet long, they can weigh over 600 pounds, and in spite of that mass, they can jump across your street, they can jump over a basketball hoop. They are incredibly powerful."

The Amur are also amazingly resilient, able to survive frigid conditions. "The temperature in Primorsky Krai in southeastern Russia can drop to minus 50, " Vaillant added.

Still, they are an endangered species, with less than 400 remaining in Russia and a total of about 3,000 in Asia.

Vaillant addresses the reasons for the species' declining population in his book. But he also tells the gripping story of one particular tiger and its vendetta against a poacher, Vladimir Markov, who tries to kill it but fails even though he shoots it at point-blank range. "The tiger then tracked the hunter, killed his dogs, tracked him back to his cabin and began taking a morbid interest in his possessions," Vaillant said. "Each thing that he found that had Markov's scent on it, he destroyed it, tore it apart. So only lumps of metal and chewed wood were left."

What proof is there that the attack was calculated vengefulness, rather than simply random? "Tigers are conscious and very, very calculating in their realm of expertise, which is the forest," Vaillant explained, adding that forensic evidence supported the notion that the tiger deliberately targeted the poacher.

According to Vaillant, the people in that area of Russia have traditionally been hunters and trappers, and their lifestyle was actually similar to that of the tiger. "They're hunting the same game, they're working the same forest, and yet, because there was a sufficient prey base, there was almost this kind of collegial attitude," he said. There wasn't tension because the tiger was regarded as a deity. "You don't harass your gods, you don't hunt your gods, you defer to your gods. "

Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Unon, however, brought profound changes. "The Chinese border is 60 miles away from the centre of this action. The meaning of the tiger in China is very different from what it meant in Russia," Vaillant said. "Overnight almost, the tiger, which was this presence in the forest that had no real value, suddenly because worth as much as a Toyota Land Cruiser to the illegal tiger trade on the Chinese side of the border. And you had destitute Russians who had no alternative."

Can tigers and humans co-exist? Vaillant believes that given sufficient prey and adequate terrain, there can be peace between us. "Tigers and humans have a lot in common," he pointed out. "They are large, intelligent, charismatic creatures with a strong sense of entitlement. You could describe us the same way. We need the same things, we need clean rivers, we need a prey base, we need intact forests. And tigers are the bellwether. If we lose them, we're going down a path, the logical conclusion of which [is that] we're at the end of the path."

Film rights to The Tiger have been bought by Brad Pitt. Is Vaillant at all concerned about how Hollywood will depict the tiger? "I think you should worry about how everything is depicted by Hollywood," he said.

But he goes on to say that a major motion picture can be a useful medium for raising awareness: "I have to be hopeful."

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