When writer John Vaillant and wife Nora considered a move to Vancouver in 1998 from their east coast U.S home, Vaillant found a Vancouver map to study.
"I thought about where I wanted to be, talked to some realtors about where to live, and picked this 10-square block from suburban Philadelphia some 3,000 miles away," he said on the back steps of the 1930s Kerrisdale house he and wife Nora live in with their two children, aged two and five.
It’s that kind of contemplation that helped him research and write the Governor-General award winner, The Golden Spruce , (Random House, 2005) a true story of the larger-than-life environmentalist who chopped down a revered 300-year-old Haida Gwaii spruce tree.
Vaillant will be in Whistler Wednesday to read from and discuss his book that took 18 months to complete and has since won two other awards, the $15,000 Writers’ Trust Prize and B.C.’s Roderick Haig-Brown Award.
The Golden Spruce is a first book for Vaillant, a freelance writer who has been published in the New Yorker , Atlantic Monthly , and Harper’s . He says books like this, with a rich central character combined with mythology, psychology, botany, industry and history are a rarity.
"It would make ridiculous fiction," he said. "That’s the beauty of non-fiction when you find a story like the golden spruce. It’s like writing about the unicorn."
From a family of writers, Vaillant studied English and creative writing at Oberlin College, but didn’t write professionally until age 35. Now 43, he worked as a fisherman, boat builder, youth counsellor and musician but says writing was always on his mind.
"It came very easily and once I started doing it I was working steadily," he said.
Vaillant writes in the morning and even with two pre-schoolers in the house finds it natural to slip in and out of the writerly cerebral zone. "If things reach a certain pitch, I know I need to go and participate," he said.
But he admits pulling together The Golden Spruce was a tough haul.
"It was a roller coaster. Some days you wonder who the hell is going to want to read this? Why am I bothering?" Culling through tedious texts on tree genetics in order to explain the unique make up of the Haida Gwaii spruce, a freakish masterpiece that managed to thrive surrounded in light reflected by its evergreen siblings, Vaillant said he quickly learned to look for the one or two interesting nuggets in hundreds of academic pages.
"The irony is that botany is a real miracle," he said. "Sitting right here right now (in his cloistered green garden) and looking at what is happening it’s beautiful and wondrous and yet to read about it is so deathly dull."
Vaillant’s perseverance paid off, although several publishers had turned the book project down, saying they couldn’t see how to expand on his 7,000-word New Yorker piece that preceded the book.
"I had to let them know what a world there was here."
"Here" is British Columbia, a world that Vaillant still puzzles over, and admits causes some homesickness.
"There’s a real dilemma being an immigrant, even from so close by," he said. "The place you grew up in – you have a molecular connection and you can’t shake that. Much as I love the smell of the Pacific, of cedar trees – those aren’t primal senses for me."
The father of two Canadians, Vaillant said his Vancouver neighbourhood is the right place to be ("We’re heavily into familyhood right now.")
Awards aside, Vaillant said the greatest compliment came from colleague and veteran tree planter Charlotte Gill, who showed him a well-worn copy of The Golden Spruce 20 fellow forest workers had read.
"To have people who are actually living the story and find it credible, that’s the highest praise. That’s the ultimate test."
Tickets are $10 tickets for the 7 p.m. reading and are available through Armchair Books and
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