John VaillantSee all fellows >
USA | 2011, 2016
John Vaillant is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Outside, and Men’s Journal, among others. Of particular interest to Vaillant are stories that explore collisions between human ambition and the natural world. His work in this and other fields has taken him to five continents and five oceans. His first book, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed (Norton, 2005), was a bestseller and won several awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction (Canada); then, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, was out with Knopf and received numerous awards, including the B.C. National Book Award. His latest book, The Jaguar’s Children (2015), was a shortlisted nominee for the 2015 Rogers writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
It’s five years to the week since I was here last, and once again I’m feeling the glow of gratitude for an extraordinary gift. Beatrice’s intuition is uncanny because her invitation to return came out of the blue, right at the moment I was able to make use of it. It was a case of truly perfect timing, and this time I knew what I was getting into. My 2011 sojourn at Santa Maddalena was probably the most potent creative period of my life: after six weeks of undiluted writing, I flew home with a first draft of a first novel in my bag.
So, expectations were rather high this time!
I arrived with another novel in mind, this one mostly in the form of notes – a story deferred for a decade, nurtured in the margins of other projects. It was so good to be back in the tower, which was exactly, wonderfully the same (with the exception of an internet connection, which I have mixed feelings about). I set up my regime of writing and running on the first day and bore down. Because my hopes were so high from last time, and because I have carried this project close to my heart for so long, I had to manage expectations. I began by nibbling at the edges, trying to find a cadence and determine whether the narrator’s voice and motives had changed in ten years. I was trying to operate in an open-minded, experimental ‘sketch’ mode and, during the first two weeks, I got about 25,000 words down. I was finding a groove, knocking off at 7 each evening to exercise; after the first week or so, I was able to run up the hill from the valley below S.M.
Then, on May 4th, the terrible fire broke out in Fort McMurray, Alberta, and I was completely derailed. It was shocking and terrifying and close to home. I couldn’t take my eyes off Twitter (#ymmfire). The flames seem to grow hotter and higher with each successive image, and I found myself in a dilemma: what the hell was I doing in Italy when this catastrophic story with grave implications was unfolding right in my back yard? I debated heading home right then, but I could see that this story had become the media’s flavor of the week and that journalists would soon be outnumbering fire fighters.
On the other hand, this was a horror story that a lot of us who have been brooding over the climate file have feared for some time. In the Fort McMurray Fire was a convergence of several things that have been keeping me up at night for the past decade: climate change, the tar sands, pipelines, and Alberta’s (and Ottawa’s, and America’s) deep-seated resistance to reckoning the true cost of doing (oil) business. And yet, as squarely in my anxiety closet as this story seemed to be, when I thought about an angle – what I actually wanted to say – I couldn’t see a story that wouldn’t just be one more voice in the growing chorus of the obvious. So, after three days glued to #ymmfire, I turned off my internet connection, closed my Fort Mac file, and resolved to press on with the novel.
But first, I took a nap.
Over the years, I’ve been fascinated and inspired by stories of inventors and other creative types who’ve had revelatory experiences while in various kinds of dreamstates. As it happened, the novel I was working this time found its genesis in just such a state, ten years ago, during an uncharacteristic nap at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, where I was giving a presentation on The Golden Spruce.
And it happened again during my post-twitter-binge reset nap. Sitting up that afternoon, on the daybed in the tower, I saw in my mind mountain climbers on a wedge-shaped peak, ascending separately but simultaneously, each one on a different face, all of them converging at the summit. The mountain, I realized, was a kind of four-dimensional line graph, and the ‘lines’ the climbers were tracing represented different historical and scientific factors influencing the Fort McMurray Fire. I started researching and writing on this new project immediately, and now, two weeks out of Santa Maddalena, I’m forty pages into a nonfiction book proposal. It’s not where I expected to be after six wonderful weeks in the tower, but it’s a good place.
I think Santa Maddalena has worked its magic again.
I arrived at Santa Maddalena six weeks ago with 20,000 words of a first novel. It might sound funny, but I saw this time, in this place, as a kind of vision quest — not with the hardships and deprivations of the desert or the mountains, but with the sometimes more brutal interior solitude of the blank page combined with a yawning expanse of time. The fact that this time would be spent alone in a stone tower — the kind of place one is locked up and forgotten; the kind of place in which one can go anonymously mad, only intensified things. The additional knowledge that some of the finest writers of my generation have flourished in here, spinning stories out of the same rare air, at this same broad desk, upped the ante even more. Expectations dangled like swords.
So, on my first day, I gave that desk a wide berth. I napped on the daybed; I stared at the ceiling; I marveled at my good fortune, and wondered if I would still feel that way tomorrow. Then I got up, made myself a cup of coffee, came back, and sat down at the desk. I looked at my computer for my first time since arriving and when I looked up again, moments later, one of the doors to the large, 18th c. wardrobe opposite me was standing wide open. I had been in this room for hours already; I hadn’t touched a thing. Michael Cunningham has written about a presence in the tower room, one that he imagined might be Bruce Chatwin. I don’t know what it was, or who — maybe Grisha; maybe ‘the wind’; maybe my own anxiety. But it was a startling way to spend one’s first five ‘working’ minutes at such a storied desk. Later that afternoon, after I closed the wardrobe door and locked it, I started writing and, with the exception of delicious meals and a couple of half-day outings in delightful company, I did not stop writing for the next thirty-five days. After the first couple of sessions, when the words were well and truly flowing, I climbed the tower stairs and stepped into that high room laughing — at the pure joy of writing and doing so in such a surpassingly beautiful place. Up there, wind, sun, clouds, birdsong and the occasional lizard were my companions. I contemplated heaven, not something I often do, and wondered if this was what it might be like. Not long after, a mysterious bird called the hoopoe* visited me — flew right into the room — not once but three separate times, the second time, fluttering right over my head, wings and shadows flaring wildly as I lay on the daybed. Two days after the hoopoe’s last visit, I had a pair of dreams that rank among the most vivid and intense of my entire subconscious life — visions, if ever I have had them. In one, Cormac McCarthy and a tentacled eel made appearances; in the other, a battered mountain lion trying to raise her young in an eagle’s nest. After five weeks in that high-altitude compression chamber, I had written more than 50,000 words, and had a printed draft of a novel in my hands.
I don’t know what happened up there exactly, but I believe I tapped into what another S.M. fellow, Brian Chikwava, called the ‘creative live wire’. For such direct access to it, I give Beatrice and the potent, present memory of her husband, Grisha, full credit. Nothing remotely like this has happened to me for such a sustained period anywhere else. It is a gift I count among the most generous and memorable I have ever received – exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.
I hope the work reflects my gratitude.
*”The Conference of the Birds” is an epic poem by 12th. c. Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar, in which the hoopoe features as a guide and intermediary on the birds’ quest for enlightenment.