Author John Vaillant stands in front of the iconic tower at Port Angeles City Pier. (Elijah Sussman/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Author John Vaillant stands in front of the iconic tower at Port Angeles City Pier. (Elijah Sussman/Olympic Peninsula News Group)

Author visits Peninsula for Writer in Residence program

Vaillant awarded Shaughnessy Cohen Prize

PORT ANGELES — Decorated nature writer John Vaillant provided a few readings, signed some books and spent a week as Peninsula College’s Writer In Residence.

By train and car, Vaillant traveled from Vancouver, British Columbia, to visit the North Olympic Peninsula earlier this month.

His most recent book, “Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World,” was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and separately won a $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing last week.

He has been touring the environmental-disaster book for the last two years and will continue for months to come.

His first book, “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed” was published in 2005. That year, he gave his first Port Angeles reading.

Since then, Vaillant has given numerous readings at venues such as Port Book and News and the Raymond Carver room in the North Olympic Library’s Port Angeles building.

Bookstore owners Allen and Cindy Turner said they have sold more copies of “The Golden Spruce” than Harry Potter books.

“It’s the single best-selling book in the history of our book store,” Allen Turner said.

In 2023, Port Book and News hosted the first American reading of “Fire Weather” and they were able to sell it a day before its official release.

“His writing is fantastic, he’s very careful about his writing, he’s very detailed in his writing, and he’s easy to read,” Allen Turner said. “I can put the book in someone’s hand, knowing that if they like the subject matter, they are going to like the book.”

Exploring existential threats to individuals, to the human species and to plants and animals is a through line in his work. Vaillant, who has had four books published, has begun to see themes emerge in his work.

“I see patterns of appalling violence and heinous betrayal, people in charge letting down the people, entities, beings or landscapes that they should be stewarding,” he said.

Speaking to what compels him toward telling certain stories rather than others, he said: “It’s not all altruistic desires for social or climate justice, it’s like, ‘What am I working on, and what am I dealing with?’ I’m drawn to stories of collisions between human ambition and the natural world.”

Writer In Residence

On May 1, a small group of students and community members gathered in room J-147 on the college campus. As the last of the students trickled in, Vaillant began a presentation on his only work of fiction, “Jaguar Children.”

Peninsula College professor Matt Teorey, whose fiction students were in attendance, spoke to the value of the Writer In Residency series.

“When students only know authors as names on the page, literature can seem distant, even historic,” Teorey said. “One benefit of meeting an author is that their story seems more personal, immediate and relevant.”

Teorey’s class read “Jaguars Children” while discussing the idea of setting in story.

“Jaguar Children” is the story of a young Oaxacan man, Héctor, who finds himself stuck in a water tanker somewhere near the U.S.-Mexico border. He and a group of fellow travelers are subject to the rising and dropping temperatures of the April desert as their water supplies wear thin.

Believing he is in the U.S., searching through his unconscious friend’s cell phone, he comes across a single U.S. phone number for “AnniMac.” He begins texting her desperately. As this main narrative urgently unfolds, Hector recalls stories from his life in Mexico via text message.

Vaillant shared a PowerPoint presentation with cultural artifacts and practices relevant to the characters in his story, including a clay Zapotec head and fiery festivities in the streets of Oaxaca Centro.

He also shared an infrared image from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol showing a group of immigrants being smuggled across the border in the back of a truck.

Two days later, as he walked on Hollywood Beach, Vaillant expressed the satisfaction he gets from the research portion of his writing process.

“Having an excuse to delve deeply, that’s half the fun of it,” he said. “If you’re a naturally curious person, this gives you a chance to really geek out on something.”

Rich Riski, organizer of the Writer In Residence series, reflected upon Vaillant’s most recent book.

“’Fire Weather’ presents a vivid, disturbing picture of how climate change has escalated for decades, culminating in a phenomenon that he calls the ‘21st century wildfire,’ which can create its own swarm of tornadoes and vaporize a modern home in five to 10 minutes as inferno-level heat consumes synthetic building materials,” Riski said.

For all of the fearful realities that Vaillant covers in his work, he maintains a grounded optimism. He said humanity has already undergone all of the conditions which we can expect in the future and sought solutions for its survival.

Except for fire tornadoes, a 21st century phenomenon.

________

Elijah Sussman is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at elijah.sussman@sequimgazette.com.

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