Writer in Residence disheartened by U.S. election

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Straight on the heels of his successful novel The Jaguar’s Children [Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015], Governor General’s Award-winning author and freelance writer John Vaillant is now devoting his time to Athabasca University as its 2016-17 Writer in Residence/Writer for Health, sponsored by ZoomerMedia Ltd.   

A writer in residence is a lot more than a visiting author who provides advice to students while working on their own masterpieces. He or she is also a community arts ambassador and an integral teaching and research resource for faculty.

Vaillant will spend 60 per cent of his one-year term working on his current piece of non-fiction — a work about last year’s devastating Fort McMurray fire and the influences of fire, both historically and culturally, particularly in the context of humanity’s quest for energy juxtaposed with “our desire to master fire and control it.”

Q&A Part 1 with John Vaillant

Last month, AU Newsroom’s Heidi Staseson spoke with John Vaillant from his home in Vancouver. In Part 1 of this interview, he had one thing on his mind: the 2016 U.S. election. He did not mince words.

HS: So did you actually vote in this last month’s election?

JV: I did.

HS: What’s that like when you’re living in Canada but you’ve still got those close U.S. ties?

JV: Well in this particular situation it’s absolutely devastating. I’ve been through some really bad elections and ones that left myself and others who feel as I do feeling really bereft and frightened for the future —but there’s never been anything like this. This is really more like a coup: the meanness of spirit, the appetite for vengeance … the hunger for payback and the venal, self-serving nature of the enterprise, I think, are really almost unprecedented.

Not that those features haven’t existed all along, but they’ve never been so openly exposed. It’s one of the most dispiriting times in my adult life. So that’s going to temper this interview — I hope not too much, but that is very alive for me. When the election results first came in, I had really never felt this way — even after Bush beat Gore in that very contentious election in 2000. Even after that, I never felt like this. I was trying to put some kind of description to it, and it’s really like finding out someone you love has just been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

HS: Strong words.

JV: It’s deeply painful and frightening, and deeply saddening. There are two saving graces: one is potentially a Democratic senate in 2018 – so the bleeding could be stanched as early as 2018 — and possibly earlier if a felony is found in Trump’s closet. Thank God for term limits.

And people walked into it with their eyes open. Trump was very up front about who he is and how he thought. So there was caveat emptor. For decades we’ve known this guy and yet people chose him. It’s astounding to me.

HS: Well you certainly don’t mince words and I appreciate that.

JV: We’re stuck with it. Something I’ve had to emphasize to my American family and friends is that I do not feel protected or insulated up here.

HS: Let’s talk about that. There’s been a wave of U.S. celebrities — from Chelsea Handler to Lena Dunham to Snoop Dog who had, prior to the election, threatened to move to Canada if Trump was elected. Post-election, you have people like Senator Barbara Boxer who are saying, ‘No; you’ve got to stay and fight. Fleeing won’t do [us] good.’ But you’re a U.S. citizen who lives in Canada, with dual citizenship – so what’s your answer to that? Is Canada the answer?

JV: No, I don’t think it’s a refuge, but there’s no reason you can’t live here and not be politically engaged or socially engaged, or simply stand up for commonsense and decency and justice. And I would like to emphasize: I’m politically liberal, but Trump is way beyond partisanship. If I was Republican, I think I would feel the same way. I think there are many decent Republicans who are appalled — just by his disdain for the truth.

The truth, if it suits him, is a means to an end for him. It feels like he operates outside of ordinary boundaries. And that’s a terrifying and very dangerous prospect … [It has a] corrosive impact on democracy because one of the things that democracy depends on — that any society depends on — is knowing where the facts are. And if you wonder about whether that’s true or not, go to Russia and look at what three generations of manipulation of truth have done. It’s enabled Putin, and it has deeply damaged the entire society, right down to individual psychology.

I spent a lot of time there researching my second book [The Tiger, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010] ] and that’s really what I came away with – the psychological impact of three generations of communism. Plus, the social controls imposed by tsars prior to Lenin and Stalin, had already so undermined people’s notion of what facts and truth and trust were. There was almost really no sphere of society or human relation that was insulated from it. And I think we’re in danger of that here.

jaguars-childrenHS: It sounds like you feel this election is something right out of a fiction, novel?

JV: Yup. Well you wonder about people’s fascinations with the zombie apocalypse and dystopian fiction — and I do wonder if part of the reason societies are drawn to particular narrative trends is because they’re either feeling it, or they’re preparing themselves.

HS: Self-fulfilling prophecy?

JV: That could be, or it could be that on some level people kind of collectively smell it on the wind. You look at Margaret Atwood’s really terrifying dystopian books and stories and visions, and you know, I truly don’t see how Trump’s election or his proposed cabinet could be worse.

Given that the U.S. is nominally a nation of laws, and given what it was coming out of, I would say it was on an upswing. And then to regress like this and to undermine its own progress and best interests in such a profound way is unfathomable.

HS: Aside from influences like the zombie-apocalypse genre, what about the fact that reality TV seems to have taken over North American viewing audiences?

JV: Yeah, there has been a lot of commentary on that. Part of Trump’s success is because he understands the medium of reality TV in the way that he capitalized on it — the same way the Democrats capitalized on the internet in 2008, and the same way Kennedy capitalized on television in 1960. Trump understands how to use this medium. And he also has incredible face- and-name recognition — I think it’s basically 100 per cent. Everybody in the world knows who he is, and that was even before he was president.

He’s kind of taken some pages from Ronald Reagan’s book. I think that’s a huge piece of it. And I would say an entire generation now has been bathed in Fox News and right-wing talk radio. I mean, right-wing talk radio has been around, literally, for generations, but the Fox News view of the world – people have now come of age who, as children, their parents listened to it, growing up in its sphere themselves. And this is the payoff, I think.

HS: It’s kind of ironic that you have current Fox News reporters who are completely eschewing what Trump stands for.

JV: Yeah, I mean it’s amazing seeing Glenn Beck coming out as a kind of rational, humanistic softie. It’s astounding. But they made that world, and they have to take some responsibility for it. And then the cravenness of the Republican Party to just fall in step, just to save their own necks — it’s disgraceful from many angles. Democrats bear some blame too. No small amount of blame. But there’s still the commonsense of the American voter: why would you vote for somebody who was openly cruel and had no interest in facts? That’s a puzzle to me.

HS: Do these issues also provide fodder for your fiction? Is this something you would want to tackle [in a future book]?

JV: No because I couldn’t improve on it. I mean what we’re seeing right now is so grotesque that I don’t think any fiction can really match it. I think just being a journalist is going to be so incredibly surreal over the next several years. This is where truth is stranger than fiction and it’s going to be much more visceral.

In Part 2 of the chat with AU’s Writer in Residence, John Vaillant talks about his latest novel The Jaguar’s Children and gives advice to budding writers.