A Q&A with Wade Davis and John Vaillant

By | May 20, 2014 at 3:31 pm | No comments | Events | Tags: , ,

On Thursday, anthropologist Wade Davis and author John Vaillant will join poet and novelist Karen Connelly for a conversation on a writer’s role in a fast-changing world as part of PEN Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue series. You can buy tickets here. PEN Canada asked Davis and Vaillant a few questions to set the stage for the formal discussion on May 22.

Five big questions for Wade Davis and John Vaillant 

PEN Canada (PC): The event’s title was inspired by a verse from T.S. Eliot, which describes being “At the still point of the turning world.” How does that idea resonate with you as the landscapes, cultures, and languages are changing so quickly around you?

Wade Davis (WD): Peter Mathiessen said that “anyone who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous.” No doubt he had in mind men such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. But we do have as writers an obligation to bear witness to the world, even as we endeavor to stumble along on the side of what is right, honourable, decent and true. Creativity is the consequence of action, not its motivation. Do what needs to be done and then ask whether it was possible or permissible.

Pessimism is an indulgence, orthodoxy the enemy of invention, despair an insult to the imagination.

John Vaillant (JV): There are two ways: 1) You as the writer represent a calm place – a literal and figurative ‘eye in the storm’ of the story. You, alone, are removed from the chaos, focused and able to see all sides. It allows you the luxury of teasing things apart and setting them out in an environment where the details won’t be buffeted about by the swirl of life that those actually living the story are trapped in.

2) As soon as you go to print, your story has become history.  You’ve captured a moment that has already passed, but at least it’s fixed, you’ve pinned the butterfly and now you can really study it. I think if you’ve chosen well, and written well, your themes and observations will remain relevant for years to come.

PC: You have both written about threats to culture, language and the natural world. What is it that draws you these subjects?

WD: Every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard. Yet of the world’s 7000 languages, fully half may disappear within our lifetimes.  At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination that is the human legacy. . . If human beings are the agents of cultural loss, we can be facilitators of cultural survival. There is a fire burning over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame and reinventing the poetry of diversity is among the most important challenges of our times.

JV: I have found that it is on the margins of society, culture, wilderness that the dynamics shaping those entities and the planet at large are most clearly visible.  These fault lines between worlds are also where the price we pay to live and believe as we do is most easily tallied. The stakes are clearer and the evidence is more starkly seen.

PC: How do you make readers care about these stories that may seem far-removed from them?

WD: Does it matter to the people of Quebec if the Tuareg of the Sahara lose their culture? Probably not. No more than the loss of Quebec would matter to the Tuareg. But I would argue that the loss of either way of life does matter to humanity as a whole. On the one hand it is a basic issue of human rights . . . And at a more fundamental level we have to ask ourselves: What kind of world do we want to live in?

JV: There has to be a compelling narrative engine, something clearly at stake and strong characters who we as readers (and writers) can identify with at some level. Without these, I would have a lot of trouble writing (or reading) about . . . anything.

PC: As a writer, how involved do you become with the story?

WD: Totally. It’s like what my friend Terrence McKenna once wrote: “Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”

JV: During the research and writing process it is a love affair, a full-on obsession.  It’s a wonderful and sometimes frightening state to be in

PC: John, you mentioned you were inspired by the Heraclitus quote: “Only flux and becoming are real, permanence and constancy are merely apparent.” Who are other writers that have informed your worldview?

WD: Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, Matthieu Ricard, Walt Whitman, Lawrence Durrell, Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, Vera Brittain, Wilfred Owen

JV: You mean, besides Wade Davis?!  I’ve just been rereading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. His compassion, intensity and poetry, and his interest in the ignored and unseen has really inspired me. Likewise, Gary Snyder, Seamus Heaney, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, “children’s” authors, Holling Clancy Holling and Virginia Lee Burton. Melville is big for me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

PEN Canada hosts Wade Davis and John Vaillant in conversation with Karen Connelly for Still Points in a Turning World on May 22 at Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario. For more information and to buy tickets click here.

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