Q&A with Publishers Weekly:
1. How did you first hear about this story?
In 2005, a British filmmaker named Sasha Snow made a one-hour documentary about these events, called “Conflict Tiger”. I happened to see this film at a festival where I was also presenting, and I was really haunted by it. I was also left with many lingering questions so, as soon as I got home, I called Snow; he gave me some good advice and encouragement, and I headed to the Far East as soon as I got my visas. Since then, Sasha Snow and I have become friends. In fact, he is now at work on a documentary of my first book, The Golden Spruce.
2. The book contains some of the most vivid writing on nature I’ve read recently, and initially, I (wrongly) assumed that you were present at the tracking expeditions, so precise are your observations. How did you recreate those scenes?
One of the things that sets this story apart is the fact that the men charged with investigating it treated the case and its evidence forensically, as one would a murder. In addition to interviews, notes, maps and diagrams, there was extensive video footage. I really want readers to feel this tiger as the people in this story did, and all of this information, combined with my own interviews and visits to the scenes, allowed for vivid, visceral and immediate recreations.
4. Given the famous stoicism and reticence of inhabitants of the Primorye, how did you elicit such frank and surprisingly introspective testimonials?
I was truly surprised at how willing – even eager – individuals were to talk with us. I think there were two reasons for this: First, my Canadian translator was amazing; he was kind of like a magic key into that culture. Somehow, he was able to put people at ease almost immediately. Once we sat down, people could see that we had done our homework and that we were approaching the story – and them, in a serious, fair-minded way. Second, this was an absolutely desperate situation – arguably the most traumatic series of events in the participants’ already-difficult lives, and some of them had been carrying their piece of it, alone, for a long time. There may have been some relief in handing it off. I hope so.
5. You’re conspicuously absent as a character in the book–how did you arrive at the decision to leave yourself out?
It would have been fairly easy to turn this into a first-person reporter’s travelogue, and it was kind of tempting because the place is so colorful and weird. But it’s been done many times before, and I stifled that impulse early on. This story, in my view, represents an almost mythic drama with many timeless, universal themes, and I didn’t want to dilute it in any way. Furthermore, the events are so intense and poignant that I felt as if I hadn’t really earned the right to insert myself into them. Had I been present when these incidents actually took place, I might have handled it differently.
6. You write that the Russians “interact with the land with more devotion and genuine understanding than most Westerners, who may perceive themselves as environmentally aware, could ever hope to.” Tell me more about this; where does this come from? Why are even urban Russians not as alienated from the land than Westerners?
Russia is huge so we’re painting with a broad brush here, but I think the widespread knowledge of how to grow food comes, first and foremost, from necessity. Small-scale farming has been a constant there, as opposed to a temporary response like Victory gardens or backyard chickens. In Russia, particularly in rural areas, if you want to eat, and eat well, you have to grow it or catch it yourself. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Life under Communism, while stable in certain ways, was still precarious, and it’s even more precarious now. Basic survival there demands a certain level of resourcefulness, and homegrown food takes some of the edge off.
7. I was very moved by how your subjects talked about the tiger: they acknowledge that the tiger is fearsome and can easily destroy them, but they insist that the tiger is a “protector, a just animal,” capable of vendettas but also deeply analytical. I can’t think of anything (real or conceptual) that occupies this singular space in the Western consciousness. Does this perspective of the tiger, say more about the tiger or about how Russians tend to look at nature? Or both?
That’s a wonderful, difficult question, and I think I spent the entire book trying to answer it! Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, wherever people live closely with tigers, sharing the land as opposed to dominating it, there tends to be this kind of attitude. In the end, I think it stems from a combination of the tiger’s spooky sentience and potency, and the experience of those who encounter this energy on a regular basis. Finding fresh tiger tracks around your outhouse is a very unsettling experience: you know she’s there, but where? If the ecosystem is intact, that’s likely all you’ll ever see.
8. This story seems poised on the fault lines of any number of hot topics–the ravages of the “free” market, China’s resource consumption, growing environmental devastation and climate change. Is there cause for optimism? Are there grassroots or state efforts to protect the residents of the Primorye as well as the Amur tiger?
The short answer is a qualified Yes. In Primorye, tigers may be better protected than humans. Over the course of the 20th century – the most traumatic period in Russian history – Russians managed to restore the collapsing Amur tiger population and deter poachers – remarkable achievements, given the extraordinary stressors at work there. For three generations, there has been a small corps of brave and dedicated individuals studying and advocating for Amur tigers in the Russian Far East. However, since perestroika, the combination of a porous border with China, ineffective laws against poaching, and rapid habitat loss due to logging, is proving lethal to tigers and the prey on which they depend. In the end, it comes down to money and political will, both of which are in short supply at the moment. Nonetheless, in this Year of the Tiger, I believe Primorye, of all places in Asia, represents the tiger’s best chance for a wild, safe, and stable coexistence with humans.