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John Vaillant Longlist Interview

5 October 2023

How does it feel to be longlisted?

Many are called, but few are chosen. To be in this cohort, selected by these judges, for this prize is exhilarating, validating, and also nerve-wracking.


How did you conduct your research?

Through every means of perception available to me: On-the-ground, in-person research and interviews; retracing the steps, work, and words of key characters, living and dead; extensive reading, watching, looking, listening, and smelling; following closely (via twitter) the fields of science, business, petroleum, insurance, activism, and fire behavior; and, frankly, through dreaming, which gave me the narrative structure and psychic clarity to take on this daunting subject.


As your book shows, fire has been crucial to humanity's evolution and development. How far are we able to overpower its destructive capacity?

One cannot overpower a fire tornado, a Rank 6 wildfire, or a city burning in high wind. We will do far better to:
a) understand how our activities and appetites have energized and empowered fire.
b) adjust our behavior, infrastructure, and energy sources accordingly.
c) truly own our chemical and energetic kinship to fire, and treat it as an extraordinarily powerful (and helpful) planetary housemate, rather than as a slave, or an adversary.


How is understanding the histories of the oil industry and climate science crucial to the future of addressing environmental issues?

We have arrived at this moment on a braided bridge of ambition, invention, good intention, and greed. The history of the oil industry offers a vivid, unvarnished lens through which to understand these complementary drivers. Climate science, meanwhile, offers a corrective: that is what you -think- you’re doing; this is what you’re -actually- doing. In this way, science serves as a reality check, but also as an objective guide to shaping, and possibly healing, the future.


What are you working on next?

I have never written a book as intellectually or psychically taxing as Fire
. Twenty-first century fire is not an abstract threat facing other people in faraway places; it is with us now, in every country. For this reason, Fire Weather is as much a PSA as a work of non-fiction, and I am here to serve it as long as that urgency remains.