On Aug. 4, 2020, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published what would become one of the hottest books of the year. Nine months later, “Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl” won the $10,000 PEN America/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.
It had already been named a New York Times Notable Book, longlisted for the National Book Award and the Stanford Travel Writing Award, and crowned Best Nature Book of the Year by the Times of London. NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, the Globe and Mail, the Star Tribune and more had named it a best book of the year. Reviews had poured in, almost universally effusive, including one by Helen Macdonald, lauded author of “H Is for Hawk.”
Meanwhile, author Jonathan Slaght, a wildlife biologist who normally spends part of each year in Russia’s isolated Far East, slogging through snow in subzero temperatures in search of the owls he loves, was grounded by the pandemic, working in a closet and Zooming from the basement of his south Minneapolis home.
While his book was selling out at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Moon Palace Books and the Museum of Russian Art, Slaght was a caged bird.
We spoke with him by phone last week. As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.
(On April 29, we’ll learn if “Owls of the Eastern Ice” has won a Minnesota Book Award. It’s a finalist in the General Nonfiction category.)
MinnPost: When was the moment you thought “Owls of the Eastern Ice” might be a hit?
Jonathan Slaght: I think it was when I got the National Book Award longlist nomination [in mid-September]. I thought – wait, if this is reaching that level, a lot of serious people are paying attention to it. It’s not just the Russophiles and the owl freaks who are reading it and telling their friends about it. People are discussing this in much broader circles than I was anticipating.
MP: What is it like to have a hot book in a pandemic?
JS: It’s great, to be honest. I mean, it’s been a dreadful year across the board in almost every category. Having something to look forward to – an award announcement coming up in two months, or a review coming out – has really helped. Being able to see beyond the walls of my closet or my house to things related to the book was like a tether, something to hold onto and pull me through.
MP: You describe yourself as a private person. What is it like to know so many strangers are reading your book?
JS: It’s a weird feeling. I largely don’t like it. When the first hardcover arrived, I opened it up and looked at the map of the places where I work. And I remember thinking – wow, this is my map, and those are places I go to. Almost no foreigners have ever visited this place. Even the foreigners I work with in Russia don’t go to this place. And now people are going to know about it.
One of the criticisms I’ve read about the book is it’s not about my personal life, or things I did back in the U.S. with my family. But I don’t want people to know about that stuff. So it’s definitely strange for all of those people to be reading the book, but at the same time, no one’s recognizing me on the street. At least I’ve got that going for me.
MP: What are some things you’ve had to do that you never dreamed you would do?
JS: I’ve given almost 60 talks since August. One of the benefits of Zoom is being able to reach all these people. This week and next, I’m in L.A., Sarasota, Stillwater and Toronto. Being able to fluidly move across all these vast distances is nice. But that’s the main thing. All these talks.
Sometimes I do two in one day. Last week, or the week before, I gave a talk in Russian at noon. That was in Minsk. Then at 6 I turned around and gave it in English.
MP: Back when all this started, you were concerned about repeating yourself.
JS: I repeat myself all the time. My talks have broken into several categories. When I’m talking to a library or a book club, I have one kind of template. If I’m talking to university students, I have a different one. I have one for high school kids and another for Audubon groups. I target the main interests of the audience, but it’s essentially the same thing.
MP: Do you enjoy the talks?
JS: I like telling the story, and I like people’s excitement about it. The best ones are the small ones, six to 12 or 20 people, where I can see everybody on the screen. One talk had 600 people, and there’s no connection when the crowds are that big in a virtual setting.
MP: As a private person, you’re making good use of social media. You seem comfortable there. How did you figure that out?
JS: Prior to this book, I didn’t have a social media presence at all. One of the first questions my agent asked me, when I got an agent, was, “What are your social media handles?” I was like, “Bah, social media!” And she’s like, “No, you need it, you can’t do this without it. You need to be able to talk to peers and build a fan base.”
So I just went at it. I kind of figured out the people I’m talking to. It’s largely the bird freaks. And I have so many photos from my time doing fieldwork, the experience that went into the book, that it’s easy to pop up a new photo every now and then. I tag it to where it takes place in the book, and people who have read the book love that, because it expands what they know about the book.
MP: How many times has your book gone back to print?
JS: I believe it’s on the sixth printing. It went to the second printing the day the book came out. When the National Book Awards announcement came out, another print run was ordered. I think at this point they’re waiting for the paperback. That comes out June 1.
MP: How has your book benefited the owls you’re working to protect and save?
JS: This year was tough for fundraising. The people that normally fund the ongoing work I do with the Sergeys and fish owls just don’t have funding this year. People who read the book are feeling inspired to donate, from kids all the way up to wealthy adults. We’re able to do a bare-bones field season this year strictly from donations that the Wildlife Conservation Society received because people read the book and felt inspired to contribute.
MP: What has been the best part of being a successful author?
JS: A really important part of my job [with the WCS] is to convince people that wildlife are important, that wild places are important. I give a lot of talks in schools and universities. Pre-pandemic, a woman at Oberlin came up to me after a talk and said, “I think I’m changing majors.”
[A few weeks ago], I gave a virtual talk to a couple of 11th-grade classes in Pennsylvania. Two of those kids wrote to me to say, “Okay, that’s it, conservation, I’m in.” A third one, while she’s not planning to go into conservation, said, “Psychology is my passion, but I felt like I couldn’t do it. Watching you talk about your struggles, and how you were able to get past this stuff because you believed in what you’re doing, has given me the confidence to pursue this now.” That’s a great feeling.
MP: The worst part?
JS: I kind of disparaged this guy Andrey Katkov in the book. He was a very difficult guy to live with in the forest. I enjoy being in his company. I just don’t like living with him in the tent. In the book, I describe some of these experiences with him, and a lot of them are negative. He’s a terrible snorer, he flaps around, and he’s a compulsive talker. There’s a whole list of things.
As I was writing the book, I talked with Sergey Surmach, my primary collaborator, and said, “Should I be saying all the stuff about Andrey?” And he said, “Jon, for Andrey to actually read this, first of all you have to find a publisher, then you have to get it published, then the book has to do well enough that they’re going to want to translate it into Russian, and then they’re going to have to distribute it in Russia. The odds of all those things happening are miniscule. Don’t worry about it. Just say whatever you want.”
So here I am, getting a Russian translation! And I’m worried about that, because I don’t want to hurt Andrey’s feelings. He’s probably going to read it and be disappointed, and maybe a little humiliated, and that’s not what I’m looking to do.
But there’s a nice picture of Andrey in the book. It was one of my favorite pictures of anybody, a photo of him just looking off into the snow. That was my way of balancing it. And the book won’t be in Russian for a year and a half or so.
MP: Will you do the translation?
JS: No, but I have editing rights, which I’m happy about. Someone wrote a book in English called “Across China on Foot” or something like that, and the Russian translation was “The Biggest Idiot Under the Sun.”
MP: You recorded the audio for your book. What was that like?
JS: I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure I would want to do it again. It was unpleasant to speak as perfectly as possible for eight hours a day for four days. It was tough.
MP: Are you feeling any pressure to write the next book?
JS: I’m not. One of the things [Star Tribune books editor] Laurie Hertzel said to me was, “You should feel zero pressure for your next book, because there’s no way possible that your next book will reach the level of this one, so don’t worry about it. Write whatever you want. Feel free.”
I’ve been too busy to even think about writing. One thing I’m looking forward to is starting to travel a little bit. That’s my inspiration. That’s where it comes from. I get excited about writing about the places I’m going, and the people I’m interacting with, and the wildlife I’m seeing. There’s not a whole lot of that in my Minnesota closet.
I’m planning a trip to Alaska for August. Some of the work I do is in the Arctic. So that’s another light at the end of the tunnel, where I’ll be able to get outside and out of cellphone range for a while.
On Tuesday, April 20, at 6:30 p.m. CST, Jonathan Slaght will lead a webinar on Blakiston’s fish owl conservation in Russia for the Toronto Bird Celebration. Register here.
On Wednesday, April 21, at 6 p.m. CST, he’ll talk about his book for the Sarasota (Florida) Audubon Society. Register here.
On Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m., Slaght and Kawai Strong Washburn, author of “Sharks in the Time of Saviors,” will have an Earth Day conversation for Magers & Quinn. Washburn is a fellow PEN America award winner and Minneapolis author. No registration needed. Watch on Facebook or YouTube. FMI.
The 2021 Minnesota Book Awards Virtual Ceremony will take place on Thursday, April 29, at 7 p.m. Free with registration. Donations accepted.
Follow Jonathan Slaght on Twitter here.