26.04.2018 / Hutchinson / Non-Fiction / Hardback / 320pp / 978-1786330130
Target Audience: Readers who enjoy high octane, risky and fascinating true crime stories.
About Kirk Wallace Johnson
Kirk Wallace Johnson served in Iraq with the US Agency for International Development in Baghdad and Fallujah as the Agency’s first co-ordinator for reconstruction in the war-torn city. He went on to found The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. His work on behalf of Iraqi refugees was profiled by This American Life, 60 Minutes, the Today Show, the subject of a feature-length documentary, The List, and a memoir, To Be a Friend is Fatal.
A Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the recipient of fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Wurlitzer Foundation, his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times and the Washington Post. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son and daughter.
About The Feather Thief
Who is Edwin Rist?
Genius or Narcissist? Mastermind or Pawn?
One summer evening in 2009, twenty-year-old musical prodigy Edwin Rist broke into the British Museum of Natural History. Hours later, he slipped away with a suitcase full of rare bird specimens collected over the centuries from across the world, all featuring a dazzling array of priceless feathers.
Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-deep in a river in New Mexico when he first heard about the heist, from his fly-fishing guide. When he discovered that the thief evaded prison, and that half the birds were never recovered, Johnson embarked upon a years-long worldwide investigation which led him deep into the fiercely secretive underground community obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.
A page-turning story of a bizarre and shocking crime, The Feather Thief shines a light on our fraught relationship with the natural world’s most beautiful and valuable wonders, and one man’s relentless quest for justice.
Q: Thank you Kirk for taking some time to answer a few questions about your book, The Feather Thief. Could you give us your own personal overview of what it is about, and what your initial inspiration was for such an ambitious heist book?
A: The Feather Thief is the account of what happened the night of June 23, 2009, when a young American flautist names Edwin Rist scaled the walls of the British Natural History Museum in Tring, in order to steal hundreds of exotic bird skins. He plucked them of their feathers, which were sold for outlandish sums to the obsessive community of Victorian salmon fly-tiers, who prize the rare plumes in their pursuit of tying beautiful flies (which are seldom cast to fish), ties according to 150-year-old “recipes.” Rist was caught but avoided any incarceration. When all the dust settled, it turns out that roughly a third of what he’d stolen was never found – and was likely circulating through the feather underground. In the book, I set off around the globe in a madcap search for the missing birds, which I wanted to recover for the museum, given their immense scientific value.
Q: Can you give us a few details about some of the interesting concepts and ideas behind the heist that you explore within your book?
A: At first I thought this might just be a quirky account of a bizarre heist, but as soon as I started digging around, I realized that the broader themes surrounding what Edwin did affected all of us, in a way. This is a book about beauty and obsession, about the rationalizations we make in pursuit of status and the things we feel we deserve, and, perhaps most crucially, humans’ fraught relationship with the natural world, which is rapidly vanishing.
Q: Is there a particular element of the book you especially enjoyed writing about in The Feather Thief?
A: Apart from a love of fly-fishing (for trout), i came to this book with a completely blank slate. I didn’t know who Alfred Russel Wallace was, didn’t know much about birds, had never encountered the characters inhabiting the world of Victorian salmon flies, ornithological collections, or the early pioneers of the conservation campaign that fought to curb the feather trade a century ago. This story split open like a pomegranate – yielding what seemed like an endless amount of seeds that grew in the most strange and thrilling ways the deeper I got into my search for the lost birds of Tring
Q: What sort of challenges did you face when writing The Feather Thief?
A: For starters, I was an outsider to the community of salmon fly-tiers at the heart of the story. Few of them were willing to talk, at first. I didn’t think the feather thief himself would ever agree to speak (but he did, after three-and-a-half years of prodding). The museum wasn’t particularly eager to discuss this painful chapter in their history. The missing birds and plucked feathers were circulating on forums, but any time a discussion came up about their provenance (or if Edwin’s name was ever mentioned), the posts would be deleted within seconds. Incriminating posts that I printed out early on in the investigation began to vanish online. (I could go on).
Q: Did you always know you were going to write and get your work published?
A: No! In fact, when I first found out about the Tring heist, I had never written a book. I was supposed to be working on a memoir about my time in the Iraq War, but I had no idea how to get a book deal (and my agent at the time was barely responsive). The Iraq book. was eventually published, but when I brought an 80-page proposal to my first publisher (after working on it for over a year), they passed on it after a few hours. I really didn’t know if this would ever become a book. Fortunately, the other houses in NYC saw the proposal in a different light, and I was lucky enough to get a deal
Q: Are there any authors that influence your writing?
A: Of course. John McPhee. George Packer. Elizabeth Kolbert. David Grann. Jill Lepore. Jared Diamond.
Q: How long did it take you to plan and write The Feather Thief?
A: I first heard about the heist in the fall of 2011, and started printing out forum lists and conducting interviews almost immediately. For much of the subsequent years, this was a bit of a private obsession that I dabbled in whenever I had free time…but I was steadily building up a record of thousands of pages of interview transcripts, notes, deleted Facebook and forum posts, etc. Full time writing began in the summer of 2015
Q: Do you take the time to celebrate finishing your books?
A: I submitted the first manuscript five days before my son was born, and the revisions a week before my daughter was born, so the celebration was marked by diaper changes
Q: Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the writing?
A: I have two kids under two now, so I can only get away with so much ‘hobbying.’ But fly-fishing still reigns supreme for me, as far as its restorative powers – I took an eight hour break from the book tour yesterday to fish on a river outside of Denver, and it felt like I’d been away for a year.
Q: Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
A: Jill Lepore recently wrote a moving profile of Rachel Carson in the New Yorker. As soon as I set it down, I sighed with a kind of marvel over how beautifully written it was. Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees is a joy to read, as was Richard O. Prum’s Evolution of Beauty.
The Feather Thief by Kirk W. Johnson is published by Hutchinson and is out now.
Thank you everyone for stopping by to support Kirk Wallace Johnson and his exceptional true crime release The Feather Thief. I hope you enjoyed the Q&A and if you pick up a copy of The Feather Thief then please let me know what you thought!