Author Kirk Wallace Johnson will appear at the Main Library on August 28

Kirk Wallace Johnson – known as both the author of the best-selling ‘The Feather Thief’ and the founder of The List Project, a non-profit organization that helped settle Iraqi refugees who worked for the US government during the war in Iraq – has a new project.

His recently published book, “The Fishermen and the Dragon,” set on the Gulf Coast of Texas, is the gripping tale of the confluence of environmental disaster and Ku Klux Klan-led violence against Vietnamese immigrants. . On tour to promote the book, Johnson will appear Aug. 28 as part of the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Carnegie Author Series.

Johnson served as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Regional Coordinator for Reconstruction in Fallujah, Iraq in 2005. When the war ended, he worked to help Iraqi refugees, just as he recently worked to help Afghan refugees after the fall of Kabul. Her first book was her 2013 memoir, “To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.”

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In 2018, he published “The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century”, telling the story of a young man obsessed with the art of fly-tying who stole hundreds of fly-tying specimens. birds for their feathers to a Briton. natural History Museum.

“The Feather Thief” and “The Fishermen and the Dragon” will become TV miniseries with a major studio producing the first and George Clooney producing the second.

Johnson, 41, who lives with his wife and two young children in Los Angeles, recently spoke by phone with The Dispatch.

Question: “The Fishermen and the Dragon” is the first book about the events of the 1970s and 1980s on the Gulf Coast of Texas, when white shrimp fishermen tried to hunt Vietnamese refugees who were also fishing in the bay. even as factories dumped chemical waste into the water and created an environmental disaster. How did you become interested in this complicated scenario?

Johnson: I discovered the story the day my father died (in Chicago) of Agent Orange cancer he contracted while in Vietnam. I was here in Los Angeles with my family, and I felt terrible spending the day like any normal day, so I loaded my fishing gear in the car and drove to the Sierra Nevada (region ) where there is fly fishing. My dad taught me how to fish, so I thought that was a way to commune with him. Along the way came the Bruce Springsteen song “Galveston” — about a Vietnamese in Texas who clashes with the Klan. I thought it was fictional but, of course, it wasn’t. I started to do research.

"The fisherman and the dragon" by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Q: There are so many different elements in the book racism and anti-immigration views, the Vietnamese refugee experience, Klan intrusion and violence, and the poisoning of bay waters by factories. Was it difficult to put all of this together in one book?

Johnson: It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I wrote the book probably three times. That was my whole pandemic project.

I thought it was just going to be a story about an unknown chapter of white supremacy in America, but it became increasingly clear to me that it was a soda straw take on what happened there. -down – white supremacist harassment and violence against refugees but it becomes clearer when you realize this is also an environmental story. A way of life was doomed by these tremendous forces – trade deals, development, the dumping of chemicals in the bay – that made shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Mexico less and less viable… For white fishermen, it was more easier to blame and beat on the refugees than to fight a company like Alcoa.

Q: In three years, you’ve interviewed over 100 people and ended up with nearly 3,000 pages of transcripts. Was it difficult to get many of the main players – the white shrimpers who burned the Vietnamese boats and the Klansmen, for example – to talk to you?

Johnson: My wife kept asking, why are these people talking to you and saying all this? I’m obsessed with preparing for interviews and the average length of an interview was five hours. Some were approaching 10 o’clock. … When I finally found David Collins, the captain of the Klan boat that burned a bunch of crosses and all that, it wasn’t a deer in the headlights. He bragged about what he was doing.

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Q: A heroine of the story is Diane Wilson, the lone shrimper who recognized the harm the factories were doing to the bay and tried to organize the shrimpers to do something about it. Is she still active?

Johnson: She has just been arrested again recently for a fight against the environment. She is one of the most amazing people. It would have been a radically different book if I hadn’t found it. She represents the sober person who correctly diagnosed the threat: Stop worrying about the refugees and watch out for the shore.

Q: So many of the characters in “Fishermen and the Dragon” and “The Feather Thief” are a mixture of good and bad. For example: Morris Dees, the attorney who sued the Klan in the Texas case. He was the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center which was later expelled from the Law Center for misconduct.

Johnson: We seem to want to insist on absolutes in this country – black and white. We’re not very good with gray. Dees did something really good in the Texas situation and you can’t erase that because he did something bad later.

Q: But Edwin Rist, a professional musician who was the feather thief, was never really punished for his crime. It looks pretty unrecoverable.

Johnson: Justice was definitely not served there…that someone could do something so bad and not pay for it…It certainly caused strong reactions from people. He still performs (flute) in chamber ensembles across Europe.

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Q: Are you still fishing?

Johnson: I have a 6 year old and a 4 year old, and I don’t like to abandon my family, so I don’t fish as much as I used to, but when I do, it’s pretty much catching and catch and release…I was in New Mexico a month ago to go fishing with Spencer Seim (the fly fishing guide who first told me about the feather thief.)…He received death threats for telling me the story.

Q: Do you still work with refugees?

Johnson: I am now caring for several Afghans who are pining to get out of this country. Last year I was dragged out of retirement to the fall of Kabul… I know quite a few high-ranking people in government and I saw those people who needed help and thought I had the contacts and that I had to use them. The first time I missed a deadline was on the day Kabul fell. “The Fishermen and the Dragon” was supposed to happen that day and I missed it… Unfortunately, this problem (stranded natives who helped the US government) seems to be a feature of all of our wars.

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In one look

Kirk Wallace Johnson will appear at 2 p.m. on August 28, during a free lecture at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, 96 S. Grant Ave. To register for the event, visit

Lola R. McClure