Arlington Heights' 'One Book' choice: Author to discuss his true-crime, bird-theft thriller
West Chicago native Kirk Wallace Johnson has been around the world, but he'll be back in the suburbs in two weeks as part of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library's One Book, One Village 2019 community read.
Johnson, the son of the late Illinois state legislator Tom Johnson, is a Fulbright Scholar who spent the early part of his adult life leading reconstruction efforts in war-torn Iraq. It was through his job with the U.S. Agency for International Development that he worked alongside and befriended Iraqis, who later became targets for their association with the U.S.
It prompted Johnson to start The List Project, an organization that helped resettle 2,500 Iraqis, including some in Wheaton and elsewhere in the Chicago area.
But Johnson says he also became burned out and depressed. Fly fishing became his escape.
A conversation with his guide one day as they fished the Red River in New Mexico provided the spark for what started as a hobby for Johnson and eventually turned into a completely different career path today as nonfiction author.
The guide told him the story of a 20-year-old American music student who broke into a London museum in 2009 and stole 299 dead birds so he could harvest their valuable feathers and sell them to fly-tiers.
Johnson became captivated by the tale and spent the next six years traveling the world in search of the missing birds and trying to infiltrate the underground fly-tying community. It led him to write "The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century" -- which was chosen in an Arlington Heights communitywide vote earlier this year for the sixth annual One Book, One Village program.
The true-crime thriller is only his second book -- after his memoirs detailing his Iraqi resettlement efforts -- and there are plans for it to be turned into a movie.
"The story in 'The Feather Thief' was so quirky," said Johnson, who now lives in Los Angeles. "I had a hunch the book would either sink like a stone because it was so niche, or it would break through because it was so strange.
"This is a story about obsession and the moral blind spots that emerge when your obsession kind of runs amok."
Johnson will talk more about his tale during a presentation, Q&A and book signing at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, at the Forest View Educational Center, 2121 S. Goebbert Road. Registration at ahml.info is already on a waiting list.
The event is the culmination of a series of book discussions and programs -- like the Birding 101 seminar hosted at the library Thursday night by the Chicago Ornithological Society -- inspired by Johnson's book. Some 500 copies of the book are available at the library, Senior Center and Bookmobile.
Johnson said he's flattered by all the attention and excited to talk to readers not far from where he grew up.
"I had no clue it was going on, but I was just of course gobsmacked they had picked it," he said. "I jokingly told one of the organizers after they announced it, I knew of Arlington Heights because I used to be an ice cream man in Streamwood, and I wasn't allowed to drive my truck in because they had different rules."