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Bestselling author John Vaillant's road to "The Jaguar's Children"

B.C. author, literature, Jaguar's Children
Photo by John Sinal

Before writing The Jaguar’s Children, a novel about a young Mexican man’s gruelling attempt to immigrate to the United States, Vancouver author John Vaillant met his agent in New York City.

They were having a beer, talking about possible subjects for his next book. Vaillant said:

“I want to write a novel about this Zapotec guy trapped in a water truck and I want to do it first person.”

His agent paused, and gently said, “Sounds very…ambitious.” Then he changed the subject. Vaillant says his agent must have been thinking, poor guy, I hope he gets let down easy.

Why? In an interview, Vaillant explained that he knew writing from the point of view of Hector, the protagonist in his latest book, was ”fraught with peril” in a day and age when “cultural appropriation” is called out and writers must gingerly navigate the politics of power, ethnicity and gender.

But Vaillant likes a challenge and with integrity, a strong belief in his responsibility “to get it right”, he produced a suspenseful, intimate and tightly-woven book. 

The Jaguar’s Children compares in tone to Michael Herr’s reporting from Vietnam in Dispatches. The story is close to the bone, so close it wafts in and out of Spanish, and lovingly describes Oaxaca’s social, political, economic and cultural world.

“The adobe in those walls is old and made from the dirt around the pueblo so you can see all the things going into it,” says Hector in the novel. “Along with the rocks and mud and grass is the sole of an old huarache, pieces of clay pots, the jawbone of a goat, a cotton rag, some wire – it is the story of our pueblo in there.”

Vaillant, who looks the part of an intellectual and an adventurer, is gracious, warm, and engaging. He often smiles, but moves little as he speaks. Words, not gestures, are his tool and they spill from him with conscious enjoyment.

The Jaguar’s Children takes place over the course of three days. It’s written as transcribed audio messages sent by Hector from inside the water truck to an American whose number he finds on his friend Cesar’s cellphone. Human traffickers sealed and trapped Hector, Cesar and other desperate, but hopeful, immigrants inside the tank in Mexico, drove them over the border, and abandoned the truck.

Parallel dramas run through the novel, with Hector’s narrative skillfully moving from outside or the past, to inside or the present.  Hector’s memories wander from stories of his family and their Zapotec beliefs, rituals, and connections to the land to the corrupt political events that caused he and Cesar to flee their homeland. Inside the tank, misery increases with the desert’s midday heat and midnight cold.

After the first 24 hours, Hector describes the conditions. “It is so hot, but when I touch my neck, my forehead, there is no sweat there. The thirst is making us sick and not only with the headache. Our brains and bodies do not work properly anymore. I can hear it when the others try to talk, like their tongues are too big for their mouths.”

Vaillant comes from a generation of writers. “It’s not quite a family business but it’s in there.” Still, he only began writing professionally at age 35. He left the intellectual community of Cambridge where people are “really smart…grappling with serious issues, often adventurous and mentally and physically brave,” to go to “the least intellectual place” he could find — Alaska.

In 12 years, he had 12 different jobs, starting with commercial fishing. Eventually he came home to the comfort of words, first through songwriting and then a fantasy adventure trilogy for kids. Neither proved greatly successful but for him “it was so clearly what I was meant to be doing.”

His first article was about a motorcycle powered by a Corvette engine and appeared in Men’s Journal. Just as his career was launching, he and his wife moved to Canada. “It seemed like professional suicide to move here. I was just making these very tenuous connections into New York and I moved off the literary map as far as the States are concerned."

But in reality, the move to Canada turned out to be very good for Vaillant's career. He soon learned there were just enough different things happening here. 

He got an agent in New York City and pumped out proposals, much more quickly than his first pitch, on which he spent seven months obsessively going over two pages.

Within two years and with only five or six pieces in print, he was published in The New Yorker Magazine.

“I grew up with The New Yorker. My grandfather had every single issue bound back to 1925," he said. "It was a holy book for us.”

Vaillant writes about the environment, politics, economics, the social and even the spiritual. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the stories masterfully engage the reader. He explains the relationship in his fiction as three-pronged, or braided, between the writer, the reader and the character. 

Three books strongly influenced him. The first and second, taken from his grandfather’s book shelf, are Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage about Ernest Shackleton’s two–year misadventures in the South Pole, and Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon about hunting tigers and leopards in1930s India. The third book, The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough, he found later in life. 

He calls it “seminal…a beautiful history of catastrophe” with story and drama behind it.

As a child, he spent many hours around books and magazines and he remembers leafing through The Smithsonian at age 12 and seeing leaning totem poles in the mist. 

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