Maximum Shelf author interview: John Vaillant

Following yesterday’s review of The Jaguar’s Children, here’s John Viallant: Looking at the World Differently.


John Vaillant’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, National Geographic and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous nonfiction books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were award-winners and international bestsellers. Vaillant was born in Massachusetts and lives in Vancouver, B.C. The Jaguar’s Children is his first novel.

vaillantIs Hector’s story based on a specific true account? Where did you get the idea?

The idea came from a conglomeration of different border-crossing incidents. There was one particularly awful case in which a boxcar load of immigrants attached to a train was taken across the border and never opened. It wasn’t found for weeks, until it got to Iowa. Just a hideous, nightmarish situation. I started wondering, what happens in there? What would you go through? And then my family and I lived in Oaxaca for a year, 2009-2010. In Oaxaca, water trucks are a common sight. On one side, they read, “Agua por Uso Humano,” “water for human use,” and I kept thinking about that, and I kept thinking about thirst, and the anagram of agua and jaguar. It just fell into place. All these disconnected observations and ideas gradually coalesced. There was a moment when this fellow, the narrator, just announced himself to me, in January 2010.

This is your first published fiction. What led you here from your past work in nonfiction?

Trying to find a container that was suitable for the story I wanted to tell. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a really interesting place–Mexico is full of stories. There was a nonfiction story that was jaguar-related, that I was pursuing and actively researching down there, and for a couple of reasons it didn’t fully coalesce. A lot of what I was experiencing were more like travel anecdotes, but I didn’t want to write a travel book. It felt too trivial. So then I asked, how do I take all of these things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling, and put them all together in a place where they will make sense and hang together, and create a synergetic narrative and a picture of what is going on down there right now? And the novel was the right form.

This is also somewhat a departure from writing you’ve done about the relationship between people and the natural environment.

I’m really interested in hearing voices that I, or we, don’t usually get to hear, so that’s in a sense what the books are about: creating a platform for these people or beings who are generally invisible, to get some air time. You know, it’s not a selfless, altruistic mission on my part–I’m really curious and I want to see what that world is like, I want to understand it better and re-create it in a way that feels authentic. Ideally people who live that life, whether they’re tigers or conservationists, or biologists or foresters or Mexicans in Oaxaca, will feel that their realities were accurately reflected. So the whole natural world connection is almost incidental, honestly. For me, those margins where human beings and the natural world collide, that’s where the most dynamic tension is. It’s a kind of a front line, and also a fault line. Whether it’s human beings and corn, or human beings and thirst, or human beings and tigers, or the forest, there is a common thread. But it’s certainly not intentional; it’s just where my natural interest seems to go.

Did you go to Oaxaca with any work in mind, a book or a story?

I was deep in The Tiger then. I was in the middle of edits and to be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was finish that book, lie in a hammock and read books that didn’t have tigers in them. Or any other big cats. That really was the plan.

And here we are.

Here we are. That’s the beauty of the muse, really. All the books I’ve done have really come unannounced. It wasn’t a premeditated objective to write any of those stories, they’ve all come to me and I see them as gifts of sorts. Really time-consuming ones. This again came right when I was just about wrapping up The Tiger and ready to read Under the Volcano or some other books about Mexico. And instead, Hector showed up.

Hector’s perspective is of a Mexican indio from Oaxaca, and his voice is convincing.

I do have a strange, kind of inside track to Mexico. For three generations my father’s family lived there, and I grew up steeped in Mexican lore as it was refracted through their experience. My grandfather was a well-known archaeologist who wrote the first comprehensive history of the Aztec nation, a book called Aztecs of Mexico. My grandmother told us many stories about him. Her house, all her kids’ houses, including my father’s, were filled with things from Mexico, some of them very very old, none of them more modern than 1930 because that’s when they came back. So Mexican art and artifacts were featured in my upbringing, as were stories of my grandfather.

In what ways was your year in Oaxaca helpful?

My wife is a potter and an anthropologist, and she wanted to spend time with traditional Mexican potters. I would follow her around in her trips to these villages, quite remote and very very traditional, so we’d meet people who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. People who have never really succumbed to the dominant culture. They were nominally Christian, but observing and worshiping traditional deities and certainly pursuing traditional practices, whether it was ceramics or agriculture. So it was really like going into another world. I had a notebook and a camera and my innate curiosity. The fact that I had a deep Mexican connection in the family gave me more of a motive to try to understand it. What was it that kept three generations of my family down there when they were all Americans? And perfectly well-connected Americans; they could have had fine lives up here, but for some reason Mexico was the place that offered them something different, something more.

But ultimately this is a story about a Zapotec guy from southern Mexico. Think about the U.S./Mexican border: it’s the most active border on the planet, the site of the largest human migration on earth, and Oaxaqueños play a huge role in that. One in three people from that state go to the States at some point to work, most of them illegally. And all kinds of things happen to them. As I came to understand that, it just started to feel more and more important.

And there was another inspiration. Just as I vowed not to read any more books about tigers, my father-in-law gave me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. It’s a wonderful novel about a low-caste, indigenous guy from northern India, who notices that there’s something big going on in Bangalore and Delhi. Big money is being made. He’s very smart, but he just doesn’t understand the system well enough to know even how the money’s being made. And that’s how a lot of indigenous Oaxaqueños approach the U.S.–they may have family up there, they may not, but they do not understand the culture terribly well–or often the hazards of the journey, which are many, and can be absolutely lethal. So you have these people who are capable in their sphere but naïve about the wider world, making the journey north, and a lot of them come to grief on the border.

Was this book as difficult or traumatic to write as it may be to read?

I wondered a lot about why I would want to return to this place over and over again, and go back into that truck. It’s a hideous, deadly place. But I thought, nobody else is probably going to do this. And this is something that happens to people, that shouldn’t be happening. And Hector was a very compelling person. But as far as difficulty goes–it was extremely difficult. The novel is a different animal, so to speak, than nonfiction, and certain narrative tools do translate, but being in that voice and pacing it and dealing with the other voices… really was new to me. You’re not really the same after doing something like that. I look at the world differently and feel it differently as a result of spending so much time there.

So the challenge of immersing yourself in the painful subject matter was ultimately rewarding, which I think is the case for readers as well. This is about more than just a nightmarish border-crossing incident.

So much of the book isn’t about that. It’s really about being a young person in a very troubled–some could argue broken–society and first trying to find his place in it, and then ultimately having circumstances align in such a way that he has to leave. The time you spend in the truck is desperate and terrible, but also you get to see how strong Hector is, and what he’s made of. He’s extraordinary in some ways, but he’s not superhuman. It’s amazing what people survive. It’s amazing the kind of clarity and wisdom those kinds of stressors can evoke and inspire. I think it’s a crucible for him, and for his character. I think all of us undergo tests, some of them truly terrible–it’s part of the human experience. Hector is a guy trying to figure it out. Trying to survive at the immediate level, but also at the cultural and occupational levels. The world is changing really fast around us. There are pressures being brought to bear that I have no control over, so what do I have control over? How should I respond to the people around me, to those who are trying to help me and those who are trying to impede me or hurt me? In that sense it feels like a kind of fundamental story.


This interview originally ran on November 5, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

book beginnings on Friday: When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

books went

You can easily understand, of course, what attracts me about this book: history, even books in history, making a difference in the unlikeliest of places. I was very excited to receive this in the mail. It begins:

“Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out?” a Marine asked in a letter to the author Betty Smith. “That is how I feel now,” he confided.

And so it continues: confiding in nature, filled with primary sources, on the impact of books in war. Stick around!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Halloween, or Dia de los Muertos, in book history

This post is part of a series.

To celebrate Halloween (today), or Dia de los Muertos (this weekend), let’s take a look at today’s date in authorly history.

reader's book of daysAccording to A Reader’s Book of Days, on October 31, 1795, John Keats was born, and in 2008, Studs Terkel died. I have not read much Keats, but I think I like him. I am very grateful to have a copy of Terkel’s The Great War on my to-be-read Britannica bookshelves, a gift from my buddy Gerber that I look forward to reading…someday.

In 1967, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America was published. I am not sure why this resonates with me. Perhaps Maclean references him?

And in 1615:

Miguel de Cervantes hinted at the end of the first book of Don Quixote that further adventures might be forthcoming, but before he could complete his own sequel, a rival appeared that credited another author, Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda, on the title page and insulted Cervantes as old, friendless, and boring. Cervantes, meanwhile, took advantage of being second by adding a scene in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves mock the false sequel. In the second book’s dedication, written on this day, he mentioned “the loathing and disgust caused by another Don Quixote,” and in the book’s preface he completed his revenge: humbly declining to abuse his usurper, he instead told a tale of a madman who, after inflating a dog from behind through a hollow reed, asks, “Do your worships think, now, that it is an easy thing to blow up a dog?” “Does your worship think now,” added Cervantes, “that it is an easy thing to write a book?”

And that is a sufficiently odd anecdote, I think, to recommend its being shared here.

You may recall that I read book one of Don Quixote several years ago, and solemnly promised to get around to book two someday. I have not. And I hear book two is better, too. Sigh. So many books…

Happy weekend, friends.

Teaser Tuesdays: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

chandler

Yes, it’s true, I just recently did a book beginning; but Chandler is just so quotable (thus this whole book, of course). I couldn’t let this one pass us by.

I write when I can and I don’t write when I can’t, always in the morning or the early part of the day. You get very gaudy ideas at night but they don’t stand up.

That first sentence is unclear: which condition happens always in the morning or the early part of the day? the can, or the can’t? I choose to believe that it is the can; many respected writers (ahem Hemingway) do or did their best work in the mornings. I am certainly a morning person myself. And I like this idea that our nighttime ideas are “gaudy”; I think that’s perfect. I get ideas at night, but they never stand up to sunlit scrutiny. What about you?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Lodger by Louisa Treger

In a lively debut novel, H.G. Wells takes a back seat to his lover, the rebellious Dorothy Richardson, a literary figure deserving of the spotlight.

lodger
Louisa Treger’s debut novel, The Lodger, opens in 1906. Family tragedy has landed Dorothy Richardson in a boarding house in a less-than-savory part of London, working at a dentist’s office for a pittance and living hand-to-mouth. She is relieved when Jane, an old friend, extends an invitation to visit her country estate for a weekend of relaxation. Jane has recently married an up-and-coming writer, H.G. Wells. Bertie, as he is called, turns out to be a strong personality: “He was like a volcano, continually bubbling over with urgent thoughts and incandescent ideas.” Dorothy is not sure at first whether she is attracted or repelled; his lively eyes and magnetic intensity are marred by zealous and sometimes off-putting opinions. The comfort of an intellectual who listens seriously to her ideas, however, proves irresistible, and between arguing about science and admiring Bertie’s writing, Dorothy finds herself helplessly falling for the husband of her best and oldest friend.

Bertie assures Dorothy that he and Jane have an agreement that allows for extramarital relationships, although this arrangement is as emotionally complex and problematic as it sounds. Having fallen headlong into an affair, Dorothy is then torn between her hard-won independence, which she feels is worth even the high price of poverty, and her love for a man who needs more of her than she can give. When a strikingly beautiful suffragette named Veronica Leslie-Jones moves into Dorothy’s boarding house in London and becomes a singular new friend, Dorothy’s energies and loyalties are still more divided. Writing becomes the outlet for her pain; Bertie has long encouraged her to make such an effort but, fittingly, Dorothy discovers this outlet, and her talent, on her own terms and schedule.

The Lodger is based on the real life of Dorothy Richardson, a groundbreaking but little-known author of the early 20th century. Treger’s taut evocation of Dorothy’s life and emotional struggles is gripping from the very first page, and readers are thrust into Bertie’s overwhelming presence just as helplessly and thoroughly as Dorothy is. While an unflattering light is shed on her famous lover–H.G. Wells comes off as obnoxiously self-centered–Dorothy herself is undoubtedly the star. She is a sensitive, passionate woman wrestling with the conventions of her time, and even while she experiences several traumas, Dorothy is a source of inspiration–for Treger, for those around her and for the contemporary reader as well.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 hot London attics.

book beginnings on Friday: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

chandler

I love the Chandler quotation that opens the lovely introduction to this collection of his writings in little snippets. I had to share.

I’m just a fellow who jacked up a few pulp novelettes into book form… All I’m looking for is an excuse for certain experiments in dramatic dialogue. To justify them I have to have plot and situation; but fundamentally I care almost nothing about either. All I really care about is what Errol Flynn calls “the music,” the lines he has to speak.

I think that is a fine way to note what sets Chandler aside, which is in many ways the quintessential gruff wit of hard-boiled, pulpy dialog. (Or dialogue.) I love it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: The Lodger by Louisa Treger

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

lodger

The Lodger is a novel about a woman – a true historical figure – who went again the conventions of her time, and about a famous author as well. Those are several elements likely to attract me; and then the cover features a woman in full gown and bonnet with a bicycle? Sold. And check out this opening paragraph:

Dorothy stepped off the train. She could feel the clammy sinking sensation beginning to creep round her, as though she was a ghost drifting through the world of the living. Taking a deep breath to anchor herself, she looked around. It was a small clean station, brightened by hanging baskets of ruffled mauve and white Sweet Peas, the sharp green of their leaves almost translucent in the May sunlight. She told herself there was nothing sinister; no one was going to find her guilty. It was just a visit to an old school friend, recently married.

I find this a fine beginning, designed to hook the reader in. The juxtaposition of clean, bright, ruffled, leafy, and sunny with sinister – and the idea that someone would find Dorothy guilty?? What on earth? Tell me more!

Stick around!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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