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!

Maximum Shelf: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 5, 2014.


jaguar
The Jaguar’s Children is a striking and heartrending first novel by John Vaillant (The Tiger; The Golden Spruce). It opens with a text message.

Thu Apr 5 – 08:31 [text]
Hello I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance–I am Hector –Cesar’s friend–It’s an emergency now for Cesar–Are you in el norte? I think we are also–Arizona near Nogales or Sonoita–Since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming–We need water and a doctor–And a torch for cutting metal

The sender is Hector María de la Soledad Lázaro Gonzalez, a young man from a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. He has paid 30,000 pesos to a band of coyotes to be transported across the Mexican border, from Altar in Sonora into Arizona. Along with his companion Cesar and 13 others, Hector has been sealed inside a water tank for this illegal journey, and the truck has broken down and the passengers–now prisoners–have been abandoned.

With Cesar injured, Hector becomes responsible for his friend as well as for himself. The plight of the 15 people trapped in the truck is the central struggle of the book, which spans only a few days in real time, from Hector’s discovery of Cesar’s hidden cell phone (containing only one U.S. phone number, for a person Hector doesn’t know) to their eventual fate. During these days, as food supplies and water dwindle and the immigrants bicker and weaken, Hector uses the phone to compose text messages and record lengthy sound files in which he tells his story, and Cesar’s. The Jaguar’s Children is the transcript of these messages.

Hector initially identifies himself as Cesar’s friend, but as his chronicle unfolds, it becomes clear that their connection is more tenuous. Originally schoolmates, Cesar is older, more successful and popular, and Hector is rather a hanger-on; in the hours before their departure from the border town of Altar, however, Cesar began to unburden himself to the younger man. Hector is at first hopeful that his unknown contact in the United States will save the truckload of thirsty immigrants, but as conditions worsen and he gets no response, he feels an increasing urgency to record the story of both lives. His narrative thus progressively deepens, and gains increasing gravity.

Unquestionably, the immigrants’ suffering is a large part of the novel’s significant and essential emotional impact: these people are treated as worse than beasts by the coyotes who leave them in such straits, and their torments are both unimaginable and graphically described. This agony is leavened somewhat by the interspersed history of Hector’s life in Oaxaca, but even those tales are disturbing, as they examine the injustices and poverty that drive Hector and Cesar to undertake such a dangerous flight in the first place. Principally, however, Vaillant’s masterful debut novel is deeply compelling, realistic and heartfelt, and brings to light important considerations about the way we treat one another.

Vaillant’s writing is extremely well crafted, precise and poetic, not only painfully affecting but carefully structured. He uses Spanish-language word order and sentence structure, so that Hector’s voice speaks aloud from the page. This sense of realism is outstanding, and while it is part of what makes this book distressing, it is also a fine achievement. Indeed, the reader must beware the fine line between fact and fiction, as Hector’s is represented as a true story to the less discerning members of the audience. That this story could happen–does happen–is part of its import.

The Jaguar’s Children is at once a work of intense suspense, as we worry over the question of Hector and Cesar’s survival, a larger story of conflict between two nations, and the indigenous cultures in a parallel struggle for survival. Lyrically composed, tragic and disturbing, Hector’s account will certainly be one of the most memorable books of the year. This heartbreaking novel is worth the pain, for the wisdom it has to share and the respects it can help us all to pay.


Rating: 9 capfuls.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Vaillant.

Off Course: Inside the Mad, Muddy World of Obstacle Course Racing by Erin Beresini

One woman’s exhilarating experience in a strange extreme sport.

off course

Erin Beresini was a committed Ironman triathlete and endurance athlete facing overtraining injuries and burnout when she first heard about obstacle course racing (OCR). How silly, she thinks, and how divergent from her past efforts–perhaps just the thing to make new friends, find new motivation and relieve her overstressed muscles by working new ones. From her first mud run she is hooked, and gratifyingly exhausted. She jumps feet first into this bizarre new scene, undertaking a journey that culminates in racing the OCR world’s first marathon-length event, the Spartan Ultra Beast. In Off Course, she documents her labors.

Throughout Beresini’s often-funny personal story, she interjects details of the history and quirks of this recent trend in amateur athleticism. Characterized by mud, fire, ice and blood–and often involving broken bones, electric shocks, sadistic beatings and barbed wire–OCR strikes many as an insane way to chase fun and fitness. As it happens, millions have signed up for these events in recent years, in the United States and around the world. The sport draws “regimented military types and anti-organized sports rebels,” and shares a fan base with CrossFit and endurance athletics. Beresini also scrutinizes the compelling personalities (and controversies) behind the sport’s two main powerhouses, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, as well as a handful of their participants. As weird as this tale is, it will appeal to both fans of sports narratives and readers who appreciate offbeat obsessions.


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 burpees.

Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Donald McCaig

A familiar, but not unoriginal, expansion on a beloved character from a classic American epic.

ruth

In Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Donald McCaig (Rhett Butler’s People) tells the full story of Scarlett’s beloved nursemaid. He begins in France with Miss Solange, a wealthy heiress who travels to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). There she takes in a local child to be part servant, part daughter, and names her Ruth, then moves to Savannah. Switching focus to Ruth, McCaig details her eventual brief marriage to a free man in Charleston, years of tragedy and rebellion, and her return to Savannah.

Though McCaig does touch a bit on Scarlett’s well-known story, the bulk of the narrative is focused on Ruth’s early life: the voyage to the U.S., her transition to adulthood, her loves and losses, and the moment she deliberately gives up her name and identity in favor of a new moniker: Mammy. Miss Solange has a daughter, Ellen, who in turn gives birth to the memorable Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Where Scarlett is petulant, Mammy is resilient. Through decades of love, death and betrayal, she consciously puts on a smile. She is cursed to foresee the ugly futures of those she cares for, but, as she repeats to herself, it is not for mammies to speak all that they see.

McCaig echoes the saucy, tongue-in-cheek tone of Mitchell’s classic. Mammy’s story is complex, and she commands respect. Lovers of Gone with the Wind will be the most obvious fans of Ruth’s Journey, but it stands on its own merits as a sweeping epic of time, place and history, thoroughly worthy of its inspiration.


(Final comment: Those readers who were concerned with the racial insensitivity of Mitchell’s original will not find any clear redemption or compensation here; but McCaig’s treatment is respectful and nuanced, certainly no worse and arguably slightly better than the classic in this regard.)


This review originally ran in the October 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 husbands.

The Brewer’s Tale by William Bostwick

The influence of beer in history, and the more and less delicious forms it’s taken along the way.

brewers tale

In The Brewer’s Tale, homebrewer William Bostwick (Beer Craft) examines beer in history and the history in beer, brewing as he goes.

Bostwick follows the progression of human history, starting with primitive Mesopotamian bread and its immediate companion (rudimentary ale) and moving through the early European shamans who used beer (sometimes laced with hallucinogens) in their practices to the monks whose influence persists in abbey and Trappist ales. He visits the farmer who brewed with his leftover produce, and members of the London working class who passionately consumed the porters that were named after them. With each stop on this tour, Bostwick gives equal play to the past and to characters who maintain or rejuvenate these historic styles. He also attempts his own brews, with mixed results. Through grogs and meads; farmhouse ales like lambics, sours and saisons; porters, stouts and pales; and finally light (and lite) lagers, The Brewer’s Tale reminds us that beer is not only the stuff of frat parties or snifter-poured snobbery; it can be experimental, fresh and fun, and has always been at the heart of the human experience.

Bostwick runs a little heavy on symbolism, but his subject is heady and intoxicating, so why not the metaphor as well? The initiate will be well served, but even a well-read beer geek can be excited anew by these reflections, and the homebrewer may well be inspired to fresh projects. The Brewer’s Tale is history, a joyful celebration and a call to appetizing action in an easygoing, conversational tone.


This review originally ran in the October 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 caves.

Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer by Margaret Webb

An amiable and instructive memoir about achieving and maintaining competitive fitness at any age.

older

Margaret Webb (Apples to Oysters) was a successful young athlete and an active adult, but never suspected she might be a marathoner. Staring down her 50th birthday, she became curious about what she could accomplish. She knew there were competitive women runners several decades her senior; could she join their ranks? Older, Faster, Stronger covers what Webb calls her “super-fit year.” And as her subtitle states, the lessons she shares are valuable for men and women of all ages, in any sport.

With the luxury of being able to devote her time and energy primarily to training, Webb engages expert nutritionists, personal trainers, coaches, sports psychologists, aging specialists, physiologists and laboratory researchers. She has her maximal oxygen consumption tested (twice); adds cross-training, gym time and track workouts to her running schedule; travels; and brunches with world champion septua-, octo- and nonagenarian women. She sets goals: to qualify for the Boston Marathon under the fastest women’s standard (the qualifying time for 18-to-34-year-old women) and to be competitive in the half-marathon at the World Masters Games.

Webb is meticulous in applying her results stringently to her own life and documenting them for her readers. Her research appears thorough, although the more fastidious reader may be frustrated by the absence of citations. Older, Faster, Stronger is packed with statistics and studies, but is well explained, so the reader will find the science easily digestible. Athletes of any sex, age and discipline can benefit from–and be entertained by–Webb’s approachable investigation of becoming faster and stronger into advance age.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 minutes.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

A terrifying, enigmatic and ever-accelerating story about the power of imagination.

monsters

Jack Peter Keenan has always been an odd boy. Even before the accident three years ago, he was not exactly normal. Now almost 11 years old, he doesn’t go outside, ever. As Christmas approaches, there are strange happenings afoot: things that go bump in the night, apparitions in the snowy roadway, screams of people who aren’t there. Jack has begun drawing monsters. His parents, Holly and Tim, are increasingly worried.

Holly renews her relationship with the church; when she seeks answers, the local priest and his Japanese housekeeper pelt her with tales of shipwrecks and spirits. Tim resolves to work harder with his son. The parents of Jack’s one friend, Nick, take off for the holiday, leaving him to stay with the Keenans in their remote Maine beachside home, in the snow and bitter cold. As Jack’s drawings multiply and the howls outside grow louder, readers will wonder if he’s withdrawing, abandoning reality (and pulling Nick and the Keenans along with him), or if somehow his interior landscape is populating the outside world.

Multiple mysteries enliven the terror of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, which becomes ever more disturbing as the source of danger comes gradually into focus. In his sensitive, incisive treatment of Jack’s behavior and its effect on his family, Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) explores the challenges of mental disorders, but suspense and a bright thread of terror evoke the very best of the horror genre. Just as a Maine winter chills the bones, this singular little boy provides a satisfyingly frightening story.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 steps outside.
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