Negotiating nature and the thirst for the truth

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Q&A Part 2: AU’s 2016-17 Writer in Residence John Vaillant

AU’s newest Writer in Residence/Writer for Health for 2016-17, author John Vaillant, has seen much success in his career writing non-fiction. His first book, The Golden Spruce won the 2005 Governor General’s Award, as well as the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.

But his latest novel and fiction debut The Jaguar’s Children [Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2015] is a triumph in its own right. In 2015, reviewer Amanda Eyre Ward, for The New York Times Sunday Books edition, admits Vaillant’s vibrancy with words reduced her to tears in one particularly poignant mother-son moment. And Outside magazine deems it border fiction’s “top-shelf title.”

Nodding to its desert-escape backdrop, which Vaillant penned prior to President-elect Donald Trump’s routine campaign election rhetoric on Mexican migration, The Jaguar’s Children could equally reign supreme in the pantheon of irony at its finest.jaguars-children

In Part 2 of our Writer-in-Residence series, the Vancouver-based, U.S. dual-citizen Vaillant spoke with AU Newsroom’s Heidi Staseson about Trump’s really huge wall, Mexican immigration and the right to fair, legal and tax-paid work, and non-fiction as the way to keep the truth intact.

Here is Part 2.

HS: Outside magazine has described The Jaguar’s Children as ‘border fiction.’ – is border fiction a thing?

JV: Oh yes. In the States it is, not in Canada. And there’s a lot of border non-fiction, too. The border between Mexico and the U.S. is a 2,000 mile border that has fascinating culture, horrific violence, and a very dramatic history. It’s another one of those fault lines, just like the interface between civilization and the wilderness. The Mexican border is really, really dynamic. There is a lot going on there and a lot has been going on there for almost 200 years in terms of push-and-pull around boundaries and borders.

HS: In your research for the novel, did you become friends with Mexicans who have personal connections to illegal immigration?

JV: Well, actually we were living in Mexico at the time. We lived in Oaxaca for a year. I was working on The Tiger at the time and, coincidentally, my wife moved us down there, and so that’s where the idea came to me. I knew Mexicans who had been to the U.S. and had come back, and who had lots of stories of their experiences and friends’ and family’s experiences of trying to cross. And then the rest I got from my own experience on the border – because I’d been on the border quite a bit over the years – that and non-fiction reading I did for research.

So everything in the book is basically factual. The fiction is that none of the characters are actually real, but they’re all types. You could meet people just like them. And the things that they talk about, that they’re concerned about, are things that the Oaxaqueños I met were talking about and were deeply concerned about.

HS: A line that I love is when your character César describes a desert corpse’s face “full of cactus pines.” Is that a similar depiction provided by any of your Mexican friends?

JV: No, I read about it. I read a lot about what people do when they’re mad with thirst. They’ll do really bizarre things and I put a number of those bizarre behaviours into the book. I think thirst is maybe the most overpowering of all appetites when you get right down to it.

john-vaillantAnother mile in the wall

HS: Obviously you see the irony in your book coming out before Trump started his ‘wall’ talk?

JV: Well, you know, it was Clinton who started the building of the wall — there’s already 600 miles of 20- to 40-foot tall steel wall in place.

HS: So is that a wall we’re not talking about enough?

JV: There’s a lot of talk about the wall in the States. Some people call it ‘the fence.’ The wall has become more of a buzzword since Trump, but it’s nothing new. Trump’s wall is a crazy fantasy, and the fact that Americans buy into it is hard for me to fathom. But there are already 700 miles of very daunting, impenetrable fencing that people still manage to penetrate and climb over, and dig under, and go around. The idea that you would have a 2,000 mile long wall between the U.S. and Mexico – the expense and the environmental issues that it will cause — it’s a debacle in the making.

Also, the other thing to keep in mind is here Trump’s calling for a wall when immigration is at an historic low. Fewer Mexicans or Central Americans are coming in from South of the border than any time in decades.

HS: Author and political pundit Linda Chavez, in her November 15 op-ed in the Chicago Sun Times, proffered some new options for Mexican immigrants rather than a Trump government enacting a wall. She says there is a lot of work to be had for these people in the U.S., and that the majority of them just want “the right to work legally, pay taxes and become part of the fabric of American life.”

From your experience, do you agree?

JV: Yes! That’s what most Mexicans want – or to work seasonally, to be able to go home safely and return regularly. You know, Trump has so distorted the conversation. He’s done damage that’s really hard to measure.

HS: The article states that Trump wants to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

JV: Yeah, that’s really freaking a lot of people out – and I think he does have the power to cancel that. Before he’s gone, I think enormous damage will be done. It’s so painful when you realize that it was so avoidable.

Self-preservation through non-fiction

HS: In terms of your Athabasca University writer in residency, what are you currently working on?

I’m actually working on a non-fiction project right now. When I was first invited to be the writer in residence, I had a novel in the works that was actually historical in nature and really had nothing to do with these issues. Since then, I’ve switched horses and I’m now on a non-fiction project. The historical one is on the shelf; I don’t know when or if I’ll pick it up again.

I must say, when you see events like this playing out in real life, for any kind of artist or creator, it really makes you wonder what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It calls everything into question. That’s how profound I think this election is.

HS: That’s a positive thing.

JV: Oh, of course. And frankly, what matters for me here — and I would never impose this value or view on another creator or another writer – I’m speaking purely for myself — but I feel at times like these that non-fiction is the only way to go. And that’s in order for me to live with myself.

HS: So are you able to talk about this non-fiction work you’re researching?

JV: It’s a story that revolves around the Fort McMurray fire. I just got back from there a few days ago, doing my first research trip, and I’ll be going again. I’m taking multiple perspectives, which is what I generally do in my non-fiction; I follow a bunch of different threads.

I’m looking at the boreal forest as a phenomenon – as the largest terrestrial ecosystem. I’m looking at fire through history, both culturally and in terms of its impact and role in the natural world, and the province of Alberta’s capacity for producing some of the biggest, most intensive fires ever measured on Earth. And I’m looking at that in the context of the quest for energy and our desire to master fire, and control it – which is ultimately what the oil sands is about; it’s getting out energy that we can manage and focus…

…That’s one of the things that always frustrated me about quick-turnaround news stories: you couldn’t get into the nitty gritty of how did this happen? What was the context that created it? What were the events that led up to it? That’s what I really like to explore in depth. So, take a newsworthy moment like a fire — and then when it’s at the magnitude of the Fort McMurray fire — look at the precedents for it and origin sources, causes etc., and what it might augur for the future.

the-tiger Election, Thirst, Truth, John Valliant, Writer in Residence, Athabasca University, AU, #AthaUBrute force reality check

HS: Your writing style is known for focusing on environmental issues mixed with tales of crime or violence. Where are those influences coming from?

JV: These are my own particular interests — the stories I’m most drawn to happen at the interface between human ambition, civilization and the wilderness. There’s really a fault line there; it’s a very dynamic, energetic place. It’s kind of like a coastline, if you will: you know, where these two very disparate forces and entities come in collision with each other.

And the violent aspect is a peak moment where somebody or some group of people — perhaps several groups — have an enormous amount at stake; this provides a focus and a narrative engine. And then around that are all the elements that contribute to it. As I see it, our environment – natural systems – enable everything we do. So, to write about things that don’t include them — it’s like missing basic colours in the spectrum.

This is why it’s hard for me to envision any story without considering the environment in which it takes place. If I wrote about cities, or domestic family dramas, I could see leaving the environment out of it. I’m happy to read those stories by other people, but it’s not something I feel as moved to write about.

HS: Switching gears, what do you think of the fact that journalists, in the last year especially, and particularly among the moral majority, are being besmirched as fiction creators themselves? And that fact enmeshed with this new social media state and world of blogging that deems ‘everyone’s a writer’ ?

JV: Yeah, we need journalists now more than ever; it’s really never been more urgent to have people who take facts seriously.

HS: Are you a journalist by nature?

I started out as a magazine writer which is a little bit different than being a journalist. When I think of a journalist, I think of somebody who’s on a daily or weekly deadline and recording the moment quickly, and rendering it with a bit of insight … I always worked on projects and themes that would take me weeks and months to process, so in that sense, I’m really more of a writer, I suppose.

HS: Any advice to budding writers?

JV: Keep working, stay focused on your project and your process. All the other stuff is really ephemeral. I mean winning an award is really wonderful, and sometimes the money that comes with it is really wonderful, too. But it’s very fleeting. People forget, as they should: there’s a lot of other stuff to be concerned with. And if you dwell on it too much, you can get stuck in the past. I don’t think it’s a healthy place to spend time, really, beyond a certain point.

HS: You haven’t been yet to Athabasca I’m assuming?

JV: No, I saw the turnoff on my way up Highway 63. And I just didn’t have enough time on this trip. But I’m going back in January – that’s the plan. I’m going to spend several weeks to a month up there, and then I’ll be visiting surrounding towns – not just Fort McMurray, but Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan and Athabasca.

HS: Thank you so much for taking this time!

JV: It’s really nice to talk to you.