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How I wrote it

John Vaillant: How I Wrote The Jaguar's Children

Nonfiction writer John Vaillant has had to rely on “just the facts” for most of his literary career. The award-winning writer found himself in an exhilarating and terrifying place, though, when he decided to write his first work of fiction, The Jaguar's Children.

The story of Hector, a young Mexican man trying to escape to the United States while sealed in a water truck,  The Jaguar's Children is inspired by what Vaillant saw around him while living in Mexico. He speaks with us about how he wrote his gripping thriller. 

I was sitting at my computer one day, ostensibly editing [his 2010 nonfiction work] The Tiger, when this voice unbidden popped into my head and uttered the first lines of the book: “I'm sorry to bother you but I need some assistance.” The character wasn't based on any particular person. He spoke to me out of the ether, telling me he was in trouble, told me what his name was, and told me where he was. It’s unusual for a nonfiction writer to have this kind of visitation, so I listened closely to what he had to say and he and I built this character together…  I wrote all of this down and that’s the first set of text messages in the book, the first page and a half. I wrote it down and thought this is something I need to pursue. 

Editing this book was very difficult for me, and I had the assistance of several editors working with it over a period of years. There were times when I had the story broken down into 150 scenes, each one described with a one-line capital phrase. They were thrown down in a heap on the dining room table and I just started pulling them out and asking each scene if it could justify its existence. If it could, it went into the keep pile. If it couldn't, it got set aside. Then, out of the keep pile, I asked which one of you comes first. There were some very obvious ones but there were also a number of scenes in the book that could have gone anywhere. That was an agony. 

(Graffiti from the streets of Oaxaca taken by John Vaillant for inspiration

There’s a scene in the book in which Hector finds himself shoulder-to-shoulder with the corrupt homicidal governor of the state of Oaxaca, who has ordered the killing of a number of people, including Hector’s cousin. That’s an exact recreation of a scene in a café I was in, in which I turned around and found my elbow rubbing against the corrupt governor of the state of Oaxaca who had ordered the killings of dozens of people. There he was, having a happy time in a café on the Zocalo. Everybody knew who he was. And if you walk around the city of Oaxaca, the word asesino—Spanish for assassin—is written on dozens of walls with a picture of him next to it… It was so uncomfortable. I felt like a coward sitting there. He needed to have someone call him an assassin to his face. He needed to go to jail, but there he was and I didn't say anything and no one else did either. I am grateful to the novel for giving me a place to explore those feelings. I also realized that this was a perfect scene for Hector to be in because it describes exactly this kind of kaleidoscopic topsy-turvy moral world he lives in.

My editor called me up one day and told me I had the opportunity to attend a writers’ retreat, but that the only problem was I was going to have to leave my family for six weeks to do it. It was at a place about 20 minutes outside of Florence, Italy, in a villa owned by an editor emeritus at Vanity Fair—an Italian countess wife of a famous writer who had passed away who was now running a writers’ retreat in his honour. The place is called Santa Maddalena and I looked it up. There was an article about it in Vanity Fair and there was Zadie Smith and various other people. Bruce Chatwin did a lot of writing there… It’s not a place you apply to. You get invited to go. As a nonfiction writer, this is a huge opportunity. I told my wife, and bless her soul, she gave me a big hug and said congratulations, you have to do it! So I left for six weeks… My desk was at the top of this tower right in the treetops and I had the windows open all the time. I took the screens off. It was springtime and there was just birdsong all day long and these huge wisteria blooms and peonies. It was unbelievably beautiful. The muse is close at hand in such a place.

Author photo courtesy of the publisher.
Street shot courtesy of John Vaillant
Santa Maddalena photo source: Santa Maddalena Foundation

John Vaillant's first book, The Golden Spruce, was a #1 national bestseller, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, the Pearson Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Award and the Roderick Haig Brown Regional Prize. The Tiger was a #1 national bestseller, a Canada Reads selection, a Globe and Mail Best Book, and won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Prix Bouvier, the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, the CBA Libris Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year and the CBC Bookie Award for Best Overall Book. His latest book is The Jaguar's Children.

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