Orion Blog

A Conversation with John Vaillant, Author of The Jaguar’s Children

Jaguar's Children_cover imageJohn Vaillant’s debut novel, The Jaguar’s Children, opens with a text message from Hector, a young man from Oaxaca, Mexico: “hello i am sorry to bother you but i need your assistance — ” Hector has been sealed inside the metal tank of a water truck along with a group of others, and was heading across the U.S./Mexico border when the vehicle broke down, somewhere in the desert. Hector’s only hope of rescue seems to be AnniMac, a contact in his friend’s cell phone, and to whom Hector’s long messages form the novel’s text.

The Jaguar’s Children is a harrowing and beautiful portrait of interconnection, and the vast cultural, economic, and ecological processes that can compel a person to cross a desert. Vaillant is the author of two previous books of nonfiction, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger (a finalist for the 2011 Orion Book Award); this debut novel came out in January. A review of the book appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion, and is written by Julia Shipley, whose profile of Paulus Berensohn was published in the November/December 2014 issue.

 

Julia Shipley: One of the beauties of publishing a novel is that your title is not subjected to including that go-get-’em subtitle. With The Golden Spruce there was A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, and with The Tiger it was A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. But with your first novel, it’s simply: The Jaguar’s Children. Did the process of writing without the “true story” subtitle feel especially disorienting or exhilarating in any way? What was different about telling a story without confirmed facts, without footnotes, or without the frame of “nonfiction”?

John Vaillant: The way I see it, The Jaguar’s Children has the best subtitle ever: A Novel. Subtitles aside, the shift to fiction has been both exhilarating and disorienting. Magazines in which I’ve published nonfiction pieces, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and National Geographic, all have rigorous and comprehensive fact-checking protocols, which is great. But it means you cannot deviate from the verifiable—even a little—and I brought this ethic to my nonfiction books as well. Fiction has been exhilarating because it allowed me to slip the fact checker’s leash and be free to sniff every hydrant and signpost I want, to interpret it however I like.

But it took some getting used to. My first reaction to all that freedom was like the old librarian in The Shawshank Redemption: finally a free man after fifty years in prison, he’s overcome by anxiety because he can’t handle the speed of things on the outside—all the choices he’s now “free” to make. In the end, all he wants is to return to the safety and order of the prison library.

After my initial panic, I discovered that you can lean on fictional characters almost as heavily as you can on real ones. By sticking closely to historical facts (e.g., there really was a corrupt and murderous governor of Oaxaca; there really are jaguars flanking Mary on the facade of the Basilica de la Soledad; dead migrants really have been found in parking lots and rail yards), I could put these in the way of my characters and watch what they did. There was a brief training-wheel period, when the characters were new and not well formed, and I needed to kind of help them into existence. But once they were up and running, they started calling the shots, telling me what was on their minds, and responding like themselves, instead of like me in drag.

I would not have written about GMO corn, or known about suicide seeds, if Hector’s friend, Cesar, hadn’t been working in corn genetics and found himself in a terrible moral quandary that I then had to research in order to understand. Ultimately, it was a strange and wonderful process of give and take—a guided hallucination—that went on for years.

Shipley: It’s funny that you mention The Shawshank Redemption. I just watched that movie again a few nights ago, and in addition to the paradox of the librarian’s freedom as a correlative to yours as a overwhelmingly liberated writer, both that movie and The Jaguar’s Children explore (and now I’m thinking of the movie’s lead character, Andy Dufrene) what it’s like to endure a very interior journey to freedom. What I mean by this is: in The Jaguar’s Children, your main character, Hector, is imprisoned inside an empty water tank on his way across the U.S./Mexico border to experience—we hope—a form of freedom. It’s a road trip, for sure, but unlike most road trips, this one is so interior.

Do you remember the Russian Kursk submarine disaster, which was in the news in 2000? One man took up pen and paper as he waited on the ocean floor for rescue. He began his goodbye letter with, “I am writing blind.” Stranded in a water tank but near no water at all, Hector, in a way, is kind of talking blind. Which connects to my question: What do you think about narrative as a form of salvation? Certainly, Hector’s storytelling preserves his life, spiritually-psychologically, as his water and food run out.

Vaillant: I had never thought of it as a road trip, but I suppose it is. The difference between the Kursk letter and this is that Hector isn’t saying good-bye—not until the very end. He experiences despair, for sure, along with the gamut of other emotions, but I think there’s a part of him that simply can’t accept that this is how it ends, and it’s this incredulity—aka hope—that drives him and also the novel. In other words, as one-sided as Hector’s soliloquy may be, he’s in active communication to the end, not only with the idea of AnniMac, and with posterity, but with his unconscious friend, Cesar, a guy Hector admires and envies, and who’s always been moving too fast to pay attention to him. But in the water truck, he’s right where Hector needs him to be—captive and unable to interrupt (kind of like a reader, or the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).

So, yes, it’s through this—the act of speaking, of conjuring the world outside and those who matter to him most—that Hector tries to save himself. Each word is both a step away from death and a middle finger to the coyotes. In this sense, Hector’s is a mountain climber’s (or laborer’s) work ethic—one painful step, one bucket of cement, one hard-won word after the other… Until you get there, or die in the attempt. Modern veterans of Mount Everest and polar expeditions sometimes refer to their journeys as “sufferfests.” The challenge, under such relentless circumstances, is: how do you keep your spirits up, and body and soul intact? This is what we get to see Hector struggling to do, moment by moment.

As for a larger purpose beyond storytelling, I think a lot of stories smother under the weight of the agendas attached to them, and I didn’t want that to happen here. My primary obligation to readers is to offer an engaging tale that will keep them turning the pages—and that gives them a potentially transformative experience they wouldn’t have elsewhere. Second, I want to offer an authentic window into a parallel world that, while closed to most of us, is closer than we might realize. At the personal level—because it is in the act of writing—my art and craft—that I’m able to manifest the most potent devotion, this book is also an homage to a place and people who gave a lot to me and my family, and to whom I’m deeply grateful. If readers want to take this story further, along the lines of John le Carré’s invitation to engage at the end of The Constant Gardener, that would be wonderful. But at the bottom line, the novel has to hold up on its own narrative merits, independent of current events, or the need for action. The difference between this book and The Tiger is that The Tiger’s characters are real people who, figuratively speaking, gave me their lives, and that is a grave responsibility. In my view, this kind of verisimilitudinous fiction is similar, but it’s not quite as immediately or mortally personal.

Shipley: I wonder about the architectural echoes in this book: Were you aware that the reader can be reminded of the situation of the thirty-three Chilean miners who, in 2010, were trapped underground with only a three inch pipe to the outside? Or were you hoping the reader might think of the stranded water truck as a kind of landlocked slave ship?

Vaillant: I actually had the pleasure of blurbing Héctor Tobar’s great book, Deep Down Dark, about the Chilean miners, and was struck by similarities—specifically how Latino laborers refract hope and despair through the kaleidoscope of Catholicism overlaid on indigenous beliefs. No connection between the pipes though: I was dealing solely with water truck anatomy. I like the slave ship analogy a lot, but I was more caught up with a Trojan Horse/9-11 jets comparison.

Shipley: Have you read Denison, Iowa by Dale Maharidge, which opens with (the true story) of eleven bodies discovered in a sealed but otherwise empty grain car in Iowa? “When the train stopped in Kingsville, no one opened the hatch,” Maharidge writes. “The first law officer on the scene was Crawford Country Sheriff Tom Hogan. He noted their bodies were evenly spaced around the circumference… all feet pointed into the well in the center… It’s like they’re flower petals, he thought.” I think The Jaguar’s Children is like a flower. The water tank is the center of tension around which these stories loop out and come back—like petals. As I read I felt the contrast between the stench and damp and dark and each sound recording’s beautiful foray beyond it.

Vaillant: I’m aware of and was inspired by (if that’s the right word) the Iowa boxcar case. And I love the idea of petals. The structure has some similarities to Slumdog Millionaire, which centers around the police state in a flower-like way as well.

Pick up the print edition of the May/June 2015 issue of Orion to read Julia Shipley’s review of The Jaguar’s Children.

Meet an Orion Book Award Finalist: Divine Animal; A Country Called Childhood

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Since 2007, Orion has given an annual award to books that deepen our connection to the natural world, present new ideas about the relationship between people and nature, and achieve excellence in writing. Finalists for the 2015 Orion Book Award were announced last week. Over the next few days, we’ll be posting short reports from Orion staff about the finalists; in mid-June, we’ll present the winners.

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Scott Russell Sanders’s new novel, Divine Animal, weaves together the lives of several key characters, who—unbeknownst to each other—are on parallel quests for healing and connection. Impassioned and skillfully crafted, this story is testimony to the power of the land and the personal transformation that we find there. Set in Vermont, Indiana, and Michigan, and grounded in environmental consciousness, Divine Animal is sure to be of interest to anyone who appreciates the themes that Orion explores. — H. Emerson Blake

Before adulthood encroached on our free time and free will, the world seemed more joyous, more enchanted, more full of opportunity. In A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World, Jay Griffiths explores why, and her artful inquiry provides a wonderful way for readers to reconnect with their younger selves: what it was that we craved from the earth and each other, what passions and curiosities fueled our journeys of discovery. Grownups of all ages will benefit from this charming refresher course on childhood. —Jennifer Sahn

Learn more about the Orion Book Award, including past winners and finalists, here.

Concrete Progress: We Can Pull Off Bold Infrastructure Projects—the Highway System Is Proof

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Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: townspeople offer free lemonade to members of the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy.

 

My father’s house in Florida is seven-hundred miles away from my own. When I visited recently, I got up early, settled into the car, and was there in time for dinner. When my father was a child, this would have been impossible, but for me it was easy. Eleven hours on I-26, I-95, and I-75—and the only hardship was that NPR kept repeating the same shows all day.

As I sat there, in the slightly-too-cozy confines of the Mini, I thought about the massive highway system along which I was cruising. I thought about how I-95 ends in Miami but begins in the snowy pines of the Maine-New Brunswick border. I thought about the highway sign in California’s Mojave Desert that reads “Wilmington, NC 2,554 mi.” I thought about the greatest reimagining of infrastructure that has ever occurred in this country: the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. The interstate highway system is coast-to-coast proof that America can pull off huge, transformative infrastructure projects, and while it’s not exactly what we need now (the future does not belong to the homogenous and ecologically obtuse) it’s an example of the sort of thing we’ve accomplished before—and it’s a challenge, to the next generation, to aim high.

The Eisenhower highway system has two origin stories, both of which are good enough to include here. The first begins in 1919. Eisenhower was twenty-nine years old, an Army major with, presumably, a full head of hair. He formed part of what was called the Transcontinental Motor Convoy, a group of eighty-one vehicles heading from Washington, DC, to San Francisco, in an effort to test the quality of the nation’s roads. It took them two months (two months!) at a little over fifty miles a day. It was late summer, and in those days before air conditioning the trucks and tanks and encampments and hotel rooms must have been miserably hot. The roads were dirt or mud, the bridges uncertain. Most of the people in the towns they passed through had probably never left Ohio, or Nebraska, or Nevada. When the convoy reached the Pacific, Eisenhower must have felt a little like Lewis and Clark.

Fast-forward a quarter-century. In 1944, Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The Allies fought their way across the hedgerow country of northern France, and, by all accounts, had an absolutely vile time of it, struggling bloodily through a landscape that hadn’t changed much since Henry V came that way in the 1400s. Then they reached the German border. The autobahn zipped the Americans, Brits, and Canadians straight to Berlin. Eisenhower would not forget it.

Skip ahead to 1954, when Eisenhower was president and had begun to lobby for massive upgrades to the American highway system. A national system had been a policy goal since the days of arch-infrastructurist Franklin Roosevelt, but by the 1950s, America was ready. Eisenhower proposed a vast expansion of highway construction. Anyone with access to a car could travel across the continent—which would immensely boost business, tourism, and educational opportunity while providing jobs for years nationwide. As Eisenhower said, it would “Unite the States.” He also pointed out how crucial it would be, in the event of war with the Soviet Union, that Americans and the American military be able to move around the country with ease. Did people complain regardless? Of course they did! To be fair, this was all extremely expensive. But the benefits were clear and Eisenhower was by far the most popular man in the country. A series of highway acts were passed, culminating in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

The Act poured $25 billion (about $200 billion today) into road construction, with the goal of establishing a 41,000-mile interstate system. It also set national standards for width, lanes, and so on. The money, 90 percent of it federal, would come from user charges, mainly rises of a few cents in the gasoline tax. The work was to be done over a decade. Members of congress were delighted to have the new highways in their states (and all they brought with them), but they quibbled about the cost well into the 1960s. Still, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson kept the program going, and in 1990, Eisenhower’s name was officially given to the accomplishment. As of 2014, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is over 47,000 miles long. The route that took Eisenhower two months in 1919 now takes four days.

Imagine if we embarked on a similar project today. Would we have solar panels on the roofs of federal buildings and covering parking lots? Would we have a national program to retire defunct dams? Buffers of native vegetation along all our major rivers? A comprehensive single-stream recycling program? Eisenhower’s vision was intended to solve a logistical problem, not an environmental one, and to serve the national interest. Nowadays, communities across the country are solving their own environmental and infrastructural problems, and rightly so, but it is tantalizing (to me, at least) to imagine America attacking big questions of waste and energy. I have to think we would be smarter about it, too—instead of a monolithic, one-size-fits all program, perhaps we’d institute a textured, flexible approach to nationwide problems. New Mexico’s rivers need buffers, and so do New Jersey’s, and a national program should address both, but the pollution, and the solution, is different at each location. We have the knowledge and the skills to do this. Perhaps, one day, we’ll have the will.

There are a lot of sources on our highways, but the ones I found most valuable were found here, here, and here.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.

The Incredible Night Life of One of the World’s Strangest Flowering Plants

While many of us are heading to bed or cueing up another episode of Game of Thrones, the giant Amazonian water lily is preparing itself to do some truly impressive things. The lily, which is the subject of Richard Mabey’s piece in the Lay of the Land section of the May/June 2015 issue of Orion (“Midnight Blooms”), is capable of not only growing at a rate of twenty-five centimeters a day, but of transforming itself from female to male—and from white to pink—overnight.

Says Mabey, who made a mad dash one evening to the Cambridge University tropical houses to watch the lily bloom:

The flowering is an extraordinary process. The basketball-sized bud opens as a white-petaled female, releasing an overpowering aroma of tropical fruit and raising its internal temperature eleven degrees Celsius above the surrounding air. In its natural habitat hordes of scarab beetles are attracted by the scent and warmth. A few hours later, the petals shut tight, trapping the beetles while they pick up pollen. The next evening, the flower opens again as a gorgeous pink male, releasing the beetles to carry on their pollinating cycle.

Think about that the next time you’re hunting for your Netflix password on a Friday night.

Learn more about the lily’s incredible life cycle in the video above, and read about Richard Mabey’s attempt to witness one of its blooms in the Lay of the Land section of Orion. His new book, Efflorescence: The Cabaret of Plants, on this topic and others, will be out in the fall.

Note: The original version of this post mistakenly described the lily’s transformation from male to female. In fact, the flower begins as a female, with white petals, and emerges in the morning as a pink-petaled male. 

“A Roaring Force from One Unknowable Moment”


The May/June 2015 issue of Orion contains a conversation between Kathleen Dean Moore and Mary Evelyn Tucker, a Yale University professor who’s on a mission to fold together spiritual ideas with new insights about the physical history of the universe. Tucker’s recently released project, Journey of the Universe, is an exploration of how the astonishing beauty of the story of the universe might change the way we humans see ourselves in the world. Below is an excerpt from the conversation; read the full version in the print edition of the May/June 2015 issue.

 

KATHLEEN: So where does the story start?

MARY EVELYN: At the beginning there is a “great flaring forth”— a roaring force from one unknowable moment, this origin moment. It lights me up to think that from this emerge the first stars, the first galaxies, the first planetary systems. Any one of these alone would inspire a lifetime of meditation. That single moment gives birth over time to the elements —hydrogen, then oxygen, nitrogen, carbon —all from the explosion of supernovae. From the creative processes of galaxies and stars and finally planetary systems over 10 billion years, our sun, our Earth, our moon emerged, and eventually humans were born. This is staggering, indeed mind-boggling, and we are the first humans to begin to understand this.

It took another billion years for the first cell to emerge, and from that cell came all life on the planet. Did it come from the deep-sea vents? Did it come from an asteroid? All we know is that Earth became ignited with life. So we have multicellular life from the bacteria early on and much later with birds and fish and insects—the tree of life not so much branching as exploding outward. At the same time, Earth began its adventure of conscious self-awareness, from a primitive sentience at the cellular level all the way to our own dreaming, meaning-making, symbol-forming selves.

KATHLEEN: The story that you tell, this understanding, this perspective, offers people a new worldview, doesn’t it? I think of a worldview as a set of beliefs that we swim in, so deeply immersed in its assumptions that we don’t often question or even recognize them as assumptions, any more than a fish thinks of water. Worldviews fundamentally shape cultures. Different worldview? Different culture. So cultural transformation often begins when people get a new vision of who they are in the midst of the world. Is that part of what you’re hoping the universe story can do?

MARY EVELYN: Yes. What we are experiencing is a worldview shift of immense import, one where we humans are entering into a fresh understanding that we are part of a developmental universe. If we can see ourselves as coming out of, as birthed from, these dynamic, changing, evolutionary processes—from cosmic beginning to Earth to life to human beings—there will be a huge change of human consciousness and identity. It’s certainly as large as the Copernican Revolution. It’s on that order of magnitude.

The Great Chain of Being was the medieval worldview, drawing on earlier Greek thought, which presumed that animals were arranged in an ascending order from small creatures all the way up to humans at the top of the pyramid, and eventually to God. This put humans at the pinnacle of creation—separate from and superior to all other forms of life, closest to God. Of course, Copernicus transformed that paradigm by observing that even if humans were at the center of the Earth, the Earth is not the center of our planetary solar system.

But now we find ourselves in an unimaginable immensity of time and space. We have remarkable new insights from science of how evolution works and how ecosystems flourish within these evolutionary processes. It’s not a matter of creation from the outside, where humans are just dropped into the process, as in a Biblical mindset. In the Genesis story, God creates Adam and Eve, and a soul is dropped into these early lifeforms, and all of a sudden we have conscious humans. No!

We humans are part of this vast evolutionary journey. The central new idea is cosmogenesis, namely that evolution is an unfolding process that has continuity from its origin moment to the present, an interlinking of the stars and elements and supernovae with all lifeforms, and carbon and me here in New England and you in the Oregon forest. It’s a unity of life from the first cell to all future forms of life. This dynamic and complexifying process is what we are trying to understand.

We are related to the stars and the first cells and the small mammals that survived the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. We are related to the apes and baboons and ­orangutans—how thrilling is this journey that we have made! What science is giving us is a glimpse of how something more complex arises from something less complex.

How does this happen? We don’t fully know, but it has to do with self-organizing dynamics and emergent properties. What’s a whirlpool? What are these patterns of a spiral galaxy? What can generate this form? We’re finding ways to talk about how systems organize themselves, how change happens over time.

KATHLEEN: What does this story tell us about what it means to be human?

MARY EVELYN: The stars stun us with their beauty, drawing us into wonder. And this sense of wonder is one of our most valuable guides on this journey into our future as full human beings. The creativity of evolutionary processes and self-organizing dynamics are mirrored in our own creativity, which is birthed from these processes of billions of years. Thus, our creativity is enlivened by being in resonance with a life-generating planet —the flowers, the leaves, the waving grasses, the sunsets, the wind.

Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life—that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways—creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves. What is larger than ourselves that we really care about? It’s Life, as far as I can see.

We are on the verge of knowing how to express comprehensive gratitude, acknowledging that we are dwelling within a living system. This gives rise to a sense of resonance with lifeforms that certainly earlier peoples understood, and native peoples still do. This is a new moment for our awakening to the beauty of life that is now in our hands. And because we are life-giving humans and care about our children and their children and future generations of all species, I think the universe story can sustain us and inspire us in so many ways yet to be fully discovered.

Read this conversation in its entirety by subscribing to Orion or purchasing a copy of the May/June 2015 issue. Learn more about Mary Evelyn Tucker’s Journey of the Universe project here.