Louise Dennys: This is really fun because we haven’t actually sat down, you and I, and talked about the writing of this book, The Jaguar’s Children, because we’ve been so involved in the process of bringing it into the world. You have been so deeply involved in the writing and creation of it. But the response has been absolutely wonderful. And that rarely happens to someone who moves from nonfiction to fiction. I mean, you’ve produced a debut fiction novel, but it had such authority and is so moving and the storytelling is so good. I’d love to go back to where we were almost four years ago when you said to me, “I’m really interested in writing a book of fiction.” That was before you had gone down to Mexico.
John Vaillant: This was still back when The Tiger was for sale. There was a little flurry, and we—I mean you were open to the idea of a two-book deal. And I still remember the way you said that: “It’ll be for two books: The Tiger and a work of … fiction.” That little rise in tone, of curiosity, a little bit of skepticism, and, “Well, I’m not sure what I’m getting into here,” but it was lovely. It was all very positive. I felt like you were in for a ride and an adventure. It was just two syllables, but the way you said fiction, it really charmed me.
LD: I remember the anxiety you had at taking this on. Fiction was something that you admire, great storytelling, and you are so well-read in fiction. Was that a candle for you, or more of an anxiety for you in deciding to make this journey?
JV: You’re very kind about saying I’m well-read. I feel like I’m a net full mostly of holes when it comes to reading. I would like to just take a year off and re-do my literary education, which feels really spotty. The books that I have read have impacted me deeply. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been with me since I was 13; that theme and urgency of telling is very present in this project. It has been an inspiration, as has Moby-Dick—these young, first-person narrators who have been through an extraordinary journey and somehow survived, or tried to, at least.
But at the same time, to do this in the context of a Mexican and a Native seemed to be making things needlessly difficult for myself. It’s a very presumptuous thing to undertake, and I think I told you what Stuart, my agent, said to me when I said, “You know, I have got this idea for a first-person story about a Zapotec Indian trapped in a water truck.” We were in a bar and he nodded gravely, and all he could muster was, “That sounds … very ambitious.” He just couldn’t go any further. But I took that as a challenge, and also your slight questioning inflection on fiction, both of those stayed with me.
It is the supreme challenge: long-form fiction, I feel if you’re going to be a writer; if that’s what your dream and aspiration is, you have to at least try it.
LD: A lot of fiction writers say the reverse. Why do you say that fiction, for you, is the supreme challenge?
JV: It’s so hard. And I wonder about that for people who started out writing novels, especially young fiction writers, people who wrote excellent novels in their 20s. I don’t begrudge them too much because I’m mostly just astounded. And that makes me wonder about old souls and channeling—how do you get so deeply into another person that young? I started writing about this in my very late 40s; by then I’ve legitimately seen enough of the world and known enough people that I could call on that experience and bring it to bear. But how a Zadie Smith or Carson McCullers does it, it’s like a miracle to me.
A soap bubble sitting on the table is a very precarious, fragile dome, but it is sealed and set on a solid surface. Half of it is rooted and unpoppable, and then you have this dome that’s quite precarious—well, that’s nonfiction. Fiction is the whole bubble floating. So you’ve created this tenuous, amorphous, terrifically fragile structure that holds together and can travel.
LD: You and I once talked about, and I found it fascinating at the time, the differences and the challenges between fiction and nonfiction, between what you did in your fiction writing and what you had done in your nonfiction writing.
JV: To preface that, I really feel as if we are in a golden age of nonfiction. I think one of the reasons for that is because nonfiction writers have been studying the techniques of fiction writers. People have been bringing in those methods, the pacing, the choice of quote and character details, the construction of scenes, have been using novelistic—not fictional—novelistic techniques to convey the true story. A lot of people said that after reading The Golden Spruce and The Tiger—the implication was there was a fiction writer in here trying to get out. It was meant kindly and generously, but I took that as an indication. In one sense it was a very logical progression, but what it really is, as I see it, I keep thinking of a bubble—a half a bubble, like a soap bubble sitting on the table. A soap bubble sitting on the table is a very precarious, fragile dome, but it is sealed and set on a solid surface. There’s some sibilance for you there. Half of it is rooted and unpoppable, and then you have this dome that’s quite precarious—well, that’s nonfiction. Fiction is the whole bubble floating. So you’ve created this tenuous, amorphous, terrifically fragile structure that holds together and can travel.
LD: That is so beautiful.
JV: But it’s so hard. Good novelists make it look so easy, but that’s why I see it as a supreme challenge—to make that full bubble entirely seamless and self-supporting.
LD: But you wouldn’t put your nonfiction below your fiction writing at this stage, would you? They stand side-by-side rather than hierarchically in your mind?
JV: On one level, each one was the hardest thing I could do. Each one had a high probability of failure in my view, in terms of skills and belief and fortitude that I possess individually. Each one of those took everything that I had to pull it off and I was kind of amazed that it worked. But at the same time, my ambition needs to be cantilevered out sufficiently, precariously, to keep my attention, to make me do my best work. There needs to be this sense of imminent toppling to just keep that edge. Everyone has a different threshold for that, and there are many more complex, difficult, intricate, and ingenious works of nonfiction and fiction. But for me, and my particular gifts and limitations that surround them, it was the best that I could do. I don’t believe I could have done this novel until I had wrestled with narrative for almost 10 years in the form of long-form narrative and the form of The Golden Spruce and The Tiger. Those were apprenticeships, and you were one of the crucial mentors.
LD: You are a writer that takes the most challenging ideas and challenging situations even in terms of the writing, not only in terms of the world we live in. The Golden Spruce was, in a sense, a crime novel of the most remarkable kind, where the victim was a great, golden tree on the island of Haida Gwaii off the northwest coast of Canada, and you managed to make that a story that resonated around the world, in terms of the place we live in and the fragility of the world we live in. And The Tiger, the same thing—to take a creature that mythic and to render the fight between animal and mankind in a way that was so completely gripping, that took us way beyond the narrative core story, into how our world is basically being so deeply affected that it is collapsing around us in so many ways. And to do this again—you’re unlike almost any other writer I know. In terms of the new book, The Jaguar’s Children, when you decided to write it, you were already in Mexico. Tell us how that seed was planted, because it’s a wonderful story in itself.
JV: I think one of the things that makes all this possible for me is love. I’ve known some writers who have been quite successful working on their own. They’ve been single. They’ve been really focused on their mission and they’ve been able to pull it off. I really feel I couldn’t do that without, first, my wife and kids, but also, your affection for the language for the art and the craft and for me has been very sustaining. It’s in there, it’s part of the atmospheric matrix that empowers me to try to do this.
LD: That’s wonderful to hear, thank you.
JV: And I felt that down in Mexico, when we were working on The Tiger. You have a way of incandescing the experience, even when we had that long conversation on the phone editing The Tiger, we were doing a line edit, a four- or five-hour marathon conversation, and I was practically shaking by the end of it. It was sort of the combination of a really exhilarating date and also just resonating with another person on something that was so central and essential to who I am and who I want to be. That’s a beautiful thing.
LD: And beautiful on both sides. It’s all about the excitement of moving forward—that huge adventure intellectually, as well as the bringing of a creation into being that has never existed before. That shared experience, it’s as extraordinary to me today as it ever was, and you are one of the most exciting people to work with and to talk to in that way, because you are reaching so far. In all three of these books, you’ve reached into such deep places, and that’s why each time your subject matter is so astonishing. I remember telling people in the publishing house what the subject of the book was going to be—that it was a young man who was trapped inside a water tanker and the whole book was told essentially from within the water tanker where he is sealed and dying—a few apprehensive looks greeted this entirely original and beautiful story. But you’ve used real life in your fiction as you’ve used it in your nonfiction, but that was not an entirely imaginative situation—imaginary in terms of everything that you did with it, but people have been found in water tankers trying to escape from Mexico into the United States.
JV: In various vehicles—I don’t know about a water tanker exactly, but certainly in these confined spaces. I’ll get back to your question to where this story came from. I think the water tank is a beautiful metaphor for the artist alone. Remember that William Blake painting of the poet in his chamber with his muse—that was a very beautiful space, but it’s still empty. There’s nobody in there but the creator and his or her muse. Then there’s all that empty space that you have to contend with. And you can’t really come out of there until you have something worthy to show. So it’s a crucible and a pressure-cooker, along with being this exalting, free, limitless, creative zone. It can be all those things at once. And that’s why I think the water tanker made a kind of intuitive, almost archetypal sense. And where that came from, being in Mexico, it’s impossible to not be affected by what one sees down there. I really felt like I was going there to humour my wife Nora [who is an artist, a potter], who needs to do something that makes her feel connected and excited to her deepest desires. I was completely consumed by The Tiger at that point.
LD: And she’s a great partner.
JV: I think she was feeling really starved. She was really doing the heavy lifting on the kids. As much as I was around, I was also absent like somebody who is deep into a project. So she came up with this very creative and somewhat arduous solution, which was to move to southern Mexico from Canada. So we were there and I truly thought, “I’m going to finish The Tiger and then I’m going to lie in a hammock and I’m just going to read books that have no tigers in them.” That was kind of the limit. I’ll take the kids to and from school and Nora will do whatever she wants to do with her work and make whatever she wants to make.
The irony is, her father-in-law left a copy of [Aravind] Adiga’s wonderful White Tiger for Christmas. We had been there for four or five months and there was not a lot of English-language literature at hand, so here was this book lying around, and even though it did have a tiger in it, I read it and loved it. I came out of that book thinking, “Wow. Someone should write this book about Mexico.” Because the circumstances of that narrator—in this remote, hide-bound, tribal village with this awareness of this other world of money and opportunity, that he didn’t understand terribly well but wanted a piece of—resonated so perfectly with so many people coming out of these remote pueblos in Oaxaca and travelling 2,000 kilometres just to get up to the U.S. and try their luck. I thought, “I wonder if anyone has done that.” There have been many immigration novels, and again, another one of my literary holes has been Mexican border literature. But there are a number of good novels and films that have been made about this journey. There was something about the way Adiga narrated … and his eccentricity and isolation that resonated. And his near madness, depending on how you want to interpret it—that was all fermenting in there.
I had also read Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener a couple of months earlier. There was a real moral quandary in that book, but at the same time it was a thriller. And only at the very end does he say, “Look, this is about the use of pharmaceuticals on unsuspecting native people in Africa. It’s a moral issue. It’s a health issue. It’s a serious issue. If you want to get more deeply engaged, here’s how.” I was really impressed by that. That was in the background somewhere. And seeing these water trucks driving around town and the notion of the way the word “jaguar” contains the word “agua,” the Spanish word for “water.” All of those were kind of swirling about in there. I think along with that was the family history with Mexico, and my grandfather who was actually quite interested in jaguars and animal transformations.
LD: He was an archaeologist.
JV: Yeah. His specialty was the Aztecs. But he also really helped conceive of the culture that was the Olmec, which was the mother civilization for all of those people. It was an amazing, creative, intellectual and anthropological leap that he made in the early ’30s.
The magical realist, with all due respect to Márquez, feels more like an outsider’s view—somebody who is not used to this kind of thing, so it must be “magical.” But I think it’s all of these things coinciding. To see somebody in a cemetery during the Day of the Dead with a person who doesn’t exist—or, well, who’s dead, who is not corporeally present—they’re not crazy. But they experience the boundaries between life and death in a very different way than we do. LD: It was really transformative in fact, wasn’t it?
JV: Yeah. So many of the ways that we presume to know Mexico now were built on that work by him and his colleagues in the early ’30s. It was really seminal and took us, everybody, to another level in their understanding of that place and its history.
LD: And bringing the ancient and mythic traditions to life and up through the earth a lot of the time.
JV: If you spend any time, especially an annual cycle, in a pueblo in Oaxaca, you will see all of those things. And that’s what is so amazing, how accessible all of these cultural and historical strata are. And Bali has some of the same feel, and I think parts of India do too, where you feel like you’re living in many centuries and many histories at once. It’s more porous and blended together. And I feel like here, certainly in the urban world that we live in here, it is very stratified. We’re very trapped in the now, in this kind of superficially urgent present. There’s a whole different scale of time and understanding of one’s place in it that’s at work in Mexico. I was really feeling that there, so it’s quite natural to have mythical ancestor figures overlapping with current events. Up here, we call that magical realism. But that’s just the way things are there. It isn’t because people are doing mushrooms and are more creative—I just think that’s the way people experience reality. There’s this other beautiful term for it, conceived by a Cuban artist or historian, who refers to the marvelous real. That feels to me a more appropriate and more accurate way of describing what life is like.
LD: That’s lovely.
JV: The magical realist, with all due respect to Márquez, feels more like an outsider’s view—somebody who is not used to this kind of thing, so it must be “magical.” Having to put that kind of a label on it. But I think, no, it’s all of these things coinciding. To see somebody in a cemetery during the Day of the Dead with a person who doesn’t exist—or, well, who’s dead, who is not corporeally present—they’re not crazy. But they experience the boundaries between life and death in a very different way than we do. And that same person may go make a call on their cell phone and may be able to play Halo 4 much better than you can.
JV: It’s all of these layers that are being integrated. It’s an amazing thing to behold and grapple with. I really credit Adiga with planting the seed, or, in a way, presenting the challenge of saying, “Someone should write this novel about Mexico.” I didn’t quite know how I would do it. I was still very involved in The Tiger and tired from it. And then it was just a few weeks later, sitting at the computer, and the first lines of the novel: “I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance,” and that clarity of where that voice was coming from—through a cell phone, from the inside of a water tanker stranded on the border, out of the mind of a 22-year-old Zapotec man who was in deep distress—all of that was suddenly clear to me.
LD: Those words came to you, essentially out of the blue, just sitting there in your chair.
JV: Yeah, it just did. There’s only one other time I received a kind of creative indication like that, and that was for the novel I was going to write before The Tiger came along. That one is on the back burner. But where suddenly, there’s another voice, another cadence, another language inside your head, and yet it somehow feels at home there—I know this is fairly common for fiction writers, that there’s this sense of being visited. What I came to realize, this is going back to nonfiction, that my sense of nonfiction is that you’re putting the flesh back on the bones of something that existed already—you’re resurrecting the dinosaurs, if you will, bringing it back to life, this thing that already happened.
What I came to realize about Héctor and the other characters around him—the characters that he invokes, that he brings into being—is that Héctor is the conduit between us and the world, and that he is trapped and inside the truck and has come from Oaxaca. Once that was up and running, you could lean on these characters almost as hard as you could a nonfiction character. You can’t endow a nonfiction character with anything that isn’t somehow recorded either from an interview or a photograph or from the personal experience of an eyewitness. And likewise, I found that Héctor and his friend César, there were just certain things that they wouldn’t say or wouldn’t do. There’s an internal logic and an internal set of rules that naturally established itself.
LD: And this is critical to the best of fiction writing and fiction writers: that you recognize who your characters are and what they will or won’t do. If you push them in a direction that they aren’t naturally or actually able to be in, they are going to fail as characters.
JV: And that’s, of course, the terrible fear. And most readers can pick up on the falsehood and the failure very quickly. I’ve walked away from so many novels; I’m a brutal reader that way. I’ll withstand or put up with about four or five false notes, and after that, it’s like the pitch is wrong. Nobody wants to hear the violin played badly, no matter how ambitious the tune is. That’s a real liability for a fiction writer. Whereas a nonfiction writer can always say, “That’s what she said! There it is!” And people will put up with that more.
LD: In The Tiger, there was one moment where I was first reading the passages about the tiger, and you were bringing that tiger to life as if you were hearing the voice of that tiger, communicating the voice of that tiger as if it was a fully-formed creature, and you knew what it would do, and how far it would go and how far it would not go, and you knew when to draw back, how to render that voice of that tiger. And obviously I don’t mean in any real way [laughs], but that tiger just walks off the pages of that book.
JV: Well, thank you. That’s the highest praise one could receive—to have this being whom you’ve invested a lot in and really tried to understand feel real to other people. There’s a phenomenon I just learned about called “mirror touch synesthesia.” I’ve heard about synesthesia before, but apparently there are some people who, if someone else gets slapped in the face, they will feel it; I think they need to see it happen. Or if they walk into a room full of people buzzed on alcohol, they will feel drunk too.
LD: That’s fascinating.
JV: It’s really bizarre. But I do think that needs to be part of the writer’s toolbox and natural inclination—that there is a porousness in the membrane of your identity which so many people spend time trying to reinforce, trying to block out the experience of others. But I think for a writer, you’re almost pathologically inclined the other way, so that you’re taking the feelings of others into you and it’s coming in completely. You can almost recreate it through your own nerve endings and senses.
LD: How well you say that. What you understand, and what I understand … is how very thin that membrane can be. We put an awful lot of pressure on our artists and our writers, but that membrane is so thin between the world that you have to draw into yourself and the world that you have to stand upright in every day. But not for nothing are madness and literature are closely allied. It’s a tight world.
JV: It’s a bizarre space to be in—to really try to fully imagine the experience of another animal or any other being or another person. It does seem a little bit crazy to do that. I do feel truly that there’s a kind of salvation in there—that if we’re able to admit in most senses the experience of others into us, it would solve a lot of the problems that we see today. When you see the way Putin or Bush or Harper use fear of the Other to corrupt democracy, it’s very, very destructive. By allowing people access in an undefended way—that might be the one true gift of fiction—it allows you a safe and managed way to experience another person, in a way that doesn’t threaten your well-being or physical or economic or social security. You can close the book if you want. You can read at a bit more of a distance if you want. Or you can take it in fully. Maybe that’s what a book is. I’ve always been so struck by The Once and Future King where Merlin is training the young Arthur by transforming him into other animals. It is part of his education—this is what it’s like to be a bird. And von Uexküll, the ethologist whom I wrote about in The Tiger, was doing the same thing, actually, at the same time—I think both of those men were working in the 1930s.
One of my final editing tasks for this novel was to reduce the novel to 150 single-line scenes. So I typed all the scenes out on a piece of paper and cut them out individually. What would the order be? I disengaged them one from the other and threw them down on the dining room table, and pulled them out one by one, almost like fortunes out of a fortune cookie, and basically said to each one, “You can’t be in here unless you can justify your existence.” LD: You can see clearly from what you’re saying why Moby-Dick and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner as well as The Once and Future King were such important transformative books for you when you were young. Because that’s essentially what you are doing—entering into the world of others and making us understand it in some ways, making it structurally real, making us feel the pain of it. You said salvation for a writer, but I think it’s salvation for a reader to be able to experience what another world is, what another human being is. And thank god for it. I remember when we were at a very early stage of The Jaguar’s Children, you were trying to layer these ideas one on top of the other and in ways that would give you freedom to write the book but retain some grasp of them. And you laid the entire novel out on the floor of your house, and then were trying to stand up and see it from afar, and you threw it out on huge sheets of paper so that you could try to hold that entire world in your head of the different past, present, and future. That is what your writing does: it brings the past back, unites the present and the future. In the case of this novel as well, you were playing with all these ideas at once. And I love the way you did that structurally. Not many people do that.
JV: Well, it is why there are literally 30 drafts of that novel stacked up in my office. Someday there should be a bonfire, I guess.
LD: No, no, no. [Laughs]
JV: [Laughs] It was just torture. But you came in at this critical point when I did a graph of every section and movement in the story. This is why I do think reality is a blending of dimensions all the time, and the only way to recreate it with authenticity is to somehow summon all those dimensions, not exactly simultaneously, but together into some kind of unified whole. That is where you came along: at a critical point in that struggle. [Laughs]
LD: It was wonderful. I remember I flew to Vancouver and walked into the house and then moments later, it was as if we were surrounded by this living novel. It was so extraordinary. One of the things that occurred to me then, and we talked about it then I think, Michael Ondaatje wrote a nonfiction work The Conversations with [Walter] Murch, the great film editor. You said earlier that nonfiction had benefitted so much from fiction writing, and our understanding of fiction writing over the last few decades; equally, I was so reminded of the cinematic editing that you were doing at that point of putting the book together as one great piece. And not unlike Walter Murch in his editing in some of the great movies of our time, like The English Patient and so many others, the writing of nonfiction and how you were actually constructing it struck me as quite cinematic.
JV: That’s a beautiful point. That’s something I left out. I do think that our base level of narrative literacy is much, much higher now because of all the TV and films we are saturated in. I think most people are actually pretty good judges of good narrative because we’ve seen so much of it. And also, the cues now are so subtle. Even in a silly movie like Ocean’s Eleven, which is really just a goof, it’s such a pleasure to watch. I think it was in that one where there’s a suitcase by the door and you know the marriage is gone and that someone is leaving—you barely know the characters yet, but you know the cues and you know the iconography, and there was a mood, there was a kind of lighting, there was an angle. We had a chapter of information in that one scene. I’m not the only person who’s picking up on that; that was a movie made for everybody, and I think everybody probably got it. I don’t know if anyone has really examined that. Maybe Ondaatje did with Murch—how much filmmaking has informed literature in our generation and the past couple of generations.
To that end, one of my final editing tasks for this novel was to reduce the novel to 150 single-line scenes. So I typed all the scenes out on a piece of paper and cut them out individually. And there was that last, very difficult point when I was really struggling with what that final edit would look like because, as we noted, there was so many different time periods and dimensions and points of view being brought to bare—what would the order be? I wrote out these 150 scenes and I disengaged them one from the other and threw them down on the dining room table, and pulled them out one by one, almost like fortunes out of a fortune cookie, and basically said to each one, “You can’t be in here unless you can justify your existence.” Taking from that, this notion about screenwriting, which is each scene, each page basically needs to move the plot forward somehow—either forward or deeper. There wasn’t a lot of room or space or patience for digression, lateral movement.
So I started laying these things down. Some were obvious. But there were a number that went into the “uncertain” pile. And eventually, it was out of that honestly sort of traumatizing exercise, of laying each one down into its proper order, there was a moment there when I remember my head was swimming and I really felt like the walls were starting to bend and I just thought, “I can’t—I can’t do this. It’s too much. It’s too hard.” There’s a point, I wonder if you can speak about this, where the editor can make her suggestions, but ultimately the writer is still really … I felt like I was on my own a lot of the time. And I could go back to your notes, and also to Janet’s notes, and look at them and there was a lot of useful, concrete information there. And it’s why I think it’s a novel, and not some other tortured being in my drawer: because of what you offered and suggested. What do you think about that? You can make the suggestions you make, and you may have a vision for it, but then the writer’s off on their own.
LD: Exactly. I do think the writer is on their own. One of the things I believe about editing is that, ultimately, part of my responsibility is to be your best reader, and to be able to respond in that way—so that it is a response that comes out of admiration and love for the work, and from what you’re trying to achieve. And to give you those responses, which are based on years of practice and judgment from reading and understanding. But nevertheless, the work of art is fully and completely the author’s, whatever the guidance, whatever the degree of guidance. And some writers it’s obviously more, and some writers it’s less. But the important fact is that it’s your work. And I think you put that so beautifully, the pulling out each line, and I know you did that, and had to make really hard decisions as to which might go or stay and in some cases—they were wonderful scenes. But they didn’t move the novel along. And other people have described this, you have to line up your babies and decide which ones you are going to throw out of the window.
JV: It’s a kind of triage.
LD: It is a triage. And it is often as painful as that. You have to be prepared to do that. It can be a very painful and bloody experience. And that is an experience that is always going to be far more painful for the writer than for the editor. However much one can suggest or advise, give a response that says, “Look, this one just didn’t get me in any way.” Or, “This one is slowing down the whole process. What could be done to deal with that?” But at the end of the day, you are the one having to throw the babies out of the window, and they are your babies, and that’s extraordinarily painful. So yes, the writer is on their own in that very critical central sense, in terms of those final decisions. And the ending of the book here was so important in that way, because––and I’m not going to give anything away here––who is going to live and who is going to die amongst these characters? What is the end game going to be? And what is going to be absolutely true to the nature of the book and the characters? And a few endings came and went.
JV: Yes they did. And honestly, I sleep well at night thinking of the ending as it is.
LD: Good. [Laughs]
JV: I think the right call was made. I did want to acknowledge what strikes me as really extraordinary humility and generosity and restraint a good editor has to have in terms of making these suggestions. But then, just stepping back, and being, on the one hand, so invested as one’s best reader, which I really felt from you. And yet at the same time, here are the suggestions—that’s all it is—and then backing away. And on the one hand, part of me wanted you to be there every day holding my hand saying, “Yes, that’s good. No, don’t do that…” but I obviously knew that you can’t, it won’t work like that. You have to keep your distance. But that one day when you came and I had the flip-chart paper out, my little graphs and all the sections…
LD: And your kids walking across them.
JV: [Laughs] They were there too. And we were talking about it and again, it was another four- or five-hour blast—at least that’s what it felt like—and we’re marking up these flip-chart pages and arrows are going this way and that. And I’m hoping that I’ll remember which things you suggested. But when you left that day, that’s when I thought, “Oh my god, the whole room is glowing.” The paper was glowing. And I was glowing. And it’s that you had come in and supercharged everything. And you went away to go see your next person, and the room and the paper and I felt, appeared to be incandescent in that room.
LD: That’s wonderful.
JV: It was great. And it wasn’t dark—it was still daylight. But the room was lighter than everything else. It was a beautiful sensation.
LD: One of the things that we can’t not talk about, because it’s so critical to your work, is this novel, like your two nonfiction books, is a thriller—in the sense that you mention Le Carré’s Constant Gardener—and how some of the scenes have created that thriller structure that is so extraordinary. This book is so gripping, as are both the nonfiction books, and it is partly because of the way in which you infuse into your writing the values that you so care about in terms of the world, in terms of politics, in terms of our environment, in terms of what’s important and how we live as human beings, and the geopolitical thriller aspect of this novel is a critical part of it—it drives the narrative forward, it drives the character, the friendship between Héctor the young Zapotec and his friend César who is employed by a GMO industrial firm. Is that something that you feel is always part of what drives you? What are those values for you?
JV: You know, I think they are just part of the spectrum of the reality of anyone presuming to write about anybody’s experience at this time in history—at any time—has to acknowledge. Geopolitics and economy and industry are as important in this book as they are in The Golden Spruce because they are among the colours in the spectrum we see. And to leave them out and have it only be, “Well, I’m going to have indigo and yellow and a little bit of orange, and I’m going to leave the rest out,” I just think it’s not honest. So if you’re going to render Oaxaca and not write an elegiac, romantical, magical realist fantasy about colourful natives, you have to talk about what’s really happening. The fact is, there’s a saying among the peoples of Oaxaca, the corn-growing people: “without corn, there is no country.” It’s just like Guujaaw saying that, “If all the cedars were gone, we wouldn’t be Haida anymore.” And there is such a direct and visceral and historic, spiritual, biological, nutritional connection between the corn and human identity that you can’t not talk about it. You can’t not address the forces that are compromising it.
And GMOs are compromising it and NAFTA is compromising it. Honestly, I can’t think of two more novel-killing, eye-rolling subjects to introduce into a work of fiction, but it was César who made me write about them. I didn’t know a lot about GMOs and I didn’t know a lot about corn, but as I got to know César, he was dealing with corn and understood corn at a level that I didn’t, and I had to educate myself simply to keep up with him. And that is a strange, tail-wagging-the-dog quality of a novelist and their characters. I was running behind him to keep up with him. And it was only by trying to keep up with him that I realized, “My god, there are actually in existence suicide seeds that are designed to kill themselves if you try to plant them again.” I can’t think of anything more really fundamentally evil or insidious, but it doesn’t actually mean a great deal to us, who are so removed from the growing and harvesting process. But if you and your ancestors have spent the past 7,000 years surviving and developing pyramids and mathematics and alphabets and an entire civilization through your ability to select, plant, harvest, save and replant corn—think of what that means. It really is analogous to the slaughtering of the buffalos to starve the plains Indians out of existence and into submission. It’s very insidious and serious. So how can you write about Oaxaca without addressing that? It’s not that I want to, or have a particular axe to grind—it’s that I’m not reflecting their reality accurately if I don’t do it. I was thinking about this the other day, and I think that accuracy, especially in terms of nonfiction but also fiction, that factual accuracy along with emotional accuracy is how, in a way—maybe the only way—a writer can show respect not only for their characters, for their subjects, but also for their audience. That’s the measure: did you get it right or not? If you didn’t get it right, you’re either writing science fiction or fantasy, or being sloppy or self-indulgent. Those four things aren’t characteristics that I want to have in my life. So that’s really what it is—are you reflecting their reality as it is? GMOs are part of their challenge right now, directly impacting their lives, so I have to deal with them, as narratively deadly as they might be. And some critics have taken issue with their inclusion in the story, but it’s like leaving the colour orange out.
I think the role of the artist is to refract creation. And creation is essentially perfect, because it is—it is what it is. What the artist must constantly strive to do is basically rise to the level of their material. So all you’re seeing is an attempt to rise to the level of creation, which is already unassailably perfect in its way.
LD: Again, it’s how you particularly bring allegory together with reality, because, just as with Moby-Dick, and the tiger in the forest of Siberia that is being hunted and hunted and hunted down to extinction until the tiger itself turns on man in an effort to stay alive, that is the same story in our modern world. It’s as painful as the destruction of the trees in Haida Gwaii on the West Coast and across Canada, as evinced by that extraordinary 300-year-old golden spruce, a mythic unicorn of a creature. And then come GMOs and an entire way of life around these people is basically ripped out of the ground.
JV: It’s not a done deal. But there are these massive transformations happening, there’s no question about that. Some people have described these books as laments, and I really don’t see them that way. I’m simply describing what is. This is just what is happening right now. And for some reason, my role seems to be to chronicle some of those events. That’s really what I see myself doing. This is what’s happening in Oaxaca right now. This is what’s happening in the Russian far east right now. This is what’s happening in Haida Gwaii right now. It’s not going to look like a newspaper story, or even a magazine story, because there are a tremendous amount of influences over time and across history and culture that went into creating this current reality. If you don’t include those, again, it’s like a painter denying herself a full palette. If I were to paint my garden right now using only blues and yellows, there’s all this green there and it wouldn’t be there. I really see it more objectively like that.
LD: I just want to say that one of the most wonderful things about your writing is that, even though we’re driven by your compelling narrative, by the thriller-like aspect, you manage to balance the real world with the sense of the beauty of the world and what it is we should pay attention to, even as we also pay attention to what is being lost. In that sense, your writing is not a lament to me, either. I think it is a recognition—an elegiac recognition of what may be toppling in front of us—but it is an also an extraordinary clarion call for the beauty of the world.
JV: I think the role of the artist is to refract creation. And creation is essentially perfect, because it is—it is what it is. What the artist must constantly strive to do is basically rise to the level of their material. So all you’re seeing is an attempt to rise to the level of creation, which is already unassailably perfect in its way.
LD: John, I just have to say that I love you. I just love the way you think about the world. It’s just so exciting and so thrilling and so rewarding.
JV: Well, I love you too. [Laughs] I’m too close to it to be able to see it properly, but what for you about a manuscript or an author, especially an unknown author, makes you want to pursue them? Can you describe what the pricking in your thumbs is?
LD: And it is a pricking in your thumbs. Just as you hear that voice as a writer, you feel that quiver in the air around you. And I think it’s the same for an editor as for a reader. You find yourself suddenly caught in a world that you want to continue to be within—that you feel is going to open up in front of you as you go forward, whether it’s for the writing or for the storytelling or, in the case of nonfiction, the subject is suddenly so extraordinary or so captivating. I believe in being captured. I believe in the storytelling above all things, in a sense. I think the language and great language is in the service of storytelling, and we are storytelling creatures. Storytelling is in our DNA. I think as an editor, you look for that transformative moment, for that story that will help us all move forward in the world. A new novelist or a new nonfiction writer is particularly exciting—it is going to be something fresh, something you haven’t expected coming forward. And you are aware what you have, too, is the possibility of growing with that writer over perhaps this book, and the next, and the next. With you and The Golden Spruce, it was so exciting working with you on that book and publishing that book, but I always felt that beyond that book, one of the things that made it so great was the clear sense that there was another book ahead of it. And another book ahead of it. And another book ahead of it. And that it was a journey of discovery that you were embarking on—and therefore, as an editor, I was really excited that I would be a part of.
JV: You see yourself as a facilitator.
LD: I think so. And with some writing that may require—particularly first writers who are still to find their way or their voice or the control of language or how deep they can go or how to access all of those parts of what creates a great work—more than facilitation. There may be times where you might be doing a whole lot more than just suggesting. But at the end of the day, you still have to step back and say, “Here is one way of doing it.” There are times where you are a teacher and guide, as well as facilitator. But in a situation where you’re working with a really good fine writer, it’s more helpful to be there just to open windows or doors, and indeed to be an intelligent sounding board for you at all times.
JV: I love what you said about quivering very early on—you were talking about the language quivering. I remember feeling that when I read the first paragraph of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The language is so clean and yet, there is something about the brother upstairs raising his hand to the window. He’s using all the same language we do, so what the hell is the difference? What is he doing? He’s not using cowboy talk. It is a plain-spoken approach, and yet there’s something about those sentences that was quivering for me, too.
LD: And look at your first chapter in The Tiger. Where it’s again the same thing—it’s very simple, very cool, very calm. And yet the whole thing is electric.
JV: I’ve been thinking about sentences leaning back and leaning forward…
LD: What do you mean by that?
JV: There’s a way, by the placement of the verb, or the noun, or even the tense of the verb, you can kind of put the brakes on something or propel it into the next clause or sentence. And this is somebody, honestly, who failed grammar in high school. I got an F. And I don’t know a diphthong from a gerund, but I feel it. What I think much more is, if you are surfing or skiing and you lean a little bit into the nose to accelerate, everything around you is moving too, and it’s a very subtle correction. You’re sensing it all through the bottoms of your feet or the energy of the wave or whatever it is. Likewise, in the momentum of the idea that you’re ultimately trying to convey, if you think of the scene as the wave you’re bringing the reader through, you can put a little pressure on the nose of the sentence that pushes us forward more quickly into the next idea, or you can slow it down, which makes you savour and will allow an individual word or idea to resonate for a fraction of a second longer.
LD: And each sentence, each word needs that kind of attention to be successful. So you’re absolutely right about the wave and how you can surf back and forth and sideways. And to me it also feels like flying, not that I ever could fly, sadly, but as one flies in one’s dreams. And you’re suddenly drifting through the air, soaring through the air, soaring through language and flying through language.
JV: It’s that sense of not really having to work anymore as a reader. You know that feeling when you’re in a play watching somebody who isn’t quite confident in the role, and you’re there with your shoulders all tense, trying to keep them up?
JV: And then when it’s a really good act, or a really good writer or a really good musician, you can just lay back in your chair and let your muscles go and let the experience wash over you and be flown.
LD: Exactly. I think a lot of readers just have the sheer enjoyment of the experience of reading. That is, itself, so huge. It’s enough. In fact, every good writer, whether it’s a children’s story, just a very easygoing story of love or loss or life in any way, it applies every time. But it’s hidden from the reader. And if it’s a great story you love it—you’re not quite sure why, but you just do. It touches your heart, the characters touch your heart. It reaches through to you.
JV: Is there a book or story that you’ve always wanted to see or read and haven’t?
LD: That’s a very interesting question.
JV: And not an easy one.
LD: Not an easy one. I’ll take a rain check on that question. [Laughs] Maybe I could commission you to write it.
JV: I was wondering if you had sort of a narrative hole that you would always hoped would be filled.
LD: I don’t. As editors, we sit around a great deal of the time thinking and sharing ideas among ourselves as to what could be a really good book, what holes do need filling, what people are interested in but hasn’t been well-spoken to them in book form. So it’s part of our publishing work to think of those holes and places of interest to go. But what’s new every time is finding a writer who can tell that story that completely reawakens us, that feels so fresh and new. It’s the huge skill that is as important as anything too.
JV: It’s almost like the chicken and the egg in a way. You can’t imagine it until you see it. There are so many books I’ve read where it’s just, “Oh my god, it never would have even occurred to me to think this way or speak this way or research that topic.” There’s that kind of continual delight in the world being made new by somebody. I was also wondering if authors have influenced your approach to editing.
LD: Oh yes. Deeply so. In the sense that I have learned so much from the relationship of working with different writers and how to work well with writers. How to be helpful. How to be useful. How to be most effective. How to be tough when one needs to be tough. How to be gentle when one needs to be gentle about a particular situation or question. I think I’ve learned most from some of the really great writers I’ve been so fortunate to work with—who understood their craft so well that they were able to communicate to me, as their editor, what was important to them about the stories they told or how they wrote. Graham Greene was an example of that—he was so conscious of how well a story needed to be put together. What every piece of the sentence did. Commas should not be in there unless they were absolutely necessary, otherwise they had no value. Punctuation had to play a role as much as any particular word had to play a role. Out of all of this invisible, huge craft comes great work. So I came to respect that hugely. I have huge respect for what the writer is doing, and work very hard to try to ensure them understanding as well, if possible, to try to help achieve that ambition.
JV: Have you ever had a writer or a manuscript come in on which you simply felt like a passenger? Like there was nothing to say? Have you ever received a perfect manuscript?
LD: Yes, in some cases almost so. Toni Morrison’s new short novel recently came into me, which is so beautiful and there is not a single word out of place. There’s nothing more that she could have done to make that story as resonant and heartwarming and heartbreaking and as real as it is. And it’s short and takes a very small space of time. She has done something extraordinary. She’s a writer who knows exactly what she is doing.
JV: She’s a master.
LD: A master. And there are masters, but how few masters are there for any of us around the world. One tries to be a master of their craft and I try to be a master of my craft as an editor. But when you do see it … it’s tremendous. But she’s been working for decades and decades, honing her craft. I think what so many readers forget, or don’t understand perhaps, which you understand well, is that writing is a hard craft. And you learn it. You talked about the tools in your toolbox. You’ve discovered book by book what your tools are in your toolbox and how you can best use them. And in her 80s, Toni Morrison knows a great deal and knows exactly what she can do and would simply not do it if she thought she couldn’t, I have no doubt. She is such a master of her craft. It is hard work becoming a master of any craft!
JV: Of course. It’s certainly inspiring to see it done. I’m thinking of Norman Maclean and Young Men and Fire.
LD: Absolutely, absolutely.
JV: So what do you expect of an author during the editing process? You talked a little bit about what you bring to the table. What do you require an author to bring?
LD: I don’t usually think of it in those terms, but pressed as I am to think about it [laughs], I would say what I expect is that the writer will be respecting the work that the writer is doing. Not being lazy about it. Working to the best of their ability. Not taking a pass because it’s easier to take a pass. If it’s nonfiction, that the research is done with genuine and considerable care. But above all, that the writer is … it’s a serious endeavour. It’s a serious endeavour for the publishing house. It’s a serious endeavour for the writer. So I would expect and hope there will be that genuine care for the work and commitment to achieving the ambition of the work.
JV: Have you been in situations where that hasn’t happened? Where you’ve got this really promising proposal or chapters and then they just didn’t have—
LD: Yes, absolutely. And with fiction as well. In those cases, you either get down and dirty and say what you need to do to make this work if you are serious about making this book you want to write, or maybe it’s time to consider something else altogether, another work or another walk of life.
JV: Walk away! [Laughs]
LD: It’s not worth wasting your time on something you’re not going to put your very best efforts into achieving, however bloody hard that may be. And on the publishing and the editing side, everybody in the publishing house is doing the same, working so hard to achieve the very best possible end for that particular book or writer. I hope for a measure of respect on both sides. Above all, I expect the writer to try to do their best, whatever that may be. And it may go far or it may not go as far but as long as it is that real serious attempt, I think that’s what’s important in any artistic endeavour.
JV: I know it must be extremely situational and personal, even if you had some nameless examples of when you’ve made what felt like critical editorial suggestions and the author has not, or cannot, or will not take them. How do you decide whether to call them out on the carpet or just say, “Look, if you don’t do this, I can’t publish this book.” Maybe that’s just my nightmare—the inner workings of my deepest literary fears.
LD: It’s actually my nightmare as well. We share that nightmare. But I think that doesn’t often happen because by the time you get into the writing of the book, you know that it is generally going to see the light of day. But there are occasions where that is not the case. And in some situations that is the extreme negative, which is to say, “Yep, face it—it’s not working. You’re not putting that much work into it, what is the problem? Is it time to call it a day? Move on.” But on the other end, something that is always interesting in terms of editing is that—I feel very strongly and every good editor I know feels very strongly—the work is the author’s work. It’s the writer’s work. It’s not the editor’s work. A poor editor will impose themselves on a work to a degree that is intrusive on a work. But it is the author’s work. So if I were to feel very strongly that a particular scene should not be there, for example, and the writer feels like it should be there, unless it’s going to create a really ghastly soup of a book, which is highly unlikely … There are many instances where you step back and say, “Yes. This is your work. This is your choice. You learn by it or you fall by it, and happily you triumph by it.” The reviews will show at the end of the day whether or not the book was way too long or scenes interrupted the narrative. Somebody will call it out. What is always irritating for editors is that far too often the reviewers will say, “Well, the book needed editing.” Well indeed, what was I trying to do? What was I telling you?
JV: That would really hurt. That’d be maddening.
LD: That is pretty maddening. But on the other hand, looking long-term, you know that something will have been learnt from that. Including the fact that maybe it was worth paying attention to what your reader is telling you, what your editing reader is telling you. You can learn a lot from that.
JV: You know what you’re describing? And I say this with some experience now: you’re describing at least what I consider to be really good parenting.
LD: [Laughs] Why is that?
JV: My kids now are 14 and 11. They have a certain amount of autonomy. And they’re out there moving themselves physically and aspirationally and socially through space. They’re out of my sight a lot of the time, and out of my care, and we can debrief at the end of the day and talk about how today’s chapter went and I can offer my two cents. But they’re ultimately going to do what they’re going to do. And obviously the distance between my wishes and their heeding them grows wider and wider with each passing year as they grow more autonomous and physically larger. But the way you describe that process, being that person’s best reader and making suggestions, but ultimately it’s their book—
LD: It’s their book. It’s the author’s book.
JV: You have realized as an editor the kind of parent that I hope to realize, the kind of parenting I hope to manifest.
LD: But it is tough sometimes.
JV: Oh, of course! Your advice and approach has a kind of unlikely relevance and usefulness. So that’s really wonderful. And I’m sure that writers working with you feel that kind of ideal parent, who is looking over their work and watching their back.
LD: And can beat them sometimes and watch their back other times.
JV: You know it’s a little of both. I had a last question. It’s … what do women want?
LD: [Laughs] What do women want? They want good books to read.
JV: That does seem to be one of the pressing needs.
LD: For all of us.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.