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John Vaillant was influenced by what he saw around him after he and his family moved to Mexico in 2009.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

There's a passage in Leslie Marmon Silko's 1977 novel Ceremony, about a native American soldier who'd been held captive by the Japanese during the Second World War, that has haunted John Vaillant for a very long time: "I will tell you something about stories," it begins. "They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have the stories." He was about 20 years old when he first encountered these words, himself a burgeoning writer, and in the years since – Vaillant is now 52 – he's bought and given away countless copies of the novel.

"Those lines have stayed in me," he says. "I wanted [to write] a story that proves that. And this is that story."

This is The Jaguar's Children, which arrived in stores earlier this month. It's one of January's most anticipated books not just because of the subject matter – The Jaguar's Children tackles topics as disparate as illegal immigration, early-20th-century archeology and genetically modified crops – but also for the fact it is Vaillant's debut novel. Over the past decade, Vaillant – pronounced "valiant" – has established himself as one of Canada's finest literary journalists, his work appearing in publications ranging from National Geographic to The New Yorker. His first book, 2005's The Golden Spruce, about a sacred 300-year-old tree and the man who destroyed it, won the Governor-General's Literary Award. The next, 2010's The Tiger, which recounts the story of a vengeance-seeking man-eater, was translated into 15 languages, won the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, and was optioned for film by Brad Pitt's production company. Last year, his non-fiction earned him a Windham Campbell Prize, which comes with a cheque for $150,000 (U.S.). And yet …

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"I feel like The Golden Spruce and The Tiger were my apprenticeship for writing a novel," he says, sitting in his publisher's Toronto office on a recent morning. "I didn't have, until very recently, the technique or the maturity or the creative intelligence to handle a novel." Now that he's finished one, "I see what the fuss is about. I have a lot more admiration and respect for novelists – not that I didn't before, but I have a more intimate understanding and admiration, having been through the whole process now: the struggles and uncertainties along with the joys and the highs. It's a really amazing space to inhabit."

The space inhabited by the characters in The Jaguar's Children is the tank of a water truck. It's a killer set-up, in both senses of the word: The opening page is comprised of texts sent by a young man named Hector, who has been abandoned somewhere in the desert by the coyotes paid to smuggle him across the Mexico-U.S. border. In total, 15 people are trapped inside the tank, including his friend Cesar, who has been knocked unconscious. The novel is told through a series of voice messages Hector records for a woman named AnniMac, the sole American contact in Cesar's cellphone; he hopes if and when reception improves she'll receive his messages and send for help. Until that happens, he sits in the dark, recounting the events that have led both him and Cesar to risk their lives attempting to cross into the United States. It's a novel, says Vaillant, about how storytelling is a survival instinct. "This is how Hector escapes when he can't escape."

He began the novel in 2009, not long after his family left Vancouver for Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico. (His wife, a potter and anthropologist, spearheaded the move.) It was not the first time he'd found himself starting a new life in a new country (Vaillant, originally from Cambridge, Mass., immigrated to Canada in 1998), but the "culture shock" was unlike anything he'd experienced before.

"It's hard being an immigrant," he says. "And we were volunteering! We could leave any time we wanted! We had a credit card, we could buy a ticket. It gave me a hell of a lot of empathy for people who are struggling to figure out how Canada works."

He was supposed to be working on The Tiger, but couldn't help but be affected by what he witnessed in his new home.

"Basically, with the exception of what's happening inside the truck, I saw pretty much everything else that's in there," he says. There were "these dramatic narratives unfolding before me: whole villages empty of adults. Where did they go? It was really like a plague."

According to the Pew Research Center, 52 per cent of the 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in 2012 were Mexican. (The number is on the decline.) It's a socio-economic reality that has been occurring for decades, though the act of crossing the border has grown "exponentially more dangerous" in recent years, says Vaillant. "It used to be you could do this seasonal migration. You could get across the border relatively safely … there wasn't the fence, there weren't the drug gangs who've taken over the smuggling business, there wasn't the same attitude towards immigrants in the States. And so you'd go up, you'd follow the crops, pick the lettuce, the wheat, whatever it is you'd do for three months, come home in time for the village fiesta, and just reintegrate. You'd say bye to your kids and your wife, but you knew you were coming back. And now you don't know if you're coming back."

This means The Jaguar's Children feels just as real as The Golden Spruce or The Tiger, perhaps more so, considering that the subject matter isn't just fodder for a plot but someone's life. The book is labelled as fiction, yet Vaillant's work remains firmly rooted in fact.

"I don't want to write a fantasy, I want to write about what's going on right now," he says. "Maybe that's the non-fictioneer in me."

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