Photo by Mathieu Bourgois
David Vann was born in the Aleutian Islands and spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska. For 12 years, no agent would send out his first book, Legend of a Suicide, so he went to sea and became a captain and boat builder. Legend of a Suicide has now won 10 prizes, including
the Prix Medicis Etranger in France for best foreign novel, the Premi Llibreter in Spain for best foreign novel, the Grace Paley Prize, a California Book Award, and the L’Express readers’ prize (France). Being translated into 18 languages, Legend of a Suicide is an international bestseller and has also been on 40 Best Books of the Year lists in 11 countries, been selected by the New Yorker Book Club and the Times Book Club, read in full on North German radio, and will be made into a film by Chris Meloni. David has also been listed for Sunday Times Short Story Award, the Story Prize, and others. His novel Caribou Island is an international bestseller being translated into 18 languages, on 25 Best Books of the Year lists in 9 countries, shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and will be made into a film by Bill Guttentag. His new novel, Dirt, has just been published by HarperCollins. He is the author of the bestselling memoir A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea and Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, winner of the AWP Nonfiction Prize.
Hi and welcome and nice to chat with you today David Vann. Your fiction is in some parts autobiographical, which stories are ?
The autobiographical bits are mostly in the stories in Legend of a suicide. The first three are very autobiographical. The endings of the stories are fictional but most of the content beforehand is true. In the first one, for instance, we did live in Ketchikan and I did trash the neighbours’ house with the contents of their refrigerator and my dad did kill himself but not on the back of a fishing boat, so by the end of the story it becomes different. In the novella Sukkwan island everything is fictional but it has a basis in real life in that my father asked me to come and spend a year with him in Alaska and I said no and then just a couple weeks afterwards he killed himself. So I had felt very guilty. I did not realise it when I was writing, but I think I was going through a kind of second chance to say yes to spend that time with him. So that book was very autobiographical in terms of the emotions and psychology. The character I was trying to recreate or imagine or not forget is my father and the boy is very much like me.
Caribou Island has a couple of family stories in the background, but the characters are all fictional. My stepmother lost her parents to a murder suicide:her mother shot her husband and shot herself in California but I moved it to a different state and I don’t remember them, so Gary and Irene are not them.
In Dirt I returned to something closer to my experience with the young man and his mother. Those characters are a little closer to my mother and me than the characters in Caribou Island are to real people.
My writing has been really focused on place, all of my stories have basically been generated out of description of landscape, so for me the strongest connection between the works is the inside lives of characters and theme or what the stories are about all come from the landscape and so that landscape in California where I spent my childhood, my grandparents place, was a very suggestive landscape for me as was the landscape of Alaska were I spent the early part of my childhood.
“Searing. . . . Vann has an extravagantly literary sensibility, and his novel is full of echoes: One thinks of the stately inevitability of classical tragedy, of Chekhov’s lost souls, of the hallucinatory quality of Faulkner’s rural fantasia, and of Stephen King’s depictions of an unraveling mind.” (Washington Post Book World )
“There’s a lot of humor here, of a very dark vein. And Vann, a Guggenheim fellow, excels at sly truths” (Boston Globe )
“The book is wonderfully twisted, but a sinister humor keeps things from getting too bleak. What begins as a literary family drama turns slowly into a heady horror story, part Stephen King and part Immanuel Kant.” (The Daily Beast )
“Brave and brilliant. . . . Dirt is showing us something unexpected, and unexpectedly stunning . . . Vann’s details here, as always, are pitch-perfect.” (San Francisco Chronicle )
“David Van excels at writing about the darkest side of the human heart. . . . Vann fully exhibits the writer’s chops that served him well in his earlier works, and he again plumbs the darker parts of the human psyche. This novel is simultaneously disturbing and haunting.(DenverPost)
“Harrowing. . . . Vann, a professor at UC San Francisco, is often compared to Cormac McCarthy; he exerts a powerful grip here, as Galen learns how far he’s willing to go to get free.” (San Jose Mercury News
What is Dirt your new novel about?
I grew up in California and I was very new age in high school and the book is about largely the new age movement in the 1980’s in California. I was a true believer. I was completely psycho. I did fire walking, meditation, and I actually believed that I might be able to walk on water and I tried over and over and crashed into many mountain lakes and hot-tubs. To me it’s a very funny book in that way because Galen’s new age beliefs are the beliefs I had at the time and they seem ridiculous to me now. All of my books are about religion and our need for religion.In Caribou Island it’s doom and Anglo Saxons, in Dirt it’s the new age movement, and in the next novel, which will come out a year and a half from now, titled Goat Mountain, there is the holy trinity. I started as a religious studies major actually. No one has talked about this in the reviews, but that is one thing that links all of my works, and what Dirt is really about is how philosophy can lead to brutality.
I did not intend to have that theme when I started out, but by the end of the book that is what I discovered.
The new age movement brought out the most selfish and brutal aspects of my personality and it did that for many other people too.
For me writing is very unconscious and there is something that actually happens on the page where the book is a kind of raw sharp drawing where I am describing landscape and I end up describing the inside life of the character and it surprises me. It is not something planned, it is not an outline, it is something that came alive on the page and to me that is what makes writing exciting.
When and where do you write?
I write every morning seven days a week for about two hours and I write in bed. It doesn’t matter wherever I am I can be in a hotel room anywhere in the world. I traveled 7 or 8 moths of last year on book tours, the books are coming out in 18 languages so I toured in over 20 countries last year and I just write every morning wherever I am. I love it, I love doing it. It is very rare that I miss a day.
What advice would you give writers who are finding obstacles in writing?
I don’t think writer’s block exists. Either the writer is not actually a writer and shouldn’t be writing and should be doing something else or they are working on the wrong material.
Anything that is not generating pages is the wrong material and you should just leave it immediately. Usually it’s all the things that we think should be great but that all suck and we should stop.
The worst thing that can happen to a writer is an idea. Ideas always suck. They are always limited. We don’t come up with great ideas.Whatever happens in a book happens on the page, you discover it on the page, it is not an idea you can have beforehand.
Writing is a place for the unconscious; I just focus on character and place.
I teach creative writing and I think that one thing I can offer is to make all my students better readers, they will all be much more careful readers.
I think that no writer is original and that we are all derivative and that the works we produce are reflections of all the works we have loved and ingested and have re-read. I have read Blood Meridian six times, for instance. The work that we have read a lot of times has an influence on us. I am going back and I am re-reading Greek plays, and I just re-read Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. There are lots of books I have re-read and I have studied a lot of language, Latin and old English and Middle English and German. Studying language and linguistics and reading a lot– that makes us better writers, if we are meant to be writers.
Why do you think Blood Meriden stands out as such a great American story?
In Blood Meridian, every single sentence is beautiful. It is an incredible achievement.
Every sentence stands out as something unlike the sentences of any other writer from our time.
It’s partly because he is favouring Old English, using old English meter and diction as Annie Proulx does. Partly it’s because he was out of the mainstream of writing and overwrote and did what would be considered prose that’s out of control and went too far and not controlled but managed to find something within that leading up to Blood Meridian which finally worked. He is also channeling Melville and Faulkner, so he is taking up the strongest examples of our rural literary tradition in the US. He is also taking a garbage genre, the Western, and raising it to high literature.
It’s also a version of hell. Drama is a description of what is bad inside of us and the end point of that is hell, a description of a hellish landscape.
Hell is a creation of artists, of painters and writers, not something owned by the church.
It is more earned by writers than by the church, and a description of hell is a representation of the felt landscape within us. He describes the American southwest as an inferno and this is the main reason probably that it is a great work. It describes America born in war with a future of endless war and captures what it is that is terrifying about America.
Why do readers like these tragedies, flaws, struggles and bad characters in fiction? What does it say about us as people?
Literature is a kind of safe place, a kind of demon land to think about who we are and that’s really its role I think.
What I like about Europe particularly including the British market is that readers understand that we have had 25 hundred years of tragedy, that drama is almost entirely tragedy, and that literature is about what is unlikeable about us and what is bad in us and that is the subject of literature.
How does one write from truth in fiction?
I think the way that we get our own personal truths to matter to others is through a scene. We have to dramatize though scenes, through dialogue and gesture, and everything described in real time. We have to slow down, and that’s how we can let a reader experience the sort of terrors or tragedy or whatever it is that we have experienced. I think in creative writing a lot of people are too impatient and try to move too quickly and are too dependent on an idea.
For me writing about my family tragedy was really just about immersing in the scene and letting the fiction become different from what my real experience had been but some how speaking more intensely to it psychologically and emotionally because of a different kind of truth you find on the page, some kind of distillation of that experience that’s capable of communicating with others. If you just describe exactly what happened somehow that just falls flat and empty and it’s hard to get it to communicate with anyone else.
What other novels and writers other than the previously mentioned novels Shipping News by Annie Proulx, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Moby Dick by Herman Melville and Blood Meriden by Cormac McCarthy do you recommend others to read and you can read again and again?
I really like all of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the day, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Katherine Anne Porter, Faulkner, Hemingway, Nabokov, Paley, Elizabeth Bishop, etc.
It’s been a wonderful conversation with you and thanks for taking time from your day.
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