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Interview with David Vann

I am a little apprehensive about meeting David Vann for the first time. His father committed suicide when David was just ten years old and his stepmother’s parents died in a murder suicide. Suicide is not an easy topic, but it’s one I can’t avoid: it is the subject of his critically acclaimed Legend of a Suicide and his new novel Caribou Island begins with one. For someone who has suffered many tragedies in his life – and that’s without mentioning nearly drowning and a run-in with pirates – it certainly doesn’t show.

 

When we meet on a typically cold and rainy January afternoon in London, I am met with a warm boyish grin and smiling blue eyes. David seems to have retained the childhood innocence captured in the photos that were published to accompany a piece he wrote for the Sunday Times Magazine. And he is very easy to talk to – I quickly lose my fear of asking what would normally be very difficult questions. In fact, to my surprise we spend much of the interview laughing.

 

His ability to find comedy in tragedy translates to his novels. They are sprinkled with black humour and his characters – some parodies of members of his own family, including his father – are David’s way of making the serious a little lighter. As we talk, it is clear that it is an outlook he tries to maintain.  It took him twelve years to get published – he finished Legend of a Suicide, a book featuring three different versions of his father’s suicide, when he was twenty-nine; he is now forty-four.

 

Rather than regret the years he wasn’t published he is just excited that his book can have, as he calls it, ‘a new lease of life’. Legend of a Suicide is now translated into fifteen languages. Caribou Island came to life a little easier as it was bought before he finished it. Set against the harsh Alaskan landscape, it centres on the failing marriage of Gary and Irene as they battle against the unyielding weather to build a cabin. Whilst they fight the elements and each other, their daughter Rhoda – who is engaged to a dentist – begins to question her own happiness. Addressing many of the same themes as its predecessor, Caribou Island acts much like a prequel to Legend of a Suicide.

Q

The White Review

— When I read Legend of a Suicide, it felt like you were purging everything you’d bottled up since your father’s suicide. Caribou Island was a much easier read – it still addresses many of the same issues but the fact that it wasn’t solely about suicide made it for me more enjoyable.

A

David Vann

— Yes, Legend of a Suicide was much more of a raw experience. I worked on it for ten years, from when I was nineteen to twenty-nine. I didn’t know how to write about my dad and no one in my family had the same story about who he was and what happened, which explains why there is so much confusion in the story. I was also learning about how to write – each piece was influenced by a different writer. In the end they form a kind of debate, different portraits of a suicide.

 

I do think it’s a tougher read – reading the different pieces and the different contradictions. I was also trying to get as close as possible to my father, as I thought I was writing his suicide. It was a total shock that the boy ended up killing himself halfway through Legend of a Suicide.

Q

The White Review

— So when you write it’s an unconscious process?

A

David Vann

— Totally, and in Caribou Island too. I didn’t know that I was going to be writing about marriage. It seemed really stupid; there are loads of books out there about marriage. I also didn’t realise that I was going to be Irene; I was imagining her as someone else. Fourteen years ago, I didn’t know that she was going to be the main character. I couldn’t figure out whose story it was and who the focus was going to be. Two years ago I was walking around the lake where Caribou Island is. It was so beautiful, it was really cold, bright and sunny and I figured out how to do it – I knew there had to be a longer arc and that it had to be Irene’s story and I had to focus on her. So when I was writing it, I kept returning to the landscape. I never knew each day what would happen or what the characters would say – it was like a discovery.

Q

The White Review

— Did you have a general plan?

A

David Vann

— Not really. I didn’t know for example that Gary and Irene were going to build a cabin and I didn’t know for example that Irene would have headaches. I rely on a pattern that unfolds unconsciously and that’s why I write, because I love to see this pattern. For the reader to feel like what they’re reading is something fresh, it would have to be a surprise for the author. You can’t really fake it. I’m using real stories in the background, real family stories with real psychological and emotional weight because that gives credence to the characters.

 

The place and the landscape also has to mean something to me, I can’t really fake that, but I have to really not know what is going to happen each day for a scene to really feel like it has happened. And it’s also about speed and momentum – for that book I was writing seven days a week for five months and that’s what makes something happen every day. It’s meant to feel like it’s the final piece – like the author wrote it in one sitting, a bit like the final sequence in a film. The first page is the beginning of the end.

Q

The White Review

— Do you write with someone in mind?

A

David Vann

— No, I don’t write for anyone. Fundamentally, I don’t give a shit. It’s because I’ve written all these stories about my family, which were disturbing for my family and they did care. The only way I could keep writing was without caring about what they thought. I think it’s very important for any writer – you have to not care about what people think. Although I’m really writing for myself, I do think of the reader with the pacing. Something significant has to happen every three pages, some dramatic moment between characters or some point of conflict. It’s a weird blend where I don’t actually imagine another reader and I’m fine with writing whatever I want to write. I don’t think about the reader directly, I think more about the text. I guess I’m writing for the perfect reader who gets everything.

Q

The White Review

— Obviously your father’s life and suicide has had a huge impact on your life. In your interview with The Scotsman, the journalist suggested that you believe suicide is contagious. How much has his suicide affected your life and writing?

A

David Vann

— I wanted to write about the legacy and the doom, because I understood the doom for twenty years. I thought, ‘I’ll finally get married, have kids and cheat on my wife…’ It took getting to a real low point to know that I wasn’t actually having suicidal thoughts – my brain just didn’t go there. There is a sense of doom and legacy in Legend of a Suicide, and I wanted to explore it further and write about the longer term effects in Caribou Island. I’m over thirty years out from my dad’s suicide and I wanted to write about those longer-term effects of a suicide.

Q

The White Review

— On the first page of Caribou Island, Irene describes the moment, as a girl that she found her mother dead, having hanged herself.

A

David Vann

— I wanted Irene to experience that longer legacy as I did. Forty-five years have passed for Irene. She tried to erase the memory of it but realised that doing so was a bad thing and that she’d like to recover her past and remember her parents. She wants different part of her life and self to fit together, as I did.

Q

The White Review

— In the feature you wrote for the Sunday Times Magazine, you say that you never really understood the men in your family. Do you identify more with women?

A

David Vann

— I had feminist thought classes and I think I tend to see the world through feminine analysis. I think it’s a clear way to understand what goes on in social relations. It’s a really useful critical tool, as well as being my family’s experience and mine. Being with my wife definitely makes me feel happier. She gets up every day and she’s happy. I think she is just emotionally and psychologically healthier. I wanted to marry someone like that who would be really solid and I’d never had to worry about them being suicidal.

 

Even though we’ve lost things a few times, I mean some real awful shit, there was no word of recrimination from her. In my experience, men have trouble talking to each other directly and so that’s why they go shoot things. They shoot things and then talk about the stuff that they’ve shot. In my family, after my dad was dead, most of his friends would still go on hunting trips, but they wouldn’t really shoot anything anymore. As they got older, into their fifties and sixties, they started to realise that they were really there for companionship, but for a long time that was the focus. The guys hung out by shooting deer.

Q

The White Review

— And that was something you couldn’t relate to.

A

David Vann

— No. I felt really sad after I killed my first deer. I didn’t feel what I was supposed to feel. I killed my first deer when I was eleven and I started missing them after that – I’d make up imaginary deer instead.

Q

The White Review

— You grew up in Alaska and it’s where Caribou Island is set. Does the landscape make everyone that goes there want to become one with nature?

A

David Vann

— It was just what the normal thing to do for me. I didn’t really have any perspective but now it seems really strange. Forge your own paths, build cabins, hammer it out in the wilderness, clear trees – that’s somehow part of the American imagination – that’s who we are and Alaska is our final frontier. I think the whole nation imagines it.

Q

The White Review

— How important is the landscape to your writing?

A

David Vann

— I feel like it couldn’t have happened without the landscape. In my writing there is the idea that the landscape is going to tell us indirectly what’s going to happen and that the characters will be a mirror for that. The landscape is vitally important to the book and it’s what I’d return to every day. Actually, I’ve written another novel set in California. I’m working again with family history but on my mum’s side of the family. Again it’s a wilderness, but it’s a walnut orchard – ten acres in the middle of suburbia, like a wilderness in the middle of civilisation. It’s like a play in the way that there are few characters, it takes place over ten days, in only two locations.

 

And that’s what I’ve been doing increasingly in fiction, trapping and limiting the characters because I think they’re put under more pressure then. We see them break and when we see them break, we see them revealed. And that’s the thing about the wilderness, it’s like a bare stage: there’s no distraction. Characters can’t avoid each other – they have to deal with each other and with themselves.

Q

The White Review

— The wilderness is something you are clearly very interested in. When you write, you write intensely for five or six months, placing yourself in a kind of wilderness.

A

David Vann

— When I write I end up just being in that world and that’s because I want my subconscious mind to be thinking all day about just that story – until twenty-four hours has gone into what happens in just two hours. I‘m very interested in how that happens. You just write line by line and it just seems to happen.

Q

The White Review

— You obviously found writing about your father’s suicide and exploring the issue further in Caribou Island cathartic, but was it your goal to get published?

A

David Vann

— I’m a professor at the University of San Francisco and I like to write as much as possible. I’d love to support myself by writing, which has just happened in the last two years, but I’m not thinking about that when I write. I’m just trying to write the best book that I can, without worrying about whether readers will like it. I don’t show it to anyone else – no one sees it until my agent sees it and then it’s pretty much done.

 

Caribou Island wasn’t revised – I added a bit more background info, but what you read is the first draft. I think it’s really nice to read something that hasn’t been ‘Frankensteined’ by seventeen drafts. A reader will experience in writing what the author experiences. I’ve written other books and had other jobs to support myself, so I’m really not bothered if I have to go back to that.

Q

The White Review

— Critics liked it and they were quick to label you one of America’s great writers, comparing you to the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Richard Russo and Cormac McCarthy.

A

David Vann

— Yes, but it’s a misconception to think that Legend of a Suicide was influenced by McCarthy’s The Road. I actually wrote it long before he wrote The Road. I wrote Legend of a Suicide fourteen years ago, before he even had the idea for The Road, so it pisses me off that people think it’s derivative of the father and son relationship in The Road. I wouldn’t have written something that had so many parallels with The Road because I wouldn’t want to be like someone else.

 

I am inspired by the American tradition of rural writing, authors such as William Faulkner, Annie Proulx and Toni Morrison. A whole bunch of my favourite authors wrote about these rural landscapes in America. I actually think that’s the best kind of American writing. The longer tradition of American writing is actually rural and I think we forget that. I think for people to think that it’s the urban novel set in New York is a really skewed view.

Q

The White Review

— Were you worried about how Caribou would be received following the success of Legend?
A

David Vann

— I didn’t get tripped up like most writers do when they are writing their second novel, because Caribou Island was my fifth novel. I was far enough along that I didn’t even think about that. The fact that Caribou was bought before it was finished was wonderful and I knew it was actually going to get published. I didn’t see it as a barrier. It could also be age – if I’d gone into it at thirty and didn’t have anything else written, I would have felt just as tripped up as any writer ever has. The fact that I was forty-five and working on my fifth and not my second made it easier. I’ve had so many ups and downs in my life – I’ve lost things a couple of times but I know that things are going to be fine no matter what.
 


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