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.