Posts Tagged David Vann
“What I can remember is what I understood. I know my own grandfather said I should be killed and burned, but I can’t remember what I felt when he said that, I think I felt nothing, because I remember nothing. Anger might have been possible But I could not have felt any recognition, and for some reason I don’t understand now, I felt no fear.”
David Vann writes dark, introspective, mesmerizing novels. In his latest novel Goat Mountain the unimaginable happens for an 11-year-old boy on his first hunting expedition with his father and grandfather. The three generations must examine themselves and their relationships with each other as well as the consequences of their actions. It’s riveting, disturbing, violent and haunting. Vann is the winner of fourteen prizes, including France’s Prix Medici etranger, the Grace Paley Prize, the AWP Nonfiction Prize and France’s L’Express readers’ prize. He’s a professor at the University of Warwick in England.
I recently interviewed David via email.
Amy Steele: Hi David. It’s an honor to interview you. I admire your writing. There’s such emotional intensity and darkness in it. I don’t tend to be gushy with my interview subjects but when I’ve read almost everything someone’s written [haven’t read A Mile Down], I just have to admit it. Dirt is my favorite.
David Vann: Thank you, Amy! Very generous of you. And I appreciate your reviews and inclusion on your best books lists.
Amy Steele: How did you end up teaching in England and living in Turkey as well as New Zealand?
David Vann: My wife Nancy and I became residents of New Zealand ten years ago, in 2003, and we love it more each year. We’ve finally built a house and live there Dec-May, overlooking a beach and headlands and ocean and islands. We do a lot of watersports and also hike and mountain-bike right from the house into the mountains behind. It’s a very peaceful and easy place where I can relax and focus on my writing. We sail for a couple months each summer in Turkey, where we used to run charters (I was a captain on boats for about 8 years because I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published). We like the culture there, and the beautiful coves and bays and ancient ruins. And I love my teaching job in England at the University of Warwick. It’s just 10 weeks each autumn, teaching two grad workshops of 12 students each, fiction and nonfiction. Talented students, great faculty, and my wife and I love London and touring around England. It’s also nice to be closer to various European book launches and festivals. I used to teach in San Francisco, and it was a bummer to do three roundtrips to Europe during a semester.
Amy Steele: Alaska is in your first two novels (California in the next two). Do you get back there often? How long did you live there? What was it like growing up there?
David Vann: I was born on Adak Island in Alaska and spent my early childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, until I was five or six. After that, my parents divorced and I lived in Alaska just one-third of each year, two-thirds in California, until my father died when I was thirteen. The rainforest in southeast Alaska is still vivid in my memories and mythic in my imagination. In all of my fiction, I write from landscape. You can think of it as a Rorschach test, a kind of blank page for the unconscious to fill with shape and pattern and meaning. My grandfather caught a 250-pound halibut once, and I always think of it as a metaphor for how writing works, looking over the side of the boat into the water and seeing something small grow and change shape and become impossible and enormous by the time it reached the surface. I was going back to Alaska every year, most recently on a book tour with the library system there, but I’ve missed a year or two now.
Amy Steele: How did your Native American background affect your upbringing and cultural identity?
David Vann: I didn’t know I was part Cherokee until after 2005, when my sailing memoir A Mile Down was published. I was contacted by the Cherokee nation because I was burying Chief David Vann in Google searches. It turns out he’s a great uncle several generations farther back. There was also a related chief with my father’s name, Jim Vann. My grandfather didn’t tell anyone about being one-fourth or one-eighth Cherokee, but looking back now, the men in my family and my new novel Goat Mountain only make sense to me in the context of that heritage. I think it’s very strange one can be so affected by heritage without even knowing about it. I’ve written an essay about this, which hopefully will appear soon, so I should perhaps stop here for now.
Amy Steele: What made you decide to study writing in college and grad school?
David Vann: I always wrote, even when I was a kid, telling our hunting and fishing stories then and giving them to my family as Christmas presents each year. So I never wondered what I wanted to study or do. I just never could get published or make any money through writing, so I had to do other jobs for a long time.
Amy Steele: What do you like about writing?
David Vann: I like the transformations by the unconscious that happen on the page, through landscapes changing shape and characters colliding. I’m watching more than writing, and the experience is the closest I have to religion, something that transforms the world and makes it meaningful and offers me a place.
Amy Steele: When you write do you tend to work from an outline or allow your characters or the plot to lead you?
David Vann: I never have any outline or plan or even any idea what the book will be about. This is exciting to me. Goat Mountain was the strangest and best, and I began to understand it only in the final fifty pages. It was a thrill ride. And it’s never plot that leads, but only character and landscape. What shocks me is how much pattern there is to the unconscious. In Caribou Island, for instance, there are four couples all reflecting on love and marriage, but that wasn’t a plan, and I thought I’d be writing in only one point of view but ended up writing in seven. The other thing that excites me is that the books are published almost the same as the first draft. No scene has been added, cut, or moved. I work very hard on line edits for months, polishing sentences, but even that doesn’t lead to much change. So readers experience basically the same thing that I did in first writing.
Amy Steele: Your first book, Legend of a Suicide, was about a son dealing with his father’s suicide which is something you experienced. Your other novels are also fairly autobiographical. In the prologue to Goat Mountain you write: “This is the novel that burns away the last of what first made me write, the stories of my violent family.” Are you no longer going to write novels about your family or that are violent?
David Vann: Goat Mountain is the end of my books that have family stories in the background. They’ve all been fiction, with all that happens made up (with the exception of the first three stories in Legend of a Suicide, which do contain many autobiographical facts and events), but they’ve been powered emotionally and psychologically by the disturbing stories of my family’s history. Once I finished Goat Mountain, I was afraid I might never write again, or never find any weight to my next characters, but then I wrote the next novel, about Medea, titled Bright Air Black, and she has as much weight as anyone else. That book is tragedy also, of course. But I’m working on a novel now, Aquarium, which is actually a comedy, not as in ha ha but as in nobody dies in the end. I should mention, by the way, that my novels actually are not violent compared to most other books and movies and TV series.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to tell the story in Goat Mountain?
David Vann: I didn’t. I was starting a novel set in the Australian outback and then just started writing Goat Mountain and had no idea what I was doing. But it is the material of the first short story I ever wrote, more than 25 years ago, so it was a novel waiting to happen, a landscape I couldn’t avoid writing about, the northern Californian ranch where we hunted deer each fall.
Amy Steele: What was the purpose of the bible stories?
David Vann: I didn’t know as I was writing, and I was surprised to see the holy trinity show up in my novel, since I’m an atheist. The poacher the boy shoots in the first chapter becomes a kind of Jesus figure, the buck he shoots becomes a kind of holy ghost, and his grandfather becomes a terrible god. The book is about the legacy of Cain, our desire to kill, and what rules hold us together and what happens when those rules are broken.
Amy Steele: Do you see Goat Mountain as a tale of morality or a coming of age story?
David Vann: I would never write a tale intending a moral, and there’s no moral in Goat Mountain. There’s only a battle. And it’s not a coming of age story really, either. It’s a Greek tragedy, 4 characters on a mountainside for two and a half days, told in real time. The boy is affected and does change and does become a man and more terrifyingly human.
Amy Steele: When you’re writing about killing a man or someone committing suicide what kind of inner dialogue goes on for how far to go in describing that situation to make it compelling and realistic without it being too gory to turn-off readers?
David Vann: I never think of readers. I follow what happens in the writing, transformations on the page, and question only whether I believe each sentence. I had a class with Grace Paley, and she said every sentence in fiction has to be true. I agree with that. And American readers generally have forgotten the last 2,500 years of literature anyway. We should never ask whether characters are likeable, for instance. That’s a new question. It’s been irrelevant for 2,500 years and is still irrelevant. But I should also address this question of gore. I don’t like or write horror or gore. I write tragedy, in which any violence is connected emotionally and psychologically, and there’s actually very little violence in my books comparatively. Horror is without this connection, just watching limbs sawn off in deadened entertainment, the same as our soldiers being taught to kill without feeling anything. Tragedy moves in the exact opposite direction, bringing us in close for conflict and empathy and catharsis.
[AS: If I could've followed up on this question I completely agree that it's irrelevant whether characters are likeable or not, only that they're compelling. I've enjoyed many well-written, engrossing novels with completely repellent characters. As for gore, I don't enjoy reading gory books. I think that David Vann writes tragic prose with some horrific moments. There's never any gratuitous violence. That wasn't what I intended in the question. I like the answer regardless.]
Amy Steele: How are you able to revisit devastating, complex moments in your past and write clear-eyed, focused and rather calmly about them? Is it cathartic or therapeutic for you?
David Vann: It is great therapy. I feel much better now after writing four books of fiction about my family. But writing is more than therapy. It’s not only about truth. It’s also about the beautiful. It has an aesthetic aim that therapy does not. And the necessary distance in writing comes through an indirect focus, through writing about the landscape and letting the interior life of characters appear there instead of trying to write directly about feelings.
Amy Steele: Why do you write mostly fiction vs. nonfiction? Is it so you can (mostly) re-imagine events in the way you wanted them to transpire?
David Vann: I write mostly fiction because in nonfiction I can’t make up characters or events, so the stories are held in a kind of straightjacket, without full freedom to transform and surprise and take on unconscious pattern. I’m guessing that some nonfiction writers do find this freedom (my favorite memoir is Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and it feels entirely free and fluid). I still like writing nonfiction, and of course there’s no such thing as a true story, so it’s an odd field in which I should feel more freedom, but it’s more limited for me.
Amy Steele: What kind of music do you listen to when writing?
David Vann: I never listen to anything while writing. I sit in a room alone and wear earplugs. I don’t understand how anyone can write with music or especially in a café.
Amy Steele: Where do you do your best writing?
David Vann: In bed, in the morning, for two hours every day. It can be anywhere in the world, any hotel room or home or boat. And that’s my only writing. I don’t try to write later in the day, so there’s no best or worst writing, only the writing each day.
Amy Steele: What interested you in writing Last Day on Earth? It’s so creepy and sadly fascinating.
David Vann: My editor at Esquire assigned it to me, because I had a frightening history with inheriting all my father’s guns after his suicide, when I was thirteen. I shot out streetlamps in our neighborhood and aimed at the neighbors. I was able to get the full 1,500 pages of the police files about the shooter, unedited, the most complete information anyone has ever had about a school shooting. But no one wanted to read or even review my book, because we don’t really want to know how our shooters implicate us. They’re incredibly easy to profile, and could also be very easy to stop if we only wanted to. But of course we never will.
Amy Steele: Thank you so so much in taking the time to answer my questions. Hope to meet you in person one day.
David Vann: Thank you! It’d be great to meet. And thank you for such thoughtful questions.
Goat Mountain by David Vann–***/5 [review/interview soon]
–did not like the theme or style of this novel as much as I’ve liked his others. Still thinking about it.
The Public Image by Muriel Spark– ****/5
–I adore Muriel Spark and this didn’t disappoint. An American actress in Rome worries constantly about her image as her husband’s own acting career plummets while her star rises. Spark gets everything right about acting and the press and image. It’s delightful and devilish.
There Was an Old Woman by Hallie Ephron– suspenseful novel about aging, alcoholism and families
Sick Justice by Ivan G. Goldman– this is the type of nonfiction that you have to take in slowly to absorb all the facts and careful research
Lillian and Dash by Sam Toperoff– as soon as I started reading this delightful treasure I felt I was in the midst of a B&W classic film
To read soon:
Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My Education by Susan Choi
hosted by Sheila at Book Journey
loved the poetry in the writing and the family drama:
another great one by Douglas Coupland:
Reading a few books on death and prison:
–this comes out in September and I’l l be interviewing him. Vann’s one of my favorite authors because he writes about darkness and human suffering in such chilling, beautiful prose.
Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes
–a bunch of cases where people are found decomposing in their homes. creepy and my worst fear.
Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag by Ivan G. Goldman
–things I knew and some I didn’t about the American justice system and prisons. Started reading because I’d been discussing Orange is the New Black with author Marc Schuster on twitter.
Reading a classic by a favorite author:
The Public Image by Muriel Spark
plan to start:
big brother by lionel shriver
Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff
My Education by Susan Choi
The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan
hosted by hosted by Sheila at Book Journey
Making lists of my favorite books, music, films proves challenging every year. Thus I’m making a list of 20. To put it in perspective, I’ve read 90 books at this writing. I have a few in progress. Here are the one’s that I keep thinking about and recommending to others [If I reviewed it, I linked to the review]:
1.The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu [Hogarth]
2. The Collective by Don Lee [W.W.Norton]
3. The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields [Pamela Dorman]
4. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead]
5. Dirt by David Vann [Harper]
6. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead]
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton]
8. Too Bright to Hear Too Loud To See by Juliann Garey [Soho]
9. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf]
10. Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House]
[these are listed in the order that I've read them]
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead, 2012]
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margo Livesey [HarperCollins, 2012]
Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House, 2012]
Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver 
Make It Stay by Joan Frank [Permanent Press, 2012]
Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous [Europa, April 2012]
The Lion is In by Delia Ephron [March 2012]
Guts by Kristen Johnston [March 2012]
Threats by Amelia Gray [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012]
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton, 2012]
Dirt by David Vann [Harper, April 2012]
I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern [IT Books, 2012]
Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead [Riverhead Books, 2012]
MISS FULLER by April Bernard [SteerForth Press, 2012]
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian [Doubleday, 2012]
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf, 2012]
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead, 2012]
Dirt by David Vann. Publisher: Harper (May 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 272 pages. 978-0062121035.
To label Dirt eccentric would be an understatement. It’s Grey Gardens bizarre. It’s 1985. 22-year-old Galen lives with his mother in an unusual world filled with emotional dependency and varying types of abuse. Galen spends his days contemplating New Age philosophy and his taboo attraction to his 17-year-old cousin. His mother makes cucumber sandwiches for tea daily and they visit her mother [and Galen’s grandmother] in a nursing home. Suzie-Q, her daughter, just didn’t want to have her mother interrupt the idyllic existence she’s established with her adult son. Both suffer from varying degree of mental illness—Galen more prone to manic/angry episodes. Galen and Suzie-Q live off a trust fund established by Suzie-Q’s hard-working father but according to her it only allows for subsistence living—no college, no travel, no extravagances.
“It really is that bad. It’s like being no one. You think you’re something now, but it’s only because you can put your memories together. You put them together and you think that makes something. But take away the memories, or even scramble them out of order, and there’s nothing left.”
When Galen and Suzie-Q travel to the family cabin with Aunt Helen and her daughter [the object of Galen’s fantasies] and grandmother, everything crumbles. Helen’s after the money and always has been. Galen gets seduced by his cousin. Suzie-Q can no longer control her son or retain him in the bubble she’s had them living in for years. As Galen and his mother’s fighting escalates beyond reason or control, Vann delves into every psychoanalytical fantasy imaginable.
“It explains everything. It explains the truth about men, the truth that they only care about themselves. And you’re no different.”
While this is a creepy, dark story, Vann writes with a smart, captivating style. Dirt becomes immediately engrossing. I admire Vann’s ability to write about unpleasant/ difficult characters and situations in such a compelling manner. Reflections on the permanence of dirt and explosive power of the sun propel the story to its final tragic denouement. Dirt is disturbing and unnerving but David Vann is a superb storyteller and keeps you flipping pages wondering what atrocities will be uttered and performed.
purchase at Amazon: Dirt: A Novel
I’ve read about 100 books this year. These 20 made particularly lasting impressions.
1. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaajte [Knopf]
2. Caribou Island by David Vann [Harper]
3. The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanha [Greywolf Press]
4. A Stranger on the Planet by Adam Schwartz [Soho Press]
5. The Astral by Kate Christensen [Doubleday]
6. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett [Harper]
7. The Submission by Amy Waldman [F,S&G]
8. Irma Voth by Miriam Toews [Harper]
9. The Rape of the Muse by Michael Stein [The Permanent Press]
10. The Lies Have It by Jill Edmondson [Iguana]
11. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta [St. Martins]
12. My New American Life by Francine Prose [Harper]
13. Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward [Random House]
14. The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl by Marc Schuster [The Permanent Press]
15. The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen [Riverhead]
16. The Ringer by Jenny Shank [The Permanent Press]
17. Slant by Timothy Wang [Tincture]
18. The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen [Crown]
19. The Social Climber’s Handbook by Molly Jong-Fast [Villard]
20. Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson [Ecco]
Caribou Island, by David Vann. Publisher: Harper (January 18, 2011). Hardcover. 304 pg.
Alaska, an attraction for both adventurers and loners, is the ideal setting for a novel about crumbling relationships that hide behind happy facades. When I read David Vann’s collection of semi-autobiographical stories, Legend of a Suicide, the introspective darkness of the stories impressed me. Caribou Island explores many of the same emotions: isolation, regret, settling. The storytelling flows with honesty and grace. The simple writing provides depth, empathy and a glimpse into the thoughts of each character.
In the novel, the main focus is on Gary and Irene, a 50-something couple who moved to Alaska three decades ago. They met in California where Gary was completing his PhD dissertation and Irene taught elementary school. Gary convinced Irene to travel to Alaska as an adventure and two adult children later [Rhoda, a planner, and Mark, a carefree guy], the couple still lives in small-town Alaska and now they resent each other. Gary’s goal is to build a cabin on the isolated Caribou Island. Irene’s not so happy about being stranded out there through the winter, completely cut off from her daughter Rhoda and civilization. As a child, Irene found her mother hanging when she arrived home from school. How much does this effect Irene today? She may not have dealt with it completely and as her marriage deteriorates so does her physical and mental health. Only recently did Irene tell her daughter Rhoda about it and the two women have a close mother-daughter relationship. The magic of Caribou Island is that the content can be as sad, cold and unforgiving as Alaska’s weather and as stunning as its landscape.
Vann remains brutally honest about relationships from the beginning. It seems that Gary and Irene settled with each other. Both realize they could have and should have done better. There is much focus on that fact that the men seem to have more options and choices in marriage than the women do. I’m not sure I can agree with that. For instance, Rhoda, Irene and Gary’s daughter, has been living with a successful dentist, Jim, for several years. She’s waiting for him to propose. Recently however, Jim had an affair and now thinks that he can be safe by marrying Rhoda and have affairs on the side. Why marry Rhoda? She cooks his dinner whenever he wants it. Even gets up to get him more to drink. She cleans and just does whatever he wants. Yet if she moved anywhere but this small town in Alaska, Rhoda might have many more options in men.
Both Irene [Gary had seemed so promising. A doctoral student, bright enough to get into Berkeley. She felt tied to him, felt wanted, felt like she belonged.] and Rhoda [What she didn’t understand about Jim was where his filling was. Nice golden crust on the outside. A dentist, with money and respect. When she first told people she was dating him, they were all impressed. His house fit the dream, too. A buttery life.] suffer inferiority complexes in that their partners could have chosen smarter women instead of safe women. Is this due to lack of selection or because the men are faulty specimens? Caribou Island delves deep into these relationships and in doing so explores why we choose to be with whom we end up with long-term and whether we are truly fulfilled and retain our independent spirits.
Title: Legend of a Suicide
Author: David Vann
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 edition (March 16, 2010)
Category: literature/ short stories
Review source: publisher
In this collection of semiautobiographical stories, a son copes with his father’s eventual suicide. David Vann explores dark thoughts and re-imagines events in an introspective, sharp manner. Legend of a Suicide naturally flows with honesty and grace.
His father left him, back into the trees, and Roy took up the ax and chopped and hated his father. He hated this place, too, and listening to his father crying every night.What was he talking about, babies? He felt bad then, because he knew the crying at night was something else, something he was afraid to belittle.