“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.