David Vann is the prize-winning author of Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island. His short stories have been published in Atlantic Monthly, Writer’s Digest, and The Sunday Times, and his work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2010, his story ‘It’s Not Yours’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.
Vann has taught Creative Writing at Stanford University, Cornell University, and San Francisco State University. He is currently an Associate Professor at the University of San Francisco and Visiting Professor at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, from where he joined us.
What the reviewers say…
“Transfixing and unflinching … full of finely realized moments … Comparison with Cormac McCarthy is fully justified.”—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“David Vann’s extraordinary and inventive set of fictional variations on his father’s death will surely become an American classic.” — The Times Literary Supplement, Books of the Year 2009
“His legend is at once the truest memoir and the purest fiction…Nothing quite like this book has been written before.” — The London Observer
Read the following stories online:
Listen to David Vann read ‘It’s Not Yours’
Loree Westron: David, I’d like to say how pleased we are to have you with us, tonight. I know you’re very busy at the moment, with the recent launch of Caribou Island and what seems to have been a global book tour, so we feel very privileged to have you here with us at THRESHOLDS.
David Vann: Thanks, Loree. I’m looking forward to this.
LW: Here comes your first question:
Erinna Mettler: Do you consider Legend of a Suicide a novel or a short story collection? It is marketed as a novel, but was this the decision of the publisher or your own idea when you set out to write it? I really don’t see the problem with a collection, interlinked stories seem to be all the rage but publishers are nervous of them — maybe we need a new category!
DV: I wrote Sukkwan Island to stand on its own, as a novel (which is how it’s published in French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.). But then I saw it could fit with the other stories. I was reading Chaucer’s ‘The Legend of Good Women’, and wrote the story ‘A Legend of Good Men’ using the structure of a series of portraits, from the hagiographic tradition. Then I saw this could be applied to the collection overall. So the title, ‘Legend of a Suicide’, means a series of portraits of a suicide, which fits the fact that none of us in the family could agree on one true story. But the result is not really a story collection or a novel, so I liked the idea of just not calling it anything.
The Things They Carried [by Tim O’Brien] is like that, and I think ‘linked story collection’ works as a term, but it probably sounds like a nightmare to a sales team. I’m very happy with how Penguin published it, and I think how they presented it is fair. I think of Legend, personally, as a short novel framed by five stories, which is kind of a mouthful.
Will Bowerman: Hi David, I loved reading your story ‘Rhoda’ and wanted to ask you about it. It seems to me a story about sight in many respects. Characters have varying degrees of clarity in their ability to see those around them. Not just physically, through visual imagery, but in terms of reflection, emotion, looking ahead to their individual and collective futures. And they don’t seem to be able to see themselves with much clarity either. Rhoda’s physical impairment allows her to see herself and the way others see her in a more specific way than the others. For me, this is how I read the story and it enhanced my enjoyment of it. My question is, was Rhoda’s physical impairment a starting point for you symbolically, or was the narrator and his voice a starting point — an almost naive observer of those around him?
DV: Great question, Will, and thanks for the careful read. Her impairment was the starting point. I was sitting in a cemetery on the hill at Cornell, in upstate New York, and a woman came by with a young daughter who had an eye like that, and it seemed perfect for how the boy can’t fully see into adulthood or sexuality or the relationship between his father and stepmother or who either of them are. I also thought that minimalism was the right form for limited sight into sexuality. Each of the stories is in a different style, and Rhoda is the minimalist story.
Karlene Heath: David, having read Legend of a Suicide, I was intrigued by the amount of biographical content. I too use a lot of my personal experience in my writing and I was wondering how do you manage to balance the autobiographical content of your stories with the ‘more fictional’ aspects? How do you know where to stop?
DV: I use true stories to power the fiction emotionally and psychologically, but I rely on the writing to surprise and head off in its own direction. I believe writing is mostly unconscious and out of control that way, and I’m amazed by how coherent these unconscious patterns can be.
…writing is mostly unconscious and out of control…
I think it’s important to eliminate the incidental from true material. I think short stories are paranoid worlds in which everything means something. So I try to move the story to a different location or time or include different people to give it more room to take off on its own. I think writing does something real in transforming the content of our lives, and that it can’t be faked. I don’t think we really pick our material in that way.
Sean: David, I’m a big fan of your work. I was amazed at how long Legend took — both in terms of writing and then finding a publisher. It must have been a very frustrating and difficult process. How did you manage to keep the faith during all that time?
DV: Ha. I didn’t keep the faith. I was a big baby and didn’t write for five and a half years. I really showed the world, and the world suffered mightily from missing those years of my writing.
I realized, in retrospect, that I should have been more persistent in sending out the manuscript. I just believed what everyone said in the rejections, and I should have maybe not believed. I recommend sending out to contests. That was how it finally got published. And I have to thank AWP and UMass Press for that.
I also went to sea and started a new career as a captain, which worked out really well. Ha.
Michele: Hi David, I wanted to ask about your writing process. Are you a methodical or an impulsive writer? Are you good at sticking to a routine?
DV: I now write every morning for 2 or 3 hours, 7 days a week, and the writing is all about momentum for me. Those unconscious patterns only happen if there’s no interruption. It’s important to not miss a single day until I have a first draft. Then I can relax a bit in revision.
The impulsive part is that I never know what I’m going to write about. I had plans this last summer to write a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, then one morning I just started writing a novel set in California in 1985, and that’s what I worked on every day for the next five and a half months until I had a first draft.
I should also say that my final drafts are almost identical to my first drafts. ‘Ichthyology’ had one paragraph cut and one added. Caribou Island had only a few paragraphs of background info added, and line edits. I was always told writing is mostly revision, but for me, the work lives or dies in the first draft. And that’s why momentum is so important, for cohesion, so it all feels of one piece.
…the work lives or dies in the first draft…
Rik Wortman: My class was discussing Legend of a Suicide in a seminar today, and conversation got around to the atmosphere you create when describing the boy’s body in the sleeping bag, and the father’s reaction. While many writers try to set up such an intense scene, they usually fall short, and end up making it incredibly melodramatic, but the way you’ve done it left me feeling both satisfied (because the scene is so perfect) yet nauseated (because the scene is so perfect!) at the same time. What’s your secret to not selling such an utterly intense scene short by over-dramatising it?
DV: Great question, Rik. I just had no idea that scene was coming. I was horrified after I wrote it. The boy’s suicide was something I didn’t see coming until halfway through the sentence, so I had no idea what would follow in the rest of the short novel. I hadn’t planned on writing from the father’s point of view. So everything came out darker and far more odd than I had ever imagined. That was the unconscious taking over. A kind of revenge story, and odd dark humour, etc.
I think the melodramatic is probably planned, based on an idea. That would be my guess. As I’ve mentioned in interviews, I think an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Ideas constrain and limit and ultimately suck.
Dora: I am stunned by your writing. It is so visceral and real. I can see the characters in front of me. I read that your short stories languished for over 12 years before winning the Grace Paley award. Did you keep revising them in the interim or worked on other projects?
DV: I started writing Caribou Island when I finished Legend, but I got stuck at 48 pages and couldn’t see the longer arc or whose story it was. That was 14 years ago. Then 2 years ago, I was walking around on the frozen lake in Alaska where the novel is set and could suddenly see Irene’s winter vision (which occurs late, on something like page 253). And I could see it was Irene’s story. So I hopped on the five and a half month momentum train and had my first draft of Caribou.
I didn’t revise any of the stories in Legend after I finished. They just sat and waited.
Dora: Thanks David. And just one more question – if you hadn’t found a publisher for Legend, would you have consider self-publishing it?
DV: I wouldn’t consider self-publishing. No one views it as real (universities or the publishing world). There are exceptions, such as Fup [by Jim Dodge], that go on and have commercial lives, but those are really exceptions. Better to wait, I think, and enter contests.
Dora: I have to give you a lot of credit for sticking to your guns and writing what feels true to you. I’ve spent over 30 years trying not to write what I was meant to write, so thank you for your honesty. It takes a lot of courage, courage that I need plenty doses of… Thanks again and I can’t wait to read your book.
DV: Thanks, Dora. You have to be ready to piss everybody off and lose everybody. If my new novel gets published, I honestly believe I’ll lose my mother (I’m not just saying that), and I’m willing to do that. The writing can’t have anything in the way, otherwise it’s worthless.
Katherine Orr: I enjoyed your recent interview for The White Review, and was interested that you said writing is a completely unconscious process for you. I know you also teach creative writing. Given that there’s a danger that creative writing students can become far too conscious of their process and self-conscious about their writing, do you have any words of wisdom for avoiding that?
DV: Great question, Katherine, and tough to answer, but I’ll try…
To begin with, in my classes I set up a bunch of rules for how fiction works, going through examples, then give a bunch of examples that break the rules. And I try to get students to think of their writing over a longer span, not just for the semester. And I try to make the point that finding the right material, the story you really need to be telling, is important. Many students are afraid of offending family, etc., and I let them know that family has to be sacrificed.
…family has to be sacrificed…
And I also do exercises that break students out of their habits, such as writing without the letter e, using verbs only in the second half of sentences, using all nouns, adjectives, and verbs outside their usual part of speech, etc., but finally, you can’t make a student write something that matters, and you can’t give them talent, and you aren’t really their teacher anyway. Only great works that they love and ingest can help them cross over into something good.
I should add that I do think we can teach a lot about reading, and I use a background in linguistics, primarily, for the tools to talk about style.
K O: This kind of follows on from my first question — have you ever had to wrangle with research for your writing, or is it something you mostly keep clear of? By research I don’t mean academic/critical, but more the sort of background preparation that you might turn to for writing about Anglo-Saxon England.
DV: I have a non-fiction book about a school shooting coming out in October (being published only in the US, again a contest, again something that my agents didn’t think could sell), and I did a lot of research for that – 3 months of interviews and was lucky to be the only one to gain access to the full 1500-page police file with all the shooter’s emails, mental health history, etc. But generally I don’t research fiction. I did spend two weeks in Alaska, summer of ’09, to check things for Caribou. So I do fact-checking. But I love that fiction can take off on its own and doesn’t have to come from research. I am impressed by writers who do historical research, and I may still write that one in Anglo-Saxon England. I’ve already read a lot of that history and studied the language, but I’d no doubt need to do more research.
Yvonne: My father killed himself and for some time afterward I was encouraged not to mention the ‘skeleton in the closet’. My father suffered with schizophrenia, an illness that often involves suicide. I was frustrated by the idea that had my father died of cancer or a car accident then I could talk about it, but that because he killed himself as a result of schizophrenia, I mustn’t. Was your intention in writing Legend of a Suicide to challenge the collective shame and silence of such events? What did you want to achieve in writing the book?
DV: There is so much shame around suicide. For 3 years, I told everyone my father died of cancer. And people have told me for a long time to quit writing about my dad, or to quit writing about suicide (there are other family suicides in the background of Caribou Island). So I personally think they should all fuck off. It was the most important event in my life, and I’m going to talk about it, and there’ll probably always be some bit of it in the background, and if I want to write 16 books about it, I can. That said, my next novel is in California and doesn’t have a suicide and is about my mom’s family. But I don’t think writers get to pick their material, and I don’t think writers should ever have to apologize, and I think anyone should feel free to discuss suicide or mental illness, and I think discussion only helps.
…I don’t think writers should ever have to apologize…
Hayley Singer: Hi David, I’m interested in the re-use of character names through your short fiction and in Caribou Island. Here I am thinking about Gary and Rhoda. This is a lovely device as it creates a sense of echo and reprise, but it also made me feel that there is an element of autobiography in your work. Is that correct, and if not, what are your motives for this?
DV: Good question, Hayley. I used the real names as place markers for the true stories that I’m mining. Since the murder-suicide of my stepmother’s parents is in the background of Caribou Island, and she was named Rhoda in the stories, I kept the name, even though she’s a different character here. My real stepmother is neither of the Rhodas but is the inspiration for them, and they change shape to fit the stories, just as the real events have transformed into something else. What I’m interested in is how the unconscious reshapes and redeems the ugliest stories from my real life, and I think it’s interesting to know the real stories in the background so that you, as readers, can see the transformations that I’ve seen as the writer. What the fiction does is real and amazing, I think.
What I’m interested in is how the unconscious reshapes and redeems the ugliest stories from my real life…
H S: ‘Transmission’ is a gorgeous story. I see it as being, perhaps in contrast to ‘Rhoda’, a story about the gaining of sight, or rather insight. The framing of this story, through various windows, is interesting and makes me wonder if narrative framing is something that you focus on when writing, or would you say this is more part of the unconscious patterning that you mentioned earlier?
DV: Those two stories are similar in that the protagonist is trying to understand and see another person clearly and ends up not fully able to do that but catches glimpses. What’s a bit different in ‘Transmission’ is that it tends a tad toward metafiction, with the overwriting of the myth of how the grandfather first sees the grandmother, so we’re aware of the attempt to construct stories that make sense.
When I’m writing, though, I don’t focus on craft or structure or framing, etc. I think we study style, etc. and then that increases our competence and hopefully comes out in our performance when we write, but I don’t think it’s a generative point of focus while writing.
Lucy Boyce: Hanif Kureishi, in his essay ‘Something Given: Reflections of Writing’, talks of writing as an active way of taking possession of the world, a way of processing and ordering what seems like chaos. Do you feel this is true of your own desire to write?
DV: I think the quote from Hanif is perfect. I think writing does exactly that, except that I would emphasize that the taking control happens in an out of control way, unconsciously.
Tania Hershman: Hi David, how are you? It was me in this hot-seat last month! Just wanted to ask, since we recently met up when you were doing a reading, how do the book tour and all the other aspects of being a published author interfere or enhance your writing life?
DV: Hi Tania, I love all the touring and interviews. The books are coming out in 16 languages now, and with each new launch, I feel like I get a new life along with the book’s new life.
…I get a new life along with the book’s new life.
At the moment, I am finding it a bit tough to revise a novel while I teach and tour and do interviews, but it’s been a thrill, all of it, and I think the key is to just let publicists know that for the most part the mornings have to be reserved for writing.
The best part about the tours are the festivals, by the way, and meeting other authors there, such as you and Colm Toibin and Hanif Kureishi, Byatt, Hornby, etc. That’s been fantastic.
Sean Martin: In A Mile Down, was the decision to use more conventional formatting — e.g. inverted commas for the speech and a more direct, conversational voice — your decision or your publisher’s? And has Seref ever read it? Your portrayal of him is memorable — he comes across as a decent guy in his own way, despite the major problems he caused you.
DV: Thanks, Sean. I did really like Seref, and I don’t know whether he’s read it. He wanted an extra $90,000 ‘tip’ for the boat, so we had a falling out. And the editing conventions in A Mile Down I think fit for non-fiction. I use quotes in my non-fiction but not in my fiction.
Dave Swann: I wanted to thank you for a great reading in the draughty barn in Sussex, England, last September. I was gripped again by stories that I already loved! I just wondered whether you had anything to say about the ‘page’ as against the ‘stage’? In other words, what would be your advice to writers about reading their work in public?
DV: That reading was fun, and I loved the Small Wonder Festival. Diana’s great, too. I’m not sure I have advice, except to enjoy it. I love being on stage, and I would spend a lot more time there if anyone would let me. I was a ham even when I was four. So I always have a great time. And I think it’s important not to ever prepare. That way the discussions remain fresh.
DS: My other question was about ‘wilderness’ stuff. I love the way you load the natural dangers on the characters in Legend. That little bit of menace which Carver identified as essential to short fiction is there in abundance. I’m envious of the way North American writers can draw on this resource of the wilderness, particularly in Alaska — it ups the stakes. In England, we have to do quite a lot to make the squirrels seem menacing! I just wondered how you think wilderness works in your imagination. Is it something that already excites before you sit down to write? In ways do you think wilderness can enrich a piece of writing?
The literal landscape extends into figurative landscape…
DV: I love reading and writing wilderness. The literal landscape extends into figurative landscape which is how we learn theme, inside life of characters, etc. And you don’t need true wilderness. My new novel is set mostly in a walnut orchard which is a wilderness. That works too. It is nice to have the wide-open desolation of Alaska, though. I admit that’s a wonderful cheat. In writing Caribou Island, I just kept returning to describing the place, and that was my way through the book, keeping in mind, also, of course, the conflict between the characters.
Alison MacLeod: What are some of your favourite stories, old or new, that ‘break the rules’?
DV: [Junot] Diaz’s ‘Drown’ has the crises in the past event, instead of keeping the dramatic story in the present.
Wolff’s ‘The Liar’ is half background material, which is supposed to bog a story down (he makes us think we read scenes, even though we read narration organized as an essay).
…every story has to be at least two stories…
[Thom] Jones’s ‘The Pugilist At Rest’ includes an art history essay, showing that you can draw from other genres and blend forms. The rule you can’t break, I think, is that every story has to be at least two stories. If there’s no subtext, nothing else we’re reading for beyond the occasion or surface story, we stop reading.
LW: Right, David. It’s been a bit of a frantic session, but I think that about wraps everything up. Thank you again for joining us tonight. It’s been a very enjoyable and illuminating evening. And thanks to all of our members who joined us with their questions.
DV: Thanks, Loree. I enjoyed it. Thank you all, and best of luck in your own writings. Night, all.