Cometh the Vann
By Nadine O’Regan
David Vann is in an excellent mood.
Despite the fact that this interview is cutting into his Christmas holiday time, he genuinely doesn’t appear to mind – and he fairly hoots with an embarrassed sort of pleasure when I ask him what it feels like to suddenly be a big-name author.
‘‘It’s really weird,” he says, sounding for a moment quite unlike the Stanford-educated, San Francisco University lecturing author he is – and more like a schoolboy full of wonder.
‘‘For 12 years, I couldn’t get my book even sent out to editors. No agent would send it out. I thought it would never get published. For five and a half years I didn’t write at all because I felt really discouraged. Now, to have two of my books coming out in 13 languages – it’s such a gift. It feels incredible.”
Polite, humble and inquisitive, Vann wears his intelligence lightly – in a chance encounter with him at a literary festival in Cork some months ago, I confess I initially mistook the Alaskan writer for an enthusiastic visiting Masters student (luckily I realised my error before asking him what his speciality was).
Golden-skinned with sea-blue eyes and an affable mien, Vann is that rare author who is as fond of hunting as reading – before he was ten, he knew how to shoot a deer from 50 feet away in his Alaskan home – and his fiction is filled with ‘‘the whine and squeak of mallards’ wings’’ and ‘‘silvery and gasping’’ salmon.
Growing up in Alaska and then rural northern California, Vann spent much of his childhood on solitary expeditions through the woods.
‘‘Even when I was on my own, my dad would send me off with a gun and a dog for 12 hours. I loved that and I still do. We had a hunting ranch that we went to each year, and as we went through the ranch, my father and grandfather would tell the stories of what had happened there – the time someone killed their first deer or times with bears. I learned that story was in place – that you couldn’t have story without the place.”
If Vann’s writing is notable for its capacity to render nature in the most lush, yet sharp of ways, it’s the emotional truth it contains that will leave you slightly stunned, such is its lucid power and grip. Vann’s new novel, Caribou Island, is one of the most anticipated works of the year – and, if anything, it exceeds expectations.
It’s the close-focus story of Gary and Irene, an Alaskan couple with grown children whose marriage is disintegrating. Gary is building a cabin on Caribou Island, a tiny, freezing back-to-basics shelter which he claims is for the two of them, but Irene knows otherwise. ‘‘Enough fights about this ridiculous cabin and he could justify leaving,” Irene sees. ‘‘Put her in an impossible situation and then say the marriage was impossible.”
The novel is lavishly stocked with searing lines like these. The book is not plotted – though started 14 years before, Vann wrote most of it in a five-and-a-half month compulsive dash, as surprised as any reader by the emerging storyline. As with John McGahern’s Amongst Women, the characters feel completely alive and engaging on the page.
The strengths of Caribou Island – which was inspired by a real-life murder-suicide in the family – mirror those of Vann’s previous book, Legend of A Suicide. ‘‘Nothing like this book has been written before,” said the Observer of the story collection – and for once, that statement doesn’t register as pure hyperbole.
Vann used the short story form to examine the real-life suicide of his father from different fictionalised angles. ‘‘The thing is, something about me is not right,” says the father in Sukkwan Island, the novella that forms the blood-splattered centre piece of the book. ‘‘I can’t just do the right thing and be who I’m supposed to be. Something about me won’t let me do that.”
More than most writers, reality and fiction are difficult to separate in Vann’s work.
As sunny as he is on the outside, his life has been underpinned by a determination to understand the causes of familial depression and marital tension; the darkness that has driven several of his family members to the most violent and extreme of acts.
‘‘We have [had] five suicides in the family,” Vann says. ‘‘My stepmother lost her parents to a murder-suicide. Her father told her mother that the last 15 years of their marriage had been a lie and he was moving on to someone else. That came as a shock to her. She thought their marriage had been fine.
“She planned to kill just herself but at the last minute she decided to take him out with her. This was something my stepmother went through 11 months before my father killed himself. She went through an incredible string of tragedies. And I had trouble understanding how she got through all of it.”
The loss of his own father to suicide shook Vann to the core. ‘‘I was 13,’’Vann says, ‘‘and I didn’t see it coming. I knew he was sad leading up to it, but I didn’t really know what that was about. He was up in Alaska. My parents were divorced and he asked me to come spend a year with him. I said no. Two weeks later, he killed himself.
‘‘He did it talking on the phone to my stepmother. He said, ‘I love you but I’m not going to live without you’. He was in Alaska, she was in California.
“They were separated. He had broken up two marriages through infidelity. She was finally moving on; had met another man. He had to repeat the words twice because she was at work and couldn’t hear too well. Then he pulled the trigger.
‘‘At the time it seemed like such a cruel and shameful thing that, for three years, I told everyone that he had died of cancer. I was so ashamed. It felt like what he did extended to me.”
Vann became an unusual little boy, living two lives. By day, he was a straight-A student, the kind who ‘‘got A-pluses in a lot of classes, where I got over 100 per cent’’.
By night, he took the guns that had bizarrely been allowed to pass down to him from his father and he slipped out of the house and shot out streetlights – an event documented powerfully in Legend of a Suicide.
‘‘I didn’t have the fancy cape, but it did feel like I had two different lives, and that the secret other life was the true life,” he says. ‘‘That was the legacy of my father’s suicide.”
Although Vann won a place at Stanford University, his development as an adult was more tentative and uncertain than his academic achievements would suggest – he didn’t have a drink until he was 22 and ‘‘even sex, I didn’t want to have for awhile’’.
He has battled insomnia for decades.
Haunting him was the fear that he would turn into his father. ‘‘I felt doomed for 20 years after my father’s suicide,” he says. ‘‘I imagined I would get married and have kids and hit some depression, and suicide would become a possibility.”
If there were two Vanns in operation back then, you have to wonder if they’re still present now.
Though Vann becomes a little strained talking about his past, for almost all of this interview he’s straightforwardly upbeat, prone to cracking a joke and generous with his time – he’s the kind ofman who puts other people in a good mood. It’s hard to reconcile the person I meet with the pristinely distilled anger of his prose – and the bleakness of his past.
‘‘I think the key is change over time,” he says. ‘‘Before, I suffered. I feel fine now. Writing helped protect me. The most important thing tome was to realise that I wasn’t my father and that I didn’t have to repeat his life. I had a much better, easier life. He became a dentist because his father became a dentist.
‘‘He grew up in a time when it didn’t seem to be a choice but an inevitability, and his marriage seemed that way, too. If he had grown up a little bit later, he might not have committed suicide. He might have led a more self-determined life and made choices that reflected who he was.”
There was also a vital turning point for Vann after his college days. In the mid-1990s, having decided that writing wasn’t Working out for him as a career, he became a sea captain, building his own boats from scratch, including a 90-foot catamaran.
His five-year adventure came to an end on his honeymoon ,when the boat Vann and his wife, Nancy, were sailing through the Caribbean sank.
At a time that couldn’t have seemed worse, Vann found a silver lining greater than the cloud itself.
‘‘After I hit that low point, I realised that I had no interest in killing myself,” he says.
Having been freed from what he thought was his legacy, Vann succeeded in publishing a very successful memoir of his life on the sea, A Mile Down (2005),which acted as an important calling card for the fiction that was to come.
In ways, it seems remarkable that Vann would have chosen the fiction form to write about his family, when he could so easily have written another memoir.
It wasn’t done to protect family members – with such a thin veil cast over the truth, he has already horrified his grandmother with his work (‘‘she said I should turn to Jesus’’), and his uncle – with whom he has a good relationship – has sensibly decided against reading any of it.
Vann picked fiction for its powers of metamorphosis.
‘‘For me, non-fiction doesn’t transform and take its own shape the way fiction does. For me, writing is unconscious and out of control, and the best moments are when the writing takes over and my plans are destroyed. That process of discovery only works in fiction.”
While Vann is reluctant to criticise any author directly, he gets annoyed by the way our perspective of literature has been altered by the media focus on fashionable authors such as Jonathan Franzen.
‘‘There’s this idea – as in the Jonathan Franzen profile in Time magazine – that our great literature is urban. I think that’s just wrong. I think our greatest literature has been rural.
Faulkner, Hemingway and writers like Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx and Marilynne Robinson.”
Vann is doing a lot to indirectly correct this impression himself, both in the US and abroad.
In France, where writers like McGahern and Julian Barnes have been feted, Vann has sold about 150,000 copies of Legend of a Suicide and won one of the country’s most prestigious awards. Sales in Ireland and Britain are also strong. ‘‘Ireland is incredible,” Vann says. ‘‘I went to two festivals last summer – in Kilkenny and Cork.
For a country with such a small population to have such a focus on literature is just incredible. ‘‘I’m begging the Kilkenny festival to bring me back this year.”
With early reviews of Caribou Island already glowing, it seems likely that it’ll soon be them doing the begging.
For now, Vann is quietly happy about his success.
‘‘I know my career might go right back down the toilet soon, so I’m just enjoying this. It’s wonderful that my books have a chance to be out there and to be read.
“That’s what every writer wants.”
Caribou Island will be published by Vintage on January 21