David Vann is the author of Legend of a Suicide, winner of France's Prix Médicis for best foreign book and a New Yorker Book Club pick; the bestselling memoir A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea; Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, Steve Kazmierczak, winner of the AWP Nonfiction Prize and most recently Caribou Island. A recipient of Wallace Stegner and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, with an MFA from Cornell, he's a professor now at the University of San Francisco and writes for magazines such as Esquire, Outside, Men's Journal, and the Sunday Times. David spends some of his time in New Zealand and has just finished teaching a class at the IIML.
David is interviewed by award winning author Pip Adam about being in between books, teaching in Wellington and what to tell critics who say your writing is too depressing.
PA: You’ve often talked about the ten years it took to get Legend of a Suicide published. What kept you writing during that time? What made you send it out for that last competition, the one it won?
DV: Yeah, I didn’t keep writing during that time, I was a big baby and didn’t write for five and half years after I finished it. It was like pouting sort of and I guess I felt like, if they didn’t want the book then I’d show the world and I wouldn’t write a thing for five and a half years – so the world suffered mightily during that time [LAUGHS].
The other reason though that I didn’t write for the five and a half years was that since I couldn’t get it published I couldn’t get a teaching job so I went to sea and became a captain. I thought that was going to free up a lot of time for writing, I’d just be running charters sometimes and be free at other times, turned out I was always fixing the boat or working on it. I got a little bush-wacked by the job so I didn’t write.
The third reason I didn’t write was, I’d written the first fifty pages of Caribou Island but just couldn’t see where to go with that. I couldn’t see how to write a novel, so it was twelve years until I worked on that again.
So the first part of the break was the twelve years I didn’t do anything for writing and then when I started writing I switched to non-fiction and wrote about all the sailing disasters I’d had and was trying to remember how to write and I wasn’t sure I would ever write fiction again, actually.
I finally sent Legend of a Suicide to the competition because I realised no agent was ever going to send it out. I’d had a series of three agents and the last one was Binky Urban, Amanda Urban, whose one of the top two agents in the English language and she wasn’t going to send it. She liked it, but she wanted to just send the non-fiction and I realised that if she wasn’t going to send it then no one was ever going to send it, so I just sent it to a competition and just got lucky. There’s a lot of luck in a writer’s life [LAUGHS].
PA: So you believed in it enough to send it to the competition?
DV: Yeah, I always believed in it. I always felt like it was my best work and in fact when I had my memoir published A Mile Down after it was published I tried to offer Legend of a Suicide to my editor, and I said, I promise this is my best work, Legend of a Suicide is the best book I’ll ever write and I know it’s a little weird for trying to sell but please, I’ll give it to you for free and I’ll pay $10 000 toward your printing and advertising and publicity tour, all that stuff, I’ll give you $10,000 and you can have it for free – and he wouldn’t even look at it, cause it was a story collection. So I got to learn how much people hate story collections, like I got to see it in lots of detail exactly how much they all really hate them. So that’s why I end up saying that sometimes in class cause I really experienced that, I love story collections and in fact they do really well and you can build a good literary career with story collections but there are a lot of agents and editors who think you can’t. They’ve like ignored the facts enough to where they think it’s not possible.
PA: Can you talk a little bit about the structure of Legend of Suicide? The idea that it’s a ‘legend’ in the way that Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is a legend.
DV: I couldn’t figure out how to write this story about my dad, and worked on the material for ten years, because everyone in the family had a different version of who he was, what the suicide meant, and what had happened even. So the idea of a collection of pieces, stories that were linked but would contradict each other, would have a debate actually fit what was true of my own experience in my family that our stories didn’t line up, didn’t match up, there was a debate in content.
And because I was working over ten years there was also a debate in style. I was influenced by different writers during the ten years and I was learning different things about writing.
I knew about short pieces and a debate in style and content from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and that was a form I’d liked for a long time. I’d considered him my favourite author but then when I read his Legend of Good Women I could see this other structure. You can have this series of portraits as a way to structure a longer work that’s from the hagiographic tradition of writing about Saints lives. So the word ‘legend’ in Legend of a Suicide actually means a ‘legendary’ which is a literary form of a series of portraits. So the title means a series of portraits of a suicide. So, that seemed to fit in all ways, it seemed to fit the stylistic differences in the stories, it seemed to answer to the repetitive nature of having these stories continually talk about the same issue and also the problem of them not linking up like a novel would.
Basically what I’d written was an enormous mess and it had big problems but that structure excuses or fixes those problems and matches what my real experience was, so there’s a kind of truth to it but it was also, I guess, a kind of relief for me to see there was actually a structure that could match that.
And so, once I understood that, as I continued on with the other pieces I was looking at them more in terms of how they might fit into that structure. The last story for instance, The Higher Blue, I wrote right toward the end. I was aware that it was the same as the first story, Ichthyology – it had the same dramatic structure but was written as a fabulism, a completely different mode, so it wouldn’t necessary be recognisable as the same story but you might feel like it has the same dramatic arc of the father and his eventual fall. So yeah, that’s how it came about, it came about just from reading Chaucer and from my family experience and from what the writing experience was across the ten years.
PA: When I read Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island I had that fantastic feeling where I would read something and it was like finding out something about myself that I already knew but hadn’t had words for. It seems amazing that when we write from intensely personal experience it can be understood and deeply felt by other people. You talk in a class about not ‘faking it’ do you think not ‘faking it’ has something to do with this?
DV: Yeah, I think that, what amazes me about fiction, what I’ve said about it before in interviews, I feel like fiction is real that, like I said in the Wall Street Journal review, you can’t fake it in fiction, that it’s actually doing something.
So, in the case of someone like me, who’s writing about family material, it takes those ugly stories from our real lives and it transforms those in some ways and it makes them become something else that is whole and has a life to it and is essentially redeemed versus the original story.
That’s the part I think can’t be an idea and can’t be planned and can’t be faked. There actually has to be a transformation that takes place. If it does take place then there is something genuinely human about that, that comes out of our unconscious and that our unconsciousness’s are not really that dis-similar. So, even if the storyline, the plot, the place, those thing are different than what our experience is there’s something recognisable about human suffering , sense of self, and basic relationships that’s identifiable and I do think, I’ve come to think, that fiction is best when it focuses on primary relationships like for instance: mother, son, or two sisters, or a marriage, you know those basic relationships and if it’s about something that’s essentially disturbing, the crossing of some taboo, something that activates the unconscious for all the feelings that we have about that and all of our fears about it.
If you’re hooked into any kind of story that involves those things: primary relationships and taboo, it’ll probably speak to just about anyone else because we’re all linked at that level. The part where you can’t fake it is that the unconscious has to actually shape that story into some kind of pattern and transform it and that’s the part you can’t plan or see coming and that a reader knows if that’s happened or not.
PA: I hear there was quite a lot of talk at your Auckland Writers and Readers Week panel about your writing practice that results in a first draft that doesn’t differ hugely from the final published work – can you talk a bit about that?
DV: I write two pages a day, work for a couple of hours, and it’s every day for about five and a half months to get a first draft and when I finish that first draft that’s pretty much the same as what gets published and that’s because each day I’ve read through twenty or thirty pages leading up to the point where I’m going to add the new two pages and every two weeks I read the whole thing.
So really I’ve been through it a bunch of times by the time I get to the end and it’s all supposed to feel cohesive, like it was written in one day.
The patterns that have developed unconsciously in the work are things that I can’t really tamper with. I can’t change the basic living structure of that and I also can’t re-enter the story – the fiction is an event it’s something that happens in the making of it and when it’s done, it’s done. It gets this hard shell on it where I can’t go back into it and I feel like it just is what it is that I could change it and make it something else but that’s not necessarily better it’s just something else, and what’s going to happen is if I go back in and break into it and try to revise more is I’m going to be breaking up the strength of ties and the unconscious cohesions within the text. So it might be more consciously cohesive in some ways but it’s going to break essential parts of it that are giving it life early on.
But I think the other part of writing like that is that sometimes you just throw away the whole book which I have done before, like the whole thing just doesn’t work, doesn’t come alive. Cause I’ve actually never had the experience of revising something a lot and having it work out – never, not even with a short story, I mean even with the small form, I’ve never revised a short story a whole bunch and have that be a good story, I’ve had to throw out the whole lot of them.
PA: You’re also a musician, how do you think you ended up with writing as your primary career rather than music?
DV: It might have been just because I could do the writing I wasn’t really good enough in music and it was partly an academic choice. I thought about going into ethnomusicology but ended up deciding to go into English and writing I’d wanted to do all my life, music wasn’t as clearly or as strongly a pull, and I wasn’t … partly I blame my mother, she had me learn trombone, and it may not be her fault at all, it could be that I chose the trombone – that’s probably what happened, it’s probably not my mother’s fault at all, along with most of the other stuff I want to blame on her, it’s probably not my mother’s fault – but why didn’t she say something? Fucking trombone, where’s that going to go later in life, you know? [LAUGHS] I spent eight years on trombone so I guess I should say I blame trombone, if I started with congas playing for funk bands you know, maybe, I would have done some more of that, cause that was really fun, but yeah, music was really fun and something that was wonderful and I wanted to do and I still like to do, but I haven't done much for a while, but writing was something I did all my life and was always, I think, clearly what I most wanted to do and I always would have just done it if it hadn’t been for money. I only did other things cause I needed money.
But yeah, a lot of writers that I know in the US either are painters or musicians like a lot of writers have a second thing which we’re rarely very good at but you know it’s more immediately satisfying. Music is far more immediately satisfying than writing in terms of any interaction with an audience but there is something about the writing, that when landscape shifts and becomes crazy and does stuff that is really satisfying on that day when it happens, like, it’s really a thrill and I miss it, I get grumpy if I’m not writing cause I don’t have that experience.
PA: I’ve been interested talking to you about where you are right now – waiting for re-writes on a finished novel and not yet started a new novel. What’s that like?
DV: That’s the most anxious time for me, I feel worthless, I feel like I’m never going to do anything again. I have no idea what the next thing’s going to be. I really doubt the last thing was any good. It’s just a time of doubt. I watch a lots of movies which is nice, I read, I have some free time which is very strange for me I don’t really know what to do with free time and I don’t feel engaged I feel like my life is on hold and I don’t really like it.
I mean I should like it, because sometimes the writing feels tough and I feel like I need a break and I’m kind of relieved to finish something especially to have the publisher say yes, and they’re going to publish it, like that’s wonderful. So in the last few weeks I had the publisher say yes, with a two book deal where they bought the novel I finished and they want the next one and that’s wonderful so I was elated I mean that was fantastic but I’m also a little bored and anxious and wonder if my writing’s just crap and if I’ll ever write anything again. So it’s bizarre, I think writers suck, like in some kind of basic human way we kind of like – I’ve missed the boat [LAUGHS]. You know. Why can’t I just relax and enjoy it, and take a break for six months – I could, I’m so far ahead I have a non-fiction book coming out in October and a novel that’ll come out a year from now, like, I could take a break for a while but I can’t do it. I don’t want to. I want to see if I can do it, see if I can write the next one.
PA: There’s no trick to starting the next one is there? Do you just sit down and start writing.
DV: Usually reading a whole bunch of stuff – like, envy is a good engine for a whole lot of authors. I think a lot of authors write out of envy and rage also, That fucker, that’s not as good as what I could do! [LAUGHS] Especially if they’ve gone to school and they’ve got friends who have their books published and do well there’s a lot of rage there. I went to grad school with someone who got a Pulitzer Prize, imagine the incentive that gave to the rest of us.
PA: Lucy Wilkins asked via Twitter: Will David Vann’s characters ever suffer in warmer weather?
The next novel that will come out a year from now called, Dirt takes place at the end of July early August in the central valley of California, right in the heat of summer in the very hottest time and it’s just – people are constantly being baked, it’s this hellish landscape so yeah, it’s a very hot novel.
In Dirt even the dirt has been turned white, it’s not even brown it’s so dry and hot it’s been turned white.
PA: Helen Heath asked me to ask you what you say when critics say Legend of a Suicide is too depressing?
[LAUGHS] Um, I pretty much, in the US I get pretty impatient with that question and I tell them to, Wake the fuck up. For 2500 years most of the literature in Western culture has been tragedy. Like I think it’s mostly the US where I get critics saying that, in other countries I don’t get it nearly as often and really I think it’s just unbelievable that people say that, it shows an utter lack of knowledge of any of our literary history. So it shows that someone’s had zero education is really what it shows, like you can’t knock a writer for a book being depressing I mean that’s ridiculous, you know.
And I think writers should all fight back on that one. Every time someone says that, we should all tell them to go to hell that they’re an idiot, because really we need to educate the public to the fact that that’s mostly what our literary tradition is and we should not have to apologise for it like I think writers should never have to apologise. We shouldn’t apologise for writing about our families, we shouldn’t apologise for writing tragedy, we shouldn’t apologise for having obsessions or writing about the same material a couple times. Like all those things, why apologise? It’s part of what writing actually does and is, writing transforms things and it redeems things and so those tend to be ugly things and that’s why we all write tragedy. So yeah, I guess I respond not very positively, with a bunch of impatience [LAUGHS].
PA: What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished reading Ross Raisin’s new novel Waterline which will be coming out in June or July and I think it’s great. I ended up writing a review of it for the Financial Times in the UK. He’s one of my favourite young writers in the UK. I thought Out Backward was a brilliant novel. I totally loved that and this one has a really impressive vision to it – someone working class from the Glasgow ship yards and how a life can fail, basically how the momentum can take over and how far you can sink and it’s great so I recommend it to everyone.