Hello. This is David Vann. I'm happy to join you for chat today.
Elke, I did start Caribou Island, a novel, after writing Legend. I wrote 50 pages and got stuck. I was only 30 years old and somehow just couldn't see longer dramatic arcs then. It's easy now, but back then my mind couldn't do it. And I couldn't think of any other short stories to write, and I wasn't writing nonfiction yet at that point. I was pretty limited and stuck.
My former US editor did ask my to write something lighter, and several editors who rejected my books also wanted this.
Aquarium was my first novel to not be a tragedy, so it's lighter in that way, though it's hard drama along the way.
I don't like the idea of having to write to someone else's idea or sensibility, but I'm not against writing something that's not tragic. I love romantic comedies, actually, in movies, and I've often thought that I'd like to write a romantic comedy, so maybe someday I will.
When I write, I focus on place, on a natural landscape, and the story is generated from that, so you're right that natural landscapes are central to my novels.
The natural landscapes act like Rorschach tests, revealing shape and pattern of the mind, giving us the interior life of the character who is viewing. This happens in a lot of American fiction, a rural and regional literary tradition focused on landscape, from Melville and Hawthorne to Porter, Bishop, O'Connor, McCarthy, Proulx, etc., the most important literary tradition in the US (more than the urban novel).
The writers I just mentioned in my last post are my favorites, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and classics.
I love Flannery O'Connor for her characterization and the really fierce drama. I'm a neoclassical writer, writing Greek tragedy the same as 2500 years ago, and she's in this tradition also, focused always on two characters who love each other but are acting unconsciously and destroying each other as a result.
My father's suicide was the most important event in my life, and became the most important subject in my writing, in the background of several books and in the foreground of Legend. The Greeks knew that families make us and break us, and parents are tremendously important. I think they are supposed to be shields from death, models for how to become an adult, etc., so when they suddenly go, especially violently, it causes a rupture.
My nonfiction book Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, talks a lot about my own growing up with guns and about gun culture in America.
Last Day on Earth sold less copies than any of my other books because Americans are in denial and don't want to recognize that the shooters are veterans from our military and that having more guns around does in fact lead to more gun deaths.
We're a war zone in America every year, and we've also turned Mexico into a war zone. And we're having less and less gun control, not more, so it will only get worse. America has no hope at all of improving in this regard.
It's the main reason I no longer live there.
I definitely write the books only for myself, never thinking of an audience, because in fact I didn't have any audience for 22 years of writing. But because I'm writing in the tradition, following the Greeks, readers do go through catharsis because of the dramatic arc. I've also studied and teach linguistics and think a lot about reader response. I just don't consciously worry about this when I'm composing new paragraphs.
I don't mean to horrify readers when I write about violence. It's never gratuitous but is always for a psychological reason. The boy's body in Legend was finally making my father's suicide real and acknowledged, for instance, and the buck killed in Goat Mountain is the way the boy gains empathy.
I love McCarthy's Blood Meridian, but he does write from a tradition of horror and is not a dramatist and so much of his violence is gratuitous and not connected emotionally and psychologically. But he manages to have it become a kind of landscape which suggests and becomes theme, along with the actual landscape descriptions, and so he transcends this problem.
I was going back to Alaska every year, but then I took a teaching job as a professor each fall in England, and the result is that I now haven't been to Alaska in 4 years, and in fact in that 4 years I haven't been in the US at all except for a month of book tour this March for Aquarium.
I'm really missing Alaska and want to go back soon.
I write every morning for an hour and a half or two hours, seven days a week. It's very important not to miss days because of momentum. All the unconscious or subconscious pattern will be there only if I write every day, and I need this because I write without any plan or outline or even any idea what the book will be about.
The first hour I read the previous 20 or 30 pages of the novel, then I write my new page or two quickly, in about 45 minutes usually, and I'm always surprised by what happens. That's why I write, for the unconscious transformations on the page.
Back to the question of what writers I like.
O'Connor is about meanness, that we're revealed through our smallness. So I needed an antidote to that in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and Elizabeth Bishop's poetry.
I do feel shaped by the place, both by the landscape and the people. The people are far right and far left with not much between, and can be anti-government and antisocial, and there are interesting ethnic groups, Russian and Norwegian and of course many different native populations. There are many hunters and fishermen and not enough women. The work is focused too much on the summer and is intense.
For the landscape, it's just so enormous and majestic, and you can feel how frail and exposed you are, to cold and bears and mosquitos and storms at sea, etc. You can step back in time and not care about anything from the contemporary world. And it's all so beautiful, with so many surprises. I miss the landscapes most, which has such variety across the state.
I haven't read a lot of Coetzee. Only Disgrace. He's not an influence for me at all. I have met him a couple times, though, and I like him and admire his work. There are many authors I admire but am not influenced by. Influence is a special thing, work that offers a path.
Poe is not an influence for me either, and I hate horror and watched only the movies I had to to write about the school shooter (he loved the Saw movies, which are disgusting lies psychologically and offer torture as entertainment). I realize Poe is more than horror, and I did read him a lot in high school and college, so maybe I'm influenced and don't realize it, but I don't think I'm doing that kind of story, or at least not aimed at the same payoffs.
Ha. Funny. My comments about Alaska should of course be taken with a grain of salt. I don't live there anymore, and there's of course a wide range of people there. There's a smart community of writers and journalists, for instance, in Anchorage, and I really love them. But I've always thought Alaska showed, in extreme, what America is. It's the place of highest gun ownership, most suicides, very military, very conservative, and also pushes American polarization to an extreme, so we can see what America is if we look at Alaska, I think.
It's also where we're experiencing the most effects of climate change, so it's funny that conservatives have to live there.
The bars in Ketchikan when I was a kid in the early seventies really were wild, with lots of fights, but back then it was only guys to the right beating each other up.