The Interview: Bookbag Talks To David Vann
|The Interview: Bookbag Talks To David Vann|
|Summary: It's nearly three years since we first discovered the work of David Vann and we're impressed by his latest book. The opportunity to ask the author a few questions was not one to be missed.|
|Date: 6 June 2012|
|Interviewer: Sue Magee|
It's nearly three years since we first discovered the work of David Vann and we're impressed by his latest book. The opportunity to ask the author a few questions was not one to be missed.
- Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?
David Vann: I’ve never imagined readers, and in fact I didn’t have any for a very long time. For twelve years, I couldn’t get my first book of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, published. I also don’t show my manuscript to anyone until it’s done. My agents are the first to see it, and the first draft is almost exactly the same as what’s published. For Caribou Island, I added seven or eight paragraphs of background information about Irene, at the request of my editor, and that was a very good suggestion but less than a thousand words. No scene has been cut or added or switched in order. And for Dirt, I added only two or three short paragraphs in revision, in order to make several connections. For the next novel, Goat Mountain, which will be published in 2013, there are no revisions at all. What I like about this is that readers experience the same dream that I do, all one piece, for better or worse. And it gives me great pleasure to hear from readers, and especially to find that someone in Croatia understands my work better than most readers in the US, for instance. I love that. But I can’t imagine thinking of a reader when I write.
- BB: I first encountered your work with Legend of a Suicide, which packs one of the most startling literary punches I’ve met in a long time. The inspiration for that book was obvious - your father’s suicide. How do you come to terms with the suicide of a parent?
DV: That’s a question I’ve been answering in a couple of books and in my life more generally, so obviously I can’t answer it here. There are very long legacies to suicide: 3 years of denial, saying he died of cancer rather than suicide, separation from friends and family, living a double life with guns, very dangerous, 10 or 15 years of insomnia, 22 years of feeling doomed to repeat his suicide, guilt at least as long as that, anger for at least 30 years. The way anyone comes to terms with a suicide is to start walking down a very long road, leaving their previous self behind.
- BB: Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island were both set in Alaska, where you were born and grew up, but you’ve moved south for Dirt. Do you know Sacramento well?
DV: Dirt is set in a walnut orchard and old house in a suburb of Sacramento. It’s my mother’s parents’ house and orchard, a place I visited often in childhood and which is as mythical for me as Alaska. It was a place of stories denied (my grandfather beating my grandmother, and the suicide of my grandmother’s mother) and also a place of origin and a beautiful place. I loved the enormous fig tree and the sound of my grandfather’s tractor and the walnuts and old house. Everything that happens in the novel is fiction, and the characters have become fictions, but this place had a magnetic pull, and I think it was inevitable I would write about this history. The second short story I ever wrote, about 25 years ago, was set in this place. I’ve lost that story, and it was only a few pages, but I knew even then that an important story was here. The other source of inspiration for the novel is the New Age movement, which I was very involved in during the early 1980’s. I firewalked and meditated and was so psycho I actually believed I might be able to walk on water, crashing over and over into various mountain lakes and hot tubs.
- BB: You’ve achieved something quite remarkable in Dirt. Probably the most sympathetic character is Galen - an immature, twenty-two-year-old, bulimic vegetarian who thinks of himself as a New Age believer and whose grasp on reality is tenuous. Normally I need to have at least one character whom I feel I could go out and bat for to pull me into the story, but I couldn’t put the book down. How did you manage that?
DV: Thank you. This is the kind of comment I rarely hear in the US, where a likeable character and happy ending are more or less required, even from many reviewers. I love the 2,500-year history of tragedy in western culture, and almost none of it involves a likeable character. It’s a new and unfounded idea, a pernicious idea, that we have to like the characters. What should pull us in to a tragedy is a recognition of the landscape within us, our own goodness or badness, and it’s especially our badness that we’re interested in.
- BB: I thought that your depiction of Galen’s deteriorating mental state was superb as was Suzie-Q’s reaction to finding Galen in a sexually-compromising situation. How did you know how they would feel, how they would act? Have you studied mental health issues?
DV: Ha. I grew up in my family, and that was enough study of mental health issues. None of it was difficult to imagine at all. And for the record, I don’t consider any of my characters in any of my books (except my nonfiction book about a school shooting, titled Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter) to be crazy. Everything they do comes out of who they are and what’s happened, and all of the threat from the books comes from inside (rather than external threat as in all crap writing).
- BB: Where and how do you write? With or without music? Which bits of it do you enjoy and what would you rather not do at all?
DV: I write two hours every morning. The first hour is reading through my previous 20 pages. I write a page or two in the next hour, and that’s it. I have to be alone, without sound or movement for distraction, wearing earplugs, sitting in bed. But I can write anywhere, any hotel room. I traveled 7 or 8 months of last year and wrote my next novel, Goat Mountain. The year before, in 2010, I wrote Dirt, and I was traveling then, too. And I enjoy everything about writing. It’s the only meaningful thing I do, pretty much. I don’t consider it work, and I’ll keep doing it even if everyone stops reading and publishing me.
- BB: What are you reading at the moment and what’s your best book of all time?
DV: I just finished Julie Myerson’s Then, which was heartbreaking in the end, esp the scenes with her daughter, Iris, and I was reading it in Norway, which was perfect for the freezing setting. The week before that, I read The Dinner, by Herman Koch, a Dutch writer, and that one makes you rethink families and what we value, esp how far you’d go to cover up the guilt of your children. Both books were unsettling, which is great. I’m also translating 30-50 lines of Beowulf each day, from the Old English.
- BB: You’ve got one wish. What’s it to be?
DV: Peace on earth, baby. And that Americans wake the fuck up (and stop thinking our military is a force for good or making us safer, that guns make us safer, that corporations are good, that we’re good environmental citizens, that the Republican party is here to help the working man, etc., all the enormous lies that seem to be the stuff that makes an American).
- BB: What's next for David Vann?
DV: Sailing this summer from Croatia to Turkey, going to festivals and book launches in many countries, all of which is beautiful and makes me feel lucky. My next novel, Goat Mountain, comes out in 2013, and I’m 108 pages into the one after that, and despite what the Metro seems to think, I’m not in fact dusting off any old manuscripts. I’m having too good a time writing the new ones.
- BB: We've really appreciated you taking the time to talk to us, David and we'e looking forward to Goat Mountain. Enjoy the sailing.
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