Exclusive David Vann Interview
14th October 2011
David Vann is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary American letters. His first work of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, won seven literary awards and was selected as a book of the year by 25 publications, including the New York Times. He has taught at Stanford and Cornell and is currently a professor at the University of San Francisco. On Monday 10th October, he spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and read from his recent novel, Caribou Island. Afterwards, he was kind enough to offer some writing tips for Creative Writing students at the University of Gloucestershire. Vann struck me as erudite, politically-engaged, and passionate about what he does; he also seemed like a genuinely nice bloke.
D.D. Johnston I came to your work this year, and for me Legend of a Suicide – that was the first of your books I read – was one of those rare, truly exceptional books… one of those books that, sort of, changes the way you see things.
David Vann. Well, thank you.
D.D. But what I had no idea about until today was that you’d finished the book fourteen years ago.
D.D. And I can understand why publishers would be reluctant to take it on – cause it’s so unusual and stuff – but I’d be fascinated to know how the book changed from the original version you finished fourteen years ago to the version in which it’s published today.
D.V. Well, not at all! No, that’s where I finished fourteen years ago and then nobody would publish it. I should have changed the title – should have taken ‘suicide’ out the title – and maybe cut the stories, maybe just had it as a short novel, and then maybe it would have been published before the twelve years. But, yeah, it’s unchanged; that was the way I finished it at twenty-nine– or I think I’d maybe just turned thirty, in the fall, when I finally finished the revisions on it… which weren’t much: I wrote more than half of ‘Sukkwan Island’ [the 165 page novella that forms the bulk of Legend of a Suicide (D.D.)] in seventeen days while sailing from California to Hawaii. It just came very quickly after ten years of throwing stuff away. I’d been working on it from nineteen until twenty-nine, writing stuff about my father, and after all that time throwing stuff away, it just came very quickly–
D.D. You wrote that in seventeen days! That makes me sick!
D.V. Yeah, I wrote a little more than the first half and then it was a few more weeks to finish the rest of it, because I was sailing that summer and then by Fall I’d finished the revisions and it was all done the way it is now.
D.V. Yeah, I just couldn’t get it published [laughs]. It was actually second placed in a contest back then. First place was publication; second place was nothing. So it almost got published when I was thirty.
D.D. I was also interested by what you said about how dramatic writing influences your work. So I wonder if, for our students who have to study prose, poetry, and drama, but who are sometimes only interested in one or two out of these three strands, I wonder if you could say something about… about what you see as being the value of studying all the different disciplines?
D.V. Yeah, I think it’s essential to read across genres, and to understand what all the genres borrow from each other, because in the end they’re all the same ingredients; they’re just put together differently. You don’t fully understand the ingredients until you see how they’re emphasised differently in the different forms. So in drama – theatre – you understand gesture and dialogue a lot better. And you understand a more streamlined dramatic form – you really understand a protagonist who is divided in some way, who has some problem, and an antagonist, who maybe wants the best for the protagonist – who isn’t evil or anything – but who’s just the worst possible person for them; they match up in a way that speaks to whatever problem is inside the protagonist. So you understand the basics of that – of what makes conflict, how each scene pushes into and creates the next scene, and what a scene is. So I–
At this point, D.D. was hailed by a student, one of five splendidly attired young pirates. For reasons not entirely clear (something to do with a birthday), they had dressed up as pirates and were on a mission to photograph a celebrity. While protesting he was ‘just a writer’, Vann happily posed for photos. Vann could not be further from the stereotype of a socially-awkward reclusive writer. He joked with the pirates about his own sea adventures, and showed them where he broke a tooth in a boating accident. ‘Why didn’t you get a gold one?’ asked one of the pirates. ‘Sh*t,’ he said, as though genuinely struck by his oversight. ‘I should’ve gone gold; you’re so right!’
D.D. [Laughing] OK, so, every writer has to draw on his or her own biography–
D.V. But wait; I don’t think I finished the other question.
D.D. Oh aye! Sorry, I got thrown by the pirates.
D.V. I think what you learn from poetry is that you can actually structure something with an image – with the development of an image. And so if you’re writing fiction – if you’re writing landscape description, for instance – and you want to think about how those descriptions build and work together. And for poetry… if you want to think how reflection and analysis work in a novel, read Melville. So whatever genre you’re working in, all the other genres will actually give you the tools to do your own genre the best you possibly can. I don’t really see anyone being a writer without reading the other genres. It’s silly to think you can just read one genre and figure it out. Is that enough ammo for you? [Laughs]
D.D. So, one way or another we all have to draw on our own personal experience and– Does it p*ss you off, by the way, that your work is so often dragged back to your biography?
D.V. No, actually it doesn’t. I mean, it should in that I’ve noticed that before with other writers. Like, I saw a whole panel of Asian-American women writers and all they got to talk about was, like, what they thought of China. And [laughing] none of them had ever lived in China! And they were interesting writers, and they were all different, and we could have talked about their writing, but all they got asked were some stupid political questions. I felt really bad for them. And so I can see how you could feel like that, how you could feel that you don’t get to discuss your work. But for me, I feel like all the questions they could ask about my personal life do actually relate to my work, and I do end up talking about the work at the same time that I’m talking about my life. And so I’m fine with all that; I enjoy it.
D.D. What I think I was about to ask you was about how some students find writing from personal experience really difficult. And you seem to draw on your own life in exceptionally interesting and complex ways, so I wondered if you had any tips for writers who were finding that hard?
D.V. Yeah, one tip is to move the location. Like, Sukkwan Island I’d never seen. I was describing Ketchikan, which I spent my childhood in, but I moved it fifty miles, so that although I know the forests and the water, the actual shape of the hills, and what it’s like when you go for a hike and look at the bay– All that’s going to fit into the story, can actually be part of the paranoid world of fiction, rather than just being incidental because it happens to be part of real life. So I recommend moving things. And the same with characters in stories – like, just placing them somewhere else. So you have to displace things enough so that you’re only using the psychological and emotional core, but you’re actually making up everything that happens in the story. That’s what gives your unconscious free room to surprise you and to do interesting things.
D.D. Penultimate question, I promise. It’s been a great year for me in terms of reading, cause… I’ve read three books that have really, kind of, excited me: I came to your work and the other two I’m thinking of are Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. So I was wondering if you’ve read Goon Squad and Pale King and, if so, what did you think of them?
D.V. You know, I hope you don’t put that on there cause I haven’t read those yet [laughs]. They’re on the list but I’m behind. One thing about doing four-and-a-half months of touring, literature festivals, half-a-dozen book launches, and tons of interviews and stuff… And working on a new novel, and doing revisions for the novel coming out in May – like, the copy editing and stuff – and teaching – like, I’m writing lectures and I have to read a student book right now – and I’ve reviewed books, and blurbed books, and so… there’s very little I get to pick anymore, like for what I’m going to read. But this winter I’ll be in New Zealand, December through April, and I’ll have a lot more free time, and those are both on the list. But it’s a list of, like, twenty books. Sorry, I feel like I’ve disappointed you [laughs].
D.D. Nah – I’ll just cut that bit [laughs]. Ok, let me ask you instead, if you don’t mind, about… You mentioned Blood Meridian in your talk and I agree it’s an amazing work. But I wonder if you were to recommend one book, something quite recent, that you think every student should read–
D.V. Yeah, that would be it. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It goes back to old English for [inaudible] heavy stresses. It concentrates content quite a bit. It’s more cohesive than most fiction is. He gets away with a higher level of cohesion, like you’d have in poetry normally: repetition of sounds and image. And it breaks all the rules of what you’re supposed to do: we don’t give a sh*t about the main character; we don’t have any access to thoughts or feelings; and the whole thing works anyway. So… it’s pretty amazing. I think everybody has to read it because they have to understand that all these rules that we think of for writing can be broken if you provide something else in substitution. And so the beautiful description he has, the depiction of an inferno, has larger significance for the culture of America and our own hearts, and fills in for not having a protagonist who we know or care about his feelings or anything. So it’s interesting to see something that kind of breaks all of those rules.
D.D. And, finally, what’s your best tip for up and coming writers?
D.V. Well, I had a class with Grace Paley, and she said that every good story is at least two stories. And to me that’s the one unbreakable rule in writing – the only one. That if you just have an account of something, and it’s just an account – like in most people’s journals or blogs or whatever – it’s just sh*t. Like it will never work. I can’t think of a single good work ever that was just one thing – that was just an account of something. What we read for as readers is that second story – the subtext – and the interest of what story will come out from behind the other one. And so you can’t break that rule, as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen it done.
A massive thank you to David Vann for being so generous with his time.