When David Vann was 13, his father committed suicide. In Legend of Suicide, Vann creates five alternate-universe versions of this event, all based in Alaska. His sparse language packs a breathtaking punch – the anchor story, Sukkwan Island, is spectacularly gut-wrenching. I’ve honestly never read anything like it (no other book has ever given me such a graphic nightmare), and I had lots of questions about how someone goes about writing something like this. Luckily for me, Vann agreed to answer them.
What’s the last book you read that made you think, “I wish I’d written that”?
Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country has such an original voice I was immediately jealous. The closest comparison I can think of is John Gardner’s Grendel, because Raisin’s protagonist is an outsider watching the villagers, thinking in fragments, lonely and finally thirsty for blood.
Are there any books you feel you should read but don’t really want to read?
Ulysses and War and Peace, of course, like everyone else. But most recently Bolano’s 2666, because it’s supposed to be magnificent, but it’s like 900 pages. I read about 25 pages an hour.
What do you enjoy reading other than books?
Online news bits and occasional lit blogs.
Do you have a favourite fictional character?
I like the boy in Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Liar.”
Do you have to force yourself to write?
No. I feel cranky if I don’t write.
Are you a day or night writer?
When I’m working on a first draft, I write every morning, 7 days a week, holidays included, for about 2 hours. I never make lunch dates during a first draft, and I can never write anything worthwhile later in the day.
Your writing time is cut short if...
something happens in my magazine writing life, such as a sudden request by an editor to turn around a revision in a day. But I’m lucky otherwise. I don’t have kids, my wife lets me write as long as I need, even if it’s into the late afternoon, and there are no other interruptions.
Do you ever write in public places?
No. I can’t imagine that, and I can’t stand peripheral movement or the sound of human chewing or swallowing. The idea of writing in a café doesn’t make any sense to me.
Who reads your earliest drafts?
No one. I don’t show anyone my work until it’s finished and sent to my agent. I don’t want anyone’s input. It’s not a team sport.
How often do you come back to rework sentences?
When I was working on my new novel, Caribou Island, which will come out in Jan or Feb 2011, I reread the previous 20-50 pages before writing each day, so by the time I had a first draft, I had been through everything at least a dozen times. So the first draft is almost exactly the same as my final draft.
Do you think you have your own writing style? How would you describe it?
I’ve never tried for originality. I think it’s just inevitable that we’re all both original and derivative. Our styles come from all we’ve read and studied and loved, but a reader wouldn’t necessarily recognize all those shadows. And my style varies a lot in Legend of a Suicide. There’s a stylistic debate between the stories. The first and last stories are the same story, for instance, written in different modes. And the landscape meditation in “Ketchikan” is completely at odds with the voice in “Sukkwan Island.” To me, these differences in style are as important as the differences in fact, all part of representing the fragmented experience of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement. How we tell a story is as important as what we tell, in other words. “Legend” in the title comes from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, meaning a series of portraits, and the idea of debate in style and fact comes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Most of my strongest influences have been women, by the way (Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, and Elizabeth Bishop, for instance), though I have been influenced a lot by Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, and other male writers
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
I wrote a terrible novel years ago, which luckily is not out there for anyone to see. The structure of it is beautiful, but you’d never read past the first five pages, because who could believe or care about the characters? But really, anything I’ve ever written for false reasons (to get published, to be a writer, to write something great, etc.) has always failed.
You said in an interview that your father’s suicide led to the best things in your life – do you think you still would’ve ended up as a writer if it had never happened?
I do think I still would have been a writer, because I was writing all of our family stories from when I was a young kid. And when I was 12 years old, before my father died, I had an early draft of the first story in Legend of a Suicide, focused on my parents’ divorce. So I was already mining family material. But I think his suicide and all the lies surrounding that suicide helped develop and focus my writing.
Why do you think Alaska is such a creative goldmine for you?
It’s the place of my childhood and remains mythic in my imagination. As I’ve mentioned in several radio interviews with the BBC and the Guardian, I’d run around the rainforest imagining wolves or bears chasing me, and we really did have wolves and bears. I’d sometimes fall through the false second floor of the rainforest, disappearing out of sight beneath the fallen branches. And the giant halibut we caught served as metaphors for imagination. Mottled dark green and brown, they were shapes first anticipated or imagined but then suddenly real as they rose from the depths. We were always out on the water fishing, and water itself has always had such a powerful pull on me. I like the idea, too, of story being born of place. I believe that’s true.
What else were you up to while you were writing Legend? It’s hard to imagine you hammering out one of these stories and then watching a Friends re-run.
Ha. I never watch TV (haven’t since I was about 13, around when my father died). I wrote Legend over a ten-year span, so I was up to many other things, but what I most remember is sailing from San Diego, CA to Hawaii as I wrote Sukkwan Island, the novella at the center of the book. I do remember a few of the other stories. I wrote the first story, “Ichthyology” at 3 am after telling jokes to my housemates out in the hills south of San Francisco, and finished it the next afternoon, for instance. We were living off the grid, no electricity, and I was cycling up to 60 miles a day to get to work and back.
Why do you like fish so much?
Fish are so specialized and odd, there’s one out there to represent each of our human traits. I think everything human can be mapped onto one fish or another and made clearer by the exaggeration of the fish’s adaptation. I love, also, that many of them inhabit a world without air or light. They are the unconscious, the place of mystery that we try to touch when we write.
If you wrote a children’s book, it would be called… The Halibut.
Name and species of any writer’s pets: My wife and I have a cat named Cruiser.
Can you provide a photo relevant to your writing?