Archive | November, 2009

Writer’s Questions – David Vann

25 Nov

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?

Ketchikan, Alaska, from when I was a kid. I'm not in the photo, but my dad Jim is far left, uncle Doug in middle, grandpa Roy on right, and the halibut is 250 pounds (18 stones).

The Little Cottage That Could

23 Nov

Remember how I like to write about where writers write? Today, I’ve got an especially covetable one to share (that is, if you’re a fan of fairy tales, lattice windows, beautiful woodwork, and staying tucked up in bed).

I’ve been waiting for any excuse to mention The Hermitage’s Rima Staines – she’s a nomadic artist and story-teller in the UK who lives in an other-wordly cottage on wheels (it’s actually a converted horsebox truck, with some key modern perks like mobile broadband). In this post she talks about the book she’s working on, her packed-to-the rafters work corner, and the squee-worthy laptop cradle her partner’s rigged up over their bed.

I know I’m not cut out for transient living, but it’s still something to think about when I’m stuck on the Central Line.

I'm pretty sure elves will just do her work for her.


Cover Edition of Who Wore It Better?

20 Nov

I’ve only just broken the first hundred pages of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, but things are looking good. I woke up wondering what’s going to happen next, and musing over how sharply crafted the shit-hits-the-fan scene is – the dainty foreshadowing is hilarious.

On an entirely superficial note, the U.S. cover reminds me of something I wouldn’t want to read. Is it the type? The misty amber background? 

Hate Twilight? Take a Nap

18 Nov

Jezebel post about the Daily Mail’s Stephanie Meyer profile inspired the usual commenter-scorn I’ve come to expect for the ridiculously popular vampire scribe. What I found more interesting was the show of support for Meyer, even from those who don’t personally enjoy her writing. I haven’t read any of the Twilight books myself, but I can’t imagine they’d make me want to throw them across the room and start shouting about “kids these days.”

I think what bugs me about the Meyer-hate is that it’s all wrapped up in how successful she is. Like it or not, we can’t control what those screaming tweens want to get their little paws on at the bookstore.  Does the success of the Twilight series take away from the rest of the publishing industry, or does it groom young readers who may move on to weightier material?

I remember my dad trying to explain to me, at the tender age of six, why the Sweet Valley Kids (Sweet Valley High, but for the velcro-shoes set) and The Baby-Sitters Club books were (gasp!) not literary masterpieces. I think the word “formulaic” was even trotted out for the occasion. The thing is, I read just about anything back then, and eventually managed to figure out on my own which books were brilliant and which were more suited for a quick skim. 

I always get touchy about guilty pleasure shame. It’s because I love TV so much.

Commenters make good points about novels, naps

What I Read About When I Read About Books

13 Nov

The Recently Deflowered Girl, Edward Gorey & Hyacinthe Phypps

• Gawker asks journalists to just quit it already with their show-offy Raymond Carver-inspired What We Talk About When We Talk About X headlines. The New York Times was the worst offender (and Gawker was next).

• Good news for fans of creepy/cute pen drawings: a “lost” Edward Gorey-illustrated book is back in print. Anything with the word “Deflowered” in the title has stocking stuffer written all over it.  

• Random House Canada hooks up with a boozy new bed partner – Stoneleigh wine bottles will get neck tags recommending book club titles. Very crafty. How do you say no to a nice merlot telling you to stay home and read books? 

• The Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries has a major hate-on for Waterstones and Waterstone returns the favour. I need a Brit to fully explain the stormy relationship between book people and the chain. I can’t peek at without getting hit with some serious anti-Waterstones vitriol in the comments. 

• How well do you remember your Judy Blume? A quiz for anyone who ever wanted to write “I GOT IT!!!” on the back of a postcard.

Pun About Sexism

11 Nov

lady books

People (like me) got testy last week when Publishers Weekly released a top 10 books of the year list and neglected to include any female authors, even in a year when female authors kicked ass, took names.  PW’s excuse: “We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the ‘big’ books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet.” 

Laura Miller at makes some good points about the difficulties list-makers face, but ultimately defends this tired old line, saying that if lists were “ideally representative” of women, race, nationalities, etc, then we’d just end up with a “tepid dish” of a top-10. This argument is all too easy to make because it will always sound so logical – you shouldn’t include bad books just to be nice to the girls! – but that doesn’t make it valid in every situation.

In a year full of Hilary Mantel, Alice Munro, Sarah Waters, Zoe Heller (and more!), it seems like PW would’ve had to go out of their way not to include the ladies. So the question really is, what is it about women’s writing – great women’s writing, that makes it seem not as prestige-worthy?

Lizzie Skurnick pulls no punches, saying,  “It has been a very strong two years for female writers and a weak two years for male ones, and the fact that the latter have garnered unseemly armfuls of praise and prizes for their tepid output is a scandal.”

Then she really nails it with, “It doesn’t happen because people — male or female — think women suck. […] It’s not that women shouldn’t be up for the big awards. It’s just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don’t know . . . deserve them.”

BAM! And I really mean that.


Buy More Book (Stuff)

6 Nov

John Steinbeck's The Pearl, as a purse

Right after reading this way-harsh diatribe against Penguin’s practice of lending their covers to mugs, notebooks, and yes – deck chairs, I found out about Olympia Le-Tan’s collection of clutches made from hand-embroidered renderings of first edition book covers. And I liked it. 

I should confess that I’m a huge sucker for the Penguin merch (I’ve been eyeing the Pride and Prejudice mug for a while, and have even added it to my bookmarks folder “Gift Guide,” which is packed with reasonably-priced items for the discerning shopper, should they want to light up my face this holiday season). I was the kind of kid who would hit up the Scholastic book fair and – after picking up a copy of Julie of the Wolves or The Giver – spend the remainder of her allowance on kitten posters and troll-doll pencil-toppers.

So although I won’t be spending my rent money on a Nineteen Eighty-Four purse anytime soon, and I don’t have anywhere to actually put a Brighton Rock deck chair, it really doesn’t bother me that other people do.

These penguin mugs would make a lovely present for Lija

The offending goods taking up shelf space at my local Foyle's