It’s All For Keeps: David Vann on Truth, Fiction, and How We Find Out Who We Are

September 1, 2011 | 5 books mentioned 4 14 min read

For a writer whose own life has been so central to his work, David Vann is nothing like what you might expect from reading his books. His writing is thrillingly dark, haunted by personal trauma and utterly ruthless in its exposure of human perversity and frailty. In person, however, he is among the warmest, most open and good-humored people I have ever interviewed. He is quick to break into laughter even when discussing the blackest of topics.

covercoverAnd the blackest of topics cannot possibly be avoided when speaking about Vann’s work. Legend of a Suicide, the book for which he was made justly famous, is a sequence of five short stories and a novella, all of which approach, from a variety of fictional starting points, the central and very real fact of Vann’s father’s suicide. That novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is among the most stunning and compelling pieces of fiction I have read by a contemporary author in recent years. His first novel Caribou Island was published earlier this year, and it deals with topics of similar weight and consequence: broken marriages, failed lives, and suicides. He has also written a memoir, entitled A Mile Down: The True Story of A Disastrous Career at Sea, about his ruinous attempts to restore a ship and to start a charter tour company in Turkey. The cover of the book is a photograph of a mast disappearing beneath the surface of a turbulent sea. Once you know that the picture was taken by Vann’s wife from the deck of the lifeboat, you will have some idea of the accuracy of the book’s title and subtitle.

I met him at his hotel in Kilkenny, Ireland, where he was due to do a reading that evening at the Kilkenny Arts Festival with Tobias Wolff. The latter’s iconically mustachioed presence, incidentally, briefly threw me off my interviewing game when he appeared behind Vann on his way from the bar and clapped him manfully on the shoulder before strolling off again.

The Millions: The first thing I wanted to talk about was the unusually long gestation of Legend of a Suicide. You started writing it when you were 19, right?

David Vann: Yeah, it had a gestation of ten years. I was writing it from when I was 19 until I was 29. And then it took another 12 years to find a publisher. It finally got published when I was 42. I did no work at all on it between the ages of 30 and 42.

TM: So why did it take so long to find a publisher?

DV: Well, it wasn’t publishers. It was agents. It didn’t even go to publishers. No agents would send it to publishers. They all liked it, but thought it couldn’t possibly sell. It wasn’t clearly either a non-fiction book or a novel. So I finally sent it to a contest where they just read it blind and don’t care whether it will sell copies. Because I realized no agent was ever going to send it out.

TM: And then the creative gestation itself spanned a decade.

DV: The reason it took so long to write is that I was trying to write about my Dad’s suicide, and that was a big mess for me emotionally and psychologically, and also for my family. Everyone in my family had a different version of what had happened, what it meant, and who he was. And none of those lined up, so there was no one clear story to tell. The format that Legend of a Suicide takes reflects the meaning of the word “legend” as a series of portraits, taken from Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, and from the hagiographic tradition. And I loved that form, the idea that you could do a series of portraits which could be conflicting, and that together they would provide a more complete picture. That’s what I came to late in the process. It was when I was writing the story “Legend of Good Men,” which is the third story. When I was writing that I sort of discovered the idea that I get this all to fit together that way. Because before that, the first three or four years, I just threw away everything because there was just too much emotion on the first page. It took ten years from 19 to 29 because I was learning to write. The novella within the book, “Sukkwan Island,” came at the very end, and that was a huge surprise for me. The event that happens half-way through was not where I thought I was going. I didn’t see it coming until I was half-way through the sentence. That was the first time I really understood that writing is unconscious, that it’s not about control or ideas or shaping it in some kind of conscious way, that when it takes off and does something more interesting is when there’s an unconscious pattern and cohesion. So to me in a way all those other stories that frame “Sukkwan Island” are in a sense failures. I like them, they’re all in a somewhat different style and form a kind of debate, but they’re all limited by being still conscious and the result of a controlled process.

TM: It’s really interesting to hear that it came as a surprise to you, because anyone I know who has read Legend of a Suicide, that’s the moment they talk about, where you invert the facts of your father’s suicide. And I think that’s because when you read it, the reader feels as though you’re breaking some kind of rule, which is a very rare thing now in literature. You feel that this isn’t supposed to happen, that this isn’t what the writer is supposed to be doing with this autobiographical material.

DV: In the UK and Ireland especially I think people thought that maybe I did something formally interesting. But it’s not like I had this idea of subverting a reader’s expectation of the form or anything like that. And I’m not a tricky writer at all. Really for me the thing about writing is that everything has to be true. It all has to be real. It was never meant to be tricky. That’s just what happened in the writing with Legend of a Suicide. It wasn’t faked. It was a real transformation.

TM: Well I think that’s exactly what’s so powerful about it — about that book and about that moment of rupture — is the fact that you’re not, you know, John Barth.

DV: I know. And it scared the shit out of me when I wrote it. The next day I planned to cut it and go back to my plan. But I read all the pages up to it, and I could see that there was all this pattern leading up to that moment, and it was the first time that I really understood what the book was about. And so now I really feel that that process was alive in Caribou Island too. And although there’s not some major rupture, I didn’t know what the characters would do or say each day, because since I’d had this experience with “Sukkwan Island” I went into it knowing it’s better not to know what’s going to happen. And so everything that happens — especially the interactions between the characters — that was all happening each day as it was going along. And for me the places of invention are mostly in the description of landscapes. It’s almost as if every paragraph of landscape has some kind of life for me in that way, where there’s some kind of shifting and transformation going on. The real stuff of my life has been reshaped and redeemed through the unconscious, and that’s really the whole point of writing.

TM: You mentioned that everything you write has to be true, or feel true. Do you feel that there’s a level of truth that you have access to in fiction that you don’t have access to when you’re writing in a traditional memoir form, like you were in A Mile Down?

DV: Yeah, I do. I also have a non-fiction book about a school shooting coming out in the Fall. That book is true in that I had access to a whole 1,500-page police file on the shooter, and I write about it like he’s a protagonist of a short story. It’s very close to him, and follows his experience. But every scene is built up through a mountain of facts that I have. And to me that’s incredibly constraining. The book doesn’t come alive in the way that fiction does. For me, fiction does have access to a higher sense of truth, an emotional and psychological truth, by being open-ended.

TM: Early in A Mile Down, there’s a line where you say, “I’ve come to realize that a life can be like a work of art, constantly melted away and reshaped.” I feel as though there’s an exploratory element to your work both thematically, in terms of what your characters are doing, and in terms of what you yourself are doing as a writer. There’s an attempt to find something real, something true in a new way.

DV: Yeah, absolutely. In A Mile Down you see both of those working. My real life was essentially an experiment. I was driving myself toward destruction, toward a repetition of my father’s life, getting closer to his disasters and his end, because really what I was testing was my own sense of doom that I had for 22 years after his death. That I’d be destined to repeat his suicide. That some day I’d get depressed and hit a low point and that suicide would be there waiting for me. That it would be inescapable, something that I couldn’t possibly outrun, like Oedipus. So in real life I was actually heading toward disaster at sea, just as my father did, and I think trying to hit a low point to find out what would be there. And I found out that suicide wasn’t waiting for me. It was a wonderful release to find out that, when I hit the low point and lost everything, I wasn’t thinking of suicide. That it wasn’t there. So it actually worked. It was a strange experiment that worked in real life, but it was done entirely unconsciously. I didn’t realize that I was experimenting with my life. And so now I do have the same sense about my real life that I have about my fiction, which is that I make all these decisions but I have no idea why I’m doing what I’m doing. That life is essentially shaped by the unconscious in the same way that fiction is.

TM: I think with your male characters particularly there’s this need to get to a place of simplicity and self-sufficiency which is, on the face of it, quite noble and in some ways quintessentially American. People tend to mention Thoreau a lot in talking about your work, for instance, and I think that’s not a bad point of reference. But the urge for self-sufficiency in your work is a self-defeating and also, I think, a self-destructive urge. Does that strike you as true?

DV: I’ve actually thought about this a lot, because I teach nature writing and I think that our ideas in contemporary American nature writing come from the British Romantics really, through the American Transcendentalists. I like Blake the best of those Romantics, and I think his idea of the corrosive process — where you burn away the veils of experience and reveal the infinite which was hidden, the mind of innocence — is really at the core of this idea of finding your goodness and your self-sufficiency out in nature, through being tested. What I don’t share is the faith that we find goodness. And so that’s where my writing ends up departing from it. I don’t believe I can return to Eden, or find any innate goodness or innocence. I think that happiness is more likely to be found in engagement. Which is not denying our bad sides, but just being engaged.

TM: I don’t know what you’ll make of this, but it struck me that there are strong elements in your work — more in Caribou Island and A Mile Down than in Legend of a Suicide — that are, purely in terms of the material rather than how you handle it, essentially comic.

DV: Oh yeah, definitely. In A Mile Down especially I think there are moments that are comedic even in my version. I don’t think I was very good at writing comedy, but it could have been much funnier.

TM: Well, perversely, it’s funnier by virtue of not being funny at all. Which I suppose is the way with a lot of things.

DV: Well, Toby Wolff told me that he and his brother read it and they called each other and just laughed about it for about an hour.

TM: Really? I’m in good company then. Because as horrible as all those experiences you describe in that memoir are, what you are laying out is basically a classically, straightforwardly comic situation. The guy in over his head, under unbelievable stress and headed for certain disaster with lots of DIY mishaps along the way.

DV: Yeah, absolutely. And it strikes me as comic now too. But when I was writing it, I was closer to it and I was trying to describe what happened, and trying to understand it, and I didn’t take full advantage of the comedic potential in it.

TM: You seem much less coy than most other fiction writers in talking about the relationship between your life and your fiction.

DV: Well, I’m still trying to understand it. To me, the work is more interesting if you understand more about that relationship. If you know the real story behind it and can see the way that it was changed — if you know for instance that my Dad asked me to come spend a year in Alaska with him, and that I said no, and that he killed himself soon after — you can understand that, in “Sukkwan Island” when the boy does go with his father, that’s a chance for me to go back and say yes to spending a year with my Dad. It’s not something I realized when I was writing it, but now in retrospect it seems obvious. So to me, a reader being able to know that changes the work for them. The more a reader can see what an author has experienced — where the transformations are, where the unconscious work is being done — the more they see what the work is. And also, the other reason why I feel as free as I do to talk about everything is that my family has had so much tragedy. My family has been so broken for so long that there’s no pretending anymore that things are fine. So I really feel like I’ve essentially lost shame. I had incredible shame for three years after my Dad’s suicide. From when I was 13 until when I was 16 I told everyone he died of cancer. And I just feel, like, never again, because that was so debilitating. And so to me there’s tremendous freedom in being able to talk freely with people and to not hold anything back. I don’t ever want it to be a canned thing. I never prepare for anything. When I teach, I go in and I know the works well, and we have a conversation about it. I want that conversation to be free to go anywhere. Not just to follow my lecture notes, or plan of what points we have to cover. To me that kills a class, and it would kill an interview, and it would kill a reading. And it would kill writing a book.

TM: That doesn’t surprise me. I would never have imagined you as the type of writer with the post-its on a corkboard over your desk and the character outlines and so on.

DV: No, no. I actually hate all other forms of writing. I find them to be garbage. I can’t stand the idea of writing a journal or writing a note. I fucking hate it. I hate writing a letter. I can do emails fine, because it’s very fast, but all other forms of writing I view as garbage. I especially don’t like obligatory forms. I never wrote letters to anyone, so email has saved a lot of friendships. I really think that all writing is for keeps. None of it is preparatory or an exercise or whatever. It’s all for keeps. Whenever I write I’m trying to engage in that process and discover something. That’s all I want.

TM: Right, because when I read your writing it feels in a lot of ways unworked-over, unsmoothed. It feels spontaneous and rough in a good way.

DV: Caribou Island was published in exactly the same version as my first draft. I worked on it every day, two or three hours each morning, for five and a half months. And every two weeks I’d read the whole thing. And each day I’d read through 20 or 30 pages before the point where I had to add new material. So I’ve read through it many, many times before I get to that first draft. And I made little adjustments here and there. But when I finish a book, that’s almost exactly what’s published. The only thing that I changed is I added the seven or eight paragraphs of background material on Irene that my editor requested. A little less than 1,000 words to an 80,000-word book. And that was it. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I can’t do anything else. The book just is what it is. I’d always been told that writing is mostly revision, and for me that is just not true. It’s either the first draft works or the whole thing has to be thrown away. Within a couple of weeks, even, it gets this hard shell on it that I can’t crack anymore. I can’t go in and add new stuff anymore. I’m not pretending that book is perfect or flawless, but one thing that it is, I think, is one piece. The goal is that, for a reader, it’s supposed to feel like it was written in one day, in one sitting. So to me, that’s the beauty of having what is essentially the first draft published. The reader gets to see the book in all its connections and its roughness and its suggestion, and it’s all one dream.

TM: So you’re not interested in trying to attain any kind of ideal of perfection?

DV: Fuck no! It takes me years to understand what the hell I was doing in a book so, really, how am I supposed to go in and make it perfect if I don’t even understand it? I’m 67 pages into writing a new novel now. I had to take a break from it to do the final revision of Dirt, the novel that’s being published next May. Today was my first day back after that break. So my fear is that there’ll be some lack of connection that’ll happen because of the break. But what I loved about re-reading it today is that it does have all this strange stuff in it that’s working but that I don’t fully understand yet, but I feel some weight or pressure from it. And that’s what I follow when I’m writing — something that’s freaky or strange about it that I want to get closer to.

TM: And that’s an instinct you’ve come to trust, obviously.

DV: Yeah, I trust it absolutely. Because what’s the worst that could happen? At the end I throw away the whole book. So who gives a shit? It’s the only thing I really enjoy doing in life, so it’s worth following. I wish my students would be less tripped up about perfection and writing something great and would just write what they’re going to write, because we don’t get to choose, really. Like this new novel Dirt, I planned to write something set in Anglo-Saxon England, and then one day I started writing this thing set in California in 1985. And that’s it. Five and a half months later there it was. I had no plan to write that book. It just happened. I don’t follow any plans. I get little premonitions of what something might lead to, but I’m still going to follow wherever any paragraph takes me.

TM: Is it the case that, because you feel like everything you write in fiction has to be in some sense true, you don’t then want to undermine or contradict that truth by changing something about it?

DV: Absolutely. The novel I’m working on now, I have no idea what it’s about, and I might have to throw away the whole thing. I have zero idea of what the hell this thing is about. To me it’s thrilling and fun to write, and there’s also anxiety every day. There’s a lot of insecurity. Each day when I read through the 20 or 30 pages and I’m about to start my new page or two for the day, I have this moment where I think I’ll never write again, I’ll never write anything. But I think that that moment is important. You have to have that void. Otherwise nothing real ends up happening. You have to spend a little time sitting in the moment where it might be all annihilation and nothing to find out if there’s going to be something. Because otherwise your conscious mind kicks in and you just do whatever the easiest, most available thing is. The first thing you grab. And that’s always going to suck.

TM: So something real has to happen in fiction for it to be worth imagining? Real in the sense of having some significant connection to an emotional reality.

DV: Finally what’s important is what has meaning. For instance I think the difference between tragedy in real life and tragedy in fiction is that tragedy in fiction is meaningful. In real life, what’s terrifying about it is that it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t connect. When my Dad died, he was just gone and it didn’t mean shit. And that was terrifying. That’s what makes the whole rest of your life feel meaningless when something like that happens. Because you realize, fuck, there’s no solid ground for anything. But in fiction, tragedy can be meaningful. It’s all connected and bound together and we can test and measure ourselves against it. To me it’s not depressing to read tragedy; it’s reassuring to read tragedy. And it drives me crazy to read stupid reviews in the U.S. where they say the book’s well written, they like the book, they recommend it, but where they are effectively telling their readers not to read it because they say that it’s dark or depressing or whatever. To me that’s idiotic, because for 2,500 years most of western literature has been tragedy. And the reason we like to read tragedy is because reading tragedy is how we find out who the fuck we are. We measure ourselves against it. Are we good? Are we bad? What about the shapes of our lives, the decisions we’ve made? That’s how we test all of it.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.