This interview first ran in 2009; since then, Vann has published several novels, all to wide acclaim.
David, thank you for writing the best and most intricately structured book I’ve read this year – a truly amazing read that, by about page 135, I was looking forward to finishing so that I could read all over again.
You say in the interview at the back of the new paperback edition : “This book is as true an account as I could write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that was possible only through fiction.” Wonderfully said. What I want to know is, how difficult was it to write, given the nature of the material? You’ve written two nonfiction books, and I’ve read that this book took a long time to get published. Was there a point in your writing life when you felt ready to write this; did you have to wait until you had a certain amount of narrative control under your belt; did you have any concerns about wading into such heart-wrenching material?
Although Legend of a Suicide wasn’t my first book to get published, it was the first book I wrote. I worked on it for ten years, from when I was 19 until I was 29. So I was learning to write, and I had no idea how to tell the story. I threw away everything from the first 3 or 4 years, because it was all too direct, with too much emotion on page 1. I’d start with the day we found out my father was dead, for instance, which didn’t work at all. But then I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and heard a lovelier, more emotionally distanced voice, and I was also reading poems by Elizabeth Bishop, and I ended up writing Ichthyology, which was the first story I was able to keep. It focused on tropical fish and fishing in Alaska, and my father’s story came indirectly, beginning first as subtext and rising to the surface at the end. That indirection was the key to writing the rest of the book, and is part of why I didn’t write the book as nonfiction. There was no one true story to tell anyway (because we all had different versions of who my father was and what had happened and what it meant) and the true story, even if I could have found it, would have been too direct and essentially unreadable.
Once I finished the book, it sat for 12 years and no agent would send it out, so I sent it to a contest (AWP’s Grace Paley Prize), and that’s how it was finally published.
The structure is unusual to say the least: three short stories told in the first person, followed by a long novella told third person and without quotation marks, followed by two short stories told in first person again. All feature the same characters – or so this reader would argue anyway: Roy Fenn (adolescent except at the end of the book) and his tragic father. There are repeating themes and constellations of images and connecting storylines throughout, but what I loved most was how the early stories “teach” the reader how to interpret the main novella. We know enough of the “true” (within the framework of the fictional world) events of the early stories to be able to understand, or try to understand, the novella in several possible ways – at least that’s how I read it. Without spoiling the book for others, I’ll say that there is a shocking development in part II that makes use of a startling and effective shift in POV. First: did you plan the structure this way from the beginning, and in what order did you write the stories? Have readers had widely different interpretations of the novella, in particular?
I’ve been happily surprised that interpretations of the novella and of the book overall really haven’t strayed very far. It’s an unusual structure, as you note, but people seem to get what’s going on.
The book is a transformation of true material. My father asked me to spend 8th grade with him in Fairbanks, but I said no, and two weeks later, he killed himself. I felt tremendous guilt afterward and wondered whether he’d still be alive if I’d said yes. So in the novella, the boy says yes. He spends a year homesteading with his father on Sukkwan Island, in southeast. I picked an island I’ve never been to, but one close to Ketchikan where I grew up, because I wanted to use that same familiar rainforest but let the island itself be a landscape of imagination, something that could transform in order to reflect what’s going on inside the characters.
I wrote “Ichthyology” first, then “Rhoda,” then “A Legend of Good Men,” the order they appear in the book. But I wrote the novella last, after writing “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue.” The novella makes use of everything else and flips everything on its head, so I guess that’s why it had to be written last, but I placed the other two stories after it in the book because “Ketchikan” tests and hits the limits, finally, of how much I can understand about my father, and “The Higher Blue” is an epilogue. It’s the same story as “Ichthyology” but written as fabulism, in an entirely different style, forming a kind of bookend, and it’s more hopeful, also, which is what I wanted for the ending.
The word “Legend” in the title of the book means “a series of portraits,” so the overall book title is really “A series of portraits of a suicide.” I was reading Chaucer’s “Legend of Good Women” and thought this literary form of a series of portraits (borrowed from the tradition of writing about saints’ lives) could work well for me, since I didn’t have one clear story to tell about my father. I was also reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which are stories that all disagree and form a debate of style and content, so that’s my intent in my book. Each story is written in a different style, and the series of portraits of my father and his suicide and my own bereavement conflict and in that way form a debate about what really happened and what it meant. As you point out about the novella, the other stories frame and “teach” us how to read it.
Three things among many I enjoyed in this book: first, a faithfulness to intense moments of emotional truth. Second, the tight control of language – for example, the character of 13-year-old Roy’s voice. It’s written simply and starkly, in a way that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy (for example, The Road”) with particular attention to syntax and punctuation as a way of getting that young narrator’s voice exactly right. Third: the landscape descriptions. You really captured Southeast Alaska sensations and smells and sights. Can you talk about your influences and any thoughts you have on your own writing style, or strengths you value in other writers?
Thank you, Andromeda, for such generous comments and questions. Regarding influences, I mentioned above that reading Robinson and Bishop helped me write “Ichthyology.” “Rhoda” is a minimalist short story, influenced most by Carver. “A Legend of Good Men” takes its structure from Chaucer. For “Sukkwan Island,” the novella which is most of the book, I was reading six novels by Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, and I was influenced most by McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is his greatest work. His more recent novel, The Road, has some great sentences in it, but Blood Meridian offers those great sentences nonstop for over 300 pages. It’s my favorite book, and I think it’s the most magnificent American novel ever written (though plenty of people would disagree with me, of course, including probably McCarthy, who is a huge fan of Moby Dick and apparently rereads it every year). In “Ketchikan,” I returned to poems by Elizabeth Bishop and also used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” I’m not sure what the influence was for “The Higher Blue.” Maybe Donald Barthelme.
I don’t think any writer has ever been truly original. I think our styles and our voices (I view voice as style plus sensibility) are a combination of all the works we’ve loved and ingested, framed by our own growing up and language communities. I grew up hunting and fishing in Alaska and northern California and reading my dad’s westerns, Louis L’Amour and such. We hunted the same ranch each fall, and as we hiked along, my father and uncle and grandfather would tell all the stories of what had happened in these places and who had been there, and in that way our family history was retold each year. So that’s part of where my style and material come from, and it’s also where my focus on landscape comes from. I believe that stories exist only in place, and I can’t imagine telling a story without focusing mostly on the place. The landscape writers I’ve read, such as Robinson, Bishop, McCarthy, and also Annie Proulx, have strengthened this sense. I’m not able to write like McCarthy or Proulx or any of the others, of course (though I wish!), but I’ve picked up a few limited aspects of their style, and I’ve also learned from great teachers. My mentor, John L’Heureux, drew heavily on theatre, and so I focus on dramatic conflict between characters in addition to landscape description.
One more comment on how you write descriptions: In the New Yorker chat, you said, “It’s the extension of the landscape that leads to theme … And this move from the concrete noun to the abstract noun is how authors extend landscape description into theme.” Coincidentally, Deb Vanasse here at 49writers is teaching a workshop on description, and last weekend, she happened to use a wonderful passage from your book – as well as many others – to show how one “earns” the abstraction by first using effective concrete imagery. Do you have any more to say about that?
That was nice of Deb to use my work. Re the idea of “earning” the extension to theme, I think the landscapes that work best are the ones that are mythic for us, from our childhoods or other important moments, because if we focus on those landscapes and push on them hard enough, they’ll begin to shift and transform and suggest, whereas less important places tend not to do that. My point is really that the transformation can’t be planned and writing can’t be faked. We can’t say, “I intend to write about this bay and use it as a metaphor for x.” We write about the bay, and if we’re lucky and also working on the right material, something that really does matter to us, something might happen. And I agree that the entire game is in the details. A place has to be described clearly and concretely before it can become more. Sounds like good advice from Deb.
The example I use for this in class, by the way, is from the opening of William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” The boy smells cheese in the store which has been converted into a courthouse to try his father, and he believes he can smell the meat sealed in cans, because he’s hungry, but then there’s another smell, of fear and grief and the old pull of blood, which is Faulkner’s extension from the literal to the figurative, from the concrete to the abstract (“blood” here used as an abstract noun, meaning “family ties”). This is theme. By the end of the story, the boy will have to make a terrible choice between blood and conscience.
David, I want to ask you a question inspired by a book called Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Carlson describes, with humor and candor, the process of discovering while writing. Sentence by sentence, he really doesn’t seem to know where he is going until he gets there. Other writers – perhaps more novelists than short story writers – sometimes report having more of a plan, or at least a glimmer of scenes toward which they’re aiming, even if things end up changing along the way. In the book chat you did with the New Yorker, you allude to being surprised by a key event in the middle of the Sukkwan Island novella that I was sure was planned from the beginning (but evidently not)! Most often, do you head toward a bright light, see only as far as your headlights allow (to misquote E.L. Doctorow), or stumble in the dark?
I had no idea that event in the middle of the novella was coming. I was halfway through writing that sentence before I saw what would happen, and then I was just shocked. I had thought I was writing toward something else, but looking back, I could see the pressures that had been put on the boy, and I could see that this was, in fact, inevitable. I just hadn’t understood or seen it coming. So I had to go with it, and I had no idea what I’d write for the second half of the story. That was frightening, but those pages that begin the second half describe something I’d never been able to describe before, and that’s what’s wonderful about having the writing take over. It’s why I write. I love the unconscious patterns that show up, and I love that what I’ve denied or been afraid of will find its way to the surface despite my careful plans. My plans for where I’m going are never any good. Ideas are death to fiction, in my opinion. None of us has ever really had a truly new idea, only tremendous ego and the delusion that it’s a new idea, and the more we can get away from ideas and let character and place take over, the better.
I was very excited to see in the paperback’s aftermatter that your next novel (due out in early 2011), Caribou Island, takes place on the Kenai Peninsula – and appears to be closely related to these stories, through the character of Rhoda. This seems to be the book you were researching as recently as summer 2009, when you guestblogged for us. Were you just wrapping up some final details then, or are you an amazingly fast writer (with an amazingly fast publisher)?
Thanks, Andromeda. Caribou Island is set entirely on the Kenai Peninsula, and I was there last summer to go out on a drift-netter again, work in a fish processing plant, and revisit various places that I use in the novel. I finished writing the novel in September and then worked on revisions through March.
The novel draws from two family stories. My stepmother (Rhoda in my fiction) lost her parents to murder/suicide (her mother shot her father then herself), and my grandmother, at age ten, walked home from school and found her mother hanging from the rafters, a suicide. But the book is about marriage rather than suicide, and has no guns, and no important father/son relationship. And Rhoda is different than she was in Legend of a Suicide. So the new novel follows Legend in that it’s set in Alaska and works through landscape and transforms family stories, but beyond that it’s really different. The main character is a 55-year-old woman, there are 7 points of view, and the book focuses on a marriage that’s falling apart.
Thank you so much David. We hope to see you soon in Alaska and we can’t wait to read your next book.’
Thank you, Andromeda. I really appreciate such thoughtful and generous questions, and I also appreciate all the support you and Deb have given me. I think it’s very exciting, also, how you’re developing 49 Writers as a center. I hope I’ll get to visit.
Afternote: With generous support from Kirsten and Carl Dixon’s Tutka Bay Lodge, 49 Writers brought David Vann to Southcentral Alaska for an Anchorage reading and Tutka Bay writers’ retreat in early September of 2010; he returned again after the release of Caribou Island. This summer, he’s writing his next book while visiting the Turkish coast.