The David Vann online discussion

Today’s discussion of “Legend of a Suicide” goes live from 6 to 8 pm AK time, but in the meanwhile, please feel free to leave comments, especially if you may not be available this evening.

Leave your comments and/or questions using the comment feature (bottom of this post), tagged with either your Google ID, a name of your choosing, or Anonymous. If you have questions or comments for the author, start them with “David.” Stop by as often as you like today and tonight to get back in the discussion thread.

Some starting points for readers: Favorite line(s) from the book? Thoughts or emotions triggered? Questions about meaning or structure?
And please don’t overlook our interview with David Vann, below.

52 thoughts on “The David Vann online discussion”

  1. David, my question is: is the Sukkwan Island story completely imagined by the boy. In other words, when we read about the father's reaction to the suicide, is that not only how you (the author) imagines what would happen, but what the character of the boy imagines? Or are we getting the latter part of the story from the father character's perspective? I hope the question is clear. Thank you!

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I'm here, but I'll stay quiet to give others a chance, especially for the first part. Thanks to those who have left questions and comments!

  3. David –

    First off, I have to applaud you for having the guts to share the emotion, pain, and trauma that come with having a friend/parent/sibling/relative commit suicide. That is no easy task and I would say that those Alaskans also touched by similar losses will be helped by reading your book. I guess, coming from SW Alaska, a region with the highest rates of suicide in the country — where "suicided" is an all too commonly used verb — that I'm curious about the responses from Alaska that you've received, specifically with regards to suicide.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Our author is coming — was just awaiting further directions on how to use the comments function!

    Welcome, David!

  5. Sorry I couldn't figure out how to use this. The page I was looking at didn't show any comments.

  6. Hi,
    In response to the first question re Sukkwan Island, the second half is from the father's perspective. But the entire story is of course a response to my having said no to my father's request to spend 8th grade in Alaska with him. And the father's discovery of the boy at the beginning of the second half is in response to my not being able to describe what my father would have looked like.

  7. So what I'm getting at in my last comment is that the "fictional dream" is really all one thing. The parts being played by the characters are really always parts of the author.

  8. On fiction vs nonfiction, I find nonfiction easy and fast to write, and I enjoy it, but only fiction comes alive for me by going directions I hadn't expected and forming patterns beyond my conscious plans. So I like fiction better for that reason. I think my nonfiction is more directly limited by my thoughts, ideas, experiences, etc.

  9. Hi Don,
    Thanks for your kind comments. I've received a lot of emails re the places and the writing and also re suicide, and I've also received emails from people who knew my dad (as a dentist, or friend, and even from families who were a part of our story in various ways). Everyone in AK, and also in the rest of the US and other countries, has been very generous and open to talking about suicide, but all have said they think that generally it's hard to discuss in public because of shame that still surrounds the topic.

  10. Hi Don,
    No word on that yet. All I know is that Chris Meloni plans to play the father and direct (and also produce, I think). It seems like most movies and TV set in Alaska are actually set in Washington or Canada, since it's cheaper to film there and most people can't tell the difference, but I'm hoping he'll pick Alaska.

  11. Hi again, Don.
    I didn't realize, by the way, that suicide rates are highest in that part of the state. Do you have an idea of why that is?

  12. David,

    You mention that there are patterns you're not consciously aware of. Not to belabor the point, from the reader's perspective, it really comes off as if the boy has created a "what-if" scenario in his mind and is imagining how distraught his father would be to find him that way. Not that the father is actually telling it (though I understand that you, semi-autobiographically, are inhabiting all the characters, which is an interesting point all by itself).

    The different, more dreamlike quality of how this is told really adds to this feeling. The voice and telling are separated out quite a bit from the other stories, and that's why it seems to come from the boy character's imagination, not a more objective telling.

    Isn't this funny, disagreeing with the author? But why not give it a shot?

    In either case, I loved the book!

    Anonymous Reader

  13. I have a blogger account, by the way, but I can't find the account name or password, and the Google verification email doesn't contain it. Sorry I'm so lame online.

  14. That is funny, the disagreeing with the author bit. And though I didn't plan the father's section to be created by the boy, I do see what you mean.
    One of the reasons I don't use quotes in dialogue in the novella, by the way, is that I don't really believe in the difference between what's interior and what's exterior in fiction, because it's all the same dream.
    On a practical level, there's of course a distinction, and readers get pissed off if a text is unclear, but at a higher level, I like not getting in the way with the quotation marks.

  15. David,

    I finished Legends of a Suicide over the weekend and loved it for many of the same reasons Andromeda cites: rich literary language, original but accurate descriptions of the water and Southeast's rain forests, and complex characters who evoke sympathy and repulsiveness in equal measure.

    Concerning structure, I'm wondering if you envisioned these works operating together in a single book as you wrote them, whether the idea of combining them arose later, or whether it was an editor's/publisher's decision to sandwich the novella between three short stories on either side? On one hand, I view it working superbly. Having the culminating event in "Ichthyology" precede the novella compounds the shock of the defining moment midway through Sukkwan Island. It's a unique structure that generates maximum impact. On the other hand, as in real-world suicide, I experienced a moment of anger and deception at the midway point in the novella. The same cast of characters experiencing two different outcomes within the same book creates a potential credibility issue for the narrator. Yet, you pull it off masterfully. I never once considered setting the book down. In fact, I look forward to reading your other books and learning from them too.

    I also heard that the British edition of this same book appears in a slightly altered format. How is it different and why was it altered?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom with us, and for producing great literature on a challenging topic. Can we claim you as an Alaskan writer?!

  16. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Andromeda here. I'm happy to hear that the book could become a film! And might I add that Alaska has a film incentive program (fairly new — hope it's still going strong) to make filming in the state more competitive. But Don would know more about that; I'm just being optimistic! (Note to activists — write to your legislators to support the film incentives.)

  17. Thanks, Thomas. I definitely view myself as an Alaskan writer. I was born on Adak and spent my early childhood in Ketchikan, then moved all over Alaska with my dad on vacations after my parents divorced. I think those early years we imprint on a landscape, or at least it feels that way to me. That landscape around Ketchikan feels vital and mythic to me, and it's the place I like to write about most.

  18. David —

    Where do I submit my application to be the screenwriter? I jokes.

    I'll keep asking questions, if no one else is going to…

    McCarthy is also easily my favorite writer, with Blood Meridian, being the Pilot Cracker of my essential literary life staples.

    To what extent does his writing, specifically his attention to description of the land and animals play into your own writing lens on the outdoors?

  19. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I'm glad you mentioned the lack of quotation marks, David. I found that very effective, and noted that you did use quotation marks elsewhere. For me, these were all clues that helped deepen the story.

    There was even one point in Sukkwan Island where the father is remembering his son picking berries in a red jacket. I had remembered the boy having the same memory, told the same way. I went looking for that first description and couldn't find it (ergh!); my husband just told me he knows where it is! My point is, two people don't remember insignificant details the same way. In my mind, it was a clue that this was the boy's memory in both cases. Boy, we are an argumentative bunch! But all in the spirit of a wonderful, worth-rereading book.

  20. Re the British edition, it's really the same. They just numbered the stories and novella, which made them look a bit more like chapters. The big difference is in France, where the novella is published on its own. And I originally intended the novella to be its own novel, but then I saw that it only gained its full meaning with the other stories, and that all the stories need to be read together and in this order to gain their full meaning.
    And no editor encouraged this format. The strangeness of it is, I think, one of the two main reasons I couldn't get it published for 12 years and could only publish finally through a contest, in which no editor or agent had to agree to publish it.

  21. Hi Andromeda,
    I'll ask my agent to mention that incentive program to Chris' agent. Can you email me a link? I'd love to see it set in the real place.

  22. I like Blood Meridian as Pilot Cracker. It's that for me too. I always want to write through landscape, and he's one of a pack of favorite landscape writers for me, so he's been a huge influence. But what I love most are simply his sentences in that book, and I know I can't write like that, and that I have other interests, such as more dramatic conflict between characters, borrowing more heavily from theatre, but I'm so grateful that book exists as a model.

  23. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    David — Do note that comments may pop up a few places back, according to when people wrote them. So you might want to scan.

    The France edition detail is fascinating. I was asking myself if I thought the novella would work as stand-alone, and I was very happy to realize it all worked much better together. I also read Olive Kitteridge (Pulitzer-winner — interconnected short stories) last month. I tend to read more novels than short stories, but I'm really liking this trend that you're a part of, David. Publishers may be willing to take more chances on collections and interestingly structured story-novella combos.

    If you're not out of time, David, let us know how Europeans reacted differently to the story/stories, for example. I wonder if they're more open to darker themes, and/or how they viewed the exotic landscapes of Alaska.

  24. That's funny about the red jacket. It was actually a pretty big deal within the limitations of lives that of course were generally insignificant. We talked about it. So that's why the father could also remember it. But there is a strange blend of fact and fiction in the stories, and I didn't feel there were any bounds or limitations on any story because of what happened in the others. As I mentioned in the interview, this was supposed to be a series of portraits that would contradict and also overlap in the attempt to get closer to the truth.

  25. I'm not sure I'm a part of a trend, since I finished writing it 13 years ago, but I do like any willingness on the part of publishers to consider other formats.
    The French really like Alaska and the psychologically dark subject matter. They also like interesting form and surprises. In the UK, the big deal was the surprise halfway through the novella and how that flips everything in the book on its head and makes you have to rethink the stories. So I love them for being an audience interested in form. There are these great literary conversations in Paris and London, with lots of review space in newspapers, etc. I like it so much better than what we have here. And in Paris, the market is driven by independent bookstores instead of only by publicity, because you can't discount a book more than 5 percent.

  26. I was wondering something similar to Andromeda, with regards to foreign publication, except the flip of that question — do you think our publishers don't give American readers enough (or as much) credit?

  27. I think it's tremendously difficult to figure out how to reach audiences in the US. We're just so big, with so much going on. I think publishers here work hard, but they don't have such a well-defined and reachable literary community to sell into.

  28. I might just add that I think much of the world is interested in Alaska and wilderness, so I do think there are great opportunities for Alaskan writers abroad. It does get a little tiring answering questions about Palin, but it's nice that they're interested.

  29. What I think interests everyone most, though, finally, is always character. That conflict between characters is what draws people in. Landscape by itself isn't enough, I think.
    I just realized I should have been signing all my posts, since I'm not signed in with a name. Sorry again for being so lame online.

  30. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Last red jacket comment, David. You're unusually open about the autobiographical nature of these stories. That's not often the case. Many authors want to be read with no reference to autobiography, even if we all know that our own experiences feed into our work.

  31. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Don't worry, David. You're far from lame online — you made it here after all! This is a fascinating discussion!

  32. Hi Andromeda,
    I think it's interesting to see what transformations have taken place in the writing. It was interesting for me to see, and the more my readers know about the true story, the more clearly they'll be able to see what the fiction does.

  33. David,
    Given that you wrote this 13 years ago, have you re-read the entire work any time recently? I've read that many authors, including Zadie Smith and others, can't bear to read more than a few pages of their own work. How about you?

  34. David,

    One more question regarding a minor detail. You mention black widows in the outhouse, a lizard at harbor's edge, and a chipmunk somewhere else. This being fiction, we get to exercise our imaginations more as readers and writers. Yet, including these critters, even in a fictional Alaskan landscape, felt inconsistent, especially when all other aspects of setting are so vividly and accurately described.

    I thought the appearance of non-indigenous species might be the perception of a young narrator unfamiliar with Alaska. (Part boyhood imagination, part association with Outside experiences.) Is this the case? Roy, at least in most of the stories, appeared to be an adolescent with more outdoor experience than most youth his age.

    Was wondering what your thoughts were on this.

  35. Thanks, Andromeda, but I am sorry I missed the first half of the discussion time, basically, by not figuring it out.

  36. Hi Brian,
    I've read the whole thing several times recently, for several reasons. First, for the editing process, then to compare to my new novel, and finally for giving readings. I'm actually curious to reread and also to discuss in interviews, esp radio, because I keep finding new things.

  37. re black widows, I know they're not in Alaska, but they actually have been several times, including found alive in Nome, and our neighbor in Fairbanks was bitten by a spider or spiders in the attic in an old shoe and sick for a month, and I was told it was a black widow, so I think it was. I also think it was a lizard on the docks in Ketchikan, brought up by a boat. The Atlantic made me change it to salamander, but I changed it back to Lizard.

  38. I did get the Sheriff wrong (since they don't exist in Ketchikan), and that was because my dad's death was reported in a Sheriff's Dept Incident Report, so I always associated Sheriffs with Alaska because of that (the report originated out of CA, where my stepmother was talking with him on the phone)

  39. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks to all our commenters and especially to David Vann. We're sure we've given you a typist's hand cramp, David. Your willingness to be so candid about content and process is a great boon for writers and readers visiting this site.

    We'll close the official discussion now, or as soon as the last comments are wrapped up, and look forward to the next book and your September visit to Alaska.

  40. Thank you, everyone, for the chat and great questions and for reading and thinking about the book. After believing for 12 years that it would never be published, it's a thrill to have it talked about.

  41. Thanks, Andromeda. I'm really looking forward to visiting in September. And I think this will be the 49th comment, hurrah.

  42. So I will take over the really lame online award by showing up after the discussion is over. This is what cruising around the Ventura Highway and stuffing yourself at a Danish smorgasboard does to one's literary priorities. Read all the comments – much enjoyed the discussion. I will add only that within minutes of finishing the book, I turned around and began reading it all over again: a first for me in decades of reading. Thank you, David.

  43. This was a wonderful discussion. And, my late-20s nephew just told me on Mother's Day that he had seen this book, got it, read it, and found it Alaska-accurate, but much more, really good writing and telling a story that kept him going to the end. He very much liked this book!

  44. Thank you, Deb. What a generous comment! And thank you, too, Kay, and please thank your nephew for me.
    I finally figured out my Blogger account, by the way–just in time, ha.

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