From a Far-Off Alaskan: David Vann

“There’s more art in this world than we think,” begins David Vann’s memoir, A Mile Down, and right away you want to ease up next to him and find out more. And when you do, you’re both astounded and humbled. You want to run out and tell all your friends about this author who’s adventurous and approachable and authentic and very, very good.

It’s not just the critical acclaim, though there’s plenty. A Mile Down climbed multiple bestseller lists, including those at the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. And Legend of a Suicide, his short story and novella collection set in Alaska, wasn’t just reviewed in the New York Times – it was chosen a NYT Notable Book of the Year, placing it among the paper’s top 100 picks for 2008.

Our featured author for April, Vann checks in from New Zealand to tell about how Alaska got wedged in his soul. Ease on up and toss in your thoughts about Skilak or Caribou Island or Adak or bestselling books or about who really smokes the best salmon.

I wrote a terrible poem once titled “Through the Undergrowth,” about running around the rainforest in Ketchikan as a kid. The false second rainforest floor of branches and such built up so high I’d sometimes fall through. The poem was about that submerged world between the two floors, but really it was just nostalgia. I still think of the rainforest the way I saw it at 4 years old, a place even more wild in my imagination than in fact.

I still think of myself as Alaskan, though I haven’t lived there full time since I was five. I visited all the time until I was thirteen, when my father died, and then there was a long gap, and then I visited every summer in my mid-twenties. Somehow, self and imagination and story are still lodged in Ketchikan. Also any sense I have of who my parents were before me and why things went wrong between them. Everything that really shaped my life, in other words. It’s all there. So even if I haven’t been a resident for a long time, I’m not willing to give up belonging.

So I’m happy to have the chance to blog here, and I apologize to those of you who have always lived in Alaska if my claims to it seem not strong enough.

Regarding my writing, I’m working on a novel now set on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s titled CARIBOU ISLAND and will come out from HarperCollins in 2011. If any of you have stories from Caribou Island or Skilak Lake that I could use, I’d of course love to hear, though I’m perhaps not getting off on the right foot here, asking to steal your material. My story collection, LEGEND OF A SUICIDE, which came out in December, is also set in Alaska (Ketchikan, other parts of southeast, Adak, Fairbanks).

I’m in New Zealand right now, with my wife Nancy. We have residency here, though we don’t get to visit as often as we’d like. A little over two months this time. Renting a glass house on Taupo Bay, overlooking a beautiful beach and headlands. It’s fall here now, sunny days interrupted by fierce wind and rain you can’t possibly imagine, ha. Temperatures plummet into the sixties. I’ll try to fit a few sheep into my blogs, and I’ll throw up a challenge: I think the smoked salmon is better here than in Alaska.

I’d love to hear stories from Adak, by the way, since I was born there and don’t remember it. The whole place was up for sale a while back, which was an odd thing to see, one’s birthplace for sale. Only $3 billion, and they threw in the port and the Adak National Forest.

4 thoughts on “From a Far-Off Alaskan: David Vann”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    David, I’m thrilled you’re here, I’m looking forward to reading your books, and I find your Alaska background fascinating, whether or not you get to collect a PFD these days. I lived in Nova Scotia for 2 years almost 20 years ago, and I still think about the place regularly. Particularly when we are young, or at a new juncture in our lives (I had just gotten married and was just turning to professional writing) a place can really seep into our DNA.

    I’m also very curious about New Zealand how it compares. I’ve never visited, but I know quite a few Alaskans who have traveled there, which makes me wonder about the similarities and differences –never heard that NZ had great smoked salmon, though! Looking forward to your next posts.

  2. I could probably help out David out with Caribou Island, Skilak Lake as my brother and I have a cabin there since 2004. We are getting ready to build the ‘big’ 20 x 26 foot log cabin over the next year. David should find a copy of ” Two Against the North by Sharple” which describes her life on Caribou Island and Skilak Lake in the 1930’3 and 40’s. The book is out of print but I bought a used copy at Tidal Wave.

  3. Thanks, Curt. I’d love to hear more about the cabin plans. I’ve built boats but haven’t built a house or cabin yet.

  4. I came across your post as I was googling information about Caribou Island, of which I read a compelling description from the pen of Count Zsigmond Széchenyi, who in 1935 came to Alaska on a hunting expedition. Among others, he hired a man of Swedisch descent named Hjalmar, whose home was on Caribou Island in Lake Skilak. The Count enjoyed Hjalmar's hospitality on the island for a few days and was thrilled to see the beauty of the place and the peaceful life of trapper/guide Hjalmar and his wife. A whole chapter is dedicated to Caribou Island in the Count's book about the Alaskan expedition. (As far as I know, it is available in Hungarian only.)
    I'd love to know more about this place and the people. I wonder if Hjalmar's family still lives on the island? Whatever became of them? I dream of visiting this magical place myself.

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