On cabins, clamming, and vapid adventure: A guest post by featured author David Vann

First a request. I’d like to rent a cabin on Caribou Island this summer, if that’s possible, from June 15 to August 1st, if any of you know of something that might be available. I’m also happy to help out with cabin-building, Curt, if you’re working on that this summer. I’d be curious to see how a cabin goes together.

Here in New Zealand, it’s fall but still mostly sunny and warm. My wife Nancy and I went out for tuatuas, which are small white clams. Wading out into the surf, twisting our toes into the sand to find a bit of shell, then reaching down. Nancy was committed, out in the deeper water, plunging down with a hand even when a wave was coming. Being fragile and delicate, I stayed in the shallower water, and I was reminded of razor clams in Alaska, digging down after them. I think we did that in Valdez, though I could be getting the place wrong. Might have been Homer or something. This was the mid-seventies, and there was so much to eat in Alaska. Dinner was everywhere. The clams enormous, and the salmon and halibut far more plentiful than now. It rarely took more than six casts to get a limit of six salmon, and we regularly caught halibut over 100 pounds. I remember cruising into small bays in southeast and seeing hundreds of salmon below in the clear water. The bays filled with them. Sad to have that go away.

A few years ago, I tried to pitch a retrospective of McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, but my editors weren’t interested. I wanted to see what had changed, what remained the same, where the debate had gone to, but magazines are very limited in the stories they run. There has to be a character at the center, and the story has to be timely. The biggest and most important stories almost never have those two things. I resent New Journalism for its manic insistence on character. When 18,000 people die in an earthquake in Turkey, for instance, I just don’t give a crap what one fruitseller saw and experienced that day. One person’s experience doesn’t matter in that case, just as one person’s experience doesn’t matter in what’s happened to Alaska since the seventies. The story is bigger than character, and it’s timely even if it’s not currently in the news.

I guess that’s starting to sound like a rant. I like writing for magazines, but I’ve had a few frustrations. I spent months in Egypt recently, for instance, captain of a 65-foot reconstruction of a ship from the reliefs on Hatshepsut’s tomb. We recreated her famous voyages to the land of Punt from about 3500 years ago, and this ancient boat sailed unbelievably well. Seven knots downwind, safe and easy to handle, steered well. An amazing thing, and an adventure, cruising along the Red Sea. It was for a French film and will show on NOVA here in the fall, but I couldn’t sell the story to a magazine, because it was too “historical.” Vapid adventure is okay (and I’ve done plenty of those), but adventure that means something — showing that the ancient Egyptians were a seafaring people, not limited to Nile boats — is somehow not interesting.

I’m writing for adventure magazines now because of my childhood in Alaska. Every Christmas as a kid, I’d write a collection of our family stories for that year, all the ways we almost died on rivers and at sea and in the woods. My father wasn’t as cautious as he could have been, and I’ve followed in that grand tradition.

Sorry this has been such a rambler. Doing a blog is a new experience for me. I did one for Esquire re my Tin Can nonstop solo circumnavigation attempt (which was cut short by weak crossbeams linking the trimaran hulls), but this is my first one that’s so free-form.


6 thoughts on “On cabins, clamming, and vapid adventure: A guest post by featured author David Vann”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    “All the ways we almost died” — I think that is a great title for the kind of memoir that many of us (or our children) could write about living in Alaska. My kids are old enough now that I am becoming aware of how many damning stories they could tell about my outdoors incompetence!

    Thanks for “rambling” on these pages with us, David. I like for a blog to have room for casual thoughts and stories. Just the other day, a friend made sly reference to some punctuation errors on some post I’d written (at least I think he did), and my thought was, I hope there are occasional typos — if not, it means I’m putting too much polishing time here instead of on my book work. This is supposed to be casual and community-oriented, not a final edit or resume.

    Matters of tone, your adventures in Egypt (wow!) and New Zealand are fun to read about.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That last part was supposed to read, “Matters of tone aside…”

    See what I mean about the typos? Ergh!

  3. Since you mentioned McPhee–Dan O’Neill wrote a fabulous book, A Land Gone Lonesome, in 2006, that covers some of McPhee’s upper Yukon River territory and makes those contrasts between then and now. It’s a very thoughtful, beautifully written book with a lot to say about modern Alaska.

  4. Nancy beat me to the punch. I’m re-reading Dan O’Neill’s A Land Gone Lonesome to warm up for another project, and there’s not a tired sentence in there. It’s as fun to read as McPhee’s

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Sounds like “A Land Gone Lonesome” might be a good nominee for our next online book club (June or so…)

  6. I’ll definitely put the O’Neill book on my list. Sounds great. And thanks for your comments, Andromeda. Is there any way I can email Curt directly, by the way, to find out whether I can help him build his new cabin this summer? Even if I end up staying in Soldotna, I’d love to come out to the lake and help build a cabin. I’ve always wanted to see what that’s like.

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