David Vann: Internationally best-selling author

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David VannDavid Vann’s books are daring, emotionally fraught narratives that have struck a chord with readers the world over. His books have been internationally best-selling, multi-award winning and translated in 18 languages. His fiction books include Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island and his new release Dirt. He has also written two non-fiction books, and written for a host of publications including the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, McSweeney’s and The Guardian.

He joined us to talk about his new book Dirt, his approach to writing, how he manages (or doesn’t) his real life relationships that he draws his inspiration from and the unique role writing plays in his life.

Click play to listen. Running time: 23.27

Dirt

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Rose
David, thank you so much for joining us today.

David
Thank you.

Rose
David, your most recent book, Dirt, it’s pretty grim, where did the idea for this book come from?

David
I actually sort of chuckle whenever I think of the book. It didn’t seem grim to me. It was actually maybe the only funny book I’ll ever write, in that I was new-age when I was in high school, and Galen, in the book, he’s 22 years old, he’s very new-age, in his beliefs. It’s 1985 in new-age California. And back then I did fire walking. I actually helped with fire walking workshops. I taught sort of mediation, relaxation, etheric surgery, all of these little workshops. I actually tried over and over to walk on water. I had my arms out like this, I’d crash into various mountain lakes and hot-tubs, thinking, “This time my feet will hold.” To me, I guess it’s funny to me his attempts at transcendence and his mediation on dirt, which is where the title comes from. He thought his mediation would be in water, like Siddhartha, but instead it’s in shoveling dirt and seeing all the arrangement of grains of the dirt.

I guess I also find funny the sex scenes with his cousin, where he’s very manipulated by her.

So, anyway, I don’t actually find it a grim book. There is tragedy in the end, things don’t work out well. And, this is the closest I’ve come to writing a Greek tragedy in that it’s closer to following dramatic unities. It takes place in just ten days, with five characters, mostly in two locations. There’s a lot of pressure put on the characters. We’ve been writing tragedy for 2500 years. I think the purpose of it is to put as much pressure as possible on a couple of characters in a short period of time, and limited space, to try to get them to the point where they’re going to break. When they break they’re revealed and we find out who they are, and we test ourselves against them. So I think tragedy is essentially about what’s good and bad in us, and especially about what’s bad. It’s kind of an extra landscape of our felt badness inside of us.

So, this book was a guilty pleasure for me in writing, because it has a lot of my badness in it. And, it’s also a book that I shouldn’t have written and didn’t plan to write, because it will get me in a lot of trouble with my mother, she’s always been very supportive of my writing because I’ve always written about my father’s side of the family, but it all changes with this, this is her family in the background.

Rose
So, it’s a fairly autographical book, then for you. What was it like to write? I know your earlier ones had been perhaps more directly referencing what’s happened to you, but this sounds like it’s come from a range and a collage of experiences.

David
Yeah, they’re actually the same in how I use background material. This would be the same as my last one,Caribou IslandCaribou Island had the murder/suicide of my step-mother’s parents in the background, but everything that happens in the book is fictional. It’s a marriage going wrong out in the wilderness of Alaska, the characters aren’t my step-mother’s parents, I don’t remember them. It’s been moved from California to Alaska, it’s a different time period, so everything is fictional, but it has this emotional, psychological core from these ugly family stories from the past.

And that’s the same with Dirt, everything that happens here is fictional, none of this happened. The characters are composites, the cousin is nothing like my cousin, for instance. But, it has this background from family history. So, my grandfather beat my grandmother, for instance, that’s what is in the background of this book. So, there’s been favoritism among the daughters, Galen’s mother and Galen’s aunt, there are fights about money. So, these are all legacies of that abuse that come down.

Rose
Tell me a little bit more about the development of Galen as a character, because you’re right, there’s a little bit a good, there’s a lot of bad, there’s some really funny parts to him. Tell me about how he evolved.

David
He’s named after my best friend from high school, who’s Galen. He’s part Galen and part me. So, my friend Galen had eating disorder problems, Galen has those in here. I was very new-age and trying to walk on water, so that’s my part of Galen. Then it’s mostly – it’s got my whole family in the background, and nothing to do with Galen’s family.

I have found that in several books now my characters are essentially composites – they’re part me and they’re part someone else, or part me and part just made up. When I write writing is very unconscious for me, actually, I don’t have an outline or a plan. I don’t even know what the book is going to be about. I don’t even know, sometimes, who the agonist is going to be. The next book after this, Goat Mountain, which will come out in a year and a half from now, I thought one character would be the agonist, and a different one ended up being… in Caribou Island, the last one, I didn’t know there would be seven points of view, four couples all reflecting on a marriage, I thought it was just going to be one point of view. So, really I don’t know when I start.

This character, Galen, built up over the pages in the writing. And, when I started writing it, I had actually been writing a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England, 1,000 years ago, then I just started writing Dirt one day, and five and a half months later there it was. And it’s published almost in the same form as my first draft. So, it’s very unconscious and a kind of raw experience. I like that readers get to experience the same thing I did, pretty much. To me, what is happening is that the unconscious has all of this pattern to it, much more pattern than we usually give it credit for. If I don’t know where I’m going each day, and if I just focus on the walnut orchard, this hot burning kind of landscape that’s in Dirt, this story comes out of that orchard. I end up finding the inside life of Galen, I find the relationship between the characters and what’s going to happen, and also what the book is going be about. In the end it’s about how philosophy leads to brutality, but that’s something I discovered. I didn’t know that until I was writing the last maybe 20 pages of the book is when I finally realized that’s what it was about, to me that’s what is exciting about writing, is the discovery part of it, that it’s unconscious pattern and it’s finding out what all of that pattern means.

Rose
Sure. You mentioned that you wrote it in five and a half months, unplanned and fairly rawly. Once that first draft was done, did you revisit it much? Was there much editing in the revising stage?

David
No, I went back to it – I do line edits. For every book I think of two separate categories – editing and line edits. So, editing is when you actually add new material, new sentences, new paragraphs, or cut paragraphs, or switch things around in order. In terms of editing Dirt only has three or four paragraphs that I added, at the request of my editor to make some connections.  In terms of line edits, every book I line edit, but it’s not very much, it’s maybe cutting 1,000 or 2,000 words or something from the whole manuscript, which is just cleaning up sentences, not cutting a whole sentence, but taking out the little grammatical morphemes, changing syntax maybe a bit. And to think I did that right after I finished, I did it within the next two weeks after or something.  And then after my editor asked for comments, I added those three or four paragraphs, which were very smart. I mean I have a great editor and those three or four paragraphs were necessary to help readers make connections, connections that were really just in my head and weren’t on the page yet.

Rose
Sure. This is your first novel that hasn’t been set in Alaska, what was it like to write a story somewhere else? Do you think the aesthetic of Alaska is present even in this book as well?

David
That’s a good question. Both books are – this is similar to Caribou Island in that it works through landscape. It turns out writing about a hot, burning desert in the middle of summer in the central valley in California is really no different than writing about cold, desolate, remote landscape in Alaska in the middle of winter, either way it’s a landscape that’s putting pressure on the characters.

And both landscapes were vital to me, they were parts of my childhood. I grew up in Alaska, and then in California, where my parents were from. And this walnut orchard is my grandparents’ walnut orchard, so I have these intense childhood memories. So, for me, I just have to have a connection to the landscape, then if I put pressure on it and describe it, it will shift and change shape and become something else. At the end of Caribou Island, for instance, Irene is running through forest and she feels like the earth is tilting under her feet and the island is top-heavy with all the stone and trees, and the whole island is going to turn over and the slick underside will be exposed to the sky. In Dirt there’s the same sort of thing that happens, Galen’s out running in the orchard at various times, there’s one time that he feels like he sees the shadows of the trees on the ground and he realizes the shadows are going to rise up, and those are actually the trees, the wood that we see are not the trees, it was just some external form.

So, these are bits of craziness that show the inside life of the characters, and that’s what is exciting to me about writing, I’m just trying to describe what’s happening, or what the place looks like, but then it takes some other shape, it starts to shape what the story is going to be about.

Rose
I mean just in the idea that you’re writing these so unconscious in the way that you create it, at what point do you start thinking about your readers, and will this make sense to them? And will this move them in the way that moves you, the writer?

David
Yeah, I never think about readers. Yeah, readers are generally kind of weak and fickle creatures, you can’t really – I don’t think any writer can adjust for them, because they can be anything. In each country I go to – I’ve toured in 20 countries, and readers respond differently and have different kinds of desires, things that they want. And in the end it’s so unconscious, it’s not as planned, where I can say, “Well, I know readers want this certain kind of thing… and so this is what I’m going to give them…” I don’t even know what the book is going to be about. So, the idea of tailoring it for someone else is just impossible. I never have a single thought about readers.

Rose
Without going into detail, the second part of Dirt is fairly tense and full-on, did you feel it was a risk to be writing something that raw and potentially quite shocking and to keep the readers reading? Were you concerned about that?

David
It crosses a taboo, the second part of the book, I realize that every one of my books does that, there’s something that shouldn’t happen, that’s not supposed to happen between us, socially, that happens in each of the books. I guess, to me, that’s part of where the power of writing is, to be able to transgress in that way, to push characters to the point where something that’s a real failure of our basic relations happens, and I think there’s a kind of revelation that comes out of that, we have a chance of seeing ourselves in those moments when we cross those lines.

So, I wasn’t really resistant to it, I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know it was going to happen, but when it was happening I was kind of horrified, but I also thought, “Well, I kind of like it.” Then at the very end of it I actually got pretty depressed for about three weeks, because I thought, “My mother is never going to speak to me again.” And, I still worry about that, she hasn’t read it yet, so I’m still pretty tense about whether or not she’ll ever talk to me again. My aunt and cousin I think have decided not to talk to me because of it.

Rose
OK. When you are drawing on so much of the life and the people around you, how do you manage that, as a writer and as a person in those relationships?

David
I don’t really – I actually had a conversation with my sister recently where I had to tell her that although I love her, I care about writing more, and I care about writing more than I care about myself, and so I’m not ever going to edit or change something to protect relationships with a family member, or to protect my own shame. It’s really just all I care about, so I’ll write anything. And so I’m not managing relationships at all. I basically write what I’m going to write and publish it, and I deal with consequences. I’m afraid about the consequences, but not willing to change anything for them.

Rose
Sure. Take me back to when you decided you wanted to become a writer, tell me about that process.

David
It was just my whole life. There was never a moment of decision. When I was a kid I was telling stories before I could even write, my mom was writing them down – about squirrels. Then once I could write, I wrote all of our hunting and fishing tales and gave them out as Christmas presents each year. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. It’s the only thing – I never had that thing in your early 20s where you wonder who you are and what you want to do, I always knew that I just wanted to write, but the problem was I could never get published and I couldn’t make any money. I worked on Legend of a Suicide, my first fiction, from when I was 19 until I was 29 or 30, and then it didn’t get published until I was 42, three years ago. So, I had to have a lot of other jobs in between.

I’m a professor now. I went to sea and became a captain and boat-builder. I had a zillion other jobs too.

Rose
Tell me about that process of the twelve years after you had written Legend of a Suicide and no one was picking it up. I mean obviously it’s done extremely well since then, it’s won numerous awards and has become a best seller, what was it about that book that made you believe it was worth keep on pitching for twelve years?

David
I didn’t pitch for those years. I actually pitched only for the first year or two, and I believed everything that the half dozen or so agents said about how it couldn’t sell, it couldn’t be placed, it’s not publishable, and so I stopped trying to send it. I didn’t send it for a lot of years, and I didn’t write for five and a half years, I just pouted. So, I was kind of a big baby about the whole thing.

Rose
It’s because of the rejection from the agents?

David
Yeah. That, and I had started writing Caribou Island, I wrote 50 pages and I just got stuck. So, I actually ended up writing Caribou Island in 2009, but I had started it twelve years before then.

Then I finally sent Legend of a Suicide to a contest, a writing contest, because I realised toward the end of 12 years, about 10 years into it, that no one was ever going to send this book out, and that I would like to have it published. I had another book published, a sailing memoir, the second book that I wrote. And, so I sent it to this contest and I just got lucky, because out of hundreds of manuscripts it’s kind of whatever the judge likes, and she happened to like Legend of a Suicide.

Then it was a university press that published it, for the prize. So, it was a very small print run, and I only had three reviews for it. But, I got lucky again in that one of the reviews was a full-page New York Times review, and they really went to bat for it. They did everything they could to give the book a life, and that’s what changed my life, that bit of generosity. That led to a bigger US publisher, UK publisher, French publisher, and then gradually over time 18 languages. So, it really just changed everything for me. I feel tremendously lucky. It’s a long wait, but it was wonderful what happened at the end of the wait.

Rose
Has your writing process evolved much since those ten years, 19-29, I think you said, writing Legend of a Suicide, to the most recent book that you’re working on now?

David
Yeah, it’s changed quite a bit. When I was writing Legend of a Suicide it was only at the end when I wrote the bulk of the book, the novella, that I found out writing was unconscious for me. Before that I took all of the short stories initially in that book through many revisions, and I thought it was about control and planning, and outlining, and revision, but there’s a surprise that happens in the middle of the novella that I didn’t see coming until I was writing that sentence, and it changed everything, completely destroyed all of my plans. So, I went back the next day and I reread all of those pages leading up that moment, and I planned to cut it and continue on with my plans, but it was like seeing those pages for the first time. I’m the one who wrote them, it was like I was reading them and they were completely new. I could see all of this pattern and pressure leading to that moment, which I hadn’t seen when I was writing them. So, that’s the first time I understood that there’s all this pattern to the unconscious, and that’s actually how writing works, not through a plan.

So, ever since then I thought that an idea is the worst thing that could happen to a writer, and as I’ve written these other books I’ve tried actually to not to know where I’m going. I think my ideas are very small and close the story off, instead I try to just focus on the landscape and the character with the problem and just find out what happens.

Rose
When you’re teaching at university, I understand that you teach creative writing, is your approach one that you suggest other writers try? Or is it something that you recognize is very much a part of your own style?

David
I think everyone has a different process, so I don’t suggest anyone tries my way of writing it. I mean I do – I write everyday, seven days a week for two hours every morning, and I do suggest that to all of my students, that it can’t really hurt to just try every morning, to sit down and give the best part of every day to writing. And, none of them will do it. I haven’t had a single student ever actually do it. So, so much for my advice.

I also think that they need lots of revision. I would never suggest that they publish what comes out in their first draft. I think everyone has a different process. Some people write a book in pieces and then put together the pieces later. I write right from the beginning to the end, straight through. So, I think that we’re all different.

So what I teach my students is how to read, how to be better readers, and the importance of studying language and literature. And, I use a linguistics approach for talking about style, very specifically talking about what individual sentences do, writing a grammar vertex. I feel like I can offer them that.

But, beyond that it’s kind of up to them. I can’t really make them write a really good book.

Rose
When you’re writing are you reading at the same time?

David
Yes.

Rose
Who would you say are the authors that you find inspiring?

David
I love Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And, as I was writing the novel that I am working on right now I was rereading his novel, Suttree, which is maybe his second-best novel. I’ve read Blood Meridian six times. I’m often rereading it when I’m writing, because I feel like it’s just good food for the brain. They’re beautiful sentences, it’s great use of language. He’s going back to old English, our language from 1,000 years ago.

I’m actually translating Beowulf every day now, also. I’ve been doing that for about – I’ve been studying old English everyday for at least six months, and translating for the last few months. So, I’m spending time in that older language everyday. I think that kind of immersion is important for me, for my writing.

I’m also reading current novels also. I was just on First Tuesday Book Club where we read Middle March. And, I do that also, I read classics. I’ve been rereading Greek tragedies. So, a lot of reading, and also language study.

Rose
You mentioned that a lot of the structure of Dirt does reference Greek tragedy. I assume that wasn’t a direct plan of yours?

David
No.

Rose
Was that something that you – when you saw that emerging as a theme how did you feel about that? To be referencing such huge stories?

David
Well, it doesn’t reference any stories. There’s no reference to any particular Greek tragedy in Dirt. It’s just the idea of putting pressure on the characters by limiting the world. So, they have a walnut orchard and an old house, with subdivisions that have grown all around, but they have a high wall separating them from the subdivision, they have hedges along the road, so they’ve isolating themselves. They’ve created a kind of wilderness among civilization. That was similar to my last books in Alaska, where there’s an island and characters are trapped on an island in the wilderness, there’s no escape, they can’t go talk to other people, they can’t leave each other. So, they’re put into these close confines where they can’t escape who they are, finally. And that’s what any dramatist wants, and that’s what we try for in any kind of staging of something.

So, I was very happy to have it – especially in the second half of Dirt, it’s very exciting to me that it’s just two characters in one place for a couple of days.

Then my next novel, Goat Mountain, goes even farther in this direction, again without planning to, but I ended up writing something where there are only four characters, the whole novel takes place in two in a half days, almost in real time. The only time we skip time is when the main character goes to sleep. It’s just one location, it’s a hillside. There aren’t even any structures. There’s no building or anything, they’re just on a hillside, four of them for two and a half days. I really like the isolation of that, you really just find out who these characters are and how they’re shaped by the landscape, by the place that they’re in.

Rose
Finally, what’s your advice to other writers?

David
Oh, I don’t really have any advice to other writers. I mean what I have for my students, I tell them the only rule that you can’t break is that every text has to have subtext. If you have a story which is just about one thing, and just what it seems to be about, and it’s not about anything else, then that’s crap. It’s a blog, or all the other crap that we see in our daily lives, people’s journal entries, news accounts, those are all one-story bits of writing and they all suck. Anything that’s worth reading is always about something else, you’re reading one thing, but you’re actually reading for something else. That’s the only rule that you can’t break, I think. I think every other rule you can break.

Rose
And on that note, thank you so much for joining us today, David.

David
Thank you.


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