Interview with David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide

David Vann has been kind enough to respond to my interview-by-email. This despite his having already submitted to a number of excellent interviews at much more distinguished locales, such as dovegreyreader, Notes From the Underground, The Writer’s Pet, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Booktrust, and The New Yorker. Thank you, David.

Of the interviews to which I have linked, I particularly recommend dovegreyreader which manages to convey, in only three questions/answers more about David and Legend of a Suicide than all the others, plus mine, combined. Great stuff.

But David and you are here, at the moment. David is a class act and a writer to watch, so I hope you enjoy the interview.

Question #1:

If you have a fish tank, what fish are in your fish tank? Alternatively, if you had a fish tank, what type of fish would you most want to have in it?

I don’t currently have a fishtank, but I’ve had a lot of them, and I’ve always loved clown loaches. I had a fiddler crab that had a game with one clown loach, who would lie down and let the crab crawl over. In saltwater tanks, I like clown fish (different than clown loaches). They’re kind of mean, though. Back to freshwater, I was always big into the bala shark, and I liked the archer fish.

Question #2:

As a child, could you see Russia from your house? I assume so, which must have influenced your literary development. Do you have a favorite Russian/Soviet writer(s)?

Ha. Adak Island was pretty close. In Ketchikan we were right next to Canada. I’ve read a lot of Russian writers, and they’ve definitely had a big influence, mostly Chekhov and Dostoevsky, but also Tolstoy, Turgenev, etc. It’s difficult to be influenced in style by writers in translation, but Chekhov especially has been an influence for dramatic structure.

Question #3:

Name one of your favorite comedic writers. Of books authored by that favorite, which one did you enjoy most and/or with which of those books would you recommend readers begin?

I like Bill Bryson for comedy, though some find him mean. Lost Continent was my favorite, I think. David Sedaris is a great comedic writer, obviously, and I loved Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I also loved the opening of Animal Husbandry by Laura Zigman. Woody Allen has some very funny stories, such as “The Kugelmass Episode.”

Author of Legend of a Suicide

Question #4:

Legend of a Suicide has suicide at its center and your next book of fiction, Caribou Island (due out in 2011), will have a murder/suicide at its center. Do you have a favorite work(s) of fiction, other than your own, that involves a suicide?

There’s a great story titled “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, and “Noon Wine” by Katherine Anne Porter, one of my favorite novellas. Caribou Island is mostly about a marriage, by the way, more than it’s about suicide. It’s set on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, and the marriage isn’t going well.

Question #5:

In Legend of a Suicide, James “Jim” Fenn seems unable to achieve anything constructive. All his plans go awry, his intentions (good and bad) are almost uniformly thwarted. This is particularly evident in the novella at the center, “Sukkwan Island”. I think the feeling that, say, camping trips or woodworking projects never quite come together as the father-son imagined is common in father-son relationships. Jim’s fecklessness seems deeper and more central to his character and the events that build to tragedy than in the ordinary father-son project or adventure. Did Jim (the character) tend to focus more on the failures or did he just hit a stretch in which, for whatever reason, he could not manage those small day-to-day successes we all need?

In real life, my father went to sea in a new commercial fishing boat without an experienced captain or crew. He felt he could just do it, and he nearly died out there. He also took us rafting once on a class-5 river in Alaska after a big rain and we nearly all died. He had a feeling that he could just do things, and that’s part of what gets the fictional Jim in trouble, too. The fictional Jim is also distracted by his ex second wife, Rhoda, wanting to get back together with her and blaming her for his despair. So he’s not able to see any project clearly or able to see his son clearly. And protagonists are supposed to have things go wrong. That’s the way we’ve been writing for at least 2,500 years. The protagonist runs into a series of obstacles. Nothing ever goes well. If all goes well, there’s no story.

Question #6:

In your interview with dovegreyreader, you indicated that, ideally, you would live in New Zealand from December through May. You also indicated that you are currently limited to about six weeks there each year due to teaching obligations in the United States. Do you have much connection with the writing community in New Zealand and/or do you have a favorite New Zealand writer (to plug)?

I just visited Victoria University in Wellington to teach a couple classes and give a reading. Bill Manhire and Damien Wilkins, two teachers there, gave me a tremendous welcome and also are wonderful writers. I do feel that I’m finally getting to meet a few New Zealand writers. I also met Rachel King last year, and C.K. Stead recently at Oxford for the Sunday Times Short Story Award. And I’ll be in New Zealand for a longer time next year, teaching only fall semester in the US.

Question #7:

What have you most wanted to be asked in an interview, but have not been asked?

I’ve been asked so many things now, I think most has been covered. But nobody has ever asked me about the variation in style between the stories in Legend of a Suicide, I think. I’d be curious to see a review really focus on that question. The idea was to form a debate between stories not only in content but also in style.


Thanks again, David. I really enjoyed your book and your responses. Perhaps, we can do it again with your next book. I will be looking forward to it.

5 Responses to Interview with David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide

  1. Kevin Neilson says:

    I’m hormonally predisposed lover of interviews, so thank you! Cheers, Kevin

  2. David Vann says:

    Thanks, Kerry. And I’d love to interview for the next book.
    All best,

  3. Kerry says:


    You are most welcome.


    I will look forward to Caribou Island and, if it works out, another interview. Thanks!


  4. Lija says:

    Hah at being called a more distinguished locale! But I’ll take what I can get.

    Love the Q (and corresponding A) for “What have you most wanted to be asked?”

  5. Kerry says:


    re: “more distinguished”, you certainly deserve it and the hurdle (me) is not that high.

    Thanks on that last question. I thought maybe David could be more creative/interesting than I could…and seemingly everything of interest had been asked by you and others. I thought his answer was terrific.

    Thank for dropping by!

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