Interview with David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide

June 6, 2010

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.

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

June 1, 2010

***This review is part of a TLC Book Tour. A copy of the book reviewed was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.***

I had this class once with Grace Paley in which she told us that every line in fiction has to be true. It has to be a distillation of experience, more true to a person’s life than any moment he or she has actually lived. So this book is as true an account as I could write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that was possible only through fiction.

This quote from David Vann is from an interview included at the end of his story collection, Legend of a Suicide. The truth in these stories is not the truth of his father’s life, but the truth of David Vann’s own life. The motivations of his father in these re-imagined events, all bearing some resemblance to the author’s own experiences with his father and in the aftermath of his father’s suicide, do not always ring coherent.

As we spent those years in California leading steadily more circumscribed lives, my father ranged farther and farther up in Alaska, and everything he did seemed to lack sense.

Of course, when describing someone suffering from debilitating depression and/or pain and/or emptiness, coherence would seem a lie. Vann does not appear to be trying to understand his father, as much as he is plumbing his own emotions. The truth of these stories is in the psychological toll taken on the son by the father’s life and death. The nonchalant violence perpetrated against the reader’s emotions is neither gratuitous nor pointless. Vann takes the reader to through his journey from boyhood to manhood. The arc of the stories is a satisfying success.

David Vann has a fascination with fish. Given the treatment they receive in nearly all of the stories, it appears at first glance to be a hate-hate relationship. A single example will suffice to illustrate:

The halibut themselves lay flat, like gray-green dogs on the white deck of the boat, their large brown eyes looking up at me hopefully until I whacked them with a hammer.

There plenty of other, well-written descriptions of fish taking blows, often creatively delivered, but Vann’s characters are most brutal to the ones they love. Vann’s offenses against fish belie an affection echoed in the son’s feelings toward his father.

In the first story, Ichthyology, the son wins a couple of goldfish at a county fair. A cat kills them. His mother buys a proper aquarium and stocks it. Dead fish are, at first, buried “in elaborate ceremonies”. Mother and son tire of this quickly, dropping the ceremony in favor of a flush. They do replace the departed with new varieties.

Review Copy provided by the publisher.

At one point, the new fish they buy are “two new silver dollars.” The silver dollars survey their new bowlmates and, almost immediately, suck out the eyes of the “badly misnamed” iridescent shark. The shark is left blind and bumbling. The boy’s mother scoops out the silver dollars and flushes them.

In the background, his parents divorce, he and his mother move to California from Alaska, and his father becomes a commercial fisherman. The father is clearly struggling, not unlike the eyeless “shark”. He blasts a hole in his head just as Vann’s real-life father did. Where the father could not cope, the fish does. Vann has indicated in an interview (which I read after writing the foregoing), that the shark was symbolic of his father and its survival eyeless was a sort of redemption for the father. I took David for the fly shot out of the air by an archer fish, another stand-in for his father.

[T]here was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.

I may be reading too much into this fishy imagery, but, as I said, the stories are so very much about the son. The father is a man grieving for a wasted life, a lonely future. Nothing the father does in any of these stories turns out successfully. And in each, in some way, he kills a piece of his son. No matter at whom the father points the gun, it is the son who is injured.

At the center of the book is a novella rather than a short story. In real life, David Vann turned down the chance to spend a year in Alaska with his father. Shortly after that refusal, his father killed himself. In the novella, Vann’s fictional self, Roy Fenn, reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. This alternative reality is no less painful. Rather than spending four nights on a hotel room floor listening in the dark to his father weep, as did David, Roy has months in a cabin. In the novella, as in the stories surrounding it, James Edwin Fenn is feckless. He plans poorly, usually messes up whatever he attempts, and is wholly unable to connect in meaningful ways with the people around him. We do not get far beyond this image of the father, however, before the drama at the center of the novella unfolds.

Even in scenes where James is alone, we learn more about David/Roy and his feelings toward the father than we do about the possible motivations and emotions of the father. In short, I found this book to be fictional primarily as it relates to facts. It felt to me as entirely autobiographical with respect to emotions, the emotions of David/Roy. I do not mean to suggest that David was the troubled youth of “A Legend of Good Men” or the troubled adult in “Ketchikan”. But the emotions in these stories feel raw. For instance, after dropping the fingerlings over the cliff in one memorable scene, thirty year-old Roy imagines the tiny fish on the pavement:

Waiting, then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

By the end of this linked collection, the reader has some insight into Roy, the boy placed in many different stories, always with the tragedy of suicide either looming in the present or just behind in the past. In this, the book is a success. The effect of examining suicide from so many closely-related perspectives is quite interesting. This structural technique is conceptually related to what J. M. Coetzee does in Summertime. Where Coetzee has something to say about his alter ego, the nature of memory and perception, and the business of storytelling, the scope of Vann’s work seems more limited. He captures in close detail the feelings of despair, rage, and confusion of a son abandoned by a father, but the project does not seem as layered or as broadly ambitious. This is not a fault, merely a difference.

This collection also brings to mind Afterwards by Gina Berriault. The subject of Ms. Berriault’s novel (novella almost) is also the aftermath of a suicide. Berriault, to my mind, demonstrates how beautifully an accomplished author can use a suicide to dig deeply not only into the emotional consequences of such an act, but also into some fundamental philosophical and psychological questions. My point is not that Vann’s work is not as good as Berriault’s or Coetzee’s, but to highlight their different purposes.

Vann’s work is very focused on the emotional toll of a father’s suicide on a son. Even in the one story where the father survives, it is clear the story is about David/Roy more than the father. The book feels like it must have been a cathartic experience for David Vann. And we are fortunate he chose this method. While his work is not as ambitious in some respects as Summertime and Afterwards, it achieves its own aims in beautiful prose.

I will be interested to see how David Vann moves on from what is, in many ways, a memoir of emotions to more pure fiction. In this hope and expectation, David Vann reminds me of Dave Eggers. While I have not read everything Eggers has written since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my impression is that he has not yet made the jump from his own “semi-autobiographical” fiction detailing the emotional consequences of his own tragic youth to fully realized and accomplished fiction. And, yet, Eggers certainly has a successful writing career. Whether Vann follows the Eggers path or, more likely, makes a trail uniquely his own, I look forward to the further successes of David Vann.

[some typos fixed 6-2-10]