A Bonfire To My Family’s Past: David Vann Interviewed

Kevin Breathnach
Posted September 2, 2013 in Print

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David Vann is the author of four widely acclaimed works of fiction, including Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island, all operating within a tradition of rural American writing notable in its refusal to po-facedly romanticise the rites and customs associated with the land. So far set only in Alaska or California, Vann’s is a localised body of work which, through its formal rigour, adept treatment of violence and close scrutiny of family structures, has amassed enough international appeal to have been translated into 18 languages. His new novel places four men on a hunting trip up Goat Mountain, where the landscape seems to exert an almost choreographically precise sense of control over the characters, and the act of killing is described in well-wrought prose of brutal beauty. ‘Killing is a past world that overlaps with ours,’ writes the narrator, ‘and if we can reach back into it, our lives are doubled.’ Goat Mountain is a book to reach back to, a book to be doubled.

david vann books

Could you speak about the role of the unconscious in your writing process?

I have no plan or outline. I really have no idea what’s going to happen in any my books. When I wrote Caribou Island, for instance, I thought there’d just be one point of view. I didn’t realise there would end up being seven points of view. With Dirt I had no idea that the whole second half of the novel would just two characters in one place, and with Goat Mountain I actually didn’t know anything. I didn’t even understand what the book was about until the last fifty pages. I really do trust that there’s a structure and a pattern to the unconscious. My experience so far has been that it is incredibly cohesive. There’s an act of transformation that happens on the page. Both Dirt and Goat Mountain are novellas and Greek tragedies, and when the emotion and psychology from these true family stories collides with these literary forms, they end up creating something that has a lot of structure to it, without ever needing to have a plan or an outline.

When I talk about the unconscious power of writing, though, I’m always afraid of making it sound like writing can just be whatever. The truth is it’s very disciplined for me. I sit down and I write seven days a week, two hours every morning. I’ve studied literary form and language for a long time. I’ve written for a long time, too. So there’s definitely a kind of practice in there. But I do think that, for me at least, having an idea of what the story will be about or what its themes will be or how it will end really cheapens the work. It gets in the way. It can really kill it. What interests me is the surprise that happens on the page each day, where I really don’t know what’s going to happen or what the characters are going to say, and I have to find out. There ends up being much more structure to it than one might imagine. All those days fit together.

Is there a point in the writing process where not knowing what the book is about starts to worry you?

I worry all the way along. When I’m writing a book, every single day I have this feeling that it’s all just a worthless piece of shit. For a long time I fear that it’s just about nothing, that it’s not going to work. Anxiety and insecurity are both really big parts of the writing process for me. But that’s necessary. You can’t be surprised by what happens on the page if you’re secure about it, if you know what’s going to happen. For a long time I worried that Goat Mountain was about nothing. I had no idea why I was doing it. And then in the last fifty pages I began to see that it actually completed a trilogy with Caribou Island and Dirt. I could see that it finished up all my family stories and it would be the last book I would write with those stories in the background. I could also see that it was my best book, my most cohesive, the closest one to Greek tragedy, the closest to being an inferno. It was everything I’d been heading for in all the other books. But I really didn’t see that until the last fifty pages.

That must have been very satisfying.

It was just so exciting. Goat Mountain is the strangest book for me. It’s the most out of control, I think. It seemed very bizarre that the Holy Trinity showed up. The boy essentially ends up killing off the Holy Trinity with his grandfather as a kind of God, the poacher as a Jesus figure, and the buck as a Holy Ghost. That’s really what the book is all about, but I had no idea when I started that there would be any religion in it whatsoever. I’m an atheist, and I never imagined that I’d write about the Holy Trinity, much less that I would have the main character try to kill it off. I guess that’s why I didn’t understand it as I was writing it.

Was the Bible something you were brought up with?

I grew up in a religious family and I went to church school. It wasn’t vitally important for any of us, but we went to church every Sunday. It’s interesting to me how much the Bible is buried in anyone who grows up Christian, even if they’re an atheist, even if they don’t think it’s important. I never would have guessed it was so important to me. But it turns out it is: it has basically shaped my imagination, my cosmology, the way I think of the world coming into being, of who we are, of how we make meaning, and of what our important problems and issues are. It turns out you can’t escape it. It’s just inevitably in there.

Hunting has provided an extremely versatile symbolic code over the years, operating in your fiction as a sort of throwback to a more primitive time. To what extent do you think hunters are aware of the metaphorical nature of their enthusiasm?

[laughs] I would say there’s pretty much no awareness. I suppose when we were hunting there was a sense that we were reaching back and doing something sacred in a way, like camping on the ground or trying to kill something as large as we were. There was this atavistic urge. We wanted to participate in something older and I suppose there was some recognition of that. So maybe the hunting experiences we had weren’t all that far removed from the mind narrating this novel, the boy as a man looking back. But for me Goat Mountain became much more about the story of Cain, the story of killing, and how other stories in the Bible come from the story of Cain. It might be the most important story in the Bible, the one the others all branch off from. And that’s certainly not an idea we thought of then. We never thought of ourselves as descendants of Cain. We weren’t thinking of what we were doing as a link to some violence in us, to a darkness reaching back. We thought hunting was a good thing.

As a boy, the narrator seems to think about hunting in Edenic terms.

Yeah. When I was growing up, we thought of it as a return to Eden, as something that brought us back to the natural landscape. It’s an idea that was probably informed by American Transcendentalism. There was a sense of belonging to the land, a sense of tradition and heritage. The hunting ranch was where all our stories were told. As we walked around the land, we’d stop in each place and talk about what had happened there, like the time my father killed a deer in the lower glade while running at full pelt. There were stories of shame, too: my uncle wounding an illegal deer, for instance. The hunting ranch was a place where our history was kept, where we knew who we were. It was an Eden somehow imagined within the brutality of hunting and killing.

A lot of what your work seems to be concerned with the idea of belatedness. Hunting seems to go back to Eden, but actually only goes back to Cain. The narrative comes too late for boy (‘I had been born too late’), and you get the sense that his father and his grandfather were probably also too late. Could you say something about the role of belatedness in your work?

I think it must have come initially from a sense that my father actually had in his real life. He didn’t like being a dentist and he wanted to go back to a time when we could just live off the land and be a hunter or a fisherman. So I think that for me it was a lived experience, something I sensed my father actually believed. And then in my writing, which is tragedy, everyone acts unconsciously and comes to understand what’s happening too late. In tragedy, characters are always caught in a position of being too late. The novella in Legend of a Suicide, ‘Sukkwan Island’, ends with the father understanding too late that his son loved him, and really that should have been enough. I guess that was my sense after my father’s suicide: it should have been enough that I loved him. He should have understood that, and it should have been enough reason for him to stay alive. This made me very angry at him for a long time. So, there are these parts from my real experience that are informing that question of belatedness, but then it’s interesting to me in a literary sense also because of my interest in Greek tragedy.

How does masculinity inform your work?

There are no women in Goat Mountain, and the boy looking back as a man is thinking a bit about the limitations of that. There was no perspective, no view from outside those few relationships he had, where it’s just his father and his father’s friend and his grandfather. It’s a world ruled by men, based entirely on violence and this atavistic impulse we talked about. The book forms a pair with Dirt, where the main character grows up surrounded entirely by women. His sense of the world is affected by that, too. He sees the world through his interactions with them. I think that the two together are trying to work together on that issue.

They’re part of a trilogy, you said.

The way in which it’s a trilogy was not intended. But I’ve realised that all of my books are about philosophy and the problem of religion. Caribou Island is about Anglo-Saxons and doom, this sense of regret and second-guessing one’s life. New Age religion is the big problem in Dirt, where it twists Galen’s view and turns him into a monster. And then in Goat Mountain, it’s the Holy Trinity I go after, which I can really only understand in terms of my Cherokee heritage. It’s not something I really grew up with, and I don’t consider myself Cherokee, but having Jesus show up as a poacher hunting illegally on the land, and then having him killed off, and trying to deal with the problem that he presents makes sense to me only in that context. Jesus was the biggest problem for Native Americans. He was the destroyer of culture.

You could also say that Legend of a Suicide connects because the novella ‘Sukkwan Island’ begins with the retelling of Genesis, and then the next novel I’ve written is about Medea, who worships Hecate and the Egyptian goddess, Mut. There’s a pantheistic system of ancient gods there, and this very much corresponds with my other work. It doesn’t have anything to do with my family, though. All my fiction until now has been an attempt to set a bonfire to my family’s past, to burn away all my family’s shame and tragedy and failure. Goat Mountain is the end of that.

Could you collect them all in one large volume?

If you published all of the fiction together, it would absolutely fit. Saying this is a little dangerous, though. Some complete dickhead, Alfred Hickling, reviewed Dirt for the Guardian: he said my three books were all the same because each of them featured a cabin. No New York writer would ever be accused of this if they featured a New York apartment in three novels. It’s maddening that someone could be so idiotic, and it sort of makes me resist saying that the stories fit together since they are fundamentally different in so many ways.

If you look at literary structure, for instance, Legend of a Suicide is a novella framed by stories. Caribou Island is a full novel with several points of view: four couples all reflecting on each other. Dirt is a novella and a Greek tragedy set in California: there’s no father, there’s no suicide. The landscape is completely different, too. Goat Mountain follows Dirt in that it’s a novella and a Greek tragedy, but it’s been flipped: here it’s a world of men, not of women. Their concerns of these books are completely different, and there’s a different dramatic relationship at the centre of each one. So, my resistance comes from not wanting stupid people to think they can say it’s all the same but the truth is that they’re in conversation with each other. There’s this attempt to figure out some larger problem: each tries to find a way for us to construct self, and to make meaning out of our world and experience. They all speak to each other in that way.

Is there a difference in how you approach writing fiction and non-fiction?

In fiction, I think we’re trying to limit the world. We’re trying to cut away everything that doesn’t matter, and in Goat Mountain the truth is that no other characters matter other than those four people. The boy’s life from the end of that weekend until the time he starts narrating: that part of his life doesn’t matter either. We know he’s broken. We know there have been terrible consequences. We know he can never return to any kind of innocence. None of that matters at all. For the Greeks, this was the whole point of dramatic unity. It’s only when you focus in close and you really put your characters under pressure that you can see them break and believe that they are breaking. It’s in these moments that we see ourselves revealed.

Goat Mountain will be published by William Heinemann at the start of October.


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