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Image credit: Diana Matar

It would take more space than we have to list David Vann’s literary achievements. His five books – a harrowing memoir, a collection of short fiction, two novels and a non-fiction account of an American university shooting – have earned him an embarrassment of awards. Despite its ability to rove through genres, Vann’s work contains clear and arresting throughlines, that weigh the emotional encumbrances of family and chronicle the tragedy that can accompany them.

While Vann’s oeuvre has earned him abundant critical acclaim, readers also respond strongly to his work. Perhaps it is the grave subject matter he grapples with so honestly – suicide, isolation, psychological violence – or it may be the startling power of his writing, so restrained in style. Unusually for a short-fiction collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008) graced bestseller lists all over the world. His account of a marriage under pressure, Caribou Island (2011), was similarly successful. In his latest novel, Dirt (2012), Vann casts sweltering California as a crucible for family secrets.

– Estelle Tang 

KYD: Your new novel, Dirt, is about a very damaged family in great difficulty, and what struck me was the family’s isolation: not only their physical isolation – they live on a farm quite far away from other people – but also their psychological isolation. They’re the only characters in the book, and they don’t really interact with other people outside of the family. Can you tell me about this family?

DV: Galen is 22 years old. He’s very New Age, trying to transcend, trying to leave his body and himself, with four women in his family. There’s his mother, who he lives with, and he feels that he’s a kind of surrogate husband for her. He has resentment and constantly wants to leave but doesn’t leave, is bound to her also. He also has his grandmother, who’s been sent off to a rest home and has lost her memory, but is still healthy and didn’t really have to be shipped off. And his cousin, Jennifer, who he’s attracted to physically, and his aunt, Helen, who is bitter about not being the favourite in the family, being cut out of the money, not being favoured the way that Galen’s mother is by the grandparents.

The isolation and the pressure on them partly comes from the form of the book, which really is a play: it’s a Greek tragedy written through landscape. And the landscape is a kind of presence that puts pressure on them and the whole book happens in just 10 days, in mostly two locations. And with this limited cast of characters, there’s a lot of pressure on all the family members and they’re stuck together too often and they sort of break, or explode a bit, in that close proximity to each other.

KYD: Can you tell us about where the book is set?

DV: It’s set in the Central Valley of California, in the middle of summer, so it’s very hot. It’s a desert; it’s kind of an inferno, which is a big contrast to my previous two books, set in Alaska in the cold. It’s a kind of wilderness set within civilisation, within suburbia: 10 acres of a walnut orchard and an old white house, and a long hedge driveway, and a couple other acres of fruit trees and such.

This is a kind of oasis or wilderness within all these suburban housing developments that have gone in all around on all sides so they have a high fence separating them from one development, they have high hedges along other areas. Galen’s mother’s parents came from Iceland and Germany – they were both immigrants and they managed to move to this place where they could be completely isolated with their family and cut off from the rest of the world, so it’s almost as if the rest of civilisation doesn’t exist, that there’s nothing outside of this house and this orchard.

KYD: And it’s not only the landscape that keeps them isolated, but they’ve trapped each other in a way – it’s interesting that you describe them as ‘bound’. How did this strange dynamic, especially between Galen and his mother, develop?

DV: I think neither one of them understands how it’s developed, just as I don’t understand, in my real life, why it is I don’t get along with my mother, how that relationship came about. They both feel like they’re caught mid-stream, that somehow this just happened, and they don’t know what to do about it, either one of them. Both of them have a kind of rage at each other, and both of them love and need each other.

What I love about Greek tragedy is that the characters are never bad people; they actually love each other and want the best for each other, and they don’t mean to be antagonistic, but the nature of who they are is not well- suited to each other. So they’re capable of driving each other crazy. Galen’s mother is affectionate and wants to be closer to him, and all of her attempts at that make him want to scream. Galen wants the best for her, and in fact as things are going badly wants to find a way out – wants to be able to escape from this inevitability, from hurting her – but can’t seem to figure out how to get her to help him to not hurt her, which I think is the description of all tragedy.

KYD: And there’s a sense of doom hanging over them because of that inevitability. One of the ideas associated with Shakespearean tragedy is the fatal flaw, which they can’t necessarily see themselves. And you, as the author, did you ever look at these characters and see a way out for them?

DV: I didn’t plan to write the book, I just started writing it one day, so I didn’t know what would happen, didn’t have any kind of outline. Right from page one, there was a sense of entrapment, that Galen – right at the end of the first section, after only two-and-a-half pages, it says something like ‘Every day he couldn’t understand why he stayed, but he kept staying’. I can’t remember what the lines are, but he wants to go and he wants to get a job and move off into an adult life, but he’s trapped in an extended childhood. And his mother and aunt are both trapped in extended childhood also because of a legacy, because of money. The grandparents had enough money and they want that inheritance and so they haven’t gone off and gotten their own jobs. They’re also trapped in an extended childhood because of abuse, because of the grandfather beating the grandmother, which happened in real life in my family.

Galen’s mother is the peacemaker, who puts the world back together after each time there’s been abuse, and she gets stuck in that role and so she’s basically doing a little- girl act, pretending everything’s fine throughout the rest of her life. And this is part of what drives Galen crazy, this whitewashing of everything.

KYD: Galen is really into this New Age stuff, but what’s really disturbing is his tendency to regard people as objects that have been placed in his way, obstacles to surmount, rather than as people who have needs and agency of their own. Where did this part of Galen’s character come from?

DV: Galen is the name of my best friend from high school, and the character is half him and half me. And it’s also the name of a Greek physician, and relates in a particular way to how Galen views his body, and wants escape from his body.

But the New Age part is definitely my part. I was completely New Age in high school and did firewalking and actually helped tend the fire and run the workshops, and taught meditation and relaxation workshops and did etheric surgery and tried over and over to walk on water, crashing into small mountain lakes and hot tubs, thinking this time my feet will hold, and having my arms outstretched like we did in firewalking, trying to use my fear as a counsellor and all that.

So to me the world really was animated, and I was a true believer, and it became an incredibly selfish world in that I was at the centre of it and other people weren’t really real. In the New Age movement, or in New Age philosophy, you bring other people into your life as a way to learn lessons on your way toward transcendence, so in each incarnation you’re learning certain lessons and you’re bringing these people to you to help facilitate that learning. What that means really is that those people aren’t quite real; they’re here to teach you a lesson, that’s their purpose. It’s hard after a while to believe they would have wants and needs and lives separate from you.

That’s what happens to Galen and that’s how the book ends up becoming about how philosophy can lead to brutality. Galen becomes more and more detached from his mother and everyone else in his family, and starts to believe that what he’s doing is good, even though it’s brutal and is leading toward the end for his mother.

KYD: At one point in the book, Galen’s aunt says, ‘Men are the problem.’ Are men the problem?

DV: Yeah, I do think that men are the problem. For almost every kind of violence, it’s men who cause that. So the grandfather beating the grandmother in the book, which happened in my family: my mother was on the board for a battered women’s shelter in the US, and was surprised to find that everyone does that; men of every class and education level and race and area that they live in, anywhere in the world, that they’re always men of every kind, who beat their wives and their children. So there is something in men that is violent and does that, and is not really limited by other factors. Certainly war, gun violence in the US – I wrote a book about a school shooter, and all of our mass murderers, all of our school shooters, have been men. They all fit a similar kind of profile; they’re all conservative men, their politics are to the right and they’ve served in the military, if they’re old enough to have served in the military.

I grew up in this family with eleven women, all single, at one point, with only one other man. And the men in my family were a disappointment. I love my uncle, I get along with him really well, but my father, with his suicide; his father, with just not talking to anyone after my dad’s suicide and not dealing with it and just dying that way, seemed like a cowardly way out. Men do sometimes seem cowardly to me in terms of their emotional lives.

You know, I haven’t had great role models. The strange thing, of course, is that I’m a man myself, though this does actually mean that I don’t quite trust and like myself in some basic way. I hold myself a little bit suspect. I’ve never really quite been able to get over that.

I think the writing helps in some ways, and I’ve been married for 11 years, together with my wife for 14, and that marriage has been good, and I think that’s made me feel a little bit better about myself and men, but I still don’t really trust myself. I still believe that I could be a bad person at any point. I don’t think I could be violent – I’ve never felt that I’ve wanted to hurt someone – and so I know obviously it’s not all men who are violent or who are bad.

KYD: Violence does rear its ugly head in Dirt. And I couldn’t help but link this to the fact that Galen seems almost constitutionally inarticulate, trying to express himself through sounds and different types of actions rather than trying to understand himself. Can you talk a little bit about this violence and how it has become sublimated into other actions?

DV: Yeah, Galen – because he’s essentially religious, New Age – is believing that he has to be entirely peaceful. And some of the most violent people I’ve ever met are religious, and trying to be good. Because just the weight and the strain of having to be good or full of peace and love all the time… I used to play drums outside Grateful Dead shows, and those people were all about peace and love, and they were so filled with rage, they’d throw drums down on the ground and such. They were the angriest group of people I’ve ever hung out with in my life.

So for Galen, he’s filled with rage, at his grandfather, at his mother, at himself, at the worthlessness of his life, and so he acts out in various ways. He thinks he’s headed toward transcendence, he thinks he’s close, and he’s unable to understand the contradiction between what he’s saying and what he think’s he’s doing and what’s actually happening. And he becomes somewhat oblivious to it. So, as he’s shovelling dirt, and he’s seeing that as his meditation, like Siddhartha with water, and he’s watching the grains of dirt fall through the air and the pattern in that fall and collapse, meanwhile his mother’s in the shed dying of thirst. That contrast doesn’t bother him. He’s able to think that he’s close to transcending as he’s actually doing something brutal.

KYD: Your book Last Day on Earth is about Steven Kazmierczak, the Northern Illinois University shooter, and the epigraph from that book is from the ancient Roman playwright Terence. It reads, ‘Nothing human is foreign to me’. It struck me as a strong thread in all your books, which often involve flawed characters. Your writing is almost an act of empathy for these unlikeable and lost people. What draws you to these kinds of characters?

DV: Well, because that’s also myself in all those flawed characters! It’s really not foreign to me, in that even the mass murderer I was writing about – I wanted to not make him a monster, I wanted to keep him as close as possible, because I think that when we say someone’s a monster we no longer connect to them in any way and we just dismiss them. I wanted Americans not to be able to dismiss school shootings.

That’s the problem in America: everyone thinks, well, this is just a monster, someone separate from us, and we’re not implicated. But in fact, the shooters all fit the same profile and they implicate American culture in deep ways. Through their conservative politics, their connection with the military; their gun culture, which is a main stream of American culture; their mental health histories and our terrible mental health system… They are us. They’re not freak individuals who are separate.

So, as a culture, Americans live giant lies. They don’t see the truth about themselves. They don’t see that the American military is not in fact a force for good in the world anymore; that our military is committing more crimes: that Americans are not generally a force for good in the world; that we’re not good environmental citizens; that guns don’t make us safer in our homes.

When I was writing that book, I wanted to get as close to him as possible and I tried to find parallels in my own life, so I included my own memoir alongside the portrait of the mass murderer, trying to find where we were similar and where we went different paths. He went a different direction partly because of taking medication after his suicide attempts. As soon as someone takes drugs or prescription medications that are strong, they do become something other than human and that’s where I can no longer connect to him.

That was interesting to me, to see that there’s really no human behaviour that you can’t make sense of. Reviewers will sometimes say that characters in my books are crazy. And I don’t agree with that; I don’t think any of them are crazy. None of them can be dismissed, and none of them have a gap between their behaviour and how that was made possible from what we experience in ordinary life. So if you put someone under enough pressure and take enough steps in a certain direction, you can become this person that does this act that seems monstrous. But the one time you can’t connect it is when you involve drugs. Then you can go straight to crazy acts without having any steps in between. So it creates a huge disconnection.

So for my characters, all of them are at least partly me. And all the flaws, all the things they do, are things I would consider possible.

KYD: Dirt is an incredibly dark book. Its characters continually offend each other and reoffend. But as an author, how do you experience the emotions that you put on the page?

DV: I definitely feel everything that happens in the book and I do have a belief (which I realise isn’t true, but I have it anyway) that a reader won’t feel anything that the author didn’t feel. And I do think that fiction is not fake, that all of it is real in terms of what happens, that the unconscious is making a transformation in taking these stories from the past and turning them into something else that surprises and recombines and essentially wants to be redemptive but takes off in a monstrous shape on the road toward that redemption. As I’m heading toward all that, it’s not only the transformation in the material that can’t be faked, but also the emotional, psychological life of the character.

I had a class with Grace Paley in which she said that every sentence in fiction has to be true. And the problem is that you can hear that and say that and agree with it but it’s hard to explain what is true emotionally or psychologically and what’s not. And that’s obviously a very subjective process. But it has to at least fit my sense of what’s fake or what’s true. I wouldn’t want to fake anything in a novel.

KYD: And does that have something to do with how you write novels, which I understand is often very quickly and without planning?

DV: Yeah, several times I’ve had the experience of planning to write one book and I just start writing another, and I’ve written them in five-and-a-half months, three in a row: Caribou Island, and Dirt, and the next one that’ll come out, Goat Mountain. Each of those was five months, writing two pages a day, every day, seven days a week. I had no plan or outline. I didn’t know, any of those days, what would happen, what the characters would do or say. The story was generated each day on the page, mostly through writing the landscape but also through the problems and the characters and the collisions, which, more and more, as you go further into the pages of a novel, become inevitable. There’s a kind of momentum to all of it, and a momentum to writing seven days a week, each session pushing into the next.

The strange thing for me is that the books that I worked on for a long time and revised a lot, I threw away. And all the ones that came quickly and that I didn’t revise and that were published the way the first draft came out, those are the ones that stayed. So everything that I thought about writing, that it was mostly revision and such, just ended up not being true, at least for me.

That I can’t trust my own ideas is what it comes down to. If I have an idea or plan, that will make the story smaller; it will limit it. I’ve said before in interviews, I think an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. It’s different to what I thought before.

KYD: We’ve talked about how Dirt has dark threads running through it, but it does have some really funny parts. I also read an interview in which you described the writer Tobias Wolff reading your memoir A Mile Down, which is about a very traumatic time for you, and he said he came away laughing.

DV: He and his brother, Geoffrey Wolff, are on opposite sides of the country, and I think he said they spent an hour on the phone just laughing, basically, at me and my story, remembering episodes when things went wrong – and it was amazing how each hour I could think, this is the worst my life has ever been, it can’t possibly get worse, and then the next hour, sure enough, it would be exponentially worse. And there is something very funny about all of that. And Dirt also I find funny in that same car-crash sort of way, where Galen with his New Age beliefs that are essentially ridiculous and yet very precious to him, I find that funny because obviously I recognise that in myself – those were some of the things I believed.

There’s meanness in the book too, in the relationships between the characters and how they treat each other, but to me there’s also humour, and that hasn’t generally been picked up very much in reviews [laughs]. But to me, I can’t think of the book without chuckling about it; I think it’s funny throughout, and it’s definitely the funniest thing I’ll ever write. But it’s not everyone’s sort of humour.

KYD: You have had some very dark periods in your life. We mentioned A Mile Down, which is about some terrible things that happened to you. What made you decide to write that book? Was it as unplanned as some of your later books?

DV: No, A Mile Down was planned. I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published for 12 years, so I went to sea and became a captain and boat builder. I didn’t write for the first five- and-a-half years of that, and I sort of pouted and just didn’t write at all. And then when I came back to writing, it was writing the story of this sailing business I had, and it felt like I was learning how to write again. I was filled with tremendous regret that I’d forgotten and I’d lost everything that I’d known before.

And I overwrote – I wrote 300,000 words, like a 900- page book, and then I cut out 100,000 words of that which is a separate memoir set in Mexico, which will come out in Spanish first, actually, and then I had 204,000 words left and I cut it down to 76,000 for A Mile Down. So that book has a process opposite to how I wrote the other books. Goat Mountain, Dirt and Caribou Island are all published basically the way I finished them in the first draft.

KYD: Legend of a Suicide was written about your father’s suicide, and in A Mile Down you come close to losing everything – is writing a way of working out how you feel about these times in your life?

DV: Yeah. I was unconsciously repeating my father’s life in A Mile Down. He went to sea and had disasters, but it was his last attempt at leading a more self-determined life. I think I went to sea to get closer to his disaster and to his character and trying to understand who he was, but not understanding I was doing that, of course. So my life has been as unconscious and out of control as my writing process with my novels, actually.

It was very cathartic, writing about those disasters in A Mile Down; I still feel a lot of shame about the failure of my business and can’t quite shake it. I still feel like a failure from that. The book helped, though, at least in explaining to myself how it all happened, how this momentum was built up and how I hit all these disasters. It’s a huge amount of disaster in the book – not just with the business and financially, but a huge storm sequence off of Morocco in the middle of the book, losing a rudder and failed rescue attempts and then sinking finally in the Caribbean in a freak storm at sea.

And it doesn’t give away anything in the book to say that; what’s amazing is how everything gets worse from hour to hour. You just can’t believe the sequence of events. It says nothing to say that we sank. It’s a day-and-a-half of the most unbelievable stuff that happens on the way there. It’s been helpful to write about all of it, but you can’t undo your life by writing about it; I can’t get over my dad’s suicide or stop missing him. I can’t stop feeling shame about my failures or my business. Writing Dirt, I can’t fix my relationship with my mother; I still don’t get along with her. They’re only half-measures, half-attempts at improving the things that are wrong with my life.

KYD: I’d like to ask about Alaska, where you were born and grew up, the landscape of which really makes itself felt in many of your novels. Which of your memories have made it into the books?

DV: I loved growing up in south-east Alaska. It was really this enchanted place. We lived at the end of a street and beyond us was just rainforest, a mountain. I spent a lot of time just running around that rainforest as a kid, and I always felt I was being watched or hunted or potentially chased by wolves and bears, which we actually had, and saw lots of signs of.

It was a place where the plains were kind of unimaginable also – prehistoric and very strange. Like bright, waxy flowers in the middle of a cold, overcast, rainy forest where there’s no colour otherwise, other than green and grey and black. And these nettles, devil’s club and such, that were as tall as I was and really spiny. It felt like kind of a land of dinosaurs or something. Big fungal growths on the trees. I would fall through the floor – because there was so much deadfall that had built up, it would seem like the forest floor but actually it wasn’t. You’d fall through and hit the real floor underneath and just disappear.

It was really an incredible place. And I think it’s because of growing up there that I focus so much on landscape in my writing. That if I put pressure on it and focus on it enough and try to see it and describe it, it’ll shift and change shape. An example from Caribou Island is when Irene, late in the book, is running through the forest and feels like the earth is tilting under her feet and that the island’s grown top-heavy with all the rocks and trees and that it’s going to turn over and the slick underside will be exposed to the sky. That’s the kind of moment that comes really from that sense from childhood in the Alaskan rainforest of it being animated and capable of shape-shifting.

That’s really become my method, entirely, in my fourth novel. It’s in Caribou Island, Dirt, Goat Mountain and the one I’m working on now. It was really in the novella in Legend of a Suicide also, to write a story based on the landscape, that the landscape would generate the story. That’s how I write each day; I just focus on the place and try to have the story come out of that.

KYD: In Caribou Island, Gary also recalls lines from Beowulf, and my favourite snippet is where he’s talking about how ‘hail fell on the earth, the coldest of grains’. It’s incredible language. What is the significance of Beowulf for you?

DV: I’m translating it, working on it every day, and I love that language just because it’s a pleasure to hear the lines you were quoting. You know, all the alliteration and the content – the kinds of compound nouns that are in the language. But I also like it for a different kind of mind that I think apprehends the world more directly through chunks of content, with less grammatical arrangement, and that’s very interesting to me. In my books, I’ve headed more and more towards using sentence fragments and cutting out grammatical morphemes, which are all the small words that help arrange a sentence: forms of the word ‘to be’ and ‘the’ and ‘this’ and ‘that’. I’ve been trying to eliminate those as much as possible and try to have as direct an apprehension of content as I can have in modern English, because I like it so much, that kind of Old English mind.

It’s also the content, too. It’s interesting thinking of that time where there were hundreds of kings in England, small kings, and it was entirely lawless. And to think about that sense of doom and how its uneasy blend with Christianity is expressed in the work. There’s an edginess to Old English writing; they live in an incredibly unstable world, so it’s interesting to see what they think of self and what a life is about, about fame and your name. It’s actually pretty applicable for atheist writers now.

You know – what is it that I live for, really? Since I’m not religious and I don’t think money is worthwhile, what is it that I would live for? Fame would be one of the only things, and that’s the same fame that the Anglo-Saxons were living for, and the same thing that classical authors were living for: the idea that you’re trying to somehow transform your experience into something worthwhile or something that transcends that experience, even if you’re not around for it anymore. Because, of course, who cares if someone says your name. Fame in itself is also worthless.

But the idea of having participated in something that was transformative, that made something out of the smallness of your life and made it into something more than that, perhaps – that’s the only thing I can really get excited about.