I am so incredibly grateful to David Vann for taking a seat in the virtual armchair and answering the dovegreyreader asks... questions on his book Legend of a Suicide today, and I hope you'll understand why when you read what he has to say. I have been moved beyond words by David's responses here and will be reading the book again very soon in the light of them. I have also divided the post into two, the answers to the fourth question about reading recommends will appear tomorrow, when David has also very kindly agreed to stop by and reply to any questions of your own or comments you may wish to leave after reading this.David, where did Legend of a Suicide come from? Can you tell us the whys, the hows, and also the highs ad the lows of writing this book?
For three years after my father killed himself, I told everyone he had died of cancer. This was because what he did felt shameful and dirty. He killed himself while talking on the phone with my stepmother (the second marriage he had broken up through infidelity), telling her “I love you but I’m not going to live without you” and having to repeat it since she was at work and couldn’t hear well. This was eleven months after she’d lost her parents to a murder/suicide, so it was an especially cruel thing to do. And then she received flowers from him a few days later, on her birthday. I felt that what he had done transferred to me, became my shame.
I also lied because I didn’t want to cry in school. I didn’t return to school for two weeks, but for months after that, anytime anyone said something kind to me, I would cry. Or I’d just suddenly think of him and start crying. I was afraid of this lack of control, and I think that’s why I became an insomniac for 15 years. I also didn’t have my first alcoholic drink until I was 22, and I believe that again was about control. What he did came as such a shock, I just couldn’t sleep or drink, and I didn’t want to talk about him and wouldn’t tell the truth. Instead, I wandered the streets at night with his guns and shot out streetlights. I led a double life. By day, I was a straight-A student, in student government, sports, band, etc., but at night, I roamed our small suburbia with a .300 magnum rifle, which is why I have trouble now believing that any 13-year-old boys are not up to something (unfair of me, I realize). During this time, I also lost all my friends.
So that’s the background behind the 3rd story in the book, “A Legend of Good Men,” which is the most autobiographical. The title comes from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and the word “Legend” means a “legendary” or series of portraits, from the hagiographic tradition (saints’ lives). That’s what “Legend” in the title of the book means, also, a collection of portraits of my father’s suicide, his despair, and my own bereavement. The book also borrows from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in that it’s a collection of pieces which debate each other in style and content. Taken together, they gain their full meaning and present the overall story.
The other very autobiographical story is the first one, “Ichthyology.” I really did vandalize the neighbors’ house with the contents of their refrigerator when I was four years old and my parents were fighting, heading toward divorce. And my father did have a commercial fishing boat. But the event at the end is made up, and many events are made up in “A Legend of Good Men,” too. The novella (“Sukkwan Island”) at the center of the book is entirely made up (we never went homesteading, I’ve never been to that particular island, etc.).
In my experience, fiction can be truer to a life than what was actually lived. The moments in the novella better represent how I experienced my father than any of the real moments I can remember. And fiction has the power to work beyond the conscious mind. There’s a startling turn at the center of that novella, and I was shocked by it. I didn’t see it coming until partway into that sentence. But once I wrote it, I could see it was inevitable and was where I had been headed all along without knowing it. And that moment provided such a perfect and satisfying psychological revenge after all the years of carrying his suicide around. So that’s why I write, for moments like that when the work comes alive and speaks on its own, forms pattern beyond what I had imagined.
I worked on the book for ten years from when I was 19 years old until I was 29, and finished revisions just after I turned thirty. Then the book sat for about 12 years and no agent would send it out, so I finally sent it to a contest, and it won the contest. During the years I worked on it, I mostly failed. I threw everything away from the first 3 or 4 years, in which there was far too much emotion on the first page. But then I heard something more generous and lovely in the voice of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and in Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, and I wrote “Ichthyology” very quickly, in a day. I knew the material from all the failures, and I just needed the right voice, something more distanced. Over the rest of the years, everything I labored over was finally cut, but the pieces that came quickly remained. I wrote most of the novella in 17 days of sailing from San Diego, CA to Hawaii, for instance, in waves with my laptop strapped to my legs. It came all in a rush as I was reading six novels by Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner.
“Ketchikan” works in the collection as the final story. “A Higher Blue,” which follows, is an epilogue, telling the same story as “Ichthyology” but in a different mode, as fabulism. But Ketchikan tests how close I can ever come to understanding the origins of ruin or recovering my father. It also pushes landscape description and style as far as I can take it, borrowing from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At The Fishhouses” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.”
So the stories
were a journey, a test, and finally the biggest truth I could tell. And I’m so grateful for how the book has been
received in the UK and Ireland. The
generosity has been overwhelming, and this has been the best time in my life.
We are very inquisitive here and love to know about the process of writing for you, is there a ritual involved, special space, special pen, special jumper (yes we've had pictures of those) Does the house have to be painted and the dog walked before you can sit down to write? Can you tell us about your writing day?
I recently finished a new novel, Caribou Island, which will be published by Viking/Penguin in January or February 2011, a little over a year from now. I worked on that book every morning for about two hours, 7 days a week, not skipping days even for holidays. I made no lunch dates. I did nothing else for quite a while, because I wanted to ruminate on the book for much of the rest of each day.
I don’t write for more than two hours because I’m afraid the work will suffer as I tire. I wake up, grab a bowl of cereal from the kitchen, and return to sit in bed propped up with two pillows and my laptop. I wear ear plugs, the bedroom door is closed, and my wife doesn’t come in. The phone is off. As I eat the cereal, I start reading through previous pages. I read anywhere from 20 to 50 pages up to the point where I need to add new pages, and when I hit that point, I always feel afraid that nothing will come. And the first paragraph is usually slow, taking about half an hour. Then I write an additional two or three pages in the next half hour or hour and that’s it for the day. I stop even if I know where I could go next, because I know it will work out better the next morning, when I’m fresh again. And every two or three pages, every day, I try to find something. Some richer moment, an image that becomes significant or a moment when one of the characters slows down and is revealed. A story is always about something else, and I try to find some hint of that something else each day, or I feel I’ve failed. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and I do believe that if I don’t feel anything when I write, the reader won’t feel anything either. I believe in the power of the sentence to communicate how it was created.
What do you do when you're not writing...and if there's a mention of salmon and fishing Bookhound will be very interested
The perfect day for me begins with writing but ends with a long walk for several hours right before sunset, when the shadows are longest and the light is warmest. And my favorite place to go for this walk is in New Zealand, where my wife and I have been residents since 2003. So few people there, so friendly, and such beautiful land and sea. My perfect yearly schedule would be Dec-May in New Zealand, May-Sept in Europe, sailing the Med or visiting the British Isles or other parts of Europe, then two months at most in California. An occasional summer spent sailing and hiking Alaska. But alas, I have to work. I have a good job as a professor at the University of San Francisco, and so I live in California for 7 months of the year, with only 6 weeks in December and January for New Zealand. Very sad. Plenty of time in the summer for Europe or Alaska, and I’m very lucky in my job and should never complain, I realize, but I really am sad that we’ve never been able to fully live the New Zealand dream. I can’t even get an interview for a job there for some reason. Our bit of land is 5 minutes from the most beautiful harbor, deeply crenellated with bays and inlets, exposed dark South Pacific rock and lush tree ferns. A place Bookhound would love to fish, I’m sure (and we must talk Alaskan salmon). My wife and I have gone fishing at the mouth of the harbor, and even as we look at the mountains towering around us, we can’t believe the scenery. It’s too beautiful to be real.
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