Plotting a new course
Grim family history doesn't keep David Vann down
Published: Sunday, January 23, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 4:11 p.m.
In Europe, where they keep better track of Alaskan lit than we do, David Vann, whose new novel, “Caribou Island,” came out Tuesday, is almost as well known as Jack London (who wasn't really Alaskan) and Sarah Palin. His last book, “Legend of a Suicide,” became a surprise best-seller in France and England, even though, spurned by agent after agent, it took 12 years to find a U.S. publisher.
Readers had trouble with the book's format, Vann said recently — it's a novella surrounded by five linked short stories — and some people also found the title too gloomy.
“I don't know why I just didn't change it,” he said. “In Germany it came out as ‘In the Shadow of the Father,' and that would have been fine. It just never occurred to me.”
He shook his head and laughed.
“There have been some missteps,” he said.
“Legend of a Suicide” is largely autobiographical, inspired by a real-life event. When Vann was 13, his father, a restless, dissatisfied man who had bounced around Alaska, opening one dental practice after another and failing as a commercial fisherman, put a bullet through his head while talking on the phone to his second wife, Vann's stepmother.
Not long before taking his own life, Vann's father asked his son, then entering the eighth grade, if he would spend the year homesteading with him in a wilderness cabin on a southeastern Alaskan lake. Vann declined, and the central part of “Legend of a Suicide,” the novella “Sukkwan Island,” imagines, with a surprising twist, what might have happened if he had said yes.
Much of “Caribou Island,” the new book, is similarly set in a remote lakeside cabin — this time in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska — and it's partly a re-imagining of something that happened 11 months before his father's suicide, when his stepmother's mother killed first her husband and then herself. All told, there have been five suicides in his extended family, Vann said, and he pointed out that real life is often far more frightening than anything that happens in novels.
“My fiction is so much cheerier,” he said.
Now 44, married with no children, Vann seems the opposite of gloom-ridden. He is frank, open, almost compulsively cheerful and jokey. But he admitted that his history had weighed on him heavily.
“For about 20 years, I had this sense of legacy,” he said. “I was convinced that I would repeat my father's life. I imagined my whole life would just follow my father's script.”
A storyteller from an early age, Vann was determined to become a writer and went to Stanford, where he was a protege of the novelist and teacher John L'Heureux. And with L'Heureux's encouragement he formulated what he now calls the 11-year plan: He would graduate from Stanford, get an MFA from Cornell, return to Stanford as a Stegner fellow and finish the book about his father's suicide that he had begun when he was 19.
Everything happened pretty much as he imagined, except that when the book was done, in the mid-1990s, nobody would take it. (“Legend of a Suicide” finally came out in 2008 after Vann himself successfully submitted it for the Grace Paley Prize.) Broke, disheartened, unable to get a decent teaching job, he borrowed some money and bought a 48-foot sailboat. His idea was to run a chartering business that would combine afternoon cruises with morning tutorials in creative writing.
“Craziness, absolute craziness,” L'Heureux said recently over the phone. “He obviously didn't consult me about it.”
He recalled that on learning that Vann was building a new boat in Turkey, he put his head in his hands and predicted that it would wind up sinking in the Mediterranean.
Unlikely as it seemed, Vann's charter business was actually quite successful for a while. Then in 2001, while he and his wife, Nancy Flores, were on their honeymoon, his latest vessel, a 90-foot ketch, went down in a freak storm off the coast of Morocco, much as L'Heureux had foreseen. Their money, their passports — just about everything they owned — went with it.
The episode had two happy results, however. It provided the material for “A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea,” Vann's first published book, which came out in 2005, and, as Vann recalled, “watching the boat go down and thinking that I had lost everything, that everything was just getting grimmer and grimmer, I discovered that I had no thought of suicide, and I realized that, wow, I'm not him, and that's not my doom, I'm not going to kill myself.”
Vann insisted that “Caribou Island” is not another version of “Legend of a Suicide.” It's not about a father and son but about a middle-aged couple locked in a grim, ruined marriage, and it has a rich cast of often comic supporting characters: a hapless fisherman, a gold-digging tourist, a sex-hungry dentist with hardly any thoughts in his head, let alone suicidal ones.
Vann said he began this book 14 years ago and then put it aside because he wasn't comfortable with multiple points of view, and didn't know how to deal with a longer narrative arc. When he finally returned to it in 2009, the writing came very quickly, “like a freight train,” Vann said.
“That's not what's supposed to happen,” he added. “I guess my writing process is screwy. I kept returning to the landscape and to the characters, and that just allowed the story to take off. I sometimes think that an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer.”
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