With his starred debut novel, Caribou Island, David Vann has written an existential page-turner and a literary breakthrough. Those drawn to his previous work—his bestselling memoir A Mile Down (2005) and his prize-winning short-story collection Legend of a Suicide (2008), will recognize similar themes here from Vann’s life and art: a familial legacy of suicide (and murder), an Alaskan setting that shapes character, a thematic recognition that “you don’t get to remake yourself from the beginning. You can’t put a life back together in a different way.”
As well-received as his previous work, the novel’s primal power, moral depth and narrative command show the author making a big leap. It’s a novel of characters who have come to Alaska to renew themselves and find themselves running out of options, and it’s a novel of marriage and death, spiritual and otherwise.
You’ve now written a memoir, a story collection and a novel. Do you see connections among the three, or are these completely different endeavors?
I think that all of any writer’s works can be put together and read as one piece. But it’s also true that each book and genre has its own demands and challenges and limitations. I like writing fiction more than nonfiction, for instance, because the story can take over and surprise me and head in a different direction than I had planned.
I wrote Legend of a Suicide first. I worked on it for 10 years, trying to figure out how to write about my father’s suicide. Over time, and as I read Elizabeth Bishop, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, I learned how to write indirectly, mostly through landscape.
I wrote A Mile Down, my memoir, next (it was published before Legend of a Suicide only because for 12 years no agent would send Legend of a Suicide to editors). My first draft was about 900 pages, so I cut another memoir out of it (not yet published, titled Crocodile: Memoirs from a Mexican Drug-Running Port) and still had to reduce from 204,000 words to 76,000 words. I was also trying to remember how to write. Because no one would consider Legend of a Suicide, I went to sea and became a captain and also lost heart for writing. A Mile Down was my path back to writing.
I wrote Caribou Island in about six months of writing every day, and it was a rush. I was writing from multiple points of view, but the book felt more cohesive to me than anything I had written before.
The three generations of the family in your novel embody a bleak view of marriage. Is that a reflection of marriage in general or of these characters in particular.
The main true family story in the background of Caribou Island is the murder/suicide of my stepmother’s parents. Infidelity was the cause of this. My stepmother’s mother killed her husband at close range with a shotgun and then killed herself with a pistol. The other true story in the background is the suicide of my mother’s grandmother, who hanged herself, again because of a husband leaving. And my father (who committed suicide) broke up both of his marriages through infidelity. But I am happily married myself, and the book isn’t about my marriage.
You write from the perspective of one character that “Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile.” How crucial is the setting to your novel?
I think stories and character can come through place, and I think wilderness is a giant mirror. Alaska is still mythic from my childhood. It’s the landscape that shifts and changes shape when I put pressure on it, and in Caribou Island, I keep returning to that landscape, to the wilderness of that island and lake.
The novel begins with a death and ends with a beginning. Is there a glimmering hope of redemption here?
I think fiction is essentially redemptive. It’s possible to take an ugly family story and watch it transform into something beautiful. I like reading and writing tragedy, but tragedy in fiction is nothing like tragedy in real life. The real life version is final and hollow and without mercy or meaning. It takes away. The fictional version is cohesive and meaningful and lovely and reminds us who we are. It offers us a gift.
Harper / Jan. 18, 2011 / 9780061875724 / $25.99