Caribou Island, the latest from Legend of a Suicide author David Vann, is a novel of storm-beaten Alaskan landscapes and the weathered relationships of its characters. A long-married couple, Gary and Irene, build a cabin on an island in the middle of a remote Alaskan lake in an effort to rebuild their life together but can’t overcome the isolation. The novel blankets readers in harsh, overcast days, the landscape as human as the characters. The setting is culled directly from the memories of the author, who spent his youth in Alaska, hunting and fishing with his father. He is unapologetic for the darkness of the novel, which over and over again has been described as “bleak.” Knowing Vann’s history (a father who committed suicide, his stepmother’s mother killing her husband then herself), the gloominess of Caribou Island makes sense; it would be surprising to see Vann write anything but a story so bound in tragedy.
Talking with the author is a different story. Vann is not somber or “bleak.” He’s spirited and quick-witted, eloquent in his speaking—the type of person with whom you’d sit next to at a bar and would end up spending the next few hours unexpectedly engaged in a lively conversation.
He answered a few questions in advance of his appearance at Village Books last week.
Because of the darkness in your books, are you ever afraid that people aren’t going to be able to differentiate between you and your characters? I think everyone always thinks I’m a freak anyway [laughs]. I’m not worried. I actually think that every one of my characters is me. It wasn’t until six months after I finished the book that I realized that I was Irene. I realized that a lot of her views of Gary are views that I had of my family. But I’m also Gary because I have his vacancy, and I’ve gone off on projects that aren’t well-planned. With Rhoda, their daughter, I feel her hopefulness, that people are good and that it all should just be able to work out. I’ve never hidden the fact that I work from true stories and that, for me, fiction is the transformation of these true stories. We can take what was ugliest and disturbing in real life and it becomes redeemed. It becomes meaningful and coherent, whereas the tragedy in real life was empty and completely terrifying. I love reading tragedy, and don’t think anyone should have to apologize for writing tragedy. Almost all our great works have been tragedy. It’s what we do.
I think people are just uncomfortable with it. People have so much tragedy in their own lives, and they don’t want to read anymore of it. Right, but I think if you actually explained that there’s this wonderful release and redemptive power in fiction that’s different than the tragedy in real life it helps to steel the tragedy in life. If someone has tragedy in their real life, the perfect thing to read is tragedy, not comedy. Comedy doesn’t do anything to the tragedy and despair, but reading tragedy makes it more manageable. I think we as Americans have this silly idea that we can protect our lives and ourselves through positive attitude, and it’s wrong. It makes us liars and less fully human.
You pretty much answered my next question, but do you ever think there will come a point where you’re no longer writing such heavy stories? I think Caribou Island has humor in it, with Jim and Monique and Carl on the boat.
Yes, and I felt like Mark was the court jester to everyone else. Yeah, I really wanted to do that. I alternated chapters where there is tragedy with chapters that are lighter. There are chapters that have nothing to do with the arc of the story, such as Carl going out on the boat, and that was me giving the reader a break. They get to go on a tour of Alaska, go on a fishing boat, see life in a cannery, a helicopter ride on a glacier. I try to provide some of those general satisfactions for the reader to see this beautiful place.
How do you feel about all the comparisons between you and Jonathan Franzen? It’s wonderful! I thought it was funny, the one from The Times [London] that said Caribou Island made Freedom sound like a soap opera. It was wonderful to be compared to such an important writer, but we just write completely different stuff. I’m focusing on a rural landscape and trying to write this smaller cast of characters where a lot of pressure is put on them, whereas he’s trying to write with a wider scope, more of American culture. It’s just completely different aesthetics. Although I wish I would’ve had to suffer being on the cover of Time [laughs].
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? All of my life. From before I could write my mom was having me tell stories about squirrels and she was writing them down. After that, I’d write down all our hunting and fishing stories and give them out as Christmas presents. I’d laminate the pages and they’d have illustrations and titles like “North to Alaska.” I always knew I wanted to write, it was just a problem of trying to figure out how to make any money out of it. So I’ve always had a second job. I was a captain on sailboats, a teacher a lot, professor now. This last year is the first time I can actually live off my writing, which is just amazing to me.
What are you reading right now? Tinkers. I was slow to get to it but am reading it and loving it. With teaching and assignments, I often get pulled from what I want to be reading, but I read a whole bunch of stuff.
Lindsey McGuirk is the digital marketing and publishing manager for Village Books in Bellingham, Washington.