Reading Legend of a Suicide should have provided enough of a clue that David Vann is an author serious about his craft. But, in case I hadn’t caught that from reading his work, less than ten minutes into the interview, he threw Chaucer and the Hagiographic (yes, I had to look up the spelling; thank God for the OED) tradition at me. From the mouth of a lesser artist or a less generous man, this impromptu graduate-level literature lesson could have come off as condescension or braggadocio, yet, in Vann’s case, it quite clearly stemmed from a desire to explain his work, and to place that work in a larger context.
Although Vann describes the process of writing the stories that became Legend of a Suicide as “largely unconscious,” he obviously holds a crystalline awareness of his work, at least retroactively. Unusual in structure, Legend of a Suicide contains a novella bracketed by short stories. Not quite a typical short story collection, not a novel, it is something else, something I had thought unique, but is in reality a form that stems from a much older literary tradition. Thinking I was beginning with an easy question, I asked Vann, on his third interview of the day, about this structure, and how the stories became a book.
“I worked on it for ten years. After the first three years, I had to throw everything away; there was too much emotion.” Legend of a Suicide, though fiction, tells the story of Vann’s father’s suicide. “Ichthyology,” the opening story, was born in the sort of serendipity that befalls only the young or brilliant. “I wrote ‘Ichthyology’ in the year between undergraduate and grad school.” This writing stemmed from an event that Vann describes as “kind of random.” “It was 3 A.M., I was telling jokes to my roommates, comparing myself to fish…” The jokes became anecdotes, the anecdotes formed the beginning of the story that he had been trying to tell. “I did some editing to make it less jokey. I wrote it in one day.” This event foreshadowed the process that would become the writing of Legend of a Suicide. “That was the whole ten years…Everything that I spent time on, that I was serious about, was thrown away. Everything random I kept.”
“But wait,” you say. “I thought you said he was serious about his writing.” Just wait; this is where we get to the structure. In graduate school, studying Chaucer, Vann read “The Legend of Good Women.” “I learned of a literary form that was a series of portraits.” In Vann’s hands, “Legend of Good Women” became “A Legend of Good Men,” one of the stories of Legend of a Suicide. Studying Chaucer’s work and the tradition of Hagiography (writings depicting the lives of saints) enabled Vann to see a structure of potentially conflicting portraits, and studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales offered a model in which “each piece is written in a different style.” The realization that conflicting portraits, written as different kinds of stories, in different styles, could shape a complete picture gave Vann a framework in which to construct the difficult story of his father’s life and death.
In keeping with the Legend form, each piece in Legend of a Suicide is written in a different style, setting up what Vann calls a “stylistic debate.” Indeed, the last piece “Higher Blue” is a “repeat of the first, but told in a different mode.” According to Vann, this story “comes closer to the truth, but the story becomes more unrealistic in its mode as it comes closer to the circumstances.”
Using the medieval format of legend, Vann was able to construct a whole truth from the fragments of memory. “I feel that the fiction is more true than any memoir could be. Everyone in my family had a different story about who my father was and what his suicide meant. None of them matched up. There was no one story.” Vann describes his process as “writing at a slant. Together the pieces gain full meaning.”
Thus, though the stories draw from fact, the events are twisted, in some cases, such as in the central novella “Sukkwan Island,” turned inside out. The protagonist, Roy Fenn, “is similar to me, but he is going through events that I never went through.” “Sukkwan Island,” while “entirely made up,” is a powerful, shocking piece of writing that accomplishes even more than its creator realized at the time. A single event at the end of the first half of the novella turns the entire piece inside out, shaking the reader’s conception of reality. This event differs so dramatically from what one knows of real events, and even from what has been revealed in the preceding stories, that even the author was thrown at first. “I hadn’t seen [the turning point of the novella] coming until I wrote that sentence. Then I thought, ‘now what am I going to do with the second half?’”
What Vann does with “the second half” delves deeply into the core of suicide, stripping away the layers of grief, guilt, and shame that are left to the survivors. “I had to carry my father’s body around for years [metaphorically]; now, the father had to carry the son.” Vann’s father killed himself a few weeks after the author, at thirteen, had declined to spend a year in Alaska with him. Vann acknowledges that he had a lot of “guilt for refusing my father.” “Sukkwan Island” is an imagining of events in which the son says “yes” to the visit. “Sukkwan Island” also accomplishes a more concrete goal. Vann had found himself unable to write a direct description of his father’s body, of the violent conditions inherent in death by a large caliber gunshot to the head. This piece permitted him to “write indirectly about the discovery of the body.”
Sliding into the truth from an angle, finding the story beneath the surface are important components of Vann’s writing. When asked about the emotional impact of writing such a deeply personal and powerful work, Vann freely acknowledges, “I was really emotional during the whole thing; I cried a lot while writing the stories. It was really intense emotionally, but it was part of the process of getting through the bereavement.” Emotion and feeling are critical to a work in Vann’s eyes, but must be approached properly. “It may seem hokey, but I feel like if a writer doesn’t feel anything, the reader won’t either.” However, when we discussed the concept of writing directly to emotion, Vann was definite. “Writing directly to the emotion would make for bad writing. You’re too close to it. The stories always happen behind something else. They happen through the indirect second story.”
Getting into that hidden “second story” forms the heart of Vann’s intensely personalized fiction. While “in my non-fiction I write about a lot that doesn’t tend to be my story,” Vann feels that “fiction works best if it’s powered by something real in the background.” His upcoming novel, Caribou Island is “entirely fiction, but it is trying to understand a couple of true stories. I find that I do best and my fiction comes alive if I have something real that I’m thinking about…It is difficult to give characters weight if they can’t have a touchstone in reality.” I asked Vann how he balanced the personal core of his writing with the feelings of those close to him. Even here, the writing comes first. “My mother’s been very generous about my writing. She says that if she likes the mother, she assumes that it’s her, and if she doesn’t, she assumes that it’s fiction. Writers have to just forget about their family. Family has to be sacrificed; it’s not as important as the writing.” He paused, “that may sound harsh.” Yet, even here, there is no compromise, “writers can’t write if they worry about what family is going to think…Writing exposes all of your shame.”
Exposure, shame, and frustration are not strangers to an author who literally “went to sea for five years” following the early failure of Legend of a Suicide to find a home in print. Though the winner of several prizes for literature including the Grace Paley Award, Legend of a Suicide, likely due to its subject matter, was difficult to place with a publisher, and was initially picked up only by a small house with a limited print run. During those five years at sea, Vann “didn’t write a word.” Vann’s escapades at sea led him to write A Mile Down his memoir about what turned out to be a disastrous seafaring career. When he finally began to write A Mile Down the book was “supposed to be about how everything worked out and he was living somewhere in the Caribbean, happily ever after, but then the boat sank and it made a better ending. So the book got published.”
The quixotic turnings of adventure appear in Legend of a Suicide as Roy Fenn’s father moves from one grand plan to the next. The suicide comes about when James Fenn reaches the point where there are “no further flights imagined.” In his essay “My Father’s Guns,” David Vann describes his father as a man most comfortable with the outdoors, a dissatisfied dentist who turns to hunting and commercial fishing as an escape from the mundane. Vann writes about other adventurers as well; in a piece for National Geographic, “Best of Adventure: Adventurers of the Year – Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper” he writes of the extraordinary pole-to-pole trek of two British teens. A notice that one of the teens had perished in a climbing accident just prior to the publication of that piece caused me to ponder the line between adventure and self-destruction. This question started Vann thinking. “Mmm hmmm…I hadn’t thought of linking those. But…since Rob died, I’ve been in touch with James. He had sounded kind of lost because he didn’t have that next adventure…I do think despair drives people to look for distractions and points of focus. There’s something frightening about your life just being what it is.
“This was part of it for my dad – kind of always needing a new thing…Really, adventure can be positive and affirming, or a form of annihilation. I think that most adventurers don’t know which. Most of us, our lives are like that; people don’t know why we chose – a spouse, or a job, or anything. Adventure is more extreme; it gets closer to the question of why we do what we do.” This line of thought leads Vann back to his own adventure. “To me, it wasn’t despair, it was desperation. My career, my writing, wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I did something bigger…I wonder if other adventurers have that – some other reason that’s driving them.” The story behind the story appears once more. “For me, it was the desire to become something in the world. It was a desperate attempt to make that happen. For my father, [in running a commercial fishing boat] he was trying to have a self-determined life; he hated being a dentist. I think it was a good thing that he went to sea.”
The sea and the Alaskan landscape figure prominently in Vann’s writing and in his mind. “That Southeastern Alaskan landscape is mythic for me.” Yet, time and distance from Alaska have better enabled him to write about the land. “I depend on memory to mess stuff up over time and to make it better. I returned to Ketchikan after 19 years and found it crushingly disappointing. It felt like I’d lost my childhood; the forest was smaller, the air was thinner.” In Legend of a Suicide, Roy takes a similar journey in the story “Ketchikan.” “’Ketchikan’ was partly a true story. I felt like I couldn’t answer any of my questions. I didn’t actually look up the woman that my father had cheated with. I didn’t kill any fingerlings at the hatchery. But, in the end, I felt as if I still had questions that I couldn’t answer.”
If the fingerling reference seems random, know that fish appear and reappear throughout Legend of a Suicide; on an initial reading of the book, thinking Pacific Northwestern legends rather than Chaucer, I began to view the fish as a sort of totem. When asked, Vann answers immediately, “halibut especially feel like totems to me. I love writing about halibut…When I was a child in Alaska, halibut were the most powerful of the things I saw. My grandfather once caught a 250 pound halibut. That fish became a metaphor for imagination. I remember looking into the water, and the surface of the fish was the same color as the water, sort of a dirty brown-green. Staring into the water, waiting for it to appear, I imagined things that weren’t there. Then I saw it; it was small at first, but it grew larger and larger as it came to the surface. I think that’s how imagination works for us, especially in writing.” Though Vann’s fondness for fish is evident, he acknowledges that in his book, “fish are on the receiving end of a lot of violence. I think I was trying to write indirectly [about the violence of his father’s suicide]. The violence was transposed onto the fish.” But, a literal component to the memory exists as well. “We hunted and fished; it was a violent place and time. I wasn’t trying to be violent as a writer, but I felt that I needed to give that sense…when I was a kid, it was my job to bash the heads of the fish as they lay in the bottom of the boat.”
In the conversation, the literal morphs again, taking on the layers of metaphor. “The iridescent shark [blinded in the story by other fish], its blindness is a metaphor for my father, bumping around the tank, waiting to die. I think that there is a kind of redemption in that the fish lives on.” Symbol and imagery flow through Vann’s mind, shifting constantly through his awareness as he speaks. “I love landscape writing. The exterior gives the interior life of the characters. I don’t think of symbols as static. They shift as the characters interpret them in different ways. They can be catalysts; a lot of fiction happens from characters fighting over an object. Trying to describe fish and the Alaskan landscape, over time it would shift…That’s what things do in writing as you put pressure on them over time.”
The concept of the pressure of writing creating something beautiful, the transformation of the dark coal of violence into the refracted light of a diamond is critical to Vann. “Writing is redemptive. You take what is ugliest in your life and transform it into something beautiful. I hope that readers will get that transformation. I think that writers are always writing for the beautiful. That’s the goal – even more than truth.”