Q&A with David Vann, author of Dirt

Jason Austin of Readings Carlton chats to David Vann about his latest novel.


Your first two novels – Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island – are set in Alaska and your new novel, Dirt, is set in the Sacramento region of California. How do you find that you are able to evoke such a strong sense of place in your writing?

My family hunted on the same ranch every year, and as we walked through each part of that landscape, my father and uncle and grandfather told the stories of what had happened and who had been there. Our entire family history was bound to place. I went out country with an Arrernte man and his ritual caretakers near Alice Springs and saw even stronger ties to story and land. Singing up the land really means that the story doesn’t exist without the place and the place doesn’t exist without the story. I love that.

I grew up in Alaska and then California, and all my books are set in landscapes that are very important to me. I don’t outline or plan my books, and I don’t know what will happen each day in the writing. What I focus on is only the landscape and a problem in the character. The collision of these two generates the story, mostly because landscape is a kind of blank page for the unconscious, without any meaning of its own. As I describe the rainforest in Alaska or dry furrows in a walnut orchard in California, the place shifts and becomes strange and starts to speak about the inside life of the characters. This is what I love about writing, the unconscious pattern and transformation.

In Dirt, your main character, Galen, is a devout follower of the New Age movement, to his own detriment. How did you get into the mind of someone who is truly obsessed with the concepts involved in that culture and lifestyle?

I was a true believer myself. In high school, in the early 1980’s, I firewalked and meditated and even tried many times to walk on water. I crashed into various mountain lakes and hot tubs believing that maybe this time my feet would hold.

The main dynamic in all of your novels is between parent and child. Is there something about this relationship which draws you to write about it?

I write tragedy, going back to the Greeks 2500 years ago, and tragedy almost always focuses on a primary relationship, such as father and son (in my book Legend of a Suicide), a marriage (Caribou Island), mother and son (Dirt), etc. This pair of people love each other and want the best for each other but also destroy each other because of inherent flaws in who they are. The tragedy puts them under pressure in a short period of time until they break and are revealed and we, the readers, test ourselves against them and think about our goodness and especially our badness.

Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island are both based on your own family stories. Other than borrowing Galen’s name from a friend, are there any other similarities or semi-autobiographical elements in Dirt?

As I mentioned above, I was a true believer in the New Age, and it was a wonderful way to live. The entire world was about me, and I was at the centre. It’s been a bummer to lose that and live an inconsequential life since. There are also family stories in the background, but I’m already in trouble with my mother enough, so I shouldn’t go into any detail about that, except to say that my grandfather was abusive to my grandmother. I don’t think abusers should ever be protected, so I feel fine mentioning that. Everything that happens in my books is fiction, but powered by the emotions and psychological of true stories in the background that have been disturbing to me for decades.

Whose writing do you admire and who do you think young writers should be reading these days?

I was very happy to have the chance to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian on First Tuesday Book Club, and he’s my biggest influence. Next would be Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Flannery O’Connor. Then Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m not as influenced by recent works. Currently I’m reading Beowulf in the original Old English every day, our language from a thousand years ago, and also rereading Greek tragedies.

What are you working on next?

I’ve finished the next novel, titled Goat Mountain. When we hunted each fall, we’d sometimes see poachers on our land, and my father would let me look at them through the scope of his .300 magnum bear rifle, with a shell in the chamber. In the opening chapter of Goat Mountain, the boy pulls the trigger, and that causes some problems. It’s a hot and hellish California mountainside, a weekend of hunting gone wrong, and it ended up featuring the holy trinity, oddly, something I never expected. I’m always surprised to find out what my books are about. I certainly never could have imagined the ending of Dirt.

Jason-Austin Jason Austin is a buyer and bookseller at Readings Carlton. An avid painter, Scrabble player and reader, he enjoys long walks with nothing but the company of an iPod full of podcasts.

Dirt is out now in paperback ($29.95) and ebook ($19.76)

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