Interview: David Vann, author

David Vann returns to the wastes of Alaska in his newnovel, and to hisownpainful family history.

Prepare a hot water bottle before settling down to read Caribou Island, by Legend of a Suicide author David Vann. Like his debut novel, it's set in the bleak, unforgiving Alaskan landscape, but with this tale of a marriage's unravelling, Vann summons an atmosphere of terrestrial and emotional permafrost so intense that it'll freeze your bones.

Vann himself is just the opposite: warm, friendly, and so candid that the phrase "too much information" isn't in his lexicon. When we catch up via Skype, it's midday in California, where he lives with his wife, Nancy, and in addition to writing, teaches, as an associate professor at the University of San Francisco.

He once said "life is embodied in the landscape", and I ask how that applies to Caribou Island. "I see wilderness as being like a giant mirror for what's going on for the characters. The unforgiving nature of the landscape in Caribou Island fits Gary and Irene, and their regret about their marriage. The descriptions of landscape are really descriptions of Irene and Gary. That's why it became so cold and unforgiving and isolated, because that's where their marriage had gone."

Landscape is neutral, he tells me, but I wonder if he senses anything inherently dangerous in northern climates that might account for such things as higher suicide rates in Scandinavia and the alcohol abuse so prevalent here in Scotland?

"Northern landscapes are really tough to live in and my father's suicide was partly because it was 15 March in Fairbanks, Alaska. His loneliness and sense of isolation were increased by the landscape. Again, it has a way of working as a mirror. The despair doesn't actually come from the landscape. You could be happy out in a cold, isolated and snowy place." A cascade of giggles suggests he's not entirely convinced by his own assertion.

Caribou Island is another attempt to grapple with painful family history: Vann's stepmother lost her parents to a murder suicide, and his maternal grandmother, aged ten, found her mother hanging from the rafters. But despite being rooted in reality, the novel took him by surprise.

"Writing, for me, is pretty unconscious, so I didn't know that I was going to be writing about marriage, that I'd be writing the main character from a woman's point of view. Alaska is still mythic from my childhood. If I put pressure on it, and focus on it, and try to describe what it suggests, it forms the shape of the book.

"But it's not planned. I was trying to understand two family stories that have been incredibly unforgiving and brutal. The weight of those stories was like a giant magnet pulling the book in a certain direction. In real life, there's no redemption, no transformation. Lives are destroyed. But in fiction those ugly stories become something else and they can be beautiful at times."

I'm struck by the clustering of tragedies, and wonder if he thinks suicide is contagious. "I do, actually. Once it happens in a family it becomes more strongly an option for everyone in the family."

For nearly 20 years, Vann assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps. "It felt like nothing less than doom. It took hitting a real low point in my life to find out that I wasn't interested in killing myself. That came as a tremendous relief, so what had been a really low point became a high point. But I've seen in my family and my stepmother's family, the fact that it's happened before has everyone thinking about it, and it becomes a very real possibility.

"The problem with this idea is that it runs counter to the main idea I have about suicide prevention, which is that talking about it can decrease the suicide rate. But somehow having it happen close is such a shock and so destabilising, that it increases the risk of people in that family to go the same way. So I think two contradictory things."

In the novel, it's Irene who finds her mother's body, and her sense of abandonment and loneliness leads her to marry a man who lacks the capacity to love. When the book opens she's 55, and has two grown children, one of whom, Rhoda, both is and is not the Rhoda we met in Legend, and is again engaged to an unfaithful dentist called Jim. The books stand independently, but speak to one another about similar emotions, viewed from fresh perspectives.

Much of the action tracks Gary's attempt to build an inhabitable cabin on Caribou Island - without a blueprint, much less suitable materials or equipment. With every nail Gary drove into a log, I heard a voice saying, "Failure to plan is planning to fail".

This flaw is familiar from Legend, and to a degree, from Vann's life. In the 1990s he chucked teaching and writing to build boats that he sailed around the world, but hauled himself into dry dock some five years later after a near drowning and a run-in with pirates, all of which he recounted in his best-selling memoir, A Mile Down.

"I do have that kind of recklessness," Vann admits. "I believe that everything's going to work out, that I can just do it and there don't have to be steps in between where I would have some sort of apprenticeship. My father had that same sense. He was a commercial fisherman for a year after being a dentist. Neither he nor my uncle had any experience on a commercial fishing boat and they didn't hire a captain who had experience. They almost died.

"My dad did that throughout my childhood, almost killing us on family vacations. He took us rafting down a class five river, which is really intense, with no experience, and he took us right after huge rains, so it became much worse. He almost finished off three generations of us. I've definitely worried that I have a kind of recklessness, where I'm willing to go do stuff and don't think a lot about the consequences. Gary is like that. He's not thinking about Irene and her wellbeing or the state of their marriage. What he does isn't good even for him but he's driven and has this vision that it'll work out. He's really disappointed when the cabin doesn't turn out the way that he imagined - and surprised!

"That's what shocks me about me, that I can actually be surprised by my failures. I can make the same mistake several times and have it be a surprise all the time." He's laughing at himself long before the end of his sentence.

And Vann is more complicated still. I read that three years into his relationship he panicked, and interviewed dozens of strangers, asking if they thought getting married was a good idea.

"That is true! I was freaked out because marriage seemed like the first step on the path toward that doom with my father, that marriage was his first step toward suicide. When I get nervous about something I've never been one to keep my counsel. I'm not a very manly man in that way. I chat with everyone; I have no filter whatsoever. Someone I've just met in the dentist's office, I'll tell them anything. There's nothing confidential and no sense of appropriateness.

"I had these intense conversations - and I didn't learn a single thing! It turns out it's so individual. No-one has the same reasons for getting married or why it works or doesn't, and none of it has anything to do with me. I've learned about individual people's experience, but none of that can attach reliably to my own. Nancy told me that on the day that I asked her, she'd actually decided that she was moving on. That it had taken too long and she wasn't going to put up with it anymore. That happened to be the very evening that I proposed. So my timing was lucky."

Wait … death-defying adventures feel natural, but the idea of marriage and children sends him into a tailspin? "It's a pretty big schism. I have no explanation. I actually won't even go rollerskating because it seems dangerous, but I was willing to build my own boat and take it out to sea. I'm 44 now and I have become more cautious. The last couple of years I have focussed on my teaching and writing, which lead to good things, whereas boat adventures tend to lead to disasters."

Legend infuriated his paternal grandmother, who told him it was a pity he hadn't respected his father. Caribou Island, he now reveals, has upset his mother's side of the family.

"I don't think any family is ultimately happy to have a writer in it. My mother and aunt are really angry that I used the name Irene, because that's my grandmother's real name. I was surprised and blind-sided about that. It was useful for me to use the name because that's where the power was. But it's not her; she never lived in Alaska and none of that stuff ever happened to her except the opening paragraph. I really do feel the weight of the family not wanting you to write certain stuff. In the end I can't write if I'm being edited by that group, so I have to just not care - but of course I do care. That part does suck a little bit."

Vann insists that writers don't really get to choose their subject matter. "I think an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Ideas about what you should do or what will be your best writing are never right. Writing happens beyond our plans. We write something that we're compelled to write - at least that's how the process has felt to me.

"If I focus on place it suggests its own way. It's immune to the ideas I have. There's nothing happening in place, so it opens up the possibility that the writing can take over in this unconscious way, that the character sees the landscape in a certain way and we see them revealed, and they end up making decisions that lead to actions."

Writing is so instinctive, he says, that it's ages before he understands what he's written. "There's incredible power in all the unconscious patterns and connections that have life beyond the writer and the reader. We each take away a limited view of what's going on.

"It took me an astonishingly long time to realise that I was Irene. I had no idea that all of her feelings are me. It seems so obvious that of course the writer is the protagonist, even if it's a woman.

"That's part of what I love about writing and why it feels so alive to me - it goes beyond the plan and an individual perception and takes on a life of its own."

Vann writes every day, and has just finished the first draft of a new novel. Set in 1985 in a New Age community in California, it focusses on the troubled relationship between a son and his mother. "There's no snow," he reassures me. "In fact, it's desert and heat and sun - so you'll get roasted!"

• Caribou Island is published by Viking on Thursday, priced 8.99

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