How did you become a writer?
Before I could write, I told stories about squirrels which my mother wrote down. She always encouraged reading and writing. And my father told lies constantly, about the size of fish and his fidelity in marriage and everything in between. The first stories I wrote were collections of our hunting and fishing tales, illustrated and with titles such as North To Alaska, given to my family each year at Christmas. I come from a family with five suicides and a murder, many divorces, mental illness on both sides, and beautiful landscapes, so it was wonderful material
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was very lucky at Stanford as an undergrad to study with Michelle Carter, who was a great young teacher, and with Grace Paley, who was visiting for a quarter, and Adrienne Rich. But the huge influence on me was John L’Heureux, who was a mentor to me for over twenty years. He was unreasonably generous and patient, and an inspiration in his great writing. Desires, an early story collection of his, was my favorite, but I also loved A Woman Run Mad and many others and read all of his books. I was also influenced by other former students of John L’Heureux, including Tobias Wolff, Harriet Doerr, Ron Hansen, etc. John had me read Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Carver, Porter, Hemingway, Allison, Gibbons, etc. O’Connor and Garcia Marquez had the biggest influence on me, but the book he recommended that stuck with me most was Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. From there, I read other landscape writers, such as Elizabeth Bishop and Annie Proulx, leading to my favorite novel, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I love literal landscapes extended into figurative ones, and I love stylists such as McCarthy, Proulx, and Robinson. I also had a Great Works course for a year at Stanford with Leslie Cahoon, who introduced me to Euripides, Vergil, Chaucer, etc. Because of that one course, I studied Latin, Old English, Middle English, write novels which are essentially Greek tragedies, have just written a novel about Medea, am translating Beowulf, titled Legend of a Suicide based on Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, etc., so Leslie Cahoon had an enormous influence over my academic and writing life. I also went to an MFA at Cornell, where Stephanie Vaughn and Robert Morgan were generous to me, and came back to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow.
When and where do you write?
I write every morning, seven days a week, and the momentum of writing every day is tremendously important to me, because I have no outline or plan and view writing as a transformation by the unconscious. I don’t know what will happen on the page each day, but there’s a shocking amount of pattern and structure that emerges, and I think this can happen only through a daily practice. It’s also a replacement for religion for me, so I need the daily practice for emotional and psychological reasons, to not feel that my life is about nothing.
Where I write doesn’t matter, as long as I have a room to myself. It can be a hotel room anywhere in the world, or on my boat in Turkey, or at home in New Zealand in bed, as long as it’s for two hours by myself every morning, without distraction (no human movement or voices, and I wear earplugs). I travel for about half of each year, with book launches and interviews and festivals in about twenty countries, so I’m happy that I can write anywhere.
What are you working on now?
I have a new novel, Goat Mountain, coming out now (September, 2013). This is the book that burns away the last of my family material, returning to the setting of the first short story I ever wrote, more than twenty-five years ago. It’s my best book, and a strange one. An eleven-year-old boy on a deer-hunting trip in 1978 in northern California with his father, grandfather and father’s best friend, and things go wrong immediately. The boy’s father lets him sight in on a poacher through the scope of his rifle, as my father let me do in real life, and the boy pulls the trigger. This causes problems for the men. But what’s strange is how the poacher becomes a Jesus figure, a buck the Holy Ghost, and the grandfather a kind of God. I’m an atheist, so what was the Holy Trinity doing showing up in my novel? I’ve been thinking lately that it’s my Cherokee heritage showing up, because what bigger problem did Native Americans have than Jesus, showing up as a poacher on the land? I’m very excited about this novel, and I’m still trying to understand it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No. I think writer’s block happens only if you’re not a writer or not working on the right material. It’s a thing that doesn’t really exist.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Write every morning for two hours. It can’t hurt. Find a job that doesn’t happen in the mornings. Refuse to go to breakfast or lunch with anyone. Don’t write in cafes or other public places. Don’t try to “be” a writer, just write. Enroll in a writing program, where you’ll get solid advice. Don’t ask anyone else for advice, especially your family or friends or anyone in a café or online. Don’t read or write blogs, since they have no subtext and therefore suck. Realize that anything without subtext, without a second story, sucks. Put your family on the sacrificial stone and swing the axe. Don’t plan to make any money from writing, and realize it’s unfair and you may not get published for decades. Realize it may be a mercy and a justice to everyone that you don’t get published. Most likely your writing isn’t worth reading. One in twenty of my students is worth reading, and they all made the cut to get into a graduate writing program. The best thing you can do is read a lot of good books and study language. A ten-week intensive Latin course at UC Berkeley was the single best thing I ever did for my writing. Old English has been helpful, too, and a course in linguistics. I’ve read Blood Meridian six times, because re-reading is helpful. What you write will be a by-product of what you ingest. No writer is ever original or can help being original.
Published in 19 languages, David Vann’s internationally-bestselling books (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Dirt, Last Day On Earth, A Mile Down, and his new novel, Goat Mountain, have won 14 prizes, including best foreign novel in France and Spain, and appeared on 70 Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Outside, Men’s Journal, McSweeney’s, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, and many others. A former Guggenheim fellow, National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Wallace Stegner fellow, and John L’Heureux fellow, he is currently a Professor at the University of Warwick in England. www.davidvann.com.