Author Interview: David Vann

with Norelle Done

Fiction writing requires a balance of storytelling, personal experience, and realistic portrayals of characters’ emotions and actions. It is a challenge to avoid tipping too far in one direction, especially when the author’s personal experiences can weigh so heavily.

David Vann is an author that has successfully accomplished a balance in telling stories from a depth that can only be reached through personal experience, but without turning fiction into a thinly disguised memoir. Not that writing a memoir is negative, by any means. David’s first published book was A Mile Down, a memoir of his sea travels that was published in 2005. “I decided to write about captaining the boat, and because it was so crazy that it didn’t seem like real life. I really started writing for the purpose of engagement, because being a captain and just walking on the beach in Caribbean wasn’t happiness - it wasn’t enough. Writing was engagement for me since I was bored with walking on the beach,” Vann says.  

Although A Mile Down was Vann’s first book in print, it was written after a five-and-a-half year hiatus from writing. Previously, he had spent ten years writing Legend of a Suicide, a collection of short stories and one novella that are fictional, but reminiscent of events surrounding Vann’s father’s suicide when David was just 13 years old.  

“For the first three or so years after my dad’s suicide, I told everyone that he had died from cancer,” Vann says of the time. “Later, in college, I wanted to write something beautiful to understand the story ... I never really viewed writing as a therapy - the writing is something beautiful that transforms something ugly into something lovely. It has to have a higher goal than just therapy.” 

He describes his process for writing the stories as depending on a myriad of different literary examples and styles. “In Legend, I was learning how to write from different writing examples at different times, each in different styles. There was no one true story about my dad and our family; the six different stories would be a more accurate picture about what happened with our family and my dad. I had to learn how to transform the true story into fiction,” he says. 

Vann finished writing Legend of a Suicide when he was about 29, ten years after he began to write the stories. More than a decade after its completion, during which time no one would publish the book, David Vann submitted it for the Grace Paley prize in short fiction. The judge liked it, and the book was eventually picked up by Harper Collins, as was Caribou Island, which was released in January 2011.  

Caribou Island is another work of fiction, this time a full-length novel about the suicide and murder of David’s stepmother’s parents, which occurred just 11 months before his own father’s suicide. For Vann, these very personal stories are not meant to be buried and hidden away; rather, “These were the stories of my life, and I wanted them to be published ... It just seems inevitable that I would share them.”  

Like the decade it took to write Legend of a Suicide, Vann started Caribou Island 14 years ago. “Up until two years ago, I didn’t know how to write it - it was my first full-length novel, and that style is very different from a memoir or short story,” Vann said.

Despite his struggle to craft Caribou Island into a full novel, David Vann does not believe in writer’s block: “I’m not sure it exists; I’ve experienced years of not writing, but when I’m writing, I just write. I feel like writer’s block happens to people who are not actually writers, but are trying to write,” he says. 

According to David, the most important part of writing is momentum, and doing whatever it takes to finish the first draft. “I did Legend in fits and starts. A big thing for me was to trust that the story is going to write itself out, although the process is unconscious, and kind of out of control. For me, a big challenge is to get the rest of life to go away ... to let the first draft happen without getting distracted,” Vann said. 

In his writing career, David Vann has  used many different styles, with his memoir A Mile Down, his collection of short stories in Legend of a Suicide, his full-length novel Caribou Island, and coming out this year is a nonfiction book entitled Last Day on Earth, about the perpetrator in a school shooting. Last Day on Earth was a new experience for Vann, since “it’s a book that stemmed from an assignment for Esquire magazine. It’s full research and investigative journalism, and I was lucky to get access to a 1500 page police file that no other journalist got access to. It was an exciting process of discovery,” Vann said.

Although his books have tremendously emotional and dark themes, Vann does not think they are as ‘depressing’ as American critics label them. “For instance, Caribou has a lot of humor, and there are even some characters that are mostly there for humor,” he says. “I wish that more Americans would realize that for over 2,500 years, most of our best literary works have been tragedies. In Europe, no one really talks about my work being gloomy and dark, because it’s actually humorous, and also fast-paced, which counteracts the dark aspects.” 

David is currently teaching writing workshops and literature seminars as an associate professor at the University of San Francisco. He also writes for the Sunday Times and the Observer in the UK, and numerous publications world-wide. “I’ve written everything from music to family, travel adventures, disasters, going on the outback in Australia, cultural pieces, old English and American fiction. I write essays, memoir, novels, critical,” he lists, and notes that, “any writer can improve by writing across all genres and seeing what you can learn from each.” 

What’s next for David Vann? “I never can tell what the next book is going to be, like the most recent - I had plans for another novel, but something else came out. The process for writing is unconscious. I really have no plan or idea for the next book ... who knows? I may never write again,” he said, and I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking or not.

Norelle Done is a Seattle freelance writer and editor who loves to curl up on a rainy day with a good book. She regularly meets authors and writers around Seattle to share their writing experiences, struggles, and successes on her website,

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