David Vann on ‘Caribou Island’
February 10, 2011 | by Caitlin Roper
David Vann’s Caribou Island is my favorite novel of the past few years. I read it last summer for possible excerpt in The Paris Review. It’s the story, set against the striking landscape of the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, of Irene and Gary, whose thirty-year marriage is collapsing. The story is disturbing; I read it quickly, consumed. I loved the book so much that I was reluctant to see that an excerpt wasn’t working. The story was so powerful as a whole—it was irreducible. I recently had the chance to talk to Vann.
You alternate between characters’ points of view, and between their stories. How did the shape of the book come about?
None of it was planned. I was writing seven days a week, a few pages every day, and those were where the chapters ended. It really was such a blind process writing the book. I didn’t know each day what the characters would do or say; I didn’t know when a chapter would end; I didn’t know what the next chapter would be or where it was headed. And so with each chapter, I felt like it had come to where it closed, and then each time, luckily, there was some clear sense of where to go next.
How long did the book take to write?
Five and a half months.
I started it fourteen years ago when I finished Legend of a Suicide, and I only got forty-eight pages in, and then I just couldn’t figure out how to write a longer arc. I didn’t know whose story it was or where it was supposed to focus, so I put it away. That’s when I went to sea and became a captain and wrote A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published, so I pouted for a while and didn’t write for five and a half years. Not writing was partly pouting and partly because I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to do a novel. And I felt like my brain wouldn’t do a longer arc. But in January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, walking out across the frozen lake toward Caribou Island, and I felt like I could see all of it. It seemed really clear that Irene had to be the focus, she had to be the main character right from the start, and that the story had to begin really late, and that their marriage would already be in trouble. The whole thing would feel like the final sequence in that way. I think that was why it was easy to get from chapter to chapter and why they’re fairly short and quick, as if they’re really all the final sequence.
Did those forty-eight pages remain the same?
No, it was a completely different feel. At the time, I was reading The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. And that’s such a jokey kind of novel, I really love it. It’s funny throughout—so that was the tone and pace of Caribou Island when I started it. But it wasn’t right and I couldn’t do it, and so when I returned to it, it became more like my other work and less like his. It’s drama and tragedy, not humor.
The central character in Caribou Island, Irene, is a fifty-five-year-old woman. Was it difficult to write from her point of view?
Irene is me, basically. I had those terrible headaches, I have some of those views of men that she has of Gary, and her frustrations about his vacancy and his impatience, and yet I’m also Gary. But I felt close to her struggle. It was about six months afterwards that I finally saw, Holy crap, that’s me. But that’s why it felt smooth and didn’t feel strange. I never had the thought, I’m writing from a woman’s point of view, I have to figure out what that is. I was just writing my own story through Irene.
What about alternating narrators throughout the book—was that a conscious decision?
I needed to have a little bit of each person’s life. I had to show how they see and are experiencing the story. When I consider how a novel works, point of view is not an important category. I realize that’s totally weird, that I’m wrong, but in my mind, it’s not one of the things I think about. I think about the landscape as being tremendously important.
There is so much unhappiness in this book, but there’s also a lot of beauty in the natural world.
Wilderness doesn’t have any meaning on it’s own—no inherent meaning—it’s a giant mirror and we give it whatever meaning we want. When you describe nature, you end up indirectly describing the characters. The characteristics of the natural world are a reflection of what the characters are feeling and who they are.
My favorite parts of the description are when things shift and transform and become very odd. When Irene is running and the landscape is tilting and she imagines the whole island is rolling over to go upside down, that’s exactly why I write, for moments like that. To me that’s really beautiful, that the whole landscape actually shifts, that an island could uproot and turn over. That’s really a shift in a landscape that tells us about the inside life of the character and it’s unexpected and it’s weird and it’s a kind of crazy world. What I like best about fiction is that it’s paranoid and cohesive and compressed. Everything refers, there’s nothing incidental, and it has these ruptures that are crazy, these transformations where the world changes shape and becomes something else.
You have a nonfiction book, Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU Shooter, Steve Kazmeirczak, out this October. Are you working on another novel?
Yes. Like Caribou Island, it also works through the landscape, but it’s set in California instead of Alaska. It’s set in the central valley in Carmichael (a suburb of Sacramento), on a ten-acre walnut orchard that is cut off from suburbia surrounding it. There’s a second location in the Sierras. It takes place during one burning-hot summer. The novel is like a play in that it’s limited to a cast of five characters and it takes place in about ten days.
That’s one thing I loved about Caribou Island: a small cast of characters with whom you go deep.
That’s really a central part of my aesthetic, if I have one. I think of a novel as a play that’s told through description, and I want to limit the story as much as possible. It’s the opposite of someone like Franzen, for instance, who’s trying to absorb the broader culture. I’m trying to limit things so that more pressure is put on the characters and they break in some way. The novel is almost like an atom smasher.
How is writing fiction different from nonfiction?
I can’t get my nonfiction to really take off in the way the fiction does. It doesn’t surprise me in the same way. It doesn’t have the same level of pattern in the language and overall structure. I know that a better nonfiction writer must have that great experience of the story coming alive, but that doesn’t happen for me.
What are you reading?
I just read Annie Proulx’s new memoir, Bird Cloud. I love her so much. She’s my second-favorite writer.
Who’s your favorite?
I think Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is my favorite book. Marilynne Robinson was a bigger influence on me and she’s better and more likeable in some ways, but Blood Meridian is such a great book. McCarthy specializes in that extension of literal landscapes to figurative landscapes, borrowed from Faulkner. I value that so much and go for it in my own writing.
Is there a physical place that’s a touchstone for you?
Yes, in New Zealand. My wife and I bought some land there seven years ago. Someday soon we’ll finally be able to build a small house on it and live there. I think of it every single day and long for it and want to be there, so it’s taken on a really powerful presence in my psychology. It represents the life that I want, a place to ease into and relax, my desire for peace and belonging, to go for a hike every day. It’s seventeen acres on a rolling hillside, with native totara trees, which look like bushy Christmas trees, and grass in between. You can walk quite across the property and up onto a ridge, and look out on these exposed rocks. That’s really where my dream life is, right there in that place.