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David Vann on ‘Caribou Island’

February 10, 2011 | by

Photograph by Diana Matar.

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.

Wow.

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.

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Literary Deal Breakers; Marathon Reads

November 19, 2010 | by

It’s official. Former managing editor Caitlin Roper is leaving New York for San Francisco, where she’ll be an editor at Wired. We thought it’d be nice to let her pinch hit for team Paris Review before she leaves for the West Coast. This week, she answers our advice column. —Thessaly La Force

Is literary taste—or a lack thereof—a deal breaker? I’m dating a lovely man, but he has one major flaw: He doesn’t read. I’ve thrown everything from early Tom Wolfe to Cormac McCarthy at him, and he’s simply not interested. He’s not uneducated—he would just rather be “doing things.” Do you have any recommendations for the nonreader, or should I give him up as a lost cause? —Hopeless

I spent four years with a nonreader. I like “doing things,” too, so we had that in common. It took me about a year to stop giving him books I was sure would grab his attention (I also tried Cormac McCarthy). There was one writer he enjoyed: Eric Bogosian, especially Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead. I read it for insight into my boyfriend’s elusive literary taste. It was funny and angry—more of a rant than a story—and it finally made me give up my futile book suggestions. I’d say it’s absolutely a lost cause to turn your man into a reader, you’re going to have to let that go and ask yourself the real question: Can you be with someone who doesn’t read?

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Barry Lopez and ‘The Tree’

October 7, 2010 | by

Barry Lopez by the McKenzie River near his home. Photograph by David Liittschwager.

“Art and nature are siblings, branches of the one tree.” —John Fowles

Barry Lopez often explores the relationship between landscape and culture in his nonfiction. He wrote the introduction to the thirtieth-anniversary edition of John Fowles's powerful, moving argument for the connection between nature and human creativity, The Tree, just published by Ecco Books. Lopez spoke with me from his home in western Oregon.

The way that you described having to put the book down and walk away from it, “its thought was as stimulating as I could stand”—I had that exact experience as I read The Tree.

Well that’s wonderful. I think John was so strongly perceived by people as a literary figure, relatively few wondered where his pattern of thought came from. A somewhat ramulose—do you know what I mean by ramulose? If you look at a tangle of rosebushes and you try to trace with your eye, pick a rose, and go backwards, trying to find where it came from? Well, he had a ramulose mind, and he was captivated psychologically, emotionally, and in a literary way by these kinds of natural complexities. They endlessly entertained him.

Fowles's The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of my favorite novels. I think of it as a book that is both a romance between humans and a romance between humans and nature.

I think you’re absolutely right.

It sticks with me in this intense way. I connect both love and romance and sex in that book to actual, physical landscapes. I can't think of another novel like that. But I had never heard of The Tree until recently. It was a revelation to me.

To me too. I’m sitting on the same couch now, in the same room I read that book in thirty years ago, remembering it.

What has changed in those thirty years, both for you—and I know this is too big a question—and in terms of your experience of reading the book? Read More »

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Happy Birthday R. Crumb

August 30, 2010 | by

In honor of R. Crumb's birthday today, here are a few of my favorite outtakes from his interview, the first Art of Comics, which appears in our summer issue, still on newsstands. Interviewer Ted Widmer asks Crumb how he feels about publishing hardcover books:

INTERVIEWER

You’ve taken what was a medium of thirty pages of flimsy, low quality paper with a paper cover and now you’ve conquered the hardcover book format.

CRUMB

Reluctantly. I love the old, cheap comic book format so much because the format itself is a statement. It keeps you from becoming too pretentious. I like that about it. Keep it cheap and low-grade, the format, keep it cheap and accessible and then you’re not required to be overly artistic or have overly deep, profound meaning or whatever, you know, all that stuff that can make you very self-conscious. I got reluctantly dragged into hardcover books.

INTERVIEWER

But I think your fans are happy that those hardcover books exist because you would have to be a maniacal collector to get all of your stuff otherwise. It’s basically impossible to find back issues of The East Village Other, but for hardly any money you can buy The R. Crumb Handbook and see your greatest hits.

CRUMB

Yeah, that’s true. And also, the whole context of cheaply produced comic books is gone, basically. All those newsstands, that kind of distribution is gone.

In June we posted a slideshow of Crumb self-portraits. My favorite is the one where he's squinching up his nose to keep his glasses on his face.

I love Crumb's answer to Widmer about his next projects:

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a sequence of more literary stories coming out? You’ve done some Samuel Johnson, Philip K. Dick.

CRUMB

The classics illustrated. I did a sequence from Nausea by Sartre a couple of years ago. I did a couple of other things like that. I have lots of ideas about stuff like that but there’s always so much work in it, it’s so time consuming. I’m getting old, you know.

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John Waters

August 9, 2010 | by

Filmmaker John Waters is the author of Role Models, which was published this May by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I caught up with him recently while he was in Provincetown.

Waters in his summer rental with a sign he made for hitchhiking to a beach.

I saw your appearance on The Colbert Report and I was impressed that you didn’t laugh.

You have to give the totally straight face with him because he is such a good straight man. It was so funny, right before we went on, backstage, it was me and the kid who wrote the article about General McChrystal that toppled the government [Michael Hastings], and I loved the journalist, and we were talking because I used to write for Rolling Stone. So I was showing him my Rolling Stone press card, and right before we go on, Colbert looks at us, because he’s always in character, right, even before, and he says, “I like one of you.”

No way!

Which is really funny and I knew it was funny; but I think the young author was horrified. I knew it was part of the act, but what a terrible thing to say!

So you’re in Provincetown for the summer?

This is my forty-sixth summer here. I came here for the first time when I was seventeen. I hitchhiked and then stayed two weeks and lived in a tree fort.

Wow, a tree fort!

A guy named Prescott Townsend owned it. The first gay radical I had ever met. He was from a wealthy family from Cambridge and he seemed completely insane, in a great way. Part of the tree fort was a submarine. He had to like you to let you live there and it was free and he gave you free hot dogs and eventually the town burned it and then they cut the tree down.

How sad.

It was a magical time in my life. I worked in the bookshop. First I worked in the East End Bookshop that was run by Molly Malone Cook and her girlfriend, Mary Oliver, the poet, who was not famous yet. And then I worked at the Provincetown Bookshop for many, many years. And it’s still there. Elloyd Hansen, one of the owners, was the guy who really gave me my complete education about books. I didn’t go to school, so he’s the one who told me about Ronald Firbank, Jane Bowles; I learned everything working there.

And when I worked there they said, “you can have free books—whatever you want, but you have to read ’em and you have to sell ’em.” So I read everything and would get obsessed by a book and sell tons of copies—

Because you would talk enthusiastically about it—

Yes! Same thing I did in the chapter in this book. But now you go into a bookshop, and they don’t even know the books. It’s a gift shop! Not all are like that, but many. So, it was a great job. It was my college, really. They’ve only had about four other employees. Jane, who works there now, has worked there since I did. That was forty years ago. I worked there every summer and then I would go get unemployment in the winter, because it closed in the winter (it doesn’t anymore, but it used to). So I could go to San Francisco, I would make my movies and everything and it saved my life, that bookshop. It was really, really important to me. And I still love it. The rest of Provincetown; everyone else says, “it’s changed, blah, blah, blah.” I don’t think it has, I feel like if I dropped a piece of gum there in 1971 it would still be there.

What are you reading right now?

I’m on the last chapter of a book called, Denial: A Memoir of Terror by Jessica Stern. The author has always written about terrorists and in the book she goes back and she investigates her own rape, which happened to her when she was young, and she writes about that and explains why it got her interested in terror.

Coming up next, I’ve really been obsessed by Robert Walser. I was stupid and didn’t know about his career, and New Directions is publishing all of his old stuff; I think he is absolutely, amazingly brilliant.

What else do I have on my reading list… I’ve got The Scandal of Susan Sontag. I just love the title. I’m not sure what it is, but I bought it. It’s all articles, “essays by well-known critics who bring pertinent areas of expertise to bear on this iconic figure.”

Then there’s Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw. That’s my next three books to read.

Do you read a lot during the summer?

Yes, I always read a lot. I read the same amount. no matter what season it is. I read every night. When I’m on book tour, I’m on airplanes all the time, so I’m always reading. People say, “How do you have time to read?” Oh, come on, it’s simple! You’re single and you don’t watch television. If you’re married it’s hard to read unless you married another total bookworm. If you watch TV, and I’m not saying there isn’t good TV, but if you watch TV you can’t read and watch TV. You can read and watch bad TV, but what’s the point? Good TV you’ve got to pay attention.

In Role Models, I love when you say, “Fiction is the truth, fool!” Read More »

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Tonight: Celebrate Our Summer Issue

July 19, 2010 | by

Issue contributors Colum McCann and Victor LaValle will read tonight at The Half King for our last event to celebrate the current issue. There will be a Q&A, drinks, and fun. We look forward to seeing you!

The Half King
505 West 23rd Street, at 10th Avenue
7:00 P.M.

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