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.