by David Vann, January 28, 2011 10:32 AM
Two years ago, in late January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, from the shore toward Caribou Island. It was early afternoon but looked like evening, the sun low. I didn't know how thick the ice was, or how safe to walk upon. The snow in drifts, like dunes of sand. No other human, and no bird or other animal or even wind. Just silence. The air so clear it seemed I should be able to touch things that were far away, the mountains above the lake.
I kept walking, but I was very afraid of falling through. I had no experience here. I'd visited this lake only in summer, when it was windy and blue-green from glacial silt, sometimes almost milky. I knew that if I fell through, there'd be no one to help and I'd simply freeze. But I wanted to walk out to Caribou Island. It had held a fascination for me for years. I'd begun writing a novel 12 years earlier. It was set here, but I'd never been able to write past the first 50 pages. I couldn't see the longer arc. I didn't know whose story it was or where to focus. And I felt that walking out to the island I might find how to tell the story.
I saw a long crack in the ice, indicated by the snow that had fallen on it differently. I knelt and swept away the snow with my glove and saw black. I'd wanted to see how deep the ice was, how thick, but the lake beneath was so dark the clear ice became essentially opaque. I was peering into nothing. The ice could have been two inches thick or ten feet thick. And something about gazing at the lake up close and not being able to see it or know it suggested something. I could imagine Irene walking out on this lake and trying to find her marriage and peering down and seeing nothing. I understood that it was her story, that I had to focus on her in this place, in this landscape, and that the rest of the novel would come from there.
And so this walk on the frozen lake became Irene's winter vision late in my new novel, Caribou Island, and I wonder whether other books are like that, with one scene or moment which was the genesis. The most important quality about this moment is its certainty, a certainty that it will not mislead. As I wrote Caribou Island, working on it every morning, I kept returning to the place, describing the place, and the characters and story came from the landscape and the transformations of the landscape. At one point, Irene is running in the forest on Caribou Island and feels the earth tilting beneath her and knows the entire island is rolling over, top-heavy, and this is Irene being written in place, this is discovery of Irene in the place, and this is why I
by David Vann, January 27, 2011 9:34 AM
I'm in London this week for the U.K. launch of Caribou Island, and I really enjoy the range of radio and TV formats for books here. I was on a BBC radio show yesterday called The Verb (BBC Radio 3) with a cellist, a storyteller, and a playwright. I was asked to write a 1,000-word essay beforehand on Old English meter in contemporary American fiction, using examples from McCarthy, Proulx, and Robinson, and I read this essay aloud, then the host asked me a few questions (about McCarthy's earlier sources, such as Melville and Faulkner, for instance, and about my own writing and Alaska). But the real fun was in watching the other acts. We were all in the studio together, and after the cellist performed, retelling fairy tales through music, it was amazing to watch the storyteller, a young woman who sang and recited and was absolutely captivating. Then another young woman read her 4-minute play meant for radio, and I couldn't believe how good it was (you can hear it, too, by podcast, after the show airs tomorrow).
I also recorded a bit yesterday for a BBC 2 TV show called The Review Show. We had a brief interview on camera, and I read a few sections from the book, but the bulk of the show will be three or four critics discussing the book. This got me wondering a bit about what could be possible in the U.S. In France, too, I was on a show in which four other writers discussed their books. This was prime-time TV, Thursday evening, and one of the books was about math, but the show has an audience. In Spain, a national TV program called Pagina 2 filmed me in a lumber warehouse talking about my book and family history and sent a crew to get footage of a cabin in the mountains. In Australia, I'll be on a show in April discussing a classic and a new book with several other authors. In the Netherlands, I was interviewed for almost twenty minutes, in detail, about Legend of a Suicide. TV there imagines its viewers as people who are smart and educated and have long attention spans and don't mind hearing about tragedy. I think this could be possible in the U.S., too, if it were given a chance.
All of this got me thinking about where books are free to roam on radio and TV in the U.S. I'm writing a short bit on Chaucer for NPR's All Things Considered, so U.S. radio is clearly capable of covering the same sort of topics. And the longest, most in-depth, smartest radio interviews I've had in the world have been in the U.S. I was just interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm, for instance, and he's as thorough and generous and skilled as an interviewer can be. I've had great radio interviews on NPR affiliates throughout the U.S., including big stations such as Minnesota Public Radio and stations in locations that perhaps seem less likely, such as in rural south Texas. But I wonder whether we could branch out a bit in format, bringing multiple authors into an interview or multiple reviewers or other artists, as in the BBC formats. And I think there must be more ways to include books on TV in the
by David Vann, January 26, 2011 10:27 AM
When my first work of fiction, Legend of a Suicide
, was published in France, I learned some surprising lessons about the astounding power of the independent bookseller. Things are done a bit differently there in a way that especially highlights the role of a store like Powell's and sheds light on how difficult and precious is the work it does.
In so many ways, France is a wonderful home for a book. There's a tax break for opening a bookstore. And since by law no book can be discounted more than 5%, these independent booksellers are protected from massive online discounts. As a result, there are 600 independent booksellers that sell literary fiction. This landscape would be a dream come true for American independent booksellers.
And then there's the bookseller himself or herself, who undertakes a course of study similar to that of a librarian in this country, suggesting the premium the culture places on literature. These booksellers display "coup de coeur" (heartfelt) selections, attaching heart-bands on their favorite books along with review clips on the shelves much as we do with our bookstore picks. One bookseller in Paris has sold more than 1,300 copies of my book herself.
Aside from these practices, I sensed a literary conversation and debate in Paris and also nationally that is not quite as easy to come by in America. This can be seen most clearly each fall, when the new literary novels come out, the literary prizes are awarded, and amazingly enough, any book that wins a prize immediately hits the bestseller list. It could be an experimental novel about a bridge, and have a plain cover with only the author's name and the book's title, but if it wins a prize, tens of thousands of people will buy it. In the United States, the likes of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award sell some books but most prizes seem largely ignored. In America, fewer titles cut through the noise and all books seem to have a shorter shelf-life, more driven by short-term publicity than by critical acclaim.
I wondered after my very positive French experience if perhaps there was a different reading public in France than in the U.S., a more reliable audience willing to read a greater range of works — a more receptive literary reader. And then I realized that American readers of exactly this bent do exist, but they are somehow harder to find. And this is where our independent booksellers step in. Though not bolstered by the protections of their government (or the implicit insurance of a devoted public), our indie booksellers bring everything that is great in French publishing to readers who chose them as their gatekeepers. And that's why I was thrilled read my new novel, Caribou Island, at a bookstore such as
by David Vann, January 24, 2011 11:02 AM
I read at ten international festivals in 2010, in Sydney, Edinburgh, the south of France, Paris, the Netherlands, Cork and Kilkenny in Ireland, Oxford and Charleston in England, etc., and I loved every minute. Crowds of book-lovers, great venues, music, and I met a lot of great and funny writers. (We tend not to have this kind of festival in the U.S., but Wordstock
in Portland is a wonderful exception. I loved Wordstock and met a bunch of writers there, too.)
The highpoint of the festivals, though, was meeting Colm Tóibín, first in Sydney and then in Ireland. I thought I'd write about him in my first blog here because he's the kind of writer and person I'd like to be.
I first met Colm through his writing. I thought Brooklyn was a terrific and heartbreaking novel. I picked it for the Observer's best books list a year ago in the UK because it reminded me that the most ambitious landscape, finally, is the human heart. I tend to like flashier writers and landscape description, stylists such as Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx, but Brooklyn hooked me. The main character is so conflicted in the end, with impossible and non-choices, as in the best Greek tragedy. She's lost the old world and the new. Great stuff.
Then I met Colm in Sydney and couldn't believe how approachable and friendly he was. I saw him on a panel and he had the most wonderful sense of humor. He's so brilliant, he no longer has to act smart. He just enjoyed himself on stage and made us all laugh.
The generosity extends off the stage, also. He invited me and my wife to stay at his house in Ireland for a week in August, and we had the best time. We took long walks along the ocean and read books, and I got to read an early review copy of his new story collection, The Empty Family. In that book, he evokes such a powerful sense of longing for place, of wanting to be back in a place that feels like home, and as I read, I was sitting in his home, looking out at the view that he describes in the title story, a view past gently rolling hills to the sea and lighthouse. That was quite a moment, feeling that connected to a story, but I think any reader will feel welcomed by Colm's writing and will be brought