David Vann, author of Aquarium and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!
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IFOA: Your debut collection, Legend of a Suicide, was somewhat based on true events in your own life. How much does your real life inspire or find its way into your fictional work?
David Vann: My first four books of fiction (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Dirt and Goat Mountain) have true family events in the background. What happens in the stories is made up but references and tries to transform the history. To give an example from Legend, my father asked me to come live with him for a year in Alaska. I said no, and soon after he killed himself. So my account in the book of a boy and his father homesteading in Alaska is fictional but also a second chance to say yes and an imagination of what that year with him would have been like. Writing is largely subconscious for me, since I have no outline or plan or any idea what the book will be about when I begin, but there’s a surprising amount of pattern and structure that happens in the subconscious, and also a drive, I think, to be made whole.
IFOA: Where did the idea for Aquarium come from?
Vann: Aquarium will be my first novel published that does not draw from my family history or have any clear parallels in my own life. It’s also the first one not to be a tragedy. I could first see scenes from Aquarium as I was finishing another novel about the Greek heroine Medea. I’ve always loved tropical fish, and I had eight fish tanks scattered throughout the house when I was 12 years old, Caitlin’s age. So I was drawn to the idea of describing fish, and Seattle as if it was underwater, and I love the public aquarium in Seattle. I went there long ago, in the early 90s, and thought their descriptions of fish at each tank were a kind of poetry indicating human behavior. I should also say that I’ve always loved female coming-of-age stories for some reason, especially Ellen Foster, Bastard Out of Carolina and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.
IFOA: Have you ever written from the perspective of a child before and how is it different from writing from an adult perspective?
Vann: My most recent novel, Goat Mountain, is from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy, but I use a retrospective narrator, which means the story is told from when the boy is much older, looking back at his life. This frees me to be able to say anything, not limited to the vocabulary or perceptions of an 11-year-old, and allows reflection, the making of meaning about the shape of a life. This is what I also do in Aquarium. The story is told from 20 years later, when Caitlin is 32. All of the scenes bring to life her experience at 12, but she’s also able to understand those experiences now and use adult language. I do love Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster, in which she stays closer to the child’s perspective and language, but I prefer the freedom of style and thought that an adult perspective allows.
IFOA: Do you have any plans to do readings of Aquarium in a real aquarium? (haha!)
Vann: I’d love to! We’ve asked the Seattle Aquarium whether they’d be interested.
IFOA: What have you read in the last six months that you have really enjoyed?
Vann: Many books, including Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing and George Saunders’ Tenth of December. And I spend a lot of time on classics, currently translating Beowulf from Old English and Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin (struggling on that one!).
David Vann is a former Guggenheim fellow and author. He will be at IFOA Weekly on March 12th.