David Vann Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

David Vann
Photo: Mathieu Bourgois Agency

David Vann

An interview with David Vann

David Vann talks about his novel Aquarium, his attraction to fish, writing from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl and why he structured this full length novel like a novella

Your new novel, Aquarium, is told from the point of view of Caitlin, a twelve year old girl. What was it like writing through her eyes?
The story is told by Caitlin twenty years later, when she's thirty-two, and she's able to reflect on her difficult relationship with her mother and the nature of forgiveness, and these are my own concerns now. My mother and I had difficult times, perhaps mostly because of my father's suicide, and we've both been looking for ways to forgive each other and understand each other better, which is perhaps the same thing. So in writing Caitlin, I was writing myself. I loved fish when I was twelve. I had eight fish tanks scattered throughout the house. So it was easy to capture Caitlin's love of fish, and her way of seeing all of Seattle as if underwater. To the young Caitlin, Seattle is a giant starfish lying on the ocean floor.

Your previous fiction—Legend of a Suicide, Dirt, Caribou Island, and Goat Mountain—are portraits of families in sometimes violent dissolution. This novel is considerably less dark than your earlier work. What was it like to write a happy ending?
Ha. I do love a tragedy. For 2,500 years, from the Greeks on, our literature has been almost entirely tragic, about the mystery of why we hurt the people we love. Characters act out of control, unconsciously, not understanding why they're doing what they're doing, just as we do in real life. And the characters in Aquarium do that, too, but there's also a generosity in Caitlin, and in the old man, a will to forgive and pull the family together. I love that generosity. I found it more affecting, actually, than the tragic moments of the previous novels. A happy ending in that way can be just as cathartic as a tragic ending and is working in the same dramatic tradition. I didn't have a plan or outline or know how the book would end, but it was thrilling to see what was possible through love.

You have mentioned that although Aquarium has the page count of a novel, its form and conventions are actually closer to the novella…
I love novellas, especially Katharine Anne Porter's Noon Wine, Melville's short novels, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, etc. The advantage the form has over a novel is that we never leave the central drama. We remain focused on the main characters and don't wander off into chapters about minor characters. Aquarium takes place in just a week or two, with five characters in one place, and the immersion in these lives is complete, without interruption. The pacing and build and intensity are closer to that of a short story.

These are the first likeable men you've written, I think. What was that like?
It's true. Many of my books are critical of men and violence from men. And then in this book suddenly both men are generous and sympathetic. They love and try to help bring everyone together. So perhaps I've turned a corner somehow. It's very nice to see men behaving well.

Where does your fascination with fish come from? And why were you drawn to using photographs of them throughout the novel?
Growing up in Ketchikan, Alaska, fish were of mythic proportions. The first king salmon I caught was taller than I was, and my grandfather once caught a 250-pound halibut. That fish grew as it rose through the depths and became larger than my imagination by the time it reached the surface. I still think of those mythic fish when I think of what writing is like, the surprises and transformations, all that's unconscious or subconscious rising to the surface of the page and revealed. In Aquarium, the fish are the subconscious, shifting in form and suggesting aspects of human behavior and self. As Caitlin and the old man talk about the fish, they're really talking about themselves.

The book was inspired long ago by a visit to the Seattle Aquarium, when I read the descriptions of the fish at each tank. Those descriptions seemed to me a kind of poetry of human behavior told through the oddity of fish. The halibut, for instance, with both eyes on one side of its head and lying on the bottom of the ocean, how could that not begin to suggest a story?

These fish are so odd and varied and beautiful, I wanted them to be seen. And I hope that if you look at a photo and then read my description, you will see the transformations that take place in writing. You can see how the human mind can't let nature remain neutral but will form and imprint pattern and story and meaning, like in a Rorschach test. Caitlin and the old man describe themselves as they describe the fish. I wanted to reveal my writing method, in other words, the method I've used in all my books as I've described natural landscapes in Alaska and California and now this landscape of fish. I want a reader to see what happens, how meaning is created in a book, because I find this process exciting. It's the only reason I write, to see unconscious transformations happen, to see pattern and meaning being formed.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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