COURTESY MATHIEU BOURGOISAuthor David Vann will be back in San Francisco to talk about his new book in a Litquake presentation.

COURTESY MATHIEU BOURGOISAuthor David Vann will be back in San Francisco to talk about his new book in a Litquake presentation.

David Vann takes less tragic turn in ‘Aquarium’

Novelist David Vann calls “Aquarium” – his new book about fish that has forgiveness as a major theme – a great entry point for his work, particularly for American audiences.

“It’s the most likable, probably the easiest to read,” says Vann, describing its 12-year-old protagonist Caitlin: “She has empathy for everyone, and is a complete contrast to the 11-year-old boy in ‘Goat Mountain,’ who kills a poacher and feels nothing.”

Vann, a former University of San Francisco professor who appears in conversation with writer Tom Barbash in a Litquake event in The City next week, has won international acclaim for “Legend of a Suicide,” “Caibou Island,” “Dirt” and “Goat Mountain”– all tragedies.

His books have done well overseas, he says, because Europeans “are more immersed in the tradition of literary tragedy” than Americans are, and because independent booksellers continue to be a strong, steady force, particularly in France. (One store there sold 1,300 copies of “Legend of a Suicide.”)

Yet Vann, a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England, remains a solidly American writer, whom critics have likened to Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.

“It’s nice to be compared to authors I love the most. I’d give up my entire family to have written ‘Blood Meridian,’ but I realize that’s never going to happen,” he says, laughing. But he adds, “I am a neoclassical writer that way.”

Vann, who grew up in Alaska and spent many years in California, says he differs from most contemporary fiction writers who focus on issues and ideas because “a character with a problem isn’t enough.”

“Classical drama is bigger than ideas,” he says. As it was with the Greeks, the central mystery still is “Why do we hurt the people we love the most?”

Though his books mostly have dealt with family conflict, “Aquarium” also addresses how money controls people’s lives. Vann admits that, for most of his adult life, he lived below the poverty line and felt “intensely bitter” about it.

His fortune has changed. With a regular teaching gig two months a year, six months to write and the rest of the year to travel (he recently was kite surfing in Vietnam and in China on a book tour), he says his life “is a dream come true in ways I never could have imagined.” His next task, which he’ll take up in April, is to begin another book and to write (one page per day) for a few hours every day. So far, the only thing he knows is that it will be set in a place to which he feels connected.

He has no outline: “An idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Drama is creating on the page,” he says.


David Vann in conversation with Tom Barbash

Presented by Litquake

Where: Viracocha, 998 Valencia St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. March 23

Tickets: $10 to $15




Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 272

Price: $24

AquariumartsbooksDavid VannTom Barbash

Just Posted

Epic Cleantec uses soil mixed with treated wastewater solids to plants at the company’s demonstration garden in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Epic Cleantec)
This startup watches what SF flushes – and grows food with it

Epic Cleantec saves millions of gallons of water a year, and helps companies adhere to drought regulations

San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler congratulates San Francisco Giants first baseman Darin Ruf (33) in the dug out after hitting a home-run in the 5th inning against the Washington Nationals at Oracle Park on July 9, 2021. (Christopher Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
How Gabe Kapler sets the tone for Giants success with strategy, mindset

‘There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the hands-down manager of the year’

The Kimpton Buchanan Hotel in Japantown could become permanent supportive housing if The City can overcome neighborhood pushback. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco leaders must reject NIMBY discrimination against homeless housing

By San Francisco Examiner Editorial Board “We support supportive housing. But just… Continue reading

The 49ers, opening with a win against the Lions in week one, play the Eagles. (Courtesy 49ers)
NFL Week 2 predictions: Our picks against the spread

By Emmanuel Morgan New York Times Last-second field goals. Teams flooding the… Continue reading

“Ticket to Ride,” on view at RVCA’s Haight-Ashbury store, is made up of artistic renderings of Muni tickets. (Courtesy Optimist Williams)
Celebrating pre-tech SF through Muni transfer tickets

‘Ticket to Ride’ exhibit presents public transit as art and equalizer

Most Read