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.

IF YOU GO

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

Contact: www.litquake.org

BOOK NOTES

Aquarium

Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 272

Price: $24

AquariumartsbooksDavid VannTom Barbash

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Organizer Jas Florentino, left, explains the figures which represent 350 kidnapped Africans first sold as slaves in the United States in 1619 in sculptor Dana King’s “Monumental Reckoning.” The installation is in the space of the former Francis Scott Key monument in Golden Gate Park. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What a reparations program would look like in The City

‘If there’s any place we can do it, it’s San Francisco’

Officer Joel Babbs at a protest outside the Hall of Justice in 2017 (Bay City News file photo)
The strange and troubling story of Joel Babbs: What it tells us about the SFPD

The bizarre and troubling career of a whistle-blowing San Francisco police officer… Continue reading

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a COVID-19 update at the City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site in April. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Gavin Newsom under COVID: The governor dishes on his pandemic life

By Emily Hoeven CalMatters It was strange, after 15 months of watching… Continue reading

People fish at a dock at Islais Creek Park on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
What Islais Creek tells us about rising sea levels in San Francisco

Islais Creek is an unassuming waterway along San Francisco’s eastern industrial shoreline,… Continue reading

Deputy public defender Chris Garcia outside the Hall of Justice on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
As pandemic wanes, SF public defender hopes clients will get ‘their day in court’

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has… Continue reading

Most Read