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
Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press