A few days before spring break began, I found myself taking some time out of the busy week to hike through the light rain to Amherst Books for the evening. Even though I took the short route through the parking lot across from Val, I was still a minute late, walking into the back room of the store at 8:01. Sheltered from the cold, almost slushy drops of water, I instantly relaxed once I entered the room: Filled with Amherst English professors and their students, and some others, the warm atmosphere was characterized by light conversation and the crumble and crunch of cookies. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone, and there was barely enough space, but I found a comfortable spot on the floor in the back next to the children’s books.
A few moments later, the guest of honor, author David Vann, was introduced, and brought to the podium. The funny kind of awkward (he laughed at himself as he acknowledged how each of his works end in death), yet charming and honest, Vann graciously read aloud a portion of his new novel, “Aquarium,” answered many questions and simply shared a little bit of his life with us.
Born in 1966 on Adak Island, Alaska, David Vann grew up in a family unusually ridden with suicide-committers, one of whom was his father. He found refuge in a childhood obsession with fish, which he admitted was slightly unhealthy for his social life growing up. Though his novels are fiction, his writing usually reflects these two real elements of his life: Essentially, he found that writing fiction was the most effective way to work through and come to terms with his father’s sudden, intentional death, and that these comfortable underwater descriptions could ease him into it.
Going into college, he knew he wanted to be a writer, as he had been a great storyteller — or “liar,” as he put it, a quality the Vanns shared — growing up. Vann told us he actually began his college education at Williams, but captured the Amherst-based crowd’s attention after comically describing the details of why he quickly transferred to Stanford after just his first year. After spending many unsuccessful years as a writer, he unsurprisingly took a hiatus to work on a boat. His career gained momentum, and he published the novels “Legend of a Suicide” and “Caribou Island.” He now teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick in England, in addition to writing every day. Vann’s novels have received several awards, been picked for both the Times and the New Yorker book clubs, and are very popular in Europe.
Amherst was the second stop for his “Aquarium” tour, the first being the Harvard Book Store in Boston. Vann interrupted himself often, adding stories here and there, and often confessed to his own self-consciousness and the weirdness of reading something of his own aloud to a large group. He seemed to read the section of the novel without too much emotion, or even enthusiasm, stopping at one point to describe how he miserably failed at attempting a Scottish accent for a line last time (accidentally making it Australian), and would not do it again as to not offend anyone in the audience.
Although hearing an author read his own work is often moving, for a crowd sprinkled with aspiring novelists, the real value of the event was getting the chance to ask Vann about his work, and receiving honest responses.
On how to prepare oneself, education-wise, to be a good writer, Vann’s advice was to take creative writing classes, but more than that, to study Latin intensively. He described a 14-hour-a-day summer Latin program that he claimed improved his fluidity and the structure of his writing more than anything else.
Vann also referred to the power of writing through the unconscious to create something great, even shocking for the reader to experience. He also said that as an author he used writing therapeutically to discover something he needed most — in this case, opening the door to truly examining and understanding his father’s death, which he said he did through the writing process of “Legend of a Suicide.”
In describing his writing process, Vann emphasized his way of focusing on continually illustrating the scenery and developing characters to drive the plot forward, rather than focusing on action or ideas.
“I sometimes think that an idea is the worst thing that can happen to a writer,” Vann said in an interview with the New York Times in 2011, and he repeated this to the Amherst Books audience two weeks ago.
Like his novels themselves, David Vann presented himself as blunt, which the attendees of the reading seemed to enjoy and appreciate. The only disappointment of the night: I forgot to bring my copy of “Legend of a Suicide” for Vann to sign.