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February 28, 2011

David Vann: Genesis

Posted by Stephen

David Vann, author of the critically acclaimed  Legend of a Suicide talks about the glacial walk that inspired his latest novel Caribou Island, which is in stores now.

caribou.JPGTwo years ago, in late January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, from the shore toward Caribou Island. It was early afternoon but looked like evening, the sun low. I didn’t know how thick the ice was, or how safe to walk upon it. The snow in drifts, like dunes of sand. No other human, and no bird or other animal or even wind. Just silence. The air so clear it seemed I should be able to touch things that were far away, the mountains above the lake.

I kept walking, but I was very afraid of falling through. I had no experience here. I’d visited this lake only in summer, when it was windy and blue-green from glacial silt, sometimes almost milky. I knew that if I fell through, there’d be no one to help and I’d simply freeze. But I wanted to walk out to Caribou Island. It had held a fascination for me for years. I’d begun writing a novel 12 years earlier. It was set here, but I’d never been able to write past the first fifty pages. I couldn’t see the longer arc. I didn’t know whose story it was or where to focus. And I felt that walking out to the island I might find how to tell the story.

I saw a long crack in the ice, indicated by the snow that had fallen on it differently. I knelt and swept away the snow with my glove and saw black. I’d wanted to see how deep the ice was, how thick, but the lake beneath was so dark the clear ice became essentially opaque. I was peering into nothing. The ice could have been two inches thick or 10 feet thick. And something about gazing at the lake up close and not being able to see it or know it suggested something. I could imagine Irene walking out on this lake and trying to find her marriage and peering down and seeing nothing. I understood that it was her story, that I had to focus on her in this place, in this landscape, and that the rest of the novel would come from there. 

And so this walk on the frozen lake became Irene’s winter vision late in my new novel, Caribou Island, and I wonder whether other books are like that, with one scene or moment which was the genesis. The most important quality about this moment is its certainty, a certainty that it will not mislead. As I wrote Caribou Island, working on it every morning, I kept returning to the place, describing the place, and the characters and story came from the landscape and the transformations of the landscape. At one point, Irene is running in the forest on Caribou Island and feels the earth tilting beneath her and knows the entire island is rolling over, top-heavy, and this is Irene being written in place, this is discovery of Irene in the place, and this is why I write.

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