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The life you save may be your own: Writer David Vann visits Johnson Youth Center

Author of "Legend of a Suicide" shares his story, writing strategies with at-risk youth

Posted: October 27, 2011 - 12:00am
Misty mountains.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Misty mountains.

 

When best-selling author David Vann was 13, his father shot himself in the head. In a telephone interview last week, Vann described the ensuing period of his life as “very scary.”

For one, he explained, he felt immense guilt. Right before the suicide, he declined his father’s offer to homestead, just the two of them, for a year up near Fairbanks. (Vann explores a similar scenario in the haunting novella “Sukkwan Island,” part of the story collection “Legends of a Suicide,” a New York Times editor’s choice 2008.)

Vann also inherited his father’s gun collection—“I don’t know who thought this was a good idea”—and began leading what he terms a “double life,” sneaking around at night watching neighbors and shooting at various (“thankfully inanimate”) targets.

But perhaps most powerfully, Vann said, his friends “were just awful.” Suddenly, he was the kid whose dad died, and while he grew into his role as the constant butt of jokes, he did not enjoy it.

“Life had become such hell,” said Vann, who was born in Adak and spent his early childhood in Ketchikan before the family moved to California. “But I kept getting straight A’s, so no one said anything.”

When Vann turned 16, he took matters into his own hands.

“I dropped all my friends — I had no choice. And then I had no friends for a while, which is absolutely terrifying for a teenager.”

But eventually, Vann met some students who happened to be involved in theater; soon, he became involved in theater, too.

“For the first time, my life actually improved,” he said, crediting this with fostering his interest in language and writing. “I always wrote, even when I was a kid, stories about hunting and fishing. But that’s when I started working with a purpose: writing about my dad.”

Graduating from Santa Rosa High School in 1985, Vann attended Williams College in Massachusetts for a year — “I didn’t really get along there” —before transferring to Stanford University, where, finally, he sought therapy.

“I literally felt like my brain changed, physically,” said Vann. “It would’ve been good to go to a therapist straight away, instead of getting a whole a bunch of guns.”

Slated to graduate in 1989, Vann ultimately finished in 1990, not for any kind of personal troubles, however; he took the time to make room for an extra Latin program. He went on to earn his MFA in creative writing from Cornell University before returning to Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow.

From ages 19 to 29, Vann kept writing about his father, developing the pieces that would eventually comprise “Legend of a Suicide,” including his very first published short story, “Ichthyology,” which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, “plus a bunch that wound up in the garbage.”

His second work of fiction, “Caribou Island,” was released last year.

Vann is scheduled to address students at the Johnson Youth Center during two hour-long workshops on Thursday. Visiting Juneau as part of a statewide library tour — the previous week he was touring Europe — Vann’s side trip to Johnson Youth Center came about as a serendipitous friendship between JYC librarian Julie Coghill and 49 Writers co-founder and program director Deb Vanasse.

“I remember feeling as a kid that my life wasn’t entirely my own,” Vann said, pointing to the dangers of negative outside influences. “Part of the reason I didn’t want to spend that year homesteading with my dad was out of fear of what I might become; Alaska was a rougher place. All my friends up there were getting into things way earlier.”

Still, geographic location is important to Vann, who often uses sense of place as an indirect way of addressing character, conflict, and dramatic theme.

“Most of all, writing can transform ugliness into something else,” said Vann of his message to at-risk youth. “It helps you discover what things mean. Real life isn’t meaningful. When tragedy happens, it’s not cohesive. In fiction, there’s redemption.”

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