Walking in Water

The associate professor in USF’s MFA in writing program and rising international literary star is accustomed to wading through the adverse and unlikely

Written by Lindsay Meisel
David Vann

Photo by Diana Matar.

David Vann’s life has not gone the way he planned it. Raised in Ketchikan, Alaska, and educated at Stanford and Cornell universities, Vann had a story in the Atlantic Monthly by the time he was 25. It was a promising start for a young writer, and it gave him confidence that he would soon find a publisher for the novella and short story collection he had been working on, “Legend of a Suicide.” But its unconventional style and dark title made it anathema to publishers, and the manuscript sat untouched for years. Broke and dejected, Vann borrowed money and bought a sailboat, planning to build a charter business that combined afternoon cruises with morning tutorials in creative writing.

Ten years after his story ran in the Atlantic, he still hadn’t found a publisher for his book, but things were going relatively well. His charter business took him to beautiful places and still left time to write every day. He was even working on a memoir about his idyllic life in the Caribbean. But then, as if cued by fate, a freak storm sank his 90-foot ketch, which happened to be loaded with most of his belongings—while he happened to be on his honeymoon.

The event, of course, had a significant impact on his memoir. “It made for a much more interesting ending,” Vann, 45, muses. It also made a compelling enough story for publishers to finally bite. “A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea,” as it came to be titled, was Vann’s first published book and a best seller. After spending years just trying to get by, stressed about finances, and haunted by a painful past, he has become a rising star in the international literary scene and a professor in the University of San Francisco’s MFA in writing program.

A Sinking Legacy

Vann comes from a family of sinkers. His grandfather sank one boat; his uncle, the same boat twice. His father forgot to put the drain plugs in a brand new fishing boat on the night of its launch, and the next morning it lay 30 feet below the surface. It might appear that Vann was simply reenacting the poor decisions of his fore-bears, but the colossal failure of his boat sinking liberated Vann from the weight of another family legacy—suicide.

Five members of Vann’s extended family have taken their own lives, including his father, when Vann was 13. For years, Vann felt certain he’d meet a similar end. But when his boat sank, he was surprised to find his will to live still very much intact. And though he is inclined to dwell on the morose—“Even if things are improving, I’m still closer to death than I was last year”—his tone and manner reveal unflagging cheer. For who but the most ardent optimist could pursue a career at sea with such a foreboding family his-tory? Or wake up to write each day after years of rejection?

“I’m resistant to learning,” Vann said of his tendency to repeat the same mistakes. His doggedness may not have served him well at sea, but it’s essential to his writing. Much of his work draws inspiration from the mistakes and misfortunes of his past, using literary form to turn trauma into beauty. “Legend of a Suicide,” which was finally published in 2008 to critical acclaim, builds its narrative arc around the loss of Vann’s father. The book has won ten prizes, including the Grace Paley Prize, a California Book Award, and awards in France and Spain for best foreign novel (the Prix Médicis étranger and Premi Llibreter). It was selected for The New Yorker Book Club by Lorrie Moore, who called its writing “heart-wrenching and gorgeous”—and recognized by the New York Times and 40 other newspapers and magazines as one of the notable books of the year. His first novel, “Caribou Island,” was an international best seller and short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Both books are being published in 18 languages.

His much anticipated recently released novel, “Dirt,” centers on 22-year-old Galen, a New Age enthusiast with bulimic tendencies. Vann wrote “Dirt” with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allows mid-career professionals to work for a year with as much creative freedom as possible. Vann chose to spend his year in New Zealand, where he and his wife, Nancy Flores, are building a house together. At the same time, he finished not only “Dirt,” but a second novel as well. That book, “Goat Mountain,” is scheduled to be published in 2013.


An excerpt from Vann’s latest novel

He hopped a little as he sang, arms raised up, but then went back to a slower stride. That felt more real, more ceremonial.

And then suddenly he was in the open, in the full moon, the dirt road white and luminous and the wide pool of water shining before him. The moon straight ahead, beckoning. He felt pulled toward it, felt acknowledged by the moon, recognized. The song had become a moon dance, and the moon had listened.

The moon was offering him a gift, this water. This was why he had been drawn here. The surface of the water always in motion, the light never still, but evolving in pattern. This is what Siddhartha had seen. In the passing of the water was the passing of self, of attachment, and in the shapes on the surface one could find the face of all things. Every longing, every pain, all of it would form for a moment, a trick of the light, and then dissolve. It was when we looked at water that we dreamed, and remembered the tug of previous incarnations, and what we longed for was our true form beyond this body, beyond this incarnation, beyond this world of illusions.

Galen understood now what he was meant to do tonight. The moonlight a path across the water, the proof, finally, of what he was. He walked toward it, or was walked toward it by the universe. The stream of beautiful sounds, the bubbling and coursing, a voice reassuring, the light soft, and he had lost his feet. They had become one with the light and would cross the surface in the same way that the light lay upon the water.

Galen ecstatic, his entire soul rushing with love. His foot at the surface, cold, the breath of the water, and that was all right, it was happening, but then his foot plunged through and he tilted, trying to keep his palms up, trying to save this, trying not to lose faith. The next step could hold, so he threw his other foot out there, but it plunged, also, and his ankle twisted on rock below and he was falling forward, hit the water face­first in an icy shock, all his air gone. He breathed water and pushed against rock and sand to get up, thrashing with his arms. He was coughing, stumbled and fell again, his ankle twisted and too difficult to stand on, so he propped on his butt and arms and pulled himself backward toward shore. He crawled out of the water and just lay in the dirt. What the hell, he said. When is it going to happen?

From Dirt © 2012 by David Vann, reprinted by permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

A Writer’s Life

Vann has a protestant work ethic when it comes to writing: He’s produced a book a year for the past four years, moving expertly between fiction and non-fiction. (His book “Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter,” about the Northern Illinois University student who, on Valentine’s Day 2008, killed five and wounded more than a dozen before killing himself, was published in 2011 and won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction.) 

Vann writes for two hours every morning, whether he’s wind-surfing in New Zealand, teaching in San Francisco, or touring through Europe to promote his books. The daily practice is an essential part of his process, and one of the most important lessons he believes he can convey to his students in the MFA program. “Any activity that feels like a gift actually comes from structure,” he said.

The lesson isn’t lost on his students. “He was at times brutally honest about what it takes to be a ‘successful’ writer in today’s current publishing climate, which can be disconcerting to a bunch of new MFA students,” said Jenny Chu ’12. “But at the same time, against all odds, he reminded us about the possibility of it as well.”

That possibility is something that USF has been investing in through its overhaul and professionalization of the MFA program over the past decade. Vann, who has also taught at Cornell and Stanford, was hired in 2009 as a recent step in the program’s dramatic transformation, which includes an increase in the number of full-time faculty, more publishing success among graduates and faculty, and the ability to attract top student applicants from across the country. One such student, Donna Laemmlen ’12, appreciated Vann’s presence in the classroom. “One might expect David to be a bit morose, but one of the great surprises about him is that he is consistently upbeat,” she said. “I think his attitude is a direct reflection of how much his craft has provided catharsis for him.”

Drawn to Tragedy

That catharsis is a formal element of much of Vann’s fiction. He’s drawn to tragedy, he said, for the way it allows him to explore not just his own life, but “whether we’re good or bad as people.” In “Dirt,” Vann explores what’s most basic—and base—about human nature, especially where the two intertwine. The book follows the relationship between a mother and son, rewriting Vann’s own history in the process. Galen’s world is composed of details drawn from Vann’s mother’s side of the family—and the book is Vann’s first time writing about them. Vann doesn’t just air family secrets; he exaggerates them, creating something that looks like his own history, only more shameful and scandalous.

Galen, Vann said, is a version of himself— the worst possible version of himself. Like Galen, Vann considered himself part of the New Age movement as a teenager. Drawn by the way it emphasized detachment from the physical world, Vann became so intoxicated by the religion that he wound up believing he could walk on water. Galen shares this belief, and in one memorable scene, he makes an attempt that leaves him wet and disappointed. Vann used to seek out mountain lakes or even hot tubs to test himself. He would take step after hopeful first step, plunging into not just water, but his family’s legacy of sinking.

Writing as Spiritual Practice

Today, Vann has long since eschewed religion of any kind. The problem with New Age spirituality, he says, is its selfishness. It preaches that other people aren’t real, and that their sole purpose is to teach the believer a cosmic lesson. But “Dirt” isn’t simply a diatribe against the New Age movement. It’s also a work that tells us something about Vann’s own form of religion: writing. “When everything in real life feels incidental and unconnected, writing  puts it all together in a way that feels redeemed,” Vann said. Real life blindly metes out pain and misfortune, and trying to make sense of it is as hopeless as trying to walk on water. But with fiction, Vann can weave the events of his life into an underlying structure that supports him as he walks across the surface. In this sense, writing gives Vann the same thing that New Age gives Galen: a story. “Fiction,” Vann said, “lives the fantasy of the New Age that everything in the world is there for you alone.”

When Galen falls prey to this belief system, it enables him to commit an unthinkable atrocity against his mother. Vann, on the other hand, is all too aware that his mother is real. Midway through writing “Dirt,” he realized that she might be less than thrilled about having her family history exposed in such unflattering light. “I got really depressed,” Vann said, “because this thing I hadn’t even planned on writing was going to get published, and my mother would read it and never talk to me again.”

In the end, it’s not clear whether “Dirt” is meant as an allegory or a mirror. That tension is probably fine by Vann, who says that the best writing advice he ever got, from his former teacher Grace Paley, is that every good story is at least two stories. Meaning, he elaborated, always comes from two things in collision with one another—past with present, allegory with mirror, or man with water.


• Guggenheim fellow, 2011

• National endowment for the Arts, Literature Fellow (Prose), 2008

• John L’Heureux Fellow, Stanford University, 1995-96

• Wallace Stegner Fellow, Stanford University, 1994-95

Prizes and awards:

• Prix Médicis étranger (French prize for best foreign novel), 2010

• Premi Llibreter (Spanish prize for best foreign novel), 2011

• AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction, 2009

• California Book Award, 2008

• Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, 2007

• Prix des Lecteurs de L’Express (national readers’ prize in France), 2010

• Prix du Marais (readers’ prize in Lille), 2011

• Henfield/Transatlantic Review Award

• 1st Place, Fish Stories Best Fiction Contest

• 1st Prize, River City Writing Awards

• Esquire Contributor’s Award, 2008

• Prix des Lecteurs de la Maison du Livre de Rodez (local bookstore prize), 2010

• Prix de la Librairie Nouvelle de Voiron (local bookstore prize), 2011

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