USF author David Vann's Legend of a Suicide was one of The New Yorker
Book Club's selections of the month for April.
Celebrated writer and University of San Francisco Associate Professor of
creative writing David Vann teaches students that every good story is at least
It’s an idea he takes from American short-story writer and
poet Grace Paley (1922-2007). “One story serves as
the occasion, and lurking behind it is a more important story that comes to the
fore by the end,” said Vann, whose writing style recalls renowned
authors Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff.
A 2008 California Book Award winner for his collection of
short stories with a novella Legend of a Suicide and 2009 AWP Nonfiction Prize winner for Last Day on Earth:
A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, Steve Kazmierczak, Vann teaches fiction, nonfiction, and linguistics in
USF’s MFA in writing program.
Legend of a Suicide,
which centers on his father’s suicide when Vann was 13, garnered rave reviews,
showing up on best-sellers lists in the United Kingdom and France before making
it big in the U.S. more recently. In April, it was one of The New Yorker Book Club's selections of the month.
“For three years, I didn’t tell anyone my father killed
himself,” Vann said, recalling the period in his life that the book covers. “I
said it was cancer.”
The book, whose structure takes as a template Geoffrey Chaucer’s
“Legend of Good Women,” is a series of portraits of Vann’s father, his despair,
and Vann’s bereavement in the wake of the suicide. “In fiction, we can take
what was ugliest in our lives and transform it into something beautiful,” Vann
In class, Vann sees himself as a guide to students trying to
achieve their most ambitious work and cross what many see as the gulf between
their writing and great published works.
A linguistics aficionado, one of Vann’s favorite student
exercises, or series of exercises, is to have students write a story without
using the letter “e,” then to write a story where each sentence’s main verb
must be placed in the second part of the sentence, and, finally, to write a
story in which nouns must be used not as nouns but as verbs or adjectives.
“This allows students to see the flexibility in the
language, and the transformations, and, perhaps, begin to make choices in style
which better suit their material,” Vann said.