David Vann writes black-humoured and fascinating stories about people in crisis. He talks to Alexander Bisley. In France, readers are ready to be disturbed. In the US and NZ, not so much. David Vann
Acclaimed US writer and Northland resident David Vann is diving in the Philippines when I reach him to discuss his immersive new novel Bright Air Black, a reimagining of Jason and the Argonauts, from the point of view of Medea. We talk about Greek tragedy, violence and... Donald Trump.
Researching you sailed your boat for three months through the Greek Islands, and from Croatia to Turkey. Why?
I have been sailing in the Greek Islands for almost 20 years, but when I was writing Bright Air Black, I wanted to voyage through all of them slowly, to get a feeling for the size of that world. And when I saw the ancient ruins at Corinth, the setting for Euripides’ famous play about Medea, I was struck by two things. One was the perfect location, where such a narrow strip of land separates two seas and there’s a high, rocky, defensible mountain. The other was the small size of the ruins from Medea’s time.
How might Bright Air Black challenge readers?
In France, readers are ready to dive in and be disturbed and challenged. In the US and New Zealand, not so much. Bright Air Black is guaranteed to surprise and challenge almost any reader about religion, about our vision of the ancients and our origins, about political power, the power of women and what we’re capable of.
Are all your novels Greek tragedies?
Yes. In all my novels, the two main characters are not enemies. They love and need each other, but are destroying each other because they’re acting unconsciously and out of control, caught up in the momentum of their selves and lives and histories.
They do something awful that breaks a taboo, and afterward it’s difficult to know or re-establish the rules for who a self should be, what a family should be and what a society should be. They’re put under pressure because of this break in the rules, and that pressure is unrelenting until they themselves break and are revealed, and this is when readers (and the writer) test and see themselves, who they are or might be.
This is the model for how we read and why we care about stories, all from the Greeks and entirely unchanged by 2500 years and various technologies.
We need to talk about Donald. Thoughts?
I really thought the Republican party had destroyed itself in nominating Trump, paying a price after courting the far right for too many years (the gun nuts, Tea Party, etc). Up until [alleged] Russian interference in our elections and James Comey’s perversion of our political process with his empty but well-timed letter about investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails again, it was clear that Trump was going to lose and the Republican party would undergo an enormous crisis and at least partial dissolution. But then Trump won, and suddenly the marginalised far right was vindicated and became the centre of power, an extreme upheaval in American politics. So who knows how long we’ll pay.
We know he’s appointed cabinet members who will dissolve all our protecting institutions from the inside, with 4000 political appointees, and we know the Supreme Court will be more conservative for a long time, probably decades, but he’s capable of bigger disasters. And the GOP didn’t destroy itself. It was reborn in its ugliest and most frightening version.
Why are you a Kiwi resident?
I’ve been a resident of New Zealand for 14 years now, and I love it more each year. I live on a ridge overlooking Taupo Bay, and every evening after running on the perfect beach with stunning headlands and maybe two other people around, I sit in the spa tub to look at the ocean. New Zealand has the highest quality of life I’ve ever seen, because of the combination of low population, stunning landscapes and an easy, friendly culture.
Might you write about New Zealand?
I’ve begun writing almost all of my books in New Zealand, because it’s so calm and quiet and good, and I can focus. And I want to write a novel actually set in New Zealand, but so far I haven’t been able to, and I think it’s because I’ve never struggled in New Zealand. All has been good there, without conflict, and drama is born of conflict.