Dark mat­ter

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

Waikato Times - Your Weekend (Waikato Times) - - Feature - By David Vann (Text, $37) is out now.

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.

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