Interview: David Vann, author of Goat Mountain
The novel, written in Cormac McCarthy-esque prose, tells of a tragedy on a hunting trip
American writer David Vann’s new novel Goat Mountain is a stunning piece of writing. In sparse, intense prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, Vann revisits the titular scene of his childhood hunting days, fictionalising a father-son deer hunt from his youth to create a near-mythical human tragedy, resonant with biblical allusions. It is hard to imagine that any other book this year will surpass its perfectly judged economy and intensity. We spoke to Vann to find out more about the significance of this story to him, the many powerful themes it raises and his unique writing process.
In a note at the end of Goat Mountain you say that this story ‘burns away the last of what first made me write’. Can you talk about the background to writing this novel?
The first short story I ever wrote was set on Goat Mountain. It was called ‘Buck Fever’ and it was about wounding a buck that gets away, and it was about the boy’s relationship with his father. So it was the beginning of writing about my father, and I started there because that’s the most important landscape for us in my family; Goat Mountain is the hunting ranch we returned to every year, and it was where the men in my family all came together, and where our family history was kept – as we walked through the landscape we would tell stories of who [had been] there and what had happened. So it was really our sacred ground. And it makes sense to me that I would start with that material and then end with it; Goat Mountain is the last of the books that will have my family material in the background. I didn’t see that coming: I was actually starting to write a novel set in the Australian outback, and I had about three pages of it – it had two brothers in it, so I was thinking of Cain a bit, and there was a pick-up driving up a dry creek bed, and suddenly I just switched to our pick-up driving up to the ranch as we always did; the opening scene of Goat Mountain.
So you don’t have a clear goal in mind when you write?
No, I had no idea what the book would be about, and I was surprised to see religious elements show up as I’m an atheist. I write because I like the contact with the unconscious every day; the strange transformations that happen on the page, the surprises. I only started to understand this book in the last 50 pages, it was the longest delayed understanding I’ve ever had on a book.
Do you write chronologically, or do you find where the story is going and then go back and rewrite?
I write from the first page to the end. Five and a half months of writing, seven days a week, each morning just an hour and a half or two hours, and just find out what it’s going to be. And it’s published almost exactly the same as the first draft. I cut a couple of paragraphs and I did line edits, but I haven’t added a paragraph or cut a scene or moved anything around.
It’s a strange way of writing. One advantage is that the reader experiences the same thing that I did; it’s the same kind of unconscious dream, and all the strange patterns of that dream are available to the reader.
There’s a visceral and immediate sense to the story. Are there scenes in this book that you have actually experienced? Or is it an imagined story, from a real starting point?
Everything that happens is fictional, but based heavily on one particular trip that we took when I was 11 years old. My father had let me look at poachers through the scope of his rifle several times. But on that trip I killed my first two deer that weekend: my only two deer, I never did it again because it was so upsetting. The second one I shot, I wounded in the spine, and it was paralysed and still alive and crawling with its front legs, and that is a direct source for this book. In the real story my father made me walk up behind the deer and execute it, shoot it in the back of the head with my rifle, and it really felt like executing something as living and breathing and large and alive as a human. And it was so tremendously disturbing that I could never shoot another deer after that. And so that event is something that I’m trying to understand, and trying to understand why it is that we came together through killing things – we killed things every day, hunting or fishing, and that was the only way that we could find each other, that we could be together.
You referred to writing as a way of trying to understand things. Does writing a book in any way solve an issue?
Writing is tremendously therapeutic, and I feel a lot better after writing about my family. After writing this book I actually felt finished, like I was finished with all my work in life. But fiction is about the things that can’t ever be finished or explained or fully understood; it’s about the places that we can’t ever reach. So this final moment of killing… I’ve never been able to understand my father’s suicide; I couldn’t make it inevitable, I could only make it likely or possible. I could see all the patterns and moments that were leading toward it, but in the last moment he could have still decided not to do it. And the same goes for how the boy kills the poacher in this book: it’s not understood why he does it really, or how that’s possible. So the book is exploring something that will never be fully understood. The book can’t finish itself, it can only raise the question.
Something that you raise a lot of questions about in this book is the Bible and Bible stories. There is a searching quality, and while there’s a rejection of traditional religion there’s a sense of a need to understand the Bible’s significance. Can you tell me about that?
It is a terrific need. I’m an atheist but I’ve always needed and wanted religion, and wanted a way to reach back and understand. And writing has taken the place of religion for me, in that it’s a practice every morning, and some contact with mystery, and I have sacred texts that I read and re-read. For the narrator of the book, the man looking back to when he was an 11-year old boy, he ends up coming up with a theology which is actually consistent; he does have a view of how it all fits together, but it seems crazy. It was exciting to see transformations and to see the Bible come alive more, instead of being just the staid, set quantity that the church has said these things are.
It was exciting to think of communion as feasting on blood again, and returning to becoming an animal, for instance! Or thinking of the Ten Commandments as a list of the instincts that won’t leave us, or thinking of Jesus changing into animal shapes, and asking why has the transformation into animal form been taken away from earlier stories? This Old Testament is a collection of all of our cultural myths, and earlier stories.
The book is bleak, and there’s a darkness to what you’re saying, but you don’t strike me as someone who is dwelling on those thoughts…
No! And that’s why it’s a strange experience writing them – I feel pretty good every day, I feel pretty cheery! But it’s exciting to me to come into contact with that. I think for two thousand years hell has been our safe ‘demon land’ that writers and artists use to describe some landscape of their badness, and that spending a little time in that hell with your badness is actually a tremendously reassuring thing. You can feel a lot better after you acknowledge the beast, then it all feels better, it feels fine. Because the true weight, what’s really terrible, is trying to pretend that you don’t have any of the beast in you. That’s such an awful weight. That’s American culture, trying to think that America is a force for good in the world still, that we’re all good. Spending a little time with what’s awful and contemplating why we kill, and how we could feel nothing after killing, and thinking about what rules hold us together – are they artificial? What happens when they break? – thinking about all that stuff and experiencing it through landscape and emotions and dramatic scenes; there is a catharsis, and it is tremendously reassuring to have pattern and meaning made out of what before was terrifyingly meaningless.
It’s interesting using those terms ‘pattern’ and ‘meaning’, because that’s what religion does too isn’t it?
Yes, religion fails because it’s become a habit, just something by rote, and it no longer has impact. It’s become so codified that it’s lost the ability to make new pattern; when someone goes to a church service they don’t have their lives broken open in some way and they don’t have new pattern made out of the pieces being put back together. Religious ceremony was supposed to break us and then remake us, and its ability to do that has largely ended. But you can do that in a novel; you can be broken in a novel and remade.
You’ve talked about the question of how we can kill, and the subject of guns, and the idea of loving and needing guns is central to the characters in this novel. Were you thinking about contemporary America and the amount of gun crime and shootings there while you were writing?
Yeah, I couldn’t help thinking about them. I wrote a non-fiction book about a school shooting where I got 1500 pages of police files, more access than anyone’s ever had to information about a shooter, all completely unedited. All of his emails, his mental health history, military history, and it made me much more negative about America. It made me see more clearly the patterns that are very ugly in American culture, that make mass murderers, essentially. Our right-wing, libertarian politics, our military, our broken mental health system, our fascination with guns; we have 300 million guns, almost one per private citizen – guns that are privately owned. So I couldn’t help but think of all that. My own background is that I grew up loving guns. And that’s the thing – I’m always dismissed by people in the gun movement, they say everything I say is just crazy – but actually I grew up with guns and I felt the power, and I know why people like to have them, and I know how they can have the illusion of feeling safer with them. I really know that culture, but that was all broken for me when my father killed himself with a pistol. I couldn’t help but see at that point that the gun which he had bought for his safety – to keep him safe from bears – actually had not kept him safe. But actually it had a hair trigger, a .44 Magnum; he only had to have an instant of wanting to kill himself and then he was dead. It made it too easy, the power is too much.
I’d like to ask about characters. There’s a line where the narrator says ‘sometimes I think I invented my grandfather’, and the grandfather in this book is a terrifying figure, an incredible creation. Does he have a real-life precedent?
He came from my real grandfather, but went far away from who my real grandfather was. All the men in my family on that side – he was part-Cherokee – they are all social misfits and don’t fit in to the larger culture; they’re loners, they’re depressed, they only feel at home sleeping on the ground and hunting. And there is a kind of coldness and removal to that which inspires a bit of the grandfather.
It was a strange experience to see this character become this terrible god by the end. And to realise that the Holy Trinity was in there – the buck had become a Holy Ghost, because there is something that could never be annihilated in the buck, and the poacher had become a kind of Jesus figure, hanging there above them. It was really strange to see all that happen – it really was a very unconsciously written book! And it was interesting to me to see how buried religion is in me.
I’d like to come back to what you said about your way of writing. It seems that your ability to write in the way you do – with no planning or structuring – is rare amongst writers.
Most of the writers I talk with do find it strange. It’s not that they are all writing the same way and I’m one freak outlier, I think that everyone has a different process, and we all seem a little freakish to each other, I think! Ross Raisin said that he writes through his whole novel by hand, and then starts again from page one, by hand, kind of following what it was before but essentially writing a different book. I can’t imagine that process! The one writer I’ve met who has the same process as I do is TC Boyle. He writes his books in less than a year, publishes it pretty much the same as the first draft, and also doesn’t know often where it’s going to go, it’s unconsciously shaped.
How are you approaching whatever is next?
With Goat Mountain I thought I was done, that I wouldn’t write another book again. But then I wrote a novel about Medea right after it, and she’s someone I’ve been interested in for 25 years. It’s a sympathetic, realistic portrait, set 3,250 years ago following the archaeological evidence, writing about Medea as a destroyer of kings who wants a world not ruled by men, a kind of will to power. It’s the most poetic language that I’ve written, and it’s also the most brutal story, as it’s Greek tragedy and her story involves lots of terrible things. But I loved writing that, and now I’m just finishing the novel after that, which is titled The Aquarium. It’s set in Seattle and it’s my first book that’s not a tragedy. It’s an 11 year old girl meeting an old man in a public aquarium, talking about the fish, and it turns out he is her grandfather and is trying to work his way back into the family. The book is about forgiveness: it’s about whether her mother can forgive her father so that her daughter can have a grandfather. And I’m right at the end of that, probably in the last 10 or 20 pages I’m guessing.