David Vann talks about new novel Dirt before 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival
Writing books that are not for a mother’s eyes
This article is from 2012.
‘I didn’t plan to write this book. It would’ve been better if I hadn’t written it, in fact.’ You can see David Vann’s point, but only because of his latest novel’s content, not its quality. Dirt is about a troubled young man in an incestuous and abusive family, and the author openly claims that elements are based on experiences from his own life. It was never going to go down well with the family at Christmas-time. His mother will be upset, he admits.
While the book, like Vann’s own life, has its luminous moments of horror and violence, it’s determinedly not autobiographical. Rather than needling against the darkest moments in Vann’s history, as was the case in his 2008 fictional debut, Legend of a Suicide, this novel explores the dangerous routes that an extreme personal philosophy can take through a damaged individual, and its impact on an already bruised family.
Really, this madness and its effects are what takes the novel past being just another violent drama. It’s not just sad and horrific; it’s funny and provocative. More importantly, according to Vann, it’s a tragedy. ‘It’s the funniest book I’ll ever write, and also the most brutal,’ he laughs.
When I press this point about brutality and sex and, frankly, whether that’s what keeps readers turning the pages, he disagrees with my categorisation of the book. ‘There’s been a rise of torture porn, and of horror movies like the Saw series, but this is completely different from horror. In tragedy, we’re emotionally and physically connected to what happens to the characters.’
And for a writer of tragedy coming to the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, it helps that, he says, ‘in Europe there’s more willingness to read tragedy.’ So he’s looking forward to appearing at the festival? ‘I would come back every year until the end of time.’
10-19 Aug (with Kyung-Sook Shin), 7pm, £7 (£5).