David Vann on Life and landscape

Author David Vann

It's no secret that David Vann's recent novel, Goat Mountain, returns to the territory of his semi- autobiographical debut novella and short story collection Legend of a Suicide. But if that book, published when Vann was 42, exorcised the demons unleashed by the suicide of his father when Vann was a 13-year-old, Goat Mountain is, as he declares at its end, "the novel that burns away the last of what first made me write, the stories of my violent family". It is true, Vann declares down the phone from New Zealand, where he now lives for part of each year: "I do actually feel finished with the family stories."

Indeed, for a man who's written six highly acclaimed books dealing with the legacy of family suicide and violence, Vann is remarkably upbeat. In fact, the 47-year-old American writer and professor of creative writing at England's University of Warwick exudes wholesome sunniness and good cheer. And for an author who's notched up some 15 of the world's most prestigious literary awards as well as some of the most glowing reviews in 20 languages, he's refreshingly unpretentious.

He laughs away the many comparisons to Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy and instead speaks of his fascination with Greek tragedy. "It's when life falls apart that you see what the Greeks knew, which is that we hurt the people closest to us, that our lives are lived out of control. We have no idea what we're doing. And that to me is what Greek tragedy is all about."

But there's no denying that Vann's luminous sentences put him in a class all his own. Landscape is an ever- present force in his novels and takes on an inferno-like resonance in Goat Mountain, which explores the atavistic nature of violence. Revolving around three generations of men hunting for deer on Goat Mountain, the book was inspired by his family who were "just crazy for hunting. But my next two novels have nothing to do with my family. So I really have finally moved on. But in terms of the ones that are already published, they do all fit into a kind of boxed set," he laughs. "I've been very lucky. Five suicides and a murder and growing up in beautiful places. You couldn't have hoped for anything better for writing. And especially because I write everything through landscape. So to be able to grow up in places like Alaska then rural northern California while having all the drama in the foreground of the suicides and the murder, plus all the divorces and bankruptcies, was incredible, actually."

Not to forget all his own aborted ocean voyages, boat building and sinkings, the subject of A Mile Down, a non-fiction that releases in Australia this March, and which again harks back to his father's suicide. Interestingly, it was the first book he had published, initially solely in the US, but was written after Legend of a Suicide which he'd tried to get published, unsuccessfully, for 12 years until he finally was successful in 2008. A Mile Down tells the story of the interim years when he was failing to get his writing published and took to the oceans, to realise his dream of running a "university on water", by holding writing classes on a sailboat out of Turkey. "Because I couldn't get published for 12 years, and I couldn't get a tenure-track job, I had this completely other career."

A Mile Down is such an engaging account of his adventures as a captain and boat builder that it became an instant bestseller when it was finally published in the US in 2005. "From that point, I didn't really look back. I was able to get a tenure-track job and I haven't tried to do boats for business since."

He is still an avid sailor and spends part of each year with his wife, Nancy, sailing in Turkey, despite his travails as boat builder there. "It's true I lost my shirt there but I really love it." For Vann too, those disaster-packed years were critical in finally escaping the legacy of his father's suicide.

For as he reveals in A Mile Down: "I think I went to sea to repeat my father's life and get close to his suicide and test it really. I had always felt doomed, that things would get bad and that suicide would be waiting for me, that it would be inescapable and I would repeat what he had done." But in a terrible moment on the ocean, when everything went awry and he was forced to abandon the ship he'd spent months and all his funds building, he explains: "I realised my brain just didn't think of suicide. I realised that it's just not in my nature."

Since walking away from the "kind of awful immersion in boats where they just take over my life", he says: "I was able to write six books in six years." He's actually written 10 books in total and has four more releasing soon, first in Spain and in France, where his work is particularly popular.

"A writer needs luck and generosity from other people and everyone has been very generous in a lot of different places," Vann says. "I've been wonderfully lucky."

David Vann will be a guest of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.