For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

David Vann: The Short Form Interview

A short story offers a stark contrast to our baggy and meaningless lives which ramble on.

Author of Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, and Dirt

The Interview

In writing Sukkwan Island you've said you came upon a shock that changes everything. Frank O'Connor has said one of the advantages of the ‘conte’ is everything is over and done with before the story proper begins. The surprises one finds in writing longer works, do you find them in short stories? 

I think the act of transformation by the unconscious, the kind of moment that rewrites our lives and surprises us in the writing, can happen at any length. And I think writing without this, writing that has followed an idea or plan and remains limited to that, is dead. But this is just something I’m saying about my own writing. Everyone writes differently, so I don’t mean to pronounce upon anyone else’s writing process.

We have an odd market, in that so many prizes (even the big prizes, such as the Pulitzer) and 300 writing programs are focused on short stories, yet readers don’t really want short stories.

Your book Legend of a Suicide went unpublished for some time. The subject matter was a heavy contributor to that, but the form is unique as well — a novella framed by short stories. Can you speak about the process of trying to sell a story collection in today's publishing environment?

It really is true that story collections or odd forms such as a novella framed by stories are generally unwanted. I had a top agent, Binky Urban, who wouldn’t send out Legend of a Suicide even though she had no reservations about the writing or quality of the book. 

Many writing careers in the U.S. are begun with a story collection and novel, but it’s always a risk for agents and publishers, and that novel is really what they’re banking on. If I’d had a good novel or even the first 50 or 100 pages of a novel, Binky might have gone out for a two-book deal. We have an odd market, in that so many prizes (even the big prizes, such as the Pulitzer) and 300 writing programs are focused on short stories, yet readers don’t really want short stories. There are some happy exceptions, especially related to the Pulitzer Prize because of its power, but generally stories are a hard sell, even more so in Europe than in U.S. 

In most foreign languages, my novella (Sukkwan Island) from Legend of a Suicide is published on its own, without the frame of the other five stories, and that’s the form in which the book has had the most success, in winning prizes (such as best foreign novel in both France and Spain) and sales (selling over 200,000 copies just in France). I think someone trying to publish a story collection today should look to the prizes. Legend of a Suicide was published by UMass Press as part of the AWP prize series. That same prize series was also how my book about a school shooting was published (Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter). I’m extremely grateful to AWP and their prize series and participating publishers. Without them, these two books would not have been published, and in fact my fiction career would never have begun, and I probably would not have written the four novels I’ve written since Legend was published. It’s clear to me that no agent was ever going to send out Legend of a Suicide.

In most foreign languages, my novella from Legend of a Suicide is published on its own, without the frame of the other five stories, and that’s the form in which the book has had the most success.

It’s a common perception that writing is a personal, trial by fire process, but as a teacher you are required to give students various rules about how a story does or does not work. How do you find that balance?

I discuss, in detail, a selection of my favorite stories, looking carefully at style, structure, elements of craft such as characterization, etc., and I talk about the short story as a cohesive and paranoid world. I use an approach from linguistics and the history of the English language (Latin, Old English, and Middle English, thinking about grammar and transformations, especially in syntax). Then I bring in examples of rule-breakers and try to offer my students freedom to do whatever they want. I do believe my students won’t get anywhere without extended study of literature and language, though. Going to workshops is not the real work.

What draws you to short stories?

A short story is a compressed, cohesive, paranoid world in which nothing is incidental. It offers a stark contrast, in other words, to our baggy and meaningless lives which ramble on. I enjoy slipping in to a bit of meaning.

What role does it play in a writer’s development, and in the field of literature as a whole?

I wrote short stories first, before anything else, so they still seem to me the core of fiction, though I understand that theatre is in the background, the long 2,500-year history of tragedy. But short stories still are where we put the most pressure on characters, I think, in the smallest space, even compared to poetry or theatre. Because of that, short stories still affect how we write and read novels.

How do a writer’s goals differ between writing short fiction vs. long? Does the short form allow more freedom to experiment?

I think freedom is in the longer form, and immersion. The short story can break open a smaller moment, as poetry can, but I do find novels finally more ambitious and satisfying, and I’m able to discover much more as a writer.


Recommended by David Vann

Signs and Symbols

All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.

We read it in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov.

Originally published in The New Yorker.

Everything That Rises Must Converge

The vision of the two hats, identical, broke upon him with the radiance of a brilliant sunrise. His face was suddenly lit with joy. He could not believe that Fate had thrust upon his mother such a lesson. He gave a loud chuckle so that she would look at him and see that he saw. She turned her eyes on him slowly. The blue in them seemed to have turned a bruised purple. For a moment he had an uncomfortable sense of her innocence, but it lasted only a second before principle rescued him. Justice entitled him to laugh. His grin hardened until it said to her as plainly as if he were saying aloud: Your punishment exactly fits your pettiness. This should teach you a permanent lesson.

Barn Burning

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!”