I write Greek tragedy told through a wild western landscape

Goat Mountain

David Vann was born in the Aleutian Islands and spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska. He is the author of the international bestseller Legend of a Suicide, which has been translated into eighteen languages and won several prizes including the Prix Médicis Étranger, Caribou Island and Dirt.

The narrator is an adult looking back on past events which happened when he was 11. How did you build this unusual and sometimes unsettling voice?

I write without an outline or plan, but right away, in the first pages, I could tell that I wouldn’t be able to write what I wanted if I was limited to the voice and perspective of an 11-year-old. I wanted to be free to use any language and say anything. So I made it a retrospective narrator.

The landscape is very present, it is almost a full-fledged character in this story of blood and secrets. Is Goat Mountain a real place? Why did you choose to set the story there?

Goat Mountain is the ranch where my family hunted for deer every fall. It was where our stories and family history were kept, our most sacred place. The first short story I ever wrote, more than 25 years ago, was set there, and it makes sense to me that the novel that finishes my family material would go back to there. After this, there will be no more books with my family history in the background, as far as I can tell. And as you point out, landscape is central in all my books. Each day I describe the place, like a Rorschach test, and as the landscape shifts and takes on pattern and form, I found out what the story is about and who the characters are. I write Greek tragedy told through a wild western landscape.

There are frequent references to the Bible, and notably to Cain. How meaningful is it for you to link the story to the image of the first murderer?

I’m an atheist and was surprised to see the Holy Trinity show up in my book, and such an extended meditation on Cain, but it makes sense to me now, since the book is about our desire to kill. If you take away all the religious references, the book would be about nothing, and the narrator’s very strange views of the Bible do all fit together into a coherent interpretation. The book is a depiction of an inferno, in a long tradition. The inferno is the natural goal of all tragedy, an external landscape corollary to a felt landscape of our badness within.

“Born into a world of butchery, a child will embrace butchery and find it normal”, the narrator says. Is there no way out of this kind of inclination?

I think there are plenty of ways out, and that life is surprisingly redemptive, with second chances. I don’t think any of us are doomed. But I wrote a nonfiction book about a school shooting, which made me think more about our desire to kill or ability to kill without feeling anything, and I have a hunting background that I wonder about, and my father’s suicide, so I’ve had to think about what we can be at our worst.

With such a tough subject to recall, we could think that the narrator writes for closure, for himself, or for memory. As a writer, who or what do you write for?

I write to be made whole, I think. I think that’s the goal of the strange unconscious transformations made on the page. What was meaningless is made patterned and meaningful, and the ugly is made beautiful.

Editorial reviews (3 reviews)

It would be flip, but not wholly untrue, to call Goat Mountain an existentialist-vitalist work of redneck horror.

“Goat Mountain,” his third Sophoclean novel, is muscular, existential, barbaric and dense with allegory.

Vann’s brutally vivid prose creates a chilling, visceral, and haunting story that burrows its way under a reader’s skin and leaves a permanent impression.