7 Questions with David Vann

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Author David Vann discusses his new novel Caribou Island, Sarah Palin's Alaska, and how to defend yourself from Mexican pirates. To listen to the extended interview click here, or subscribe to our iTunes podcasts.
–Stayton Bonner

You’re an Alaska native. For us Lower 48ers, how accurate is Sarah Palin’s new show?
Wilderness is a giant mirror. Sarah Palin’s Alaska is about her hypocritical family values and is nothing like the Alaska I know. She’s oblivious and breaking rules, as in when she’s too close to the bears and hassling them while trying to use them as a metaphor for how she’s a momma bear. But actually the momma bear in that footage is trying to protect her cubs from Sarah Palin.

Okay, what’s your Alaska?
As a kid, I’d run through the Ketchikan-area rainforest and fall through the floor to hit a second floor of old growth. I always felt as if bears and wolves were chasing me. The first king salmon I caught was taller than I was. It was a 45-minute battle and I thought the salmon might win. My grandfather caught a 250-pound halibut. My father helped him pull it up inch by inch for 300 feet. I remember looking into dark brown and green water, seeing the halibut start out small and then get bigger as it neared the surface. I always think of that as a metaphor for how imagination and the Alaskan landscape work for me.

For our 2010 Life List, you wrote about traveling the world on a teacher’s salary. What’s the secret?
A willingness to be sketchy.

Such as?
Nobody would publish my first book for 12 years so I got a 200-ton master’s license and ran charters along the coast of Turkey, the BVI, and Mexico. I once hit a freak storm in the Caribbean where it went from flat calm to 60-foot seas in one hour. It was far worse than The Perfect Storm. Our 90-foot, 200,000-pound boat went up a wave and then fell off it. We popped out like a cork and were then broadsided by another wave and dropped. Our ½ inch steel plate in the hull cracked. It literally broke us. 

You wrote about Mexican pirates for our October 2008 issue.
I ended up on a boat with a broken engine in a drug-running port on the Mexico/Guatemala border along the Pacific coast. A place called Puerto Madero. It took me four months to get the boat out of there. While trying to leave in a disabled boat that could only travel at one knot, I was circled by two pangas whose pilots began ramming the boat, demanding cocaine, trying to climb aboard, and threatening to return with guns. They weren’t professional pirates like you come across in Somalia. They eventually went away and I sailed straight out to sea with no lights on.

So writing’s a pretty boring job.
The Mexican navy once bound, beat me, and searched my boat for drugs. One of my crew members had left a bong in my bilge. I thought I was going to Mexican prison. I was stiff and had trouble walking from where they’d hit me in the back with a rifle butt. One of the beggar kids I’d given peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a couple weeks came up and handed me the pipe. The little pickpocket had stolen it from the police—whom had taken it as evidence—to keep me from going to prison.

This is good stuff. Why bother with fiction?
If that memoir ever gets published no one will believe it.

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