The Cherokee trail that led to a killing: David Vann on his family history

The US writer David Vann tells Max Liu about family history – and  family trauma

Eight years ago, David Vann was contacted by members of the Cherokee nation. “They were,” he explains, “pissed off that Chief David Vann was getting buried in Google searches by articles about me.”

Vann felt guilty about helping to erase a 19th-century Native American from the digital frontier, but his conversations with the Cherokee yielded important discoveries about his ancestry. "It turns out I'm related to them," he says. "It was a surprise, but my Cherokee heritage explains some strange things about my new novel and it helps me make sense of the men in my family. They're loners who only feel at home sleeping on the ground, hunting and fishing."

Sitting on a sofa in a flat owned by his publisher, Vann talks with the intensity that drives Goat Mountain, the fourth work of fiction to draw on his troubled past. "At age 11, I killed two deer and it felt like executing a person," he says when I ask how he came to write about a 1970s hunting expedition. The two deer "rolled down the glade, screaming like humans". On a separate hunt, Vann watched a poacher through the crosshairs of his father's rifle but, when the young, unnamed narrator does this in the novel's opening chapter, he inexplicably pulls the trigger. The boy's father, his grandfather and their friend spend three days in the northern California wilderness arguing about what to do with the poacher's body and how the boy should pay for his crime.

Discovering his Cherokee heritage has taught Vann that "we're shaped by legacies beyond our experience" and his corpse-strewn fiction consistently examines how the living reckon with what the dead leave behind. He describes his acclaimed story collection, Legend of a Suicide (2009), as "psychological revenge" on his father, who killed himself when Vann was 13. His previous novels, Dirt (2012) and Caribou Island (2011), also depict characters who are trying to come to terms with trauma.

"I don't think we're doomed by our family histories but they exert tremendous force," he says. "I'm appalled and terrified by things I discover when I write. There are times when I cry, but that's why I do it. I couldn't get published for 12 years but writing was always about contact with my unconscious and transformation."

At 46, Vann's life sounds idyllic. He and his wife live half the year in New Zealand, spend summers sailing off the Turkish coast and, in the autumn, he teaches creative writing at Warwick University. He's relieved to be away from America and, asked why he thinks his books are more popular here than there, says: "Americans today can't read tragedy. They're determined to keep up the lie that they're good whereas in the UK everyone is totally willing to think about their own badness." It's difficult to interrupt him but, when he declares himself "anti-American", I insist that he clarify what he means: "I can't hate America because it's where I'm from. I love the land and the literature, but we're the most bloody, vengeful, stupid nation that has ever existed."

Vann's pessimism about his country was compounded when he wrote a non-fiction work, Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter (2011): "Writing about the university shooting in Illinois put me in touch with the most negative aspects of America, our military, our broken mental healthcare system, guns, libertarian politics."

Does he tackle these subjects indirectly in Goat Mountain? "Yes, it's an intensely political novel, even though it could be the story of any group of men on the land from thousands of years before. Some of our activities and rules haven't changed. The boy wonders why we celebrate killing a deer when we don't celebrate killing a man. I believe our morality is fragile so the book pushes against core beliefs that hold us together and asks: 'Is there basis for them?'"

As an atheist, Vann was initially surprised to find biblical patterns in Goat Mountain. "The story of Cain murdering Abel is invoked, the boy's grandfather acts as a kind of terrible god and the dead poacher becomes a Jesus figure," he says. "I connect that to my Cherokee heritage because the spread of Christianity was the biggest problem Native Americans faced. Goat Mountain gets closer to being an inferno than anything else I've written."

Is it the culmination of a series of autobiographical stories which began with Legend?

"What links my books is that they're told through landscape. I transpose the conventions of Greek tragedy to Alaska or California. I also write in a rural tradition which reaches back through American transcendentalism to British romanticism. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake, I believe nature doesn't give a shit about us and our unconscious isn't connected to it."

Writing is, for Vann, the way to negotiate the disconnection between people and places. He's learned, however, that our gravest actions often defy explanations. "The moment when the boy shoots the poacher is fundamentally opaque and the same applies to my father's suicide," he says. "Even after writing about it for 10 years, I still don't understand why he didn't not shoot himself."

There are tears in Vann's eyes but he laughs when I observe that the word "love" appears for the first time on Goat Mountain's final page: "It arrives at the end of all my books. The men in this novel are cold as stone but the boy doesn't realise that he'll miss them until it's too late. I feel my father should have stayed alive because I loved him and that disappointed love lies behind my stories."

As the conversation repeatedly returns to events that occurred over three decades ago, I remember one of Vann's stories, "Ketchikan", in which the 30-year-old narrator refers to "these tragedies… that I had let shape my life so permanently". Is Vann's life still defined by loss?

"Yes and no. I was hesitant to get married because I thought that was a step towards my father's suicide. Now I feel fine about it and I want to have children." Has writing helped? "I experienced tremendous relief when I finished Goat Mountain because it's the best and final book I will write about my family. I thought I might never write again. Then I started work on a novel about Medea and I realised that I've always had interests outside my own life. We all want to be made whole and that's what I'm trying to do by telling stories."

The Cherokee trail that led to a killing

"Dust like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day. Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed. The pickup a segmented creature, head twisting opposite the body. A sharp bend and I nearly tumbled off the side … Kneeling on a mattress tied over the pickup bed, all the camping gear beneath. Northern California, 1978"