Portrait

David Vann talks about the real story behind A Mile Down.

By Romy Ash.

A Mile Down with David Vann

David Vann is sitting in a boardroom. It’s a boardroom that was once a master bedroom in a penthouse apartment. It’s on the 10th floor. It has a grand view, but the room has a feeling of claustrophobia. The ceiling is low as thick cloud. Instead of a bed, there is a long table and black swivel chairs. He is facing away from the view. No one else is looking at the view either, because David Vann is making a joke. There is giggling, grinning, and the claustrophobia of the room serves only to heighten the hilarity. 

Earlier, I watched him walk into the building. He walks like a taller man. His clothes flap around him: slacks, a neatly ironed collared shirt, blue suit jacket. An “intelligent man” uniform of sorts. He is an academic, a professor at the University of Warwick in England, but his face tells a different story. His face says he wouldn’t look out of place in a holey T-shirt, an old grey sweater, or a hunting jacket. 

He did wear an old grey sweater every day for a year. The year after his boat sunk, when his livelihood was lost and he was writing A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. He wore a grey sweater and limped, a hurt dog with tendonitis in his knees – an injury incurred when he was thrown out of a life raft during said disastrous career. “I was very grumpy when I was writing A Mile Down,” he says. “Grumpy and limping. I come from a family of sinkers. The first one was my grandfather, it was an old wooden navy cruiser. It was a lake called Clear Lake, the biggest natural lake in California. He’d take church groups out singing on board. Luckily it went down without any of the church groups.”

There is a sense of structure to his stories and compassion for the listener, and peppered throughout are jokes that fall lightly from his mouth.

“My father sank a boat in Alaska. He bought a brand new, little sport fishing boat. He proudly launched it one day, and the next day we came back, and we’re standing on the dock looking down through clear water to the boat sitting at the bottom. It looked very beautiful. My uncle sank the same boat twice. He actually had an old wooden navy cruiser, on the lake in Idaho. But I sank the biggest boat in the deepest water. A 90-foot boat that went a mile down. I won.”  

His boat sank in the warm waters off the Moroccan coast after a storm that came with no warning – the ocean went from flat calm to 20-metre seas – and proceeded to clobber the boat to pieces. 

He laughs, but when he speaks of the sinking of his own ship, his brow also furrows. A deep line appears dividing his brow in two. It’s the kind of line that will strengthen as he ages. 

“The absurd – a lot of the humour was the absurd. Our rescue diver, he was really fat. It’s not the image conjured up by ‘rescue diver’. He’d probably never rescued anyone before and he certainly didn’t rescue us. Our crewman had to help him get rescued by his own helicopter, and then they just flew off and we never saw them again. In retrospect, to look back on it, it’s absurd and funny, but at the time it was gruelling and horrific. There didn’t seem like there was any chance we would live. We could hear steel walls breaking in the boat. Waves dumping thousands of gallons on the deck. We really thought we were dead, and then we weren’t.

“I’ve copped a lot of flak for criticising my rescuers. I revised it. I was actually trying to make myself seem less like a jerk. I wasn’t trying to make it a better book. I was just trying to make myself a less dislikeable character – and I couldn’t really do it. It was just in my nature, it’s who I am, my failures – it’s just who I am in the book.” This is from a man who speaks and listens with rapturous attention. 

“It’s uncomfortable publishing non-fiction. My mentor mentioned to me that A Mile Down is a moral tale in which the protagonist learns nothing – and that’s part of the humour for me, actually. One thing that’s remarkable about me is my ability to repeat my mistakes over and over again. That I don’t learn. That’s the real story of A Mile Down.

He breaks into a smile. It’s a smile that stretches more to one side than the other. Without the smile he looks severe. He has short receding hair and chiselled cheekbones, but with the smile it’s like his face
forgives itself. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "That sinking feeling". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.