In October 2016, Lydia Davis—who has published six collections of stories, translated both Flaubert and Proust, and is a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant—spent a month at UVa as the Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. For those of us who love to read or write, her work needs little introduction. What fans of Davis might not know, however, is how stunningly generous she is with her time, a rare quality in a writer of her caliber. During her time on campus, she gave lectures on translation and advice for young writers, and readings from her own work. She composed a master class for undergrads in the creative writing program and met individually with the MFA students. In all of these events, she committed herself absolutely.
It should come as no surprise to discover that Davis, a master of the condensed story, is dedicated to precision, to detail. In her conferences with students, she urged us to return to the roots of words, to consult the OED often. In her reading to the Charlottesville community, she left the audience in stitches with stories as brief as a single sentence. In one of her lectures, she stressed the importance of wonder, particularly in the age of technology. “Try not to answer every question you have right away,” she encouraged those in attendance, reminding us that we never know what we might imagine if we only let ourselves be curious, or even bored, for a while.
It’s this sense of wonder that has always drawn me to Davis’ prose— she never gives her readers complete answers, allowing them to imagine themselves into the spaces around her words. Part of this is due to the size of her stories. They are not incomplete, but they allow you to consider what else surrounds them, what else these narrators might have to say, what other ordinary miracles are taking place in their lives. But part of it also has to do with the finesse she brings to her portrayal of the human heart. Meeting Lydia Davis, it became instantly clear where her deftness at empathy comes from. She speaks softly and with great temperance; she treats each word of another writer’s manuscript with care. She is concerned not just about her own work, but about the state of the world we live in. I had the privilege of sitting down with Lydia Davis, five days after the presidential election, to discuss politics, the craft of writing, and her upcoming lecture, “Thirty Pieces of Advice to Young Writers.”
CF: It’s been nearly a week now since Donald Trump was elected president, a reality that it seems our country is still struggling to accept. Regardless of what sort of president he turns out to be, I think it’s fair to say that this election revealed some deep divisions within in our country. What do you think the role of the artist, and particularly the role of the writer, will become in the next four years?
LD: I have added a piece into my talk for tomorrow night about how important it is to be active and involved in your community. I wasn’t going to say that, mostly because people are busy at this age, but after what happened on Tuesday I have added it. So my reaction and my advice is to become all the more involved. I’m already fairly active. I hold office in my little village—I’m on the village board. I think that’s very important. My reaction is side by side with fear and utter discouragement, which I won’t say tomorrow night because it’s too depressing. But alongside that I can also react to this with determination. There must be a number of ways I can become more active in pursuing what I think is right and reacting against what I think is wrong. So, writer or not, I think everybody should be more involved. And there are so many ways to become involved. As for the second part of the question, what should a writer do in particular? Well, a writer should write. Maybe a blog or a letter to a newspaper? I’m not sure how effective that is. You have to be so careful of preaching to the choir. I think people should go out and march and protest, and then again I question that—is the march effective? But to stay home is worse. I’m still wrestling with these questions.
CF: Let’s move away from politics and talk about the craft of writing, specifically narrative position. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about two of your stories and some of the choices you made in how to tell them. First, the story “Blind Date,” which could easily have just been a first person story, but instead features a first person narrator listening to her friend tell the story—interjecting almost nothing. Similarly in “Break it Down,” another of my favorites, we have the third person narrator that opens the story and then never returns. How did you make those choices?
LD: Well, let’s see. I can answer about the second one a little more easily. It had, originally, a much larger framing story. But I showed it to a friend who earns her living as an editor. She read it and she was very moved by it but she said, “why don’t you cut the surrounding story, the frame story?” She said, “you really don’t need that.” But I still wanted that little piece at the beginning. Maybe because I wanted to be sure it was clear that it was being told from a man’s point of view. So you need the “he” right at the beginning, otherwise it could have been a woman telling the story, which would have made it very different. This way it’s clear that it’s a man. And then I don’t think you need any closing frame. I think too often younger writers think they have to close it neatly. You don’t have to.
CF: The “they” in the first draft—was it the man and the woman?
No, no, no. It would have been a couple of guys probably. I don’t think it could have been any woman. I don’t think he would have been telling it to a woman. I think he would be telling it to a guy friend. As for the other one…[“Blind Date”] I can’t remember now, other than the fact that I had been to the Adirondacks and I wanted to write about it. That happens sometimes. It happened with this story “Jury Duty.” I’d had jury duty and I wanted to write about it. It interested me a lot. So being in the Adirondacks with the Adirondack chairs and the antler decorations—I liked it and I wanted to write about it. There must have been other reasons too, but it just felt right to have her be telling the story to another woman. There’s a lot I don’t remember about it, because I don’t go back and re-read my stories.
CF: At your reading the other night, you discussed writing “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” and how it was inspired by events in your own life. Can you talk about how you take your own experiences and shape them into fiction?
I realized at a certain point quite a while ago—decades ago—why should I elaborately invent fictions if there was something in my life that I thought made a good story? Why couldn’t I more or less tell that story? So that was kind of an eye opener. But you also have the freedom to change things and neaten it up. Just like the way I changed things in the Flaubert stories [from Can’t and Won’t] and made them better constructed stories. You can change details. You can reverse genders if you want, and that’s a great way to hide the truth. Just reverse the genders. Compress the time frame or do whatever you want. The “Blind Date” story would be a good example because that had been me, of course, having that date and then hiding from the poor guy and chickening out, which I think is horrible, really. And it was me experiencing the Adirondacks. It was not me having that specific conversation with a woman friend. But I had been there with someone and I think I set that story in the specific place that we had been in the Adirondacks. That’s the sort of thing that you can do very easily when you take pieces of your own life. And you can mix it up all kinds of ways. Take pieces of your own experience and pieces of someone else’s experience and put them together. I like the fluidity of being able to write from reality and invent at the same time.
CF: Has anyone ever recognized themselves in your writing?
LD: (laughing) Oh yes.
CF: Did it go well?
LD: Well, with close friends, sometimes I ask permission. I’ll show them something that they’re in and say, “How do you feel about this? If you don’t like it I’ll change it or I’ll take it out.” They’ve had different reactions. In the case of one story, a friend had a little bit of a bad reaction to seeing herself from the outside. Because it’s always a partial view. Even if I’m scrupulously honest, even if I don’t think it’s negative, it’s still difficult. I probably wouldn’t like it very much if someone did this to me. But another friend, who was in the story very much, said that she liked being in it. She said that it made her feel like her life was somehow being recorded or immortalized. She was pleased. And then, for example, “The Two Davises and the Rug” is based on me and a neighbor of mine whose name is Davis, and a rug. I did ask him. I showed it to him and I said “do you mind my using our two names like that?” Because I could just as easily have called it “The Two Harrisons and the Rug.” It wouldn’t have made that much difference. I like using the name Davis, which is such a boring name. He was fine with it. So, I ask if I think it’s going to be a big problem, but I don’t always know.
CF: A fair amount of what you read also involved travel and movement—looking at people on the train, in the airport. Has travel played a significant role in your life?
LD: It’s probably more happenstance. I’m sitting still and that’s a good time to write. But I really enjoy many aspects of travel. So maybe that’s coming out also. I never would discount that.
CF: Some of your pieces are as short as a single sentence. Do some of your shorter stories start as longer things that get cut down? Or do you have an idea what the size of a piece is going to be when you sit down at the desk?
LD: Usually I’m pretty sure what the size is going to be. Sometimes things surprise me by either growing or getting cut way back. But usually I have a sense. The story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” was supposed to be a page and a half, and that grew. There’s another story called “PhD” that’s now just one line or two, two sentences. And it started as a paragraph. It was like a dream story and then I decided it needed just to be two sentences. But normally—normally—I know. Among your own stories, do you have a personal favorite? In Can’t and Won’t there’s one story called “We Miss You” that’s about school children. It’s the one with the letters and the sociologist analyzing the letters. That’s one of my favorites. I don’t know, there are quite a few that I really enjoy. But that’s one. Actually I read one of my favorite stories at the reading the other night, but I read it in the wrong place. It was the very short one about death and housekeeping. It was surrounded by lighter stories, funny stories, and so people found it funny, but to me it’s very haunting.
CF: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach revision?
LD: I read through something again and again and again until nothing bothers me in it anymore. And even then, sometimes there are pieces that still feel a little mild. Maybe nothing more bothers me and I think it’s finished, but it may not be earthshaking. Some things are finished almost right away—I’ll look back through a notebook and see something that is already a complete story and just needs a title, so I’ll put a title on it, which may not be so easy because sometimes titles are very difficult. Sometimes they’re very obvious and sometimes they’re more involved.
CF: What is the most essential piece of advice you think a young writer, or a beginning writer, can hear?
LD: Well, there are several essential pieces of advice. If I could only give one, I would probably say to study the technique of the best writers extremely closely. That would do the most good if I could only give one piece of advice. It wouldn’t be a definitive list. It would exclude some writers. I wouldn’t study Rowling for excellence, I’m sorry to say. I know Harry Potter has a dear place in many hearts, but as a stylist, and as a writer, she is not someone you want to study. So it depends on what you want to learn. If they want to study description, they wouldn’t go to Grace Paley, whose work I love, because she’s very good at dialogue but she has almost no description. They should develop the ability to analyze what’s going on in a good piece of writing. Not in the bigger sense of themes or symbolism but just line by line, sentence by sentence. I keep trying to add to my list of writers that I studied to learn techniques— I always mention Beckett and Kafka and Joyce and Nabokov, but there are others. James Agee, who wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I was recently remembering Saul Bellow. I’d forgotten, but I read his book Herzog at a certain point when I was a teenager and that made a big impression on me. He writes very well. Grace Paley, of course. This is sort of a funny one, but the book Trout Fishing in America [by Richard Brautigan]. It’s not really about trout fishing, but that was one of those trendy, hippie books, which was actually very good. It’s sort of like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, another trendy book, which I only read half of. But books like that show you a different thing you can do. And I think I was very impressed with the patience and detail in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, just like James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. They’re both about patience and detail. I read a great deal when I was a young writer, and I kept track of what I read. A lot of books feed into how your sense of literature evolves.
CF: What are you reading now?
LD: I’m reading Ali Smith. She’s a British fiction writer. It’s funny, we have this divide just because they’re British writers instead of American writers. I guess some of the British writers, like Ian McEwan, manage to leap over here. And Julian Barnes. But everyone should read Ali Smith, because she’s very good. She’s got one novel, Hotel World, that is about a young woman falling down an elevator shaft. It’s narrated from her point of view after her death. Rachel Cusk is another good British writer. I’m reading Norwegian every morning. That’s my little hobby.
CF: Reading Norwegian authors in Norwegian?
CF: How many languages can you speak?
LD: French is the only one that I know really well. I can read quite a few with a dictionary, although I prefer not to use a dictionary with the Norwegian. My little hobby has been learning it completely without a dictionary. Before that I learned Dutch the same way. And others I’ve had over the years. German was the first one. German, Spanish, Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian. And, you see, when you learn Norwegian then you can make your way in Swedish and Danish and I’m even going to get over to Icelandic. They’re all related—Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, and Faroese. Once you learn one of them, you have a sort of five-for-one deal. There are differences, but you have a good start on the others. I’m not claiming that I can read very deeply or well and catch subtleties or catch hidden quotations or anything, so it’s superficial but it’s really fun.
CF: Have you ever considered writing fiction, your own fiction, in a language that is not English?
LD: No. I love English and I would be frustrated at myself. I would write very crudely in the other language. So unless it was going to be a special little game that I did for one story I wouldn’t want to do it.
CF: I read in an interview that you knew you wanted to be a writer as early as age twelve, but I’m wondering, if you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d like to be instead?
LD: When I was young I was actually more interested in music. I still say that if I could be something else and be very good at it I would love to be able to sing. I can sing but I don’t have a great voice. I’m talking about singing in the sense of really being able to do what you want to with your voice. I’m not saying it’s a great life. I think the life of a writer may be better than the life of a singer, but I think that is what I would want. Something to do with music. I used to listen to Schubert’s song cycles. I would get stuck on one particular piece at a time. I also loved Rhapsody in Blue, the whole record. I listened to it over and over. I was really crazy about music. I would buy the scores and follow along on the score thinking that I could own it even more that way. If you care about music, you really listen. And now I listen to music at home during dinner. That sounds a little sedate, but oh well.