Friday, May 04, 2007

Q&A with Lydia Davis

I haven't met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term.

By Kate Bolick | April 29, 2007

You may not have heard of her, but Lydia Davis is the sort of fiction writer that other serious practitioners -- Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith, for instance -- admire and champion. Her famously short stories (some are only a paragraph long, or even a sentence) defy classification, which makes them blessedly refreshing to read but maddeningly difficult to describe. To call them an epigrammatic hybrid of poetry and philosophy risks making them sound pretentious and difficult, when in fact they're accessible and forthright. Likewise, to say they're contemplative and methodical leaches her wry, understated humor right out. The best way to make sense of Davis's work is simply to read it.

Davis's new story collection, "Varieties of Disturbance," out next month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is her eighth work of fiction, and the first to be published since she won the prestigious MacArthur Award in 2003. Along with being a writer, Davis is an accomplished translator -- she's translated six books from French into English, including "Swann's Way," the first volume of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." Thanks to the "genius grant," she has been able, for the first time in 30 years, to devote herself exclusively to her fiction.

Happily, the 57 stories collected are as intriguing and inimitable as ever. Each takes a thought and steadfastly pursues it to the very end -- whether that takes 12 words or 40 pages, and whether the subject at hand is loneliness or a complicated professional relationship. Some of the stories excavate the intricacies and limitations of language and perception; others, such as a critical analysis of 27 schoolchildren's get-well letters, make new a familiar experience. The sensation of reading them calls to mind what the novelist Claire Messud once wrote about Proust: His "gift to his readers is the discovery not of experiences that we did not know, but of experiences we did not know we knew."

I called Davis last week in the former grammar school near Albany, N.Y., that she and her husband, the abstract painter Alan Cote, now call home.

IDEAS: You're often called a minimalist; do you consider yourself one?

DAVIS: I don't particularly like that label. It sounds so stingy and grudging. And writing brief stories isn't all I do. I resist labels anyway.

IDEAS: So I suppose the same goes for the "experimental" label?

DAVIS: I haven't met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term. It must be people who aren't experimental writers who call people experimental. It's just the wrong word. "Experiment" carries the suggestion that it may not work. I prefer the idea of being adventurous, exploring forms. You wouldn't call Beckett an experimental writer, would you? You look at the whole span of his career -- he started with poems and short stories and novels, and then he got into these strange texts. Kafka is the same with his parables and paradoxes. You wouldn't say, "Oh he's an experimental writer," you would just say, "That's Kafka writing in that way because that's what interested him."

IDEAS: How about "avant-garde"? What does that term mean to you?

DAVIS: I guess I prefer that term to the others. But "avant-garde" -- being out in front -- implies that other writers will follow, and I don't think that's the case. The German writer Peter Altenberg, much admired by Kafka and Thomas Mann, was writing eccentric little stories back around the turn of the last century. Kafka was probably influenced by him -- maybe to write his parables and paradoxes -- but this did not lead to a general movement in the direction of short, pithy stories.

IDEAS: Has winning the MacArthur, and being freed from having to work as a translator, changed your writing process?

DAVIS: The writing has felt a little more naked. I mean, at first it was a great relief. "Swann's Way" was an enormous job, and a very absorbing one, so it was a relief not to feel obligated to do anything for a while. But then I just simply missed translating. It had been part of the structure of my life for so long, and there was something very steadying about it.

More generally, it makes me all that much more alert to shades of meaning, and it allows me to write in another style that's not my own, which is a great pleasure. One thing I believe about translating is that the translator should not impose a style on the translated work. I try to disappear into the text when I'm translating, and speak with the voice that I hear when I read the original, and speak with that voice in English.

IDEAS: It can feel sometimes like your stories arrive in your mind already intact. How do your ideas come to you?

DAVIS: Most of them begin somehow in a notebook, because I keep various notebooks and I try to write down anything that interests me either in terms of language or situations. Most of the time they just remain notes, because time is pressed, and you can't develop all your ideas. But some of those go immediately into a story, and I try to write the story then and there if I can, so I don't lose it. Once it's mostly written I can safely go back to it later and improve it.

Sometimes I have a formal idea, but that's a little unusual. For instance, I did the very, very short ones while I was translating Proust. I wondered how short I could get and still write a piece that felt to me like a fully living, complete piece. But that was in reaction to the great length of the Proust, and the fact that I had so little time to write, and I really couldn't think of writing anything very large while I was doing that translation.

IDEAS: How about the longer stories?

DAVIS: "Helen and Vi" is almost 40 pages, but was intended to be only two or three pages. It's simply that once I got going there was nothing I wanted to leave out. I try to let the form grow out of the demands of the material. If the material only needs a sentence it only gets a sentence; if it needs a paragraph it gets a paragraph, and so on.

IDEAS: It's very methodical.

DAVIS: I like the idea that the brain can do so many things at the same time. That even in an emotional relation your brain can still be noticing how things are said, and be hanging onto them. You may be in tears, but at the same time still enjoy the certainties of language. So you can try to write it down later.


Blogger Shaun Levin said...

Thanks for posting this conversation. It's always a treat to read what Lydia Davis says. I enjoyed your questions - especially about different labels.

6:15 AM  

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