Interview: Writer Lydia Davis on found material, routines and the distinctions between genres

Lydia Davis

Van Allen Hall — Thu., Apr. 14 at 7 p.m.

Lydia Davis - Illustration by Brock Meunch
Illustration by Brock Meunch
In Lydia Davis’ story “How I Know What I Like (Six Versions),” the narrator justifies why she might like something: “I think I like it. I show it to her. She likes it. She is like me. Therefore, I might really like it.” The thinking here is precise and comprehensive, tracing a mind as it traces itself, much as the narrators in many of Davis’ stories do — contemplating the word “cremains,” for example, or relationship finances, or boring people — all with the slight weirdness of the deeply quotidian studied up close.

Lydia Davis writes stories that are short (some are just a single sentence). She’s published one novel and seven story collections, including the glorious and gloriously thick The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in 2009 and, most recently, Can’t and Won’t (2014). She’s also a celebrated translator of Proust and Flaubert, among others. Davis is the 2016 Visiting Writer-in-Residence at UI’s Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing and, in addition to a reading on Thu., Apr. 14, she’ll do a public Q&A on Fri., Apr. 15 at 10:30 a.m. in the Frank Conroy Reading Room of the Dey House.

Over email, I asked her about narrators, dreams and genre.

Little Village: How does your translation work influence your own writing? And vice-versa?

The translation work—being involved with another language and culture — gives me perspective on English and keeps adding to my understanding of individual words, and how language works. It’s a very good counterpart to my own writing. Also, it is a form of writing without the anxiety of one’s own composition, so that is very enjoyable.

What’s your writing routine?

My routine, such as it is, is to take a lot of notes all the time, not necessarily toward writing any individual piece, just for the interest of it — I write down anything that strikes me. That gives me a lot of material to go to when I want to try to shape and finish a piece. Also, if I have an ongoing project, which I usually do, I try to get to the computer by mid-morning at the latest, and then return to it after lunch, and sometimes in the evenings, too. I try to work at least four hours a day, not counting business, emails, etc.

How do you edit (if at all) your dreams for your dream stories?

Certainly I edited them. Part of my objective was to shape a little story out of a longer, less coherent dream. Or, if the dream was fragmentary, to use the language of the telling to give it the impact it had on me when I dreamt it.

How do you find your writing has changed over the years?

It has changed in at least a couple of ways: I keep trying new forms, whatever seems interesting. And I’m also more and more using “found” material — overheard dialogue, etc.

Do you conceive of a narrator before you begin a story? Or do the two grow together?

The story begins in whatever voice (narrator) it seems to ask for. I do not sit back and decide. I try to remain open to what the story itself asks for, rather than impose on it.

I love the way you write about language. I’m thinking specifically of “Grammar Questions.” How do you find your concerns about language playing into your creation of narratives, even when those narratives don’t deal specifically with language? (Or does everything implicitly deal with language?)

I write about what interests me, whether it’s an ant walking over the counter or a piece of language I overhear. But, yes, language is always involved, because, especially in the shortest stories, the way the language is handled makes all the difference. I’m always thinking about language and hearing how it’s used.

I write nonfiction and poetry, and I’m often asked to define the difference between the two –between how I write in each genre and between the genres themselves. On the one hand, I think genre doesn’t matter, but, on the other hand, I often find myself asking: “Is this a poem or an essay? Did this really happen?” How do you see the distinction between, say, a story and an essay? Does that distinction influence how you write? Usually I’m asked about the difference between a prose poem, for instance, and a very short story — both of which look like a single paragraph. I haven’t thought as much about the difference between a poem and an essay because they seem farther apart. Most poems are much shorter than most essays, for instance. The lines between genres, though, are very blurred because, of course, there are all sorts of different kinds of poems. A short prose paragraph by Anne Carson is nothing like “Hiawatha” or “The Raven,” yet they’re all called poems. Does it have to do with intention? Partly, probably. I write this or that to be a poem or an essay, however it appears to you. But I also think of song: a poem should sing. An essay, perhaps, argues. (But we get into trouble with definitions, because each can do the opposite, too.)

What are you reading nowadays?

I am rereading a book on Zen by a Dutch writer — Janwillem van de Wetering, who was the author of police procedurals as well as a student of Zen. It’s what I would call my “spirituality lite” reading — engrossing and not demanding, but also containing some ideas worth thinking about. This followed a rereading of Hesse’s Siddhartha, which was more demanding. I’m also reading the very fine work of W.H. Hudson, 19th-century classics of nature writing — again, very engrossing. These are descriptions of the behaviors of animals and birds — and a few humans. The friendship between a swan and a trout — odd and totally captivating, because he observed so closely and in such detail. And I’m reading many other books. I am in the middle of quite a few at the same time.

What’s an important non-literary influence in your writing?

Politics, music? Anything that has an effect on my thinking and my emotions, I suppose.

Is writing fun for you?

Yes. Although it’s not always easy or relaxed, of course. Certain kinds of writing are painful in the early stages — until I feel I’m off and running. This is not the case with fiction but rather with non-fiction, which can sometimes return me to a state of school-paper anxiety. But I get past that eventually. Fiction, on the other hand, I do enjoy writing.

Rachel Z. Arndt is a writer and a list enthusiast. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 196.

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