The Shape of Ideas
   by Mark Budman

A Conversation with Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis, a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, is the author of a novel, THE END OF THE STORY (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995), and three books of short fiction, including SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT (McSweeney’s, 2001). She is also the translator of works by Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and most recently Proust’s SWANN'S WAY, and was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. An essay of Ms. Davis on trying to read Tom Sawyer in Spanish recently appeared in The American Scholar.

Budman: In your 1997 interview in Bomb Magazine, you said: “Beckett said somewhere that he didn’t care what a text said as long as it was constructed beautifully, or something like that--all of meaning, all of beauty is in the construction.” In my mind, plenty of works of modern literature are lacking one leg of what I call a tripod: language, characters and plot. The missing leg is almost always the plot. The magic of storytelling around the campfire is gone. If you agree with me, do you see this is as a necessary trend or as a fad?

Davis: I don't want to sound too curmudgeonly, but I'd say that plot survives somewhat better than the other two legs--characters and language. But then I guess it depends on what we've been reading. I should get that quote right, because actually I think Beckett himself quoted St. Augustine somewhere in there: "I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. I wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. 'Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.' That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters."

Budman: Liam Callanan of The New York Times Book Review, reviewing "Almost No Memory" wrote: “The closer one looks, the more details emerge--and the more impressed one becomes with the skill it takes to fit so much into such a tiny space. [Davis writes] in compressed prose that is frequently poetic.” What he said falls into my definition of flash fiction: compressed, multi-layered prose. Your story “Love” from your collection "Almost No Memory" is only 52 words, yet it’s a complete work. What do you think of today’s flash fiction? Is it a genre by itself, or just a stepping stone in learning one’s craft?

Davis: I’ve been very interested to see what different writers have done with the very short form. It can go in so many directions, and whether one chooses a sort of mini-essay or mini-narrative or prose poem, meditation, etc., each will be quite different because the mind of each different writer comes through so clearly--the writer’s way of thinking, viewing the world, and then of course his or her way of handling language. In such a short form, each word has to be right.

Budman: What is your take on magic realism? In your story “The Rape of the Tanuk Women” you bring polar spirits who actually have sex with human women. Is this a genre open to American writers as far as editors and publishers are concerned? Or is it the domain of Latin Americans and Europeans?

Davis: It could be taken on and transformed in a peculiarly American way, I would think. Why would any form be out of bounds?

Budman: But if you survey American literary magazines, with the notable exception of Zoetrope All Story (i.e. The Cavemen in the Hedges), you will rarely see magic realism published. Could it be that some editors are afraid that magic realism will be mistaken for, gasp, science fiction?

Davis: One name comes to my mind in this discussion, and that is George Saunders. I wonder just how you would categorize his fiction.

Budman: Well, he is an engineer like me. Which means he is a literary, goofy, surreal science fiction writer--it all comes with a little known clause in the engineering diploma (should you decide to accept it). What is your take on him?

Davis: I like his work very much. I was bowled over when I first read it--so horrifying and yet familiar and funny at the same time. It does (magically) manage to sit squarely in the tradition of the American short story and yet just as squarely occupy the niche of futuristic fantasy (I guess we can’t call it science fiction because there’s no science in it, but exaggerations of the horrors we already live with).

Budman: Do you see your teaching as an impediment to writing? After all, a good teacher expends a lot of energy to help her students, the energy you can surely use for your creative process.

Davis: Yes, teaching has tended to devour the months that I’m actually conducting courses. I have always liked the students very much, and have never minded reading their work, because there is actually more surprise to be found, and even delight, in that less sophisticated work than in many more polished, published writers. I am also very interested in what can be taught, about writing. But my own combination of stage fright, disorganization, and over preparation have made teaching less than ideal for me as a vocation. I will be taking a long break from it now, and that will be very good for the energy you talk about.

Budman: You are not only a writer of original works, but a translator as well, bringing English language readers Marcel Proust’s "Swann’s Way." Isn’t it hard for you as a fiction writer to bend your will and creative energy to somebody else’s plot and characters? What made you to select this particular work? Why French? Why Proust? Why "Swann’s Way"?

Davis: I have translated many books from French by now, so I’m very comfortable with the process and also the way in which it fits in with my own writing. It is not hard for me to “disappear” into the voice and language of another author, it is even a relief to work on a form of writing that is free of the burden or tension of one’s own invention, although there is a big difference between working on a book I really admire and one that I have little respect for. Translating is often rather like doing an elaborate word puzzle (and I have always liked those). But when the result can be one lovely sentence after another about the landscape of the walks around Combray or how Aunt Leonie manages her illness and her religious observances, then there is a great sense of satisfaction in the work. As for “why French?” I have dabbled in a few other languages by now--I actually learned German before I learned French, and I have done some translations from Spanish and even Swedish for fun, but French was the first language I was taught in any intensive way, and something must have convinced me to concentrate on it.

Budman: If “it is not hard for you to ‘disappear’ into the voice and language of another author,” should that make you a good editor?

Davis: I think the skills are very different. A translator wants to preserve as many aspects of the text as possible, whereas an editor must be able to see what should stay and what should go, what sort of reorganization, for instance, might strengthen a novel. It’s a matter of seeing the possibilities of the text, seeing what is not there as well as what is there. That requires a sort of genius that doesn’t seem to be as much in evidence these days, and it’s not a sort that I have in particular. I’m pretty good with student writing, though. In fact, that would lead me to the next thought, or distinction, and that is that there are many different sorts of editorial tasks, and some of us are better at some than others!

Budman: What advice would you give to budding writers? Should they strive for the signs of tangible success--recognition and money, or be satisfied with feeling good about their work? Do they need a mentor, or could they succeed on their own?

Davis: Well, that’s a leading question! But actually, the answers aren’t all that obvious. Some young writers will always be ambitious for worldly success--recognition and money. But others will take the other path, and work very hard to make the writing as good as it can be without worrying right away about publication. There is plenty of room for both kinds of writers. Of course I think the second way will lead to better or more interesting writing, but it requires a lot of patience and time in a world where everyone is rushing more than ever before. It requires the long view, if you can take it. As for mentors, it does help to have another good and committed writer to show your work to, but that can be someone your own age as well as someone older. I do believe the writing will ultimately be a lot more interesting if the writer does not major in creative writing but another subject and then goes out into the real world, not the world of graduate studies and more teaching! Too many workshops develop a certain skill but also result in a loss of individuality, I suspect, though I don’t know if I can prove it.

Budman: Going back to tangible success, what do you think about JK Rowling, especially those modifiers--“she said uncertainly, ” “he said repressively,” and even “she said composedly?” Some say that they are a literary equivalent of a laugh track in a sitcom. I marvel on how strong JK’s enchantment of characters and plot have to be to overcome the handicap of her language. Would she have two billion dollars instead of one if she improved her prose?

Davis: My son was reading Rowling and Philip Pullman ("The Subtle Knife," etc.) at around the same time. I sampled Rowling and wasn’t really impressed by the prose or even the story (though I liked the first movie!), but Philip Pullman is actually a good writer, a thoughtful prose stylist and a pleasure to read…

Budman: Why would you think that Ms. Rowling achieved such unprecedented success?

Davis: I could hazard a lot of guesses, but I have no idea, really. Fame feeds on itself, of course, so once the first book took off, its own momentum carried it, but why it was so appealing I don’t know. I understand better the appeal of the Tolkien books and the C.S. Lewis books--in them, I suppose, you have all three elements you mentioned earlier, language, characters, and plot.

Budman: If you had magical powers, how would you change the world of publishing and editing? Would you remove chance and uncertainty that sometimes guide or crash a writer’s career? Or are you are satisfied with it as it is, thinking that good writing and perseverance will always triumph?

Davis: I do tend to think that good writing and perseverance will triumph, but I also think that other factors--charm, ambition, assertiveness--can boost a writer whose talents actually aren’t as great as they are made out to be, and that some writers remain undeservedly in the shadows for decades, or forever. I wouldn’t remove chance and uncertainty, since they are so interesting, but I would put a cap on the huge advances that the most saleable authors receive and spread the advances more equitably, keep worthy books in print, and…let good editors go back to close line editing so that more care is taken with the language!

The following is an excerpt from The Professor from "Almost No Memory" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1997).

A few years ago, I used to tell myself I wanted to marry a cowboy. Why shouldn't I say this to myself--living alone, excited by the brown landscape, sometimes noticing a cowboy in a pickup truck in my rearview mirror, as I drove on the broad highways of the West Coast? In fact, I realize I would still like to marry a cowboy, though by now I'm living in the East and married already to someone who is not a cowboy.

But what would a cowboy want with a woman like me--an English professor, the daughter of another English professor, not very easygoing? If I have a drink or two, I'm more easygoing, but I still speak correctly and don't know how to joke with people unless I know them well, and often these are university people or the people they live with, who also speak correctly. Although I don't mind them, I feel cut off from all the other people in this country--to mention only this country.

I told myself I liked the way cowboys dressed, starting with the hat, and how comfortable they were in their clothes, so practical, having to do with their work. Many professors seem to dress the way they think a professor should dress, without any real interest or love. Their clothes are too tight or else a few years out of style and just add to the awkwardness of their bodies. After I was hired to teach for the first time, I bought a briefcase, and then after I started teaching I carried it through the halls like the other professors. I could see that the older professors, mostly men but also some women, were no longer aware of the importance of their briefcases, and that the younger women pretended they weren't aware of it, but the younger men carried their briefcases like trophies.

At that same time, my father began sending me thick envelopes containing material he thought would help me in my classes, including exercises to assign and quotes to use. I didn't read more than a few pages sometimes when I was feeling strong. How could an old professor try to teach a young professor? Didn't he know I wouldn't be able to carry my briefcase through the halls and say hello to my colleagues and students and then go home and read the instructions of the old professor?

In fact, I liked teaching because I liked telling other people what to do. In those days it seemed clearer to me than it does now that if I did something a certain way, it had to be right for other people, too. I was so convinced of it that my students were convinced, too. Still, though I was a teacher outside, I was something else inside. Some of the old professors were also old professors inside, but inside, I wasn't even a young professor. I looked like a woman in glasses, but I had dreams of leading a very different kind of life, the life of a woman who would not wear glasses, the kind of woman I saw from a distance now and then in a bar.

About the Interviewer
Mark Budman was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, but now resides in New York State. His fiction and poetry have appeared or are scheduled to appear in Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, Iowa Review, Happy, Exquisite Corpse, Web Del Sol, McSweeney's, Conversely, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash (short-shorts) fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel Seven Pillows is represented by Harold Ober Agency.


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