P eter Ho Davies is the author of the collections Equal Love (1999) and The Ugliest House in the World (1997). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Gettysburg Review, Granta, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Story, and others, and has been selected for The O. Henry Awards 1998, The Best American Short Stories 1996, and The Best American Short Stories 1995.
Davies is a recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His awards include the H.L. Davis Oregon Book Award, the United Kingdom’s PEN/MacMillan, and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Born in Great Britain, he now lives with his wife, Lynne, in Ann Arbor and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Michigan. He has previously held teaching positions at the University of Oregon and Emory University. He received his M.A. from Boston University, and holds degrees in English and Physics.
Other Voices Contributing Editor Stacy Bierlein studied with Davies in the summer program at the Fine Arts Work Center in 1995. She recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his devotion to short fiction and teaching literature, as well as the process of writing his first novel. They share their correspondence here.
First, how is the novel going? How has your writing process differed with the novel? Your first collection, The Ugliest House in the World, featured several historical stories. Are there historical elements to your novel?
I’m in the midst of the novel now—my first—apart from a six month attempt at one a few years ago—which makes it a little difficult to discuss in very specific terms and to access exactly how well it’s going. Certainly, I’m finding the daily process of working on a novel different to my approach to stories. I’ve never been much of one for the “writers write every day” approach. Whenever I have pursued that discipline I’ve found myself concentrating a little too much on simply writing, putting in the time, filling the pages, being satisfied with the effort and not focusing enough on the quality of what’s being produced.
I’m used to writing stories in discrete bursts, not writing again for several weeks or months, then setting to work on a new story or a new revision of an old one. With stories, that approach seems to work for me, and I like the way the discontinuity of the process can throw up surprises, the way the next story can be completely different from the last in material, style, or tone.
With a novel, of course, I’ve had to alter these work habits considerably, something that an academic sabbatical last year helped with a great deal. It took a while to develop the muscles for the longer haul, but for a few months back there I was having the most fun writing I’ve had in years, doing it every day, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch—rare for me—and really enjoying the greater freedom of a novel. Things have slowed down a bit since—and I’m skeptical if having a lot of fun makes for good writing—but the work feels like a novel now, in the way my earlier attempt—which ended up as an eight page story in Equal Love—never did. It is a historical work, by the way, partly inspired by the pleasure I had working on historical stories, but I am learning rapidly that the amount of research required for a historical story is nothing compared to that required for a novel.
Which story was part of the earlier attempt at a novel?
“Today is Sunday.”
You’ve recently relocated to Ann Arbor. How does it strike you as a creative environment?
I’ve been here only a few months, but I do already have a very clear sense of a vibrant and energetic writing environment—composed of fellow faculty members, students, former students and many fine local writers—which I’m thrilled with.
I know that you devote impressive and brilliant energy to student work. So I’m wondering how you balance teaching time and writing time, how one might inform the other.
I’m not sure I do balance them particularly successfully. My instinct, especially during the semester, is essentially to put my teaching first—an instinct that is partly selfless, I hope, but also, I’m aware, partly selfish. I love teaching and frequently find it more fun than writing. In the midst of the novel, as I modify and discipline my writing habits, I’m beginning to work on the balance more—not by limiting my teaching energies, I hope, but by applying them more efficiently, something that comes more easily the more experienced I become as a teacher. Overall, though, while the balance of time is a pragmatic issue, I see no innate conflict between the activities. They seem, for me, essentially complementary. I teach better when I’m writing well, and I’ve certainly learned a great deal about my own writing by expressing my thoughts in class and hearing the views of others. I’ve also been fortunate to have exceptional students. Their passion for writing has frequently inspired me—especially on those days when my own work has been going badly.
One reviewer said that your stories approach the condition of poetry. Are you a great reader of poetry?
If this is the review I’m thinking of, it was written I believe by a poet friend, so the compliment may be as much intended for me as for his own genre! In fact, to my shame, I’m not as much of a reader of poetry as I’d like, although several contemporary poets—colleagues and former colleagues—have taught me a lot not only about writing, but about the writer’s life and the debt an individual writer owes to the community of writers.
You’ve said that when compelling material takes your attention, you try to avoid the temptation to put it off or save it for later, in case what’s compelling about it becomes less interesting over time. It occurs to me that this, as a rule, could lead a writer to be quite prolific. Has this become a sort of rule for you? And if it has, can you attribute to this any of the energy with which you write and publish short fiction?
I try to avoid any firm writing rules out of a feeling that the more varied the process the more varied the stories I can produce, but certainly in some circumstances in the past I’ve found it useful to leap into—or be pushed into when deadlines are looming—material that I might have otherwise thought myself not quite ready for. My fear is not so much that the material will go stale. I tend to draft quickly which may account for some of that energy, probably because I hate early drafts, and then revise slowly, sometimes over a year or two—although most of that time the story sits in a drawer—and almost inevitably in that process material goes stale—which makes one of the challenges of revision to make a story fresh again, to find something more in it than the original spark of interest.
The staleness in that sense is simply an incentive towards new inspiration which I think is essential if revision is going to be more than polishing, and hopefully results in more complex, layered stories. So rather than the worry about staleness, the reason I try to leap into material sometimes is because it’s proved in the past to be a way of challenging myself to be a better writer. I discovered this a few years ago in graduate school working on a story called “The Silver Screen” which was something that I didn’t feel I was ready to write at the time. I hadn’t researched the historical background to the Malayan Emergency enough, but knew it was good material and also had a sense as a young writer that I needed to wait until I was better able to do it justice. But a workshop deadline was approaching and the cupboard was bare of other ideas so I took a shot at it, and what I think happened is that my sense of the quality of the material obliged me to become a better writer as I wrote it. I felt a pressure to live up to the story, if you like.
Based on that experience and a couple of others I’ve formulated a rough theory that one way to learn as a writer, and a way, in fact, to make quantum leaps forward, rather than steady progress, is to take on material and stories that I’m tempted to save. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but even when it doesn’t I usually learn something in the process and I don’t think these efforts hurt the material, which is often more resilient than we think.
As to whether the above could lead a writer to being quite prolific—maybe so—although not in my case, I think. I spend far too little time writing and am far too guilty about it to consider myself prolific—quite the reverse, in fact. And if this sounds like false modesty you’re welcome to ask my editor and agent! While the approach described above has worked for me there are other stories that have progressed much more slowly. A story called “Relief,” for instance, could only have been written because I had a lot of time—months—to read before I wrote it.
Do you have any writing directions in your classroom right now? It seems that many teachers develop a rule or two of their own along the way. No writing about the weather, etc.
I suspect most writing teachers have a few of these rules. If they’re rules at all, they’re rules-of-thumb at best, although most of them are sensibly tongue-in-cheek. I’ve heard some teachers advise students not to write about suicides, or dreams, or to avoid characters looking at old photographs—things which seem arbitrary, but nearly always point out some potential narrative cliché. Others warn students away from genre material, on the grounds that it’s hard to do well, but as someone whose first writing ambition was to be a science fiction author, my position is basically to write what you care about, subject no object. Still, while I try not to offer many unbreakable rules, I do cover a lot of this kind of advice on the theory that you can’t break rules unless you know them.
I recall a story that went around the Fine Arts Work Center a few summers ago. One of the workshop leaders told his students No more characters vomiting! The amount of vomit on manuscript pages is disproportionate to the amount of vomit in the real world. There simply can’t be that much taco tossing going on!
Of course, we can write about whatever we want—suicidal characters dreaming about vomiting over old photos—if only we can do it with some freshness. One rule I have offered to undergraduate classes, mostly because it’s been useful to me, is really a slogan based on the Democrat’s line in 1992: “It’s the audience, stupid”—a reminder to remember that writing fiction, lonely as it is, is an act of communication, and what’s being communicated fundamentally is emotion. Incidentally, I have recently been having some fun with these rules, writing a story about a teacher with a bunch of them—it’s less navel gazing than it sounds!—and my favorite piece of his advice is “No ‘…and then I woke up’ endings; No ‘I woke up and then…’ beginnings.’”
So starting out, you thought you would become a writer of science fiction?
There was a time—this would be in my early teens—when it was my dearest wish. I can certainly date my early desire to be a writer very specifically to a book called Who Writes Science Fiction, by Charles Platt, which featured twenty or more interviews with science fiction authors. That book sent me in search of some great fiction (Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick) and was also my first exposure to what it might mean to be a writer. The interviews made the writing life at once glamorous—I can still remember being very impressed by the fact that Ellison had a picture of Mars framed in red neon!—and at the same time imaginable, perhaps because the lives of the older science fiction writers, who’d come up through the pulps and had to crank out four or five novels a year to pay the bills, seemed closer to me. They made writing seem like hard but honest work, somehow, just a little like what I imagined of my father’s engineering job. Growing up in Britain I didn’t meet—didn’t even see a writer at a reading until I was twenty-five. If I thought about it at all as a kid I probably assumed that to be a writer you had to be born into a different class, or into a writing family. Basically, you had to be Martin Amis. For a long time those interviews were my only evidence that writers were people, and consequently that people could become writers.
Do you remember when you first encountered E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, and the quote that opens Equal Love…‘For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and—by some sad, strange irony—it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude, but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy’?
I first read the book as an undergraduate at Cambridge in one of those crazy, exhilarating bursts that the Cambridge system encourages during which I read all of Forster in a week. While I enjoyed Where Angels Fear to Tread, I’d have to say that Howard’s End, and even A Room with a View made a greater impact upon me, and I certainly wouldn’t have recalled the quote that Equal Love derives its title from if it weren’t for my wife, Lynne, who pointed it out to me a few years ago while she was reading the novel—we had been talking about the issues of parent-child relationships with friends. I’d written about half, maybe a little more, of the stories in what became Equal Love at that point, without a sense of them as a collection, but the quotation very quickly crystallized them in my mind as a group. The remaining stories, most of them pieces I’d had in mind already, became a priority after that.
You’ve presented strong child characters in “Frogmen” and “Brave Girl.” Are there certain challenges associated with writing children? Do child characters appear in your novel?
Childhood does seem to be something that nearly every storywriter I know is drawn to at some time or other. One obvious reason I guess is that old staple of writing advice: write what you know—a suggestion that has merit I think because it points towards the importance of the writer’s authority over the reader’s attention, but is also limited by the risk that what you know is also known and too familiar to the reader. To my mind the advice should more usefully be: write what you know more about than your reader.
This seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in writing about children—every reader has been a child, and many are parents, with their own experiences and memories against which to judge the success—and interest—of your child characters. In my case, I suspect I’ve been lucky in my work in that most of the children I write about are British, which at least with U.S. readers may get me off the hook of direct comparison.
I’m also drawn to writing about children—and have again in my novel, although it’s looking now as though the role of the child characters will be scaled back—because of a sense of children’s relationship to language, which seems to me very literal, very logical. Children—or at least the ones I write about—seem very attuned to language and in that sense I suspect they’re quite like writers.
Finally, I have a hunch that childhood and adolescence are well-suited to short fiction in the sense that children and adolescents to me are members of one of those “submerged populations” that the Irish writer and critic Frank O’Connor talks about as particular to the short story. It’s common to take such populations to mean the disenfranchised, those on the fringes of society without a voice—immigrants, ethnic minorities, the working class—but I think this definition can easily and logically be extended to children, and at times, I would also argue, women.
A new story, “Think of England,” takes place on D-day. How did “Think of England” come to life?
“Think of England” is—currently at least—part of the novel I’m working on so I’m reluctant to say too much about it. The central event of this particular piece—the encounter between a Welsh woman Sarah and an English soldier Colin—is something that I had tried to write as a story set in the present day some years ago. Its resurrection here, I suppose, is an example of the way that no writing is ever wasted. In my experience, at any rate, fragments from years earlier have a habit of finding a home in current work, and indeed one of the abiding pleasures of writing for me is finding the right places for these pieces. At times it almost feels like all those orphaned fragments of old, abandoned drafts are parts of a jigsaw and my task is to find the places in my body of work where they belong.
The story takes Sarah and Colin inside an empty pool at an old holiday camp. Do you remember what inspired this setting?
It’s hard to say what inspired that final scene. It wasn’t one of those old fragments, but rather something that simply emerged as the story developed. Once in a while I guess we get lucky and the right piece comes to hand at the right moment.
You’ve said that it seems essential to have a range of voices. How do you encourage this in your students?
I noticed early in my teaching that students are very eager to find their own voices, to carve out their niche in the literary world, and while that instinct is understandable I also think it’s worth resisting for a couple of reasons. In the first place that desire to find one’s place is a little conservative, born out of a lack of confidence, I think. After all, why settle for a niche? More importantly, though, with my grad students I don’t feel I’m serving them well if I just help them develop one voice, however sharp and well articulated, simply because the voice they write in when they graduate—whether it’s at age twenty five or thirty five—is not likely to be the voice they write in five or ten years later. What I try to do then is equip them to grow into other voices for the simple reason that as they grow and want to write other stories they may need access to other voices to tell those new stories. Practically, I’ve done this most recently by running a class in the history of the short story and requiring students to write short exercises in imitation of these writers as well as longer pieces more loosely inspired by the technique of these classic short story writers.
This sounds like such an essential and rewarding study. Where do the course readings begin? I’m thinking of the often-repeated suggestion that we’ve all come out from under Gogol’s overcoat….
The course takes in Gogol, Turgenev, Poe, Kafka, Borges, Chekhov, Maupassant, Colette, Babel, Mansfield, Anderson, Joyce, Hemingway and O’Connor, with cameos from more contemporary writers like Carver and Angela Carter—an inclusive, but not completely exhaustive list of significant contributors to the form. James, for instance, is an omission, due to time limitations and my personal bias. The class—which in many ways is inspired by Frank O’Connor’s marvelous book The Lonely Voice—is intended to help students think about the form as well as giving them a greater sense of its practitioners.
Most of my students are well read in contemporary fiction, but welcome grounding in the history of the form. The subtext of the class is the issue of influence. We read Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent and some of Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and consider how some of the these writers have influenced each other—Hemingway talks about beating his forebears, Borges has a wonderful essay on Kafka and his precursors, and then there’s Carver’s story “Errand” about Chekhov’s death, a story by Babel called “Guy de Maupassant,” even a Philip Roth story/essay that imagines Kafka as a high school teacher—and how they might influence my students.
In general, do you think fiction is in a healthy place right now?
I read quite a lot of contemporary fiction, but still not enough to offer a very confident answer to this question. I suspect most writers have a slightly skeptical view of the state of contemporary fiction—it’s part of the desire to write to think that there’s something wrong with what’s out there already that we might fix—although our strongest views might be less on the state of fiction than the state of publishing. We all have our pet-peeves—too much money for some books, not enough for others, too many young writers, too many old writers—but I have to say that overall I consider U.S. short fiction to be in a relatively healthy state, although what I’m comparing it to is British short fiction which—without many magazine markets to speak of, or creative writing programs to encourage it—seems to me to be in a perilous state. Compared to this, my concerns about the U.S. market—the loss of Story magazine, the way the New Yorker, the premier outlet for short fiction in the country, continues to compromise the form by publishing novel extracts as if they were stories, the lack of faith in short fiction among some book publishers who hide behind the “novel-in-stories” formula as if ashamed of publishing collections—all of these are minor.