THE STORY BECOMES ABOUT SEEING: AN INTERVIEW WITH LYDIA DAVIS by James Yeh
from print issue 4
This interview originally appeared in Issue 4, Gigantic Everything.
Lydia Davis is the author, most recently, of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and a new translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (2010). This interview was conducted over a series of e-mails in May and June 2011, a medium preferable to her for its restrictions on her saying the words "um" or "like."
GIGANTIC: What were you doing just before sitting down to answer these questions?
LYDIA DAVIS: I was attending a meeting of a local community organization in my area that gives out small loans to people in emergency situations. I'm in charge of the upcoming yard sale to raise some money.
GIGANTIC: You've written several longer documentary-like stories ("We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality," "What You Learn About the Baby," and "The Cows") that I've seen referred to as "case studies," a term I like. How did you arrive at this form? What interests you about it?
DAVIS: I like staying in the background and simply presenting the material clearly so that it speaks for itself. Of course, these four stories work in slightly different ways, so that in "We Miss You," I took "found" material and posed as a sociologist in order to analyze it, whereas in the one about the baby and the one about the cows, I am observing a subject and reporting all I see that I find interesting. The narrator is more of a character in "We Miss You" and is almost invisible in the other two.
GIGANTIC: What I might like best about these stories is how the narrator employs the scientific method of systematic observation, hypothesis, and deduction toward somewhat "ascientific" goals. Unlike conventional scientific experiments, in which the goal is to prove the adherence of phenomena to a certain law or explanatory framework, the aim of your stories, as I take it, seems not to "solve" the mystery per se, but to correctly articulate it, to most accurately and rigorously relate the beauty of it. I was wondering if you might be able to speak more about this.
DAVIS: I suppose, then, the story becomes about seeing, or looking closely at something, not trying to impose one's own opinions on it but allowing it to show itself fully. I began writing down observations of the cows across the road without knowing what they would add up to. A lot of them, in the end, were about the act of looking itself—how angles cause foreshortening, how a black figure disappeared against a dark background, etc. But I had to feel strongly about the cows themselves to be moved to watch them so closely.
GIGANTIC: So would you say a sense of investigation without much predefined intent? Interest without intent?
DAVIS: Yes, without any predefined intent.
GIGANTIC: Both "We Miss You" and "Helen and Vi" start off with sections of introduction and both end with sections titled "Conclusion." Could you talk about how you determined the shape of the things in between, what direction or directions you were guiding them toward?
DAVIS: Since both took the form of a sort of sociological "report," it was natural to have an introduction and a conclusion. Organizing the material in between, in "Helen and Vi," was very difficult because many orders were possible. Also, the story is very thorough—I did not resist a certain impulse I have to cover absolutely everything in complete detail. "We Miss You" was a little easier to organize, since I was limited by the form of the letters and their content.
GIGANTIC: Did this organizing process differ any for stories like "What You Learn About the Baby," which has no explicitly titled introduction or conclusion (though there are still individually titled sections), or "The Cows," which eschews individually titled sections entirely?
DAVIS: The organizing of the baby piece was more like organizing a book of stories—what would be a good section to start with, to end with, to have just after the middle, what section would naturally follow that one, etc.—lots of juggling, rearranging, and second thoughts. As for "The Cows," although my observations were written down at all times of day and seasons of the year, over a period of about two years, when it came time to organize the chapbook, that sort of random order seemed too incoherent, so I quite naturally decided to organize the observations so that they proceeded from morning to night and (at the same time) from autumn to spring. That worked out very well, I think.
GIGANTIC: So organizing, in that instance at least, according to time, as opposed to, say, a traditional dramatic arc.
DAVIS: Yes. In the case of the cows, although things happened to them, quite dramatic things, actually, nothing much happened day to day, so the dramatic arc would have been a flat line and then a sudden peak. It was more natural to organize the story in the way their lives were organized, from season to season and from morning to night.
GIGANTIC: You've also used various forms including one-line aphorisms, decontextualized dialogues, surrealist parables, investigations of language usage, and kinds of elegant jokes. Are there any new forms you're trying out that you might care to speak about?
DAVIS: Well, there is one form I tried out quite recently, and that was taking material from Gustave Flaubert's letters and shaping it into stories. There are moments when he tells a little self-contained story from his life. I have taken ten of these and fiddled with them just a little, without adding material of my own, without fictionalizing, and trying to retain his language. I've enjoyed these a lot.
GIGANTIC: I like that. You've worked with the letters of fiction writers in the past. For instance, with the letters of Kafka. Is there something you find present there, in the letters, that you don't find as much in their stories or novels?
DAVIS: I hadn't thought much about this before you asked, but now I'm remembering that I also used material from a writer/translator's letters when I composed the story "Lord Royston's Tour." I suppose there are two things about the letters I can say right away, one being that they are inevitably quite well written since they are the letters of writers, the other that they are likely to be more relaxed and natural, less polished and less self-conscious, than the same writers' finished writing. So they give access to an articulate, relaxed intelligence.
GIGANTIC: I've read interviews, as early as I think 1997, in which you describe plans for "a very long book which will be a novel in the form of a French Grammar." Is this project still ongoing?
DAVIS: It's a project I worked quite hard on for a while. I've put it aside temporarily in favor of two or three other projects, but I haven't abandoned it.
GIGANTIC: There's a line I really love from your story "Kafka Cooks Dinner": "At other times, I sit here reading in the afternoon, a myrtle in my buttonhole, and there are such beautiful passages in the book that I think I have become beautiful myself." The idea that witnessing beauty could have a transformative, beautifying power on the witness is itself, I think, beautiful—perhaps one of the central essences of art. Do you ever find yourself seeking out things of beauty in order to make you yourself feel beautiful? Is this ever part of the creative process for you?
DAVIS: I have to say that that sentence, which I love too, is Kafka's, not mine. A lot of the language and many whole sentences in that story were taken from his letters to Milena, which I read so as to make sure I captured his tone and his style when he might be thinking aloud to himself. I ended up with more than just the tone. But to answer your question, no, I don't consciously seek out things of beauty for that particular reason, though I suppose I do seek them out for the sheer refreshing pleasure of looking at them. Today I saw lambs sleeping by their mothers in the shade of a grove of pine trees—that was certainly beautiful.
GIGANTIC: What about ugly things? What is a thing you saw today that was ugly to you?
DAVIS: I'll have to answer this in terms of sound rather than sight. There is a drag strip about a mile from here, next to a stock car racetrack. There's a wooded hill in between, so the sound is somewhat muffled, but I hear the racing all day long on the weekends. Rural life includes that sort of thing, as well as target practice, which I also heard today, in fact.
GIGANTIC: I know you've previously cited Kafka as an influence. Do you have a favorite story or passage? What are your thoughts on his parables and other shorter works?
DAVIS: At the time I was reading him closely, which was many years ago, it was probably mainly the diaries and the parables and paradoxes that fascinated me. I liked the stories, but I was intrigued by how the shorter forms worked, each differently, and also by seeing just how he developed or started a piece of writing—which the diaries show. How the noises of the neighbors on the other side of the wall bothered him as he tried to work but also found their way, transformed, into his stories.
GIGANTIC: Your own experiences seem to be a consistent source of material, influence, and provocation for your fiction. Presuming you a) agree with this, and b) seek to sustain or increase this kind of influence on your writing, are there any conscious lifestyle habits you've developed over the years to aid in the generation of this kind of material? Do you ever say to yourself things like "I will be more curious today," or "I will be more sensitive," or "I will try to spend more time around this specific person (or people or situations or environments), because I get good ideas when I am around them?"
DAVIS: I would a) agree with your statement, but b) I don't try to sustain or increase that kind of influence. I simply take what comes my way. An example would be the cows—there they were, I did not make any effort to put myself in a situation to get inspired by them. On the other hand, yes, like most other people I have my daily resolutions, but not in order to get good ideas, simply in order to live a better life. The ideas will come, plenty of them.
GIGANTIC: That's an optimistic outlook. I like that. So then, no bouts of writer's block?
DAVIS: No, I probably haven't had writer's block since before my first child was born. If I had it then—and I do seem to remember staring at the blank page without a good idea. But having a child, and other competing demands, make the little time you have for writing very precious and you tend to use it. I think you also contrive ways to avoid writer's block without realizing it, like having many stories going at once.
GIGANTIC: I normally hate this kind of question, but I'd actually be interested to hear your answer: what advice might you have for young writers?
DAVIS: Advice—well, nothing surprising. To observe the world carefully, to write a lot and often, on a schedule if necessary, to use the dictionary a lot, to look up word origins, to analyze closely the work of writers you admire, to read not only contemporaries but writers of the past, to learn at least one foreign language, to live an interesting life outside of writing.
GIGANTIC: You've mentioned having certain "words you don't like." "Vignette," for one. What are some of the other words you don't like? Why don't you like them?
DAVIS: I've always had a problem with "jejune." I could never remember what it meant.
GIGANTIC: Just guessing, I'd say it meant "young." Now, looking it up on the Internet, I see that it can mean something similar, but with negative connotations: "childish, naïve, lacking knowledge or expertise." This seems ironic (and pleasantly circular), to be lacking in knowledge of a word which means, itself, "lacking in knowledge."
DAVIS: There's another word I'm trying to remember that almost works that way: it's the word that means not admitting that you're ill. If you can't somehow intuit the word I'm thinking of (begins with a- for "not") then we can remove this part of the exchange, I guess.
GIGANTIC: No, no, I like this part. This is where maybe someone reading this might be able to say, "Ah, I know the word she's talking about."
DAVIS, A FEW HOURS LATER, OVER E-MAIL: I found the word I was trying to remember—it's "anosognosia," which names the affliction of "patients with brain damage who lose the use of limbs or senses yet cannot acknowledge the existence of their new disabilities." That's not the official definition, but taken from an article in the New Yorker.
GIGANTIC: In the Q&A after his "The Sentence Is A Lonely Place" lecture at Columbia University, I remember Gary Lutz talking about something he called, as best I remember it, "junk language": language or grammar that was fundamentally and irrefutably incorrect or strange, and yet, or perhaps because of that, also thrilling. I recall a very short story of yours titled "The Language of the Telephone Company": "The trouble you reported recently is now working properly." What role does this sort of "junk language" play in your creative process?
DAVIS: I wouldn't call it "junk language" because it seems very precious to me. It doesn't really play a role, not in any regular way. I notice it, I take great delight in it, I copy it down, and sooner or later it may appear in something I write, though not necessarily.
GIGANTIC: Are there any surprising places where you have come to find this sort of precious, unusual language?
DAVIS: I'm not sure either of these would quite fit the description, but I found a good letter, written from Florida by a man to his old buddy, folded up in a library book and forgotten. It reminded me of a Ring Lardner short story. It described Spring Training and golf, and the illness and death of a sister. Another, much shorter, is this note I found out on the road here yesterday, written on an index card: "you like Laura / the one sitting / behind you,"
GIGANTIC: You've expressed a fondness for riding public transportation. Is there a particular type of public transportation you prefer riding and, if so, why?
DAVIS: I'm still fond of it. I'm particularly fond of trains, of course. You are moving and there is scenery out the window, so if your reading is difficult and you need to look up, there is something to look at. Something is happening constantly, but in a mild, undemanding way, and that helps me to think. I remember reading John Ashbery's book of lectures, Other Traditions, on a bus. It was just right—I could look up from the book and let a phrase echo in my head while I watched what was outside the window.
GIGANTIC: But what about the distractions of, say, a crying child or two people arguing? Do you have any personal tips or tricks on avoiding or overcoming these types of distractions?
DAVIS: Earplugs. But there are cases where a CD of white noise would be the only solution. Most train and bus noises don't bother me.
GIGANTIC: What will you be doing now that the questions are through?
DAVIS: Reading the German translation of one of my books, to see if there are any mistakes or misunderstandings. I read German very slowly, so I won't get very far, but the publisher wanted me to take a look before it went to press. Or I'll go continue reading an excellent book about noise called The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer.
James Yeh is coeditor of Gigantic.
Art by Andrew Bulger.