David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now US readers can shop All Lit Up close to home, and save on shipping when they purchase books from its new bookshop.org affiliate shop. Browse selected titles at bookshop.org/shop/alllitup. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Leslie Sainz’s unforgettable debut poetry collection Have You Been Long Enough At Table. Called “Marvelous” by Terrance Hayes, these poems explores the personal and historical tragedies of the Cuban American experience through a distinctly feminine lens. Through lyric and associative meditations, Sainz anatomizes the unique grief of immigrant daughters, as her speakers discover how family can be a microcosm of the very violence that displaced them. Says Zeina Hashem Beck, “This book asks questions that resist simple answers, all the while giving us moments of tenderness.” Have You Been Long Enough At Table is available now from Tin House. I’ll just add to that promo that Leslie’s appearance on Poetry Off the Shelf is just fabulous, the episode The Fact of a Suitcase. Today’s conversation with the singular and iconic Lydia Davis is about her new story collection Our Strangers, a collection of 143 stories that are sometimes as short as their titles and sometimes as long as a “normal short story.” But either way, they always seem to conjure the questions, “What is a story? Is this a story? If it isn’t, what is it?” Today’s conversation is, of course, a fiction conversation, a conversation about narrative and storytelling but it is equally a poetry conversation, and deeply so, and perhaps like no other conversation, it is a fiction conversation, a poetry conversation, a non-fiction conversation, and a translation conversation while always talking about her latest stories, which are often engaging directly with language and communication, and which are often composting lived experience and found materials into our fictional pieces. Our Strangers is the first book in Bookshop.org’s new publishing venture Bookshop Editions, which arose due to Davis’ desire to publish this book in a way that bypassed Amazon. We discuss this and other ways she is engaged politically in her life, and how these ways do and don’t find themselves into her stories. The two main books of Lydia’s I put in conversation with Our Strangers are her two books of non-fiction, Essays One and Essays Two, which offer a wealth of insight about writing and about translating respectively, and shed light on what her deliberations and sensibilities are when crafting and shaping the stories within her collections. For the bonus audio archive, Lydia contributes a reading of one of her translations of the Swiss Author Peter Bichsel who writes in German. First, she talks about what attracts her to his writing, how she encountered it, then she reads the story of his that she translated, that echoes her own journey in Germany at the time. This joins an ever-growing wealth of materials in the bonus audio archive, including lots of long-form conversations with translators themselves, two conversations with Megan McDowell discussing Mariana Enríquez and Alejandro Zambra, Beverley Bie Brahic, the translator of Hélène Cixous, Ellen Elias-Bursać, the translator of Dubravka Ugrešić, Kurt Beals, the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck, and occasionally, a guest who, like Lydia, is also a translator themselves does something translation-oriented for the archive too, Rosmarie Waldrop reading her translation of a piece by Edmond Jabes or Arthur Sze reading four translations from four different eras of Chinese poetry and history, and talking about how translating a given era of poetry helped him move into a new phase in his own poems when he knew he needed to but didn’t know how to before the translations. This is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode where I share the materials I discovered and used to prepare, I give links to things referenced during the conversation and things to explore once you’re done listening, and there’s much, much more to choose from. All of which can be checked out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with none other than Lydia Davis.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is short story writer, translator, novelist, essayist, and some would say poet, Lydia Davis. She studied at Barnard College, was a professor of literature at Bard College, and later a professor of English at the State University of New York, Albany where she is now professor emeritus. Her many translations include Prousts’ Swanns Way, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Maurice Blanchot’s The Gaze of Orpheus, and other literary essays. She’s the recipient of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and translations. Davis is the author of many short story collections including the National Book Award: Finalists, Varieties of Disturbance, Almost No Memory, Break It Down, and Can’t and Won’t. She’s a recipient of a Whiting Award for her fiction, a Man Booker International Prize for achievement in fiction, and the PEN Malamud Award for excellence in the short story. She’s been bestowed with a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Prize, and the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the Genius Grant, and is known as the great exemplar along with Diane Williams of the short fictional form. The MacArthur award citation said, “For Davis, restraint represents a platform for taking risks.” The critic William Skidelsky said, “Davis redefines the meaning of brevity,” and the Man Booker jury said, “Her work had the brevity and precision of poetry.” The panel chair Christopher Ricks added, “There is vigilance to her stories, and great imaginative attention. Vigilance as how to realize things down to the very word or syllable; vigilance as to everybody’s impure motives and illusions of feeling.” Lydia Davis is one of the rare contemporary authors whose work has appeared in both the Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry, short stories of hers appearing in Best American Poetry 1999, 2001, and 2008. Her fiction has appeared widely everywhere from The New Yorker to McSweeney’s, Tin House to Conjunctions to Noon. In 2019, Davis published her first book of non-fiction, the remarkable Essays One, a gathering of essays, commentaries, and lectures written over the past five decades and of which Parul Sehgal said in the New York Times, “[Davis] is our Vermeer, patiently observing and chronicling daily life but from angles odd and askew. Essays One…allows us backstage, into the creation and revision of her stories, her notes on her influences.” Essays One was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award and followed by Essays Two, her essays on translation of which Phillip Lopates says, “We come away from Essays Two with renewed respect for a writer whose grasp of languages is profound, and whose capacity to shape-shift from one to another is quite exceptional.” Cornelia Channing adds, “While writing about writing can sometimes wander into theoretical, navel-gazing territory, Davis’s approach here is thrillingly concrete. Several pieces describe, in vivid, granular detail, her process for translating the first volume of Proust. She pops the hood and lets us see how the literary gears turn.” We’re lucky to have Lydia Davis here today to talk about her latest book, her story collection Our Strangers, a book of 143 stories told in a wide range of voices and literary forms. Our Strangers is the inaugural title in Bookshop.org’s new publishing imprint Bookshop Editions as a result of Lydia looking for a means to publish and distribute this new book in a way that bypasses Amazon where Our Strangers will be found in physical stores, independent booksellers, and at bookshop.org. Kirkus in its starred review calls it, “An overflowing treasure chest of jewel-like stories . . . A collection that you’ll want to keep on your bedside table by one of America’s most original short story writers.” Speaking about Davis’ fiction more broadly, Colm Tóibín says, “Davis is brilliant … She captures words as a hunter might and uses punctuation like a trap. Davis is a high priestess of the startling, telling detail … a most original and daring mind.” Ali Smith says for The Guardian, “This is a writer as mighty as Kafka, as subtle as Flaubert, and as epoch-making, in her own way, as Proust’.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Lydia Davis.
Lydia Davis: Hello. Pleased to be here.
DN: Well, I wanted to start with form. In Essays One, you talk about your history with the short story form, that both your parents were writers and teachers, that both had stories published in The New Yorker, and that publishing in The New Yorker became a pole star, almost by default. That in college, you thought your writing choices were limited, either poetry or prose and if you chose prose, then the choice was either novel or short story. But once you’d chosen short stories, it was the normative form of the short story that would be written and when you’ve looked back at your early traditional stories now, you’ve said that they seem like Hemingway-influenced pieces. But once you encountered other ways of writing, whether Beckett or Bernhard, you started removing many things associated with the form. I would like to spend some time with many of the effects of brevity but before we do, I wanted to begin with one of your pieces of advice in your Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits. One of those recommendations is, “Don’t provide a lot of context, explanation, or exposition. Saying less is more.” I think this is true about your writing, whether you are writing a one-sentence story or a 20 to 30-page story, both of which appear in Our Strangers. Of course, backstory exposition, context, interior, psychological characterization are all common features of many short stories. Talk to us about why doing less of this is better for you personally as a writer and also why you might put this forth as writerly advice for others.
LD: Well, it’s tough because I do think each person chooses his or her own way to write. I wouldn’t really want to say there is only one way and that one shouldn’t do this and should do that. That’s really not going to work for most situations. I can contradict some of what I said and say that traditional short stories with all the trappings, the introduction, the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the denouement, and the conclusion, that worked beautifully for many writers in many situations. But I don’t think it should become an ironclad form that one has to follow to write a successful short story. I think what I meant, even more, was sentence to sentence, often, people over-explain, over-contextualize that you can cut away a lot of that and keep the surprise from one sentence to the next. I do that in my own revision. I can go to sentence number two and say, “Oh, I seem to repeat a little obvious information here,” or “I seem to give some obvious information that I don’t have to give.” My tendency really when reading other people’s work, I’m often perfectly satisfied with it but when I want to revise someone else’s work, it’s often in the direction of cutting, “If only they hadn’t used all those adjectives,” or “If only they had given us one sentence less.” It’s hard. People love to talk and they love to write. Once they start writing, they love to write, so write all you want to the first draft but then get a little more rigorous in the next draft I guess.
DN: Well, when you talked to Francine Prose for BOMB Magazine 25 years ago now, you talked about living in France after college and having trouble with the traditional story form. There was one long story that you were working on endlessly that took over two years to finish with many failed versions but that you started doing very short stories at the same time to break yourself out of this rut of not writing or resisting writing. You set up a goal at the time of writing, two tiny stories every day. No matter how silly they were, you said you had to finish two one-paragraph stories a day. Fast forward two decades and you are translating Proust’s Swann’s Way and the long sentences of Proust with the nested clauses, and you decide, while you’re immersed in the complex syntax and ongoing thought of Proust prose, to try a new form in a similar spirit I think asking yourself, “How short can I make a piece of my own writing and still have it mean something?” What’s so interesting about both of these exercises to me and about removing what most people expect to find within a form is that it also conjures the form that one expects in one’s mind, and becomes at the same time something else entirely, perhaps in the same way that your two-paragraph long stories per day were written alongside your impossible to finish traditional story and you’re challenged to write as short as possible, living alongside your translation of Proust’s very long sentences. When we read your super short stories, I think it calls into question, “What makes the form the form in the first place? Is this still a story? If so, how? If not, what is it?” When you depart this far from the traditional short story, do you still feel in some ways that you are in conversation with it nevertheless? If you don’t, where does the impulse to depart in this way from it come from?
LD: A lot of it for me has to do with where I start, so I definitely started from the short story and I feel that’s my home territory way back as you say in college, and just after, so when I was in my early 20s into mid-20s. That’s why coming from there, I might end up writing something that looks like a poem but I would never call myself a poet. I didn’t start there. I’m definitely a story writer and storyteller. Even though the form keeps changing the long story you talk about that I kept working on, it was a good practice story for me in France. It turned out alright because I just kept at it, so it is a proper story whose title, of course, I’m forgetting. I did put that aside. I didn’t actually go on working on that when I started writing the very short stories. I really put it aside and that felt very exciting and fresh. I felt that I’d been released from bondage and allowed to fly. The reason I forced myself to do two a day is you do sometimes have to force yourself to write at all and write in a certain way, and also forcing meant that I couldn’t mull over what was a good subject, whether a subject was worth writing about or how I was going to approach it. I couldn’t begin to criticize it in advance. I just had to go ahead and start. One that grew actually started with a sentence something like, “Last night, my aunt burned to death,” or “Last year, my aunt burned to death,” or something. I can’t remember it now but I’m sure that was one of the beginnings that I forced myself, just, “Okay, think of something, then see where it goes from there.” To me, there are still stories and they were inspired, I should say, by Russell Edson. He was the immediate instigator in the sense of he wasn’t awesomely up on a pedestal the way I think Kafka was for me. He also wrote very short stories, parables, and paradoxes but he was beyond reach. How could possibly do what Kafka does? But we’re even emulating him. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me but Russell Edson was more fallible. He would write a story that was silly. It didn’t work. It was, I won’t say stupid, none of them were stupid but silly and just didn’t make it at all. Then another that was devastating, that was the same sort of thing but devastating. So he gave me a way in where B-movie sometimes shows you how movies are made and why brilliant movies are brilliant, not that he was a B-writer but there would be B-stories and I thought, “Wow, he was also transgressive,” or for me, he was writing about dead daughter this and dead daughter that, we’re going to have dead daughter for dinner, just weird, crazy, and highly emotional things. That also freed me up, “Okay, I just write about anything I want and just free my imagination and my emotions.” That’s why it was so liberating. I was not trying to fit into a form with appropriate subject matter and so on. I was just doing what I wanted to do and it also set an example for me going forward of just no matter what the form was doing what I wanted to do rather than doing what I thought it should do. I think that’s very important.
DN: In Essays One, you mentioned many examples of brevity that you were attracted to. You’ve mentioned Edson and also Kafka’s diary entries but also Babel and Grace Paley’s stories of only a couple of pages, and you also point us to, which I didn’t know about, Thomas Bernhard who’s so well known for his uninterrupted language, not even having paragraph breaks in his books, that he has a book, The Voice Imitator of these tiny paragraph, long stories that you love and you also discuss a daily exercise of describing something that happened to you in a given day in three short sentences, which perhaps was partly inspired by Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines, which I adore. As part of talking about the exercise you did with Proust and as part of talking more about brevity, maybe we could first hear two examples from Our Strangers. I was hoping we could hear Lonely (Canned Ham) and Wistful Spinster.
[Lydia Davis reads from her new story collection Our Strangers]
DN: I think one thing we notice right away is with these really short stories, a heightened importance of the titles, they become an important part of the piece. The words lonely in the first one and the word wistful, neither of which appear in the respective stories, I think they do a lot of work because the timid old woman shopping for Thanksgiving the day before and buying a canned ham might suggest loneliness as one of several possibilities. But being oriented that way and the title allows us to flesh out the scene in the mood of loneliness, perhaps in a similar way to reading the title or caption beside a more abstract painting might, it also puts a lot more pressure on word choice and sentence structure. When I talked to Diane Williams for the show, your great peer in this form I think, I mentioned that an interviewer asked if the sentence could be overemphasized and she said, “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not. Missed opportunities are there regardless.” I was curious if that was a sentiment you share and also maybe this would be a good time to talk about the experiment you did around Proust, which seems to be an experiment of really placing this added weight or pressure on language through constraint and brevity. But if you could speak to that exercise and relationship perhaps to the poems. [laughs]
LD: Actually, I don’t mind they’re being called poems. I just don’t want to pose as a poet.
DN: Yes. [laughs]
LD: A non-poet writing. Well, first about the titles, they’re very important obviously, they’re vital because I don’t want to, in a way, clutter up or weigh down the text itself with extra explanation sort of things. There’s a great weight on the title speaking of weight. It stands by itself off the top of the text and it’s an intermediary. I didn’t really start thinking about all this till I wrote these very, very short ones. It’s an intermediary between the text and the reader. It’s sort of the announcer. It says, “Okay, here’s what’s coming,” and it’s not exactly in the same voice as the text, so it’s an interesting phenomenon. Some titles are very straightforward and plain, like war and peace—this is a book about war and peace—but it’s still in that middle intermediate space. With some of my very short pieces, the text is already there. I don’t have to do a lot of revision. With some I do but with some I don’t. They’re already there and there’s no more to be done, so then my revision effort or writing effort is in just how to write the title, even the (lonely), then (canned ham), well, the words canned ham, I guess you go back to what Diane Williams said because it’s the syllables, it’s the assonance there that partly interests me. Canned ham, it’s very pounding and it’s also funny, [laughter] I mean the poem isn’t funny but lonely by itself would be a little more full pathos. But then when you put in the parenthesis, whoever this intermediate voice is pretending to explain further what she means by lonely, by which I mean canned ham or which has to do with canned ham. [laughter] It’s funny, even though the situation isn’t so funny. But canned ham maybe in itself is funny, so it’s already there in the piece. It’s somehow comical. Even if you had a large family gathering at Thanksgiving and the host or the hostess said, “Oh, we’re having a canned ham,” well, that would be funny too because it’s the opposite of what you associate with Thanksgiving dinner. The titles all function slightly differently, so Wistful Spinster is a little different. It just sets you up to think, “Okay, here’s again, lonely. Here’s a woman. Who is she?” I use this old-fashioned word, spinster. We don’t talk about spinsters at all anymore but it has the associations of what it used to mean. Spinster is seen as a woman alone who wishes she weren’t alone, so then you add wistful, so that sets it up. That one I probably did more revising in the so-called body of the piece. I think I didn’t quite understand the quote from Diane but if she means that every syllable is vital, I agree with that. Strangely though, the longer the piece gets, the slightly less vital it gets, I mean it’s still important but you could write, I’m thinking of say early 20th-century books, huge novels, I’d probably have the wrong examples but I’m thinking of books like McTeague or huge American Classics that aren’t actually that well written. They’re a bit sloppy but in a book of overwhelming scope, character, drama, and political message, the sloppiness just doesn’t matter that much. In those cases, I don’t think every syllable matters. But when you get down to the level of Diane’s stories, which are never hugely long and certainly never sloppy, or my shorter ones, then it matters much more. It’s very vital.
DN: Well, Elisa Gabbert, the poetry editor for The New York Times and also a past Between the Covers guest, she had a recent article called Can a Poem Be Too Short? Which meditates on this question in relation to the release of a new anthology called Little Poems that looks at short poems from antiquity onward. I wanted to read something of what she said, “I remember where I was when I first read two short poems. One, Margaret Atwood’s ‘You Fit Into Me’ (‘you fit into me/like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/an open eye’), was in my 10th-grade English textbook. My own eye latched onto this four-line poem, in the middle of class, because it was so short — which made it seem larger than the others, like the large-print text in Dr. Seuss, almost easier to read than not to read. It’s a poem designed to make you gasp, and I did. The second was ‘Pholk Poem,’ by Bill Knott. I hadn’t heard of Knott before I signed up for his workshop, my first year of graduate school. I took out a collection from the library and read it in an afternoon, in the crappy one-bedroom near campus another student called my ‘hovel.’ Knott wrote many memorable short poems, but this is the one that managed to blow my mind: The soup is lumpy. Well then, pour it out. The soup is lumpy. Well, pour it out then! The soup is lumpy, the potato soup. The fishhook poem has done its work and can do no more, on me; I will not gasp again. But the potato soup poem retains about it something inexplicable — why did it strike me? I think I had not yet encountered an anti-poem, a poem so shocking in its pointlessness — how dare it be printed, how dare it exist! And why do I still find it funny? It’s something in the fifth line — when I haven’t read it recently, I think of it as having four — something that happens between the exclamation point and the final variation on the repetition, as though the poem were already exasperated by itself. It seems to trail off muttering, embarrassed.” I read all of this both because Gabbert senses that Atwood’s poem seems larger than the other poem she knew because it was so short and that Knott’s poem remains unforgettable for many possible reasons; it’s funny, it’s pointless, it’s pointlessly funny, it’s surprising, it’s everything it shouldn’t be. I wonder if this sparks any thoughts for you but I also wonder how, if at all, you do see your work in relation to poetry. I know when you were at the Kelly Writers House for PoemTalk with Al Filreis, he considered you among the poets and kept slipping up and calling your collected stories collected poems the way I slipped up earlier. I wondered how you felt about this framing, if there was a meaningful distinction for you around your shorter pieces and their longer pieces, I don’t think people would mistake them as poems and whether that distinction is important or whether you welcome the slippage. Then also lastly, the Knott poem made me think of your writing about the three-line Finnish poem that you say continues to move and mystify you 30 years later, a poem that you keep on your bulletin board where you say in 16 words, it conveys so many contradictory emotions, pathos, humor absurdity, and seriousness, frank and earnest statement, and obviously fictive storytelling. Talk to us a little bit about poetry in relationship to your prose.
LD: Well, actually, I’m staring at my bulletin board and staring at the poem you mentioned. Shall I read it?
DN: I would love it if you did, yeah.
LD: Okay. So funny, I’ve changed the things on my bulletin board quite a lot but not this one. It’s an incredibly yellowed old postcard. It’s a translation by Anselm Hollo from something called the Cheremiss and I’ve never quite understood, I think that’s like a gathering of folk poems or literature. It does define for me what a good poem can do and it does answer the question about, “Can a poem be too short?” in the sense that a good poem can be as short as it wants to be, not too short. A bad poem can be as long as it wants to be and it doesn’t make it any better, and it doesn’t make it good when it’s a bad short poem. I think what you quoted, what was her name? I’m sorry.
DN: Elisa Gabbert.
LD: Gabbert, what she said was, I would agree that the Atwood poem is over in a second, it’s sensational and it doesn’t give you all that much afterwards. The other, I don’t quite agree that it would keep giving me but I’d have to hear it a few more times and think about it but I think there’s more going on there than in the Atwood poem. I’ve looked through anthologies of very short stories or very short poems. A lot of them are one-liners or quickly over, depending on sensationalism or cuteness. There are many dangers you can run with a short piece. But anyway, having said all that, I’ll read this one from the Cheremiss, translated by Anselm Hollo who’s a poet himself. Three Lines. “I shouldn’t have started these red wool mittens. / they’re done now, / but my life is over.” I think the reason that I can keep reading that, I mean I have written about the effect of it but it starts in such an ordinary way. A lot of people say I shouldn’t have started this jigsaw puzzle quilting project, this casserole, a lot of things we shouldn’t have started, then they’re done now. Okay, he finally finished them but so why doesn’t he feel or she, I think of it as a he just because Anselm Hollo translated it but that’s not relevant, “They’re done now, but my life is over.” That just hits you over the head. I can keep reading it even though I know the end because somehow there’s still a hopefulness or the matter-of-factness of the first two lines that shouldn’t have started this casserole “It’s done now,” but I’m terribly late for the place I was going in, “but my life is over.” I actually wrote something that imitates that slightly but I’m not sure I’m ready to read it yet. It’s about learning German. Finally, my German is better but I’m dead now. I’m dying now. [laughter] That’s funny but it also relates to an idea that’s very moving to me but I think I’d rather talk about it a little later. That’s what I have to say in response to the short poem problem. People often refer to Hemingway’s short poem as the classic example, I always quoted slightly wrong but “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” or something but that is like the Atwood poem, that’s a one-shot thing. Uh-oh, it’s sad about the baby being gone but it just seems to me too frontal and too obvious, and I just don’t find it moving. In response to one part of your question, do I mind the confusion between poems and stories, I don’t mind it. I also think it’s productive, a very interesting conversation, “What is a poem? What is a story? Where is the dividing line between a poem and a story? When is a prose poem a prose poem rather than just a piece of prose fiction?” and so on. It’s interesting to think about all this.
DN: Well, maybe this is the perfect time to hear your story, The Obnoxious Man, which itself contains a poem inside of it, then the story becomes a poem.
LD: Yeah, that was fun for that reason to rewrite the story within the story.
DN: Yeah. I love the story.
[Lydia Davis reads from her new story collection Our Strangers]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lydia Davis read from her new story collection Our Strangers. We have a question for you from a poet, a poet you’ve written about, a poet who’s in your book club with you, two-time past Between the Covers guest, Rae Armantrout.
Rae Armantrout: Hi, Lydia, it’s Rae Armantrout. I often find your stories wonderfully hilarious and serious at the same time. Looking through your book Can’t and Won’t, I picked out Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer. Right away, that title makes me laugh, then the first sentence is, “We are writing to you because we feel that the peas illustrated on your package of frozen peas are a most unattractive color.” I don’t know why I find that so funny, maybe it’s the use of the first-person plural, maybe it’s the formal phrasing. It would be possible to think works like this are satirical but that doesn’t seem quite right. Would you talk about the role of absurdity and comedy in your writing?
LD: That’s very funny. [laughter] Yes, my friend Rae whose poetry I’ve been reading since the early 1980s I think when I first met her. Comedy is always with me and absurdity I guess in my life. Obviously, I write a lot about my life, not about my life but from material from my life. It’s all around and gives me great pleasure, even in the midst of difficult things, probably not the most difficult but mildly difficult things as the funny aspect of it will always be obvious to me and sometimes make it alright. I had a good friend years ago who’s since died who similarly would tell me story after story and almost all of them, oh, we laughed so hard. Oh, we had such a good time laughing. There would be stories that were not fun to experience at the time but she would find a humorous aspect. If a friend collapsed on the floor and the firemen were trying to get to her to help revive her, and my friend [Vai] would keep getting in the way in her distress to try to bend over her friend and she said, “Oh, I kept getting in their way, and it was so funny,” because the friend did recover, so it was all right. It was funny by the end. There are people who see humor in things and people who just tend not to see humor. I’m very grateful that I do see humor on things and absurdity. I suppose as with the canned ham story, side by side, you observe strangers in grief but there might be something funny going on at the same time. It’s just there all the time. I don’t really know. Without examples, it’s easier for me to talk about examples, specific stories but that Obnoxious Man, humor is throughout for me and maybe not much pathos because it’s not a terribly serious or difficult situation and neither is Lorine Niedecker’s Pa’s spitbox, well, who knows her relationship with her father might have been very fraught or the spitbox was just something she hated when she was a kid? I don’t know. Humor is present in Rae Armantrout’s poems also. I guess whenever it’s present, I appreciate it. Just another dimension.
DN: For sure. You’ve said before about Beckett that his work is so closely accurate psychologically that it becomes absurd and moving at the same time, and about Russell Edson, that sometimes absurd subjects make it easier for difficult emotions to come forth. I think of you and your work as you describe the work of these two, and I also realize that in Our Strangers, I feel like a lot of the humor is a language or communication humor, mistaken identities, like mistaking new things as if they’re old things, new husbands as if they’re old husbands, questions of misspellings, the word hemorrhaging and the failures to spell it right, whether Gramsci is an Italian designer or an Italian Marxist, how the word fun in English is also a Chinese noodle, the presence or the absence of E in acknowledgment. It feels like the humor of a writer and translator of course, or at least the humor of someone attentive to the slippage between words and what they represent. I also think many of these mishearings, misspellings, and mistakes conjure something of what you say about translation and essays too where you ask, “Can you say the same thing in radically different ways? If you write it so radically different, are you in fact saying the same thing?” But talk to us about this prominent throughline in the book around your stories, stories that move based on miscommunication often in many ways.
LD: Well, it comes up obviously in the translation Madame Bovary had. They probably keep adding to the number but there were 21 or 22 translations into English of Madame Bovary.
LD: Each one was a little different, some were radically different from each other. I don’t think you are saying quite the same thing when you reword it. I want to bring something in that may not quite fit this question and I can’t remember if I wrote about it in the essay books. But the poetry of Bashō’s journey to the north is what it’s sometimes called and I could say it was also an important influence in a sense because one of my favorite books, and I know this was about 45 years ago because I used to read it in the middle of the night when I was nursing my older son, so I can tell you it was about 45 years ago that I was reading it closely in the middle of the night in silence. [laughs] His journey to the north, and there are several translations, I think also [The Narrow Road to the Deep North] or something and I haven’t really examined the different translations but it was a narrative of the journey. He would write in prose about where he was going, what he was seeing, then he would stop the prose abruptly and write a three-line poem. I think it was again a three-line poem. I’m not sure it was always a haiku, it might have been, that would sum up or refer to what he had been saying in prose, as if he was reflecting and receiving the essence of what he had just been telling us in prose, then write it in a short poem. I just found that absolutely delightful, partly just what he was doing, how interesting it was but also the alternation you’re following along in the prose narrative, then you have this sudden break and you go into a different mode, and have this three-line distilled poem, then you go back to the prose. You have the story, the journey, but also the poems. I like that alternation very much.
DN: That makes me think of how many of the stories in this collection are in conversation with each other in some ways, either the various series in the poems but also the title story is an expansion of an earlier version of a story that you’d published and some stories are referring to other stories in the collection at the same time, not exactly the same as what Bashō is doing but formally different forms in conversation.
LD: Yeah, some of them arise very naturally. I think there’s one called revision, revision two, revision three, or something and that really just arose because I had made a list of all the changes that I wanted or needed to make in a story either because I wanted to change what I’d written or someone else had got it wrong, say in the galley or something and that was proofreading. But then I read the list in itself and I find it terrific. I like it because it’s so slightly mysterious but referring to so many disparate things. I think disparate things interest me in the world, things that collide by chance. That kind of story about writing or about an act of writing, that arose naturally. Let’s see a commentary on Interesting Personal Vegetables, that’s a story about a story called Interesting Personal Vegetables. I write the story Interesting Personal Vegetables, then after I’ve written it, I learned more about the context, about the back story, and so on. Rather than just change the original story, I think, “Well, that’s another story. I like that story too.” I think it’s the first time this has happened, I could be wrong, in a book of mine where I write a story that comments on another story. But I think I like breaking through the boundaries, “Oh no, you don’t do that, you don’t have a story. That’s about another story.” Traditionally, you could certainly have a story that continued another story, you used the same characters, and continued the story but this is more about writing. It crosses over into essay territory. I hadn’t thought of this before but it’s possible that it was after the two books of essays that I had got into the mode of thinking in essay form or thinking in explanation form, so it bled into the next book of stories.
DN: Well, in your Recommendations for Good Writing Habits, two more of them are, “To read poetry regularly even if you only write prose and to learn at least one foreign language.” I suspect at least one benefit of both of these practices, poetry, thinking, and speaking in another language is revealing the effect of syntax. Syntax is something that comes up often when you describe what you love about a writer. You describe Beckett as having impossibly tangled but correct syntax. You describe with admiration Bernhard’s tiny stories as having a tight structure, a completeness, and a hyper-complex syntax. You describe in your essays the different effects a one-paragraph story would have versus the same story broken into multiple paragraphs, how each reflects a different thing about the speaker’s state of mind. You talk about the importance of knowing the concrete origin of abstract words. For instance, the origin of the word ostracized comes from the word for pottery shards. Lastly, you talk about the importance of knowing the history of English pre and post-Norman Conquest, which words are Anglo-Saxon in origin and which are Latinate. I wonder if you could speak a little to syntax and etymology for us in terms of how it’s influencing your fiction writing, maybe an example comes to mind from the book or just more generally about the importance of these things, including the origin, whether it’s happening before the Romans language influence or not when writing.
LD: I did grow up in a household where my father was fascinated by word origins and etymologies, and where the dictionary stood on a stand in the living room, lay on a stand, I don’t know, I don’t like the wording of stood on a stand, [laughter] lay open on a stand in the living room and he would often get up, and go over and look up a word out of curiosity, and report what he was finding. My mother thought it was interesting too although she didn’t have the same habit. For example, when I first opened a checking account, I opened my first checking account, my father explained about endorsing a check and he explained the word etymology because he couldn’t help it, so the word endorse has the word for back in it, so you turn over right on the back and that’s what endorsing is and it’s related to the dorsal fin of a shark or a dolphin. Do dolphins have dorsal fins? I can’t remember. But anyway, for me, that constant reminder, well, of course, it implanted in my brain but it also reveals the metaphorical aspect of a regular word that would be opaque to us if we didn’t know that. An example being gregarious, well, it’s just a bunch of syllables if we don’t know that it actually comes from the idea of the herd, the Greek word for herd of animals. So if you’re gregarious, you like mingling with the herd and it brings it alive, it gives a lot more color to the language of the so-called abstract words with their concrete origins but it also allows you to use them more accurately because if you’re aware of the metaphor that’s inside them, you won’t use them in a way that contradicts that metaphor. You can tell I’m a very schoolmarmish kind of teacher and scolder, I don’t really go around scalding but I’m aware of all these things and I did prize accuracy when I was teaching, accuracy in word use. That’s what I have to say about word origins and etymologies. I still love exploring them and learning them. I still am surprised all the time. As for syntax, I just admire what can be done, obviously, I was going to say anyway that even though I was writing so short, when I was translating Proust, I delighted in his long complex syntax and admired it tremendously, and really enjoyed the challenge to me of reproducing that syntax without sacrificing it. I never cheated by breaking up a sentence. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that. I tried to use the same punctuation. I think I certainly wouldn’t have stuck in some semicolons to break up the sentence that way either. That acrobatics, when it’s done gracefully, is tremendously pleasing to me even though I don’t particularly write that way. Speaking of syntax, one book I would highly recommend to any writer is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. It’s an amazing compendium of all the different sentence structures possible and what they’re useful for and illustrated by wonderful quotes that will introduce you to a number of different writers. The effect of it is to make you pay such close attention to how a sentence is built and why and what effect that has on you as a reader. It’s absolutely a top recommendation. Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences.
DN: Well, your first love was music, not words and I imagine your attention to syntax in the way that you write must be related in some way to your interest in music. It makes me think of your endings and wondering if there’s something about music that relates to your endings and how you choose how and when to end a story. When you talked to Ben Marcus for the Lannan Foundation, you mentioned that you’ve historically had trouble with endings, that you’d write good stories that ended with weak sentences and that you would then need to address the weakness that you identified at the end, and you usually describe good endings in terms of surprise, that you aim to end with the stronger more surprising element in a story. I don’t think you mean a plot element necessarily, that you work hard on the very last words because sometimes that makes all the differences to whether or not a story seems finished to you. It seems to be about sound, rhythm, and surprise more than story itself and narrative. It makes me think of Mary Ruefle quoting Roland Barthes where she says, “Roland Barthes suggests there are three ways to finish any piece of writing: the ending will have the last word or the ending will be silent or the ending will execute a pirouette, so something unexpectedly incongruent.” But returning to the three-line Finnish poem you have loved for 30 years that you read for us where you say, “How can a three-line poem that on the surface is quite simple and direct, three plain everyday statements continue in some way to surprise me each time I read it?” I was hoping maybe you could talk more about the deliberations on ending a story and/or how ending a story for you might create a sense of it never ending, of continuing to delight, to continue to return to it and finding the surprise.
LD: When I said that trouble with endings is a constant, it’s not really a constant. I think endings are very difficult anyway. They’re often very difficult for a lot of people and they have been difficult for me in that sense that a story is good all the way through but then is not good at the very end. Endings are harder than beginnings. You can start almost with anything and make a good story but you can’t end it weakly, which doesn’t mean, what I was thinking when you were asking the question was that every ending works a little differently or let’s say there are like Roland Barthes mentioned three ways that ending can work but let’s say there are limited numbers but there are different ways that an ending can work. Sometimes like in my shortest one, the ending is part of the whole thing, part of the point so it’s not even a question. Then say with a longer story that has more of a plot to it, I think it’s good sometimes to introduce something new at the very end or when we talk about something unexpected, it can be unexpected but prepared for during this story, the way in a good film there’ll be something unexpected at the end but it was prepared for so it doesn’t seem gratuitous. I can read one story, I’m looking at one particular example in which the very end was added much later, it’s only four lines and a title.
DN: Right. Let’s hear it.
LD: You may not even like this one but the title took a lot of work because, again, it’s got to set it up. The title is very long and the title is like part of a conversation, the title is But After All This is The Necessary First Stage of His Construction Work, and then the piece is almost as long as the title, not much longer, four lines, “Please, Mr. Wasp, stop chewing on my bench while I’m out here trying to read. (or Mrs.)” I personally love the last line. It didn’t come along till very late but usually the most of its life in this piece just ends with “while I’m out here trying to read.” What interested me was the accidental companionship of the wasp chewing on the bench while someone’s trying to read. The wasp makes her slightly nervous because he’s a wasp and then I realized I was calling him mister. A friend of mine I read it to or sent it to didn’t like Mr. He thought it was too cute. I thought of abandoning mister but I liked mister. Then I realized, “Well, I don’t know if it was a Mr or a Mrs., and I liked the idea of Mrs. Wasp, so I just ended it with in parenthesis to myself (or Mrs.) [laughter] And wasps do that, they chew on a piece of wood to make a mesh that they build their nest with. That’s an example of the ending that was okay but this ending’s better. Some endings I was going to say can trail off and they do trail off but it’s okay. It’s like life, it just trails off sometimes like an interesting incident or even someone telling you a story will just shrug and say, “Well, that’s how it ended.” That’s okay too in certain stories.
DN: Well, you yourself have exposure to many languages, German Immersion and Austria when you were quite young, later French, Latin, and Italian in the US and several months in Argentina when you were in high school. In essays too, you say that by drawing on the resources of a language other than your own, you become more and more knowledgeable about your own language and also you say that the more problems you encounter in the other language, the more ingenious you have to become in your own, which makes me think back to your challenge of “How short can I go and still retain a sense of meaning?” which makes me wonder if your use of constraints like that bring something that you love from the world of translation into the world of writing that it isn’t just the pleasure of writing but also the pleasure of solving problems, which is something that you’ve stated is part of your pleasure of translation is the pleasure of writing and the pleasure of solving problems. Especially given your statement that the most important skill you can have as a translator is not expertise in a foreign language but the ability to write well in your own language. That maybe these problems of translation and the problems that you choose for yourself in constraints are two different ways to improve oneself as a writer. Is that a bad presumption to make that they serve a similar purpose?
LD: That sounds a little bit as if my aim is to improve as a writer, which of course, it always was from the beginning in one sense, how can I write something as good as my heroes? You’re right that definitely a constraint forces you to be more ingenious, and to use the resources of your language, more resourcefully that I repeat resource and resourcefully. That’s another thing, my family did is it would not let us speak in a poor way if we repeated a word inadvertently like that clumsily. They would often call us on it, which makes you slightly self-conscious but you get used to it. Your tendency in your own writing, I have taught writing for many years, I’m not teaching now but I saw it over and over with students is you can write fairly self-indulgently. With translation, you can’t escape the constraints of the text that you’ve given. That I think is very interesting. I used to give the students I guess what I preferred, we did talk about their stories but I really enjoyed giving them tight exercises to do. You mentioned that Thomas Bernhard’s Voice Imitator, which by the way I discovered because I think it was O’Hare Airport in Chicago had a good bookstore on the main drag and this was years and years ago so I don’t know if it’s still there but I was waiting between planes and thought, well, I’m going to look sometimes to have these impulses toward thoroughness that don’t maybe last very long but I said, “I’m going to start with the As in fiction and just look at every single spine.” So I got to the Bs and Bernhard found this book which amazed me for the same reason you said. I knew him as a novelist. I had no idea he wrote these very short stories. I asked the class, I gave them an example of three or four of them and asked them to do an imitation as their assignment of the syntax just say three sensational subject matter. I think his were always pretty sensational. Most of them did a beautiful job, some found it just terribly difficult. I think nowadays, we’re trained in pretty simple syntax and it’s very hard for people to. That was part of the difficulty. Proust, I could do it but it wouldn’t be easy for everyone in these massive senses to know what the main subject and the main verb was, something that sounds pretty simple but when it’s all tangled up in subordinate causes, people find it hard or impossible to say, “Oh, the main sentence was just he walked down the road” because there’s so much hanging off in every way. That was hard for the students. Some did it brilliantly. But I really like that kind of constraint.
DN: Could we hear the story Egg, which I think is a nice one to hear for some of the influences of translation?
[Lydia Davis reads from her new collection of stories Our Strangers]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lydia Davis read from her new collection of stories Our Strangers. The story you read earlier, That Obnoxious Man has the construction of itself as one of its topics and the stories that are about language also feel in a way about themselves and you have stories that, as we’ve talked about, comment on each other like commentary on interesting personal vegetables, and all these foreground the construction of the story in some way, which is double enhanced when a story is missing what we might expect from a story, which itself calls into question what we’re reading, what choices you’re making and why and how. So I’d like to spend a little time with sources and methods. But to begin, here is a question for you from another, a writer and translator who you’ve written about also, the author of This Little Art and The Long Form, the translator of Roland Barthes’s lectures Kate Briggs.
Kate Briggs: Hello, David. Hello, Lydia. This is Kate speaking. Thank you so much for inviting me into the space of your conversation. Of the many, many questions I’d love to ask you about your work, Lydia, I’ve settled on a question about interest and what you find interesting and what your work makes interesting for us your readers. I have in mind a story of yours from Can’t and Won’t titled How I Read as Quickly as Possible Through My Back Issues of the TLS and a passage from it, for example, reads “Interested in: beer East Prussia after World War II philosemitism. Not interested in: the Archbishop of Canterbury.” I’m also thinking of I think what was probably for me the most vital and transformative piece of writing advice I’ve ever received from your first collection of essays, which was to cultivate my interests and therefore in a way my character to hold to what I specifically genuinely find interesting however unlikely or untimely that might be and to start work from there. So I wondered if you could expand a bit further on how your own interests work for you as generators for essays, stories, and translations and how you actively or unconsciously cultivate them. But I also wanted to ask whether it’s ever felt hard for you to stay interested and also to stand by your interests and if so, how and why and what happened?
LD: Another complicated questions. Her book is terrific by the way, This Little Art. I haven’t read her new book. I think she has a pretty brand new book that I’m looking forward to very much.
DN: She does.
LD: She’s asking about interest. My problem is I’m interested in too many things and seriously interested in them, not passing interest, very, very many, many things. I’ll start from the TLS piece because I still do that, I still find myself looking through back issues of the TLS and being interested in this, that, and not that, this and not that. I had been doing that for quite a while because I would tear out the articles that interested me and I still have grocery bags of old issues upstairs and had to get through them somehow. Anyway, I began to see what I was doing and see what I like also is the variety, I think I mentioned before disparate things coming together and this happened too with the say table of contents of the TLS or The London Review or any other good journal, just the variety. Here’s a review of a book about South Pacific and here’s a review of a book about Canadian military history and it’s just all over the place and all the different readers are going to read one or the other or both. It appeals to the variety of interests of the readers and the writers and the writers of the books they’re reviewing. I love that variety. My own interests are very many and keep expanding unfortunately. When Kate asked if I lose interest, I don’t usually lose interest in anything that I’m seriously interested in so it continues but I add other things to it. I order a lot of books through my secondhand bookstore and I have a good workbook searcher who never minds how often I write to her because she says it’s part of her job so I write asking for and then I can see again the variety of interests. This book club you’ve mentioned a couple of times, we’re reading the poetry of John Clare, early 19th century poet so I’m asking her for books of John Clare’s writing but then I might try to remember what I greatly asked her for but I do a lot of work on the climate committee in my village and keep discovering new issues and the issue that I’ve discovered most recently is darkness. We don’t have enough darkness. It wasn’t that I didn’t realize that before but it’s just become more pressing somehow that too much light kills off insects, alters their behavior. It’s a serious problem. As a result, you see, I border on seeming a little crazy but I now turn off all the lights in the house at night when it gets dark except whatever room we’re actually using and if I go from room to room, I take a little lantern, a little camping lantern with me rather than keep turning on the lights of every room I go to turning them off and on if I don’t have to stay in the room. This is really recent. Here’s a new interest is darkness. I’m interested in lots of different things and always interested in people. It seems to me that my stories are born of interest in language and how you use expressive language and in people and how people behave. Have I answered her question, do you think or is there more to it that I forget?
DN: Well, let me extend Kate’s question a little bit. I want to ask you how and why certain things that you do pay attention to may or may not appear in your work, something that I think might ultimately bring us back to questions about plot, narrative, and story because there are many things you are very interested in the world at large, which you’ve alluded to some already, you’re very engaged with regards to social justice issues, primarily global climate apocalypse. Four or five years ago when my show was in person, I reached out to you to see if you might be coming through Portland for your book at the time and you said you had decided to stop flying for the rest of your life and that it seemed particularly gratuitous this custom that we have of flying all over the world to have conversations. You’ve tried to minimize buying new things. You try not to kill insects. You’re pro weeds. You’re a vegetarian. All of which could be said to be attending to the non-human beings on the planet and mitigating our harm on an individual level. My favorite act of yours that feels like an act of social justice to me isn’t related to climate change per se except that you could call it an alternate form of travel that you want to attempt to translate at least one short work from each language that your own work has been translated into as a form of cultural exchange, which I really love. All of these things are part of your life but not necessarily directly and overtly part of your fiction. For instance, you say in the Times Union newspaper that you are writing about climate issues for local newsletters and you want to do even more of that and that it’s hard for you to focus on your own work when the climate emergency is staring us in the face, which begs the question why you wouldn’t make those climate issues part of your work. I wondered if this had to do with your relationship to plot and story. It makes me think of Diane Williams again who said about her own work, “I don’t want to know what I know; I’m curious about what I don’t know. I want access to that mysterious center.” I also think about how you’re attracted to how Maurice Blanchot’s work resists plot summary where you describe one of his books unsatisfyingly as “In a house in the southern part of some country, a man goes from room to room being asked the question ‘Are you writing now?’ by another character who may or may not exist.” Or how you often don’t finish reading books that you love. The first time you read Swann’s Way, you put it down after two-thirds, same with Beckett’s Malone Dies, and these are books you are enthralled with but you weren’t interested in the impact of the whole work but rather the technique and the approach. This is my long theory why it might be more rare that we will see, say a current event pop up in your pieces, for instance. But talk to us about why writing about climate issues in your own words takes away from your creative writing rather than immediately becoming part of your creative writing.
LD: I just meant takes away in terms of time. My preoccupation now has been for some months completely with the climate committee that we have even though we’re tiny and we’re not going to make a huge difference, but that’s my response to feelings of apprehension, fear, panic, whatever is to do something rather than just carry on the way I’ve been carrying on. All my time and energy is slightly fanatically spent on planting native garden sites around the village with my cohorts who are equally dedicated and changing one asphalt parking lot, which we literally had been doing into a habitat, into a place with shrubs and perennials, and seeing the insects immediately come back, they’re very responsive, I don’t mean that the insect decline in the world is suddenly changed but you plant a flower or you let a little clover grow where it wants to grow and a bee comes to it. They find it so that’s very gratifying. It’s just a matter of time. I just don’t feel I have the leisure and the calm to just sit here writing stories about other things. That may happen maybe when the winter comes and there’s much less I can do, although there’s still things you could do in the winter, maybe then I will write more. I have several unfinished non-fiction projects that I’d like to finish. That’s all I meant and I don’t know quite why I won’t write a short story or a story about climate change. It just maybe seems too big and what’s the point? I don’t quite know, I don’t know why. I think I don’t write directly about issues that affect me perhaps, sometimes I do, but for example, there are quite a few insect stories in this book and I’m very interested in insects, partly because people are so resistant to them. Certain people are not and certain people are coming around to them but in general, you don’t find an ant as lovable as a little kitty cat. Part of our job in our little committee here is to begin to persuade people that we really need the insects, and that some are not so nice and some are perfectly fine. But anyway, as a result of all that, I’m always looking at insects. Some of the stories reflect that, not me beating a drum and saying, “We have to love ants,” but just me talking about ants because I want to. The same thing a few years ago, I was writing about the cows across the road from me. I just loved looking at them. They didn’t just appeal to me as animals but visually, they were black against a green field or they were black against a tan field in the fall. They were just very beautiful to look at. But when I was done writing that and I had to reflect on it and realize that it reflected my caring about animal welfare, so I’m not writing a story that’s very frontally about animal welfare, I’m just depicting the cows that I love to look at in a sympathetic way. I think my interests come in indirectly. They’re part of what I want to write about but not frontally.
DN: Well, while we’re here talking about you in the world, talk to us about the choice to not release the book with Amazon and the considerations that went into that for you to figure out this new way along with bookshops, new imprint, being the inaugural title of a way to bypass the Amazon book model.
LD: I just don’t know why it took me this long frankly because I have known about Amazon’s poor practices, poor business practices, poor treatment of workers, poor consideration of the environment. I’ve known about all that for many years and have not bought things through them for many years. Why did it take me so long to wake up and realize I’m allowing my book to be sold on Amazon? We get so stuck in the way things are, the way things are done that just seemed to be the way things were done. Then just at the time my second book of essays came out about two years ago, when it was too late to do anything, I realized I didn’t like the fact that it was being sold by Amazon, that I didn’t want to really contribute to the profits in the system that Amazon had set up. But it was too late so then I began resolving, it took me a while to just be very firm about wanting to avoid Amazon because I knew it would not necessarily be easy. It took me a few months even to confide in my agent who’s been my agent since the 80s who works wonderfully with me and is a very sympathetic person. Finally, I ventured to say to her that I didn’t want to sell it through Amazon and she was completely on board, doesn’t like Amazon any more than I did, and she likes changes and she likes her job to be exciting so this was a new challenge, “Okay, we’re going to sell a book not through Amazon, how are we going to do that?” She went along and around and talked to different, I can’t remember the exact sequence but I think obviously, we went to my long time publisher first, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and they did work on it for a while trying to see if there was a way to avoid Amazon and there wasn’t. She tried different publishers who could not and so they would be delighted to but they could not and some were afraid of repercussions from Amazon, which is a real fear in different areas not just for the workers who work there. She went to talk to Andy Hunter of Bookshop.org for advice. She knew where he stood with Amazon and she talked to him just to feel him out about it and see what his thoughts were and then you know what happened, he decided to be a publisher, at least, for that one book.
DN: Yeah. That’s a great story. Could we hear a slightly longer story? I was thinking Letter to the U.S Postal Service Concerning a Poster, which I think is one story where a lot of concerns enter into this story, maybe exceptionally so, not a typical story in this regard for you.
LD: When we talk about the stories that are about writing or about this or that, I think there’s also my impulse to preach, here’s a way I can preach my beliefs. Okay, this is sort of a leftover, if you could say that, of the series of letters of complaint that were more prominent in Can’t and Won’t, there’s a whole bunch and then this was this and maybe there’s one other in here that came echoing afterwards.
[Lydia Davis reads from her new collection Our Strangers]
DN: We’ve been listening to Lydia Davis read from her new collection Our Strangers. One other thing you’re writing prompts a reader to wonder is about your sources, for instance, a father character reoccurs in this book with stories like Father Has Something To Tell Me, Claim To Fame, Karl Marx And My Father, Letter To The Father, Father Enters the Water, Worrying About Father’s Arm, which makes one wonder if this is your father, and also more generally, the role of your life as a source for your fiction or not, you very generously go into various ways you construct your stories in Essays One, the ways that your life may or may not end up in your fiction, your use of found materials like emails, dreams, or an analytical reading of Bernhard’s short pieces. Thinking about sources and methods, we have a question for you from Diane Williams.
Diane Williams: Hi, Lydia. It’s Diane Williams here. I’m very eager to read your new book. As you know, I’m a great admirer of your work and at noon, we have been quite privileged to feature your fiction as well as excerpts from your journal. David asked me if I might ask you a question. My question is do you ever plumb your journal on behalf of your fiction? Never, rarely, often.
LD: That’s very funny. Thank you, Diane. [laughter] I wish I could answer in person but I know you’re a pre-recorded voice and I can’t. Yes, I often do but not always. Or how shall I say this? I’ll say it another way around. There are many, many, many, many pages of my journals, which never were used in stories and never will be. There are many stories that did come directly out of the journals being then intensively revised, most often expanded and revised titled, so yes, it goes both ways. The journal has been a repository for all kinds of stray thoughts, overheard dialogue, or pieces of recorded information from my life. In the past, and generally, my method would be just to write things down with no further intention at the moment. Then I might go back, as I still do now sometimes, go back through and say, “Oh, that is almost a story in itself what I wrote down.” Now that goes for the very short things, obviously, most often. It only needs a title. It needs a little more. For example, the Egg story that I read before, the second part of it, which is all about the children, was an account in a journal from the time that the children were little. Maybe I only wrote it down because of the language aspect but I think in those days, which was a long time ago, I tended to write more fully in the journal, more descriptively, more full accounts than I do now. But I changed the story in the sense that I added to it. I found the foreign versions of the word egg so interesting, then I put that on the story as the first paragraph. The narrative of the two children illustrates the learning of the word egg but there’s a mock scholarly introductory paragraph explaining to the poor reader, on the part of the teacher, what the different words are for egg around the world. That’s a story that came from the journal but was expanded and modified. I’m looking at another one, William Cobbett and the stranger, that was just something I read in William Cobbett’s writing and it appealed to me so I wrote it out as a little story, very simple, very direct.
DN: Let me ask you in the spirit of Diane’s question about sources also. I wondered if you ever have the impulse to write beyond the real and the humor of the real to the world of the fantastic to have your husband waking up speaking a wrong language or with the body of a beetle, to have the ladybugs that you feed in one story say thank you or an entirely invented creature that doesn’t exist ring the doorbell, how do you see the fantastic in relation to your writing and reading life? Obviously, you’re a lover of Kafka so you do find some appeal there. Why is it or isn’t it a compelling place to write to order from in your own writing?
LD: Well, I puzzle over this but more and more, I really find reality completely satisfying and really don’t want to deal in fantasy. I have to keep wondering why I’m less patient now with other people’s fiction than I used to be, more interested in real accounts, which are not always accurate, therefore, they border on make-believe. Our memories are wonderfully inaccurate. In my earliest books, there were certainly, I think that in the first book, there were certainly fantastical stories break it down. I enjoyed them. I liked writing them. Then now I would not like writing them. The difference I guess is just that I love reality. No, I don’t love reality, that sounds terrible because our real world now is so dreadfully frightening and terrible, [laughter] but I realized the reality of the small interactions, the day-to-day. I saw a spider the other day that had such amazing colors on it, big fat spider but not of the dark hairy frightening kind but just like a painted mask. I just find that more interesting than making up a fantastical creature. I think it probably has to do with really valuing what we do have. I’m very aware of how fragile it is so I really value what we do have and what does exist. I don’t feel any need to invent anything and I don’t particularly want to read other people’s inventions. I know that sounds repressive. I’m glad they exist but I’m happy reading accounts of reality and find them terrifically rewarding. They’re all different, of course. I’m reading, as I said, John Clare the poet also wrote an account in prose of his escape from an asylum. He was locked up in an asylum twice and he escapes on foot 80 miles with nothing much to eat or drink. He gets one pint of ale once. He eats grass by the side of the road and says that it’s a fairly satisfying meal. He’s writing in the early 19th century and his language is a different dialect. I just find that terrifically rewarding. It’s a harrowing story and it’s a sad moving story but I’d rather read that than a piece of fantasy.
DN: You have many series of stories in this book that are really satisfying and my favorite one is called Claim to Fame that are these encounters with either minor or distant relatives or acquaintances of major people that are really great. In that spirit, I wanted to ask you about one in the real world for you. When I talked with Diane for the show, we talked briefly about her having Philip Roth as a writing teacher. I know your only writing workshop was with Grace Paley and I don’t think of Roth and Williams or you and Paley having a ton of aesthetic and formal overlap but I wondered if you could share any memories or anecdotes about that class with Paley or about her as a teacher of that class.
LD: Well, I’m really a disappointing anecdotalist for the most part. It would help if I had written an account, wouldn’t that be nice, of her class and her behavior. But I didn’t and just remember her sitting at the head of the table being not flamboyant, not loud, and maybe that’s why I don’t remember better, she tended to be quieter and more modest in my memory and so my main memory of that class was one boy who was very arrogant and clearly thought I was nothing at all until I read a story and then I saw some dawning respect in his face. That’s the ridiculous memory. I would much rather have the memory of Grace Paley. She was a friend of my parents by the way. She did appear in our living room once but again, I have no memory of talking to her and maybe I didn’t talk to her. It’s one of those unfortunate things that time does that if it had been 20 years later, I would have been just delighted and I wouldn’t have pushed myself at her but I would have just enjoyed absorbing her presence there and listened to her because she was what really became one of the writers I admired greatly. It was not only her skill and her humanity as a writer but her way of living in the world as a writer that she wasn’t out to glorify herself or push herself, she was doing what she cared about politically and putting herself in danger or wearing herself down politically as an activist and then writing because she was compelled to write and writing the stories she felt compelled to write. But there seemed to be a very honest, straightforward relationship between her and her writing, her and her living so I’m glad I took that workshop but I wish I could remember more.
DN: Well as we approach the end, I feel like we must mention that one of the main themes of the book is the passage of time and also aging with stories like the interests of old age, when we are dead and gone, wise old men aging, or how he changed over time. I’d love to go out with the story New Things in My Life but before we do, tell us what new things we can expect from you going forward either as Lydia Davis projects out in the world, perhaps a direct action against an oil pipeline, for instance, or in the world of words, what’s coming next for you either a translation, a collection, or maybe your second novel, for instance.
LD: Well, it probably won’t be my second novel. I wish it were a piece of heroic activism. I think about it but I think “Is that the most effective thing I can do if it becomes the most effective thing?” If it makes a difference, I probably will do it but at the moment, I’m hoping everyone will rise up and protest but at the moment we’re not there yet. As far as writing goes, I’ve accumulated these projects that interest me greatly that I would like to finish because it’s not that I’m about to, I still have some years left but it’s the feeling of now it’s time to to finish them one by one by one. As I said before, they’re all non-fiction so the shortest that I can finish, it’s something I’ve published parts of, it’s converting a memoir by a great, great, great, great uncle of mine into a poem. He wrote a memoir called Our Village and it was somewhat rough as he wrote it but he wrote it very beautifully but rough in the sense that it’s got repetitions and passages repeat, he starts over again, and so on but it’s very beautifully written and I’ve been converting it almost as is into a poem, selecting and converting. I think it’s very beautiful and I want to finish that but it’s mainly his writing. Then there’s something I want to do about a 14th century shepherd. I’ve done a lot of work on that already but this is the actual life of a shepherd that we know about because of his testimony in a religious inquisition. I want to do something with that and then the third is another ancestor who was a sea captain left a diary and he was in the 1850s or 60s, he was a sea captain, what I’ve started doing, and probably still will want to do and it’s very hard to get the form of some of these things, is to reproduce his diary as it is and then have commentary on it, which I take from ago Richard Henry Dana Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. Do you know that book?
DN: I don’t.
LD: It used to be such a classic, it was very influential to Melville. Melville read it in the 1840s and it made him want to go to sea. It’s a count of really a Harvard undergraduate who has to go to do something for his health so he goes to see as an able seaman as just an ordinary seaman and he writes an account of it, four people on land to know what the life of a seaman is all about sailing. It’s a terrific book and it was so popular that for a while, you used to see it at every library sale, every library sale had a copy or two. It’s a wonderful book. I’m going to use Richard Henry Dana’s book as an explanation for some things that my ancestor says about sea shanties that they’re singing or something and then I’ll have my own voice in there somewhere too. But you can see, these are terribly complicated projects.
DN: Wonderful though, wonderful projects. Well, let’s go out with New Things in My Life.
[Lydia Davis reads from her new story collection Our Strangers]
DN: Thank you so much, Lydia. It was a real pleasure to spend these couple of hours together.
LD: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
DN: We’re talking today to Lydia Davis, the author most recently of Our Strangers. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Lydia contributes discussion of the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel, what attracts her to read him and translate him. Then she reads for us a story of his that Lydia herself translated. This joins supplemental readings by many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks, and more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the Tin House Early Readership Subscription getting 12 books over the course of the year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.