An Interview with Kathryn Davis

Oct 12, 2010 | Archive, Interviews

Interview by LAURENCE ROSS

Black Warrior Review: I was thinking about your work, about the novels, and I was wondering why you gravitated to the form of the novel versus, for example, the short story.

Kathryn Davis: Well, I started writing poetry in fact, and I had this idea but I did not have the attention span to write anything longer. For some reason, I thought that writing poetry required a short attention span. I didn’t understand what I was doing when I wrote poetry. At all. And I did, for a brief period, write short stories. That was the first thing I did after realizing that I didn’t have the room to do what I wanted to do in a poem. Particularly at the moment that I was writing poetry, the pace was for really short lyric poems and I kept putting too much stuff in and being told, “You better take all of that out.” I wanted something where I could put more stuff in, and the short story seemed a much more suitable form. Then what happened was that my short stories just kept getting longer and longer, story by story, until I had written three that were like novellas. I thought that I really wanted to see what it felt like conceiving of the longer form, the novel, what ever is meant by novel. I think that is open to a variety of interpretations. Sometimes I write what I would call a novel. The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, I think is truly a novel. I think that Hell is the length of a novel, but I don’t know whether you would call it that. The length more determined my wish to work in that form than whatever we think of as the novel and the novel’s form—if that makes sense.

BWR: Sure.

KD: I wanted more room but not necessarily more of the kind of expansive room a traditional novelist would require.

BWR: Was Labrador your first attempt at writing a novel?

KD: Well, there was a very bad book that preceded Labrador that was called Labrador. And that was my first book title. It was a historic novel. It was so boring. It was about the Eskimos at the World’s Fair and the only thing that I retained from that terribly boring early version was the name of the grandfather which I incorporated into the book that became Labrador. So yes, Labrador was my first novel.

BWR: It surprises me to hear you say that you weren’t sure you had the attention span to write novels. I think of your novels as very large in their scope.

KD: I think I have a great attention span. I don’t know where I got that idea. I think someone told me when I was young that I have a short attention span. I really don’t know where the idea came from because I really am remarkably patient. I like to do things that take a long time—long distance running for instance. I like climbing mountains. I have a lot of pack-horse in my make-up, which is what you need to write a novel. Just putting foot before foot before foot. I don’t know where that idea came from. It was wrong. In fact, I am not constitutionally used to doing what poets do, I think, where you don’t work in such a rigorous routine. I would find that disturbing. It would produce anxiety in me not to think that everyday at a certain time for a certain amount of time, I am at my desk and writing. That is very, very comforting to me.

BWR: I would characterize your prose almost as ruminating and part of that ruminating is the use of simile and metaphor. What do you think is the role of simile or metaphor is in your work?

KD: I think ruminating is an interesting word to use, sort of the meditative approach to telling a story or writing about anything. For me, one of the functions simile and metaphor serve is to help me understand what it is I am talking about. I tend to think in terms of “x” happened, what is this like? If something happens that is puzzling, I will cast about in my memory or imagination for something that is similar to what has happened, or to the behavior or to the expression on someone’s face to understand it. Sometimes that understanding occurs by similarities, sometimes it occurs by the differences. I realize in thinking, well, this looks this way. This expression looks a lot like that expression but it comes from a completely different motivation. The metaphor is the part of understanding what is going on where you have not necessarily lengthy psychoanalytic description of what is happening in a character, but you still want to go below the surface. It works that way for me. Plus, I like always to feel that when I am writing and when I am reading that there are changes in register and that, to me, seems to be one way to do that. The sentences I like lately are plain sentences that erupt into something much more complicated and often contain a metaphor, are sometimes really an extended metaphor. It’s a way the surfaces of prose changes and the sounds of it changes. The pitch.

BWR: You seem recently, in The Thin Place, to have an interest in science specifically. What do you think the relationship is between your interest in science and your interest in simile and metaphor, and how might these converge?

KD: That’s a really interesting question. I’ll have to think about that. I am really interested in science, but I am no scientist. I never was. When I was in school, science and math were not strong subjects for me, to put it mildly, but I discovered as an adult that I am very interested in that entire realm, including math, which I don’t even know how to do. But the beautiful structure of numbers, and the conversations I have with people who are mathematicians, especially in some of the more esoteric branches of mathematics, cosmology, topology. I don’t understand them. It’s almost like talking to someone about an ecstatic religious experience. I can kind of get what is being talked about, and the ways in which I don’t fully understand it is part of my excitement about it. But, it’s a beautiful structure. Likewise, science. The names of things. The way things behave. There is a body of information that is unfamiliar to me. It’s very reductive, and it’s the range of information it contains, and the fact that I’m not a scientist. I would like to continue to get stronger, I think, in the branches of science and mathematics, go tearing after them like a hound after a rabbit. It changes from book to book, from time to time. I think, to answer your question, in a way, what the realm of science does is shortcut all of that. What science represents for me is a kind of huge realm of metaphor, where there are things that are more or less familiar to me if I look at them in juxtaposition to the facts and information in the world of science; it’s a way of making metaphorical sense out of the world, and it provides a huge new portal of possibilities. I’ve never actually thought of that. It’s a really good question.

BWR: That makes sense, considering what you were saying earlier about how you are drawn to using simile in moments of puzzlement to try and find a corresponding…

KD: Right. Right. And, then I will go to scientific factual information. But I think I approach items more like a person searching for a metaphor than somebody trying to arrive at some scientific truth. It’s a different kind of truth I am looking for there.

BWR: Yes. Would you say that your interest in science or even the way you employ scientific prose in your work, has some relation to your interest in fairy tales as well?

KD: That’s a really good question. Well here’s my immediate reaction to that—it does, and it has to do, actually, with the sound of the language. That is the part I left out of my former answer. When I use scientific language and apply it to fiction, I say something like the nearest galaxy is x-billion miles away, or whatever, and I state it like that because theoretically it is flat. It’s a flat sort of statement. That’s an example of a particular kind of register that I crave in the prose, and scientific facts provide that always. It’s a very reliable provider of that kind of sound, and also creates in the reader, the feeling of, “Now, I am being told something actual.”

BWR: It has the air of not being questioned.

KD: Exactly. So the way that connects with fairy tales is that is exactly the same register that pertains to fairy tales. There once was a fox that could sing. I mean it’s the information provided, to use the Todorovian Categories. Do you know Todorov, who wrote that book about the fantastic?

BWR: No, I don’t.

KD: It’s great, and he posits three categories for work where what’s going on is not necessarily like what happens in real life. I’ll tell you the three categories. There’s the marvelous, which is like what you get in the fairy tale where the rules for our world, the natural laws do not pertain at all. They’re just gone and you don’t question that fact. If a pig can sing, a pig can sing. That’s the way it is. Then there is the uncanny where something happens and there is usually some type of psychological explanation, or it can be explained by the fact that the government is hysterical. And then there’s the middle category, where it could be uncanny, it could be marvelous, and that’s the fantastic. And the pleasure of the fantastic, according to Todorov, is that you just remain eternally uncertain when you read those works. So with the fairy tale, because it’s in the realm of the marvelous, I’m going to tell you something and you are not going to say to me, what a minute, pigs can’t sing. It has the sound of scientific fact, it has exactly that same type of sound. And that is what is really appealing about it to me, that you can then speak as if an entire scientific body is behind you and say things completely implausible. I think its true. I hadn’t thought of the connection, but I know that is a huge part of what appeals to me. I know that the book I am working on now sprang from writing a fairy tale for Kate Bernheimer’s fairy anthology that she is putting together. It was hearing the sound of some of those sentences that liberated me from bad thinking I had been doing and sent me on my way.

BWR: Interesting.

KD: It’s sort of profound.

BWR: I notice other motifs and characters, Marie Antoinette for example, in your work.

KD: It’s true. I don’t know what to say about that, except that she made a big impression on me when I was a child. That story had a big effect on me and continues to in the way that some of those things you hear about when you are young do. It disturbed me when I heard about the French Revolution when I was little. I must have seen something on television and the fact that these people, no matter what they might have done, that they died in this horrible way sort of haunted my dreams for a long time. But I also would play French Revolution with my dolls. I had a doll whose head came off and she would be Marie Antoinette. It would be very fast. So, I don’t know, I didn’t really think about her for a long time until writing Versailles. I mean she might show up as a mention like a cameo role or something. While I wrote Versailles, I realized that what really fascinated me about her was the fact that there was this light contained in this body that had at one time likewise been contained in this immense power seemingly without end and then ending up constrained in the tiny, tiny space she spent her life. But the building of the container, the more important container, the body that contains whatever you think what’s inside her that animated spirit and light. That’s what is really interesting to me.

BWR: That’s interesting, that notion of containers.

KD: I’m really interested in containers.

BWR: To shift gears a little bit, one thing that I think stands out about your prose in comparison to many other contemporary writers is your willingness to write a maxim. I feel like many contemporary fiction writers, especially, seem hesitant to suggest or dispense any type of maxim in their work and I am not sure whether that’s due to a deference to minimalism or a hesitancy to just throw such a statement out there. Your work on the other hand has quite a bit of maxims in the prose.

KD: I like maxims.

BWR: I think there are two types of maxims in your prose, one is a subjective maxim from a character’s perspective.

KD: Right.

BWR: Then there is a sort of narrator’s maxim as well.

KD: Right. More, sometimes, from the omniscient narrator’s perspective. Now I’m going to liken everything now—I can tell from that question about fairy tale and science—but it is that sense of having that ability to see enough of the picture of something that you can make a statement that tells rather than shows. So I think my taste for that kind of narrative again goes back to the way I felt reading and having fairy tells read to me. There definitely is the voice telling you things about the world, sometimes in encapsulated maxim-like forums, but always in an honest way. I like that. I liked it very much in Isak Dinesen, in her stories. I think she wrote a genius novel. It’s interwoven into the fabric of the story and you know she considered herself to be a poor tale teller…not a fiction writer.

BWR: It’s interesting you use the phrase tale teller. The idea of telling instead of showing is the opposite of what is usually taught in fiction writing workshops.

KD: Well, I say there is nothing wrong with telling if its interesting. The “tell don’t show” is good advice if you really don’t know what you are doing. Beginning writers often like telling just because they don’t know what they are doing and have to tell you what it is they think they are doing in writing their story. But I think that that advice became the coin of the realm is a saddened state. I think that the tradition of the omniscient narrator, and what the omniscient narrator is capable of, is a sad tradition to lose because it gives you enormous range of flexibility that you don’t find in fiction that acts as if it doesn’t exist.

BWR: I think you exhibit part of that flexibility in The Thin Place, for example, where your third person narrator is capable of moving quite fluidly between, not only all of the characters, but also into the consciousness of the animals that are surrounding the characters.

KD: That was the main thing I wanted to do in that book. It was modeled loosely on the narrative point of view in the novella by Flaubert, A Simple Heart, which I have taught a number of times. I have always adored his narrative point of view. It felt so fluid and it would be up looking down on the village, then it would be right in Felicite, the serving woman, a sort of the parrot. I mean he didn’t go quite as gung-ho as I ended up going, but I was asking myself what makes me just swoon every time I read this story, and it was the way he used the point of view. I thought well, I could do that, and I could do it more. I could go in the animals. I could talk about things happening geologically. I could talk about what kind of organisms were in the pond right now. It was a liberating revelation that I could do that.

BWR: Well that is fascinating, because I would say maybe a fourth of my way into the novel I was reminded of the narrative style of Madame Bovary.

KD: That’s really great, that makes me really happy. Well, I’ve read a lot of Flaubert, I really, really admire much of Flaubert. I feel like I learn a tremendous amount about writing from reading him and analyzing his work. So that is very pleasing to me.

BWR: I wonder in light of what we have just been talking about, to bring things full circle again, if that type of free and direct discourse allows a type of widening in the scope of work and allows you to go from very miniscule to the very, very broad. To literally discuss the universe if you choose. I wonder if it’s that scope, that ability to widen the scope, that allows for the recognition of the subjective maxim within the more objective concerns.

KD: Yes. And indeed that is what I want to be able to do, is to function on the very human subjective level but apply the rules of the possible on that level as well as on the more universal level because I really do feel that that’s what life in this universe is like. The way I experience life is really what I am trying to convey when I write, which is what everybody is supposedly doing when they write.

BWR: Would you say then that your personal views align with the views of your characters, or, and perhaps more interestingly, the views of your narrators?

KD: Absolutely. I mean in particular the narrative voice, the narrator in The Thin Place I felt was just me. People have asked me of the three girls in The Thin Place, you must be Lorna, you know the book lover, and the first time someone said that, I was surprised because I hadn’t actually thought of it that way at all. I just thought all three of the girls were familiar to me in friendships I’ve had in my life. With a threesome of girls, it’s always difficult but interesting, so that was fascinating to me. But the elements of their personalities are also, in a way, my own personality. Something that I’m right now playing with in the book I’m working on is having an “I” enter sometimes. Again, this is stolen, in a way, from Flaubert. From the beginning of Madame Bovary, you start with first person plural. I didn’t want something told from third person plural point of view but I wanted there to be a sense of an actual evolved presence combined with a more personal presence. It comes from that same place, that interest in being up here and down here, simultaneously.