Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Interview with Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis is one of the most innovative and important writers of short fiction in contemporary American literature. Her work is playful, funny, insightful, and intelligent. She plays with the form of the short story, stretching and bending and twisting it and should be credited as one of the originators of flash fiction. Along with her Collected Short Stories, her translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert had been released to much acclaim. She has also translated Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust and No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon, and has written the novel The End of the Story. Her short story collection Varieties of Disturbance was a finalist for the National Book Award.

How does an organization of words become a story?

A line or a sentence occurs to me, or even just a sentence containing an idea for a story. Or I discover a line or a sentence in something I'm reading, and see how that could be part of a piece of writing of my own. Usually the germ of a story lies in a piece of language that may be funny at the same time that it's moving, or just odd and unsettling.

How would you define what are often considered the fundamental components of a story; plot and character? Can a story exist without them? Are there ways to define or understand plot and character that limit how we read and write stories?

I like to define the word "story" in a very fluid way, so that it can include a Katherine Mansfield short story, a Flannery O'Connor short story, but also something less traditional, like one of Russell Edson's "poems," as he calls them--really, to my mind, short and bizarre prose narratives of domestic drama. Or Kafka's parables and paradoxes, the short-short stories of J. Robert Lennon or Daniel Grandbois, or the philosophical meditations, logic problems, and one- or two-line narrative suggestions that I've included in my own books of stories alongside more traditional forms. Kafka's paragraph-long story about Alexander the Great includes a character and a minimal plot--a man standing on the bank of a river and deliberating, presumably. Some of my stories, even shorter, have a character, such as the historian Herodotus or a seal, but almost no action. Still, they grow from the impulse to write a story.

In your work, you’ve bent, twisted, stretched, and played with the short story form, to the point where some readers consider you a poet as much as a prose writer. What value do categories like “short story,” “poem,” and “novel” have? Is there a different category that you think better describes your work?

Well, these different categories are handy for moving quickly into a discussion of John Keats or Isaac Babel or Jane Bowles, but there is really a continuum, as I see it, from the longest, most complex novel down to the shortest poem by Emily Dickinson or the contemporary Woodstock poet Sparrow. Its a very rich continuum, and I like to embrace it rather than worry too much about where exactly all those dividing lines fall.

Where do you think the short story can go from here? What exploration is still left for the short story form? What are you hoping the short story will do or look like in the future?

Again, I don't worry too much about that. There seems to be a hunger out there in the reading public for the traditional short story and the traditional novel. I'm not sure that will go away anytime soon. I like the trend I see toward incorporating a lot of reality in fiction, of researching "real" material in order to create believable fictional characters interacting in the aftermath, for instance, of the Chernobyl disaster, as Jim Shepard does; or--another innovation, I think--basing a novel on extensive interviews with a participant in an even more contemporary tragedy, as Dave Eggers does in What is the What.

Why do you think there is that hunger for traditional short stories and novels?

I think people take great comfort in what they're used to, especially in reading, which is often a comforting activity rather than a stimulating one. Writers tend to be more open to stimulation, and more likely to be actively seeking new forms, which is why an innovative writer might tend to be more a "writer's writer." But even we writers find deep enjoyment in reading the traditional forms, which have been developed and refined over time and reach a certain perfection in writers like Flannery O'Connor and Hemingway.

Do you believe, like Flaubert, that there is a “perfect word?” If so, what is the reader’s responsibility to that word, or book of perfect words? How can readers appreciate its perfectness? If not, what should writers strive for instead?

I don't really believe there is a "perfect word," since too often I have seen how many different directions a story can go in, depending on which particular word you set down. A story can always develop in an infinity of different ways. (Like those alternate worlds in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy--a very powerful notion.) On the other hand, within a story that is nearly finished, that needs just one more read-through, the choices of revision seem to be very limited--and I've experienced the truth of this on those occasions when I take a first draft of a story and revise it, forgetting that I've already revised it elsewhere, and find, when I compare the versions, that the revisions are the same.

How can readers tell how good a translation is if they can’t read the original language?

They really can't. They can tell if it's written in a way they like or don't like, but that doesn't tell them if it is true to the original. I can remember how conflicted I felt doing the final draft of the translation of the opening paragraph of a novel by Pierre Jean Jouve, years ago. The first few sentences of the novel were quite awkward in French, and I reproduced that awkwardness in English knowing that a reviewer might well blame me for the awkwardness, not the author of the original.

Is there a work you would really like to translate?

I've been enjoying translating short pieces of autobiographical fiction (what the French call auto-fiction) written about 90 years ago by the Austrian writer Peter Altenberg. I would like to go on doing short pieces by him and by others from various languages. I would also like to finish an "autobiographical essay," as he called it--a four-volume work--by the French Surrealist Michel Leiris. I did the first two volumes years ago (I called it Rules of the Game in English) and would like to finish the third volume and translate the fourth. Sooner or later. But aside from that, probably no more books--they eat up too much of my life!

Is there a language you wish you understood so you could read the works in the original and if so, which language and which works?

Oh, there are many languages. Russian for Eugene Onegin; Persian for Omar Khayyam; Swahili and Hindi so that I could explore what we Anglophones have been missing all this time. Hungarian, Romanian, Dutch? There is such a wealth of literature that never makes it into English.

What are you reading now?

For fun, Stieg Larsson (like everyone else) and Henning Mankell. Then, I'm just finishing Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever (not that it's a long read, but I've been savoring the language and the humor), I've recently finished Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and I'm about to start Roland Barthes Mourning Diary, translated by Richard Howard, and will be at least dipping into the correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, translated by Wieland Hoban.

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