Lydia Davis: "I kind of like the fact that my work isn’t for everybody"

In an amazing interview, the MacArthur genius opens up about future work, her process, critics and literary fame

Published April 28, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Lydia Davis       (Theo Cote)
Lydia Davis (Theo Cote)

Lydia Davis’ latest collection of stories, "Can’t and Won’t," is a cabinet of wonders. Among its more than 100 stories, arranged into five interlocking sections, are a series of letters to corporations written by concerned consumers. Moments translated from the letters of Gustave Flaubert. Narratives drawn from the dreams of Davis and her friends. Observations of the cows in a pasture near her upstate New York home. To readers who have followed her work — the 750-page "Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" appeared in 2009 and last year she received the Man Booker International Prize – there is something familiar about the form (extremely short) and attitude (observant, intrigued, sometimes irritated) of these stories, but the collection also seems eager to claim new territory.

The stories in "Can’t and Won’t" – the shortest is a single line; the longest runs almost 30 pages – are remarkable for their playful, puzzling simplicity. Davis is a curator of life’s small oddities, and over time her piercing observations take subtle aim at life’s biggest questions: life, death, intimacy, loneliness and even the difference between salami and sausage.

I met with Davis in her home, a converted brick schoolhouse that she shares with her husband, the painter Alan Cote. The house is marked by a wooden sign that reads “L’Ecole,” a nod to Davis’ second career as a translator. Her 2010 translation of Flaubert’s "Madame Bovary" was praised as a masterwork – the translation that the novel had long deserved – and her earlier translation of Proust’s "Swann’s Way" drew similarly rapturous praise. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban saw in her "Madame Bovary" an approach that marks all of Davis’ work: language that is clean, spare and invigorating.

When you embarked on the stories that are part of the new collection, did you see it as a continuation of your earlier work or was there a conscious effort to turn in a new direction?

There was no conscious effort to turn in a new direction. These things are so hard to pin down. You don’t know if certain things happening to you influence you in this direction or that direction without you even knowing it.

On a smaller scale, with the dream stories or the cows, I’ll reach a point where I say, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I’ve used up that impulse, I’ve done enough of these.” So that’ll happen but nothing external determines it.

Did you find with the dream stories or the Flaubert stories or the letters that are written –

Letters of complaint. That’s what I call those.

-- with the letters of complaint. Were those each written in succession or was it something that you kept coming back to?

I always interrupt work with other work, either in a small way or big way, so that’s normal. I would say the Flaubert stories were written in pretty close succession. I shouldn’t even say written; I should say composed or put together because once I discovered that possibility I kept going back to it, so I would say within about six months or nine months. And the same with the dreams. Once I got on to that I kept going. I’m not taking dream stories from 10 years ago; it’s all happening within about a year or so.

It was sort of the opposite with “The Cows.” All of the little entries in “The Cows” were written in an irregular way. There might be one or two done one day and then two weeks might go by or four weeks and then they were put in an order or sequence.

So when they’re put together in the collection they get scattered across the five sections that the new collection is divided into. What drives some of the decisions about ordering the collection?

It wasn’t exactly scattered. The most the previous collections had had was 50-some stories, and the new collection has about 115. So I thought, how do I deal with putting all these stories in some kind of order? And it actually started with the letters of complaint, because there are five. I thought, OK, I’ll make five sections and I’ll put one letter of complaint in each section. And I’ll divide the Flaubert stories over five and the dream stories over five. With the dream stories there are 28 of them and I didn’t want them too evenly scattered because then you’d always be coming upon another dream story, so I wanted to clump them, so there are five clumps. So within the five sections, for my own sanity, I had to divide each section into two parts. That doesn’t show up in the table of contents because I didn’t keep that division – it was for me. I put one Flaubert story in each of those two parts. So it was a rather elaborate initial mathematical organization and then I had to fiddle with it. And the same with another category, which is the very, very shortest ones – they’re only a line or two long. I didn’t want to put them together — I wanted them to punctuate the other stories. So all this took a little bit of work.

Why the mathematical division? You mentioned that you had five sections and you started seeding the stories through, if only for your own benefit; what does that do for you in thinking about how the stories work together? When you look at the collection, do you see an order that is necessary? That’s pleasing?

I like the order. Ordering is difficult. It’s like arranging pieces of music in a concert: What do you put first? What do you put after the intermission? I want the reader to be sort of surprised, to come to each story freshly. If you had all the dream stories in one section by itself, it would be pretty much of a known quantity — “Here I am going into the dream section” — and one might well get tired of them after four or five. And the same with the Flaubert stories: “Now we’re in Flaubert’s world. We’re reading 13 stories and one rant, and I’m tired of Flaubert.” I wanted the variation – here’s a little of this and a little of that – but it’s a tricky thing.

Is this something you think a lot about, the relationship you have with the reader, how the reader is going to experience the collection? Do you assume they’re going through it in a linear way?

Well, I don’t assume that. It’s funny, because you want to organize it so that it is coherent from beginning to end but then you know it’s perfectly all right with me if people dip in. I wouldn’t even want them to read the whole thing at once. And so if I don’t even want them to read it all at once, in a way it doesn’t matter. And yet, you want it as a book to have a certain coherence.

You mentioned the letters of complaint being one of the things that helped to begin that structuring. What was it about the letters of complaint that was attractive to you – that drew you back to that form?

I wish I could remember the notes I was taking on another writer – a Dutch writer who said that the letter form was a great form for him. He would write the whole novel in a letter form. I think it allows you to take on this artificial, over-pedantic or over-correct voice. It’s sort of like the letters to the editor you’ll read in the paper sometime – a slightly absurd tone and that allows you to voice your opinion about one particular thing or another in an entertaining and extreme way and I just found it a lot of fun.

Complaint and irritation seem to drive a lot of these stories: There are the letters of complaint, one of the Flaubert stories is a rant, and there’s the story “I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be More Comfortable.” The narrators are fixated on one thing, but that one thing reveals so much more, allows you to see where they’re coming from.

I probably will, or at least theoretically I would like to go on with the Flaubert because in that case there are probably many other gems of stories that are hidden in the letters that could be rescued and turned into stories. And also he’s a great one for complaining and ranting, so his rant would be tempting to make more of his letters. I’m sure he rants many more times.

The stories in "Varieties of Disturbance" changed in size and scope and they seemed to go in a lot of different directions, but the more I’ve read that collection the more it seems very tightly wound and very compact. There are story lines that emerge. The new collection seems to have many more voices in it – between the dreams and the Flaubert stories, the letters, the ground that some of the other pieces cover. Was that something that you had in mind, that you wanted to find other modes of telling that could be assigned to someone else?

Not consciously, again. I don’t sort of sit back and think, “what should I do now or how should I approach this now?” If it’s more various, that would be more a reflection of my interests getting more scattered. And they are getting scattered, and I’m probably writing less of my own work — meaning, I’m translating more. I think what you see in the book would reflect more of where I’m going and where I’m going is not deliberate. It’s not planned. I’ll waste or spend a year on something that doesn’t even show up at all, that’s something I can’t even pursue in writing. I tend to follow my interest wherever it leads. I’d like it to lead to a piece of writing all the time, but it doesn’t always, so ...

Do you consider yourself a disciplined writer? Do you have a schedule that you stick to, or is it more in the moment?

It’s somewhat disciplined. I definitely don’t go into my study at 10:30 every morning and work on unfinished stories. It’s nothing like that. I’ll work on many things at once, and some of them are translations. It’s disciplined in the sense that I keep going back to work and I get a lot done, but there’s no regular schedule.

Have you found that the work you’ve done as a translator has fed the stories that have an interest in precision, definition, grammar and even punctuation or do those stories and the translations come out of the same impulse that’s already present in you?

I’d say they come out of the same impulse, but there’s no question that having translated all these years makes me all the more conscious of what English does and what punctuation in English does because when you translate you have the huge constraint that you have to find a way to say this thing as much like the original as you can, so you have to explore the resources of English much more, and if you’re writing your own work you can fall into habits and use the same vocabulary, the same punctuation, so you don’t have the same exercise in a way.

Do you find that translation – that stretching your vocabulary – affects your own stories? Do you find yourself borrowing language or modes of thinking or writing that you’ve picked up from someone else?

I probably do. It’s a little hard to tell. I could see that I was when I was working on Proust only in emails, in that sometimes I would have the impulse to digress and write a very long, complex sentence in an email because I was feeling more relaxed and having fun with it. But not in my own writing. That happened to me once, decades ago, when I was reading a lot of Hawthorne, and so I started writing like Hawthorne in a story I was working on. I think there’s some kind of wall up. The only crossover is in the Dutch stories I’ve been translating. I really like what A.L. Snijders does and so I think that could be crossing over – not so much the language of it, the sentence structure, but just the form of it, what he’s doing. And as soon as I read something that I really like the form of, it’s very tempting for me to try it. I like Sebald’s novels a lot. If I were going to write a long novel, that’s the way I would want to write it.

Have you thought about another novel? Is that something that’s out there for you?

Only in the abstract. Yes it would be nice to write another novel, but unless I feel compelled to it by something, I won’t. I have many, many things ahead that I would like to do, and then other projects come along and slide right in the front, so I have probably five or six different books that I want to write. It’s a little tricky to get to them all.

What are the other five or six books? Other collections? Other sorts of writing that you haven’t done before?

They’re bigger books. Collections aren’t really planned. I just keep writing short pieces until I have enough for a collection. One of the projects I did have and I’ve now done, which is unusual because I have many projects I haven’t done, is what a friend called an “intralingual translation” of a children’s classic from 1898 called "Bob, Son of Battle." I read it when I was a child and I was very moved by it. It has a lot of very difficult English and dialect in it. I felt that this wasn’t being read anymore because it was just too difficult, so I had the idea of translating it into easier English.

What sort of English is it in?

The narrative is in more old-fashioned English with rather difficult constructions and a very difficult vocabulary for children. I don’t even think it was meant for children when it was written. And then all of the dialogue is in Cumbrian and Scots dialect and some of that is completely impenetrable and I think that would block children from reading it and even a lot of adults. So I proposed to the New York Review of Books that they might want to do this as a children’s book, and that’s coming out.

Are you trying to find a way to maintain some flavor, inflection, to that dialect without it being quite so impenetrable?

I’ve really just rightly or wrongly translated it into straight English. So there’s one place where it says, and this isn’t a great example, “it’s no cannie ava” and it means “it’s not clever at all.” And then the only thing that I kept in, and this is sort of meaningless, is nay for no and ye for you (you know, “ye can’t treat me that way”) and that gives just a tiny flavor of regional speech. It’s meaningless, but I think that it actually does help. I just didn’t want it to be difficult at all. By not changing more than that – I mean I changed the narration a bit – but when I read it through it still has a lot of the flavor of the original, so I think it has worked out.

Was it the fact that it was a part of your childhood – that there was some memory that was attached to it -- that brought you back to it and made you want to go through with the translation?

It was just a very moving book. There are certain books that I read when I was a child that were profoundly moving and I feel this way about any good book. I don’t like to just see it completely disappear off the map. There are a lot that disappear while mediocre books become well known and popular, so I think that’s all wrong and backwards.

I think people are often caught off guard by how straightforward the vocabulary in your stories is and yet what’s going on beneath runs much deeper. A big part of what you’ve done as a writer has been to break things down, at least grammatically or in vocabulary, into simple terms but to use that to get into really deep water emotionally.

I guess that’s one of things I admired about Beckett. It always seemed to me that he would take very complex philosophical ideas and play them out in a simple way with his characters and their actions. So he might take a complicated mathematical concept and play it out with a character. I think it was Watt moving pebbles from pocket to pocket or something. Sometimes you read very complex language that either is not making any sense at all or is expressing something fairly simple but dressing it up with complex language. So I’ve always been a little mistrustful of complex language. If you think in terms of a paragraph that’s mostly Anglo-Saxon or mostly Latinate, I like a lot of plain language punctuated by one neatly placed Latinate. That is really very pleasing.

And how about other translations? You’re known for work you’ve done on Proust and Flaubert, but do you seek out writers who allow you the chance to write in a different way, or think in a different way, or who write very differently from the kind of work that you do? Or is there a kind of affinity that you look for, whether or not it has anything to do with the language, but just something about the outlook?

I probably look for the affinity of outlook. I don’t consciously look for a writer whose style or work is very different but I know I enjoy that aspect of it. I enjoy writing as Proust, and writing as Flaubert, even though I wouldn’t write that way. The most translating I’m doing now is from the Dutch, these little stories, and I just found that I missed translating. I enjoy translating. But I wanted to just work on very short things so that I wouldn’t make that commitment to some long project.

Shortly before you won the Man Booker International Prize, when your "Collected Stories" was published, one reviewer described you as the “master of a genre largely of your own making.”

That makes it easy, doesn’t it?

It does. You’ve controlled this space and you’ve done it well.  But do you find in the work of the Syrian writer Osama Alomar – whose latest collection you wrote the introduction for — or the Dutch writer A.L. Snijders that there are other people who share a common impulse? That there are other practitioners, but they’re just spread out.

I don’t think the genre of the very short story is of my own making at all, of course. I’ve translated Peter Altenberg – he’s an Austrian of the early 20th century. I haven’t done a lot by him ... so he was doing that. And Robert Walser, the Swiss writer, he did it; Kafka did it. Thomas Bernhard, in "The Voice Imitator," he did it. That’s in the past, and in the present there are a few: J. Robert Lennon did a book —

— "Pieces for the Left Hand" —

I liked that a lot. And Daniel Grandbois — completely different approach. I liked those.

It seems that to define it only by its length is missing something — 

It is missing – within the length there are all sorts of different approaches.

So how do you define what you do? In reviews of your collections, the list of words used to describe your work includes story, poem, prose poem, zen koan ... Do you feel a need to define what you do or what you call the pieces that you put together in a collection?

It’s really easier just to call them very short stories. I don’t feel the need – I mean if they’re all the same kind of thing then I would probably devise, I would call them my koans or my this or that, but they’re not all the same and they’re not going to be, so to cover all of them I need one word and one term. And I think it’s a mistake to try to group them all under one heading. One composer can write string quartets and cantatas and solo violin pieces ...

When you’re writing these pieces do they ever transform through revision from something that’s a single line to a paragraph or a page — or is the length always inherent in the idea? Is it always that something comes to you and you know that there’s a shape to it and you’re working around the edges of that shape?

It’s usually that. I usually have a good sense of how long it’s going to be. But some have grown and some have shrunk. “Kafka Cooks Dinner” was meant to be about a page and a half. That’s what I felt was as far as that particular little piece of fun could go. But then I made the mistake of looking at his letters and I found so much good language that the idea was to use all of that language. I just couldn’t at that point let any of that language go, so it got long enough to accommodate the language. And an example of the opposite is the little story “Ph.D.” at the very end of this new collection – that started as a friend’s dream, so it was a dream piece, and then I thought it was more interesting as just a single line than as a dream piece.

You mentioned “Kafka Cooks Dinner.” There are a lot of pieces in "Varieties" that drew from other writers and in the new collection you’ve got Flaubert and some of the dream stories are friends’ dreams and some of them are yours. You’re picking up language from a lot of sources. But I imagine when you’re in public, people often think of the “I” that’s narrating your stories as you, and feel a sense of connection — that they know the way you think, the way you observe. Do you feel put off in any way by that assumption? People know that this is fiction, but they often read with an autobiographical impulse.

I don’t mind it. In the new collection, I enjoy the fact that a lot of the stories have nothing to do with me or the way I think, personally – I mean, they do all have something to do with the way I think but I like the fact that it’s Flaubert’s story as much as mine and my friends’ dreams as much as my story. I like sharing it that way. A lot of the more personal-sounding ones do draw from my life and have some relation to me, so it’s not wrong to make that assumption, but the narrator is never exactly me, she’s always a construct. So it isn’t exactly me, but I don’t mind that assumption. I don’t feel as if they’re too close to me. They don’t make me uncomfortable that way because they are constructions. This isn’t the whole truth. I’m not confessing to you. This is a made object.

Some of your stories are very, very funny. And even some of the most serious stories – the Flaubert stories, for example, are narrating the events of a funeral or the death of someone in the street and yet you’ve included these last lines where Flaubert makes these exclamations — and they’re funny. How important is the role that humor plays in your work for you?

It’s just a natural part of me and it comes out naturally. I was talking to someone about the poem – it really is a poem – “Head, Heart” from "Varieties." I never thought of it as funny at all, because to me it wasn’t; it was very, very close to me and it wasn’t funny. But I realized when someone laughed that there was one line that was rather funny, or one idea in it that was funny. I think it’s just the way I am and of course it was the way Flaubert was, too. Even Proust was funny. They were both quite funny. So if I take something from Flaubert, he’s not dead serious. He is always sort of laughing at people. I don’t know if he laughs at himself very much but he laughs at other people. And that exclamation at the end of the one about the woman’s death where he says “O Shakespeare!” – he says it in his letter and I don’t quite know what he means. He’s making some reference that makes some sense to him and maybe to the woman he’s writing to, that these are the themes and this is the irony Shakespeare would deal with —

That’s when the flowers that she’s ordered arrive after she’s died —

Yes, and maybe he’s saying that that would be right out of Shakespeare. I don’t make that connection. But I love it, so.

Each of your last few books has garnered more and more attention. You’re writing now knowing that the work is going to see a larger audience. Is that pleasing, is that disturbing in any way, is that just —

It’s fine with me. It’s still a pretty select audience. I kind of like the fact that my work isn’t for everybody – that there are still book clubs that would say, we don’t want to read this or we don’t like this. So the people who like it, like it, and that’s fine. One danger is that if you feel more public then it’s harder to write and do your own work, but so far that hasn’t been a big problem. Partly because when you start a story or work on a story you know you may not even manage to finish it, so you don’t say, here I go writing another successful story. So, that’s all right.

Are you an active letter writer?

I’m a big emailer. I like email a lot. It’s great fun to have a mailbox, like the old-fashioned mailbox, but it’s now guaranteed to be full of letters all the time. I don’t write many letters by hand anymore. There are a couple of people who just won’t write any other way but I find it difficult now to sit down with a pen and paper and write a letter.

Is your email-writing voice very different from what ends up on the page in a story – that narrative construction you use with the collection?

I can’t write incorrectly. I find it very difficult to just relax and have spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes and punctuation – I cannot do that. But I can’t do that even if I write a shopping list, so that’s not surprising. I can’t be casual, so it’s more correct. Sometimes I have fun writing it nicely – doing parallel constructions or, you know – but of course it’s more relaxed than a formal story, but it’s still a piece of writing that has an effect whether it’s a really good friend or a business email so I’m still quite conscious. It’s amazing how you can write something quickly and when I reread it – I always reread my emails – I make mistakes and I’m confusing and you’d think after all this time I could write a quick email that would be absolutely perfect, but I can’t.

By Brendan Mathews

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