Interview in Salon

Not Tired of Thinking Yet, www.salon.com

BY KATE MOSES | Lydia Davis has been considered an American virtuoso of the short story form since the publication of her first major collection, “Break It Down” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), which was met with unreserved critical acclaim. Introspective and subversive, ironic and playful, obsessive and funny, Davis’ stories reveal the ratcheting of the imagination and the ineffable movement of the mind over the varied textures of daily life. Mothers Who Think spoke with her upon the publication of her long-awaited second story collection, “Almost No Memory.”

Do you find yourself ransacking your personal experience for emotions from which you can then build your stories?
 
No, I don’t. It doesn’t really work that way — consciously, anyway. I don’t write something unless I feel impelled to write it. In other words, I don’t have a regular schedule and sit down every day and say, “Well, what do I do today?” It’s more that an idea or a sentence will come to me like “What was he really feeling yesterday while he was walking through my yard and saying nice things about my flowers? Maybe underneath he was really distressed by the overgrown garden.” And that will make me go on from there. And so the beginnings of the stories come to me from somewhere else. They sort of pop into my mind while I’m doing something else, usually. To relate this to mothers, it’s often housework, or cleaning the kitchen or walking to the post office. And the idea pops in insistently, or the sentence, I should say.

I noticed that free-association quality in the “Glen Gould” story in this collection. It seems such a precise evocation of the time you spend with a baby, when often the only one to have a conversation with is yourself. How did you come to write that story? Did it come from musing on that same type of personal experience?

Yes, that really did come from life. But I guess the reason it doesn’t feel true to life in a way, the reason I feel it’s safely fictional, is that it’s not a complete or fair picture, it’s never fair. So I may be taking one afternoon or one mood and saying, “I want to make something whole out of this. It’s a very strong emotion. It’s not the only one I have about this baby or this life, but it’s very strong just today, or just lately. And I want to make something whole out of it.” I don’t want to just write a letter to a friend about it. Even though that is thoroughly satisfying in a certain way, I haven’t “made” anything; I want to make something. I guess “making” is behind a lot of this — the love of making something.

Early on in “The Professor,” the narrator says, “Although I don’t mind them, I feel cut off from all the other people in this country — to mention only this country.” There seems to be a great deal of discomfort in your narrators and I wonder how that evolves. Is that also just an organic process, is that who they end up becoming?

I’m tempted to say we’re all very uncomfortable existentially or something in this life. Again, it’s taking one aspect. I often think of Kafka’s diaries, which I used to read at a certain point in my life, and how negative they are. He was using the diary as a place to put down, or get rid of, certain unhappy things. So we don’t see the complete person in those diaries and we don’t see the happier side of him. I’m just dwelling on that discomfort in certain stories because I want to make something of it. Whereas there are ways in which I am very comfortable — wasting time and so on. But I’m not choosing to write about them or make something of them. It doesn’t feel so urgent, probably because those are very fulfilling times, and I tend to write about the more unfulfilling times.

There was another line in “The Professor” that I liked very much. The narrator says that she gets “tired of thinking.” You are clearly a writer who thinks really deeply — tangentially and broadly and minutely — about so many things. Do you ever get tired of thinking?

Oh yeah, but it’s hard to get away from it. I would need something like a cowboy in order to get away from it. I suppose you stop thinking when you pick up a certain kind of book, light reading, or television — something just takes your mind over.

So how do you get your work done? I know that you also teach and translate. And you’ve said that you don’t really have a set schedule. Do you just wait until the spirit moves you?

Well, there are two periods. When I was working on the novel, “The End of the Story,” it had a very different demand on time than the stories. And I just couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t started working right away. So I stopped earning money, which wasn’t easy for the rest of us. I stopped earning money trying to do anything else and just went to my desk every morning. But that was a very different matter because I had this pile that I really had to work on, whereas with the stories, I can start one and sometimes finish it the same day and often the same week. I can start it and write quite a bit of it, or get most of it done, get the substance of it down in an hour or two — not “The Professor,” not a longer one — but I can at least get a start on it. And getting the tone in the beginning of it is a lot anyway. And that sort of grabs time. In other words, it’s time that I might have intended to translate, but I started working on a story so I just go on. And then I’ll grab more time in the evening, after my son’s in bed, I’ll go on for an hour, an hour and a half. And when there’s time, I’ll go back to it just the way I would go to weeding the garden, something I want to do. So that’s how I get work done. But there are many, many, many days that I don’t go near a story, unfortunately.

Do you think about writing another novel?

I have plans for a very long book which will be a novel in the form of a French Grammar, I think. And it’s going to be long and have many parts to it like a grammar book that’s used to translate things. It’s something that I have to work on. I tend to work on it while I’m translating. I take little notes — again, of things that occur to me. I usually let things come to me instead of me going to them.

So at some point are you going to have to clear your head of everything else to really focus on that?

Yes, definitely. That would be another case where I’d have to drop the translating and the teaching and try to start with a nice grant or something and work on nothing but. The thing is, I don’t want to do that until I’ve really accumulated a lot of material. The way to do that is to let them come and accumulate. When I have enough, I’ll start really organizing.

In a certain way, that seems like a much easier way to work as a mother than if your imagination ran you, if you had to sit down and work every day.

I don’t know if this is the best or whether it just comes from sloppy habits. I remember reading about some writer who, as soon as her child was off in a school bus, would drop everything and go upstairs. She wouldn’t even bother to finish the breakfast dishes or whatever. And I imagine, since I always have many stories in progress at once, if I went upstairs immediately every morning and started working on one of the ones in progress, I would do fine that way too. It’s very hard to say. But you’re right, if your time is all broken up, this is a pretty good way to work.
 
I think it’s so hard for anybody who really has to force themselves against the wall of taking care of children and trying to work at the same time.

If you get in the writing mode and if you manage stay in it, which some people can do. In other words, you don’t shut down your mind, you leave it open to ideas. I imagine even between setting the table and doing something else, you can jot down a line. Some people can do that.

I’ve known people who would write, truly write, while nursing a baby and chattering to a toddler. It’s always really amazed me that they don’t lose track of everything.

There’s a good writer, Vince Passaro, who has four children. I seem to remember reading somewhere that he works right in the room with children’s chaos going on around him. And he writes stories that are really well crafted. They’re not in the least bit sloppy. He has a teaching job and he does something else too. I think there are people who need to have a lot of chaos and things going on at once. I have to say, when I’m really working, not just having one idea, but working at something, I can’t stand any sound. Or distraction. I can’t stand the sound of traffic going by. It depends on the stage that you’re in, if you’re at the beginning or the middle or the end.

What are you doing next?

Well, the Penguin Classics are doing a new translation of the whole of “Remembrance of Things Past” and I’m doing the first volume, “Swann’s Way.” It’s exciting. Talk about ivory towers though.

June 20, 1997