It was the end of 2013; I had read an article about Lydia Davis, who won the Man Booker that year. Before reading that article Lydia Davis was an unknown name to me. The writer wrote in the article that “Lydia Davis doesn’t complete her story!”. That was the punch line that struck me and pushed me to read her The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. And it was obvious to fall in love with her stories. So when it was my turn to take a poet or writer’s interview, Lydia Davis came to my mind.
Lydia Davis was born in July 15, 1947. She is described as the author of very short-short story (maybe the shortest stories ever written), though she always denies this term. Lydia Davis is considered these days as one of the original and prominent minds of contemporary American Literature. She is best known for translating from the French, Marcel Proust’s complex Du Côté de Chez Swann (Swann’s Way) and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. James Wood, the critic, has described her as “a tempestuous Thomas Bernhard”. She is now a professor of creative writing at University at Albany, SUNY.
This interview was taken via email.
Shafinur Shafin: You said once in an interview that you knew from a very early age, writing was “more of a burden than a pleasure”. What did compel you to take this burden?
Lydia Davis: I think it was a little more complicated than that. At first, being a child, I was curious and interested in writing. Then, after university, when I became more seriously committed to writing, that was when it felt more like a burden than a pleasure. And yet, there were pleasurable moments, or I would not have continued. Writing was my main interest in life, and I could not imagine doing anything else. And eventually, after a few years, writing became more and more of a pleasure, and ceased to be a burden.
Shafinur Shafin: How did your childhood and your parents influence you and your mindset for writing?
Lydia Davis: Well, both my parents were writers, and my father was also a teacher of writing as well as literature. So language and works of literature were the main interest of my parents (besides politics, I must add) and were discussed in the family all the time. I could not help considering these things important and paying attention to them.
Shafinur Shafin: You have broken all the patterns of stories/short stories. There are not many dialogues or description and even most of the characters are anonymous. My observation is that some stories seem like self-conversation or monologues, such as “Odd Behavior”, “ Lost Things” etc. And you end the stories suddenly as if you are just throwing the destiny of the stories into the hands of the reader. Why is that? Do you do it consciously?
Lydia Davis: I am inspired or moved by things that happen or thoughts that occur to me. I want to put them into writing. But I do not try to make them longer or more complicated than they are. And so some stories are long and complicated, but other pieces of writing are very brief, just long enough to contain and express the idea or the thought. I do not consciously set out to make eccentric or strange pieces of writing, but just to adapt the form to the idea. It is true that the reader has, then, a very active role in the creation of the work.
Shafinur Shafin: Some critics say that your stories are not even short but short-short stories! Maybe only for you they are thinking of creating a new genre, because you have broken all the established concepts of storytelling. But you never named your stories as short stories. Any reason?
Lydia Davis: I always thought of the term “short story” as applying to the fully developed and extended narrative story of the sort written by Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, and so on. So I cannot apply that term to most of my own stories. I like the word “story” because it can apply to so many different sorts of stories, whether something in the newspaper, or an anecdote told by a friend, or a fragment of narrative such as I sometimes offer.
Shafinur Shafin: Your stories and novel are more like poetry. Do you think so too? Please say something about this.
Lydia Davis: I think you mean that the language is musical or at least rhythmic and pleasing. I hope so. The fact is that I hear all language in my head as I read and as I write, and I am very aware of the sounds of the language and they are important to me. And yet I would not want my work to become too self-consciously poetic so that the style actually became intrusive and distracting. I like to write in plain language that is still eloquent.
Shafinur Shafin: What I like about your writing style is that the language is so easy and the sentences are not long and there are no difficult words to have trouble understanding. (Honestly speaking, there was no need to sit with a dictionary!) I think this writing-style of yours has made you widely accepted as a writer of the English language all around the world. Do you keep these things in your mind when you write?
Lydia Davis: It is nice of you to talk so positively about my writing style. I did not deliberately adopt a plain and “easy” writing style in order to be more easily understood. I simply prefer that sort of style for my own work. I like to speak plainly, as I said, without putting a barrier between me and the reader. But I enjoy reading all sorts of other styles of writing.
Shafinur Shafin: Do you edit your stories a lot? Or just keep them the way you wrote at first?
Lydia Davis: Most of the story comes out right away the way it will remain. But I go over the stories again and again, making small or sometimes large changes. I read through them many times until nothing more bothers me. So, yes, I revise very intensively, even the very shortest stories.
Shafinur Shafin: Man Booker International Prize is something very special. What changes occurred after that, in your life and in your writings?
Lydia Davis: It was indeed very special, and very surprising to me. I hope nothing changed in my approach to my writing, because that would not be a good thing. But certainly there was an increase in foreign interest in my books, and contracts for foreign translations. That was a good thing that came of it.
Shafinur Shafin: I personally feel translation is the most difficult task in any form of writing. (I always remember Frost’s quote about poetry — “What gets lost in translation!”) You have translated some French literary classics, including Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s” Madame Bovary. How and when do you feel that the readers are going to have the taste of the original?
Lydia Davis: I have been translating for more than forty years, and clearly I must enjoy it, as well as find it challenging (which it is). It is difficult, but it is very good practice for a writer. My method is to stay very close to the original text, when it is an important and good book, like the Proust and the Flaubert works. I trust that if I follow the original very closely, while still writing eloquent and pleasing English, I will convey something of the original.
Shafinur Shafin: Most of the time women have to make a balance between their personal and professional life. Often their life tends to be like walking on a sharp blade – ever prepared for a sacrifice, if any occur. You are a writer, translator, teacher and you have a personal life too. Have all these parts of Lydia Davis had any conflict with each other, or have made you face any hurdle when it comes to your writing?
Lydia Davis: It is always difficult (for men, too!) to balance the demands of what I see as four major things in one’s life: earning a living, raising a family, working at one’s art, and having a social life with friends and/or an active life in one’s community. When my children were small, I was much less active in my community, and I would usually do only two things at a time: earn a living and care for my children; or work at my art and earn my living (while the children were in school) and so forth. It is hard to balance everything, and sometimes you are sorry the baby is waking up from its nap because then you must stop writing. Some people do not have families, or are willing to have very little social life, or both. But if you want everything, then you just do your best to balance it all.
Interview taken by Shafinur Shafin, a poet and writer from Bangladesh