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At Work

Not Sorry: An Interview with Jeremy M. Davies

March 1, 2016 | by

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Collections of stories often lose steam as they go, because even stories that are great individually can sound too alike when read together. But Jeremy M. Davies’s The Knack of Doing steers far clear of this problem—almost aggressively so. His stories vary so wildly—stylistically, topically, even conceptually—that I can’t imagine where half his ideas come from: a series of letters from a father to his children, doled out to them by his ex-wife as she absconds with them on a trans-Atlantic cruise in the 1920s; a cartoonish, otherworldly smash-up of Robert Burns and Flann O’Brien; a tale of hypnotism and metafiction in eighteenth-century France. Davies is a writer of great precision, intelligence, humor, and depth, but if there is a guiding spirit in his work, it’s invention, literature’s endless potential for reimagining its forms of expression.

Davies is also the author of two novels—Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015)—and was for many years senior editor at Dalkey Archive Press. We corresponded over e-mail in January of this year.

Harry Mathews wrote of your first book, Rose Alley, that it “ambushes the reader, not with brutality but with wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance.” It seems to me these are precisely the qualities you share with Mathews—wit, ingenuity, abundance—all of which are variations on playfulness. What is the role of play in your writing?

Play is of supreme importance to me. Everything I write begins with a sense of play and hopes to engage the reader’s playfulness in turn. Not that I’m always giggling to myself as I work, but I do think writing that doesn’t have a sense of play is going to wind up pretty dead on the page, no matter its subject.

My own rule of thumb is, If I’m not having fun, stop. If I can’t picture someone else having fun reading what I’m writing, stop. Bearing in mind that “fun” can mean many things. Primo Levi writing about life in a condition of absolute terror and deprivation probably wasn’t having fun, as such, but he was engaged—he’d have to be. He wasn’t plodding across the page. He wasn’t being dutiful. The same goes for Ivy Compton-Burnett writing about trivial differences of opinion among the wealthy. The same goes for Robert Sheckley writing about interdimensional travel. The same certainly goes for Harry Mathews and the writers he led me to, like Jane Bowles or Laura (Riding) Jackson. I think the same goes for just about every writer worth reading. They give you permission to play.

Also like Mathews, you are a fan of constraint-based writing, including but not limited to the Oulipo. The use of formal constraints is obvious in your novels, but in the stories, the constraints—if there are any—are less evident.

Honestly, I can no longer distinguish between my affection for constraint-based writing and my affection for good writing period. Whether I’ve just gotten myopic over the years or whether this is late-onset maturity, I don’t know, but my feeling nowadays is that the presence or absence of constraints in the Oulipian sense is largely irrelevant, save anecdotally. This is not to diminish the work done by the Oulipo or their followers, nor the impact the group has had on my reading and writing life, but it seems to me that the crucial lesson taught by their methodologies is the basic one, the one that all writers need to learn and relearn daily, and so bears repeating, even as everyone rolls their eyes at the reminder—that without a strong sense of form as an imposed, extrinsic part of your work, without a strong sense of your writing as being, necessarily, artifice, your sentences will inevitably fall back upon and so reproduce the same sort of undigested garbage language we all have in our heads. In the end, it doesn’t matter much to me how one goes about escaping that trap, so long as one does escape.

As far as Oulipian constraints, in particular, I think they can be a great way to learn, because they’re unsentimental and entertaining, and I do tend to be delighted by them, in the abstract, whatever their results. But past a certain point, they run the risk of becoming publicity tools rather than writing tools. Art is a moving target, and I don’t think any one method works indefinitely, even an ingenious or delightful one.

So, the answer here is, I guess, that I don’t draw a hard and fast line between my more obviously constraint-based fictions—some of which, by the way, are counterfeit, with the only constraint at work being that I wanted them to sound as though they were constrained—and the rest. There are certainly plenty of stories in Knack where I had no real constraints in mind, or not in the “classical,” arbitrary sense, but naturally these still had rules in place—goals, a certain sound I was going for, a style being parodied, solutions or tools I wasn’t allowing myself. All of which provided the vocabularies and boundaries that the story came to employ and occupy.

There’s a surprising amount of metafiction in these stories—surprising because the strategies of metafiction are not exactly hailed as cutting edge these days. It seems to me these strategies had greater breadth of possibility than they’re typically given credit for, but they were also always in response to a particular set of narrative and cultural problems. What is your own particular interest in metafiction? Do you use metafiction in a way that’s different from the stuff you grew up on?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but I’m of the opinion that all narrative art has got to be concerned with the question of representation. That is, whatever else a given story might be about—broken hearts, time-traveling Nazis, time-traveling Nazis with broken hearts—it’s also always going to be about the struggle to be about those things in whatever ways are particular to the medium. That’s one of the central dramas at work, whether or not we talk about it, whether or not the author calls attention to it. Not just what happens in a story but how it happens, how it’s presented, how it tries to trick us into taking it seriously, since goodness knows we’ve seen all the what—and even most of the how—so many times before.

In my case, especially with short fiction, I just don’t see any percentage in trying to efface that tension if there might be something to be gained, aesthetically—even just comedically—from drawing attention to it. I personally find it to be more, not less interesting when authors speak plainly about the tricks and challenges of writing. There’s this old truism that that sort of work lacks heart, warmth, that it’s writing for writers, self-indulgent, silly, and so forth, but I find that argument unconvincing, even transparently false. There’s no more basic, human issue than that of making oneself understood, of using language to stake out a version of reality. Gilbert Sorrentino for certain proved, at least to me, that you can play it straight with your reader about how you’re doing what you’re doing and still be affecting, poignant, et cetera.

But I don’t mean to sound polemical about it, because if there’s a big difference between my use of metafiction and the sixties/seventies version, it’s that I have less than nothing to prove on this score. You’re right that the self-conscious stuff is what I grew up on and love, but I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with realism, with camouflaging artifice rather than foregrounding it, so long as you can pull it off. I mean, that’s the real question—can you get away with it? If you can, by all means do. If you can’t, well, find another way. There’s no hierarchy or morality involved, for me. There’s no battle there worth fighting, save, I suppose, with all the people who still think there’s a battle there worth fighting—for whichever side.

The story in Knack that is most audaciously metafictional is “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” which actively invokes the work of the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, who would be a good example—maybe the best example—of a contemporary writer using metafiction in very original ways. As an editor at Dalkey, you were largely responsible for bringing Murnane’s work to the attention of American readers, and since his writing obviously “speaks” to you not just as an editor but as a writer, I’m curious what it is about him that excites you.

Now that I’ve just said I have no polemical investment in metafiction, you’ve gone and brought up the one story or “story” in Knack that’s the most like a polemic about metafiction. It’s really a sort of essay, though since the narrator isn’t quite me—this, too, is very Murnane-y—my editor and I finally came to the conclusion that we might as well consider it a short story, because, well, why not.

Its thesis, in part, is that most of our ways of talking about fiction or teaching fiction writing are themselves a form of fiction—fiction about fiction—on account of the fact that they have nothing to do, near as I can tell, with any practical approaches to the art. In other words, that one form of metafiction is still cutting edge. It’s being practiced assiduously by every famous author giving advice about how one has to love one’s characters before getting them into trouble, and other such twaddle. One of the things that’s so wonderful about Murnane, whom I hold up as the exemplar of a writer who’s never said a single fatuous or impracticable thing about fiction, is that he’s able to cut through all the crap and talk about building sentences, talk about the architecture of fiction, as being paramount to the process, a process that, after all, has got a lot—some would say everything—to do with writing the best words in the best order, over and over again, till you’ve got yourself a story, a novel, a what-have-you. But it’s a process that does not have much to do with psychodrama, not much to do with—as I put it in “Vonnegut”—“stage-managing suffering effigies.”

When he taught creative writing for a living, Murnane would stand in front of his class and write a story there and then to show how it was done. He didn’t think his students should be made to take instruction from someone whose bona fides weren’t indisputable—I mean, imagine learning carpentry or neurosurgery from someone whose talents you had to take entirely on faith! And then who would only give you notes on your work, week to week, after you’d already built a wobbly table or killed your latest patient! Is that how we learn? Not remotely. Whereas Murnane sounds like he must have been a teacher you could trust.

But look, all that’s secondary to my admiration for his prose. I just think he’s a pure joy. He shows how grammar itself is a pleasure, is the pleasure underpinning every other, in fiction. Like Sorrentino, though there’s little else to connect them, Murnane’s made a brilliant career out of showing the reader all his cards and yet still surprising her, still bringing that tear to the eye. If bringing tears to eyes is what you’re after from fiction, well, he’s your man. I mean, in virtually all of his work, he refuses to even name his characters—he’s not in the “imaginary best friend” business. His work is about the relationships readers have with fictional characters, and he does us the favor of treating the situation maturely, which is, if not a first, certainly a refreshing change. He cuts through all the foolishness, the received ideas I’ve already alluded to that suck all the air out of conversations about fiction. He just, you know, writes brilliantly and patiently and takes you to pieces. He’s probably our greatest living prose writer, in English.

You have a strong affection for isolated, unsexy lives—the man who still lives with his mother, or the woman who is married to a man who’s invited his sister to share their house, or the pedant who lives alone with lots of cats. The one story here that features “cool, young” people ends with their heads being sliced off by a windowpane floating down from an old building. What is it about this side of humanity—the hermetic, the socially unfit—that so appeals to you?

They’re my people, man! Who else should I be writing about?

But you know, I’ve never thought about it that way before. I’m tempted to say there’s just something inherently interesting to me about folks who are more invested in their interior lives than their social lives. But then I’d also be tempted to say that there can’t be many people in the world who don’t fit that definition, no matter how well-adjusted or outgoing they seem.

Or maybe it’s because I think—and this is wholly uncontroversial, no?—that prose is a medium better suited to documenting the processes of thought than “action,” so it’s better on the whole to stick to misfits who live mostly in their heads so as to avoid what I call film-treatment writing. You know—She reached for, he paused, they looked at, the room was empty, et cetera.

But, see, that all kind of strikes me as bullshit. I think my first response was probably the right one. It never really occurs to me to write about anyone else, left to my own devices. Maybe now that you’ve called my attention to it, I’ll take a stab at my own version of Rabbit, Run or something. That could be hilarious. 

I’ve written an introduction to this interview where I make a point about the variety of your stories, that in reading them collectively, I feel unsure about where some of your ideas might have come from. I singled out “Ten Letters,” “The Excise-Man,” and “Delete the Marquis,” but of course the rest of the stories are just as eccentric. So where do you go looking for such things?

A lot of the stories began as disassociated words or phrases that stuck in my head. The first story you mention, “Ten Letters,” contains some legitimate researched material—mainly the stuff about patent medicines and crank cures in the early twentieth century, which I’d done for a class a long time ago. But the real reason the story was written is that it struck me that the words ten letters contain ten letters, letters as in units of the alphabet. So the game there is obvious. A story called “Ten Letters” that features ten different letters—letters as in “missives”—that correspond to the aforementioned ten letters—alphabetical—of the title. I can also say that I was trying to cross Henry James with the aforementioned Mr. Mathews, there, not that I think the final story much resembles either author. James’s What Maisie Knew provided the divorce that powers the plot as well as a part of the opening sentence.

The third story you mention, “Delete the Marquis,” came out of a conversation I was having with a friend about which movies where playing at a given theater. As near as I remember it, my friend was complaining that the movie marquee hadn’t been changed yet, was still advertising the titles of the films that had been there the previous week. The phrase erase the marquee was used, which I quickly emended, in my head, to delete the marquee because of the rhyme, and naturally it’s a very short trip from marquee to marquis. I thought it had a nice sound to it. It struck me as a gruff imperative, like Sink the Bismarck! The trick was then to concoct a story that would make that title sensible. Luckily, I had a marquis already in mind—the historical mesmerist Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, who, by the way, really did tie his patients to a tree. I’d been saving him up for years.

Only the second piece you mention, “The Excise-Man,” came about in what I guess is a traditional manner. I was reading Ralph Steadman’s book on the history and production of whiskey, Still Life with Bottle, and he gifted me both the Robert Burns epigraph “Freedom and Whisky gang thegither” and the kernel of my story. Steadman writes, “These registered zombies [the excise-men] roamed the Highlands and the Lowlands, like lost souls in Purgatory, searching for the liquid gold that was needed to line the coffers of the English throne, waging wars in foreign lands.” Which is to say, I nicked it, plain and simple. And I’m not sorry.

Martin Riker has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.