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TRIAL: A Conversation with Kathryn Davis

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On February 13, Advocate alumnus and contributor Patrick Lauppe conducted an interview with American novelist Kathryn Davis. An abridged transcript of their conversation appears below. Davis is the author of seven novels, including Duplex, which was published by Graywolf Press in September. You can find “The January Tunnel,” a chapter of her upcoming novel, in the Advocate’s latest issue, TRIAL.

The Advocate is publishing a chapter from your next novel. What’s the general scope of the novel, and where will this chapter occur?

It’s very hard to answer those questions, because the novel is still in process. I’m not writing this novel chronologically, so I am not one hundred percent sure at what point in the book “The January Tunnel” will appear. My guess is it will not be too far from the beginning, because it introduces the sense of walking on a trail of some sort, and that’s the unifying factor, at least at this point, as I know it for the book.

Last summer I walked a little portion of what most people know as the trail to Santiago de Compostela, which is in Spain. I was walking the part of the trail that runs through France. I had actually started writing the novel in which “The January Tunnel” will appear before going to France. I didn’t think that walking on the trail had anything to do with the book I was writing, but it mysteriously turned out that I had already written a number of aspects of the walk into the book. It was a little spooky. As a result, the central characters in the novel all have in common the fact that they are pilgrim walkers. Like the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, all of the characters are going to be designated by profession.

Let’s turn to Duplex, your most recent novel. While several of your novels feature fantastical elements, these often prove to be figments of a character’s imagination. In Duplex, however, robots literally live in the suburbs, an actual sorcerer drives around in a shiny car, and mysterious airships called scows fill the skies. What brought about this change?

The world of Duplex is completely based on the street on which I grew up. On some level, I think it is as realistic as a description of a world can be, according to that sense of it you carry with you as your life moves on.

What I wanted to replicate was that sense of, “It is just the way it was,” the way that things are presented in a fairy tale. There’s no explanation. If there are robots living on the street, there are robots on the street, and we don’t know how they got there, or why they’re there, or even their psychological implications. They’re just there. That felt absolutely right to me and very true to my version of reality. In the same way, it seemed to me that these people who lived down the street from me, when I thought about it, were robots. It wasn’t that they were like robots, but the only really good explanation for that family was that they were robots.

That was the way I approached all the information that went into the book. It all presented itself to me in that way. You’re playing outside, it’s getting dark, it’s a summer night, and a car comes down the street. There’s something completely otherworldly about that. That was where I began.

Where did you grow up, and how did you begin writing fiction?

I grew up in Philadelphia, and I began writing when I was pretty young. I started out writing poetry. I actually thought I didn’t have the attention span to write something longer, although I was putting lots of things into the poems that I was told didn’t belong there. Back then the taste was for really short lyric poems. I think if I’d been older and had a stronger sense of purpose, I would have told everybody to go to hell and done what I wanted to do, but as it was I ended up taking these things out. As it happened, all the things I was taking out of the poems were precisely the sorts of things a person could put into a piece of fiction. Eventually, it dawned on me that I had always preferred reading fiction, and so I started to write short stories. I had pretty immediate amazing luck publishing a couple of my very earliest stories in Esquire magazine back in the days of Gordon Lish.

As I kept writing short stories, they got longer. At some point, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write a novel. The very first novel I wrote was horrible, as so many first novels are. I put my novel in a box and hid it somewhere. I don’t even know where it is anymore. When you’re working on a novel, you have this idea that it’s not easy to write one, and that one of the things you have to do is persist through the difficult times. Inevitably, there’s always that moment when you find yourself wondering, “Well, is this an instance of a problem that I have to persist through, or am I just working on a horrible novel that I should just get rid of?”

I was wondering that with my very first novel, and then one night I had a dream. At that time, I lived out in the middle of the country. In the dream, I was walking out of the house toward the barn, and this horse stuck its head out through the top of the barn door. It was Mr. Ed, the talking horse. He said to me, “It’s borrrring,” and I knew he meant my novel. From that moment on, I put my novel in a box and moved on to the project that became my actual first novel Labrador. That was all because of Mr. Ed.

The link between writing and dreaming is central to Duplex. In the book’s universe, duplex neighbors are able to share dreams due to the proximity of their brains. How do you consider this novel, or perhaps the novel form, as a space where minds can meld?

I’m very interested in the place where a work of literature makes a transition from one place, one thing, one person, one something to another—where there is an implied gap of some sort. Sometimes, this will literally appear as white space on the page. Sometimes, you’re sitting in the car with a character, and then, without any real descriptive transition, you are no longer in the car—rather, you are walking up a hillside three days later. When those kinds of transitions work, you don’t feel jolted or shocked or confused. It makes sense in some weird way that you were here and now you’re there. In between, there’s this place where I think the reader’s mind is working in concert with the writer’s mind in an incredibly strange way. The psyches join, so that the reader has access to something that hasn’t even been put into words.

A middle ground of some kind recurs throughout your work. Sometimes, this middle ground is spatial, like a duplex; sometimes, it’s metaphysical, like the title realm of your 2006 novel The Thin Place in which the living and dead coexist; sometimes, it’s conceptual, like the uncanny. What makes you gravitate toward these uncertain middle zones where distinctions dissolve?

I think I gravitate there for two reasons. One, because that is quite literally the way I experience life in the world. I have always had a very strong sense that things are not quite the way they seem to be. You can pin this easily on the fact that I grew up in a crazy household where the only way you had any hope of knowing what was going on was by reading between the lines, because nobody was actually coming right out and saying anything to explain their behavior. In that way, there’s a nice, solid psychological explanation.

I also believe that I have a predisposition in that direction. When I was pretty little, some guy from the University of Pennsylvania came to my first-grade classroom, and he was doing some project using these cards to test out extrasensory perception. So, he sat on the other side of this board, and he would hold up a card that had a shape on it, and you were supposed to say what shape he was holding up. I got a perfect score. Accordingly, I have a predisposition for all those realms where things are a little off.

When I read, I’m always drawn to literature where you don’t know exactly what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be a work of literature where something really weird or wild is happening. For instance, I love reading murder mysteries because you don’t know what’s going on. You know that something has happened, and you’re trying to figure out why or how it happened. I’m just attracted to that mood in a piece of writing. Taking the very good advice to write what you want to read, I think that’s why I write the books I write.

I get the impression from your novels that not only do you want to give the reader this feeling of estrangement and curiosity while reading the novel, but you also want the reader to come away with this feeling when they look back up at the real world. To what extent is this your intention?

In every one of the books I write, I want to create a world that the reader enters into entirely and then finds it difficult to get out of. As a reader, I remember and revisit those books that change the way I see, or the way I feel, or the way I hear. That’s what I want my books to do to readers.

Illustration by Michelle Long ’17