SEVEN QUESTIONS: LYDIA DAVIS
1. Describe your writing day. What keeps you focused and motivated?
Every day is different. Sometimes I don’t go anywhere near the desk. But when I’m working on stories, I usually work on several at once so that I can go from one to another. I also keep a notebook and read through it now and then, fixing things, until one entry seems to have the possibility of turning into a story. I suppose I’m motivated in part by my enjoyment of all the material out there to write about. At times in my life when I’ve been stuck, though, I have forced myself to write a certain amount every day. I think sometimes you have to do that.
2. At times, writers can be their own worst critics. What do you wish you could do but feel you can’t?
I think there’s a limit to how many different kinds of writing you can do, so I don’t worry about what I can’t do. There are certain very dense styles of writing that fascinate me. I know they would never come naturally to me, but I enjoy studying them. Here’s an example: “The first poem in the book explicitly (if perhaps also not without a spritz of knowing disingenuousness) disavows inspiration by nostalgia.” How many ideas per inch are packed into that!
3. Do you self-edit as you go along, or write and then edit? Do the shortest pieces often begin with a kernel of an image, or a word?
I suppose some editing goes on in my head before the words ever reach the paper. I also make changes immediately, as soon as the words are on the page. I don’t like to let something clumsy sit there. I don’t think the shortest pieces ever begin with just a single word but rather a phrase, or more usually a sentence. Sometimes one I’ve overheard, sometimes one of my own.
4. What are the best three books you have read in the last 10 years?
It’s hard for me to review all the books I’ve read in the last ten years and decide which are the three best! Easier for me to name three recent books I like a lot: I’ve just finished Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. It is not a long book, but you have to read it slowly because it is written in an unusual style. It’s worth it. The book before that was Ali Smith’s Artful. Very unusual in form, combining talk about literature with a moving address to a friend who has died. The third interesting book is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which I’m reading now and which is Volume I of seven long books recounting his life.
5. What do you seek the most as a reader- what distinguishes a good story from a great one?
I thoroughly enjoy reading a good story as opposed to a great one. But the great one has a different vision of the world and changes my perception of it. Often the great one is the harder to read.
6. What is the most recent piece of art that has moved/puzzled/ inspired you? (whether in theatre, film, music or image)
I have recently been fascinated by Velazquez’s paintings of the royal family of Spain: Philip IV and the others. This is a very odd-looking, inbred family. I have just discovered the pleasure of concentrating on one painter rather than trying to see as much as possible in a museum.
7. What is the best writing tip you have gained from experience?
The value of close, accurate observation and (following from that) the use of individual, telling detail in description and dialogue. Also (there are many valuable tips in this work), the importance of analysis in studying other people’s writing – to figure out what they are doing so well and then maybe you can learn to do it yourself.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis is published by Penguin at £10.99.