Davis: Riding the Bus of Success
GRETA PETRY(November 7, 2003)
may be a new MacArthur grant winner, but don’t be surprised
if you see acclaimed short story and fiction writer LYDIA
DAVIS getting off an Adirondack Trailways bus in Albany.
56, chooses not to spend an hour and a half driving to and
from her home in Port Ewen, just outside of Kingston, N.Y.
So she takes the bus twice a week to teach at the University
at Albany. Once in Albany, she connects with a city bus that
takes her to campus. The ride gives her a chance to read and
relax. She writes in a notebook, not on a laptop, when she’s
on the bus. “I’m a big fan of public transportation, and get
a lot of good work done on it,” she said.
that Davis has indeed done “a lot of good work” came last
month, when she was one of 24 new MacArthur fellows named
for 2003. Each receives $500,000 in “no strings attached”
support over the next five years. “The fellowship offers highly
creative people the gift of time and the unfettered opportunity
to explore, create, and accomplish,” noted Jonathan F. Fanton,
president of the MacArthur Foundation.
is a short story writer “celebrating the complexity of life’s
most ordinary moments,” according to the foundation. An associate
professor and writer-in-residence at UAlbany since she joined
the faculty in 2002, Davis said she is teaching “a graduate
fiction workshop that is wonderfully lively and also an undergraduate
class of 26 very bright and motivated students (Eng 302Z -
Faulkner and William Kennedy hosted Davis’s first visit to
the University at Albany in 2000, when she was invited to
give a reading at the New York State Writers Institute. Faulkner
suggested that she apply for a teaching position. “So on the
same visit to the campus I gave a talk on translating Proust
(translating is my other ‘hat’) and met with some of the English
department and the administration,” she said.
noted recently: “I’m delighted to find that the people at
the MacArthur Foundation do their homework and recognize genuine
talent. I once referred to Lydia Davis as ‘the Glenn Gould
of contemporary fiction.’ By that, I meant to call attention
to how, like the great pianist would do with the works of
Bach, Lydia can take up the frame of what makes contemporary
fiction — stories — work, then break it down, and finally
reassemble it so that it is ever illuminating, and new.”
is known in literary circles for her extremely short and brilliantly
inventive short stories. She will again be featured by the
Writers Institute at 8 p.m. November 20 in the Recital Hall
of the Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus in a joint
reading with Dave Eggers. An informal seminar will precede
the reading at 4:15 p.m. in Campus Center 375.
latest work is Samuel Johnson
Is Indignant (2001), a book of 56 short, sharp meditations
on life, language, and such varied topics as lawns, funeral
homes, and jury duty. Her previous works include Almost
No Memory (stories, 1998), The
End of the Story (novel, 1995), Break
It Down (stories, 1986), Story
and Other Stories (1983), and The
Thirteenth Woman (stories, 1976).
Davis, who has known she wanted to be a writer since about
the age of 12, the MacArthur grant will give her time to write
during a leave of absence from the faculty that will begin
after the fall semester concludes. She told the Associated
Press the grant will give her the “luxury of being able to
sit down and work from sunup to sundown.”
is not likely she will relocate permanently to a remote writer’s
paradise. “To be realistic, since I do have a family and a
life here in the Hudson Valley, I think the writing will be
done here at home, in my study. On the other hand, I will
be able to buy things like new file cabinets to replace the
clunkers I have now, and I’ll be able to go to France for
a few weeks if I need to — and the book I want to work on
will be set in France, so that will be important. It’s wonderful
to be able to do this now. I may also buy the multi-volume
Oxford English Dictionary,
if I can find a place to put it,” she said.
grew up in Northampton, Mass. “My father taught in the Smith
College English department. He was a writer and so was my
mother, so there was a heavy influence in that direction from
the family,” Davis said. She had a “wonderful education,”
first at Brearley School in New York City, where the family
moved when she was 10, and then from Putney School in Vermont.
“Barnard continued the education, though I have to admit that
I sat in the back of the French literature class writing poetry
instead of paying attention!” she said.
studying French in school and college, she lived in France
for three years and began translating to earn a living. Some
30 translations later, “I was already a serious appreciator
of Proust when a phone call came in 1995 inviting me to join
the Penguin UK translation team to work on In
Search of Lost Time. I chose the first volume because
it was the one I knew best,” she said. Volume I, Swann’s
Way, was published by Penguin UK in 2002, and was just
published in the United States by Viking.
for Davis’s favorite writers, “I have learned a great deal
from the short story writers Grace Paley and Isaac Babel,
and early on from Kafka, Beckett, and Nabokov. But every really
good writer I read teaches me something more — recent ones
have been the English novelist Ian MacEwan (I read him while
commuting last fall) and the German W.G. Sebald, who writes
wonderfully calm and intelligent digressive works.”
has taught at Bard, Columbia, and the University of California
at San Diego. “At each place I have had some very hard-working
and serious students. I would say that the students at UAlbany
have been among the most courteous in the classroom and have
been fully equal in talent to the students at Bard, Columbia,
and UCSD, the first place I taught. They are bright and enthusiastic,
and it has been a pleasure to work with them. Since this is
only my second term at UAlbany, I’m just getting to know the
other faculty in the department, but that has been a pleasure,
too – we are all busy, but there is always time to share a
bit of conversation.
now I have had very little uninterrupted time to write,” said
Davis. “I have been teaching, translating, and looking after
the family/household. I have tended to write whenever there
was an opportunity – whether first thing in the morning or
last thing at night or in the midst of a day of translation
work or alone on a subway or bus. When I used to drink coffee
I thought I reached a peak of quick thinking at about 11 a.m.,
but now it could be anytime,” she said.
writing process, once begun, should not be interrupted. “To
write a very short piece (one paragraph to one page) obviously
requires less time and I can usually write a good draft within
an hour. For a somewhat longer story, I can usually find a
few hours and steal a few hours the next day, until it’s done.
It’s vital not to stop until you have most of it in place
— if you get interrupted at the wrong time you can certainly
lose a lot of valuable work. So there is a point in the process
where you don’t answer the phone or let anyone into the room.
At later stages, when you are revising, you can stop and start
up again and the work doesn’t suffer,” Davis said.
it harder for women authors to find uninterrupted writing
time? Not necessarily. “I know women with the wonderful luxury
of being able to choose how they spend their time and men
with the reverse — ‘uh oh, the baby’s crying, work is over
for the day.’ It all depends on money and your role in the
family,” Davis said.
of Davis’s stories was the most difficult to write? “Actually,
the novel (The End of the
Story) was...because it needed so much organization
and became so confusing at times. The stories have been, mostly,
exciting to work on, every one — so I don’t have a favorite,
really. Maybe the latest one is always the most exciting,”