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Lydia Davis: Riding the Bus of Success
by GRETA PETRY(November 7, 2003)

She 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.

Davis, 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.

Proof 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.

Davis 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 - Creative Writing).”

Don 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.

Faulkner 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.”

Davis 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.

Davis’s 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).

For 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.”

It 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.

Davis 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.

After 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.

As 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.”

Davis 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.

“Until 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.

The 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.

Is 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.

Which 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,” Davis concluded.


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