Skip to content

The Writing Life: An Interview with Kathryn Davis

2013 September 17

The Writing Life
kathryn davisEditor’s Note: Kathryn Davis’ new novel Duplex (Graywolf Press) took us on a surreal, mind-bending journey, so we couldn’t resist picking her brilliant brain a bit more. Read our full review of the book here, and catch Davis tomorrow night at Magers & Quinn Booksellers for a reading with Eric Lundgren. 

Hazel & Wren: What are your most productive writing habits/rituals? 

Kathryn Davis: A regular routine—what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of art”—is essential.  I write every day; the weekends are optional.  What interests me about my routine is how the specific details of it vary from book to book, and how the books, formally, echo the routines.  I worked in big long blocks of time (without breaks) when I was writing The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, a book with big long paragraphs.  Versailles is made up of many small, discrete parts; I tended to get up and down quite a lot while I was writing it.  I wasn’t jumpy writing Duplex.  I sat and concentrated hard.  But I also needed to take a break between the morning shift and the afternoon shift, a kind of generative gap that—at least to me—replicates the transition between chapters.

H&W: Which writers and/or artists have most influenced your own writing? 

KD: I love that this question includes artists of all kinds and not only writers.  The list of artists who have had the greatest influence on my writing would have to include Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Federico Fellini, Franz Kafka, W.B. Yeats, Isak Dinesen, the ghost stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Mozart’s operas, Henry James, Ingmar Bergman, Max Beckmann, Colette, the murder mysteries of Colin Dexter and P.D. James and Henning Mankell, Barbara Pym, Lotte Lenya, Giotto.  OK.  I have to stop now…

H&W: When you are creating a new world for a book like Duplex, do you first map out the world, and then figure out the story? Or do you find yourself writing the story first, and the world fills itself in as you go along?

KD: I can’t begin writing a book until I have a very strong sense of the world I’m about to enter, writing it.  “Sense” is the operative word here:  with Duplex I knew that the world I was about to enter was going to resemble, in some ways, the world I grew up in, but I also knew it was going to be like that world with bites taken out of it, and that the only way I was going to understand where those bites were and how many of them there were and how big or small they were would be by starting to write.  The act of writing, then, is the act of mapping.

H&W: You do an excellent job of capturing everyday life and combining it with very surreal sci-fi elements for a mind-bending effect. What most interests you about writing in that place of juxtaposition?

KD: That place of juxtaposition is, for me, about as accurate an approximation of the world we live in as I was able to create.  I wanted this book to be “true to life”—which of course isn’t the same as the kind of “reality” you find on reality TV.  I’ve always been very fond of the saying:  “there’s more here than meets the eye.”

H&W: The surreal elements of Duplex creep up on the reader, and things can change in a second. Were these transitions easy to flow through as the writer, or did you spend a lot of painstaking time working to make them seamless? 

KD: I’m in the process of writing a short essay on the subject of transitions.  Given the way many of my books are constructed—with what I hope is deep narrative drive, despite the fact that I don’t always rely on a linear plot line—the transitions between the various elements (sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters) become crucial.  The reader is invited to enter into and engage imaginatively with these places of transition, arriving at a sense of what—in the absence of literal description—they contain.  I think of the act of creating transitions in prose in musical terms.  For me it’s one of the most challenging and exciting parts of writing a book.

H&W: How did you handle mapping out (or keeping track of) the timeline for yourself as you were writing the book?

KD: I tend to avoid outlines.  I don’t like doing too much planning.  But I also want to make sure that all the parts of the world I’m busy creating hang together.  A controlled temporal element is critical to a reader’s enjoyment, I think.  If I hadn’t been the author of this book, I would have taken pleasure in hearing Mary ask the sorcerer “Weren’t we in some bathroom together before?” and recalling that earlier scene in the restaurant bathroom.  I maintain an evolving timeline for a book on index cards.

H&W: In this story, duplexes have magical qualities. What is it about the duplex of our world that inspired you to give it such a prominent part of this book?

KD: I’ve lived in a lot of duplexes.  The house I grew up in was a duplex.  The house we used to stay in at the shore was also a duplex.  The building I live in when I’m teaching in St. Louis is a duplex. The very thin line that separates one set of lives from another set of lives—or one life from another, or one world from another, or one part of a body from another—fascinates me.  I remember being amazed that the back of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom of the house I grew up in was also the back of the medicine cabinet in the house attached to ours, and that there was a slot in the back wall for used razor blades, and that Mr. Rice’s used razor blades dropped into the same dark hole as my father’s used razor blades.  Needless to say sound traveled freely (though sometimes garbled) through these portals. When you think about it it’s not all that different, really, from the magical process whereby an exalted image can take shape in the mind while the brain meanwhile is busy channeling blood.

H&W: In the book we hear from multiple protagonists (Miss Vicks, Mary, an unnamed first-person narrator who relays Janice’s stories). What advantages (or disadvantages) come with using multiple points of view to tell a story? 

KD: There’s an omniscient narrator—the covert yet omnipresent “I” who crops up on page one—to act as a conduit for all those other sensibilities.  The advantage, for me, is that this method of narrating seems most hospitable to the creation of a large and multi-faceted world.  It’s the most godlike approach, going on the assumption that the creator finds every object of her creation worthy of what seems like—ironically enough—her undivided attention.


Comments are closed.