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The Writing Life: An Interview with Kathryn Davis

2013 September 17
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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.


The Writing Life: An Interview with Karen Thompson Walker

2012 July 24

Editor’s Note: In preparation for this Thursday’s Magers & Quinn Booksellers and Hazel & Wren co-presented event featuring Karen Thompson Walker reading from her debut novel, The Age of Miracles (read our review from last week here and a writing prompt based on the novel here), we asked the author a few questions about the book, her writing process, and what’s next for her.

Hazel & Wren: In your bio, it says you wrote the book in the mornings before your then-day job as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Can you talk about the motivation behind making time for your writing on top of a full-time job?

Karen Thompson Walker: Finding time to write while working full time was a challenge, but I was a writer before I was an editor, and it never occurred to me to stop writing. The only time I could find to write was in the mornings before work. It took me about four years to write this novel that way. Sometimes the progress seemed painfully slow, but I think the experience made me more disciplined, so I’m grateful for that.

H&W: Do you think your writing is affected by your work as an editor (i.e., do you look at writing differently with your experiences as an editor)? If yes, how so?

KTW: I think working as an editor made me a better writer. An editor is like a professional reader, and as I became a better reader, I also became a better writer. As I wrote The Age of Miracles, I tried to apply the lessons I was learning at work—what makes for a compelling story, a realistic character, and clear and vivid sentence—to my own novel.

H&W: What is your writing process?

KTW: I write in chronological order, finishing one chapter before moving on to the next, which helps me feel in tune with the reader, who is obviously going to read the book in that same order. I like to edit my sentences as I write them, rearranging them again and again before moving on to the next one. In general, my writing process is kind of slow and meticulous.

H&W: What resources were most helpful to you when writing, rewriting, and editing this novel that other writers could benefit from?

KTW: The most important resources were the novels on my bookshelves. Whenever I come across a book that I love, I try to learn as much as possible from the strategies the writer has used to tell his or her story. (Some favorite examples: The Virgin Suicides, The Interpreter of Maladies, Housekeeping, Blindness, The Road.) Also crucial are my first readers, which include my husband and several good friends who are also writers. My book would not be the same without them.

H&W: The book is centered around a scientific phenomenon (whether it’s an actual possibility or not). How much research did you do into the effect of longer days and night on the earth and its inhabitants? How important was it to you that the premise be based in scientific fact?

KTW: The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago once said that his work, which often involved fantastical premises, was about the logical development of the impossible. I wanted The Age of Miracles to function that way, too. The premise involves a certain imaginative leap, but after that, I wanted all the science to seem logical and convincing, to feel as real as the characters. I did research as I wrote, and I eventually consulted an astrophysicist, who helped me make a few things even more realistic. I also felt a certain amount of creative freedom since no one knows for sure what would happen in this scenario.

H&W: The reasons for the slowing of the earth in the novel are vaguely tied to possibly be the result of real problems due to human action that we see today, such as pollution, etc. Was this what inspired the premise? Why did you choose to ultimately leave those reasons for the slowing of the earth unknown?

KTW: The slowing takes everyone, including scientists, by surprise. It seemed realistic to me that it would take a long time, years or maybe decades for scientists to understand the cause. It was appealing to write about a disaster that people didn’t quite understand. The Age of Miracles is a story about living with uncertainty, about being confronted by the unknown. I tried to learn from parallel situations in our real world, especially climate change, but I wanted this story to be about ordinary people and how they would respond. I wasn’t trying to convey a specific message.

H&W: The point of view is told by an adult woman, Julia, through her memories as a 12-year-old child. Can you explain your decision to tell it as a flashback? 

KTW: I love books about childhood, especially when the narrator is an adult. This perspective allowed me to access the intense vision and sensitivity of a young girl as well as the wisdom and insight of the adult Julia. She’s really looking back on two different lost worlds: the lost world of her childhood as well as life on earth as we all once know it.

H&W: There are a number of moments in the book when Julia experiences things for the “last time”: eating particular foods, seeing healthy plant life, and so forth. These moments are made especially poignant because, at 12, it’s a time in her life when she is also experiencing many things for the first time: love, loss, disenchantment. Was it a deliberate decision to have Julia be a 12-year-old? What advantages did her age give you as the writer?

KTW: Focusing on the life one young girl was a way of making sure that this story—which is about a global catastrophe—would feel personal and real. I really wanted this novel to be as much about the ordinary as it is about the extraordinary, and I wanted to explore how a giant catastrophe would affect individual lives. It did seem especially meaningful to write about all the ordinary firsts of adolescence, since Julia’s generation might be the last to experience them.

H&W: What’s next for you? Another novel? A different writing project?

KTW: I’m excited to be working on a new novel. It’s another story about people in an extreme situation.

H&W: What is the most important piece of advice you can give to other writers trying to break into the literary world with a debut novel?

KTW: I think it’s important to focus on the writing itself. It’s really hard to get a book published, even a good book, but the better the book is the better chance it has of eventually catching someone’s attention.


Psst: Keep your eyes peeled on the Hazel & Wren Facebook page for a related contest, details to be announced there later today!