November 2003

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Kathryn Davis

Kathryn Davis is a relatively obscure author, although she doesn't deserve to be. Part of it may be her relatively intimidating choice of topics: the history of opera, the French Revolution, Napoleon's chef, Welsh myth. It is also perhaps partially due to half of her books not being available in paperback. For years, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf and Hell stalled at hardback stage, intimidating new readers with the price. But now Little, Brown brings these two novels and her latest, Versailles, into paperback for the first time. Kathryn Davis spoke to Bookslut on the phone from Skidmore.

I got a bundle of your books from Little, Brown the first time that The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf and Hell had been in paperback. What happened that those two books had never been in paperback before?

Great question. To tell you the truth, I can't answer. When the publishing history of Girl Who Trod on a Loaf had ended at Knopf, there was no paperback, even though the book had done very well. I had never understood why there wasn't a paperback of that book. And then Hell was published by Ecco. It also did well, so I can't answer you. It's a mystery. It was an annoying mystery at the time.

What year did Hell originally come out?

It came out in '98, I think. But I had finished it, and it took awhile first to find the publisher, because the editor who had published the previous novel (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf), when he read Hell, it just knocked him for a loop. In a bad way. He sort of didn't want to have anything to do with it. Then my agent kind of threw up her hands, because I think she had been hoping he would take it. She didn't really shop it around as much as in retrospect I think she might have because she just thought if Gary wasn't going to publish it, probably nobody would. She actually said that to me. Then she sent it to one of the other smaller presses, and finally Ecco bought it. That was good, but it took a while. It had been finished several years before it finally saw print.

What was the response like for that, being a more difficult book than the one before it?

I'm trying to remember. By and large I got pretty good reviews. I got some really, really good reviews for Hell, but there was a kind of fury on the part of some reviewers, as if I was purposely trying to give them a hard time, which had not been the case. There was a reviewer at the Washington Post Book World, whose name I can't remember right now, but he's one of their main reviewers, and he just really, really took offense. Ever since then, whenever he has a chance to review one of my books, he's like someone who's just jumping up and down on top of a box until it's flat. And some people reviewed it just perplexed, but in a sort of respectful way. And then some people got it and loved it, and those were great reviews.

With this new book, Versailles, what made you write about Marie Antoinette, a rather reviled figure in history?

I came about it sort of through the back door. And I had certainly never thought about writing an historical novel. But I was in Paris with my husband and daughter, and my daughter really wanted to go to Versailles. I'd been there years and years ago, when I was about her age actually. I had hated it because I thought it was fussy and pretentious and claustrophobic. I tried to convince her that we should go somewhere else. She persisted, and we went to Versailles. We were walking through the gardens, we were doing that before going inside the building, and I thought I had never been to a place that amazed me so much. And I knew I wanted to write about it, but I didn't know in what way. I just wanted to use it somehow.

A couple of days went by, and we were still in Paris. My daughter wanted to go to the Conciergerie, which is the prison where the people who were about to be taken out to have their heads chopped off lived in these little cells. They sort of refurbished Marie Antoinette's cell in the Conciergerie, they made a replica of the room she would have been in. And again, I didn't particularly want to go. I actually don't have that big an interest in history. I never especially liked history class in high school. I don't like museums very much. I dragged my heels, but we went. And then it was while we were there, and I was looking at this teeny-weeny little cell, and thinking that the woman who had lived at Versailles had come at the end of her life to live in a room barely the size of my bathroom. There was something about that, and what it suggested about the shape of a life that got me excited. Then I thought, well, I'll write about Marie Antoinette.

I read one review of the book that seemed angry that you at all tried to make her sympathetic. Why do you think she still inspires such ire?

I think that if people don't know anything at all about her, what they do tend to know is she was a frivolous woman who had no concern whatsoever for the starving people of France. People also hear the "let them eat cake" statement, which she never made. There's that sort of sense of her being the epitome of heartlessness, and I think what it does is she ends up being a person upon whom those of us who are disaffected with the way our political leaders treat us, people who feel furious, project some of that fury onto figures from the past, like Marie Antoinette, who are perceived to be as heartless and thoughtless as, for instance, the Bush administration. Eating their state dinners while a lot of people don't have any food.

You don't like history so much, but this book has such a level of detail, even what type of person went into which entrance of Versailles. Did you enjoy doing that kind of research?

I loved it. I really loved it. I suppose that if there's a real purpose to my delving into a historic period, I had made such a personal connection with Marie Antoinette and the building and that particular time in history that I could hardly get enough of it once I had started. It also makes me understand why historians are avid to dig into periods of history. I had never really gotten that drift of that before. How much time do you spend on your research? Even The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf was very in-depth in its knowledge of opera and the time period.

One of the rules that I make for myself is that I don't precede the writing by doing the research. That's probably very different from the way a historian would proceed. I jump in with both feet without having a very clear idea of what was happening historically, or without having a really clear idea of the history of opera, for instance. And then as I find that I need information, I just pull around. What I didn't want was for the book to sound like a graduate thesis. I don't want it to feel so researched that you don't feel like you're reading about actual people and places and things. So in the case of Versailles, because I really didn't know anything at all about Marie Antoinette except for the way her life ended and a couple little things I remembered from 11th grade history class, I read two biographies straight through, and then the rule I had for myself was that I couldn't take notes while I was reading and I could only really use what I remembered. And then I had a huge pile of other books that I would dip in and out of, books about cooking or folklore or geography as the need arose. I couldn't really measure the amount of time I spent on research. It was probably a considerable amount of time, but it always felt like a part of writing instead of a separate endeavor.

You seem to use a lot of fairy tales and fables throughout your books. Are they starting points, or do they show themselves as parallels while you're writing? It seems to be a recurring theme for you.

I think it's just that it's something I am really attracted to and always have been, so that just as… oh, I don't know. I've just been rereading Ross Macdonald's murder mysteries, the Lew Archer books, and there's always a lot of information about automobiles. And I figure he must be really into automobiles. I think there's some way in which the stuff that you are attracted to or passionate about or troubled by is going to pop up in a work of fiction. I think I always have a lot of food in my work. I like to have people eating things. And I've noticed that I often have birthday parties, I don't know what that's all about. But I realize there are certain things that keep coming back no matter how diligently I attempt to make sure that every book I write is not like every other book I've written. I don't want to repeat myself, and then I realized after I had finished The Walking Tour, every single book I'd written had ended or had had a moment in it where somebody got shot or died while they were standing up to their waist in water. That just seems so ridiculous. Why? I don't know. But that didn't happen in Versailles.

Another theme to your work seems to be women's domestic lives. At one point in Hell you mention that the lives of two adolescent girls are not what great books are written about, and yet it keeps showing up in your books. Why do you think it's so neglected in literature, and why are you so drawn to it?

I think it has been neglected in what is considered "serious" literature. I think this is in some way changing, but certainly when I was first encountering literature, the "serious" work all had to do with issues having to do with men making their way in the world or fighting wars or brother against brother, father and son, and really not a whole lot about girls. And that was primarily because the books were being written by men. So you had a couple of women who were grudgingly permitted to enter the canon, but for the most part even what they dealt with was, the scope of it was always a little suspect, as if the lives of two girls growing up would not be as interesting as the lives of two boys growing up. Like Huck Finn. I just was never as interested in reading about boys growing up as I was in reading about girls growing up because I was interested in seeing how my own experience was somehow reflected or illuminated by the books that I read.

And I still don't really like books that don't have any women in them at all. I'll read them. They don't have to be all women, but it's nice if there's at least one. I'm sure that's why I had trouble with Moby Dick. Sena J. Nasland's book, the one about Ahab's wife, which I haven't read, certainly seemed like a response to that feeling. And it's always treated as if it's serious or important. I think that's what really infuriates me, that certain level of bigness that a lot of 30- to 40-year-olds are writing great, big, fat books that are supposed to have a great, big, fat scope to them, as if the thickness of the book somehow has to do with the seriousness of the book, and it has to talk about things in a comprehensive way politically and historically in order to be considered serious literature. I really wanted my book Versailles to be not a big fat book, but I still wanted it to be dealing with things that I think of as important things. Not just frivolity.

You teach English courses at Skidmore. Do you feel like, being part of the academic world, you're more surrounded by the implied importance of the big, fat, male novels?

I think it's sort of everywhere. The English department of Skidmore is pretty hospitable to the idea that those big, fat, male books are not the only important books in the canon. There's room made for a wider range. But that's an interesting question. I suppose it's possible that the academic world, the way I really got going on the subject, the way I am often infuriated, may be exacerbated by the fact that I'm in an academic environment where I see certain things honored and other things ignored.

How did your introduction to the NYRB reprint of The Vet's Daughter come about? Did they approach you?

Yeah, I had never even read that book. Edwin Frank, who runs that series, had actually called me a year earlier, wondered if I wanted to do an introduction to an Ivy Compton Burnet book they were going to bring back into print. I also hadn't read that one, and when I read it I didn't think I liked it enough to write a really good introduction. I thought my reservations would show. I told him I didn't want him to forget me in the future, and so he didn't. I think he has in mind a number of writers. He's reviewed my books, so he knows my work and presumably likes it, but also would imagine I would like a certain number of the writers he wants to bring back into print. I think that's how he gets all of his introducers. They're always an interesting combination.