May 2006

Donna Seaman

features

An Interview with Kathryn Davis

Beginning with Labrador (1988), a tale of two young sisters that metamorphoses into a complex and otherworldly tale, Kathryn Davis has cast a spell that has held readers transfixed over the course of six original and affecting novels. Each is a fresh embarkation for Davis in which she illuminates a radically different realm in a distinctive and piquant narrative style and a unique blending of genres. Yet within each brilliantly imagined, often fantastic fictional realm, she seeks understanding of the mysterious workings of fate, especially the unpredictable spiral of events set in motion by human creativity and its evil twin, obsession. Fables, music, cuisine, diabolical computer software, architecture, metaphysics, and the life force itself drive her complex, genre-altering plots, and her adventurous characters, most of them young women.

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (1993) tells the story of two women, one a composer working on an opera based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Hell (1998), a blend of mystery and surreal fantasy, transforms domesticity into an eerie hall-of-mirrors reflecting both horror and sublimity. Beguiling and bracing, The Walking Tour metamorphoses from a literary novel about two couples traveling in Wales, into an elegant mystery that stealthily acquires the aura of science fiction. In Versailles (2002), Davis creates a curious form of historical fiction as she considers the extravagance of the Sun King's palace and the fate of Marie Antoinette.

Drawing on everything from creation stories to myth, mysticism, fairy tales, the stories of saints and miracles, nature's myriad forms, and quantum physics, Davis traces the great singing web of life and the long-fingered shadow of death. The earth itself is as much a character in her fiction as human beings, and in her most recent novel, The Thin Place, animal and plants are also brought to conscious life as she explores the permeable divide between the past and the present, the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine.

This conversation took place when Kathryn Davis came to Chicago in February 2006, a visit that included an appearance on Open Books, on WLUW.

I’ve been laughing over something Joy Press at the Village Voice wrote about you. She described you as the lovechild of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll. I imagine that you were influenced by these seminal writers.

Oh, absolutely. The very earliest book I was infatuated with was Alice in Wonderland. When I was in third grade we were supposed to bring our favorite book to school. The teacher was going to read from it, but when I brought in Alice in Wonderland, she made me take it home. She said that it really wasn’t a book for children, which was a surprise to me because my mother had read it to me from day one. This was an interesting moment for me because it made me feel as though something that I cherished had something a little bit edgy about it, or something a little beyond the pale, and that made me love it all the more.

I encountered Virginia Woolf in high school when I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and asked my English teacher “So why is this called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and he handed me To the Lighthouse and said, “Take a look.” I bonded with that book in the same way as I did with Alice in Wonderland. I don’t think they’re similar, but I did feel like they were written for me.

I think the fact that Carroll and Woolf are such different writers relates to part of what intrigues me about your fiction, which is the tension in your novels. There are at least two opposing forces at work, high literary writing like that of Virginia Woolf and Henry James, and elements of thrillers or speculative fiction. Can you explain how that happens?

I think it happens because of who I am and what I am interested in. Increasingly I feel that I want to make sure that what I write about is what I am interested in. I love detective fiction. I’ve read murder mysteries for almost as long as I’ve read Alice in Wonderland. My mother doled them out to me, especially Agatha Christie books. And I’ve also had a real taste for speculative fiction of one sort or another, which is, I think, the legacy of Alice in Wonderland. The idea that you can enter another world is just one of the things that keeps me from feeling bored with life on this planet, that you could open a door and find something unexpected. So that’s who I am, and there’s no way to avoid it. If I wanted to write something that was all one thing I don’t think I could.

I can’t help but think, if you were the sort of writer intent on writing commercially successful books, you could write straight-ahead detective stories. But clearly that ambition isn’t part of your sensibility or mission.

I have thought about that. And I’ve discussed this with one of my friends, the poet Louise Glück. She also loves detective fiction, so we’ve talked about writing it, even about pairing up and writing a detective novel together.

But the truth is neither one of us would really want to do that. When I wrote The Walking Tour, I thought initially that I might try to write a fairly traditional murder mystery. But then I remembered all the things I don’t like about murder mysteries. There’s the ending, where the detective sits everybody down and says, “Here’s what happened, and here’s what he did and what she did.” That is always boring to me. Or if there’s a chase of some kind, I find that very boring. So I didn’t want to put the boring parts in, and, of course, if you leave those out you’re not going to make money writing murder mysteries.

I like your hybrid approach. The Walking Tour combines thriller elements with some subtle, scary, futuristic stuff in a tale about, in part, the diabolical aspects of the imagination.

With The Walking Tour, I wanted to write about two couples. That was where it started. It was based loosely on two couples I knew in which the husbands had gone into business together. I thought that was a very interesting set-up for a novel. And then I went to Wales for only three days, but it really made a huge impression on me, so I thought, “Oh I want them to go to Wales, they’ll go on a walking tour.” And so pieces of the story accumulated over time. I was thinking about it before I was ready to begin writing it. And in the meantime, although I could never call myself computer literate, I was beginning to use a computer and having a lot of trouble with it. I actually experienced what happens in The Walking Tour, where the text drains out the bottom of the screen and drains into a completely different file. No one could ever explain to me why that happened, but I thought it was diabolical. And I thought that there was also the potential for something going on with computers that now seems actually to be the case, where people can get their hands on things you have written and make changes based on their own wishes. That combined with the idea that there is no real ownership of this material led me to think about the frightening aspect of this technology. Without being a technophile, I had a lot of opinions. And so I found myself wanting to project that into a not-too-distant future where the consequences could be visible in some way.

I’m fascinated with the way you contrast artifice with nature. They share a certain dynamic because human beings are part of nature, and what we do is inherently organic, yet our creativity results in inventions that are detrimental to the rest of life. That’s a difficult thing to get at in fiction in a subtle and meaningful way.

As I get older, it becomes clear to me that that is one of my obsessions. In The Thin Place, for instance, the ways in which we mess around with the natural world, the dire consequences of that, are beginning to trouble me more than anything else, and yet there are the good aspects of art and artifice as well. I mean, we make beautiful things that we then handle irresponsibly. In The Walking Tour the beautiful things become foul and demonic.

You also work with that paradox in Versailles. You bring the reader to this amazing place, the Sun King’s realm, where he has aligned himself with the sun and built these glorious gardens that are creations of both nature and human beings. And yet this beautiful place is the site of violence and suffering. This is the edge your work explores.

Yes. You know, I think that’s partly because I feel as though it’s a privilege to make art. This comes from my background. I went to a Friends’ high school in Philadelphia. And there was an enormous social awareness component to my education. So there’s a part of me that looks at my fellow graduates, who have now gone out into the world and are doing things like running the Burma Borders Project, and other really good hands-on work to try to make the world better, and there I am sitting in my room sort of doodling around, making stuff up. So that leads me to think about the creation of a privileged artificial world like Versailles, which is very beautiful to look at but doesn’t really do anybody any good, except maybe two or three people. That troubles me, so I want to write about it. I want to write about what troubles me to try to understand it.

I don’t want to give the impression that your books are in anyway polemic or overtly message-oriented. They are not. And yet, I can’t help but ask you if following the news about the state of the natural world (I’m thinking about the mounting evidence of global warming) influences your work.

I am very alarmed and enraged as well that things are being changed in these ways, that there’s no going back, there’s no fixing these things. It seemed to me that it was also clear with the storms that we’ve been experiencing that it’s not an accident that Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans. I think we’re much closer to the point where things like that are going to be happening regularly than anyone wants to believe. And yet we’re told there are good economic reasons not to monkey around with greenhouse gas emissions.
 
The gap between reality and that sort of stubbornly profit-oriented attitude is shocking, and the fact that we’ve been hearing about global warming for decades is infuriating. If there is a future civilization able to look back at this, they will have fun writing about how foolish people were in the twentieth century.

I do hope there’s somebody around to say how foolish we were because sometimes it seems like that will not be the case. It really makes me feel sad because the world is really a beautiful thing, I mean it’s also a horrible thing, but it will be so sad to lose certain things.

That’s so much of what The Thin Place is about. I wonder if you could explain the title.

The thin place is a term from Celtic mythology. I first heard about it when I was visiting a friend who was a lay member of a religious community, a bunch of sisters at a convent in Peekskill. They were talking about how they were going to have to sell the place where they lived because they couldn’t afford to keep up these huge, gorgeous, drafty buildings for only a handful of nuns. They were sad to be leaving, they said, because it was a thin place. I’d never heard the phrase before, so I asked what it meant and one of the sisters explained that a thin place is a place where the membrane between this world and the other world -- the world of spirit, the part of life we can’t see -- is very, very weak. So things leak back and forth between the two. I knew then that that was my title. I didn’t know precisely where the book was going to be set. I thought maybe it was going to be the seashore, a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but this wasn’t the book to do that. I also knew that there were going to be lots of living things in it. That was kind of all I knew.

The Thin Place is full of creatures. I think of it as a symphony of consciousnesses.
You tune into the consciousnesses of dogs and cats, and even plants, corn and lichen. You capture the energy and sense of constant communication and communion in nature.

You know, it just occurred to me this very minute that I’ve been saying that what I wanted to do in The Thin Place was something like what Flaubert did in the novella A Simple Heart where the narrative dips in and out of the sensibilities of different people in this little village in Normandy in France. But what I’m now realizing is that the giving voice to everything actually is exactly what both Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf do. It just dawned on me. Literally in Lewis Carroll things are always talking that do not normally talk. And Virginia Woolf also spends a lot of time deep inside of the sensibilities of people and place; there’s a feeling of place having a kind of presence.

Exactly. Everything is meshed in Virginia Woolf. Even as she moves from one character’s mind to another, in, say, Mrs. Dalloway, she doesn’t let you forget that nothing is isolated, that all these inner and outer voices overlap and intertwine, which is what you do in The Thin Place.
 
Another striking aspect of The Thin Place is the witty narrator. I think of it as a she, and find her omniscient in a very interesting way. How did you channel this voice?

Well, it’s interesting that you hear the omniscient narrator as female because it is me. What I wanted to do was give myself complete license to talk about the way the world presents itself to me as if I could hover above the place that I’m describing. Not too far above; I can see everything and sort of swoop in and out. I wanted that feeling because I think that is what interests me about being a part of life, of the world, that there is all of this stuff going on all at the same time. I am, I think, 99% curiosity. I mean, I would not hesitate to put a glass to a door to try and listen to a conversation going on on the other side. I’m living in a duplex apartment right now and I’m so interested in the noises overhead, trying to figure out what’s happening. So that’s what I really am interested in. And that is where the narrative point of view came from for The Thin Place.

You’re eavesdropping on the cosmos.

And looking at it. Someone said it was like looking at a drop of water under a microscope and seeing everything teeming. I feel like that’s it, that you focus on this, focus on that, get a better look at this person’s face, what this person is saying to that person, what this cat is thinking as it scampers off.

I think part of the strength of your novels is that they embody a sense of freedom, a liberated imagination. Art is all about freedom, yet so many artists and writers in our culture -- a culture that undervalues art and is threatened by art -- tend to hold back, to settle for being merely entertaining, predictable. Your novels feel unfettered, and that is a thrill.

It makes me so happy to hear you say that. I’ve also always thought that there would be no point in doing this if I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, of course taking into account that I want people to read what I write. I don’t want to feel confined by any sense of, “If I wrote this kind of a book I would gain a wider audience.” The reason I write is to be able to exercise that sort of freedom of the imagination, see where it takes me, and learn more about myself and the world and the people around me.

The Thin Place is full of prose poems, lush paragraphs in which you tell us all about a certain animal, or a plant. Did you read a lot of natural history or science textbooks?

Some. But The Thin Place is much less researched than say, Versailles. I would occasionally look something up when I wanted a piece of factual information. Someone had given me a really wonderful book, a field guide to the life in and around ponds and streams, and I just loved that book and used it for the names of the little microscopic creatures living in the water. I’m obsessed with murder mysteries and cookbooks and field guides. I love field guides. I love to look up something that you’ve found in the world and you want to know what it is. And I’ve also read them thinking, “Maybe one day I’ll see one of those, if I’m lucky.”

So in The Thin Place we have all this life, all these organisms, all this activity, and we also have cosmology. We have a church, a school, an old persons’ home...
 
The key institutions.

And a trinity of girls on the brink of womanhood. I’m guessing one of them, Lorna, who is hoping to be a writer and who is reading Agatha Christie, is closest to you.
 
She is. After I created those three girls and set them loose in the book, it was clear to me that I had used pieces of me and my friends. And ever since I was very young, I’ve often found myself in trios, which is a difficult combination for girls, starting with the street I grew up on with Peggy and Ellen, where we used to fight with one another about who was going to be Nancy when we played Nancy Drew. None of us really lines up precisely with Sunny, Mees, and Lorna in The Thin Place. I put a little bit of myself into each of them, and a little bit of other friends I’ve had over the years so that they’re composites. In some ways I identify with Lorna, and in some ways Lorna is very much like my friend Elaine, an adult friend of mine. There are unattractive qualities in Sunny that I feel I share, so it’s a mixture.

The Thin Place runs on several time tracks, the present seen from various perspectives, and different layers of the past, some geologic, some illuminated in a diary kept during the 1800s. And you work on different scales, from the cosmic perspective, the bird’s-eye-view, and the microscopic. This simultaneity is the ultimate realism.

I do think it’s very realistic.

The Thin Place is lavishly plotted, but there is also a metaphysical discussion going on. I’m intrigued with your interest in the soul. Versailles is narrated by your fictionalized version of Marie Antoinette, and the novel’s opening sentence is: “My soul is going on a trip.”

I guess that’s another of my preoccupations, and I think that one goes back as far as I can remember. I remember hearing about the fact that we have a soul when I was a very little child. I went to church with my parents and didn’t understand what a soul was, but I thought about it a lot, and about the fact that I was alive. I was obsessed with the idea that there was something about me that might continue after I died, and it upset me. I became kind of an insomniac, worried about the idea of forever and ever. That the soul would endure forever just seemed horrifying. It’s something I have thought about obsessively my whole life long, and I’m really interested in what it is that gives us life, that makes us not just be a table. So, that’s very interesting to me, and I guess you should write about what interests you. I’m always going to write about that even if I’m trying very hard to stop myself from doing it.

That explains a lot of what goes on in The Thin Place. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Mees, who is named after a river, has a gift, a power that depends on the idea of a thin place, of being able to cross over between worlds of the living and the dead. You write about animal souls as well as human souls. Your cats and beavers embody intelligence and spirit, and you refer to Inuit stories, which are based on the belief that animals are wholly sentient beings. This was a nearly universal belief in pre-industrial cultures.

I think I’ve always believed it, too. My parents did a lot of things wrong, frankly, but one thing they did right was to instill in us early on a love of animals. My father was also a gardener.

Certainly we knew that when you look into an animal’s eyes, you see the light of more than brute force. And the beavers, well, that is a very autobiographic part of the book. I don’t think I’ve talked about this, but I lived by a pond in Vermont that was fed by a larger lake. It’s a very beautiful pond with a waterfall, one of the beauty spots of the village, and people come and take pictures of it. When beavers built a dam at the lip of the big lake, the water stopped flowing into the pond, and so the pond, just like in The Thin Place, turned into a kind of mud bog. Everybody was very upset, so the neighborhood banded together. First we dismantled the beavers’ dam, and it was very hard to do. You had to put on work gloves because they put in frighteningly sharp things as the beavers became increasingly determined to prevent us from dismantling the dam. So we would take the dam down and the water would come in, and the pond would start to fill up, and then everybody would go to sleep, and while we were asleep the beavers would go out and build the dam back up again. And what happened was, me, the great animal lover, became filled with murderous hate for the beavers. Then we hired a beaver trapper, and he put some traps in the pond, and that didn’t work. The beavers are quite devious, it turns out. I finally gave up, and just decided I wasn’t going to worry about it any more, but I hadn’t changed my opinion of the beavers. When I started to write about the beavers in the book, though, I was appalled that I’d ever wanted to murder the beavers. I became really interested in their lives and the grace of their project even though it was so infuriating, and I felt horrible that I’d contributed any money to hire the beaver trapper.

This makes me think about the brilliant biologist, E. O. Wilson, who has written brilliantly about animal architecture, including beaver dams. And about biophilia, humankind’s affinity for other living beings, our love and need for animals. Yet in spite of our innate biophilia, we’ve been engaged, since the dawn of human consciousness, in a great campaign against animals, not only killing them, but also destroying their habitats. You write about this with great sensitivity in The Thin Place.

It really does break my heart every time I hear about an animal that is either extinct or nearing extinction. I’m living in St. Louis now, and I live within walking distance of Forest Park, which is where the zoo is located. It’s a great zoo and it’s free, so you can just stroll in and take a look. I like to watch the guy feed the penguins. But a lot of the animals there are animals on the verge of extinction, and it’s really upsetting.

It’s so hard to address this overtly in fiction without betraying the story.

As you mentioned earlier, I certainly didn’t want to write a polemic. I would never want to do that, and I hope that my concerns are sufficiently interwoven with my wish to be telling a story and creating an interesting world.

Not only do you avoid preachiness, you also manage to be funny even while contemplating the dark side.

I think that one way you create humor is to combine the sense of the darkness of the world combined with an interest in or curiosity about life. This is what I inherited from my father, who took a very dim view of certain aspects of our existence, but also took delight in the way the dachshund looked running across the floor.

There resides hope, I would say, in the imagination, in our ability to discern beauty under nearly any circumstances, and to find humor, too, even in grim situations. To be able to recognize how absurd life is, how hilarious, how wonderfully, wickedly entertaining it all is. These traits are part of our survival instincts, I’m sure.

Hope is a good word. I can feel very, very pessimistic. Even hopeless, with hope meaning being able to look ahead and imagine that there is a future. I do think that in the particulars of the world around us, if we don’t stamp them all out and destroy them, there is cause for hope.

I think hope resides, too, in precisely the sensibility that you bring to your novels, a vital curiosity, a persistent habit of looking outside ourselves and enjoying the whole experience of being alive, the dark and the light. I think it’s quite an artistic feat to be able to convey this state of mind and spirit in a novel.

I’m glad it comes across.

Many booklovers worry that the novel is losing ground in our culture. What is your impression of the state of the novel? Are people reading novels, do you hear from readers?

I do hear from some readers. I’ve been really happy with the response to this book because it seems as though more people have laid their hands on it and are reading it with more interest and enthusiasm. I’ve had conversations with people who say to me, as if I will share with them their astonishment that they’ve read the book, “I’ve never heard of you but I really like your book!” So that’s encouraging.

I know that there’s been a lot of talk pro and con about Oprah’s Book Club, but I think that she’s done a great service for literature. Certainly some of the books she’s gotten people reading are remarkable, and that is cause for hope. I’m very sad that all the little independent booksellers are collapsing under the weight of the megastores, but then the fact that there are the megastores and people buying the books in them is good. So I don’t know that I can generalize. I think that students tend to be more film-literate than book-literate, and I don’t know what that’s going to mean for the future of literature.

Books are the perfect object, the perfect media, the perfect art form, and I just have to believe they’re going to continue to exist. I love film too, but I believe the best films are based on good writing. And I believe that culture will remain inclusive. Television didn’t destroy radio, DVDs and computer games won’t replace books.

I think that’s true, and I also don’t believe that anything can replace the actual object of the book, because people don’t like to read on computer screens, they don’t like to just print stuff out and have a big pile of papers that can blow away. A book is a very satisfying object. The last time I was in New York City, everybody on the subway was reading. That made me feel cheerful. So it doesn’t seem like people have stopped reading books, but something is changing, maybe in ways that are bad, and maybe in ways that are good and interesting, or, the two together.

Each art form does something that other art forms can’t, and, to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, what literature, the most intimate form, does better than anything else is reveal the workings of the mind, and let us experience what it’s like to be in someone else’s head.

That’s why I like books and writing, too, because you can have that and you can convey that to someone else’s imagination. Literature is the communication between imaginations.

Another thing about reading that’s so satisfying is that you’re recreating the book as you read it, and everyone reads a different book.

That’s right, and every time you read something, you recreate it differently. I’ve been very much enjoying rereading my favorite books from the past. You can see how you have changed when you return to something that you’ve read when you were eighteen years old. I’ve been rereading Anna Karenina in the new translation. It’s just phenomenally good. I read Anna Karenina for the first time, idiotically, when I was in sixth grade because it was the thickest book I could find, and because it had a girl’s name for the title. But I didn’t even know what the word “adultery” meant, so I read this entire bazillion-page book without having any idea what it was about.

And yet you got something out of it, a lot really.

Yes, and I still love Tolstoy, although now I see more of what he’s doing than what I did then. And I still love all the stuff about the dresses, the dresses are good.

 

Donna Seaman is an associate editor at Booklist, and host of the radio program “Open Books” on WLUW. Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books.