An Interview with Deborah Kay Davies
Deborah Kay Davies took a roundabout route to writing: in her thirties, after working for years in other jobs, she took an English literature course, before going on to study English and then creative writing at Cardiff University. Her first poetry collection, Things You Think I Don't Know, was published in 2006. Her next book, a collection of linked short stories about the intimate, antagonistic relationship between two sisters, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, was published in 2008 and went on to win Wales Book of the Year. Her first novel, True Things About Me, is the seductively simple, creepy, and darkly funny story of a woman who becomes obsessed with an abusive but charming bastard.
I love Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, possibly because I have a younger sister and it captures perfectly how weird and intimate sister relationships can be. You've said elsewhere that these were originally independent stories; how fully-formed were the characters in the original stories who became Grace and Tamar? How much work did you have to do to fill in their relationship and the overarching story?
I wrote the stories for my Ph.D. Initially, the stories were varied -- different girls, older women, families, etc. When my editor (now my husband, Norman Schwenk) and I began shaping the stories into a collection, we quickly realised that the strongest strand was about two sisters. We allocated narratives to each and then I wrote three or four new stories to create a satisfying arc and fill in the gaps. So, in a way, they were fully formed in my mind very early on, I just didn't know it. I found it very easy to write the new stories, even though in some cases there had been a gap of six, maybe seven years between them and the originals.
You've said before that True Things About Me started as a short story that you then expanded. Where do you usually start a story? With an image or an idea, or a character? Does it come from the same place as a poem?
It's different every time. Sometimes I'll know the ending of a story, and work up to it. Sometimes I have an image (probably nasty) in my mind and ask myself who would act this way? And as soon as I've decided, I'm away.
Following on from that, is there one form you feel more or less comfortable in? You started off writing poetry and then moved into prose, but do you enjoy one more than the other? And do you always know which shape an idea should take?
All my instincts to write -- whatever it is -- short story, poem, or something longer, all come from the same place. Though to write a poem is the most intense, exhilarating experience of all. I thank the gods when it happens. And yes, I always know which genre I will write a particular thing in.
You started writing after going back to study English literature, having had other careers first. Do you think that makes a difference to how you write, and do you think it's inevitable that eventually you would have started writing?
I don't know the answer to that question. It is terrifying to imagine what my life would be like now if I hadn't stumbled into my writing. Probably mad by now, seriously. I knew I wanted to try creative writing when I started my lit degree. It was a second year option at Cardiff Uni at the time, but I had no idea it was the thing I could do. The course at Cardiff, all the way through, from BA to Ph.D. was incredibly nurturing and exciting. It quite truthfully blew my life apart.
Both of these books contain great dialogue. Especially in True Things About Me, the narrator and her friend Allison have a lot of conversations that are the same way conversations are in life: shorthand and filler, but with lots of meaning in it. They talk like people who've known each other since school, which they have. So you've got a great ear for how people talk to each other, and I wondered if you're aware of paying attention to how people speak?
Well, of course I'm a disgustingly nosy person. I love to listen to people just chuntering away. And I talk a lot myself. I get such a buzz from writing dialogue. It's a priceless way of revealing character, and so many other things, without having to deliver great creaking chunks of blah blah blah.
Both books seem to describe private or internal worlds: in Grace and Tamar, it's the private world of the two sisters who aren't conventionally "close," but still revolve around each other at a distance, and then in True Things it's someone who finds herself in a private world of obsession. There's a sense that other people are on the outside of these worlds, that they don't really understand. Is this sense of private worlds something that you intended?
Yes. To create an atmosphere that is both particular to my protagonist and inclusive for the reader is what I want. I'm fascinated with the idea of looking at things so closely that they become weird. Everything does, if you do. I want to write about the weirdness of so-called ordinary lives. They are so rich and startling. We're all alone, trying to make sense of ourselves and each other. That's what motivates me to write. That struggle to be human.
This might be a silly question, but in True Things did you consciously not give the narrator a name, or did it just end up that way? And if so what was the thinking in avoiding naming her?
I didn't want to give her a name. She is an everywoman, I think. She could be you or me. Anyone could be pushed or galvanised into anything, given the right set of triggers. I wanted to supply those triggers, light the blue touch paper, and stand close.
You won Wales Book of the Year in 2009. Is it important to you that you're a Welsh writer, or do you not think about it much in those terms?
I do not think of myself as a Welsh writer. I am a writer who is Welsh. I love being Welsh, it's who I am, I can't be anything else, that's all I can say! It was absolutely wonderful to win Wales Book Of The Year of course.
Who are other writers you admire, and have you got any influences? Or anyone you'd recommend?
Writers I love... mmmmm... Annie Proulx, William Boyd, Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, E. Nesbit, Mary Oliver, Lorrie Moore, Mary Renault, Dodie Smith, Olivia Manning, R.L. Stevenson...