Author Interviews
3:21 am
Sun April 6, 2014

Lydia Davis' New Collection Has Stories Shorter Than This Headline

Originally published on Sun April 6, 2014 11:49 am

The writer Lydia Davis has released a new collection of short stories — and, in her trademark style, some of them are really short stories. Here's "Contingency (vs. Necessity)" in its entirety:

He could be our dog. But he is not our dog. So he barks at us.

And the title story of the collection, Can't And Won't:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can't and won't.

Davis' works may be short, but her list of accolades is long. She's won some of literature's most prestigious awards, including the Man Booker International Prize and a MacArthur "genius" grant.

She talks to NPR's Rachel Martin about dreams, stage fright and what she does when she gets bored with literature.


Interview Highlights

On the moment when she realized that she didn't need to write long to write well

I can date that pretty precisely to the fall of 1973. So I was 26 years old and I had just been reading the short stories or the prose poems of Russell Edson. And for some reason, I was sparked by those. I thought, "These are fun to read, and provocative and interesting, and I'd like to try this." So I set myself the challenge of writing two very short stories every day just to see what would happen.

On whether the plot of "Can't and Won't" happened to her, and she was rejected for a prize because of her contractions

It would have been very funny if I had been. That would have been a very peculiar reason — but it was a dream. And I thought it was a great dream, so I wrote it down.

On how she knows when to end a story

I think I have a sense right in the beginning of how big an idea it is and how much room it needs, and, almost more importantly, how long it would sustain anybody's interest. And that's sometimes been a problem with a story when it's sort of offered me two ways that it could go, and I have to choose one or the other.

On whether she ever lengthens or shortens her stories

Sometimes. The last story in the book, called "Ph.D," is really only one line long, and that started as, say, a paragraph. ... "All these years, I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D." A friend of mine had that dream — who does safely and securely have a Ph.D. But she would dream over and over that there was one crucial exam she had not taken.

On the longest story in the collection, called "The Letter to the Foundation"

The plot is that a woman — and I think of her as a sort of sad academic — she's been given a much-coveted grant and thinks, sort of unrealistically, that now she will be able to stop teaching. Teaching is very difficult for her. And of course that's modeled on my own experience. I find teaching — I like it, but I find just walking into the classroom and facing the students very difficult.

... A lot of that was exactly echoing my own feelings riding up on the bus — I insisted on taking the bus rather than my car, I don't know why — to the university and wishing there'd be a minor accident. You know, a flat tire or something. Nobody would get hurt, but somehow it would prevent the class happening. ... The stage fright was enormously difficult. So the five or 10 minutes before the class were agony.

On the narrator's state of mind in the story "Not Interested"

It starts almost with her little job of carrying sticks to the woodpile in the backyard, a job that she normally doesn't mind in some kind of philosophical meditative way. But really one day she's just infinitely bored by it, can't stand to do it and doesn't do it.

And I'm making a parallel here with certain kinds of reading and writing in the literary world. Just tired of it. And I was a little worried about this piece because it's so negative about writing, and because perhaps I should have left it in a drawer, I don't know. [The story's last paragraph:]

Actually, I don't mean I'm bored by old novels and books of stories if they're good. Just new ones — good or bad. I feel like saying: Please spare me your imagination, I'm so tired of your vivid imagination, let someone else enjoy it. That's how I'm feeling these days, anyway, maybe it will pass.

Well, at least I say, "let someone else enjoy it." I can imply that it may be enjoyable and it's just me. I think that's what it really was.

On how she gets over bouts of feeling bored with writing

They just pass by themselves. I mean, I say in the course of the story, sort of apologetically, I think, "Well, sometimes I get tired of my own thoughts, too." And I suppose then, you want to be able to go into a truly meditative state where your mind is empty. That would be nice.

... It doesn't last long. It's a very momentary thing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The writer, Lydia Davis, has released a new collection of short stories. Some so short, they are just one or two lines.

LYDIA DAVIS: This one is called "Contingency versus Necessity." He could be our dog, but he is not our dog. So he barks at us.

MARTIN: That's Lydia Davis reading from her book "Can't and Won't." It's the latest from a writer who has won some of literature's most prestigious awards, including the Man Booker Prize and a MacArthur genius grant. Davis comes from a distinguished literary family. Her parents were both writers and teachers. I asked her, when she began to realize that she didn't need to write long in order to write well?

DAVIS: I can date that pretty precisely to the fall of 1973. So I was 26 years old, and I had just been reading the short stories, or the prose poems, of Russell Edson. And for some reason, I was sparked by those. I thought these are fun to read and provocative and interesting. And I'd like to try this. So I set myself the challenge of writing two very short stories every day just to see what would happen.

MARTIN: The title of your book is "Can't and Won't," which is the title of one of the stories in the collection. Would you mind reading that piece?

DAVIS: I'd be happy to. I was recently denied a writing prize because they said I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions. For instance, I would not write out in full, the words can not and will not but instead contracted them to can't and won't.

MARTIN: Did this happen to you? Were you rejected from a writing prize because of your contractions?

DAVIS: It would have been very funny if I had been. That would have been a very peculiar reason, but it was a dream. And I thought it was a great dream, so I wrote it down.

MARTIN: It has particular resonance, though, with your history because you did grow up in a family that put a premium on language and grammar. I imagine that if this were to have happened, that it would have been quite an insult that someone would suggest that your choice of words were lazy. Is that something you would take personally?

DAVIS: I might have when I was in my early 20s or 'teens. At this point, I would find it so outrageous that I would almost enjoy it.

MARTIN: So my question out of that is how do you know when to stop because I read that story and I thought well, that's an interesting moment. But that could also be the beginning of a novel or a longer essay. How do you know when an idea is fully fleshed out?

DAVIS: I think I have a sense right in the beginning of how big an idea it is and how much room it needs. And almost more importantly, how long it would sustain anybody's interest. And that's sometimes been a problem with a story when it's sort of offered me two ways that it could go. And I have to choose one or the other.

MARTIN: Do you ever go back to make something longer or to shorten something?

DAVIS: Sometimes. The last story in the book called "PhD" is really only one line long, and that started as say, a paragraph.

MARTIN: Can you read that one, or perhaps you can recite that from memory?

DAVIS: I wouldn't dare. All these years, I thought I had a PhD. But I do not have a PhD. A friend of mine had that dream, who does safely and securely have a PhD. But she would dream over and over, you know, that there was one crucial exam she had not taken.

MARTIN: You do include a couple longer pieces. The longest, I believe, is about 20 pages or so called "The Letter to the Foundation."

DAVIS: Yes.

MARTIN: Can you explain the gist of that story?

DAVIS: The plot is that a woman - and I think of her as a sort of sad academic. She's been given a much coveted grant, and thinks, sort of unrealistically, that now she will be able to stop teaching. Teaching is very difficult for her, and of course that's modeled on my own experience. I find teaching - I like it, but it's - I find just walking into the classroom and facing the students very difficult.

MARTIN: She does seem sad, and she seems absolutely desperate to find some kind of lifeline out of the teaching profession. Were you ever that desperate to get out of teaching?

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. A lot of that was exactly echoing my own feelings. Riding up on the bus - I insisted on taking a bus rather than my car, I don't know why - to the university. And wishing there'd be a minor accident, you know, a flat tire or something. Nobody would get hurt but somehow it'd prevent the class happening.

MARTIN: Why?

DAVIS: As I say, the stage fright was enormously difficult.

MARTIN: Ah, stage fright.

>>DAVIS. So the - yeah, the five or 10 minutes before the class were agony.

MARTIN: Lastly, I'd like to ask you about the idea of inspiration, kind of pegged to your story called "Not Interested." Could you summarize the narrator's state of mind in this piece?

DAVIS: It starts, almost, with her little job of carrying sticks to the woodpile in the backyard. A job that she normally doesn't mind in some kind of philosophical, meditative way. But really one day she's just infinitely bored by it and can't stand to do it and doesn't do it. And I'm making a parallel here with certain kinds of reading and writing in the literary world. Just - she's tired of it. And I was a little worried about this piece because it's so negative about writing, and perhaps I should have left it in a drawer. I don't know.

MARTIN: Would you mind reading the last paragraph of that story?

DAVIS: OK. Actually, I don't mean I'm bored by old novels and books of stories, if they're good, just new ones. Good or bad. I feel like saying please, spare me your imagination. I'm so tired of your vivid imagination. Let someone else enjoy it. That's how I'm feeling these days anyway. Maybe it will pass. Well, at least I say let someone else enjoy it. I can imply that it may be enjoyable, and it's just me. I think that's what it really was.

MARTIN: How do you get over those bouts?

DAVIS: They just pass by themselves. I mean, I say in the course of the story - sort of apologetically, I think - well, sometimes I get tired of my own thoughts, too. And I suppose then you want to be able to go into a truly meditative state where your mind is empty. That would be nice.

MARTIN: Isn't that a little dangerous for a writer? I mean, at the end of the day, you have to believe that you're thinking big thoughts. You're thinking something that is going to inspire someone. If you get sick of yourself and what's going on in your head, how do you keep writing?

DAVIS: Well, it doesn't last long. I mean it's - it's a very momentary thing.

MARTIN: The writer Lydia Davis, her new collection of short stories is called "Can't and Won't." She joined us from our studios in New York. Lydia, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us and share your readings.

DAVIS: It was very nice. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.