A Survey of Writers on Contemporary Writers
Listening to writers read and discuss their work at Newtonville Books, the bookstore my wife and I own outside Boston, I began to wonder which living, contemporary writers held the most influence over their work. This survey is not meant to be comprehensive, but is the result of my posing the question to as many writers as I could ask.
© Emma Dodge Hanson
MAUD CASEY: With Kathryn Davis there’s a wonderfully strange, smart sensibility at work—hers is roving and odd, too, mystical even. In The Thin Place, everything—dogs, the cosmos, people, nature—gets its due, is given equal attention. But the influence her work has had is even more specific than that. Her novel Versailles was a big part of how I began thinking about the *range* of historical fiction and, in particular, the sort of historical fiction that imagines its way into the gaps, wedges its way into the history we know and cracks it open. Here, Davis imagines her way into Marie Antoinette’s soul, for god’s sake! And so springs her from her corset of facts. I was—am—amazed by the daring of that book, but also by its careful, deliberate attention to the facts. That novel enters into a conversation with the facts, and in the end, the novel says: there is more to our lives than just the facts. But the facts—all the incredibly intricate, beautiful details Davis has clearly researched about Versailles itself—are crucial to this vision. The facts juxtaposed with the soul that eludes the anchoring impulse of facts. That novel was a big part of how I found my way into the novel I am finally (!) finishing. Davis’ boldness in general has had an important influence on my recent development as a writer, I’d say. I mean, one is always, like it or not, kicking and screaming, developing as a writer. Davis has an amazing sense of architecture in her novels as well. Every work invents the novel all over again. Hell, for example, with its three weird households juxtaposed and circling one another—a dollhouse, a 1950s family, and the cottage of a nineteenth-century expert on domestic management. There’s a lot of artifice but everything—a la the Julian of Norwich mystical thread in The Thin Place—is alive.
DAWN TRIPP: Kathryn Davis kicks all the windows open. That was the thought I couldn’t shake when I discovered her work. Nearly fifteen years ago, a close friend pressed her copy of The Walking Tour into my hands and said, “This book will say something to you.” I was writing my own first novel when I was drawn into the spell of Davis’s fourth book. The Walking Tour was unlike anything I had read in contemporary American fiction—a fiercely imagined novel with sophisticated wit and the deft, twisting drive of a mystery. Halfway through, the story slips into a courtroom drama that, page by page, assumes the hallucinatory air of speculative fiction, exploring art, obsession, and the ways we make and unmake the real.
I remember, as I read, feeling that I was in the presence of a formidable intelligence, an unfettered mind. The narrative style defied category and genre, each page infused with stunning life. This is what art is, I remember thinking, and as I hit the last lines: “For God’s sake,” she told him, “it’s not like it’s the end of the world,” I closed the book and had that disorienting sense that everything I had been taught paled against this.
And so Kathryn Davis’s body of work became a kind of living mentor to me. After The Walking Tour, I went back and read her first three books. A few years later, I consumed Versailles as soon as it came out. Ditto for The Thin Place, and her most recent novel, Duplex. Each of her books is a world unto its own. But there is a common integrity of voice; the same far-reaching, nimble consciousness; the same thrilling strangeness; the same sheer driving narrative power. Her stories are highly structured, but not in traditional linear ways. There are detours that give her sinewy prose a kind of shimmer so that, reading, you feel transported and, more essentially, changed.
Her books cannot be pinned down into synopses of event. It might be tempting to describe Versailles, for example, as an historical novel of Marie Antoinette, but that hardly captures the bold, prescient voice of the young queen; or the spellbinding meditation on the interstices of fate and desire and the recyclable nature of the soul. If you tried to explain The Thin Place as a coming-of-age novel, you would miss the searing magic of this book and the virtuosic skill of Davis’s story, shot through with a fervent passion for life and keen observations of the natural world—at once mercurial and precise—where what is tragic and comic, sacred and profane, human and divine merge into a singular, cogent piece of art.
Because Davis’s work is art. It has that breathing, beating life that great work does. It is a rare fusion of consummate storytelling and real spiritual concerns: Why are we here? Where are we going? What is the consequence of our improvident and very human self-absorption? Our refusal to let the world in?
When you enter a Kathryn Davis novel, you enter a different country of the mind, and when you put the book down and move into your day, you notice you are seeing things differently. The world shivers. You are dizzy with it. What was ordinary a few hours before has assumed an altogether new intensity and range of color. You notice, for example, something transcendent in the pattern of dust on a windowsill. You see how light rips a blade of grass. You feel the hurtling sky. You are keenly aware that life is right here, right now—glittering always—intimate and eternal both.
Davis’s books do this. They are hypnotic stories that entertain and at the same time insist that we turn and open to the world and let it blow through us—so we see, really see, that the simple ordinary moments we blunder right past are thin windows to the infinite.
Over the years, as I’ve considered the impact of Davis’s work, I am always struck by the manner in which it shifts my thoughts. It digs, demands, and questions. It inspires. It also reminds me—and this is harder to admit—of risks I may not have taken yet. In the course of my career, I have worked to stay true to my leadings as an artist, but when I sit with Davis’s stories—the depth and brazen scope of her vision, the dreamlike immediacy of her stories, the way she draws together so many disparate elements into one taut, nuanced, driving whole—it reminds me that more is possible. In fact, it may be precisely that myriad aspect of Davis’s work that gives her books their revelatory power, allowing us to hear in a more defined way what we are called to do in our own work and lives. Her stories glint with ulterior life, and their very complexity has the curious upshot of shaking you into place. Davis shape-shifts the world as we know it and, in that altered vision, we can see not only how things are, but how they could be.
© Kasia Boddy
ELIZABETH CRANE:I’m pretty sure I came to the work of Lydia Davis not long after I had started writing short stories, but suffice it to say that as soon as I read her, her name went on my short list of writers I wished I could be but knew better than to try. I’ve included Lydia Davis stories in my reading packets for students, and though I teach only creative writing workshops, I recall some lively class discussions about whether some of her works were stories at all. I come down on the side of stories, of course—even the very shortest ones, sometimes just a sentence, paired with the title, always give me everything I need to know to fill in what might be left out—but I understand the inclination to debate it. What she does is so original, so completely Lydia Davis, as to almost create a new form. The story “Almost Over: Separate Bedrooms” is three sentences long, about a couple that is at the end of their relationship. At night, each has different dreams, indicating their distance. There’s nothing more to it, but it is so carefully edited, so carefully considered, that I can easily imagine their entire lifetime together that has led this couple to this moment.
Over the years I have written to many of the writers I have admired, to express my admiration and gratitude. In the course of publishing my own work, I have had occasion to meet many of these people in person. When I was teaching at the University of Chicago, I was invited with the rest of the faculty to attend dinner with Davis, who was a visiting writer; I declined. I thought—there’s no way I’m not going to make a dork of myself in the presence of Lydia Davis; even if I were to be seated at the farthest end of a long dinner table from Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis will from that distance recognize that I am an incompetent fool, unable to carry on a proper conversation about literature or anything else, my employers will in turn recognize my incompetent foolishness, and I will then be released from my contract and banished from academia altogether based on my inarticulate Lydia Davis fandom. I shook her hand after her talk, told her I was a fan, and went home. I will probably live to regret this; I think I already do. But I knew that Lydia Davis had already given me everything I needed from her. Reading her work, I knew that if it was okay for her to do what she did, it was probably okay for me to do what I do as well.
KATHERINE HILL: If you ask around, just about every living writer has had a Lydia Davis moment, that electrifying epiphany that fiction can be like this. A decade after I digested “Meat, My Husband” on the DC Metro, I’m still trembling from mine, still trying to emulate her in a million little ways. Davis writes pieces of genius that might be called any number of things: story-poems, fables, monologues, dialogues, letters, confessions, laments, studies, arguments, riddles, jokes, aphorisms, clippings, koans, lists. Yet however many categories we hurl at her, her writing defies classification. Better to say her small fictions are supremely intelligent, frequently witty, strange, and often sad. That many are briefer than this paragraph, and that collectively, they chronicle the idiosyncrasies of the personal, the great, quiet drama of possessing a conscious self. “Like a tropical storm,” reads one of my favorites in its entirety, “I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’”
REBECCA MAKKAI: The rest of us have our microscopes set to 40x magnification. It was the in lab manual we received the first day. But when the teacher isn’t looking, Lydia Davis changes her setting to 40,000x. When we glance up again from our own blurry slides, she has swung the aperture and eyepiece toward the sky to fashion her own telescope. We check the assignment. This was not part of the assignment. She has taken the worksheet and burned it to ash, and put the ash on a slide. And this is her answer to worksheet question #4. The rest of us, the solid B students in the class, wonder if we could get away with this. We suspect we couldn’t. Still, the next time the teacher is distracted, we’d like to try. Lydia Davis is messing with the condenser now, and the light source too. Now she’s flipped the lens. Look what she’s sketched in her lab report, miraculous and precise: the inside of her own eye.
SHELLY ORIA: In 2006, Lydia Davis made me quit translating. I was at Sarah Lawrence, it was my second semester. We read Examples of Confusion and the assignment was to write our own Examples of Something. What was it about that piece that told me it was time to jump, that gave me the courage to jump?
I grew up in Israel—in Tel Aviv, mainly. When I was in the military I met a man I thought I would love for the rest of my life (and did end up loving for many years) and because we fell in love so hard and because we were too young to know how young we were, we got married. We had a fascination with American culture—I’d been born in L.A. and always felt I would one day be back—and we went on a coast-to-coast road trip for six months and decided to move to New York. Or, rather: he got into business school. That’s another way to tell that story. I was telling everyone I would soon be going to grad school myself; I was going to pursue my MFA in fiction. Oh, you write fiction in English? people would ask time and again. It was a logical question. But it was completely mysterious to me then. I’ve been writing since I was ten, I would say every time; I speak English. I would squint and the person would squint back, not sure if I had a strange sense of humor or was just not particularly sharp.
In New York, we lived in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and the city was so new to us it seemed to be getting bigger every day. I took on the task of translating my work from Hebrew so I could put together a portfolio. This was a thing that needed to be done, the way you make a meal when you’re hungry; there wasn’t much spirit to it. Another story and another would get translated, then sent to my sweet cousin in L.A., a 6th grade English teacher. She would say this comma shouldn’t be here, this hyphen shouldn’t be here, beguiled doesn’t mean what you think it means. She would say crutch and crotch are different, you keep confusing them. I would make corrections and move to the next story.
By the time I was introduced to Lydia Davis—ironically also one of the best translators in the Western world—I had taught myself to rely on translation. For workshop, I would write a story in Hebrew and translate it, and my biggest achievement was that sometimes I’d be wild and not show it to my cousin. I now knew in my bones, in my fingers, what those squinters were asking me. They were asking if I could write fiction in my second language. And perhaps I couldn’t. Perhaps I needed to admit that and drop out of the program I’d worked so hard to get into.
This is what a Lydia Davis story tells a reader: let’s try something new. What a special gift that is, isn’t it? I remember sitting in that Hell’s Kitchen apartment, reading Examples of Confusion again and again and again, my breath getting away from me, ahead of me. What was this thing? A list of confusions? A map of the human psyche? A story?
Listen here, Lydia was telling me, language will take on any shape you give it; dare to be your own sculptor. I’d never had a story say that to me before, and had had very few stories altogether speak to me directly. So I listened. And the next day, I tried something new.
AURELIE SHEEHAN: I am trying to read a Lydia Davis story so I can appreciate it for you on the page, but eight men are outside my house cutting down a telephone pole, my dog is barking at the men, and my skull is beginning to compress my brain into a squished painful mush. I submit: Lydia Davis’s stories know about the men and the dog and the squished painful mush, and instead of turning away from those elements—those distractions, pressures, vagrant insistent realities—she incorporates them into her work. She shortens the line between subject and object. Her fiction gives the impression of being stripped raw from her head—artifice, yes, but also confession. Davis analyzes life because life is analyzing her, hounding her, harassing her. So she confronts. En garde! She has discarded all the fluff; she hugs subject to herself. Yet the writer is vulnerable to the loud and testy realities. They might knock her down. They might drown her. So she fights back. Her work comes out of pure necessity.
Davis has been there over the past couple of decades as I conceive of my own work. She’s played a role in the formation of a new kind of short story, a story that leans not on dramatized life but on association, on thought and direct experience. When you look at a painting you are swept up all at once in the painting. It is the same with a Lydia Davis story. The brevity of some of her pieces is revolutionary, as well as the insistence of the I, like a little harpoon. She is not writing prose poems. She is not writing flash fiction. She is not writing short shorts. She is not writing miniatures. She is not writing story-ettes or donut holes. She is writing eight men in bright green outfits and dogs on flawed missions of impossible control.
© The New York Times
CHARLES BOCK: DeLillo is colossal in my pantheon, and it’s a decent bet that half the writers in this collection stopped at his river and drank deeply. “The chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction” is what he was once called. But it’s so much more than paranoia. The speed and clarity and menacing humor of those sentences. The vision of how the fringe pulled and pulled and unraveled the center. By my thinking, that trio of White Noise, Libra, and Mao II, which he published in succession, is an unfathomable accomplishment, not just a high mark of fiction for the last thirty years, but a huge marking point for where fiction would go. For me those novels refined the manner in which I saw the world, and DeLillo is a writer who taught me how to think.
ALIX OHLIN: Like a lot of people who graduated from college in the early to mid-nineties, I was in love with Don DeLillo as a young writer. I was so taken with the intellectual absurdism of his work, the distinctive cadences of its language, its deadpan dialogue, and its deft, often funny critique of American culture. I wanted to write a book like Great Jones Street or The Names. So the first novel I tried to write was a love story, set in the near future, between the Prime Minister of Canada (I’m Canadian) and the President of the United States, who meet as children when both their families are on vacation at a motel in the Adirondacks. There was a lot of material about water rights, and also dams. It is perhaps not necessary to add that it was terrible. Before too long I figured out that only Don DeLillo is able to be and write like Don DeLillo, and I would have to find a different territory to make my own.
JESS WALTER: My idea of what a writer could do, book-to-book, was changed by Don DeLillo’s string of four mid-career novels, White Noise, Libra, Mao II and Underworld. First, the books themselves are remarkable: written in deadpan, incantatory style, they manage to be entertaining while existing as near-perfect explorations of the sub-surfaces of American life and culture. Also, I think, I saw the idea of a writer developing and growing by writing books which may have been very different in tone and style and narrative, but which constituted an almost philosophical exploration of a larger subject—in DeLillo’s case, the undertow of American life and history.
CHARLES YU: My freshman year at Berkeley, I read Don DeLillo’s White Noise for a class. It was the first book I’d ever read that felt like it was taking place right at the moment I was reading it. That was 1993, and I believe the book was published in 1985, and so it was contemporary in that literal sense of having been written very recently. It was more than that, though—it was the first time I realized that a book could be about supermarkets, and television, and consumer culture (What can I say? I was a naive teenager). The airborne toxic event chapter was what stayed with me, throughout the rest of the year and beyond. But before that there was a moment when I realized I wanted to write, and it’s probably not hard to guess what it is: the chapter, relatively early in the book, about the most photographed barn in America.
© The New York Times
ELISA ALBERT: Diaz is such a natural stylist, an old school wordsmith. He makes it look easy. There’s a fluency, a real looseness and exuberance, a sense of fun. He’s bending language, subtly reinventing it, but adhering all the while to fiercely traditional sentence structure. There’s emotional intelligence and obvious erudition, but funneled through an idiosyncratic *self* (narrative self? autobiographical self? some inexplicable mixture of the two? WHO CARES?), as authentic a literary experience as they come:
“Ana was a talker, had beautiful Caribbean-girl eyes, pure anthracite, and was the sort of heavy that almost every Island nigger dug, a body that you just knew would look good in and out of clothes; wasn’t shy about her weight, either; she wore tight black stirrup pants like every other girl in the neighborhood and the sexiest underwear she could afford and was a meticulous putter-on of makeup, an intricate bit of multitasking for which Oscar never lost his fascination. She was this peculiar combination of badmash and little girl—even before he’d visited her house he knew she’d have a whole collection of stuffed animals avalanched on her bed—and there was something in the seamlessness with which she switched between these aspects that convinced him that both were masks, that there existed a third Ana, a hidden Ana who determined what mask to throw up for what occasion but who was otherwise obscure and impossible to know.” (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)
PATRICIA ENGEL: I came of age during the 80s “drug wars,” when being Colombian came with a sense of public shame. Yet I was fiercely proud of my heritage, while simultaneously overwhelmed by the social silencing, the inertia of a North American collective that seemed to want to wipe me clean of my language, my dark complexion, and for whom I felt I would always be an outsider.
Teetering on delinquency, I found refuge in books and writing stories I’d never share with anyone, often cutting class to stay home and read. But I felt shortchanged by literature, unable to find anything written by an author with a cultural makeup resembling mine—young and Latin and finding our way in the United States. The message was that we were an insignificant population, undeserving of our own voices in American literature, our divided diaspora hearts safely ignored. I had no idea that just miles from where I grew up in New Jersey, another Latin kid had internalized a similar heartache and was writing a book that would change everything.
Like many children of immigrants, I was left to figure out higher education on my own. In 1996, when Díaz’s first book, Drown, was published, I was a sophomore at New York University. Though I continued to write secretly, I didn’t hang with a particularly bookish crowd and it would be years before I’d learn that a writer like Junot Díaz existed. Upon graduating, I began a series of unsatisfying Manhattan desk jobs, plagued by an unrelenting emptiness and awareness that my voice, my identity, was growing weaker by the day. In, my frustration, I was able to articulate one goal for myself: to carve out a self as an artist and as a Latina in a way that felt both authentic and meaningful to me.
During a chance encounter in Miami, a Central American writer told me about Drown. In the boldness of Díaz’s prose, I discovered freedom. Drown named the demons we first and second generation kids live with; the tangled racial and socioeconomic webs, the harsh eyes we feel on us as we tread the lonely waters of this country while our parents are often distracted, trying to figure out things for themselves, dealing with profound sorrow for their forsaken homeland. To say nothing of his language—so sharp, so precise, so beautiful yet bloody, painful, and glorious—would be easy because it’s not Díaz’s language that continues to illuminate my heart, it’s the courage and tenderness behind the prose, the compassion for one’s people, no matter how flawed, the love for the country one has left behind, no matter how broken.
I was 27 when I first read Drown. The same age Díaz was when it was published. People are often shocked to learn that I came upon Junot Díaz’s work so late in my creative formation. But I think life presents heroes precisely when one needs them.
V.V. GANESHANANTHAN: I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about a year after it came out, when I was preparing for Junot Diaz to visit the small college at which I was teaching fiction writing. I fell swiftly into the rabbit hole that led to Diazland; I feel like I’ve been reading and rereading Diaz almost continuously ever since. (Part of the reason, perhaps, that I don’t remember whether I read Diaz’s short story collection Drown before or after Oscar Wao! The answer must be both.) Today, some five years later, my students all know that I love Diaz, and especially Oscar Wao, which tells a story that matters in a voice I would follow anywhere. For me, Diaz’s hypnotic hold resides in his ability to invent a set of voices that hit every register and interact believably. I came to his work at a moment when I was struggling to think about how to address ethnic stereotypes in fiction; the way broad claims and individual characters nestle next to each other in Diaz’s fiction really works for me. Multiple stories don’t always mean contradiction; we may speak Elvish and Spanish, and need them both; we may announce the rules of our communities while simultaneously shattering them. How this solution still moves me! May I also sing the praises of the temporary but whole-hearted switch to Lola’s point of view? The generous and bilingual footnotes? The jokes? The comic book-influenced eye for myth and fable? The big-voiced omniscient narrator gradually revealing himself as something even more haunted and human? The most heartbreaking em-dash in all of fiction? This is a writer who trusts his readers to be the best they can; reading him made me want to do the same. And what unabashed pursuit of love. This is what drives that voice—from Drown to Oscar Wao to This Is How You Lose Her. I understand its insatiable hunger as a form of optimism I can get behind, as a person, as a reader, as a writer.
ALDEN JONES: I grew up in North Jersey in the shadow of Manhattan. The Island of Cool was so close I had a perfect view of the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers on my drive to school, but it was just far enough away to be inaccessible, and I was trapped in the land of second-best. When I started writing in earnest—I mean back when I was twelve—I was pretty sure I would have to set my stories in a fantasy world or some generic suburb, because you couldn’t set stories in New Jersey. The writer who taught me it could be done was Junot Díaz.
In Drown Junot Díaz captured-slash-created a New Jersey I both recognized and felt transported into, and he shook off the shame that those of us who grow up in North Jersey take for granted. I recognized something real in the voice and the characters that echoed this frankness about place. Because he didn’t italicize dialogue in Spanish. (“I don’t speak in italics,” he quipped to one interviewer.) Because you could see the thin veil of autobiography, and because when I heard Junot speak, it sounded like the words of Yunior on the page come to life. There was a delightful transparency to his early stories.
In real life, back when Drown came out, Junot didn’t have a problem publically sounding off, which I also admired. Just after Drown made him a name, he dissed Julia Alvarez on the radio for being too upper crust to represent the Dominican Republic (“You can’t DO that anymore!” another writer friend insisted). He dissed black men who dated white women to me when I met him at a party and he dissed me at the same party for writing about Costa Rica when I wasn’t from Costa Rica. I liked that politeness was not on his agenda. I felt taken to task as a writer. He asked the right questions, and he did so with charming profanity. “Yeah, white people always want to write about us. Like we’re the fucking anthropological study of the month,” he said, and though this did not stop me from writing about cultures other than my own, it nudged me to consider my agenda.
Perched on the top of the hill where I grew up, in a neighborhood called Afterglow, I saw a lot of mindblowing sunsets. “The skies will be magnificent,” Junot Díaz writes in “How to Date a Blackgirl, Browngirl, Whitegirl or Halfie”; “Pollutants have made Jersey sunsets one of the wonders of the world.” Most people think of Jersey and it’s the pollutants they imagine, but Junot shows us the sunsets those toxins yield. And all those sunsets I enjoyed from Afterglow, well, I had to think about them differently after reading Drown. The important thing was that in the work of Junot Díaz, pollution and magnificent skies could coexist—frankly.
Maud Casey is the author of the novels The Man Who Walked Away, The Shape of Things to Come, and Genealogy, as well as the short story collection Drastic
Dawn Tripp is the author of the novels Game of Secrets, The Season of Open Water, and Moon Tide
Elizabeth Crane is the author of the novel We Only Know So Much, and the short story collections You Must Be This Happy to Enter, All This Heavenly Glory, and When the Messenger is Hot
Katherine Hill is the author of the novel The Violet Hour
Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novels The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower
Shelly Oria is the author of the short story collection New York 1, Tel Aviv 0
Aurelie Sheehan is the author of the story collections Demigods on Speedway, Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories, and Jack Kerouac is Pregnant, as well as the novels History Lessons for Girls and The Anxiety of Everyday Objects
Charles Bock is the author of the novel Beautiful Children
Alix Ohlin is the author of the novels Inside and The Missing Person, as well as the short story collections Signs and Wonders and Babylon and Other Stories
Jess Walter is the author of the novels Beautiful Ruins, The Financial Lives of Poets, Land of the Blind, The Zero, Citizen Vince, Over Tumbled Graves, as well as the short story collection We Live in Water
Charles Yu is the author of the short story collection Sorry Please Thank You and the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, as well as the short story collection How This Night is Different
V.V. Ganeshananthan is the author of the novel Love Marriage
Alden Jones is the author of the story collection Unaccompanied Minors
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz.