When Lydia Davis was a young writer, she was told by her mother that it would be more distinguished to use her first, middle and last name when she published her works — like Louisa May Alcott. But Davis disagreed.
“There are plenty of great writers who only have two names,” Davis said in response to a question from an audience member at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Eat, Drink & Be Literary series on March 18.
Davis, the author of several short stories and translator of many French works into English, has acquired a significant fan following over the years — as evidenced by the packed room and steady laughter during her reading and Q&A session at Wednesday night’s event.
After the guests had dined and socialized, Davis began by reading from past works, such as “Can’t and Won’t: Stories,” and reactions to her translations of Marcel Proust’s “Madame Bovary,” as well as new pieces she is currently developing.
Her spare, striking and humorous stories did not go unappreciated by the fully engaged audience.
A few stories in particular, such as her literary-based complaint letter to a frozen peas company about how their packaging negatively portrayed its actually very good product, received howls of approval.
After the readings, Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker, moderated a discussion, asking Davis about her take on humor in her work.
“I think it would be very hard to be funny on purpose,” Davis said. “Things interest me for many different reasons, and if they interest me a lot, I’ll write about them. Some of those things are funny, and some of them are not, so it comes out naturally in the stories.”
One audience member asked if Davis was as “tickled” writing the pieces as the readers are reading them.
“When I hear or think of something funny, I’m tickled in the first place, then I’m tickled as I’m writing it, and then I enjoy it afterwards, too. I have some friends who are writers who do not enjoy writing — who suffer horribly. But I tend to enjoy it.”
Although she was more interested in music in her early years, Davis soon decided that it was not the right career path for her. In college, she decided she wanted to be a short story writer.
“I tried to learn to write the traditional short story, and I worked at that for a few years, but I think the very short paragraph gives [me] a lot more freedom. There’s a lot you can do with short story form, but I like the flexibility and versatility; you make your own rules. “
She said writers such as Samuel Beckett inspired her to be able to create her own writing style.
“My reading had been children’s reading, then, say, ‘Jane Eyre’ — a novel that sweeps you away — and then there was Beckett… [I liked] the simplicity of it. It was mysterious and very clean…it was striking to me.
Franz Kafka’s “Parables and Paradoxes” and Russell Edson’s fantastical and strange short stories have also influenced Davis’ work.
“I read a book of [Edson’s work] and that freed me up completely.”
And though Davis’s own stories tend to be very short, with the exception of a few pieces, she says the editing process is just as intense as it would be if she wrote novels, if not more.
“The short ones usually don’t take very long to write in the first place. The first draft is very quick,” she said. “I think that it’s very important to keep that channel open to whatever it is that feeds you the words, so I do it very fast and then I let it alone and come back to it several times … Some of them don’t give the answer right away.”
While Davis has been quoted saying she is “simply not interested … in creating narrative scenes between characters,” she said that she is interested in people.
“It’s an interest in language and everything language can do and everything a single word can do — but it’s people too, and that’s the other side. I’m very interested in people, character, personalities, habits and all the rest. What I’m not interested in is feeling bound and constricted by a form that must be followed.”
Although Davis is known for her short stories and particular style, she is also known for her translation of classical French works by Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert and more. She worked as a translator straight out of college, and even though she was not paid much, she said it was the work she has always enjoyed.
“I really like working with an author who is very different because I am not about to write like Proust, but if I translate Proust, then I have that enjoyment of getting into his mind and writing as he writes … Flaubert as well. One of the pleasures of translating is the word puzzle of how he says it, and can I say it the same way in English as close as possible and have it come out as [well].”
With several publications, a MacArthur fellowship and many prizes and awards, Davis still remembers what it was like to be a young and struggling writer. When asked if she ever received a piece of advice that has stuck with her, or if she would like to give advice to young writers, her response was to “be patient.”
“Be patient with what the work is asking of you, rather than rushing to put it into some kind of form and get it out there. And that would apply to market forces too… There’s a pressure that I think you have to ignore, and if your [book] takes 10 years, let it take 10 years. It’s very hard, but I think it’s something you have to do.”
BAM’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series will continue through June and feature authors such as Jane Smiley, Dinaw Mengestu and Joseph O’Neill.