My Conversation with the excellent Lydia Davis
Here is the audio, video, and transcript. Here is part of the episode summary:
Lydia joined Tyler to discuss how the form of short stories shapes their content, how to persuade an ant to leave your house, the difference between poetry and very short stories, Proust’s underrated sense of humor, why she likes Proust despite being averse to long books, the appeal of Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, why Proust is funnier in French or German than in English, the hidden wit of Franz Kafka, the economics of poorly translated film subtitles, her love of Velázquez and early Flemish landscape paintings, how Bach and Schubert captured her early imagination, why she doesn’t like the Harry Potter novels — but appreciates their effects on young readers, whether she’ll ever publish her diaries, how her work has evolved over time, how to spot talent in a young writer, her method (or lack thereof) for teaching writing, what she learned about words that begin with “wr,” how her translations of Proust and Flaubert differ from others, what she’s most interested in translating now, what we can expect from her next, and more.
Lydia is hard to excerpt, as the flow is very important, but here is one bit:
COWEN: What do you think is your most unusual productivity habit?
COWEN: And successful, that is.
DAVIS: It’s hard to say because I imagine that a lot of writers share some of the things I do. So, unusual. I know that I have a more chaotic approach than some writers would want to have, and that’s always been true. It’s, in a way, very wasteful, like the books I don’t finish reading. There are also a number of very interesting projects — or very interesting to me — that I’ve done a lot of work on and then gone on to another project.
I have at least three or four or five big projects. These are not small stories. These are biographical projects or grammar projects or history projects — crossing genres — that I’ve done a lot of work on and then gotten distracted from. But then, when you say productive or successful, it does work very well with shorter things that you can actually finish.
The way I work on stories is to get busy immediately and write down what occurs to me, and write it until I’ve exhausted that vein for the moment. Then I usually have enough to come back to later. I’ll have 10, 15, 20, 30 unfinished stories, and every now and then, I’ll pick one up again. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it is. I’ll see a title and think, “I don’t know what that story was.” I’ll pick it up again and try to discern what it was that moved me, and what it was that made me want to write it, and get back into that and see if I could finish it. That’s a chaotic method that works pretty well.