An Interview with Lydia Davis

An image of an interview with Davis can be seen, featuring a person talking in the foreground.

Born in 1947 to a novelist and a book reviewer, Lydia Davis acquired the ability to read English in the first grade and German in the second grade (in Austria).

Her works include a novel, The End of the Story (1995) and four extensive collections of stories –_Varieties of Disturbance (2007), Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2002), Almost No Memory (1997), and_ Break It Down (1986), as well as several limited-edition and small-press publications.

Her literary works do not fit into a particular category. Her short stories could be seen as an essay or a poem. Her narrators are generally given a limited view, but with a very precise outlook.

The narrators’ perspectives could be classified as unemotional, occasionally humorous, which is why the emotion of Davis’ stories is often only implied.

Davis is renowned for her translation of Proust’s Du cote de chez Swann, which has been met with widespread critical praise.

Additionally, she has also done translations of works from Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Jean Jouve, and Michel Leiris, all in the realm of French literature and philosophy.

Many major American writing awards, such as a MacArthur Fellowship for fiction, have been won by her and the French government gave her the title of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Additionally, she was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. Currently, Davis is taking a break from her teaching job at SUNY Albany, and she lives and works in upstate New York.

The conversation was carried out through electronic mail.

— Sarah Manguso according to

Writing can be a way of exploring the world, of understanding it more deeply. It can be a way of connecting with oneself and others. It can also be a means of discovering new perspectives and developing new ideas.


How is your daily schedule different now that you are taking a break from teaching?

On a day-to-day basis, I am engaged in my own work as well as working on a new translation of Madame Bovary for Penguin.

BLVR: In addition to the possibility that you are doing a greater amount of it nowadays, does the quality of your work look different to you since you received the MacArthur Fellowship?

LD remarks that his inclination towards text-related work has shifted over time.

His current preferences involve the combination of a translation with his own thoughts or with multiple other texts, yet he’s also been composing shorter works of his own creation. Ultimately, he isn’t sure what will come next.

From the start of his career as a reader, BLVR has indicated that the writings of Samuel Beckett had an immense impact.

From my early twenties, I was transfixed by Beckett’s concise writing style. To improve my own writing, I copied out his sentences that I found most enjoyable.

His use of plain Anglo-Saxon words, his intellect and wit, the thought-provoking messages and the awareness of language were all aspects I admired.

My professor at grad school was always in possession of Beckett’s essay about Proust. Does Proust and Beckett have a connection to you?

LD said they came to Proust only recently, having read two thirds of Swann’s Way in French around thirty years ago, but not having delved into the author’s work as they did with Beckett.

They found joy in translating Proust, as it allowed them to experiment with a style that was not their own but which was a delight to try out.

Is there any intention or design that ties your own work to the writings of Proust and Beckett?

I don’t believe that many writers start with a master plan for their writing. Rather, I believe that their journey to the next stage of their writing process is done in stages. Even though the development of their writing may seem rational, it may still lack any sense of order.


I see your point about the distinction between the terms “short story” and just “story.” I noticed that you would refer to Russell Edson’s prose poems–which he initially labeled as “fables”–as stories.

In my opinion, Edson’s works should not be labeled as “poems”, which is commonly seen on the covers of his books (more often than “prose poems” or “fables”). If I were to call them something, it would most likely be “fables”, though this usually implies some kind of moral or lesson, which I find his pieces to be wonderfully devoid of. As far as I’m concerned, they are stories, since they are filled with narrative.

The focus of these works is mainly on the narrative, rather than on the language. When the language becomes the focus, then they can be considered as poems.

Is “story” a bigger concept than “poem” in your opinion?

I believe that the category of “story” is quite flexible.

The issue, however, is that we are only aware of a few familiar categories, and we try to put the works of writers such as Edson, Kafka, Peter Altenberg, Robert Walser, Jim Heynen, Henri Michaux, Leon-Paul Fargue, Peter Cherches, Francis Ponge, Geoff Bouvier, Martha Ronk, Phyllis Koestenbaum, and Diane Williams into one of these.…

Do you believe that developing more labels is the answer to organizing the confusion surrounding flash fiction, sudden fiction, short shorts, very shorts, prose poems, and proems?

LD: There is some acceptance of the terms flash fiction, sudden fiction, and so forth.

However, people may still anticipate a short story when they start reading a piece of flash fiction, instead of the less customary offering it could be – meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe – for which there is no proper general name.

One critic referred to Robert Walser’s work as a “feuilletonist,” while he himself described it as “short prose pieces.” Still, if a need is felt for another category, I believe it will be created and accepted eventually, although it may take some time.

BLVR: People who are not very thoughtful about their work have often claimed that some of your pieces are not stories due to their lack of similarity with stories found in other publications.

I am in search of a comprehensive definition of a story. What criteria do you use to decide if something is a story?

One could say that a story needs to have a certain level of narrative, even something as basic as “she said,” in order to take the reader to a different time and place. That being said, it isn’t a narrative poem; it usually has a flatter rhythm and is less abstract than a poem.

BLVR: How does the rhythm change? When you say “elliptical,” are you implying something that is “succinct” or perhaps “vague”?

LD is of the opinion that poems composed with line breaks inherently possess a different rhythmical quality, as compared to prose, due to the suspension at the end of each line.

Each unit of language within a poem is supposed to expand in the readers’ imagination, whereas in a piece of prose, it does not have a condensed meaning. Elliptical writing does not refer to deliberately vague language, but rather to a level of economy in writing.

A good poet does not make use of obscurity, but rather, writes in a manner that makes sense to them. The reader may face difficulty in comprehending a poem, but this is not the intention of the poet.

Christopher Middleton articulates that a poem’s rhythm is a cycle of varying speeds that give rise to its sounds as the root of its meaning. (I’m citing him indirectly, but I believe the plural give rise to is accurate.) His statement is quite wordy but intriguing to contemplate.


BLVR inquires whether employing the word prosaic is preferable to utilizing dull due to the fact that it is the strict translation of prosaique in Proust’s French language. You chose the former, whereas [C. K.] Scott-Moncrieff selected the latter.

When I was translating Swann’s Way I was very meticulous in making sure that I could bring the same meaning to English that Proust brought to French.

I think the reason prosaic appealed to me was the similarity in the sound to the French version, it was similar in terms of syllables and the opening ‘pr’. Comparing this to dull, which is a great word, I would be more likely to use it in my own writing rather than prosaic.

Could you always go with the related option in like cases?

Utilizing cognates whenever possible was something I would do, though frequently this was for the purpose of creating a sense of sound and rhythm.

In James Knowlson’s biography of Beckett, it is stated that the author decided to compose in French since it was easier for him to make his writing “with no style”.

Similarly, one has asserted that translating is a task of not inserting one’s own style into the writing. It appears to be the most traditional point of view one can have – that there is an intrinsic reality that style just conceals.

I can’t say there is a hidden truth that is disguised by style alone. If I were to translate a work using my own style instead of attempting to preserve the original style, I would transform the work in an essential matter.

I tried a fun experiment once to translate Laurence Sterne into more modern English, and it worked to some extent—some of the plot and humor was kept, however it was a challenging task. Whenever I decided to discard the words and phrases of the original in favor of a modern version, something important and special about the work was gone.

BLVR asked if it was feasible to write without any style, as Beckett seemed to suggest. Could it be a reference only to not being pressured by his own well-known English-language style?

In conclusion, I don’t think that it is possible to be without style. Even if one opts for a very neutral, straightforward style, it will still be a style and will be identifiable as the writer’s.

It is probable that when Beckett was referring to a lack of style, he could have been expressing his aversion for an abundance of language, similar to that which is used by Joyce, in both his speech and writing.


BLVR: You’ve been quite open with regards to the details of your life–you’re a translator, teach at various educational institutions, have had two marriages and two sons, dabbled in music, and have written books. Can you explain why there are parallels between the characters you create and yourself?

I find Peter Altenberg’s mini-stories to be fascinating due to their individual integrity and the independent life they hold.

I’m not especially interested in where the stories come from or how they were made, nor does the fact that the main character may be Altenberg himself affect my appreciation of them.

It is intriguing to observe his use of individual fragments of his life to construct such vivid, amusing, and sometimes painful realms. The Russell Edson pieces, while possibly emotionally autobiographical, have the same level of interest and integrity as Altenberg’s works.

It is necessary to come back to the concept of selection, not just in terms of tone and purpose, but also in regards to characters. In my stories, a character may share biographical facts or psychological traits similar to me, yet they are still a distinct creation.

Do you consider the creation of art to involve making choices and decisions?

LD pointed out that when one draws inspiration from “real life,” they are often misrepresenting their material. This is due to the fact that they are selecting certain aspects and thereby distorting it, which in effect, turns it into something more fictional.

Ben Marcus described Davis’s writing as “a scientific empirical method rather than a purely emotive way of storytelling”, implying that there’s something mechanical at work in their stories.

I personally find this image of authors as machines appealing rather than just a collection of feelings.

LD commented on the idea of using an intuitive style of empirical storytelling. He noted that both models of understanding emotion leave out the guiding intelligence.

LD believes this intelligence has the power to make connections between scientific principles and human psychology.

He then went on to recall a conversation he had with a friend, which involved discussing the differences between convection and conduction, plus the concept of thermal radiation (inspired by the cooling of a bottle of champagne in a sink full of water).

He finds something beautiful in the principles of science and maths, and how they are in harmony in the abstract. This prompted him to talk about a poet he likes, Rae Armantrout, who has an intense fascination with the sciences.

Their principles and facts are a large part of her poetry, as they are a part of her thinking.

BLVR: Astonishing. That’s destroyed my neat little debate. So, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re implying that it’s a governing intelligence that makes artwork, given that active processing (of data and of emotions) is constantly occurring in the background of that intelligence.

LD asserted that for any work to be considered good, it must be created with a strong emotion. He further stated that this emotion may be a fondness for the use of language.

What is it that you find appealing about Armantrout’s work?

I find LD’s humor, intelligence, imagery, lyricism, and attention to language incredibly impressive. I wrote an essay titled “Why Stop with a Barnacle?” to pay homage to the astonishing work of hers that I admire so much, with the title being a line from one of her poems.


Autistic individuals can provide an interesting perspective when it comes to narrating stories.

Ben Marcus commented on the stories of BLVR, noting the “near autism” in their failure to recognize the emotional core and the little investment in constructing scenes between characters.

At this point, I’m not enticed by the idea of creating narrative scenes between characters. It’s possible that my hesitation is a result of believing that such scenes often appear to be artificial.

Then again, I think of authors like Jane Bowles and how they use acknowledged artificiality in their narrative scenes between characters, and that can be quite effective.

BLVR: What makes those scenes different from the rest of a narrative? In what way are they more artificial?

LD: Inside our heads, we all have an ongoing story which we would vocalize if asked a question by somebody.

This narrative to me feels instinctual. Furthermore, we retain pieces of dialogue from our past. Our recollections do not usually offer us complete scenes with dialogue. Thus, I would prefer to work from what a character is prone to recall, from a more internal source.

BLVR: Even though it may be a stretch, I wanted to inquire about whether you have ever contemplated if your narrators had any type of neurological disorder, such as autism?

LD: Not at all, it never crossed my mind! Maybe the characters, or the narrators, concentrate more on one thing at a time, like we do in real life.

As the author, I might concentrate on details, disregarding the emotional aspect, believing that the emotional part will be picked up by the readers.

For example, in “We Miss You,” there is a narrator, possibly a sociologist, who looks intensely at the children’s letters, without showing any feelings of her own.

Nevertheless, there are clues that she is struggling to be neutral and distant. Emotion is a key component in the story, like it is in most of the stories.

BLVR: It seems as though the narrators in your work strive to comprehend the world, yet even after all their endeavours, they appear to be begging for some small fragment of unfathomable enigma.

LD states that his narrators don’t mind living amidst mystery, but they do want to understand certain events. This is similar to the feeling of wanting to know how a story ends. LD is curious about strangers in a bus line and is attached to finding answers

. However, these inquiries are small in comparison to the overall sense of mystery that he and his characters are content with.

BLVR: Crafting stories with singular occurrences in a mysterious setting appears to be a viable way to create your fiction, let alone the cosmic realm.

It Could Also Be Of Interest

Rather than simply copy and paste, one way to avoid plagiarism is to rewrite a text in different words and structure while still conveying the same message.

This process ensures that the idea is kept intact yet is expressed in a unique way that does not replicate the original.

Our writing staff is varied and passionate about arts, literature, film, travel, music, and entertainment.

Read Full Biography
Back to previous

You May Also Like





An Interview with Doseone Copy

Adam Drucker, better known by the alias Doseone, has said his initial attraction to rap was as much about the……



An image of Susan Straight was uploaded to the website in 2013. My mother was so grief-stricken when President……

  • mail
  • facebook
  • twitter

related articles


Rachel Zucker’s The Bad Wife Handbook


A Timeline of Twisted Translations


A Review of: Flight by Ginger Strand

articles about Archive

Hold On

March 7, 2022

Yellow Faces

March 7, 2022

Tool: CDLP swim shorts, $159

March 7, 2022

Object: Julia Roberts Memorabilia

March 7, 2022

An Interview with Vi Khi Nao

March 7, 2022