Kathryn Davis is the author of eight novels, the most recent of which is The Silk Road; a memoir, Aurelia, Aurélia, was published by Graywolf this spring. She has received a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, both the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award and the Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006, she won the Lannan Foundation Literary Award. She is senior fiction writer on the faculty of the writing program at Washington University in St Louis.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Veronica Gonzales. Of the process, she said, “Kathryn Davis’s memoir, Aurelia, Aurélia, is nothing like any other memoir I’ve read. Her prose is strikingly beautiful and lyrical, and the incorporation of references to literature, music, and art is done so effortlessly. It was an absolute privilege to learn about the transitions of life through Davis’s eyes in her memoir and in this interview.” In this interview, Kathryn Davis talks about how writing is a matter of solving problems, leaving the old boxes behind, and working with a Jungian Buddhist analyst.
Superstition Review: Your previous eight books were works of fiction, all of which serve as a testament to your revered experimental writing with its extraordinary and otherworldly elements. In contrast, Aurelia, Aurélia is cemented in reality. Could you discuss the difference in your writing process when approaching memoir and fiction?
Kathryn Davis: My writing process wasn’t so very different for Aurelia, Aurélia. I suppose that’s due in part to the way the book came to be written (see #3), and to the fact that even though it’s described as a memoir, it isn’t exactly “cemented in reality.” Nabokov famously said reality is a word that always ought to be in quotes, and while on some level I agree with that statement (see #4), I also have often considered my fiction to be fundamentally autobiographical, even a novel like Duplex, with its robots and sorcerers.
SR: In the penultimate chapter, you quote Beethoven, saying, “Art demands of us that we do not stand still.” This is a very powerful concept, and your memoir, as an example of this concept, instills it with an even deeper meaning. Can you describe a moment that made you realize you can make art out of experience?
KD: I suppose I’ve had a version of this realization at different points in my life, though in each instance, I’ve acted on it differently. Often (almost always) the initiating experience has to do with place, with finding myself in a place, and feeling overwhelmed by the sense that something about this place—a place often (but not always) previously unknown to me—is where I’ve been, without realizing it, maybe my whole life long, where my psyche is already making itself at home, having been dying to get out of whatever box it has been kept in up to that moment. Beethoven’s statement urges the artist to leave the old boxes behind, a dictum I’ve found increasingly essential, the older I get.
SR: In an interview with Hazel & Wren, you mentioned how you avoid making outlines and planning when it comes to your writing. I found this particularly interesting, especially considering your novels, which include complex timelines and vivid worlds. With Aurelia, Aurélia, how did the presence of, or lack of, planning affect this memoir?
KD: Aurelia, Aurélia began as a craft book for Graywolf on the subject of transition. All I knew at the outset was that I wanted to talk about literature and music and film—art forms in which time plays an essential part. I’d never written a sustained work of non-fiction before, and I was surprised to discover that I enjoyed the process, most particularly when my investigation led me down unexpected autobiographical avenues, the moment I first encountered Virginia Woolf, for example, or saw The Seventh Seal. I’d written what would become the memoir’s final chapter, an interplay of conversations with my husband, Eric, during the final months of his life, and Gérard de Nerval’s novella, Aurélia, and it was clear to me that what I’d written was exceptional—as in not like the rest of the manuscript. This sense was born out by the response of two of my most trusted readers (see #8). What I was writing was clearly not a craft book. Nor is it a memoir, not in any classic sense. (Two chapters are actual ghost stories.) This is all a long-winded way of saying that whatever vague plan I might have had to begin with went totally out the window.
SR: Kevin Brockmeier has described Aurelia, Aurélia as “awake to the strange wonder of being,” and Christine Schutt praises its “spiritually fortifying meditation on the concept of transition.” I also found your memoir to be life affirming and stirring. What lessons or messages do you hope your readers take away?
KD: A while back I worked with someone (an academic, needless to say) who remarked (of me) that it was unusual for an intelligent person to be an optimist. I’m not sure “optimist” is precisely the right term to describe what I am, but it’s safe to say that in the course of living my life, I’ve become more and more aware of how taking the dim view is no more accurate, or insightful, or—okay—intelligent, than taking the sunshiny view. I have always been obsessed with the question of what it is that constitutes the animating spirit that keeps us from being the same thing as a table or a chair. I’ve always thought there’s more going on here than meets the eye. For some years now, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a Jungian Buddhist analyst—I first visited Polly because I wanted to explore the mystery of my own aging and death, but then it turned out my husband (see #6) was going to get to explore that mystery first, taking me along with him. I hope my book expresses some small part of the much bigger picture of what it means to live a life.
SR: Aurelia, Aurélia is comprised of thirteen chapters, each filled with references to and quotes from your artistic and literary inspirations. For example, the second chapter, “Lost,” features Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Could you describe your process in determining which references would be included? Or did each memory guide you to a specific inspiration?
KD: By the time I knew which book I was writing, the memories and the inspirations arrived practically simultaneously—that is, they seemed to be the same thing. Of course, initially, the inspirations were the heart of the project I thought I was working on; I didn’t want to include any work of art in any genre in my book about transition that I didn’t have very strong feelings about, though looking at the things I ended up including, it seems inevitable to me that those choices ultimately propelled me away from craft and toward memoir.
SR: In the description of the memoir, it states that at the center is the death of your husband. I really admired your vulnerability and eloquence when it came to talking about something so personal. How would you describe your process for writing about memories that are painful and difficult to even remember at all?
KD: When my husband’s cancer was diagnosed, we knew it was aggressive, that it was going to be difficult to treat, that it was—most assuredly, barring a miracle—a bad prognosis. Eric lived longer than predicted, and during that time, he remained deeply curious about what was going on in his body and psyche, willing to share whatever information he had and his thoughts about it—which became increasingly inspired, visionary even—with other people. Everything I wrote about Eric was in the same spirit in which he let me follow him into a place in life where we don’t always get to go, and because Eric had been eager to share what was going on there, I knew I should be too. I felt lucky to have been with him for this passage. Of course, immense sadness was part of it, but the memories are not painful. It’s more like having been at the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean where those creatures live that no one has ever seen—it’s more like having been there and trying to describe it.
SR: In Aurelia, Aurélia, you invite your readers to experience your intimate emotions as you explore who you are and where you’ve been. A particular quote that I related to was “I wish sometimes to be less an imagination and more a person.” Could you discuss more about what this means, being less an imagination and more a person? Did writing this memoir help you towards that goal?
KD: In a way, the desire to be “less an imagination and more a person” describes the process of becoming a writer, though at the time when I wrote that—I was still so young—I think I had no idea what I was talking about. It was a Romantic utterance that turned out to be true, the human imagination being an extraordinary thing, but without a physical human container it’s just going to spill all over the place, pointlessly.
SR: In an interview with Fiction Writers Review, on being an artist, you said, “You have to tell yourself what to do, and you really have to listen. And isn’t that hard?” There’s a lot of truth to that statement, and it’s advice that many aspiring writers and artists can use. Can you describe the difficulty in listening to yourself and how writers might tune out outside voices in order to create an authentic work of their own?
KD: You have to tell yourself what to do, and you really have to listen. Most artists became artists because they didn’t want someone else telling them what to do, creating obvious problems along the line with self-discipline, as well as with figuring out the difference between hearing your own excellent advice to yourself about what you most want to write and the kind of advice the world is constantly assailing you with. But also, at the same time, you have to learn how to listen to other people. You have to learn the difference between the bad, censorious voices in your head (a parent, a teacher, a lover, a spouse) and the voices that have your best interest at heart and can see things in your work that you can’t see. I can’t imagine my life as a writer without my friend Louise, who has been right there, reading what I write, since we were girls, really.
SR: You are currently the senior fiction writer on the faculty of the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis. How has teaching influenced your writing and how has your writing influenced your work as a faculty member?
KD: I love teaching; I love the way it lets me spend time with people younger than me whose experience of life has been different from mine, because, to begin with, they’re young, and because they don’t see the world the way I see the world. I once had a student who said that if you could spend even one minute inside the head of another human being, looking out of their eyes, hearing through their ears, etc., you’d go crazy, the way we each see the world being so fundamentally different, even though we’re all human beings. I also love teaching because I get to think about how to make something work. Writing is so much less a matter of communing with the muse, so much more a matter of solving problems. And I love solving problems with my students. Plus I get to have conversations with my students unlike the conversations I have with anyone else.
SR: Now that you have written both fiction and memoir, could you describe what your next project will look like?
KD: I’m not sure what my next project will look like. I’m not reluctant to say, merely unable. I have small bits of things (this is occasionally the way a project starts for me) but I couldn’t say, now, if I want to do another faux memoir, or if I want to go back to writing a novel. Partly, I prefer a certain degree of surprise to inform everything I do.