Author Interview: Jeremy M. Davies

Intern Olivia asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Olivia wrote a review of Davies’ The Knack of Doing, which we posted here on July 7, 2016. “Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing,” she wrote. Now you can be a little better prepared by reading her interview with the author, below.

What prompted you to compile this collection of stories, with some new stories and some revised ones? What themes do you see connecting them?

I write short fiction so infrequently that I was as surprised as anyone to find I had amassed enough of it to make for a collection. I thought it would be ungenerous to keep this surprise to myself. Hence: a book.

If there’s a through-line here it’s the eternal question of how one writes such things as short stories without their winding up either inconsequential or tiresome. The book is something of a “manual of style(s).” And within many of the stories in Knack you’ll find characters trying to impose a certain style or manner of speaking upon their own situations. Largely unsuccessfully.

How did you go about choosing the order for the stories and deciding on the structure of the book? Were there stories you thought about including in The Knack of Doing that didn’t make it into the final product?

Yes, there are stories that didn’t make the cut. Mainly because I forgot about them. Which is to say that my mind edited them out of the collection without this selection process requiring any conscious effort on my part. This is by far the best way, I think, and I suggest the method to all aspirants.

What are some of the challenges you face when writing short fiction that differ from those you face when writing a novel?

The greatest challenge is that the frivolity of the enterprise will so overwhelm you that you just give up and go back to bed. The issue is how to turn out something only ten pages long that nonetheless commands the attention–and we are all misers of attention–long enough to achieve a lasting effect, even if that effect is “merely” mild amusement. I have no time for short fiction that was written only because there is already so much short fiction in the world that one might as well churn out a little more. I have no time for short fiction that was written only because the form, in its brevity, lends itself to the classroom. (Novels that were written out of this same sort of formal inertia annoy me less, for some reason. Probably because their inconsequentiality is deployed that much more gradually, over a longer span. Stories rub your face in their superfluousness, all at once. That’s the challenge; that’s the fascination. That’s why it’s still worth trying, from time to time. To see if you can beat the odds. To see if you can be nimble enough to avoid the door of Who Cares hitting you in your ass on your way out, as it were.)

“Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta” examines the art of storytelling from the perspective of an aspiring writer. To what extent do the views presented by the narrator of this story reflect your personal views on what fiction is meant to be, i.e. “Fiction can be many things, and no one mode is appropriate for it—no one genre, no one method, no one orthodoxy, no one heresy, no matter my own prejudices—but it may be accurate to describe it, as many have done, as essentially a form of attention, attention specifically to language, attention even to the ‘absent friends’ we can make believe this language describes”? How does this statement or the overall considerations presented in “Kurt Vonnegut” relate to the approach to fiction you take in the stories of The Knack of Doing?

That particular statement reflects my own views absolutely. I’m not certain that I’d stand behind every other assertion in the piece, however. I’m content to consider it a fiction; the speaker, conveniently, ain’t me. It’s safe to say, though, that I share the narrator’s skepticism about the enterprise of fiction, even if I’m a bit less naive about it. That skepticism–about what makes a story worth telling, about what makes it a story to begin with–is, I guess, the real “theme” behind The Knack of Doing, which might be said to be a series of answers to those questions. (Well, ripostes more than answers.)

“Is it that it skips a generation? He means this knack of doing. . . . they are agents, they act, they effect.” Would you say that many of the characters in your stories have mastered the “knack of doing” as you describe in the titular story of the book? Is that what makes these characters interesting, their agency?

What makes them interesting–to me–is their lack of agency. Few if any of the characters in these stories have the “knack,” and those that do don’t tend to profit by it. As someone or other said, “Absolute impotence corrupts absolutely.” Writing is the actionless action; it commands no respect in the phenomenal world (unless, of course, it makes you phenomenally rich). Nor, probably, should it.

The narrator of “Forkhead Box” aims to pay homage to his subject, informing the audience, “In deference to Schaumann, I too am trying to adopt a style of meticulous plainness” (13), and in a similarly honest fashion says that he isn’t exactly a reliable narrator: “But you know I can’t be trusted. I come from a broken home.” How do you conceptualize the narrator for a particular story or decide how present they should be, and how are or aren’t the various narrators in The Knack of Doing’s stories connected?

Telling someone that you’re not to be trusted isn’t honesty; it’s a way of making even honesty suspect. And, in fiction, honesty is a nonexistent principle: the only honesty in a contrivance is consistency. If honesty is an issue in that story it’s only because it is, in fact, “based on actual historical events,” as they say. But, clearly, my interest was never in presenting these in the manner of a more realistic historical fiction, fully clothed in substantiating details and period dialogue and the like. My interest was in travestying that same impulse to dramatize, to say of a bit of history or gossip that “that would make a great story!” Not because this impulse is bad or foolish in itself, mind you, but because I consider it imperative to fight off complacency (in both myself and in prospective readers).

The narrators of the various stories arrived fully conceptualized along with the matter they narrate. It wasn’t a question of selecting a subject and then assigning the appropriate narrator. More a matter of the story not being possible until I could hear a way to tell it, a way that excited me, that didn’t feel dead. And no, the narrators aren’t connected in any way I’m aware of, besides the connection of all being written by me.

Can you choose one or two of your favorite stories in the book? Or is there a certain story that was the most fun to write?

The oldest story in the book, “Sad White People,” was written in a single night, in a burst of pure, bitchy cussedness, while I was getting an MFA. I am slightly embarrassed by the story even as I remain peculiarly proud, if in an adolescent way, of having written it. The most recent story, “Delete the Marquis,” was perhaps the most fun to write, because I enjoyed all the tortured, faux-classical syntax; enjoyed the struggle to produce, essentially, a Philip K. Dick story in the style of Miguel de Unamuno. That’s how sickos like me get their kicks, you see.

What do you hope a reader will take away from The Knack of Doing?

A posthypnotic suggestion regarding a particular action to be undertaken on May the 23rd, 2018. Oh, it shall be glorious.



Wit and Language are the Thread

Intern Olivia reviews Jeremy M. Davies' The Knack of Doing

The Knack of Doing: Stories by Jeremy M. Davies, 978-1-57423-227-1, $18.95 softcover with flaps.

Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing. With his inventive short stories, Davies is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, and in the most delightful way. Each story features a uniquely eccentric character, yet somehow the thirteen fit seamlessly together as a whole.

Each story has a plot completely distinct from the rest: “Forkhead Box” tells of an executioner who breeds mice in his spare time. “Sad White People” gives us Chris and Chris, who are in love but meet a tragic end. “The Sinces” simply and perfectly captures the aftermath of an ended relationship. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” in a very meta fashion, takes aim at Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction writing advice and asks what exactly it means to write fiction. Davies’s work examines many aspects of human life and work, prompting a reader to look a little more closely at themselves and their own day-to-day life—that which may seem ordinary or mundane may not be at all.

Not only is his subject matter intriguing, Davies continues to surprise with the distinct structure of his stories. While many are typical—as much as one could label Davies’s work as typical—prose, many take on a more interesting form: that of a list, a letter, or some other kind of internal monologue. “Ten Letters” is formatted as of a father writing to his children. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is one long sentence that was once offered up for a book jacket blurb. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” is formatted, as the title would suggest, in a series of answered riddles to chronicle a day in the life of May, who works as a dominatrix. All different, and all compelling.

What really ties Davies’s stories together is his unwavering quick wit and careful mastery of language. Throughout The Knack of Doing the pace is measured and the tone is comfortably light even when the content gets a little dismal. Davies does not take himself too seriously, and that’s the key to why his writing is so effective. The stories in The Knack of Doing are a little bit strange, but that is what makes them so captivating: they’re all believable, and it’s as if as if I’m reading about the quirky neighbor across the hall. Davies’s fiction manages to blur the line between real and imaginary.

Davies writes to capture human consciousness and does so beautifully. He has created snapshots of the serious and the lighthearted, asked questions both mundane and profound, and left us with a work of art to endure.