I MET WITH LYDIA DAVIS last June shortly after the publication of her new chapbook from Sarabande Books, The Cows. We spoke in a cafe in the West Village a few hours before she went off to give a reading to a group of young students at NYU's Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. In her new book, which is a meditative, cumulative portrait of three cows that used to live across the road from her, Davis again evinces what she has become increasingly recognized for in her other volumes of prose: precision, humor, clarity, and the distinct sense the reader gets of witnessing a writer in mid-thought and amidst observation. Her striking ability to capture and represent the cadence of thinking in her work led me to ask if Davis ever conceives of her writing in relation to performance or theater, as an enactment or, rather, a reenactment. We also spoke about her process in creating The Cows, and I asked her two of the most basic questions for any writer: How do you know when a story is done and, then, how do you know if it is any good?
Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.
— from The Cows
Lydia Davis: The analogy that came to mind was theater. I think it's because the place where the cows go in and out of the barn is hidden from me. So it's always abrupt when they appear. They're coming out from the side of the barn as if they're walking onto a stage. They always make an entrance.
Theater was never a big part of my life, except for the theater of home, the living room. I did like to enact little scenes for my parents, mimic people, take parts, but going to the theater — I always resisted the artificiality of it (although that's my own limitation). I've had moments where I can glimpse the fascination that people feel for the theater but I never quite got into it.
I like the analogy of the curtain lifting on the action, in a story, because it is a sort of abrupt thing. When the curtain lifts what wasn't visible is suddenly visible. It's a nice analogy for the beginning of something.
Nothing in me wants to believe — nothing in the book makes me want to believe — that The End of the Story is a performance, but just for that reason I have to begin by saying what a good and believable performance it is: how much I admire the characters and the description and the action, and what a wickedly good account it gives of a novel that doesn't much wa...read more