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 want to be a novel, that barely is a novel, but can be nothing else ... As Auden would first look at a poem as a "contraption" before going on to assess the kind of thing it might be, so one has to say of The End of the Story, "this works" — though it's probably the least interesting thing about it.
— Michael Hofmann on Davis's The End of the Story in the London Review of Books
I loved that review. My first reaction was that he read this novel the right way, he understood. And then my second reaction was sort of, actually he's just one reader and that's just one reaction and there isn't a right reaction; I just happened to like the way he saw it. That was kind of a revelation for me, that there isn't a right way.
They do sometime protest — when they have no water or can't get into the barn. One of them, usually the darkest, will moo in a perfectly regular blast twenty or more times in succession. The sound echoes off the hills like a fire alarm coming from the house.
At these times, she sounds authoritative. But she has no authority.
— from The Cows
After I put this book together I had to think of the deeper emotional connection I had with the whole subject and of course that has to do with animal rights, which I didn't know at the beginning. Before I wrote anything down, I certainly wasn't thinking this would have to do with that, but after, when I stand back and look at, I think why am I so emotionally attached? Because I don't write about things unless I am emotionally attached to the subject in some way or other. So, it isn't just that the cows are sort of endearing or that I lost my dog shortly before I started writing about them. But it's also that I'm moved by the whole dilemma of how most cows live or die. So that line, her situation in that meadow, she has some authority, a little tiny bit, but in the big picture she has no power at all. I find that sad.
The cows I'm looking at are living in a very special situation. The fact is that two of them ended up in the freezer, but I knew that might happen. They're not mine, they belong to the neighbors and they can do what they want to do; but up till then they had a very privileged, or a very special life, an unusual life. I didn't know if they were being grown for food or what, so they were just sort of pets.
He says to us: they don't really do anything.
Then he says: But of course there is not a lot for them to do.
— from The Cows
The cows are owned — let's talk about the original three because two of them had calves and now what's left over is one cow and one calf; one of the calves was a bull and he was taken away and two of cows were taken away, so out of five there are two now — but the original three cows were owned each by one guy and they were all related, the guy and his brother-in-law and the brother-in-law's brother or something like that. I don't really talk much to them. I'm pretty shy with them and they're shy too. Next door to me lives the mother of one of them and she's a very talkative old woman, so whenever I go over and talk to her, I hear something. She doesn't have everything right but I hear things. It would completely change the nature of the book though if I started bringing in any of the background or the talking to the neighbor or anything else. I like it to exist in a sort of middle space, kind of floating.
The cows in the past, the present, and the future: They were so black against the pale yellow-green grass of late November. Then they were so black against the white snow of winter. Now they are so black against the tawny grass of early spring. Soon, they will be so black against the dark green grass of summer.
— from The Cows
Really I just wrote down things I noticed about them. It wasn't that organized. I can see the cows out my window so I would be washing the dishes and see one doing something, or I'd just be interested in the way it looked, so I would go over to a piece of paper and write down a sentence. It evolved very slowly over two or three years. It's important for me to work that way, to work slowly, so I'm not looking for things to say about them. It's always that the observations come to me. So if nothing interesting occurs to me for a month, then nothing interesting occurs to me and I don't write anything down. And then maybe I go upstairs and look out the window and I see them making a particular formation on the meadow and I think, oh that's beautiful, so then I go write it down before I forget it. And then after a while, I have all these slips of paper, usually they're all over the house; I begin to think, there are a lot of these, I should put them in some kind of order. I'm passive in a way I find productive. In other words, I never rush; I'm never aggressive about trying to sell an idea or something. I think readings help too. If I have enough observations, if I'm going to do a reading I think, maybe I'd like to read what I have so far. And then at a certain point Sarabande came to me and said we'd like to do a chapbook with you. So for me it was perfect.
Some of the photographs illustrate parts of the text, but a lot of them don't, so it becomes sort of an alternate way of looking at a cow. You can look at it verbally, create your own picture, and then you can look at her with the photo. I don't know if a single photo can show more than a single bit of description because really, to capture the whole of one little moment, I would have to write a lot more. Because it just came out and I've only given a couple of readings where that book was available, quite a few people will come and say, "Are those the actual cows?" [laughing] and I say, "Yes, those are the actual cows. It was not just illustrated with generic cows."
The way I come to put out a collection is sort of an accumulation: "Do I have enough?" Translating is different because the text is already there, all you have to do is sit down and work at it. It's more clear-cut. I'm not going to take out paragraphs that aren't good; I don't get into quandaries that way. It doesn't have the same doubt and worry and anxiety that writing does. There's a basic anxiety that you're so used to by now ... it's not horrible but there's always a question of should something be in or out, should it be said this way or another way, and you have the whole world of choices, so it's more anxious.
because she couldn't write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn
— "Suddenly Afraid," in Varieties of Disturbance: Stories
My dedication is really to prose; I cross the line into poetry, but I would have had to be writing poetry from the beginning and reading mostly poetry to consider myself a poet. My lineage is with prose, fiction. Recently I've been writing little quasi-historical essays or little quasi-essays about quasi-history. I'll pick an ancestor who interests me in my family and I'll write a little piece about the ancestor. Or, crossing lines again, I made these stories from Flaubert that appeared in the Paris Review last fall. Ten stories taken from Flaubert's letters that I translated but then transformed; I play with them, rewrite them. That's a little different. It's somewhere in between fiction and nonfiction: making a self-contained piece out of something that he reports, and that isn't fictional. I'm not pretending it's my story either. It's sort of in between his work and my work. I try to keep his language and his incident completely; I just change the tiniest things.
Imagine my glimpses of that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanized.
— James Joyce, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Nothing much has to happen in a story, but you have to have that feeling of intensity and then release, I guess, sometimes a little hysteria. One story that gets a mixed reaction in the last collection I put out was "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality." And I knew when I put it in there that it didn't have the punch of some of the others, it was a very quiet one. Some people say, "I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop," or a critic will say it doesn't quite succeed because it's realistic to a sort of academic paper, which I kind of like as a way to describe it. It's believable because it's tedious but it doesn't really succeed. Other reactions would be this is yet one more definition of story and how a story can be formed.
The following study presents the lives of two elderly women still thriving in their eighties and nineties. Although the account will necessarily be incomplete, depending as it does on the subjects' memories, it will be offered in detail whenever possible. Our hope is that, through this close description, some notion may be formed as to which aspects of the subjects' behaviors and life histories have produced such all-around physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
— from "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality," in Varieties of Disturbance
My gut sense was "Helen and Vi" didn't have the strength and wholeness of others, and usually I don't put a story in a collection if I think it's not quite finished or if it didn't quite work but I was very fond of this story. I decided to put it in anyway; I thought, "This one will be for me, even if other people don't like it or are puzzled by it." I feel that normally there should a greater intensity and then a quieting down in a story and in that one there isn't: that one's very level. But, as I said, some people are very moved by it. Who knows? It's that Michael Hofmann question again: Does it not succeed because this smart critic or that one decide it's tedious or does it succeed because a former student of mine loves it? I recently thought of what might have been a solution to this problem. The little character of Hope appears throughout but just very sparingly in italics, the third old woman. I realized what I could have done was — it'd still be very long — I would let her presence get bigger and bigger until she more or less took over. I don't know quite how I would do it but she could kind of take over as the one who didn't fit the pattern of the other two but asserted her own presence so then something would happen in the story.
This whole question of what's a good book or not so good and the reader's part in it is very clearly illustrated by Proust. Some readers love "Helen and Vi" because they're more patient. The readers who love Proust are just one whole category and the ones who can't stand it and want to get out after 30 pages are another. Are they bad readers? Or are they just temperamentally unsuited to Proust? You know, you've read the Amazon reader comments, and they'll always speak very authoritatively: "This book does not live up to its reputation" or "This is a way overestimated book in my opinion." I just find it interesting how different readers are. I've always known that. I've known it in the case of Beckett, for example, one reader will be just hungry for something really different or even difficult and another reader hates it and wants something very clear, very traditional. It's just sort of a matter of matching a reader to the right type of work.
But obviously there are still such things as good and bad writing.