Four Questions with Writer-in-Residence Lydia Davis


Lilian Kim
Staff writer

Writer and professor Lydia Davis will be showcasing her profession as an author and translator at the Corwin Pavilion on Tuesday, March 3 at 7 PM. The 2013 Man Booker International Prize winner will read new pieces and excerpts from her latest book Can’t and Won’t. Davis will also discuss the process of writing, elucidating how being a translator influences how she writes. Sponsored by the University of California, Santa Barbara 2015 Diana and Simon Raab Writer-in-Residence Program, this free event is presented by both the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and Writing Program.

Davis completed her studies at Barnard College and has distinguished herself as a poet, short-story writer, and translator through various merits, totaling to 14 awards and six books. In addition to being a 2012 Lillian Vernon Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, she continues to contribute her expertise in her field as a creative writing professor at SUNY-Albany and State University of New York.

1. What inspired you to write Can’t and Won’t?
Well, I did not write Can’t and Won’t all at once, so there was not one particular inspiration for it. It’s made up of about 122 stories, most of them quite short, and it was written over time—probably about five years. Each story was inspired by something different. It has “everyday” stories about daily life; and “dream stories,” which narrate actual dreams or waking experiences that were like dreams; and stories adapted from anecdotes in the letters of Gustave Flaubert; and very-short stories that I began writing while I was translating Marcel Proust’s very long sentences; and others, harder to classify.
2.What message do you want to relay in your reading, or what do you aim to accomplish during your reading event?
I don’t usually think ahead and plan any message that I wish to convey. I choose some stories that seem to go together and make a coherent reading, and I hope that people will be interested, inspired, amused, entertained, puzzled—any one of a number of reactions that individuals in an audience might have to the various stories I plan to read. I think writing should be not only enjoyable to listen to, but also provocative, thoughtful, inspiring.
3. What do you think is distinct about both writing and translating?
Writing and translating both need to be done in solitude. You have to shut out the world when working on either one. This is true of many arts, of course, aside from the collaborative ones. You also need to focus and concentrate very hard on what you’re doing, and, in my case anyway—but this is true of a lot of writers I’ve talked to—you need absolute silence, no music, no conversations nearby. I see translating as a form of writing, but in the case of translating, the material is already there, shaped and formed, and the skill needed is to put it into English, to compose the English sentences. So translation does not have any of the anxiety of original writing—it is writing that you can work on when you’re tired, or uninspired.
4.What is the writing process to you? How do you go about the process and how does it make you feel?
I enjoy writing, which is not the case for all writers—I know some who are very anxious and unhappy as they write. But it is true that there is always some anxiety involved, because you can never be sure that the piece of writing will turn out well—it may not. Or it may take a long time and many tries before it turns out well. I tend to take any subject matter at all as good subject matter for a piece of writing, as long as it interests me. I write my first draft quite quickly, so that I don’t lose the impulse and the flow of ideas. Then I let it sit, come back to it, keep making small changes until nothing more bothers me about it, and then it is done. But sometimes it has problems I can’t solve for a very long time, so I am also patient, and I don’t rush it out into the world before it’s ready.