Five Questions with Lydia Davis / by Washington Square

Photo by Theo Cote

Photo by Theo Cote

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and was named a Chevalier of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers, including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust. She is at work on a translation of Madame Bovary.

I spoke with Lydia Davis over email.

—Alisha Kaplan


1. Which punctation marks are most and least dear to you?

Well, already the question is difficult, because part of what I love about punctuation marks is their individual potential and power—and that power is immense, at certain moments, in certain sentences.  The marks I love the most are the comma and the period, because they are the simplest and the most versatile.  But I also love the precision with which a semi-colon sets off different statements from each other, and the way a colon introduces material.  I am probably least happy using an exclamation mark!

2. What were you like at fifteen?

At fifteen, I was romantic, excitable, sometimes lazy, sometimes very hard-working, sometimes reckless, sometimes mean, sometimes dishonest, sometimes lonely.  I liked boys, I liked writing and reading, I liked playing and singing music and studying music theory, and I liked the animals and natural landscape where I lived (in Vermont).  Not necessarily in that order.

3. Is there a lost writer you think would merit rediscovery?

The lost, or rather invisible, writer that I used to wish more people would read is now being read, and that is Lucia Berlin, the story writer.  A poet who is good and not mentioned nearly often enough is William Bronk.

4. Do you feel connected to any type of animal?

About animals—well, there is not any one particular type of animal I feel connected to, but in general I pay attention to all animals, and even insects.  I live with cats, and I live in a rural place where there are various sorts of pastured animals not too far away—horses, cows, alpacas, sheep, chickens.  There are deer and flocks of turkeys by the roadside.  A ring-necked pheasant used to come by every morning, making the rounds of the neighborhood.  I take great pleasure in looking at animals and insects, they intrigue me, they are fascinating in their sameness (to us) and difference (from us). 

5. Tell us something that gets lost in translation. 

I remember the end of a novel by Maurice Blanchot that I translated years ago and that included a long passage about thought—thought became almost a character.  In French, "thought" is a feminine noun.  So not only did Blanchot use the word "pensée", he also referred to thought using the pronoun "elle", which is "she".  That suggestion of the feminine was more or less lost in the English, although I had to hope that the way he talked about "thought" and "it" would carry some suggestion of the feminine.