Kathryn Davis: "True To Life."

Kathryn Davis: "True To Life."

Duplex book coverDon’t be fooled by the space warps, myths, and robots at the center of Duplex: according to author Kathryn Davis, the novel is as realistic as they come.

Zola: Duplex is not the first of your novels to be described as “hallucinatory” (The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle), or “less novel than dream” (PW). Is the trance-like quality of your work the product of an equally trance-like writing process, or is it consciously conceived?

Kathryn Davis: I would love to say that I write in a trance, sitting as if possessed by the muse—it’s such a beguiling and classical image of the writer at work. On the other hand, were I to say that, the implication would be that I have nothing to do with what I write, that it’s the beguiling muse who guides my hand and imagination—and who or what is she? I firmly believe that I’m responsible for everything I write. But then I also believe that I’m whoever I am when I dive down into the part of myself I can’t see. It’s not like I’m out of control. It’s like there’s a part of me living in the other half of the duplex.

Zola: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf gets its name almost verbatim from a Hans Christian Andersen folk tale; The Thin Place was inspired by Celtic mythology; Duplex started out as a re-telling of the Italian fable Corpo-senza-Anima. Where does your fascination with folklore come from?

KD: Lately, because I’ve been answering questions about who I am and why I write the way I do, I’ve been driven to revisit the whole nature/nurture question. Did the books my mother read to me at bedtime (fairy tales, mostly, myths and folktales) make me into the writer I turned out to be? Or was there something in me from the outset that craved those stories? Of course there’s no way of knowing the answer to this. But I suppose because I believe that we are all born with an animating spirit that is ours and ours alone, I also believe that something in me was predisposed to prefer The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf over The Little Engine that Could.

Zola: Of course, your novels aren’t ever purely fantastical: they’re hybrids of fantasy and realism. What do they gain from this interstitial quality? How does fantasy inform realism, and vice versa?

KD: I hope that what I write is about as “realistic” as a piece of writing ever can be, though maybe “true to life” is more like what I want to say here. I think The Metamorphosis is the most realistic autobiography ever written, and I hope Duplex aspires on some level to such lofty heights.

Zola: In an interview with Bookslut’s Donna Seaman in 2006, you confess to being the omniscient narrator in The Thin Place; more recently, in a Q&A with Graywolf, you make similar claims about Duplex. Most writers dread being identified with their narrators. Why don’t you?

KD: I have always loved books where an omniscient narrator seems to be speaking directly to me, the reader. I think part of the appeal of fairy tales for me was the way in which the person telling the tale seemed to be omniscient (i.e. to know everything) yet also to know me (the very specific person hearing the tale).

Zola: The meaning of a thing doesn’t emerge until there’s an ending and you can finally see how all the parts work together—or so you claim precisely towards the end of Duplex, thus prompting readers to make sense of its various parts. But the novel is made up of spatially and temporally disjointed parts, parts that don’t quite fit in a way that yields standard “meaning.” What do you hope your readers will discover instead?

KD: I am a great lover of murder mysteries. One of the reasons I love this genre is because I’m forced, as a reader, to pay attention to absolutely everything in order to figure out what actually happened. In a murder mystery there’s a deep and puzzling situation established early on, which the reader is encouraged to try to make sense out of before the end of the book. My novels aren’t murder mysteries, but this structural form—an initial mystery that governs the reader’s sense of how to read the book—is by far my favorite. It echoes the conditions of the house I grew up in, where a person constantly had to be on the lookout for clues in order to survive.

Zola: Your works are often more lyrical and visual than they are narrative: they paint beautiful pictures in beautiful language, with little focus on plot. Is “novel” really the best way to define them, or would you rather use another word?

KD: I never wanted to make something that was like what someone else was making and I got in a lot of trouble in elementary school for feeling this way. I am happiest when a reader isn’t able to say that one of my books is like a book written by someone else. On the other hand, among literary forms, I love the novel the best. I love what that form seems to permit, the illusion of a lot of time and space, maybe even boundaryless or endless time and space. The short story permits this also, but in a more obvious and aggressive way. I love the way a narrative can emerge and unfold in a novel in a long and apparently unbounded form. It’s bounded of course. That’s how the writer manages to conjure up a plot!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.