An Interview with Peter Ho Davies

by William H. Coles


Peter Ho Davies Interview 7/31/2013

Equal Love by Peter Ho DaviesThe Welch Girl by Peter Ho DaviesPeter Ho Davies

Peter Ho Davies is a contemporary British writer of Welsh and Chinese descent, born and raised in Coventry, who was a physicist before studying English at Cambridge University. He moved to the US in 1992. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has taught at the University of Oregon, and at Emory University, and has been director of the MFA Program at the University of Michigan where he now teaches creative writing. He is the author of The Welsh Girl (2007), The Ugliest House in The World (1997), Equal Love (2000).

NAPA Valley Community College.  July 31, 2013.

I’m with Peter Ho Davies, author and professor of  creative writing at University of Michigan.  Peter is teaching a five-day course at the NAPA Valley Writers Conference in St. Helena, California.

WHC

Peter.  Great course this week.  You’re a gifted teacher of fiction.  Thanks for agreeing to talk to storyinliteraryfiction.com.

PHD

Oh, sure.

WHC

I’d like to start with a general question.  What is story to you?  What it means to you and what you convey to your students, but also what it means to humanity and our culture.

PHD

It’s funny and coincidental that we were talking this morning in class about Forster’s distinction between story and plot. Story, in his view bing, a sequence of events – the king died, the queen died – whereas plot imposes causality and motivation – the king died and then the queen died of grief.  I guess that’s the way I tend to think about the function of fiction in our community, in our civilization, in our humanity. It performs in Foresterian terms the role of plot . . . we take events and by thinking about causality and the motivations that underlie them we better understand the life we have lived or others have lived around us.  So it feels as if plot–causality, motivation–is the place where we find meaning in event, why one thing happened after another, how one thing relates to another.  I think for writers and for readers, and even listeners for oral story telling, what we’re searching for in life is what it means.  There are lots of ways to think about that.  From larger scale to smaller scale, some obviously religious, some philosophical, but also more simply on a level of character motivation and emotion.  I think that’s what drives me.  I think about my life, the lives of people around me, the contemporary world and the historical world that predates me; I think what did it mean, why did it happen that way, what caused these things to take place?  And that’s the thing that drives me in my fiction.

WHC

So a story enlightens in some way, expresses a meaning, how to live based on how fictional characters and real “characters” live?

PHD

I think so, but I’m not necessarily saying this is the way to do it.  This is the way to live,  or this is the meaning of life.  I think stories are offered as thought experiments.  This in not the way to live but a way to live.  We, as writers and readers, get to explore those decisions.  What does it mean if I were that person?  What if I walked in that person’s shoes?  That doesn’t mean that was a definitive version.  It’s an exploration.  I’d like my stories to contain meaning . . . it just doesn’t have to be the definitive meaning.  The effort here is to find in randomness, some sense of meaning and shape, some sense of direction.

WHC

There is movement and there is change, both in the characters and the readers?

PHD

I think that’s right, although there can be a separation in that regard.  We can talk about stories in which we want to see a character change, but it’s also incredibly powerful to see a character fail to change.

WHC

So the potential for change has to be there, potential that may provide meaning.

PHD

Precisely.

WHC

Are most successful stories, particularly in prose, flirting with metaphysical questions that we don’t know the answers to?  Why are we here?  Is there a God?  What is beauty?  What is justice?

PHD

That, I think, is very interesting.  I’m reminded of the lecture yesterday where mystery was talked about . . . as Flannery O’Connor talks about in various ways.  And that might begin to bump up against the metaphysical in the ways you’re talking about.  I’m interested in stories that are successful to me, stories that I would aspire to write, stories I’m intrigued by.  There is at the heart of them some human mystery, also some characterological mystery.  We have been talking in workshop about informational mystery, which is often contrived by the author by holding back [from the reader] information that the characters already know to make the reader read on looking for the crumbs and the clues, even if that feels manipulative to the reader.  But I’m interested in mysteries that, in part, can’t be solved.  It’s hard to talk about this without speaking of my work–out of laziness or not being well read I always revert to my own work in these contexts – but it’s the work that I know best.  I think of a story of mine called “The Ugliest House in The World” in which a child has died and one of the  protagonists feels guilty.   And I think the struggle in that story is that the character is not legally guilty . . . an accident has occurred, but because it has occurred on his property he feels guilty.  And other people have ascribed guilt to him.  And it feels as if there is a tension here to this character being guilty and not guilty.  On the one hand, I feel, and of course I’m no lawyer, the character is not guilty.  Accident occurs, but emotionally he feels guilty.  And my sympathy for him as a figure is actuated by [the fact] that he feels guilty.  And so what intrigues me about that character is that he is at once simultaneously guilty and not guilty.  And that’s a mystery.  How do we address something where two mutually exclusive opposites are enshrined in the same human being?  I can say that as baldly as we just discussed and it remains fascinating to me; it remains an impenetrable mystery.  And I would argue that that is what is fascinating to me about character.  Human beings are capable of embodying opposite ideas . . . simultaneously.  That reminds me of my background as a physicist many years ago when I was particularly captivated by wave particle duality where the concept of two mutually exclusive concepts can be used to describe the same phenomenon of light or matter. 

WHC

How do you work on delivering emotion such as guilt on the page, in the story, and do it without demeaning the intensity of the emotion or the character?  How especially do you deliver it through action?

PHD

We’re inclined to deny guilt, but the denial itself often points toward guilt. So I’m intrigued by what I feel is a misdirection in character.  The denial of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Denial is the signal sign that the guilt is felt.

WHC

One stimulation that came from your discussions was the overall concept of narration.  I find it difficult to conceive a sophisticated understanding of narration of prose stories because it’s so different than developing a story on film, or orally.  As writers, we have so many more things we can do with narration than other forms of storytelling, but with that there a many techniques we can abuse.  You mentioned the differences between classical narration and contemporary narration for the modern academic writer.  In the old narrative techniques, a writer worked in a structured narrative environment, such as beginning, middle and end, conflict action and resolution, and the drama.  There were emotional displays through action.  There you have the opportunity to use a narrator.  The term omniscient always bothers me a little because omniscient means all knowing, godlike, and in fiction writing “all-knowing” omniscient seems to be best applied to multiple points of view with omniscience only in the world views of the characters the writer has created and chooses for the delivery of story.

PHD

Right.  An omniscient narrator who has the ability to not just be all knowing but to enter the consciousness of many characters.

WHC

That’s pretty well defined.  But in contemporary times, the author becomes the narrator, and actually dictates what goes into the story.  In classical times the narrator could be objective . . .

PHD

Ohhh.  I would argue the reverse of that in some ways.  In the classical sense, we associate  Dicken’s narrators, Austen’s narrators, with Dickens and Austen.  They are all knowing, all seeing as by definition the author of a work is.  But they are also out to offer us judgment.  Or more gently, guidance as to how we see and interpret their characters.

WHC

Okay.

PHD

But it also is often explicit how to feel about these people.  They’ll show it too, but they’ll often tell it.  And I think that’s a mode of narration, the classic mode, that’s enjoyable to sink into as a reader, that also speaks to a time and a period when narrators were godlike, authors were godlike.  I certainly don’t feel godlike, I think a lot of contemporary writers don’t feel godlike. I don’t think we draw unto ourselves the right to be omniscient, but also I think we are hesitant in our judgment.  I think that’s a reflection perhaps  maybe of the way cultural movements, the way scientific discoveries, and the entire history of our entire civilization over the last couple of hundred years has chipped away at traditional visions of faith and our position in the universe . . .and our relationship to God.   So now we see omniscience in the context of a modernist like Woolf.  There is a roving omniscience that is capable of dipping in and out of various characters.  But [she] does not step back in between those moments as often as in previous incarnations and offer an explicit authorial judgment of those characters.

WHC

Which Tolstoy was very happy to do.  But Woolf also describes the authorial narration, especially in the nineteenth century as almost incandescent.  The authorial presence as incandescent.  So the author is not directly present in the story description but everything that is said, every action taken, every judgment made, stamps the author (as the creator).  I think that’s especially true of Austen.  Austen isn’t in the drawing rooms, but she’s always there.  And that’s true of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

PHD

I don’t know that quote of Wolff’s, but it is lovely phrasing, but I do think in her work, although it’s been a while since I read her, that her presence lights the book so that authorial presence lights the characters.

WHC

Hers is an intellectually generated presence, don’t you think?  She was smart.  [That helps.] But it does put her directly in the book.  She’s objective, not necessarily needing to make the story her personal story.

PHD

Objectivity is interesting and may reflect a weakening of faith in some ways, but also the ascendancy of scientific method. Again this all leads to the sense of the nineteenth century author as a chattty narratorial presence receding in a lot of contemporary work.. We stand in the wings, rather than as a impresario standing at the center of the stage.

WHC

Memoir has become so dominant in contemporary writing and seems to have almost drowned out classic fiction.  But with time, memoir has slipped into the narrative techniques of fiction.  Often writers seem to approach story as a confessional, or cathartic, a tool for revealing events or emotions they’ve had in their life.  And without hesitancy to alter facts in memoir, or use life for description in fiction.  Isn’t this degrading the quality of both memoir and fiction?  As a teacher directing writers to write with meaning and the possibility of contributing to the literature of our generations, do you see an erosion of quality with this trend and are you concerned?

PHD

I don’t see that a lot in my own teaching experience because my students are supposedly all purportedly working on fiction, and I engage with it as fiction.  As I said in class, my supposition is that any fiction has to be built from autobiographical experiences in some way, but we will approach it as fiction.  If I were teaching memoir classes, I might deal more directly with these questions.  There are dangers in that movement, but I don’t want to decry it entirely.  There has been a small shift, but not massive, in marketing strategy.  What we call memoirs today, particularly those written with fictional techniques, in an earlier generation we would have described as autobiographical novels.   Something I do and most fiction writers do in some form or other.  The question is  how far is that fiction disguised and how far it is projected away from the self in some ways.  The danger in memoir ultimately is that it accentuates the authority of “this really happened,” which can sometimes be a blunt force and supersede the authority of persuasion, plausibility, which I think of as fiction’s traits.  So the elevation of memoir can sometimes make fictional persuasion pallid by comparison.  Outrageous things can happen if I tell you it was outrageous and it really happened, you are obliged to believe it.  If an outrageous thing happens in my fiction, I have to work a little harder to make you believe it.  Things are less believable in fiction than they are sometimes in a piece that purports to be nonfiction. 

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

WHC

That goes to the very first thing you asked in class.  You asked people to describe why they write.  This would seem to say for quality stories and quality and writing, the focus should be on reader response.  There are dramatists who say success in plays not so much the emotional and intellectual transference on the stage, but what happens to the audience.  And your list from Negotiating with the Dead that had a number of authorial motivations for writing[i], and few that focused on a writer’s goal of entertaining and enlightening another human being.  I want to play the piano so well I-evoke-a-response-in-another-person-that’s-memorable idea.

PHD

In that list of reasons Atwood compiled for why writers write there are, very loosely, a couple of categories. I would describe them as high and low motives.  Some of those lower ones were very human, very individual, but I think we might recognize them, or we might own them. I write for revenge, I write for money, I write so my children can have shoes, that sort of thing. But set against that are goals like to justify the words of God to man, to tell stories that will be forgotten if they are not told, to right wrongs. These are motives that are directed toward the reader.  And I guess what I like about that list is that you don’t have to pick one of these reasons.   We are all of us made up of many of these reasons.  And again, speaking of characters and contradictory ideas, I think we write for ourselves and we write for others.  I don’t think it’s a choice between those two things; I think it’s those two things simultaneously.  It’s about an act of communication.  The communication is self communicating to you.  You can never quite separate those two figures.

WHC

And of course, it doesn’t make any difference for most, if you want to be a writer, and you enjoy writing whatever your motivation is, go ahead and do it.  But if you look at writing as your want to see the quality of fiction reach a certain threshold, how do you create  great fiction to engage a larger number of people, to attract agents and publishers to accept quality even in a market that may not see big-money potential?  It seems to me if an author is going to write fiction that reaches a certain quality of fiction that can attract those now adverse to fiction, it is important for that writer to identify in themselves why they write so they don’t depend on monetary reasons that dominate and dictate their writing so they never reach standards of creative excellence, admittedly as defined by me.

PHD

Interesting.  One of the reasons we write is to know ourselves.  We can’t communicate ourselves, and our visions, and our sense of character, until we know ourselves.  The kind of recursive writing in revision is an effort at that understanding.  We write it, so we think we know what we mean by it.  But one of the things we discover in revision is what we really mean by it.  We deepen the meaning, in the process, change the meaning in various ways. 

WHC

I’d like to think about the fictional dream.  Should stories, and should authors, try to engage the reader—because it seems like the fictional dream is a thermometer on whether you’ve engaged a reader—and should stories entertain?

PHD

Oh, sure.

WHC

The reason I ask is I’ve had a number of academic teachers say that if your purpose as a writer is to entertain a reader that you lose the ability to create literature as an art form.[ii]  Some authors write to please themselves, ignoring a reader.

PHD

That’s interesting.  A dichotomy is being suggested.  That you cannot do it all.  That you can entertain OR do something serious and artful.   I would say that it’s quite clear that examples of great literature we have from the past, we have with us today because we are entertained.  They not only entertain, they entertain in very enriched ways.  There are academics who read whatever they might read, however esoteric it might be, they read it because in some sense it entertains them.  If we think about this in the large sense of entertainment, intellectual stimulation is entertainment. Michael Chabon, of course, in his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Light,” [pointed out] that we suspiciously view entertainment as a sort of gaudy pleasure in some ways.  But there are many ways in which deep reading, very scholarly reading, are also about the satisfying engagement with another.   We all in some way aspire to entertain.  We just don’t only aspire to entertain.

WHC

When we see struggling fiction writers, we see a tendency to go to a highly poetic style of writing.  Metaphors, a flowering of adjectives and adverbs, attention to alliteration and onomatopoeia and the like, flourish as a writer’s career progresses. How does that affect the development of story as structure?  It seems to take away, especially for the beginning writer of fiction, the ability to instill conflict, drama, theme, and meaning in story.  Excessive poetics seems to hinder development of effective emotional arcs, theme-useful plots, depth of characterization that drives plot events (rather than just responding to plot events).  And this seems to be happening to a significant degree in contemporary fiction . . . where a story is overwhelmed by an abundance of attention to language complexity that results in obscurity and inaccuracy for story development.

PHD

It’s hard to generalize and I hesitate to in some ways.  Some of these things are affected by taste of course.  Probably many of us, if not all of us, come to writing, at least in part, with a fascination for language.  We are drawn by language. And as young writers especially we may enjoy the fun house of language, enjoy language to excess.  That’s part of the joy, part of the play.  But it’s part of play that probably indulges us more than it does our readers.  Sometimes it can get in the way of narrative.  It’s also sometimes true that younger writers, I should also say that older writers are also prone to this, think they need to sound “like a writer.”  Out of our own anxiety, we think: What does a writer sound like?  I’ll just sound like that.  And sometimes that does result in a florid language, excessive language. 

WHC

The default for storytelling is narrative description about feelings, about events, about characters.  It’s what we have to go to without much thought.  Can you teach a creator of imaginative fiction various needs for story development [in scene and in the moment development, internalization, effective dialogue, accurate metaphor, etc.] and characterization.  Is that teachable, or is that something that is inherent.

PHD

Some people have a greater or lesser aptitude for it.  But I think we can help everybody towards it.  Sometimes it’s about listening to your story, listening to the language.  Certain word choices that might have been subconscious might provoke [the questions]: Why did you choose that word?  Why did that character use that word?  Does that provoke a way of thinking about the character that hasn’t previously been considered?  Does that provoke a potential query for plot that hasn’t previously been explored?  So I do think these things are not always separable.  The language is how we tell the story.  Our analytic mindset, the way we apprehend the world, the way we teach creative writing—we like to chop it up.  And I’d like to think that fiction puts it back together.  These are not either-ors, they are both.  We have to tear them apart to do the analysis to begin with. Then we have to engage with the issue of synthesis and put them back together again.

WHC

Thanks.  That helps out a lot.  What we’ve been considering is how, as beginning writers, do we set ourselves up, how do we think about writing, how do we think about story, and what do we need to study?  The idea about copying another successful writer, it’s great to a certain extent, but it’s not that useful if you want to develop as an individual . . . your own style and career.  You’ve allowed us to see alternatives in ways of thinking that can help us develop self as a writer while creating effective, entertaining stories.  It’s been a valuable discussion.

I’d love for you to tell us about your new book about the transcontinental railroad.

PHD

Well, it’s hard to talk about it at the moment.  It’s in progress.  It’s morphing before my eyes.  But I’m enjoying it.  Writing can be hard work, joyless.  But at the moment [this book] feels alive to me.

WHC

I know you have another appointment.  I’d like to thank you for participating.

PHD

I’m very happy to do it.

 


[i] Margaret Atwood, in Negotiating with the Dead, examines with originality and value why writers write. Here are summarized examples:

  • Revenge
  • Fear and fascination with mortality
  • Enduring fame
  • Leaving a name
  • Fear of obscurity
  • Tell a story
  • For knowledge
  • Chance to battle an evil monster
  • To remember the loved and the lost
  • To bring back the dead to the living
  • To learn from our ancestors

Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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