I am writing from beautiful Stow-on-the-wolds in England — cheerful beyond measure by splendid countryside and cream teas. While I’ve been away, the folks at the social networking site for women writers, Shewrites.com, have kindly posted a feature on me, called “Five Questions for Lauren B. Davis.”
This week poet Diane Lockward asks award-winning novelist Lauren B. Davis five questions about The Radiant City. A native Canadian, Lauren lived in France for a decade. She now makes her home in Princeton, NJ, where she is Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church.
1. The single-sentence first paragraph of The Radiant City—“The night is the wrong colour.”—reached out and pulled me right into the novel. The next paragraph begins, “The first sound he heard was the horses. They sounded like eagles torn apart, like metal gears stripping, like speared whales.” This is an intense and exciting opening. As a poet, I also found it poetic. How consciously do you work on style?
I’m flattered you use the word “poetic” as I don’t consider myself a particularly poetic writer. I have enormous admiration for poets, and language-driven prose, and often read poetry as a sort of mental stretching exercise before I start my writing day. However, in my own work I’m more obsessed with character than language—with what makes people tick, with their blind-spots, their frailties, and their yearnings. Everything stems from that and any linguistic pyrotechnics are in the service of revealing my characters interior worlds, and their conflicts.
For me, the more I concentrate on style, the less authentic it turns out to be.
The best writing comes from a deep place in the subconscious, and is then polished by the conscious mind. When I write it’s a sort of meditative state in which I “dream” a scene and allow whatever’s down in the dark tangled roots to bubble up to the surface. I get a scene on paper noting as many significant sense details as I can, and then go back and craft the language, the images, the “mechanics” of the scene, if you will, to serve the narrative.
2. The novel reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, relocated to Paris. How did it affect you to spend so much time with such dark, complex characters, with their wounds and scars, their degradation and their need for confession and redemption?
You’re right, it is a sort of journey to the heart of darkness, Jung’s “shadow.” And I would suggest the characters in all my books are pretty complex folks. Jack Saddler’s character in The Radiant City, for example, is a man haunted by violence, and by certain acts he committed in his past. This guilt informs everything he does, both consciously and subconsciously. Matthew is haunted not only by the violence he’s witnessed, but by the violence he was unable to stop. I put myself in these characters’ minds, in their bodies, in their situations.
Writing can be dangerous, psychologically. But it also offers enormous benefits for the writer (okay, perhaps not financially, but certainly emotionally, psychologically). Like most writers, I write about things that obsess me, questions for which I want answers, and/or situations I want to come to terms with. An overarching theme in my work is compassion—for others, for one’s self, for our terrible and beautiful fragility—and although spending so much time with damaged “people” can be heartbreaking, it’s also broadened my sense of compassion. In my faith tradition we have a prayer that asks God for forgiveness for what we have done, and what we have left undone. I hold that prayer in mind when I work with my characters, and am constantly reminded that I am, in so many ways, just like them. It helps me to see the interconnectedness of all things.
But I’m not sure I’d be able to write as deeply as I try to do if I lived the chaotic, drama-filled, self-destructive life I lived as a younger woman. I tell my students that the best thing for their writing is to live a simple, stable life. If one’s days are filled with high drama, one has very little energy left for the page. Quiet your life, leave the crises for the story. And, if you’re like me, get sober! Having a wise, gentle and supportive spouse also helps. It gives me a safety net. I can go into the subterranean depths, go deep, explore the underworld, if you will, and then come up at the end of the writing day to a place where I’m loved and where the light shines brightly again. Cooking also helps, and gardening. There’s something about either chopping vegetables or pruning the roses that grounds me. And friends who have kids tell me there’s nothing better for “resurfacing.”
3. Your protagonist, Matthew, a journalist recently wounded in Israel, now living in Paris and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is struggling to write a book about his experiences. What made you decide to make your protagonist a writer with writer’s block?
Oh, I suspect it’s because it’s one of my great fears. I know no other way to make sense or meaning of the world. Writing is how I process my experience, how I discover what I think and feel about things. Joan Didion once said she wrote to find out what she thought and that if she had any access whatsoever to her own mind she wouldn’t write. I feel the same way. If I couldn’t write, I fear what would happen to me.
A few years ago, when a manuscript was rejected by publishers, I fell into a horrible loss-of-faith-and-meaning depression. As a writer, if I couldn’t publish again, what would I do? Who was I, in fact? I had invested so much in the idea of myself as a Real Writer, by which I meant a successfully published one. Up until that moment I thought I had surrendered to The Writer’s Life, but I hadn’t. Not to all of it. Oh, I’d surrendered to the sorrow of never quite writing the book you imagine, and to difficulties with agents and publishers, to envy over other writers getting bigger advances and better reviews, etc.; to the stresses of book tours, and bad sales, and the general disappointment that floods in when the publishing experience isn’t what we think it will be; BUT I hadn’t surrendered to the possibility (inevitability) that once having been invited to the party, I might (will) be uninvited.
I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I quit. And so I stopped writing, blocked by the business end of this life. Or, I tried to stop. What I discovered after several AWFUL months was that, publish or not publish, as crazy as the business makes me, I’m actually less crazy when I’m writing than when I’m not writing. And so, I learned to surrender to a deeper level. To write again regardless of the publishing outcome.
4. I was astonished and awed by the range of knowledge displayed in the book, e.g., the variety of ethnic cultures, the background of recent history and current events, even your description of the layout of Paris. What kind of research—and living—went into writing the book?
I lived in Paris while I wrote The Radiant City. I lived in France for ten years, and it seemed the natural setting for this book. People have been coming to Paris as political and psychological refugees for as long as anyone can remember, and Paris permits it, even if it doesn’t truly like it. It’s quite remarkable in that way. The French have an expression: “Parce que j’ai le droit.” Because I have the right. Which means they pretty much do what they want, when they want, how they want, where they want, and they expect you to do the same. It’s an attitude that can be infuriating if you’re expecting people to take your comfort into account, but on the other hand it permits the individual an unbelievable amount of personal freedom. This makes it a good place to get lost, as Matthew and Jack want to do, but it has its dangers, since it is easy to lose your way in the winding streets of Paris, both metaphorically and concretely.
When I’m preparing to write about people whose lives are vastly different from my own, I try to do enough research to stimulate my imagination without overwhelming it. Since I write fiction, rather than non-fiction, the work is essentially a construction of my mind’s eye, with facts as foundational elements. Of course, you do hard research, and you pray you get the big facts right—because if you don’t it will detract from the story and people will write you unpleasant letters! But part of the trick is not over-researching. Still, I take my research seriously and it often takes years of reading, interviewing people, and scouting the environments, where possible. In the case of The Radiant City, I wandered through the Parisian streets looking for relevant and evocative sites… the Passy cemetery, the bois de Boulogne, the chapel to Saint Rita, patron saint of prostitutes, and many others. I went to the Lebanese Cultural Center on rue d’Ulm near the Panthéon and spoke with people there, spent time in their church, wandered through the North African neighborhood—Barbés and Belleville—taking photos and absorbing the smells and the sounds and the textures of the place, eating mounds of couscous and tagine, drinking innumerable cups of espresso. Then I went back to my little room and let it all flow out, clothing the characters.
I also spoke to a number of journalists I knew, I read extensively (for every book I write I read at least a hundred), both memoirs and reportage on the places I refer to. But really, at the heart of it is a lot of dreaming with eyes open. Hopefully, a writer has developed the ability to empathize, to imagine what another’s life would be like, what their feelings would be in this situation, or in that situation. You research what the facts of the event are, and then you sit quietly, close your eyes, and dream.
5. One of the epigraphs to the novel is a quotation from The Very Reverend Ernest Hunt: “Cynicism is the last refuge of the broken-hearted.” Those words are reiterated to Matthew by Anthony, a former cop and another of the wounded, displaced characters. That line seems central to the novel. Tell us a bit about what those words mean to you.
I began writing The Radiant City just after the horrible events of 9/11 and those events haunted me as I worked. Because I was living in Paris at the time, and not New York, I didn’t feel qualified (and still don’t) to write about events specifically, but there’s no doubt they affected me. I suffered a fairly bad depression after 9/11. I was obsessed with the news, cried on and off for months, and I felt increasingly guilty about that.
I felt I should have already known what this awful disillusionment felt like. It shouldn’t have ambushed me this way—how could I not have known? I was disappointed in myself. I was disillusioned not only with the world, but with my understanding of it. So, what was it about this particular event that crushed me more than any other? I suspect it was that I felt closer to 9/11 than to Chechnya, or Yugoslavia, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda. I’m ashamed to admit that, because I think of myself as someone whose mental borders are global, not national, and certainly not tribal. But for whatever reason, I now knew something, viscerally, profoundly, about the world’s potential for barbarity, that I didn’t fully recognize before. And it shocked me. And the fact that I was shocked, shocked me. So I began writing in order to figure it all out.
I wanted to know if it was possible, after suffering a profound disillusionment, to continue to walk through the world with a compassionate heart, or if one was doomed to cynicism. How do we protect ourselves against the insidious cancer of cynicism?
And so, Matthew and Jack and Saida and Anthony were born, people full of disillusionment, hounded by their devastating pasts. They are all battered, brittle survivors of violence in one form or another, and yet they still may be powerless to turn away from violence.
And then one day, Rev. Ernest Hunt, the priest at the American Episcopal Cathedral in Paris at the time, said, “Cynicism is the last refuge of the broken-hearted.” It was as though he’d been reading over my shoulder. And he was kind enough to allow me to use the quote.
I’ll be back to regular posting when I’m home next week.