How about answering the one question you don’t want to answer? Going on the assumption, that is, that there’s one part of you that doesn’t know what the other part is up to, like the gestalt exercise where you jump from one chair to another, having a conversation with yourself, as if the person who you are in the first chair is completely separate from the person you are in the second. Or like when you’re talking to yourself and you hear yourself say “If I were you…”
Is your writing more important to you than anything else in your life?
Of course it’s supposed to be—isn’t that one of the ways you can separate the real artists from the phonies? The truth is, ever since I was a little girl I knew that what I wanted to be was an artist. It was how I understood who I was; it was how I justified disappointments like not being as pretty as Lynn Cherieci, even though nowadays the young writers are all exceptionally good looking, at least in their photos…
Stop avoiding the question! Given a choice between being able to write and everything else in your life, where would you draw the line? Is there anything you would sacrifice in order to make art?
If a monster, or even a wise mediator like Solomon, were to hold a sword above the head of someone I love—my daughter or my husband or my sister or my sister’s husband or one of my friends—there is no way I would choose my writing over them. Those lives are precious. Life itself is precious.
All life? What about the lives of our “unborn neighbors,” as I heard fetuses referred to the other day on the radio?
But what if the monster who’d been holding the sword were suddenly the one in jeopardy? What if a monster’s life was being held in the balance? Adolf Hitler (the usual example). Karl Rove. You have it in your power to save this evil person’s life, but you will never write again. What then?
Naturally that choice seems like no choice at all until you consider the implications. A monster? Who says? Where does “person” stop and “monster” take over? Why do you think Tolstoy used “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” as the epigraph for Anna Karenina?
Except aren’t I the one asking the questions? Of course this is exactly what you’d expect in a self-interview. It’s as difficult to separate the questioning self from the answering self as it is to tell the difference between a person and a monster. It’s like when you were in eighth grade and the school literary magazine sponsored a contest on the subject of “compromise.” Do you remember that poem you wrote? “No Compromise”?
Of course I do. The idea was that any time you mix good and evil, evil always wins out. After going on and on describing a bunch of things like “rats covered in soft kitten fur” and “lambs mourning in the wind with the cries of jackals” the poem concludes with: “And above it all/demons on angel wings soared up to Heaven/As the angels flung fire in a/Furnace-like Hell.
Phew! Needless to say, not a winner…
Well it wasn’t a very good poem, in any event. I’m just waiting to see how long it’s going to take you to realize that the reason you’re asking these questions is because they’re at the heart of the book you’ve just written. What does it mean to be—like the Sorcerer—a Body-without-Soul? It’s one thing to be a robot. It’s another thing to be a person. But to be a flesh and blood person without a soul isn’t the same as being a robot.
Are you saying you’re better equipped to talk about these things now than when you were in Miss Kenworthy’s eighth grade english class?
I certainly hope so. The girl who wrote that poem, who’s still there inside me, layered over like the parts of the teacher in my book, “forming a great laminate like tree rings around heartwood,” hopes so too.
KATHRYN DAVIS is the author of seven novels, the most recent of which are Duplex (2013) and The Thin Place (2006). Her other books are Labrador (1988), The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (1993), Hell: A Novel(1998), The Walking Tour (1999), andVersailles (2002). She has received a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006, she won a Lannan Foundation Literary Award. She is the senior fiction writer on the faculty of The Writing Program at Washington University.