For Peter Ho Davies, the author of The Atlantic's December short story, the challenge is to slip fiction into history, and vice versa
December 16, 1998
For the past decade, Davies has accumulated degrees -- a B.S. in physics, a B.A. in English, an M.A. in creative writing -- and worked in publishing. In 1995, two years after graduating from Boston University's creative-writing program, Davies's first U.S. publication was selected for the Best American Short Stories collection -- as was another story the following year. He has since published a book of short stories, The Ugliest House in the World, won an O'Henry Award and an NEA Fellowship (among other prizes), and is now a creative-writing professor at the University of Oregon.
Davies spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
Previously in Facts & Fiction:
Richard Bausch ("Par," August, 1998)
Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)
Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)
Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)
Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)
Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)
E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)
Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)
Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)
Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)
Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)
More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
I can hide behind facts. I can smuggle in among facts things that aren't facts but that could be read that way. That's very satisfying. One of the things I enjoy about fiction is its slyness. The ability to slip things in. Working with historical material, where there's already some factual basis, accentuates that slyness for me. It spurs my imagination. I tend to find that I'll come up with two or three facts and then I'll be inspired to join the dots between them with my fictional imagination.
How do you manage the line between history and fiction?
I play fairly fast and loose with this line. And I always manage it in favor of the fiction. I don't really want to position myself as a historical writer in the traditional way. If the fiction is taking me in a direction that is not altogether borne out by the research, then I'll try where I can, within set limits, to pursue the fiction.
I look for small bubbles, pockets of history -- chapters that aren't well known, or, if they are known, ones that have an overlay of popular myth. Take, for example, my Welsh story about the battle at Rourke's Drift. I did a lot of historical research on that story, and it's fairly accurate, I hope. The fact that there's a rousing movie version of that battle out there called Zulu -- making for a slight consciousness of the battle in the public imagination -- made me feel as though I could take some liberties with it myself.
Tobias Wolff once remarked, in an Atlantic Unbound interview, "I have no theory of stories, just a theory for each story I write." What about you?
It's hard to go through graduate school, and to teach in a program, without having an awareness of what I often describe to my students as the Old-Wives' Tales of fiction: show, don't tell; write about sympathetic, likable characters, and so on. I'm conscious of those things, but at the same time I'm always excited by stories that contravene those rules. Because they're not rules, of course. We don't have a unified theory of fiction, and it's nice to fall between the gaps. No two stories are so alike that the challenges of one are replicated in another -- there is always that sense of trying to reinvent your approach on the basis of what each individual story and its character requires. So the short answer is that Toby Wolff is right.
Critics have made much of the fact that you were born to a Welsh father and a Chinese mother, grew up in Britain, and now live in the United States. What is your reaction to the attention given to your background?
A couple of the reviews have referred to me as a born outsider, which makes me feel as though I should be like James Dean or something -- so much cooler than I feel I actually am. My background makes me a natural outsider -- not in a cool way, but in a slightly "geeky" way.
If I was being pegged as an "Asian-American" writer, or just a "British" writer, I might feel a little labeled. But a "Sino-Celtic" writer? That's beyond being pigeon-holed! The only time that this actually bothers me is when people get my background wrong. It's a reasonable confusion to describe my mother as Malaysian, and I think it's perfectly acceptable to do so, particularly if a reviewer does it only in a line or two in the review. But the background is more complicated. My mother is from a Chinese community in Malaysia, and at some levels she would consider herself Malaysian. Yet in Malaysian politics that very question -- Who is Malaysian? -- is a huge political issue.
I often get tagged as being Welsh. One of the issues in my work is my own skepticism about my Welshness. I have a strong sense that the facts that I was not born in Wales, and have not lived in Wales, and specifically don't speak the Welsh language, mean that I don't really qualify as Welsh. That issue of identify -- what qualifies you as a member of a community -- is something complicated that I'm working through in my fiction. So to see it show up just as a line in a bio is slightly frustrating.
Do different settings dictate different stylistic approaches for you? What about voice?
I like to hop around -- stories set in the present, stories set in the past, stories in Britain, stories in the United States, stories in Southeast Asia. I do need a variety of voices -- to use only one voice would limit the amount of material I can have access to. There are always times when one feels a little claustrophobic with one's own voice, one's own territory -- and breaking away from that is very valuable. It also makes the process more enjoyable -- all bets are off, I don't have to compete with myself and the last thing I did.
But it's not as if I have a voice for every ethnicity, or setting, or even every period. I certainly don't think, Well, I'm going to write a story featuring Chinese characters and set in Southeast Asia, so I'll turn on voice number one, or, I'm going to write a story set in Wales, so I'll turn on voice number two.
I've always questioned my right to "own" some of this material. Although I have connections to the sources through my parentage, my access to them is fairly indirect and glancing. The fact that I don't speak Welsh or Chinese, that I don't live in Wales, and that I only lived in Malaysia for one year, has made me question my authority to write this work. I think that may be played out in some of my voice choices. It's also played out in some of the historical material. Once I set a story back in time, it's less directly within the immediate ken of people I know, so they can't say, No, it didn't happen that way, that's a lie.
Does the way a story has been presented to you -- how your family tells the story, for instance -- influence your approach?
A question I'm occasionally asked in relation to my background is whether my parents are storytellers. I do draw upon their stories, but neither of my parents are storytellers. In fact I think one of the reasons I'm a storyteller is to fill in the gaps between all the little snippets that I slowly gleaned from them over the years.
I'm more conscious of the influence of other work. My story "Relief," for instance, owes its roots, in part, to the voice of Joseph Conrad. I decided to write a traditional story about men sitting around a table telling yarns and giving long speeches, and I thought, Who have I read who's done that well? It was a very short journey to Marlow in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. And then it turned out that Conrad was writing about characters from the same period that I was writing about in that story, so I looked to him for rhythms, vocabulary, and phrases.
You've been compared to Julian Barnes, V. S. Naipaul, and James Joyce. Are any of these writers indeed influences?
That's always an interesting question. It's flattering to have such comparisons and influences posited, but often reviewers just seem to be going out on a limb. I have to admit a little shamefacedly that I've read very little Naipaul. But when somebody wrote that he was an influence on my work, I went out and read more Naipaul to see if I could get something from him. To some degree the same has been true with Joyce. I've read a lot more of Julian Barnes, but I'm not sure I would describe him as a major influence. There are probably thousands of other influences on my work, but it's hard to trace them.
"The Union," a story about Welsh quarrymen on strike, attends to the complicated current of shame running beneath union solidarity: unable to provide for their families, the strikers can't meet their wives' eyes, but because they are afraid of "shamefully" betraying their peers, they remain loyal to the union. What drew you to explore the idea of shame in this story?
One of the dominant influences on me growing up was the huge specter of unemployment that hung over Britain, and that to some degree still does. One of the reasons I pursued a degree in physics was to be more vocational, or employable. I came from a middle-class background, but the threat of unemployment was tangible. During summer vacations away from university, I would go back to Coventry, a pretty depressed place then, with little in the way of job opportunities, and live on the dole for months at a time. It was during that period that I began to feel, albeit in smaller, briefer ways, the shame of unemployment. There's a fairly crushing sense of one's uselessness.
I was at Manchester during the long and protracted miner's strike in Britain in 1984-85, and there was a fair amount of political agitation among the students. Unemployment figures were estimated between three and four million people, and yet Margaret Thatcher continued to win elections with a large majority, which always surprised me. How could so many people be out of work and yet still vote for the conservative party? Why didn't all these people just get together and vote her out of office? A point that struck me was that being unemployed is not like being part of a community. Everybody's just interested in getting out. I was struck by how communities of miners -- communities that were once powerfully bound together -- were broken apart by such realities.
Another issue for me was a political question about ideals: If you were a socialist, or a Labour Party voter politically in favor of national health care and comprehensive schooling for everyone, how could you still choose to send your children to private school, or choose to have private health care? This charge was often leveled at a number of left-wing politicians, who would be using private health and private schooling for their children. I was leftward leaning yet had been privately educated, so I had a lot of arguments with my friends about those kinds of issues. Those conversations revealed to me the difference between principle and the debt one owes to family. It's an interesting dichotomy that also speaks to the issue of shame. Either side of the equation generates shame -- if you stand by your principles at the expense of your family, that's shameful, but if you stand by your family at the expense of your principles, that's also shameful.
In "Today Is Sunday" (December, Atlantic), you write about familial relationships -- a topic that appears often in your stories. Is this a deliberate decision, or just a direction your stories sometimes gravitate toward?
Writing about family was to some degree unconscious in my first book, but it's become more deliberate. I'm an only child, and I've chosen to live a long way from my family. This has generated certain feelings of guilt, but it has also caused me to examine close familial relationships.
My new collection of stories is very much tied up with the relationships between grown children and aging parents. In a way I'm exploring how -- in various worst-case scenarios -- I will react to my parents' aging. I'm almost rehearsing my future. The collection is going to be titled Equal Love. There's a wonderful quote that speaks to the disparity between parents and children in E. M. Forster's novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, from which I draw my title: "A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children, and by some sad strange irony, it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love, not with gratitude, but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos, much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy."
The mismatch between the love parents feel for children, which children can't return, interests me a great deal. One of the things I'm exploring in my new stories is the idea that my generation is caught between aging parents and young children. We're faced with the possible substitution of choosing to care for aging parents rather than choosing to have children. And the fact that people live longer may further change that equation.
What comes next?
I'm finishing up a couple of stories for my second collection, and I'm just embarking on the first third of a novel. Oddly enough, the story that's in The Atlantic this month is a seven- or eight-page fragment of a novel I was trying to write a while ago. But now I feel as though I'm ready to go back to a novel. It's a new challenge compared to stories. Not quite knowing what I'm doing is exciting. It's a freedom.
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