Mar. 29, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 5

"The Farther Shore": A Conversation with Rob Davidson About His New Collection of Short Stories

Kathleen McPartland, Inside Chico State editor, recently talked with Davidson about his writing process, the construction of his characters, and the design of a story, among other things. Portions of their conversation are below.

Tell me about your characters. They seem so interestingly incomplete, but complex and good, all at the same time. Ros, for example, in “First Position,” is quirky and edgy—dark and intriguingly unique.

Epigraph Wanting nothing With all your heart Stop the stream. When the world dissolves Everything becomes clear. Go beyond This way or that way, To the farther shore Where the world dissolves And everything becomes clear. Beyond this shore And the farther shore, Beyond the beyond, Where there is no beginning, No end. Without fear, go. —The Dhammapada

My characters, like people, have layers. I’m always interested in the way we construct these exteriors that we present to other people. Sometimes it is a calculated act. We all have something hidden inside of ourselves—raw and vulnerable.

Both of the characters in “First Position” need help moving past the mask to the intimate self. Adam, the musician, is flippant and likes to play the eccentric role, because he’s actually insecure.

It is real pain that Ros struggles with [she believes she’s responsible for a friend’s death]. She and Adam, however, are both moving in the direction of having a real connection with someone else. More often though, the characters fail rather than succeed at making the connection.

This theme of not letting others know their more intimate selves runs through all of the stories. People are afraid of that; it’s dangerous.

In “Criminals,” a long story and the last story in the book, there are two storylines, present and past. In the past, the main character got burned when he tried to help someone; he reached out of his space to attempt intimacy and he paid a price. That partly explains why, in the present, he fails to help a friend. He asks, understandably, “Do you make yourself vulnerable; accessible?” Sometimes there is quite a cost when you do that.

Talk about the idea of “borderlines” as the theme of this book.

The governing metaphor of the book is tied into this idea of character. I’m trying to shape a story around a decision or event that ultimately makes change inevitable, whether it is for good or bad.

In life, we come to these borderlines. Either by choice or circumstance we have to make a difficult decision; often there is no clear answer or predictable result.

Some times characters are worse off after they make this decision. In “Tell Me Where You Are,” for example, a husband in a failing marriage makes a rash decision that has serious results, something that will surely spell the end of his marriage.

What about the many allusions to song in your stories?

For me, there is always a connection between the larger felt experience of a song—most of the music referenced in the stories is rock and roll—and what is happening in the story. Rock and roll is so good at finding a quick way, a crystallized way of conveying emotion—bubble-gum happiness, anger, heartbreak—music has that emotive power. I love to bring that quality into the stories, and song titles provide a quick context. Also, particular musicians or groups. Jonathan Richman, for example, [started recording in the 1970s] is kind of like the idiot savant of rock and roll. A whole set of ideas that surround him. My conception of my fictional character Adam, in “First Position,” is very Richman-like, there’s a connection that can deepen the understanding of the story.

Adam says, “A song is a way of gathering in the loose bits and fragments of your life and making something beautiful out of it,” and he really believes that.

Davidson in BarcelonaTalk about the role of the American commodity culture and writing today.

If you are an American writer today, you have to come to grips with materialism in our culture. We put so much weight and value in what we buy and own—clothes, cars, the music we listen to. These are cultural signs and signifiers, but sometimes we can misread a situation. For example, when I was in the Peace Corps in Grenada in the West Indies, I saw a local kid wearing a RUSH (Canadian Rock Band) T-shirt. I love RUSH. I started going on about the band with this kid, but he didn’t even know who they were; his shirt wasn’t a statement. It was just some shirt his cousin, an émigré in Canada, had sent back to his relative in the Caribbean. I was all worked up about some band, and to this kid, it was just a shirt. That taught me something.

We place so much value in things and believe what we own sends a message. Even choosing music is a kind of positioning of yourself in the culture. “I’m like this, not that.” In “First Position,” Adam, for example, walks around looking at people’s music, making little judgments. Music is a knick-knack we collect that we think defines us. As a writer, I am fascinated with this idea of consumer culture.

In “Object Lessons” (in which a man’s wife becomes pregnant with their first child), the guy is obsessed with shopping, especially for clothes. He’s very materialistic. Part of what he has to come to grips with is the selfishness of that. He has to clear out his room of his stuff to get ready for the baby. It becomes a question of selfishness or clinginess; he’s not ready to make room for another person.

 (I ask about Raymond Carver, who seems to be writing from another point of view—someone who has never known material comfort.)

Raymond Carver was writing from a different angle about the working class. But it is still about materialism and consumer culture. In his short story “Neighbors,” where a couple is asked to apartment sit for their neighbors, they become increasingly interested in their neighbor’s possessions. They imagine that their friends lead more interesting lives because of what they own. Carver talks about our envy of others’ possessions and how we think things make people happier, richer, funnier.

Carver’s stories are drenched in awareness of our material culture. Class (and people who suffer from it) is one of his great topics.

Who are some other writers who deal with materialism?

George Saunders is super smart about materialism. Acute.

Tony Hoagland is really aware of pop culture and material culture; for instance, he brings rap culture into his poems. Lorrie Moore—one of her short story collections is “Self Help”—is keenly tuned in to consumer culture. Jonathan Franzen [The Corrections and Freedom] is also steeped in consumer culture.

How has your practice of Buddhism influenced your writing?

The epigraph to the book comes from the The Dhammapada (according to tradition, verses spoken by Buddha). I don’t write about Buddhism explicitly, although it is on my mind as I’m writing. And there are many Buddhist themes in my stories. For example, in “Terminations,” it occurs to the main character that he’ll never be happy with what he’s got, he’ll always want more. This is a Buddhist question coming to the fore.  His struggle is to come to terms with that.

Other characters also struggle with that question and sometimes come to terms with it successfully, and sometimes not. Characters who fare well come to some moment of awareness about whatever the issue is and can step outside of their selfish desires and act for the benefit of others.

Do you design your stories, or do they design themselves?

I subscribe to the organic theory of composition developed by Henry James and others. You start with an idea of a story; you push it here and there; you let the story tell you what it wants to become. A lot of my stories have a more or less traditional shape [mentions Freytag’s Triangle]. I arrive at that by letting the story develop on its own terms; the story has to have a sort of life to it. I only know one way to do it and that is to write from the inside out. I’m not a particularly fast writer.

It took me four or five years to write this book. I write everyday. It just takes me a long time to iron things out. I admire writers who are faster or more prolific, but I just have to write at my own rate. It takes me awhile to figure out what a story needs; once I figure that out, things start to click and fall in place. Drafting is exploration to me, testing things out.

I don’t start out by knowing what a story needs; I have to tinker with it until things fall into place. I’m very patient, maybe patient to a fault.

Read more about Rob Davidson’s ideas on writing in a guest essay he wrote for Psychology Today’s “One True Thing: Life’s questions, big and small,” a column by Jennifer Haupt.

Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications