Peter Ho Davies and Celeste Ng first met back in 2004, when Ng attended the creative writing MFA where Davies teaches at the University of Michigan. They’ve kept in touch ever since, and these days Davies assigns his former student’s first novel – Everything I Never Told You – in his classes.
With Davies’s new novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself out this month, they came together to talk about gaps, pregnant silences and absences, and whether they should be offering readers questions or answers.
Thought I’d get the ball rolling for our ‘conversation’, though really I’ve been thinking this is more like a ‘correspondence’, a throwback to the days of writers exchanging letters. It made me think when the last time I wrote an actual letter was – probably a reply to some older reader who wrote via my publisher rather than tracking down an email address for me, but even that would have been years ago now.
And yet there was a time when letters loomed large in my life – in college from friends (back when the only phone was a pay phone), and then those crisp, blue aerograms from home when I worked in Malaysia and Singapore, and after I first moved to the US. Not to mention all the rejection letters early in my career!
These days, the only letters I write regularly are ‘workshop letters’ to my students (you probably had a couple of those from me back in the day). Maybe they’re what’s left of the tradition of writerly correspondence (I confess I keep mine – all the way back to my own student days), albeit they’re a bit one-sided to count as correspondence. (Even this email, I’m reminded thinking of your active presence on social media, feels a bit passé.)
Peter! It’s lovely to hear from you and while my instinct is to apologize for the delay in responding, it occurs to me that the slower pace is actually one of the things I miss about letters – handwritten or emailed. For most of my adult life – at least up until I had a child! – long emails were the main way I kept in touch with others. They might come once a week or once a month or sometimes just a few times a year, but despite the space between them, they felt like conversations. One of us would pose a question or mention something puzzling them, and over time we’d bat the topic back and forth like a stop-motion game of tennis. A discussion in slow motion.
Now and then I find one of these messages while searching for things in my email archive – one of the blessings, and also the curses, of being able to save *everything* – and it’s interesting to revisit not just the conversations friends and I had, but also what our friendship was at the time and who we each were at the time. Not all of those friendships still continue, just due to the way time and distance naturally changes people or pushes them apart, so it’s a kind of time capsule, a little snapshot of a world and of people that don’t exist anymore.
These days most of my writerly discussions with friends happen over text, if you can believe it. A writer friend once joked that when it came time to publish our archives, they’d have to include printouts of our text conversations, emoji and all. And it’s true that some of the wisest things friends have said to me have been over text! But it’s a different kind of thinking, a fast and furious spitballing of ideas and gut reactions, whereas a letter feels more ruminative. Digestive, even.
Oddly I have actually started to write letters again – sporadically, but still – since the pandemic began. Something about receiving a physical object in the mail that had been created by someone else, in a time when we weren’t supposed to come within six feet of other beings, felt magical. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this idea of connection, and particularly connection through words, since that’s the only way most of us can connect now (barring Zoom). It feels in some ways like words are all there is to connect us, and they can only do so much.
It’s a slightly disheartening realization to have for a *writer*, since our whole job is based on the idea that words can cross both time and space and take you anywhere! And this leads me to an actual question that struck me as I’ve begun reading your book. The little writing I’ve done since the pandemic began has been very different in form from my previous work: more fragmented, with lots of short segments and short sentences and short paragraphs, and juxtapositions of images and moments that surprise me. A friend felt the pandemic was changing their style, too – that it made things ‘choppy’, that connections were both harder to make and stranger when they did occur. I’m curious about whether you wrote the book before, or after, the pandemic started, and how you landed on the short sections you’re using – which I love – for this book.
It is interesting to think about different modes of written communication and how they speak to their/our times. I talk about that in writing classes occasionally, encouraging students to try writing historical fiction in ‘antique’ forms – epistolary stories being one way of signaling period.
With respect to the current moment, I do think a more fragmentary style and sectional structure is more widespread now, though I think it predates the pandemic. It’s likely in part a reflection of shorter, pithier communications on social media, via text etc., but it’s actually less the brevity of the fragments per se, but more how we – as readers – join them up that feels telling to me. That I think may owe something to the way we navigate the web – hopping from link to link, burrowing into information – another mode of ‘connection’. It’s possible that more linear ‘joined-up’ narrative is giving way to this lateral mode. I should say I welcome it as a writer. There’s something really freeing about being able to leap from moment to moment; it’s as if you can write all the good/fun bits and leave out the mundane transitions! All the while trusting the reader to ‘mind the gap’. (And maybe that’s an antidote to our writerly anxiety about the capacity of words to connect us – perhaps we’re under-estimating our partners in that communication: readers).
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary, is a nice example. Her fragments are short-story length, some fairly traditionally told, others very innovative, and the book itself, of course, is conscious of the way technology is changing our connections. It’s form is clearly drawing on the way stories in collections connect to each other, bridging the gaps between separate narratives.
All the above said, I’m not sure my new book is a reflection of the times in these ways. Most of the book was written in the two years before the pandemic, but the first chapter goes back ten or twelve years (it was written and published first as a story), and its short sectional form may owe more to the fact that I was writing it while my son was little, in the brief gaps afforded by naps, or babysitters.
More recently, as I extended the story into a novel, the gaps between sections felt like a way of acknowledging that the book – a father’s perspective on parenting – isn’t the whole story. It’s a bit like overhearing one side of a phone call. Hopefully this invites readers to imagine the other side (the mother’s, maybe even the child’s, perspective). That acknowledgement of the limitations of a male perspective does feel pretty timely (or really belated!).
P.S. Speaking of correspondence, I happened to come across your introduction to a recent issue of Ploughshares in which you speak of fiction as ‘a letter from the past to the future’ which is a lovely notion (and put me in mind of the way the father in my new book – close to me in this respect – writes to his son, even though the boy isn’t yet old enough to read). Of course, that sense of writing for the future, the time-travel quality of fiction is also the source I suspect of many writers’ angsty ‘imposter syndrome’, the way our work when it’s published or read always feels like the work of some past self.
It’s funny how whatever you happen to be reading always speaks to the circumstances of the moment you’re in – maybe that’s one of the marks of a true piece of art. So interesting to learn that you actually wrote the book well before the pandemic; now I remember you telling me your son napped only in twenty-minute increments, but that you learned you could get a lot done in those twenty minutes. (And incidentally, that thought sustained me during my son’s early years, in which I seldom had more than half an hour or so to myself).
But aside from the time restrictions, it makes sense that you landed on this style for the novel: in my memory, those early years of parenting especially were so fragmentary and disjointed, both in literal passage of time and psychologically. As soon as you get used to one phase, there’s a growth spurt or a development or a regression and the ground shifts under your feet. Even as your kid gets older, those phases still come and upend everything and then give way to something else – the Age of Star Wars, the age of this and that, as you put it in the novel. And yet of course there are underlying connections between it all, or at least we look for them! For me, a lot of parenthood is trying to glean bits and pieces and put them together to understand this tiny person who’s now, apparently, running my life: What’s going on in that little head? And the short sections in the book, where the reader is constantly working to string together all these related moments and thoughts in real time, mimics that feeling so precisely.
But I love that you speak not just of the sections in the novel, but also of the gaps – and how those maybe leave room for the other side of the story, or even *sides*. The idea that a gap or break might be not an absence or rupture in the story, but a space being actively held open to acknowledge what’s not said, is so profound. And funny you should mention Goon Squad in connection with this! That’s one of my favorite books, and maybe my favorite piece in it is the famous Powerpoint story, which is itself explicitly concerned with how we link our thoughts – from slide to slide, from bullet point to bullet point – and with silences, and what they leave space for. Not just what’s missing, but what happens in those spaces, in the possibilities of those spaces create. There’s a connection for me here with public moments of silence, too, and the ways that they set aside a space to acknowledge what’s not present, and give those thoughts and feelings a space in which to exist. Almost like a nature preserve, but mentally.
I’ll close off this installment with a sentiment someone just shared with me on Twitter: Borges saying that the taste of the apple resides not in the apple itself or in our tongue but in the conjunction of the two. That’s such a good metaphor for how I see the relationship between reader and text: the meaning isn’t necessarily buried in the work like an Easter egg, but created when the reader uses their own experience to join up the pieces of the story and fill in the gaps. Which also suggests that until the reader arrives, the meaning doesn’t exist – to bring it back to the Schrödinger’s cat analogy you use in the novel . . .
Schrödinger’s cat analogies are a bit overused, I fear – in my defense I come by them honestly after three years of a physics degree! – but I do like to think of books (themselves a kind of box with a lid – or cover – to be opened) as filled with potential that only a reader/observer can realize.
That Borges line you came across via Twitter – an instance of the kind of lateral connection the internet enables – is a lovely one (the choice of an ‘apple’ is making me think of the tree of knowledge . . .). It reminds me in turn of an idea of Walter Benjamin’s. He makes a distinction between storytellers and novelists, the former coming from an oral tradition in which stories are passed on ‘from mouth to mouth’ as he puts it (strictly ‘mouth to ear’, I guess, but ‘mouth to mouth’, the breath of story passing from one teller to another, is rather beautiful). Novelists, as Benjamin notes, don’t enjoy this immediacy – perhaps there’s the origin of that gap we’ve been talking about – but here’s where your idea of fiction as a letter from past to future returns. The gap is time, and of course even within books the gaps are often temporal, fiction of necessity condensing time (albeit on occasion also stretching it). There’s also, I suspect, a greater intimacy to novels, that may make up for the loss in immediacy. There are after all things we’d rather write than say, as every letter writer knows.
I’m also thinking about the etymological link between author and authority. That’s something that underlies the contract we have with readers (they give us their attention on the understanding we know something about what we’re talking about). And yet ‘authority’ – in this authoritarian-curious era! – seems suspect, an odd thing for writers to claim if our intent is also to speak truth to power. In that context, the leaving of gaps feels like a way of acknowledging the limits of authority (or the limits of certainty in the case of my latest book). Still I’m also very conscious that many readers continue to warm to the authority of a nineteenth century omniscience, whether in classic works or in what I think of as neo-Dickensian contemporary novels. Those readers might find the kinds of narratives we’re talking about confounding, or worse an abdication of an authority they grant us.
I’m curious how you negotiate these issues in your own work, of course, but also how you think about them in your public role as a writer. I don’t have the bandwidth for social media myself, but I so admire your engagement on twitter.
The idea of leaving gaps as a way of acknowledging the limits of authority is so interesting. One of the (many) reasons I hesitated over writing my first novel in omniscient voice was because I didn’t think that I *did* know everything. Who was I to speak in that godlike tone, when what I really was exploring, I eventually realized, was the limits of what we can know? So for me the omniscient voice I ended up with knew and could speak to all the facts, but didn’t necessarily know the meaning of those facts or the right way to interpret them.
I have to admit this makes it sound much more purposeful and planned out than it really was. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing at the time, only that the narrative had to work in this way for the book to work. But after the book was published, someone sent me a paper they’d written on how the omniscient narrator functioned, noting that the narrator in my book usually served to contradict or undercut things a character believed. So instead of being a Dickensian god telling us who was morally right or morally wrong, it was more along the lines of the Arrested Development-type narrator, making us aware of the gap between the character’s perceptions and reality.
CHARACTER: I’m sure Lindsay has already taken care of this.
NARRATOR: She hadn’t. [Cut to a shot of Lindsay not working.]
I certainly didn’t do that intentionally, but it’s an accurate reading! In my mind it’s actually akin to what we’ve been talking about with the gaps: a narrator who acts in this way is acknowledging that what’s been said isn’t the full story. I think of it as the narrator wedging a foot in the door – not going through it, but keeping it open. I don’t think that the narrator in either of my books comes down with a firm pronouncement the way a traditional omniscient narrator does – they’re that annoying little voice on the reader’s shoulder, murmuring, ‘Hey, FYI, many people are saying something quite different . . . ’
One of our mutual friends, Anthony Marra, also writes omniscient POV, as you know, and now and then he and I discuss writing and books and other word-nerd stuff. At one point he described fiction as ‘holding open space for nuance’ in a world that usually expects clear and definitive answers, and I think about that a lot. It’s related to a way I often describe the purpose of fiction, when asked: a medium not to provide answers, but to ask questions and open spaces. Maybe whether that space is formed by a gap in the text or a narrator gently shaking their head at a character’s misperceptions (but not providing their own ‘definitive’ answer) is just be a matter of style and the demands of the story.
And actually, that’s relevant to how I see my public role (such as it is) as well. The idea of being a public figure is still one that makes me deeply uncomfortable, and not one I ever expected to take on, nor one that I feel like I’ve got a handle on! But as I seem to have this giant microphone now – so to speak – what I try to do with it is less to boom my own pronouncements and more use it to make space for others. It’s part of why I try to boost others’ work, via blurbing and just talking about work I’ve loved, and it’s part of why I advocate for more inclusion – generally, but also in the world of books, which is the closest thing I’ve got to a ‘lane’. And it’s part of why I push back pretty hard if I hear myself being cast as some kind of a spokesperson for Chinese American woman, Asian women, or Asian people in general. I’ve got my own opinions, obviously – but I haven’t got the whole story for sure, and it feels important to always acknowledge that there are other sides of the story that we aren’t getting to hear, and to try and hold open a space in which those stories can maybe be heard.
I love that subtle sense of a slightly reticent, even discreet omniscient narrator. I’m picturing someone less god-like, more along the lines of a dryly reserved butler holding the door open – surely my residual Britishness kicking in, though I really like the way the idea of holding something open – the space for nuance, the space for others – recurs in both your and Anthony Marra’s thinking.
The word I’ve been using lately, myself, in lieu of Tony’s ‘nuance’, is uncertainty. The idea of leaving open a space or gap for uncertainty, or perhaps better recognizing that the gap is uncertainty. I was just saying somewhere else that for all that we ‘write what we know’ and also surely sometimes ‘write to know’, Chekhov’s idea that ‘The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them’ might be extended to include the idea that some of our questions just don’t have answers, and that some of our writing needn’t claim or perhaps even seek to know, so much as inhabit a place of unknowing. I think (or hope) there’s some solace in sharing an experience of uncertainty with readers who surely – and all of us more than ever this past year, of course – face that in their own lives. So we leave gaps, but maybe some gaps are also in the nature of existence – some unfillable, unbridgeable – except, if we’re lucky, with human company.
A bit of bummer to end on – death after all is our great unknown gap – but maybe one also of hope. In our age of technological totalitarianism – all that meta-data! – maybe we’re more than what can be known about us, more than we can even quite know about ourselves. Mind the gap, indeed!
Images © Kevin Day and Lynne Raughley