Claire Davis interview
interviewed by Derek Alger
interviewed by Derek Alger
Claire Davis is the author of two novels, Season of the Snake (2005), and
Winter Range (2001), which received the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award
for Fiction (MPBA) and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award (PNBA). Her
work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Short Stories.
Davis’ collection of short stories, Labors of the Heart (St. Martin’s
Press, 2006), is comprised of stories centered around conflict over “intimacy,
estrangement, and family secrets” which first appeared in major literary
journals and award-winning anthologies. Her stories have appeared in The
Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review, to name a few, and
have been read on National Public Radio’s “Selected Shorts.”
A resident of Lewisboro, Idaho, Davis teaches writing at Lewis-Clark State
College. Davis and fellow writer Kim Barnes, a novelist and author of two
memoirs, recently co-edited Kiss Tomorrow Hello (Doubleday, 2006), a collection of essays by women writers about the experience of aging and how each handles different aspects of entering this new stage of life. The twenty-five essays in Kiss Tomorrow Hello include works by Pam Houston, Antoya Nelson, Joyce Maynard, Joy Passante, Lauren Slater, and, of course, Davis herself, among others.
Derek Alger: For those who associate you as a writer from the west, they might
be surprised to learn where you were born and raised.
Claire Davis: Well I grew up in Wisconsin, lived 37 years within 25 miles of
where I was born in Milwaukee. I had a safe, loving home, at least that’s the
way I see it now. As a child I thought it was mundane. Boring. And the only
way I came to real adventure was through books. I guess it was a natural that
I’d take up the pen and craft my own adventures as well. As a young adult, I
worked for Wisconsin Telephone in the business offices, and it was during that
ten year tenure among the file cabinets and disaffected secretaries that I knew there had to be more to living than this. Nothing like a bit of the daily
grind to spark your creative appetite.
DA: Did you start writing at an early age?
CD: I started writing stories at about eight or nine years of age, as soon as
I could reasonably put pen to paper. I’d be frustrated that books I read would
end, so I’d pick up and write new endings, or sequels. When I was nine, I read
Jack London and realized that that was what I wanted to do with my life. No.
More than that, I believed I could do it. And so I was soon making up my own
adventures on the page. Of course, looking back, the whole thing seems
absolutely improbable, and I can’t help but wonder what it is in us that defies commonsense and says, instead, “You can do this.”
DA: What prompted you to decide to attend college at a later age than most?
CD: I finally quit Wisconsin Telephone when I was pregnant with my son Brian.
As a stay at home mother, I did what I’d always intended to do. Write. So, I
wrote some God-awful novels at 620 pages with only a third of the story told
and I realized I needed to get some help on this thing called the novel. I returned to college as soon as my son was old enough to go full time to school.
DA: You eventually ended up in Olympia, Washington.
CD: Yes. It was on the heels of a painful divorce and custody battle, and to
tell the truth, I wanted some distance on that part of my life. When I heard
about a year old program called “The Experience of Fiction” at Evergreen State
College, I packed up my son and what was left of my household, and moved West.
DA: Then it was on to Missoula, Montana.
CD: For their graduate program in creative writing, which was the best
possible choice for me, as I not only learned the art, but learned where my
heart resides in the work — this amazing landscape and the way it informs the
lives of the people, which was what my first novel, Winter Range, was
ultimately about. But while I was in school, I also worked at a book store,
worked initially for a state wide literary arts organization, first as a
volunteer and finally as the director of Hell Gate Writers. Don’t you love the
West and their penchant for the dramatic. Back in Wisconsin the streets are
named: Maple or Washington, or Cherry. Out here it’s Rattlesnake Grade, or
Hells Gate. My son went to Hells Gate High School. I’d have given a lot to graduate from a school with that name on the back of a leather jacket.
DA: It seems like you found a home in Idaho.
CD: I love Idaho. Particularly the valley I live in with its temperate
northwest winters (I’d had enough of snow in Wisconsin to last a life time).
It’s a lovely valley at the head of “wouldn’t you know it” Hells Canyon. But
within twenty minutes, I’m in the mountains, or on the prairie or in the desert. All that grist for writing. What’s not to love?
DA: You dedicated your first novel, Winter Range, to your parents and your
son. What sort of influence were your parents on your development as a writer?
CD: My father was always encouraging. He’d take me aside and say, “Whatever
you want to do, we’ll put you through what schooling you need. If you want to
write, that’s what you should do.”
My mother, on the other hand, was a practical, no-nonsense woman who
was still firmly grounded in the belief that women couldn’t do certain things.
She wanted nothing more for me than security. “Ach,” she’d say, “What’s
writing going to get you? Chicken one day, feathers the next.”
DA: Winter Range really hit a chord with the themes of secrets and betrayal.
CD: Well, the secrets probably come from a part of me that still hears my
mother saying, “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.” The Midwest is pretty
close-mouthed, but nothing like the Westerners, who have this amazing ability
to speak completely around a subject. They’re comfortable with silence, and I
imagine that has a lot to do with the enormity of their landscape and the
silence within it. So I found it not only familiar on one level, but fascinating on another. It seemed the thing I needed most to explore, “What’s
told, what’s not.” It’s all part of of that insider/outsider dynamic that seems to be another fascination for me.
DA: Your next novel, Snake Season, also deals with trust.
CD: Yes, only there the significant silences were within a family, rather than
outside in the community as in Winter Range. I found myself exploring the
question of “What happens when you’re the outsider in your own home? When
you’re the last one to know what’s really going on?
DA: You recently came out with a collection of short stories, Labors of the
CD: And I’m so excited about it, and quite proud of it as well. You put so
much of your time and effort into short stories. They’re such tough little
gems to craft. It takes much longer to put a collection of stories together
than a novel. Say, out of twenty stores, you believe utterly in twelve of
them, but only ten work together as a book. Also, on tour, it’s a whole
lot more fun to be able to read a story than those tortured bits and pieces of
a novel length work.
DA: The story “Labors of the Heart” seems to have a special significance for
CD: Well, all the stories have their own significance. “Grounded” which took a
Pushcart Prize was the last story I wrote while my son was preparing to leave
for college, so the story of a young son running away, and the mother following hard on his heels was funny, but also loaded with the imminent loss that all mothers must face at one time or another.
The title story, “Labors of the Heart,” was in Best American Short
Stories, and what a treat that was. And yes, the story is still one of my
favorites of the collection. It’s a story about a morbidly obese man, Pinky,
who has never known love, but falls for a skinny woman, Rose, who has had her
fill of that business and never intends to love again. Truth told, by the time
I finished the story, I’d fallen in love with Pinky myself.
DA: What are you working on now?
CD: I’ve just started work on a new novel, twenty-five pages to date. Yeeha!
And yes, it’s cause for celebration because those first pages are always the
toughest, the most demanding, as they set the tone, initiate the narrative
tension and lay down character. They’re also the most exciting because it’s
still so new, and you’re making discoveries with every page. Unlike the other
novels, this one’s set in the Midwest, in a lake community. And it too is
exploring some of those issues of earlier works, the insider/outsider
relationships of the locals who live there year-round and the summer residents. I can’t say much else about it right now because I haven’t discovered it yet.
DA: You and Kim Barnes recently edited an anthology about midlife from the
perspective of women being over forty. How did the book, Kiss Tomorrow Hello,
CD: It was actually our agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, who presented the idea of
the anthology to us. She thought it was a book that was long overdue, and we
agreed. But editing takes you a long way from your own work, so Kim and I were
both reluctant at first to take it on. Ultimately, we agreed. It seemed like
too fine an idea to pass up, and we’re both glad we did, as it gave us occasion to work with an amazing group of women writers from around the nation. Imagine opening the mailbox to an original essay from writers like: Ellen Sussman, Joyce Maynard, Julie Glass, Lolly Winston. It made for a really wise, witty and eloquent collection. We’re both extremely proud to have been a part of that collection of women writers.
DA: I should mention that Kim Barnes has been an important person in your
CD: Kim’s been perhaps the most influential writer and friend in my adult
life., She’s an extraordinary woman as well as a marvelous writer, both in
memoir and novel. I’m fortunate to be able to say she’s also my best friend.
She lives in Moscow, Idaho, about thirty miles from Lewiston, and so we get
together with regularity, to just kick back over a glass of wine, talk
literature, politics, and yes, writing. We also send each other work
occasionally, as outside readers, though we try toi keep that to a minimum as
we’re both pretty busy with our teaching careers and the demands of publishing.
I also have to say that David Long, a novelist out of Tacoma,
Washington, has been extremely influential in my writing life. He was a
visiting faculty at Montana and I had the opportunity to study with him. He’s
one of the finest prose stylists writing today, and one of my most rigorous outside readers — one of those cases where it hurts so good.
DA: Has teaching benefitted you in terms of your own writing?
CD: Absolutely. I teach undergraduate students at Lewis-Clark State College,
many of them are students who come from small communities locally, many of
these towns are isolated by geology, or in economic hard times — former
logging towns, ranching and farming communities. But they have these amazing
stories to tell, and so many of them are talented young people, eager to learn. That’s some pretty heady stuff for a teacher. I’m also fortunate enough to teach at a low-residency MFA program out of Pacific University, where I get the challenge of working with students who have more skills in hand already, and explore some of the more complex issues about the nature of their craft and of literature in general. It’s a great mix, and just what I need to keep me on my toes.
Derek Alger, a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at Columbia University, is a freelance writer who currently lives in Leonia, New Jersey.