An Interview with Peter Ho Davies
Peter Ho Davies spoke with the MFA class at University of Massachusetts, Boston, in April 2021. This interview with Breakwater Review was conducted in early May over Zoom.
Breakwater Review: In your latest novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, there’s a line: “All fiction is appropriation.”What do you mean by that?
Peter Ho Davies: I think when we imagine a narrative, almost any narrative unless it’s the most solipsistic narrative of my life on a deserted desert island, it’s going to involve other characters, other people, and some of that inevitably is going to be drawn from experiences that extend beyond mine or are imagined beyond mine. So, in that regard, it does feel to me that all fiction, almost by definition, includes the possibility of appropriation. That’s not to say that we shouldn't be conscious of the difficulties and the challenges of appropriation. I actually think that the generation of writers who are coming up now are very attuned to those questions. I’ve thought about this a lot along the way, in the context of this latest book and in lectures that I've given as well. But when we think about imagining the ‘other’ in various forms, one of the things we often value in fiction is the way that it transports the reader into lives other than their own. We often talk about one of the great values of fiction as a kind of empathy generating machine, and I tend to subscribe to that view. And given that all writers begin as readers, it seems understandable and a continuity of that idea that writers too will be encouraged to, and will necessarily and naturally, extend their own imaginative empathy into the lives of others as well. So, I think that’s a laudable instinct. The question, of course, is, always, how do we do it as well as we can. And we might define ‘well’ in lots of different ways, but for me, it would be things like respectfully and thoughtfully, with a degree of research, and a dose of humility.
BWR: In A Lie Someone Told You, you tell a moving story about fatherhood, about parenting. It sets out with an abortion though, which seems to haunt the unnamed male narrator. He can never really put it behind him. This struck me. It was unusual to hear this told from a male perspective. And later on, he ends up volunteering at an abortion clinic. Why? What was your creative impulse there?
PHD: In many ways, it’s an aftermath narrative. The characters experience and are confronted by a kind of traumatic choice in the first chapter. And even though it would seem when they have a more successful later pregnancy that they may have transcended that trauma, it does feel as though it haunts them, this question of catastrophic prenatal testing for the first pregnancy. It feels like it comes back around, and echoes some of the developmental testing for the child who is born later. I’d like to hope, for the character, there is eventually some resolution of some of those questions. That’s why the sequence where the character volunteers as a clinic escort feels like a confrontation with that history. It’s not an entirely successful one for him, but I think it does provide a kind of climax and a kind of recognition that he’s grappling with some of that backstory.
BWR: There’s a kind of intimacy in this novel. It feels honest. Coming from the heart, without being stereotypical or predictable. This can be a tough balancing act.
PHD: I appreciate you saying that. And, I would like to hope it does have that quality. I’m hesitating a little because it’s hard to claim that as intentional, completely. I suppose the writerly question here is how does one arrive at that place? And I think for me, it has something to do with the sense of writing this book without necessarily assuming it would see the light of day. Theoretically, I was under contract to write a collection of short stories, not a novel. I told my editors that I was maybe working on a novel, but there was a big maybe over the project. I wasn't sure what it would evolve into. I wasn’t sure if I would want to publish it. I wasn't sure that I should publish it. So, it felt like a very private project, almost secret. And that might have contributed something to the intimacy. It felt very much as though I was negotiating something with myself, I think, as much as anything.
BWR: Speaking of short stories, I was very struck by ‘I Don’t Know, What Do You Think?’ from your first story collection, The Ugliest House In The World. It’s such an unusual one. How did you arrive at it? Where do your stories come from?
PHD: So, it’s tricky, right, because we're now talking about a story that I wrote in grad school more than 25 years ago. A lot of the stories in The Ugliest House derive from that grad school time, and several of them were written for workshop. It’s funny, actually, I'm doing a Q&A with Joan Silber in a few weeks, who was one of my teachers back then. I think that story may have first come to life for a workshop she was teaching, albeit in a somewhat different form. A lot of my fiction draws to some degree from some lived experience. I did train as an undergrad to work on a crisis help line, though I only ended up volunteering there for about a semester before the end of college. But the training was fascinating. It's interesting about that story, because as I say it’s an old story and I haven't read it for a while. It features a transgender character [Mary] because I was really struck in our training when a trans person came in for a talk, and I think it was incredibly enlightening experience for those of us who were going to be on the crisis line to meet somebody that we might not have previously encountered. I'm not sure, from this distance in time, if I’ve necessarily done that character [Mary] justice. I'd have to think about it again now. But I do remember being just struck by an enormous respect for the person who came to talk to us about the hurdles in their life and the bravery with which they’d faced them. And this sort of unassuming, even gentle heroism in facing that really struck me.
BWR: Can you talk about the close first-person narration in that specific story, and also in general?
PHD: There’s an unreliability to the voice of that narrator, Clive, if I remember rightly. Not an unreliability of deliberate lying, or even necessarily—although there is something of that—of denial, but an unreliability of bluff innocence. He’s out of his depth, trying to figure things out, and the reader, hopefully, will begin to figure things out around his point of view, seeing around it a little bit along the way, and even faster than he's figuring some of those things out. It’s interesting, you know, you're bringing that story back to mind now after we just talked a little about the new novel [A Lie…]. There’s a sense in both of male figures trying to grapple with grief through an effort to help others, to join something, to be trained in something. In fact, both are really seeking help with their own grief. I hadn’t thought about that link previously, but maybe there’s a long residual callback to that early story.
BWR: Let’s talk about your interest in writing historical novels. For instance, in The Fortunes, you write about the Chinese American experience in four woven novellas. A number of reviewers have singled out the fourth section—Pearl—as its highpoint, but, Gold, the opening sequence, is my personal favorite. In it, Ah Ling, the son of a white father and a Chinese mother, is sold and brought to America. He first works in a laundry shop and then as a valet for a railroad baron and in a way inspires the Chinese labor infusion in the building of the Transcontinental railroad. Yet, he remains an outsider. Arguably, given the current cultural and racial moment we are in, I wonder if history keeps coming around.
PHD: Chinese working on the railroad had been an idea that I had in mind for a long time. I actually took a train journey across the US in the mid-90s and began to understand the scale of that enterprise and learn of the Chinese who worked on the Transcontinental. It seemed like a wonderful subject even then, but I think I wasn't quite ready to write it at that point. The Fortunes, in our own moment, feels all too sadly current, and the sequence that comes up the most in that context, of course, is the one that deals with the hate crime murder of Vincent Chin. That’s the section I most often read from now; I’m going to be doing at least one or two more events later this month for AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] Heritage Month. We’re thinking so much now about the rising incidence of anti-Asian hate. So, it feels very timely, even if I wish it wasn’t. Next year it’ll be forty years since Vincent Chin was killed. And it feels like yesterday. That’s the horror.
BWR: What does fiction owe the current moment, if anything?
PHD: One way of thinking about this moment is as a clash or conflict of realities, realities that don't quite line up, which is also to suggest a conflict of narratives. We understand reality often by the narratives that we are told, and we tell others. That makes me think about the role of fiction in this cultural moment. As a writer, I think of us as living in an era of bad fiction. I don’t mean published work per se, so much as the stories we tell each other as a culture. I’m thinking of all the lies traded back and forth, this separation or divorce from reality. But I think particularly these days, of course, of conspiracy theories, which seem from a writing point of view, just really shitty fiction. And one of the ways this fiction is bad is because there’s no end to it. Something was disproven? Oh, never mind, just create some kind of post hoc or ad hoc explanation for why that was never resolved to further elaborate the conspiracy. Refutations of conspiracy theories only fuel more conspiracy theories. But never-ending narratives seem like bad fiction to me. And this same effect is probably somewhat true of the non-political, escapist fiction that we all mostly absorb, which is televised fiction. I mean, I watch as much TV as the next person, but many of those shows, even in our so-called “Golden Age” of TV, just don't know how to end. They’re driven commercially: “we should have another season because we make more money out of this.” But without endings, narratives lack meaning, and without meaning, something is absent from the way we understand the world via stories. And I don't mean to point the finger only at TV or film. I think it's a challenge for novels as well. Often we struggle to end novels. I recall reading a rave review of a famous contemporary novel, one I admired myself, which nonetheless noted “it falls apart at the end.” It struck a chord because I can think of several novels that I’d also loved but that had fallen apart at the end. But what an odd thing to say, “It's a great novel…but it falls apart at the end.” I don’t think you can say that of a short story: It’s a great short story that falls apart at the end. That’s not a great short story. It’s not even a good short story, it’s probably just a pretty bad short story. So, endings seem important to me, even if they’re hard to pull off. And, maybe one of the roles of fiction in our culture and of fiction writers is to tell stories well, and to think into ending them meaningfully. Because it feels that the culture, and maybe even capitalism, is resistant to the ending of stories. Maybe our job is to push back on that.
BWR: Please tell us about your research method.
PHD: Some of the stories aren’t close to life, in terms of my own experiences, but all of them are in some form or other emotionally autobiographical. Certainly, the historical works are heavily researched. I find research like that inspiring. There are difficulties to it, though: the question of when to stop doing the research. There are new books published about the Second World War every week, say. So, there was a certain point, I think, in The Welsh Girl where I had to say, I may not know everything, and I can’t know everything, but I have to feel like I now know enough, otherwise I’ll never write the book. I think that was also the book where I learned that odd dialectic between writing and research. I went into it with the slightly naive sense of, “I’ll do all the research, and then I’ll write the book.” And I don’t think that kind of before-and-after works, certainly not for me. What often happens is I do some research, it fires my imagination, I write into that space. At some point, the imagination or the inspiration runs out of gas, I get stuck, I go back to do some more research to fire it up again. And so, there’s a constant back-and-forth between the writing and the research. And then of course, there’s the challenge of trying to remain faithful to the past. The Welsh Girl touches tangentially on the figure of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Führer, and one of the books I’d read about Hess was by the once respected, now disgraced British historian, David Irving, a Holocaust-denier—another form of toxically bad fiction. So, there are significant ethical considerations in how faithfully or otherwise we depict the past. In the context of The Fortunes, the two or three characters drawn from life in that book actually each represented different challenges to questions of historical research, questions of veracity. Ah Ling, in the first section, serves as a kind of servant and also inspiration to Charles Crocker, the guy who was responsible for building the Transcontinental railroad and responsible for hiring the Chinese to work on that line, partly because of the example of Ah Ling. Ah Ling is thus a pivotal figure for Crocker and is referred to occasionally in some of Crocker’s biographies. Yet almost nothing is known about him as an actual human being. So, his existence as a historical figure is significant. But he’s also a tabula rasa for the historical fiction writer. That’s great for the imagination. I could do what I want with that character, imagine myself essentially into that space. But it’s also very hard to research that figure, or indeed, the Chinese working on the railroad in general, many of whom were poor working men, often illiterate who didn’t leave their own records. So it felt as though I had enormous freedom, but also little foundation. That’s an anxiety inducing space for a writer. Conversely, when I wrote about Anna May Wong, famously the first Chinese American movie star and a global celebrity in her day, somebody who gave countless interviews, she felt incredibly well documented. So, that’s a treasure trove of research. But you also felt like, “Oh, well, where’s my fictional wiggle room?” How might I offer up something without the risk of contradicting the historical record? In that case, the degree of freedom was the recognition that even in our own day, of course, celebrities might not necessarily speak their own personal truth in an interview with a gossip magazine. The understanding that there was some space between the self-presentation of the figure and the reality of their life created a liminal space for the fiction to explore.
BWR: How do you represent voice, tone, dialects, accents in your work?
PHD: It’s tricky. And it varies, I think, from project to project. One tool that I’ve drawn on, I think, to capture those voices from the past is often to read the literature of the past. I have a story in The Ugliest House called “Relief,” which is set during the Zulu wars. A dinner table anecdote features as a centerpiece of that narrative. And I found myself going back to reading Conrad, actually, to think a little bit into the diction and the style of that era. In a certain sense, it’s a historical story told via a historical form, because the idea—that of a character or characters sitting around a table long into the evening, telling a story—feels like a fairly traditional, even antique form of narrative now. That’s actually the frame structure of Heart of Darkness, as I recall, Marlow on a boat on the Thames telling the story to a group of friends over the course of an evening. As I mentioned earlier for the figure of Ling in The Fortunes, there isn’t very much to go on. I read back a little bit into Mark Twain, but I’m not sure that’s a very decisive influence on the voice. With Anna May, there’s just a kind of snappy 1930s movie repartee that I was having fun with and granting to her. There’s some basis in a few of her pert remarks in interviews to substantiate it.
BWR: Talk to us about structure. For instance, in The Fortunes, you break away from the conventional narrative form. It’s an intergenerational story told through four novellas, each with its unique style. Why that, instead of straight-through narration?
PHD: Some of what we come to with form feels like a wrestling with the material. And that wrestling for me in early drafts is often a little hapless or clumsy. So, you mentioned liking that first section of the book, the first 120 or so pages or so. And in the early going of The Fortunes, that sequence of Ah Ling working on the railroad in 1865-1870 or so, that was intended to be the whole book. That’s how I pitched the book, sold the book. But 120 pages in, I ran into some challenges. Ling himself no longer wished to be the protagonist, the hero, of a narrative. He was choosing at that point for reasons that made sense for his character to step off the stage, to recede from the spotlight of history. Doing so, I think, for ethical reasons. But for a long time, I kept trying to push him into that spotlight again. I kept saying, “Dude, get back in there, do some more stuff.” And it took a little while for me to reconcile that I’d reached an ending, I think, for that character. And that required a reimagination of the project, a somewhat painful reimagination. So, is this inspiration, or is it desperation? Probably a little bit of both. But I realized that one of the things that drew me to Ling was that he was a first, essentially: the first-person Crocker hires, the first Chinese Crocker hired of the 10,000 or so he would hire to work on the railroad. And the idea of ‘firstness’ seemed interesting and feels like it often crops up in the narratives of immigrant communities. The first this, the first that. We think about this even in our own context: the first writer of a particular community, say. I had already known a little of Anna May’s story and so the idea of her as the first Chinese American movie star echoed with Ling. And once I saw that bridge, it allowed me to escape the first section and lean into Anna May’s. And then I think, because her section is fragmented, kaleidoscopic, that suggested a template for the book as a whole. What’s interesting about this is that as a project evolves, you begin to wonder, why is the book this way? So, this is a form, I’m enjoying writing into it, it’s allowing me to write the book that I ultimately want to write. But why is the book taking this form? It would be nice to think it’s a conscious choice. But I often think it’s reverse-engineered—we understand it after it’s evolved. Retrospectively, I think of that book now as a kind of hybrid form. I could certainly defend it as a novel. But it also feels like it operates as a collection of stories or novellas that are linked and speak to each other. And the hybridity of that form, in the end, I think, is an unconscious reflection of the book’s interest in hybrid identity: What it is to be a Chinese-American; what it is for some of these characters to be mixed race; what it is to be hyphenated, right? There’s something about the hybrid form that speaks into the nature of a hyphenated identity, I think. Ultimately, the question for me as I work through stories is how does this form serve this material? There’s a form and function fit that I’m really interested in.
BWR: Let’s move on to Equal Love, your story collection from 2000, which has a blurb by Penelope Fitzgerald—one of my literary heroes—so I was sold before I even got to the first page. The collection is about the bond between parents and children. Talk about your theme choice.
PHD: It’s a consciously themed collection. My first book had that grab-bag quality that you sometimes see with a first collection—“here’s all the good stuff I happen to have right now”—which I like as a mode. Part of the excitement of a book like that is its variety and range. But with Equal Love—not from the outset because I wasn’t even sure I was writing another collection for a while there—one of the ways it came together was recognizing that I had maybe half a dozen stories that somehow spoke to this theme. It’s a book that very much came out of the epigraph from E.M. Forster from which it takes its title. It might have been my wife or one of my friends who cited that quotation and almost in that moment I could see the book that I didn’t even know I was writing come into existence. Some of the stories I had spoke to that dynamic, but I also felt some of the stories that I had in my mind would fit into that space. So, I can recall a day where that book went from nothing to “oh, I know what I’m working on now.” It’s an interesting book to think about now because it’s a book that’s engaging with parental-child relations. Some of that was my own experiences and observations of being a grown child thinking about relations to parents. Some of it was the anticipation of being a parent myself. Yet that book was written way before we had even had a glimmer of becoming parents ourselves. So, it’s an interesting bookend to A Lie Someone Told You—one is told from one side of that experience and one from the other side.
BWR: You’ve written a new book on revision, which comes out later this year. Tell us about it.
PHD: The $64,000 question with revision for all of us is when is it ever done, right? It can feel like this infinite hall of mirrors. What’s debilitating and daunting about revision for me—especially in grad school I remember feeling this way—is that it will never end, and I can keep polishing forever. And on some level maybe we can keep polishing the language forever, but for me I think I know when I am done with a story now is when I finally understand why I wrote it in the first place. It’s odd because we talk in workshop about honoring the intent of the writer, which I think creates a respectful and pragmatic space for our workshop conversations, but it also resides in a polite fiction of the workshop: that the writer knows what they intend in a first or a second or even a third draft. The drafting process is about figuring out exactly what we mean by a story, what we intend. We may have an inkling, a notion, a hunch, but revision is often about a refinement or deepening of that understanding of our own stories, as well as, to some degree, of our selves I suspect.
BWR: Something you like to tell your MFA students, or something you were told during your own MFA that has stayed with you?
PHD: I like that Flaubert line that “talent is long patience,” which is an odd line, a slightly confounding one when I first heard it at least. It almost seems like a bad translation from the French. Talent is long patience: how does that scan exactly? But the older I get, the more I appreciate that patience is an enormous gift or virtue. For a writer it’s also a skill. We’re often in an unholy hurry to be finished with our writing. And I think to some degree that helps with first drafts. It’s important to get across that chasm of doubt. We all have first drafts that have never gotten to an ending, and we can never quite return to. They feel like they’ve fallen apart before they even become something. Speedily writing first drafts makes sense but it’s really important to take as much time as possible in revision to let the stories speak back to us. That sense of patience feels valuable particularly to my MFA students because I’m very lucky to work with talented and mostly young writers. We understand that youth is probably the enemy of patience. We’ve all been youthful and understood that. But in a strange way talent can feel like an enemy of patience as well. Talent can make us faster than ordinary mortals. And Flaubert’s comment that talent is long patience suggests that patience is also part of talent, not the antithesis of it.
BWR: Thanks for being so generous with your time, Peter.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is Peter Ho Davies’ latest novel, which you can find at your independent bookstore or local library. He has also written The Fortunes—which won both the Anisfield-Wolf Award and the Chautauqua Prize, and was a named a notable book by The New York Times—and The Welsh Girl, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. Equal Love and The Ugliest House in the World are his two critically-acclaimed story collections. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories. Born in Britain to Chinese and Welsh parents, he now teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan.