The Storyletter - Interview with Daniel W. Davison
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to interview a good friend of mine, Daniel W. Davison. He’s been a frequent contributor to The Storyletter and has motivated me to keep writing during the last few years. I hope you enjoy this interview! ~ WM
Welcome, Daniel. The Storyletter audience likely recognizes your name as you’ve been a contributor since the beginning, now they have a chance to get to know you better. You’re such an inspiration and guiding light for my writing and personal life, I hope to share that with our readers.
That’s a very kind thing to say, Winston. I didn’t expect such a touching introduction. Thank you so much for affording me the opportunity to hold this interview with you.
Do you remember the first fictional story you ever wrote? When did you realize you liked writing?
Let me answer the second part of that two-part question first. I’ve never liked writing. I like storytelling—meaning actually sharing my ideas with a friend during a long heady talk. It’s a slog for me to buckle down and put pen to paper.
The first fictional story I wrote was in middle school in the early 1980s. There was a book series popular among adolescents called “Choose Your Own Adventure”. I loved these books. To think that I was the hero of the story and the master of my own fate. I can still remember the titles: The Cave of Time, Your Code Name is Jonah, Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey. About once every month my mom would buy a new one for me at the (now extinct) B. Dalton Bookseller at the mall. She would first take me shopping for clothes (corduroy jackets, Izod shirts, bell bottoms) at Sears and JCPenney and then, if I was good and didn’t complain during this portion of the excursion, we’d walk over to B. Dalton and she let me select a book. My memories of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories are linked to the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I was uninterested and completely unaware of the affairs of the world, but was gradually realizing that these old men were called “presidents,” and that this meant that they were in charge, not only Indiana, which is where I lived, but of an association of “Indianas” collectively referred to as “the United States”.
I had seen a film on a TV program (Saturday afternoon matinee) called The Fantastic Voyage, in which a team of scientists inside a submarine were shrunken down to microscopic dimensions and injected by a syringe into the body of an important person with a blood clot in his brain. One of the actors in the film (the saboteur!) was Donald Pleasance. About a week later, I recognized Donald Pleasance in an R-rated film that I secretly watched with a friend whose apartment rooftop overlooked a drive-in theater across the street from our local hardware store. We climbed to the roof and sat on the shingles with a Tupperware bowl of popcorn between us and it didn’t really bother us that we couldn’t really hear the dialogue. The name of the film was Escape from New York. Donald Pleasance played “The President of the United States.”
I left my friend’s apartment in a swoon of inspiration. I would write my own “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. The plot would revolve around a team of secret agents trying to get the President of the United States out of Russia—which someone had told me was a bad place, and which looked very sinister with its floodlit cathedral of colorful onion domes looming up behind Dan Rather reporting live. In my story the President was shrunk down to a microscopic size and put into a nuclear submarine, which my childish mind somehow did not find illogical. The nuclear submarine was then injected into a dashing male athlete’s firm left glute. The athlete then had to escape from Russia back to the United States, and there the president would be unshrunk.
I wrote the story out by hand in a week and gave it to my best friend to read. He handed it back and said, “I was only able to make two choices in your story and then it was over.” I was offended and snatched the manuscript from his hands. “I’m still working on it!” I said. But I never did. I stared at it from the corner of my room. Then I went to it and tore it up. I couldn’t imagine writing more than the 12 pages of blue-lined notebook paper that I had devoted to my “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. I had exhausted my imagination and vocabulary and my best friend had dismissed my magnum opus. I couldn’t imagine ever having the energy or ability to compose the tens of thousands of words that a novel required, and I gaped when older kids told me that, if I ever went to college, I’d have to write term papers that were over 20 pages long.
Did you ever desire to have a career as an author, or was writing more of a hobby?
I personally never thought of pursuing a career as an author. Until a decade ago, I never had the attention span to work on any one project for an extended period of time. I’m the consummate dilettante. I own scores of floppy disc, 3.5” discs (and a handful of flash drives) filled with half-written stories, novels, ill-defined projects, and fragments of poetry that I once thought were clever. I started to write an epic poem in imitation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The theme was the Book of Job. In the poem, God is a CEO and Satan taunts him about his dutiful servant Job, after God acclaims Job, during a board of director’s meeting. Here’s a sample from that unpublished and unpublishable work:
“Hast thou considered my servant Job that There is none like him in all of the earth A patient and an upright man, one that Feareth God and escheweth evil?”—Thus The Holy Word, the Hallowed Voice of God, Utterance Eternal of the Lord and King, was spoken and applauded by the Angels all, by Thrones and Princes, save The Prince of Hell—unsaved!—yet scornful at The desk of God, unmoved, resolute, the Adversary stood, and with upraised brow And expression bland, inquisitive thus replied: “Doth Job fear God for nought?” He, smiling, paused and thrilled to see God’s doubt.
Later in the same poem, Satan flies through Heaven, which is described as a sort of modern day metropolis of the blessed:
Then through a lavender haze he perceives The slender opal chutes and ivory flues, Thickly disgorging aromatic plumes, With balm upspewed—a smog of incense sweet!— For neither soot nor sulph’rous fumes could the fabrics of Heaven breed, so smooth were the Furnaces, with flames of silk, and fed with Cassia timbers. The manufactures rolled On convective belts of woven damask— Essential products all, of substance pure!
The last line taps into my interest in Aristotelian logic, with its mention of essence and substance. I was still rather religious at the time I wrote that. But no one in their right mind would ever read something like that for enjoyment. I wrote it as a kind of game. So you see, writing has always been a hobby to me. I’ve never really had a specific aim in mind when doing it.
What famous works inspired you the most growing up? Were they always books or were there other types of media?
Famous works that have inspired me…. This one is a tough one because I have very broad interests. And when I was young I explored a lot of media and things that others wouldn’t regard as part of one’s literary education: 1970s video arcade games—someone your age will never know what it was like to have the sounds of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Centipede and Galaga playing in the background, like some kind of soundtrack, almost everywhere you went (grocery stores, Pizza Hut, bowling alleys, etc.). I loved Dungeons & Dragons, even though the adults thought it was dangerous for one’s soul. I loved it, because it was like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories, but the outcome here was undetermined and I could act out parts, like the little ham I was. Of course, movie franchises—Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond, Indiana Jones—had a huge impact on me. I also loved the dark and racy cartoons, like The Secret of Nimh—in which one of the mice says “damn” near the end, which made my mother gasp and look uncomfortably at me. I also enjoyed The Last Unicorn and that hippy-trippy 1970s version of The Lord of the Rings with its musical score that sounded like something Peter, Paul, and Mary might’ve put together. Speaking of music—that was very influential to me as well, whether it was sweeping John Williams movie soundtracks, pop music, or commercial jingles and intros to famous sitcoms.
But it was mostly the movies that influenced me. There were certain films I had to sneak out and watch at friends’ homes on their VHS or Beta players when their parents were out, because my mom would’ve had a fit if she’d found out I’d seen them: Heavy Metal, Tommy, The Wall. I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life, and Life of Brian (the latter two of which hold a special place in my heart because they’re wicked). I also enjoyed the low- to mid-budget fantasy, sci-fi, and horror films (some of which I also had to see on the sly because of the subject matter or things like nudity): Krull, Excalibur, The Shining, Carrie, The Highlander, Terminator, Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Thunderdome with Tina Turner!—FUCK YEAH! And then there was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, Aliens.
I was obsessed with anything and everything that had to do with Conan the Barbarian—the movies (including the unjustly panned Red Sonjia), the films’ kick-ass Basil Poledouris soundtracks, the comic books with their blonde heroines wearing wildly impractical breastplates, and the pulp novels by Robert Howard and, later, Lin Carter. This obsession was due to an adolescent crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had several posters of him in sundry (sometimes suggestive) poses—always shirtless—pinned up on every wall of my bedroom, and I had ne’er a clue I was gay. Arnold Schwarzenegger will always be the only Conan to me. When I lived in Austria, I made a special pilgrimage to his childhood home outside of Graz and was even allowed to caress the hallowed sword of Crom used in the original film.
I was also influenced by puzzle books with three-dimensional mazes—that sort of thing. I loved the old black-and-white monster movies, even the silent ones like The Haunted House and The Phantom of the Opera. I discovered Agatha Christie in middle school and found them really engaging, because they, too, were like puzzles. I still read fair-play murder mysteries when I don’t want to think but also don’t want not to. Intellectually, I was a late bloomer, but when I did start looking into the “highbrow stuff,” I became fairly discriminating in my tastes. As a child and adolescent, I was culturally ignorant. As an adult, I have a passing familiarity with many things, but an in-depth knowledge of few.
—But your question was, what influenced me “growing up”? This is why I talked about the things that I did above, because when it comes to “literature” that influenced me, I can probably count on both hands “the greats” that I read as a young person and that I actually liked. The others—the assignments, as they were called, I just dipped into, or I read the Cliffs Notes for them before the exams. The books I enjoyed though were Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, War of the Worlds, Bridge of San Luis Rey, Great Expectations (I loved Magwitch and Miss Havisham, and I thought the idea of a prison made of decaying ships was really cool), Macbeth (because of the witches), A Farewell to Arms (I’d never anything about war that was so stark, and the opening scene describing the dust kicked up by marching soldiers settling on the leaves of the trees has stayed with me ever since), Dracula and Frankenstein.
You published an anthology called “The Cave of Branching Tales and Other Fictions”. Could you explain how the concept came about? Had you written the stories with the intention of publishing them as a collection?
I wrote the flagship story, “The Cave of Branching Tales” while living in Cairo, Egypt. The idea behind that story came to me in a dream. The stories in the collection were written over the course of about three years. I didn’t think of publishing it, until I had shared them with my retired Latin professor, who read them and persuaded me to approach another professor friend of mine, who wrote back to me that he was impressed and would be willing to publish them. That was in 2005. There were a few issues about the formatting and layout of the first edition that were entirely due to negligence on my part. My brother had recently passed away, and I had a hard time focusing my attention on the project. The book has no e-version online, since that would have been up to me to compile. There are a few infelicities and formatting issues that I’d like to address before a second edition is released. My publisher has been very patient and accommodating. So it’s up to me to get the ball rolling. I suffer from bouts of crippling indolence and lassitude, but I hope to have the second edition out within the year.
Literary fiction is sometimes defined as stories that are considered to be "serious" art. Would you describe your work as literary fiction? Why or why not?
Not long ago, I submitted a short story to a “literary” magazine. The story was a fable written in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta.” The diction was mildly arcane but by no means fustian or stuffy. The story was rejected on the grounds that it was a “fantasy” and not “literary.”
All “literature” is inherently “fantastical.” The word derives from the Greek phantasia (“imagination”), which itself comes from the verb phantazein (“to make visible”). When you tell a story—or even relate a historical event—you’re translating into litterae (“words”) the “imaged” (or “imagined”) phantasia that is in your head for the benefit of the reader. Categorizations like “literary fiction” mean nothing to me. I think it’s pointless to say, “This author writes literary fiction,” but “this author does not, because she writes romance novels.” It’s as pointless as the medieval schoolmen debating whether God could be all-knowing and all-powerful at the same time, since, if He (note: “He”) were all-knowing he would lose “His” free will, since He couldn’t do anything he wouldn’t already have known He would’ve done: In other words, He wouldn’t be able to change His mind.
At what point do you admit that you’re just playing word games. It’s like someone saying, “you can’t be a Christian if you’re gay.”—“Why?”—“Because WE, by the authority WE have arrogated to ourselves, have defined what it means to be Christian and you fall outside of this category. Therefore WE have determined that you have no right to call yourself a Christian.” By the way, I’m no longer Christian, but I’m still gay—apparently—although I also find that grab-bag term unrepresentative of what I am. It annoys me that people demand that I call myself “gay,” because if I don’t, then I’m uncomfortable with myself and living in denial. I just don’t like being categorized like that. And I refuse to call my writings “gay literature.”
I love lush language (Milton, Samuel Johnson, Umberto Eco, Nabokov, etc.) but I also enjoy literature written in slang or dialect (The Color Purple, These Is My Words, The Bluest Eye, Catcher in the Rye). But if the novels I’ve just mentioned were to be submitted for consideration today, I kind of feel that a first-line reader of a publishing company today might claim that these novels weren’t “literary.” I once told someone that I thought Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne was a great novel. She told me it wasn’t really “literature”—and then, in the next breath, informed me that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was.
So when it comes to those categories, like “literary fiction,” it’s hard for me to regard them as being anything other than a matter of personal taste. I’ve read passages of more subtlety, depth, and eloquence in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or in P.D. James’s Death in Holy Orders, or in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy than in half of the books categorized as “literary fiction” these days.
According to Masterclass, a plotter is someone who meticulously plans and outlines their story before they begin writing, while a pantser likes to write without a roadmap. Would you say you’re a plotter or pantser? Describe your approach to writing fiction.
I have very vivid dreams. I would say that ninety percent of my ideas come from them. Once the idea has come to me, I compulsively plot out the story. However, I started a novel in March and finished it within a Mosaic period of 40 days and 40 nights. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. But it was also the most bizarre experience I’ve ever had. The entirety of the novel was unpremeditated. I felt as though other hands were typing on the keyboard and I had no idea where the story would go from evening to evening. I contrast this experience with another novel I’m working on, which I’ve been plotting out and researching off and on for nearly 10 years. And I’m only a few chapters into the actual writing of it.
What drove you to create your Substack, “Lamp Post in the Marsh”?
Your encouragement and the friendly community you’ve attracted. I really like what you’ve done here. I anticipate great things from you. In the words of Emperor Palpatine, “We will watch your career with great interest.”
Do you have any recommended reading for new writers, whether it’s fiction that displays mastery of the craft, or guides to writing fiction that you think are worthwhile?
John Gardner wrote a series of books about writing that I think are really great. He was also a great storyteller himself: Grendel, Freddy’s Book, and Mickelson’s Ghosts are favorites of mine and I’ve read all three at least twice. I think the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges are magnificent, especially his tale “The Library of Babel.” Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities is really enjoyable. I reread Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory! every 2 or 3 years. I lived in Egypt for 3 years and, during that time, I read and fell in love with Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “The Crown of Feathers” is really spooky; it’s a magical-realist tale based on a story from the Jewish Haggadah (I believe). Mary Renault’s novels set in ancient Greece are very well-written and quite lyrical: start with Last of the Wine. Alberto Manguel, who was a reader for Borges (who went blind later in life), wrote several books about ‘reading’ that are very enjoyable; they’re basically essays. Manguel also put me on to Marguerite Yourcenar, whose short story “How Wang-Fo Was Saved,” was the short story that I read 2 days prior to the dream I had that gave me the idea for “The Cave of Branching Tales,” also set in medieval China. And her novel Memoirs of Hadrian is a deeply philosophical extravaganza. Hemingway’s early stuff, like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the stories in his collection In Our Time are really good. Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse is a moral fable set in the middle ages during the Black Death. Bruce Chatwin’s short novels Utz and The Viceroy of Ouijda are excellent stories. And Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian is a spectacular historical novel that takes place in ancient Egypt and chronicles the life of the Egyptian scribe, Sinue.
The works and authors that I have mentioned in the preceding paragraphs contrast markedly with the things I said earlier in the interview that had influenced me when I was young. There’s a reason for this. I mentioned that intellectually I was a late bloomer. When I finally became interested in scholarly matters, I found myself watching less and less TV and going less and less to the movies. I felt I needed to “catch up” on all the stuff I’d missed out on earlier in life. Until the pandemic started 2 years ago, I hadn’t owned a TV for 26 years. All I did was read during my free time. And that’s still what I enjoy doing most—more so even than writing!
I’ve always had an unusually retentive memory for certain things. If I hear something read out loud, I can often commit it to memory after hearing it two or three times. Again, I have to hear it for it to stick in my head. When I was a kid, this skill freaked people out. I would recite all the lines from movies I had seen and mimic the actors’ voices. Now that I’m in my 50s, my brain is starting to calcify so it’s not as easy for me to memorize things now, although I still have a few thousand lines of verse and several pages of prose buried in sundry quadrants of my brain that I can tap into when called upon to do so.
When I was 23, I memorized Book I of Paradise Lost (PL) and substantial gobbets of Books II, III, IV, and IX. I did this as an experiment. I had been reading William James’s two volume book on Psychology and came across a passage in which he said he’d memorized Book I of PL over the course of a month. He had done this as an experiment. Milton has been an obsession of mine since 1995. I can’t recommend the works of Milton enough.
What are the details of a project that you’re working on that readers may get excited to read? Do you know when it’ll be released?
The novel I wrote earlier this year has been entered into a prose contest run out of Hollywood and I can’t publish it until the adjudication process is completed. I’m excited about the contest because I’ve received some preliminary feedback that was encouraging. The novel is set in the early ‘90s in a multiverse. I shared it with you, and you offered me some great critical feedback. If I end up losing the contest, I may post the novel here on Substack and, possibly, offer it on a subscription basis.
The other novel I’m working on is a magical realism piece about a female silent film director living in Weimar Germany, who also happens to be a Galician witch. I may share that on Substack too—perhaps it will inspire me to get back to work on it.
Substack is very new to me so I’m just going to proceed with things slowly, maybe a story every week, or every other week, starting on Friday.
What is something you know now that you wish your younger self knew?
For years and years I was afraid to share what I wrote with anyone because I felt I needed to get all the details right. In many regards I was a perfectionist. But the irony of calling myself a perfectionist was that I was also a horrible speller, and, to this day, I commit embarrassing typos and blunders every time I write something: misplaced commas, repeated definite and indefinite articles, missing verbs, etc., etc. When I was younger this upset me so much that I just didn’t share what I wrote with anyone, because it seemed that no matter how many times I reread it, I made another blunder. I was worried that, were I to write a story or book and misspell a single word, I would be exposed to withering ridicule and harsh criticism that would be unbearable to me.
When I was young, I was not considered sharp. I was treated differently, given wedgies in gym class, mocked because of the way I talked, because of the way I walked, the way I ate, because of the way I laughed, because of the way I cried. Now that I look back on those years, I can’t help but wonder if I suffered from something undiagnosed. But, that’s all in the past, and the upshot is that I didn’t share my creative writing with anyone because I didn’t think it would ever be ready. I wish I could’ve convinced my younger self to not have those crippling inhibitions.
Do you have any advice for early or independent writers?
Yes! Instead of talking about writing, write. Don’t be discouraged by rejection letters. Writer’s block is normal. Savor your friends and colleagues who volunteer to read your work and offer you invaluable advice. You’ve edited several pieces I’ve written and I’m really impressed by your perspicuity and constructive feedback. You have a knack for that.
The fact of the matter is that we literary types—he said with pursed lips and an obvious nod to his earlier glib remarks about “literature”—are a dying breed. We should be grateful when we find others who share our interest in writing and work to advance one another’s goals. I wouldn’t have published my book in 2005 if it hadn’t been for the friends who encouraged me along the way. But you have to be thick-skinned and willing to roll with the criticism. You once warned me that you had done a hatchet job on one of the pieces you edited for me, but when I looked over it, you hadn’t done a hatchet job at all. You’d done a spectacular job. All of your criticisms were on point. I think it’s important to cherish this kind of constructive feedback and not be offended by it. If someone whose opinion you trust tells you your work is great “but these two pages are distracting and have no bearing on the rest of the story,” don’t be offended. Delete the two pages and move on. Samuel Johnson once said: “Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
How do you define success?
I choose not to define success. As a consequence I feel successful. I am so grateful that I’ve lived as long as I have and that I’ve had the chance to see and experience so many wonderful things. I am overjoyed to have the opportunity to share my stories on Substack and this has been such an enjoyable interview.—That’s success to me, Winston. I think that what you and other young writers are doing on Substack is remarkable and is the way of the future. I would encourage you all to keep doing what you’re doing, help one another, and, in the end, you’ll meet with success—however you choose to define it.
You can find more of Daniel’s work here on The Storyletter, or over on his newly-launched Substack. We’d love to continue this discussion in the comments, so please let us know what you thought. Thanks for reading everyone! Subscribe to Daniel W. Davison by clicking the button below:
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