Interview: Lauren B. Davis

Lauren B. Davis’ novel The Radiant City is a contemporary work of fiction set in modern day Paris.  The protagonist Matthew is a traumatized middle aged journalist who leaves his profession after being shot while covering a story in Hebron, Palestine. The violent incident that nearly kills Matthew also places him in the media spot light which he tries desperately to avoid. Matthew’s desire to maintain a sense of anonymity along with an advance from his agent Brent are what bring Matthew to Paris initially. Brent wants to publish a book written by Matthew that expounds on the meaning of the stories he has accumulated from covering the news in war torn parts of the world. Matthew’s struggle to write these stories down and grapple with their tragic reality is a major component of this book.  The effects of post-traumatic stress disorder plague Matthew throughout and his coping with its symptoms are only made worse by his jaded friends Jack and Suzi.  Despite this Matthew and his friend Anthony are surrounded by a loving family named the Ferhats who have immigrated to Paris from Lebanon.  The Ferhats own and run a small family restaurant and consist of Saida, her grandfather Elias, her teenage son Joseph and her brother Ramzi.  Around Matthew and the Ferhats the dynamic city setting of Paris is illuminated by the omniscient narrator who harnesses the personal experiences of the author. Davis, who is originally from Montreal, Quebec moved to Paris and lived there for ten years.  As Matthew traverses the literary and geographical landscape navigating his relationship with Saida and her son Joseph, Davis carefully shares her personal knowledge of the city by giving context to many of the locations and sites mentioned in the novel.

I liked how you provided a soundtrack to the novel with corresponding page numbers and titles of songs to look up while reading the book.  I’ve never read a book that did that before.  What inspired you to do this / where did the idea come from?

I was asked by my publisher to provide some thing for the P.S. section of the book (which sadly, they don’t do any longer).  So, I did the usual essay, then added the walking tour bit, and finally added the soundtrack.  These were some of the songs I listened to while writing the book.  Music plays a large part in my writing process, for inspiration, getting down to that meditative writing zone, and mood.  I thought it might be fun for the reader to have that, too.

Having lived in Paris and drawn inspiration from your time there, how did you come up with the character Saida and the Ferhat family?  Were they based on a real family that you met or are they completely fictional?

The Ferhat family is based on the Medawar family, who ran the Pinede restaurant near my apartment. Fantastic food (p. 11 of the P.S. section). We spent a good deal of time sipping mint tea together while they shared their stories of Lebanon with me. Incredibly generous. Having said that, I fictionalised those stories, so one mustn’t assume what happened to the Ferhats happened to the Medawars. Some of what they told me didn’t make it into the book, and some of what is in the book came from journalistic and other accounts. The Medawars have a copy of the book, though, and gave it their seal of approval.

When Matthew, Anthony and Jack are at dinner in Anthony’s house in Chapter 11 and previously when they are at the Bok-Bok they say “Present Company”, “Excepted” with regard to Anthony being a policeman.  Can you explain this reference?

Nothing mysterious about it. Jack is someone who doesn’t like the police very much, for reasons I hope are obvious, but he and Anthony have been friends a long time and he makes an exception for Anthony. I see it as something they say to each other quite frequently; a sort of joke between them.

Chapter twenty seven is a very short but important chapter in the book.  In this chapter you show Matthew sharing the knowledge of the death of his mother with Joseph.  Matthew says, “’My mother died when I was about your age.  She died of a broken heart” (228).  Here Matthew expresses an emotional resonance that contrasts with the general difficulty he demonstrates conveying the traumatic events of his past.  As the author, why is this chapter and, in particular, this moment within it so pivotal to the development of the protagonist and the novel?

This is one of the pivotal moments in the book in terms of Matthew’s healing, you’re right. He has become involved in a way he previously resisted and gone looking for Joseph, who’s disappeared into the streets of Paris one night. Now, seeing the love and desperation Saida has for her son, Matthew is, quite naturally, remembering his own mother, and perhaps how he was unable to lessen her suffering at the hands of his father. He has also revealed something of himself, and it’s the first time in a long time he’s done so. This is an act of trust, an action that (hopefully) signals to the reader that he is changing, and that he’s leaning toward this woman as a source of strength, safety and love.

In the moments after Matthew has safely returned Joseph home, Saida says to Matthew, “’But you found him.  And to know someone was looking for him, it made a difference to me’”.     I found this section of the chapter to be an especially significant part of your novel.  You develop an intimacy that reflects the father son relationship being formed between Matthew and Joseph.  Why write about this?  What is importance of this short yet powerful chapter in relation to the rest of the novel?

Remember at the beginning of the book Matthew’s father commits a terrible act, which scars Matthew for life, and is one of the reasons – perhaps the most significant – that he became a journalist: so that he could shine a light on the terrible things of the world and people would listen to him, in a way they didn’t when he was a child. I think we all try to heal those primary wounds of childhood in one way or another, particularly those of us who come from …ahem…difficult backgrounds. Stepping in as a father figure to Joseph means he is – although I suspect he’s not truly aware of it – rewriting that formative scene from his personal history. So, in the novel it serves as a turning point, the moment when things shift, internally, for him, and that of course colors all that comes after, just as the barn burning colored all that came after it.

Dialogue is an integral part of your novel.  The relationships that are formed between the protagonist Matthew and his friends Jack, Saida, Suzi, Joseph and Anthony are all facilitated by interpersonal communication. On page 170 the narrator talks about the inadequacy of the English language to fully grasp the expression of human suffering provoked by trauma.  The narrator says, “It is an impossible task.  There is no word in the English language, not in any language that he knows, for the feeling.  Horror. Rage. Grief. Impotence. Confusion. Terror. Disbelief. Guilt” (170).  How does the use of dialogue within the novel challenge or reconcile the limits of language to express complex sentiments such as those associated with suffering?  As an author how do you construct dialogue with a theme or thesis in mind?

Gosh, I’m not sure I was thinking of all that when I wrote the book. I’m not an academic – having only a grade eleven Quebec education. Shocking, I know! I’m a very character-driven writer. I live with my characters; they are my friends; I care about them. Both Jack and Anthony are based on people I know. I listen. I playact. I put these people – transformed into fictional characters by my mind, or the Mundus Imaginalis (there you have the limit of my Latin!) if you prefer. So, the dialogue is not specifically constructed with a theme of thesis in mind, but rather it must to ring true to my understanding of the characters’ realities.

The truth is I often don’t know what the theme or thesis of my book is until I’ve finished the third or fourth draft.

The idea to include descriptions of Parisian locations that are visited in the book became very helpful in attaining a comprehensive understanding of the setting.  You made references to places such as Place Dauphine, Notre-Dame du Liban, Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Eglise Saint-Sulpice among others.  What made you want to include this information in the book and what inspired you to make Paris the setting of your book in the first place?

Paris is a strange and wonderful and complex place, although to be truthful I was much more comfortable in the French countryside than the city – way too noisy for me!  But, like any writer, I wanted the reader to feel they were in this place, but not the tourist places, so I described the lessor-known corners, and to do that I needed some context for the reader, otherwise it’s just a map, if you know what I mean. God knows, no one needs another book about tourist attractions in Paris. I tried to write a book  in which the words “Eiffel” and “Tower” never appeared, but I think they are in there once. Sigh. I wanted readers to see what’s below the surface – the immigrants, the marginalized, the hookers, the transvestites, the Arab world, the struggles underneath the radiant glamour, and to see the clashes even in this most adored of all cities. I was quite surprised, I must say, by the level of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism I witnessed in Paris. I published the book a year before the great riots in the banlieus of Paris, and believe me, no one who had lived there for any length of time was surprised. Besides all that – Paris was where I lived. I couldn’t ignore her.

At the beginning of chapter thirty-two “Matthew meditates on the brooding, disturbing statue” (263) of the Medici Fountain in the Luxembourg Garden.  The narrator remarks that “the place is a reminder of the inevitable slaughter of joy, a bower dedicated to melancholy” (264).  I thought this earlier scene connected poignantly with a scene in chapter thirty nine where Matthew thinks to himself as he is sitting with Saida after telling her about Anthony’s death.  Matthew says, “How to explain the hopelessness of self-loathing, the terrible treadmill of it, bringing him always, irrevocably, back to his own loathsome self” (320).  What is the significance of these two scenes in relation to one another?  It seems that in a way Matthew is expressing to the reader that he has become like the fountain, a bower dedicated to melancholy.  How does Matthew’s creation of a self-loathing feedback loop relate to the research you conducted on post-traumatic stress disorder?  Is this possibly a mechanism for the psyche to gain catharsis by creating its own bower of melancholy within itself?

Quite a few questions in there! Okay, let’s give it a go. First, and this goes back to my saying I often down know what I’m writing until it’s written, or in this case, until someone points something out to me – I never consciously thought of those two scenes being bookends. I can see that they are, though, so thanks for that.  I think when we are depressed, or at least when I am, I tend to seek out places, perhaps unconsciously, that don’t exactly reinforce my mood, but that don’t create dissonance. While I don’t believe in massaging one’s depression, or setting a plate at the table for it (as Matthew is dangerously close to doing), I think denying it is equally dangerous. There are often glimmers, messages, gifts down there in the dark, if we will only sit quietly long enough for them to reveal themselves.  So, yes, in that way, Matthew does find his inward landscape reflected by the fountain.

As to the post-traumatic stress disorder, yes, that feedback loop is quite typical. Not every case is the same, of course, but the research I did told me it’s a vicious cycle. Terror is suddenly there, triggered by something others might find inconsequential such as a car horn, a bird overhead, a bright light, a crowd of people.  Then the fear response, often including visual, auditory and olfactory hallucinations, during which some people behave violently. Then when that retreats, the exhaustion, the fear of what one has done, and the despair of having it never end. Relationships are at risk. Work can be impossible. Heck, leaving the house can be impossible! And one is forever having flashbacks of the initiating incident, nightmare, etc. …Drugs to sleep. Drugs to wake up. Drugs to calm, or alcohol for all of it. I don’t think this is the psyche’s way of creating a safe space or bower, exactly. I suspect the psyche is trying to rewrite the event, which it can’t do, sadly. So, one is constantly confronted with what one might have done to change the outcome of the event. Constant terror, regret, shame. You neither trust yourself, nor anyone else. So Matthew’s healing begins when he begins – even slightly – to trust someone again.

On page 181 Matthew paraphrases Katherine Anne Porter saying, “human life is pure chaos, and the job of the artist – the only thing he’s good for, incidentally – is to work that confusion into order…writers have to remember for other people.  We sift through experience until our disparate selves are reconciled, and by sharing it, offer the same opportunity for reconciliation to others.  It’s our duty”.  With this in mind what made you want to become a writer and how does this paraphrase of Katherine Anne Porter correlate with your motivations as a writer?  Is writing a means of reconciliation or as purely an art form, or is it both?  Can you share a little bit of your experience and the significance of working with the complex relationships of language, art, trauma and healing?

Writing for me is absolutely an act of reconciliation. It is a form of prayer, to be truthful, which is about reconciliation with God, or whatever one perceives as being greater than one’s self. I wrote my first novel, THE STUBBORN SEASON as a way of coming to terms with my adopted mother’s mental illness and the effect it had on me. It was a reconciliation I didn’t expect – not that I could bridge the gap between us – but to create a complex character I had to research her form of mental illness, and doing so gave me a window into the tragedy of her life, and allowed me to forgive her, and to see things from her perspective, which is certainly a step on the road to reconciliation. And here, by reconciliation, I don’t necessarily mean reconciliation only in the definition of re-establishing friendly relationships but also in the idea of reconciling two ideas which seemingly conflict. The idea that this world is not an ‘either/or’ world, but a ’both/and’ one, in which, for example, the horror of Matthew’s experience and Jack’s brokenness cannot be denied, but neither can the comfort, love, grace, and beauty of Saida’s kindness, Anthony’s gentleness, and the miracle of one person reaching out to another. I also see it in the Old Testament sense where the word reconciliation is aligned with the Hebrew word kapar. Kapar is also translated into English words such as forgive, pur­ge, and merciful as well as a few others, like acceptance. I agree with Porter. To write, for the writer, is a vocation, it is doing what we are intended to do, as long as we are intended to do it. We take fragments of this broken world and stitch them together into something, hopefully, that gives meaning, that challenges, that comforts, that reminds, and that unites them with coherence and elegance. Something I suspect the world is going to need a hell of a lot more of in the coming years.

In chapter twenty two the narrator creates a mental catalogue of witness by depicting Matthew as he is writing and thinking alone in his apartment, “Nyanza. A mass grave.  At least two thousand dead.  Bodies bloated, contorted, covered in blood, in flies, in excrement, putrefying.  Dogs everywhere, family pets turned feral and horribly well fed.  Ginkongoro, Mwulire. Mugonero. Kigali” (171).  As a writer of contemporary literature and witness of our contemporary moment, what would you say is the overall thesis of The Radiant City in relation to the perennial hostility exerted by global politics?

I am asking a very simple question in this book – Is it possible to suffer a catastrophic disillusionment and still maintain a compassionate heart, or are we doomed to cynicism? I know the answer I came to at the end of writing the book – it is, but not without struggle – but each reader will come away with their own impressions.  I think we are at a moment in global politics, with the rise of fascism and the far-right, where it could go either way. It is incumbent upon writers and other artists right now to speak up and take risks, and by that I don’t mean criticizing each other as so often the easy way, but by supporting each other, by banding together and resisting both the politics of exclusion and the abyss of cynicism.  Although I wrote THE RADIANT CITY over ten years ago, I believe it’s still relevant today. This is nice for a writer, but  certainly is not what I hoped for. I hoped it would be a glimpse into a world that had slipped away, replaced by compassion. Silly me.

At the top of page 171 the narrator says “there is no word, no words that can do justice to the dead and maimed.  There is only a list of atrocities. All he can do is transcribe the facts” (171).  What is the significance of this statement in relation to the difficult task of witnessing and writing as a way of curating the social consciousness?  What challenges do writers from Canada face when dealing with atrocities on the global stage?

That’s exactly what I mean by it still being relevant. At the moment when Matthew says that, of course, he’s dangerously close to permanent despair and cynicism. It’s what he’s thinking and feeling at that stage. By the end of the book his actions indicate, I hope, that he has stepped back from the cliff-edge, even though terrible things continue in his world – Anthony’s death and Jack’s dark, possibly unalterable fate – and he is reconciled. As to curating the social consciousness, well, we can only do that from our own vantage point. I see things very differently now, for example, than I did in my twenties and the same goes for writing in a voice I don’t feel utterly at home in. Which bears the question, what makes me feel I can write about a man – Matthew – or a Lebanese woman – Saida? Well, part of that answer is research, and lots and lots of it, and part of it is empathy, and a kind of acting, where the stage is in my head. Did I get it wrong? Maybe. It’s a chance I take for the sake of the story that’s presented itself to me. Readers will let me know. So, what I’m trying to say is that to write well about anything, we must know our characters, our setting. I’m not saying you should only write what you yourself have experienced, but that you must engage with the world. Go. Do. Learn. Listen. Listen. Listen. But beyond that, and even if we’ve done all those things, words can still fail us all and what a painful feeling that is. Words are hard. Sentences are hard. Writing is hard, or at least decent writing is. How do we create a waking dream for the reader? It’s tough, even with the most personal subject. So how do we, as Canadians, move our gaze to the larger stage? Do we travel enough? Do we move in cultural circles other than our own? Are we engaged with events in other countries? Do we read writers from other countries, other cultures? There’s nothing wrong with spending a whole life writing about the narrow scope of one’s own geography– worked well enough for writers like Faulkner, Welty, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson and many others, right? – but it’s done most successfully when the author uses their tight-in, precise, focus as an allegory for larger world events, larger societal concerns. One can only do that when one is engaged in that world, when one is aware. Obviously, some Canadian writers do look beyond our own shores and whatever’s happening in our backyards, but I’d like to see more risks taken. I understand that whatever constitutes “Canadian Literature” is still forming, and there is so much in our country to which we’ve not yet given voice. As the mouse sitting next to a lion our perspective is unique and has much to offer. We see things differently than the lion, and see the effects of the lion’s temper differently. I hope we won’t hold ourselves back from sharing that perspective.

Lauren B. Davis is most notably recognized for her 2011 novel Our Daily Bread which was named one of The Boston Globe’s “Best of 2011” books as well as one of the “Very Best Books of 2011” by The Globe and Mail.  In addition, Our Daily Bread also received long-listing for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Davis’ 2005 published work The Radiant City was a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist.  Davis has published a total of seven works of fiction in the last sixteen years and currently resides in Princeton, New Jersey where she runs the “Sharpening the Quill Writers Workshop”.

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