A Master Shape-Shifter Of the Literary
|Both Davies and his wife, Lynne Raughley, tried to finish novels before son Owen was born this summer, but only Raughley made the deadline. (Photo courtesy Marcia Ladford, U-M Photo Services)|
When he was 18 years old, Peter Ho Davies submitted his first work of fiction to a literary journal. A short story about his grandmother's descent into senility, the work, he concedes, was "autobiographical fiction," and in writing it Davies had tapped into unexpected wells of feeling.
"It was the most emotionally charged work I'd ever written," he says. The story was turned down. But with his rejection note, the editor scribbled a single word. It took Davies a day to decipher it: "Possibilities."
"I just cherished that for about three years," he remembers.
Of modest height, slight, with a boyish shock of black hair, Davies wears bookish glasses and speaks at a rushed clip in a British accent sprinkled with American idioms. There's an Asian cast to his face. Dressed in a denim jacket, T-shirt and jeans, his backpack tossed on the seat beside him, Davies, though 37 now, looks like a graduate student as he tucks into a pizza and soda during a late-afternoon lunch. But now, as director of U-M's Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, the fate of aspiring younger writers is in his hands, and that's a place most are probably happy to find themselves in a field where strong mentors can open career doors.
If anything, he's `Sino-Celtic'
Davies's background, like his fiction, spans the globe. Born in Coventry to a Welsh father and a Chinese mother (who was herself raised in Malaysia), educated at Manchester and Cambridge as well as Boston, married to an American, the fellow writer Lynne Raughley, and a resident of the United States for the past decade, Davies says for a long time he thought his background was "too strange" to yield literary capital. While he's flattered that critics occasionally tag him as an Asian-American writer, he notes that the label is inaccurate. "If anything," he jokes, "I'm Sino-Celtic."
In his two short story collections, The Ugliest House in the World (1997) and Equal Love (2000), Davies shifts cultural identities, geographical settings and historical eras with the ease of someone trying on the clothes in his closet. He's as comfortable writing about 19th-century Welsh miners and Patagonian immigrants as he is 20th-century British ex-pats, American drug addicts, and a mixed-race American couple who encounter aliens.
"Peter's fiction has always incorporated cultural materials that collide in interesting ways," says his novelist friend and former U-M colleague Charles Baxter. "One feature of Peter's fiction is an enormous breadth of reference, both to history and geographyhe's writing what you might call World Literature. The range is astonishing."
"I like to be the kind of writer who does different things from story to story," Davies says. "It's one of the pleasures of the form."
Working the fantastical vein
Lately he's strayed into more experimental territory, producing two stories in the past year"The Criminal Mastermind Is Confined" and "The Name of the Great Detective" that owe more to Borges and Kafka than to Hemingway or Carver. Davies says both stories came out of a course he taught at Michigan on the history of the short story. He and his students were discussing the two fundamental strains of fiction, realistic and fantastical, and he decided after working largely in the former vein to try his hand at the latter.
It's as a realist, however, that Davies is best known. In the 20 years since he submitted his first story for publication, he's piled up a host of plauditsan O. Henry award, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories series, the John Llewellyn Rhys and PEN/Macmillan prizes, the finals of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and most recently a Guggenheim. In 2003, on the strength of portions of his incomplete first novel, the literary journal Granta put Davies on its prestigious "Best of Young British Novelists" list, which comes out only once a decade. Not a bad record for someone who majored in physics as an undergraduate because he thought he ought to heed his parents' advice and pursue a "practical career."
Davies will be the first to tell you, though, that success is as much a matter of serendipity as it is of talent or skill. One of his most acclaimed stories, "The Silver Screen," a shattering account of ordinary lives in post_World War II Malaysia, was rejected 25 times before the Harvard Review took it. The journal then submitted the story to The Best American Short Stories of 1996, and it got in.
Keep on bashing
"You have to bash your way for a long time, but you also know there will be bolts of luck," Davies says. "Both of those are sustaining." The average story, he's heard, gets rejected a dozen times. "Every writer I know has been said no to more times than yes, and it's about your ability to tolerate that."
Even now he still gets the occasional rejectionmost recently "just a few months ago," he confides. "There are relatively few of my published stories that haven't been rejected. I still armor myself."
Valerie Laken '01 MFA remembers being "pessimistic and afraid" to send out her own first stories until Davies, her thesis adviser, told her about the rejections he'd received and urged her to go forward. "I found that just so encouraging as a young writer," Laken says. "He's such a cheery presence."
"It's so meaningful to have someone who's so well known take an interest in your work," says Steve Dabrowski '04, who took two undergraduate courses with Davies. "He reads student work very deeply. In an undergraduate workshop, everybody writes bad stories, but he does his best to bring out the better things. He would never put a student's work down."
Baxter believes it's Davies's "combination of wry wit and humor, along with seriousness of purpose," that makes him so effective as a workshop leader. "It puts students at their ease and simultaneously puts them at attention, to mix a metaphor."
A top program aims to be the best
Davies, who taught at the University of Oregon before coming to Ann Arbor, says he likes teaching in part because "writing is a kind of lonely business, and it's nice to have company. Writing is also selfishit's nice to be helping other people." He admires both his students and his colleagues at Michigan and talks of building what is already a first-rate MFA program into "the best MFA program in the country."
For the first time in their 10-year marriage, Davies and Raughley, a novelist from New Jersey whom Davies met at Boston University, are putting down roots. "This is the longest by far we've ever lived in one place as a couple," Raughley says. Three years ago, they bought a house in Ann Arbor's Burns Park, and this summer they had their first child, Owen. Both Davies and Raughley were pressing to finish drafts of novels before Owen's birth. "Lynne succeeded," Davies says, "and I sent mine to editors six weeks after he was born."
Raughley's book takes place in Atlantic City in the 1990s, a decade after casino gambling came to the resort. It's partially drawn from family experience, including her own mother's stint as a blackjack dealer. Although she says she finds the casino business exploitative, Raughley couldn't resist exploring it in fiction. What's more, she laughs, "Peter said if I didn't get on an Atlantic City story, he might make his own claim to the material."
Forthcoming novel is set during WWII
Davies's novelhis firstis set in Wales and Germany during World War II and touches on issues that have long consumed him, such as nationalism. Characters include the Nazi officials Rudolf Hess and Hermann Goering. Davies began the book five years ago. What he initially thought would be a 300-page novel has grown to 500 pages. Researchinto World War II, Nazi genocide campaigns and other atrocities, German prisoners of war in Walesproved exhausting. "I can never do enough," Davies admits, but adds, "There are dangers to knowing too much because it can close down the space for the imagination. Imagination fills the gaps of research. Those moments where the historical record is dark feel like a very legitimate space for fiction to pour in."
|Nuremberg Trial prosecutors interrogate Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess.|
He finds the novel a "freer but messier" form than the short story, and says he had to proceed by intuition. "My sense of what's working is very keyed to what works in a short story, yet those instincts aren't always the right ones." But the challenges have become "less daunting," and he now likens the process of writing the novel to an act of faith.
Raughley, who is Davies's first reader, as he is hers, has watched the novel grow and change over the years and was happy when her husband finally "wrestled it to the ground." Of his fiction in general, she says, "It's rare that he doesn't surprise me."
Some of Davies's leisure activities may be surprising as well. A pay-per-view soccer and American football addict, Davies says he watches "a lot of TV," especially so while finishing his novel, "because TV offers great comfort; its stories are warm and touching, and they end well. I don't want my stories to end well. I get my fix of safety in fiction from TVit allows me to be a little less safe with my own stories."
Davies says he finished his novel without the safety net of knowing exactly how it would end because uncertainty is always an important experience for him during composition, and especially over the large expanse of a novel. "I enjoy not knowing where it is going. Because otherwise why write it? I know I'm finished when I reach the moment that I understand the story. That's when I know where I've been going."
Leslie Stainton is the author of Lorca: A Dream of Life. A Residential College lecturer and an editor at U-M School of Public Health, she is working on a history of America's oldest continuously operating theater, Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.