The Beatrice Interview: Amanda Davis (1999)

This intro originally appeared as an book review.


In 15 short stories, Amanda Davis takes the raw emotions of love and loss and throws them into surreal perspective. Sometimes the stories are explicitly fantastic and dreamlike, like the romance with the “boy who chased freight trains” in “Chase.” Sometimes the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred–the high school protagonist of “Faith, or Tips for the Successful Young Lady,” for example, has a “fat girl” companion that only she can see, a mocking chorus that forces her to recall the traumatic incident that led to her suicide attempt. And sometimes the surrealism comes from slowing a “realistic” moment down to closely examine its various perceptual components, as in “The Very Moment They’re About,” which captures two adolescents just before their first kiss. That intricate dissection of a moment’s sensual and emotional register comes through in even the most naturalistic of these stories (“Red Lights Like Laughter,” “The Visit”). Circling the Drain reveals Amanda Davis as a skilled crafter of character and tone, and marks her as an author to watch for some time to come.

RH: How long have you been writing short stories?

AD: Since I started writing, in junior high school, maybe a little bit earlier. But I wasn’t showing them to anyone, it was just something I did. And they weren’t fully formed stories, they were just…things, pieces of stuff. Then when I was in college, and after I got out, I started being more serious about stories and form.

I went through a long time where I read nothing but short stories. I think part of that had to do with moving to New York, where my attention span was stunted. There’s so much going on—and you have this built-in time when you’re traveling in New York if you don’t drive; when I was working at a job that I hated, I still had a great way to start the day and a great way to end the day.

RH: What prompted the decision to start showing your work to people?

AD: I graduated from college as a theater major, but knew pretty much in my last year that I didn’t want to do anything to do with theater. But I didn’t quite know what my life was going to be. I graduated, and I wrote PR copy for a theater during the day and worked at a restaurant at night. The other woman on my shift was 74 and had been there since she was 22, so every day I said to myself, ” I’m going to be here 52 years…” That inspired me to move to New York. I got a corporate job that I hated. That forced me to find an outlet, and I focused on my writing. I eventually quit my job and waited tables for a few years and just wrote.

RH: How long did it take you to get your first story published after that?

AD: Right around the time I decided to quit my job, I showed some of my work to a friend who’d gone through graduate school, got some feedback from her. I enrolled in a workshop at the New School, too the first three stories I wrote for that, and mailed them out to graduate schools.

I have a very lucky story—a year later, I got a scholarship to the Bread Loaf writers conference. It was a wonderful experience; I was surrounded by people who read books and talked about books and about writing. It was an amazing bunch of talented people. I didn’t understand publishing at all, and I got to meet people who had been published, got to meet editors and agents. I met Lois Rosenthal, the editor of Story, and about a month after the conference, I sent her “Chase,” which she bought. That was my first published story.

RH: One of the qualities I notice in your writing is their surreal nature.

AD: There’s something about what’s not known, what can happen, what’s possible … I’ve never been drawn to the traditional narrative. Even though I can appreciate it, it doesn’t seem to be what I do. There’s always a fantastical element that wanders in. Parts of these stories come from dreams or things that flicker in my head that I can’t get rid of.

RH: Do you tend to have characters in your head until you get the story out?

AD: Pretty much. Sometimes it’s unpleasant, sometimes it’s great. The novel that I’m working on now is spun out of “Faith.” I’d finished that story, and I’d felt that it was finished, but these people would just not stop talking, and so that’s how the novel started going.

Sometimes it’s a line, like “Lily was in love with a boy who chased freight trains.” That line was in my head for a long time, the story came tumbling after that. I try to sit down and write every day.

RH: There’s a wall that you hit eventually as a short-story writer, facing the prospect of making a living as a writer.

AD: The really frustrating thing is that the periodical market for short stories is just shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. I spent a year and a half working for Esquire in the fiction department. It was tremendous—I learned a lot, got to read a lot of great stuff—but so frustrating. There’d be a two-foot stack of submissions that I’d be looking at, twice a week. And you have to get through it, because there’s another stack just like it coming. And as you read, you develop a sense from the cover letter or the presentation or the first two pages…I always give everybody two pages, but if they haven’t got me by then, it’ll get rejected. Maybe 30% of the stack is ready to be published, but so much of it is wrong for Esquire, like mother-daughter stories. That’s just not what their readership is looking for. I would get really great stories that weren’t right for us, and wonder where they could be sent, and the landscape is just shrinking. The New Yorker has an array of big name writers, but their voice is pretty specific. You can pretty much see their entire spectrum. A lot of novel excerpts, a lot of big name writers, and not a lot of discovery going on there. Story does a lot of discovery, and publishes a broad range of voices—but they publish maybe 36 stories a year.

RH: But of course novel writing has technical challenges of its own.

AD: I have a tendency to write very short things, and a really solid short short is almost like an object. There’s such a shape to it. I’ve been comforted writing shorts that there’s a shape, that there’s an ending coming. But with a novel, you’re coming back to the same thing every day. There’s a way in which that’s more intimate somehow. The shape is difficult to see because it’s larger, but it gives you so much more freedom. You can write whole sections you know you’ll take out later, but they teach you something about what’s going on. It’s been very exciting to me. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m enjoying it.