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"Presence in the Face of Absence": An Interview with Lâle Davidson

Lâle Davidson teaches fiction writing at SUNY Adirondack where she was recently promoted to Distinguished Professor. Her stories have appeared in The North American Review, Eclectica, and Gone Lawn among others. She was a finalist for the Franz Kafka Award issued by Doctor T.J. Eckleburgh Review as well as the Black Lawrence Chapbook Contest of 2015 and The Talking Writing Award for humorous writing advice. Her story “The Opal Maker” was named top fifty of 2015 very short fiction publications by Wigleaf. Her magical realist novel, The Ciphery, was a finalist for the Heekin Group Foundation James Fellowship. She is a lifestyle blogger for The Times Union. Her story, “The Intensest Rendezvous” goes live with Fickle Muse on Nov. 29. For links to her stories and essays, visit Laledavidson.com.

Her story, "The Opal Maker," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about Secret Caverns, the neo-cortex, and metaphor as a form of magic.

Where did this story begin for you?

About twenty years ago, my oldest sister underwent open-heart surgery to repair a torn valve. She is eleven years older than I am and had been a sort of surrogate mother when I was a child, but she was dealing with her own abandonment issues. When I transitioned from child to adult, our relationship fell apart. I was wounded when she refused my offer to come out to Cleveland where she was having the surgery. She felt my presence would be a drain rather than a help. Years later, we had another falling out and I wrote a poem about it that started with the image of cracking the ribs open and ended with the choking scene. I put it in a file and forgot about it. I found it again last year, and after reading Amber Spark’s short shorts, I saw how easily it could be a story. It was too one-sided, so I explored how both characters fed into the dynamic. The opal-making part was one of those inspirations that feels like a gift from beyond. Not sure where it came from. Love it when that happens.

I love the imagery in this piece: “I hadn't developed very far, my limbs flat and folded in on themselves, a plant caught under a stone, my skin opaque, ridged and pruney as a water-logged lizard.” “The bright lights in my mind went out and were replaced by pale mushrooms.” The places your metaphors take us are intimate and quiet—the damp space under stones, the mushrooms that grow in forests. Did this imagery evolve naturally or was it something you struggled for?

Thank you. I’m not sure I remember properly, but it seems to me that it came fairly easily. Not that they always do. Sometimes I have to rewrite a line and read it aloud fifteen times before it sounds right. But in this case, I had used the imagery of the plant under a stone before to describe feelings I’d had about my father not developing as a fully relational human being, and the lights in the darkness come from going the Secret Caverns in Cobleskill NY, not far from where I live. When they turn off the lights underground, you are swallowed by darkness more total than night. Vivid colors bloomed in my mind. The guide told me that when one sense is deprived, our mind puts it to work elsewhere. Put that together with what it’s like to be underwater and I figure that’s what it feels like to be in a womb. Sometimes our daily experiences are timed just right to provide us with the images we need for a particular piece. Or maybe the experience is what drives you to pick that piece back at that particular time.

On your website you talk about being drawn to stories where “reality is just a little off the beaten track.” Can you speak to how “The Opal-Maker” fits into your larger body of work? What conversations is it (or is it not) having with the other stories you’ve written?

I write often about internal realities—about how the more primitive part of our brains, the amygdala, sees things. Though we spend most of our day in our neo-cortex, I think that other part of the brain is always awake and perceiving reality in a more, instantaneous, visceral and imagistic way. This kind of writing also answers my spiritual yearnings a heightened, altered state. But I also just like metaphor. I like how metaphor helps us to see something more clearly by calling it what it’s not. It’s a form of magic. And I like how words generate a certain kind of energy when you juxtapose them in certain ways. Words in and of themselves are a kind of magic, making presence in the face of absence.

You’re also a teacher. Do you find that teaching informs your creative work?

Totally.  In college, I was a very intuitive, organic, unconscious and defensive writer. I was quite blocked, and I resented everything my creative writing teachers told me. I didn’t understand their criticisms—or maybe their criticisms weren’t very good back in the 1980’s. But as a teacher, after reviewing a lot of creative writing texts, I found that Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction text provided clear descriptions of how stories work, and that has helped me to pinpoint where my stories were going off track.

Imagine that “The Opal-Maker” had a soundtrack. Name one song that would be on that mix.

What a wonderful coincidence that you ask that question. I created a soundtrack playlist for the novel I’m currently working on. I use it to get myself back into the right mood when I’ve been away from a particular chapter too long. I’d use one of those songs for this story as well: “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour” from Pink Martini. I heard it first in a Nia dancing class, but was intrigued to find out that it was used in American Horror Story, Freakshow. Some mornings, to warm up to writing, I listen to music and draw or dance.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a semi-autobiographical magical realist novel called The Ciphery. The title is a made up word, a combination of  “cipher” and “sorcery.” It’s about a young woman who fights to reclaim her own reality and identity after it’s shattered by the spontaneous combustion of her narcissistic mother on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia. After the combustion, Fallon grows up merged with her emotionally abusive bi-polar brother, but when he commits suicide, she sets out cross country in search of her only surviving brother. Spanning the South and North American continents, Fallon’s journey is more than a coming of age story, it’s an exploration of how the psychological, cultural and communal transactions with the physical world construct reality.

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