The Apse in the University of Michigan Museum of Art was packed Tuesday night as American author Lydia Davis gave the first of two talks as part of the Zell Visiting Writer series — both reading from her short stories and encouraging attendees to get involved in politics at the local level. Davis is known for her short stories and was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. She has also translated many prominent works including “Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust and “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert.
Throughout her talk, Davis read a variety of her recent original stories, ranging from one sentence to a few pages in length.
“All the stories I’m going to read tonight are very recent which means I haven’t tried them out so you may have to bear with me,” she said. “They are also a bit longer than they normally are.”
The first story she read was about her interest in dreams. After the reading, she explained how this story idea came about for her.
“I’m interested in dreams as a possible literary form or material for writing a little story,” she said.
All of the stories related to aspects of Davis’s personal life. In another story, she recounted her own son’s discovery of how to pronounce the word “egg.” Davis explained that in many of her stories, “as happens with most stories in real life, nothing had happened.”
University alum Cameron Giniel, who is interested in writing short stories, attended the event.
“I was really impressed with the way she captured these trivial moments that might be trivial but also come to life and how you work your way through that,” Giniel said. “It was really awesome to see how they come to life."
The shortest story Davis shared was titled, “Improving my German,” which consisted of a single sentence: “All my life I had been trying to improve my German. At last my German is better, but now I am an old woman.”
“My stories do tend to be quite short because I don’t feel that there needs to be a standard length that I need to live up to,” Davis said. “When you are young you tend to be more conservative … When you grow older you learn more and more.”
In her final reading, Davis shared an experience that happened to her on a train in Europe. After asking someone to keep an eye on her belongings, she ended up going to significant lengths to make sure that the people who were watching them had good intentions.
“When I write something I sometimes recognize certain patterns or rhythms and in this one, it was (author) Stephen Dixon,” Davis said. “He is very good and prolific and (his stories) set off as a sort of monologue. Another one is (novelist) Ron Carlson who has some very funny stories. If you read the work of someone and are impressed by it and have that kind of mind that remembers and imitates they can show up.”
Young-Eun Yook, a graduate student in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, found Davis’s stories very different from others that she has read.
“The way she used humor was really interesting,” she said.
Davis revealed through her readings that it is not always easy to write short stories, especially the endings.
“Endings are very difficult as I’m sure everyone knows and usually the answer is to wait — to try something and come back to it a week or two later again and again. But sometimes it takes a couple of years,” Davis said.
David ended her talk by telling the audience that she is running for an elected position in the small village she lives in.
“I highly encourage people to run for office somewhere,” she said.