Zibby Owens: Welcome, Peter. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Peter Ho Davies: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: We are talking about your beautiful book, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, which is fiction. Although, when I was reading it, I was positive it was nonfiction. I had to keep flipping back until I saw this tiny little “novel” word on the cover. Would you mind telling listeners what the book is about and what inspired you to write it?

Peter: It is a novel. Although, certainly, parts of it are true. I like to think the whole is fictional even if parts are derived from real experience. It’s a novel about parenting with some of the familiar trials and tribulations of that, but one that I hope starts from an unfamiliar place and even defamiliarizes that experience since it starts with an abortion. The couple involved at the center of the book, their first pregnancy is interrupted by some pretty catastrophic prenatal test results. They choose to not have that child. Even though later they go on to have a second successful pregnancy and have a child, I think that experience of parenting for them is sort of shadowed but also maybe in some ways also illuminated by that sense of loss from the first pregnancy as well. That’s roughly the tenor of the book.

It’s interesting you mentioned that sense of fiction/memoir, the burry line between those two things. There is something of that going on in this space. I feel like I need to take the fifth in terms of explaining what’s true and what’s not, probably because for most of us in our lived experience, memory itself is a kind of means of fiction. If I look back at some of these experiences, I’m not quite sure where reality gives over to fiction in some ways along the way too. In a way, that uncertainty for the reader is in part intentional on my part. What the characters go through, the book is very much about the uncertainty of diagnosis in many ways, that sense of, this might be ninety-nine percent this way, but there’s a small sliver of a chance that it might go in the other direction. For the reader to wonder, is this part true, is this part fiction? is a way of giving them a glimpse into the experience of the characters themselves. That’s the notional idea behind that uncertainty that the book breeds in the reader as well.

Zibby: The book, it wasn’t only about the uncertainty that comes with whether or not to have a child, and the test results. It’s even as a child gets older, what do you do when things don’t seem to be going a hundred percent the way they should? I’m sure so many parents can relate to this. You think that your child will pass flying colors with — I’m trying to think of an example. I don’t know. Jumping or climbing or monkey bars or something. Then all of a sudden, they don’t. What does that mean? Then there’s all that anxiety and so much accompanying worry. Then what do you do? This novel delves right into that from the dad’s point of view, which I found so refreshing because I just feel like there aren’t that many beautiful literary works about fatherhood, whereas I feel like there are many more about motherhood.

Peter: Thanks for saying that. I really appreciate that. I do think there’s a deep anxiety for all of us even in the smoothest parenting experiences. I guess none of them are actually genuinely all that smooth. We’re worried about all those benchmarks, all those percentiles. We’re anxious about, inevitably, even though we wish we didn’t, comparing our children to other children whether statistically or whether in the playground, however it might play out in some ways. I think there’s a kind of tyranny of the normal. We want our children, we yearn for our children to sort of fit within recognizable spaces, maybe sometimes a space that looks like our own childhood so we feel reassured that they’re having an experience that we recognize in some ways or that they’re having an experience that feels as though it’s very much typical. I think the great anxiety for all of us, and maybe the great truth because all of our kids are so individual, is that nobody has a normal childhood. Nobody has a typical childhood. They have their own individual childhood as well.

What’s weird about that for a writer when writing about parenthood is that fiction tends to be not made up of normal or typical experiences. That’s not where drama often lies. There’s an odd disjuncture between that feeling that we want to have something that seems very familiar for our children in their experiences and writing a fiction that feels as though it pushes our children and pushes our own experience of having children into extremis in some ways. There’s an odd tension going on in that space. For me, what’s going on in this book is that these characters, because of their various anxieties and because of their past experiences, they sort of yearn for that normality. I hope there are aspects of the book, as I say, that do seem very familiar to other parents — I think there’s a great universal quality to many of those things — but also makes us maybe appreciate those universal qualities because we understand how tenuous they are for some people and some characters.

Zibby: It’s so true. One part that I kept inserting myself into and thinking, how would I have handled this, what would I have done? which I feel like most readers do at some point or another while reading, when you and your wife were debating — sorry, when your character and the character’s wife — sorry.

Peter: I appreciate that.

Zibby: Were debating whether or not after the fact to find out if the fetus had, for sure, this abnormality and you couldn’t decide whether or not you wanted that information and ultimately — I hope I’m not giving anything away. I don’t have to. Anyway, you made a decision one way or another together and now have had to live with that decision. Tell me about that. What do you do if your spouse wants to know and you don’t want to know? What do you do when there’s information out there? I felt like I wanted to call the test person and get the results of this even though — I was like, maybe they don’t want to know, but I would like to know the answer.

Peter: That makes perfect sense. In a way, that’s also what the book is about. It’s about marriage. It’s about the way that we know somebody incredibly intimately and have spent a lot of time with that person and yet still when we come to these crucial moments, find ourselves on opposite sides of a feeling, on opposite sides in various ways. We feel as though some part of our essential characters are revealed in those moments. Also, part of a marriage is learning those things about one’s spouse and living with them or finding a way collectively to live with those kind of differences that we go through. The book is very much about charting the ups and downs and the stresses placed on a marriage by these kind of circumstances as we progress through those spaces. For these characters in this book, the uncertainty they’re grappling with is, as I say, medical uncertainty, diagnostic uncertainty. I think a lot of the times in our lives we grapple with uncertainty. We don’t have a sense of the sure thing. We don’t have the hundred percent knowledge of a certain thing. We don’t have perfect information.

That’s very true for these characters. I think it crops up in a lot of fiction. We often talk as writers about writing what you know. Of course, this book does in some degree derive from lived experience. We often write into what we don’t know and, in some ways, also maybe have to write books that live with uncertainty. I think there’s a way in which that’s the nature of our lives. Of course, I think that’s been brought home very powerfully and painfully to many of us and I know yourself. Your family’s gone through this too through the process of the pandemic over the last few months as well. We’ve been grappling with not knowing when this will end, not knowing what it means. Again, uncertainties of diagnosis creep into this space as well. It feels as though, although this is by no means the intention in writing the book, that it also hits that odd timely note where we have a kind of global uncertainty that we’re all grappling with now.

Zibby: It’s so true. I feel like in the pandemic I’ve had to rely — and probably most people. When everyone’s doing different things, where should we be? What do you feel is okay? What do I feel is okay? I’m not sure. I feel like this is a time where I’m like, okay, I just have to look inside myself and go with it because that’s all I really have at the end of the day. Everyone else could be wrong. Everyone else could be right. I have to do what I feel comfortable doing, although not being led exclusively by anxiety. I feel like lately I haven’t even wanted to leave the house. I’m like, this is fine. I’m okay here.

Peter: It reminds me a little bit of — I studied this years ago — risk assessment. It’s sometimes about the statistics. It’s also a little bit about our emotions in response to that risk as well. It’s the feeling that if somebody chooses to be a smoker, they’re choosing to take that risk on for themselves. If the government puts a nuclear power station nearby, even though the risk statistically might be a lot smaller than the risk from smoking, we feel that risk is being imposed upon us. It’s not just about the numbers. It’s something about our emotional response to that space. I think we’re all grappling with that sense of not only just, how do we deal with the numbers, but also how do we emotionally process the numbers of this particular moment? The characters have to think about that. I think we as a society are thinking about that too.

Zibby: It’s so true. Yes, it’s very timely an emotion, for sure. Absolutely. By the way, the wife in this book is so funny and likable. I found myself wanting to take whoever this was out to coffee. If she happens to exist, tell this fictious that I really appreciate her sense of humor.

Peter: I really appreciate you saying that. That’s actually very moving to me because the wife in the book, at least in some part, is modeled on a wife that I know very well, that I love very deeply, and who’s behind the door behind me back there. I was very conscious writing the book. You mentioned it’s a story about fatherhood, which is very much true. The reason that I think there are fewer books that talk about parenting from the father’s point of view is because we understand, of course, and I think it’s very true, that the motherhood experience, certainly the birth experience, is so much more intense than the father’s experience in so many ways. I was cautious and tentative a little bit about trying to take on subjects like parenthood and certainly subjects like abortion from a male point of view. I don’t claim this is a complete point of view, obviously. One of the ways that the book is structured is written in these short fragments that also leave a lot of space between those sections. The way the book is composed in fragments allows readers to read between the lines a little bit and to think that this is not the whole story, of course.

There’s a story that the wife would tell in the novel and maybe even the son would tell eventually in the book as well that I can’t claim to access but I’m trying to leave some space for so the readers might imagine what’s going on with those characters in the background along the way as well and maybe fill in the gaps. I’m a big believer in the way that the reader helps complete a book in some ways as well. I’m hoping to leave some space in that territory. Although, it’s funny. I also think that some part of the structure of the book, the fact that it’s written in short sections, short vignettes, comes out of the parenting experience. This book, although mostly written over the last three or four years, the first chapter goes back about ten years or so. It comes out of a time when I was trying to write when my son was pretty small, and so everything about the writing experience was sort of stolen in those moments where there was a nap or there was a small gap in that busy schedule you have when you’re parenting. Something about the form of the book also comes out of the parenting experience.

Zibby: The way I’ve digested it also comes out of the parenting experience. I read snippets. I have to look here and there. I love all different types of books. I’m also reading now, a book with multiple viewpoints where each chapter, it shifts. That’s much harder. I still really enjoy it, but that’s better if I have a longer stretch of time. When I put it down and pick it up, I’m like, wait, wait, who is she? Then I have to flip back. This book, no, you’re in it. I get it. Was it easier? You have written all this historical fiction in the past which I’m sure involved a great deal of research and time and digging and all of that. Was it a breeze for you to do this? Was it harder because you were going into more emotional territory, or is that not even true?

Peter: It’s difficult to compare. The historical work does require a lot of preparation. There’s a lot of anxiety. It’s also a space where fact and fiction, and where fact gives over to fiction, feels like it’s also an important question. This book has some callbacks to that previous experience. This was probably slightly easier in the actual writing experience. It took less time. It’s a shorter book, of course, than my previous historical novels. You’re absolutely right to suggest that emotionally it was a tougher book. While I’ve written about real historical figures in the past and there are questions there ethically about how they’re represented — we think about questions of appropriation that comes up in those spaces — it felt that those questions were much closer to home, literally speaking, in the context of this book. There was a certain amount of anxiety and a degree of soul searching in those questions in the writing of this book. To some degree, as I often do, some of the things that I worry about when I’m writing a book — can I write this book? How do I write this book? — those questions ultimately in some ways become the subject of the book. It feels as though those questions sort of inhabit the book. Rather than having them stop me or censor me, it feels as though the book is an opportunity to explore and engage with those questions in some ways as well.

Zibby: I love how you just put A Lie in the title because I feel like all the best books are all — in fact, I would say most stories are about some sort of secret. Either you’re keeping it from yourself or someone’s keeping it from you. There’s always a secret, which I think is a flip side of a lie because you have to disguise that. I just feel like it so touches on this basic interest people have in reading about what is not straightforward and what you might not be able to say straight out and all of that.

Peter: It’s the great mystery of fiction. It advertises itself as lie, it’s a fiction, and invites us to think into, do I believe in this? What don’t I believe in? Where might my suspension of disbelief begin or end in some ways as well? We often talk about fiction as a kind of engine of empathy, which I think is true. I buy into those ideas, the importance of that. There’s also a way in which I think the reading of fiction sharpens our sense of reality by engaging us with that sense of what might not be real in some ways as well. I thought about this particularly over the last three or four years. The reading of fiction sort of sharpens our bullshit detectors in a strange way. It feels as though it helps us figure out what’s true and what’s not, what to believe or what not to believe in. Even as it plays with that sense of where the line lies, I think it also sharpens our feelings about reality as well.

Zibby: How did you become a writer to begin with?

Peter: It’s weird. I know this comes a little bit out of the book. The main character, he starts off as a physicist. I started off as a physicist. My physics career, such as it was, at least as an undergraduate, was entirely derailed by the first really serious writing I did. When I was younger when I was a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to write science fiction. If I had been any good at it, I might still be doing that. I wrote a story that was closer to home, more about my family. My grandmother was beginning to suffer with dementia. It was a very difficult passage for the family to go through and for me as well. By writing about it in fiction, I found I’d untapped something emotionally that I hadn’t been previously aware was there in the fiction. I wrote a story about that. It went on to be the first story that I published, although not for many years later. Even when I wrote it, I think I sensed something of the power and the allure of fiction in doing that. In a strange way, that story entirely derailed my physics career.

Zibby: Wow, so I guess we should keep all the novels away from essential physicists. That’s the lesson here. What do you like to read? What types of books do you like to read?

Peter: It’s funny. Once I became a parent, I became very drawn to the idea of reading a lot of short books because it was so easy to get through them. I sympathized with what you were suggesting earlier on. We’re talking about the interrupted, distractable life of a parent or a young parent and how they find time to read in that space or how they find the bandwidth to engage with a book in those kind of moments. I think, too, that that distractibility is a cultural phenomenon. There’s something about the way that we read even when we’re reading the news or we’re reading online and we’re hopping around, it feels like the net and the web have become really interesting metaphors for the way we hop from connection to connection to connection. There’s a way in which we, when we engage with the world like that, are making our own novel. I’m going to jump from this link to this link to this link. I do think there’s a body of work out there, a body of fiction, that begins to operate in those sort of elusive connective ways. I think back to a book that I teach a great deal to my undergraduates almost every year, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which has that same kind of elusive connective quality. I find that really interesting. I always talk to them about how once they’ve read it, it sort of rewires their brains in interesting ways. Although, I think in some ways it’s actually just playing into a rewiring of their brains that the world is engaging it in, in some ways for them as well. I like that. I’m interested in that sense in which we’re encouraged as readers to make connections between pieces, that we’re asked to fill the gaps in, again, that sense of feeling as though we’re collaborators with the author. Those are books that I’m really engaged in.

Zibby: Do you have more books in the works? What’s coming next for you?

Peter: It’s funny. I was writing this book, or at least finishing, simultaneously with another book that I’m working on. It’s a nonfiction book, a teacherly book, a craft book about the writing of fiction, but specifically about revision. It’s called The Art of Revision, subtitled The Last Word, which sounds a bit ominous, but it’s not quite as grim as that sounds. I’ve been teaching for the best part of twenty-five years, so it feels like it’s a distillation of those kind of things. As you know, in this new novel, the main character is also a writer and a teacher of writing. There’s a little bit of osmosis between these two projects in some ways as well. That one will come out in November of this year. My friends are like, oh, you’ve got two books coming out in the same year. I have to admit, they’re both very short books, as you know from this one. It doesn’t feel like it’s quite as great an achievement of that. Although, it’s fun. I enjoyed working on both of them.

Zibby: I have two anthologies coming out this year, actually.

Peter: Excellent. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. I assembled them. November. I’ll see you in the November party then.

Peter: That’s a lot of work, though, assembling anthologies like that.

Zibby: It is. It is a lot of work. It’s great. I’m really proud of them. It’ll be great, but it’s not like I sat down and wrote them all.

Peter: It’s the way I feel about even when I’m putting together a list of readings for a course. You’re interested in the way the pieces in anthologies bounce off each other, speak to each other. I do think there’s a way in which Visit from the Goon Squad calls back to this space as well. I’m interested in novels that borrow from not the structure of short stories, per se, but from the structure of short story collections which I think do invite us to think about links, think about comparisons. Anthologies do that work in really interesting ways. Again, it’s a fun way of the brain moving laterally which is an interesting contrast sometimes to the linearity of some fiction as well.

Zibby: I like that. I might have to steal that quote when describing anthology work. You have already started talking about this. I’m sure you have a lot of views on revision. I read your essay. I think it was called “Done” on and everything. What advice would you have for aspiring authors, people who are just starting out?

Peter: This probably goes to some of the ways I think about revision. I think there’s a way in which it’s important for us to outwait the project, outwait the story, outwait the book. As much as we claim to love writing, there is a way in which we’re often, all of us, in an unholy hurry to be finished with whatever we’re writing. That’s understandable in a first draft. We build that first draft. It’s like a rickety bridge that we’re constructing across the chasm of our doubt. We feel if we don’t finish the bridge it’ll just fall into the chasm and we won’t get to the end of this thing. I think it’s really important, often, to move quite quickly in a first draft. I see students doing that. You can also feel them, at the end of that early draft, particularly if it’s a story, they’re like a sprinter who’s dipping for the line. We’re trying very hard to get across that line and get it built. Then afterwards in revision, though, I think it’s really smart to take some time to explore the work and to let it expand for a little bit. We talked earlier on about that I’d been writing what you know, but often, we don’t quite know what we know when write a first draft. We’re sort of feeling our way into that space. The more we expand, the more we explore our own work in many ways.

I’m really interested in that idea, that sense of hanging out with the work long enough to understand what it’s doing and maybe ultimately figuring out why we wrote it in the first place. That’s how I know that I’m finally done. I feel like I finally understand my own work in certain ways. Nearly always with different books, there’s some late moment when I understand why something that seemed out of place or I wasn’t quite sure why it was there, what work it was doing, it suddenly speaks back to me and says, I’m here for this reason. This reason is essential. That’s why you’ve hung onto me for as long as you have. The advice that I give to people, there’s so much, of course. The line I like to quote is the line of Flaubert. The line goes that talent is long patience. When I first heard that when I was quite a young writer, I didn’t get it. I think I even thought it was just a bad translation from the French. Talent is long patience. What does that mean? Of course, the older I get, the more I think I understand that. I try to talk about it often with young writers. I’m lucky I work with very talented young writers. Talent and youth are sort of the enemies of patience. We often embrace talent as a shortcut. We don’t need to have as much patience if we’re talented. I think that’s part of the seduction of our feelings about talent. I do think there’s a way in which just being patient with ourselves and with our work, which feels like a value that seems sometimes counterintuitive to the pace of modern life in some ways, it’s a chance for the work to speak back to us and for the characters to speak back to us and for us to grow into the work and understand it.

In a certain fundamental way, it’s about reading our work carefully so that we allow it to speak back to us and we become readers of our own work and not just the writers of it. Maybe that’s the fundamental essence of revision. It’s an aspect of re-seeing. We move from seeing it through the eyes of the writer who thinks they know what they’re doing with it and we come back to it and read it through the eyes of a reader. I always suggest — you must have gone through this too, I’m sure. It’s that moment when we share our work for the first time with somebody else, a friend, a loved one, a critic, or we hit submit if we’re sending it out to a magazine or we hit submit if we’re sending it to the editor or the agent. Even before we hear back from them, there’s a moment as soon as we’ve let go it where we’re like, oh, shit, I should’ve fixed that. There’s something that we recognize that we should’ve changed, that we meant to change, that we suddenly see in a different way. It’s because we intuit new eyes looking at it. That’s the beginning of revision because we’re starting to see it through the eyes of our imagined readers out there.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like revision is, it’s the most important thing. I feel like even for an essay, if I write a first draft that’s a thousand words and I know I have to get it to 750 or something, or 800, it’s going to be much better. It always gets better when I cut it down, inevitably. I don’t know what that says. I have to keep it really brief. I think the point is when you’re more intentional about which words end up making it, you have to have them sort of go up to the battle line and fight to make their way in. If they survive, then they have a place for themselves.

Peter: You also wouldn’t find those if you hadn’t written long in the first place. I think it’s really important to allow ourselves to have that expansive moment before we contract. Occasionally with young writers that I work with, there’s that feeling that they think of revision — this is another parenting way of thinking about this. I feel when I encourage them to revise that I’m like their mom telling them to tidy their room. It feels like this is the boring work of writing. I’ve had all the fun creative stuff. Now I have to do the dull thing. I wanted to suggest to them that revision is also part of the creative process. It’s an opportunity also for new discoveries to be made, new moments of creation to occur to them. I’m often encouraging them to take that piece and the way I put it is to allow it to breathe out — sometimes it gets a little bit longer than it needs to — and then in a subsequent draft, to cut it back so it breathes in. That sense of the draft as this breathing, living thing feels like a healthy way also to think about it.

Zibby: It’s sort of like when I make sugar cookies with my kids. You need all that dough. You have to roll it all out. Then you put the cookie cutters in it. Nobody ever says, oh, I shouldn’t have made all that dough. You had to make the dough to get the perfect cookie.

Peter: That’s a great idea. That’s a really good description of that and actually also really helpful to me because I feel as though one of the struggles I have talking about revision sometimes with students is it can feel a little mysterious. Even that sense of, I suddenly understood it was done or the character spoke back to me, these things seem a little mystical in some ways. Anything that makes it seem more down to earth makes it more tangible. That’s a great metaphor for that. I really like that idea of that.

Zibby: You can use that metaphor as often as you like if you tell the person you’re talking to they have to listen to my podcast. That’s my only…

Peter: I will do that. That’s a deal. I like that.

Zibby: I’m kidding. No, of course, you can use it if it ever helps you. I think it is kind of like that. Anyway, thank you so much for this chat. That was really fun. I really, truly enjoyed reading your book, not the least because I could pick it up and put it down eight thousand times before even finishing two hundred pages, or one hundred. I don’t know. It was great. It was lovely getting to know you. Thank you for coming on my show.

Peter: Thanks so much for having me, Zibby. It was a real pleasure chatting to you.

Zibby: I’ll send you some sugar cookies one day.

Peter: That’d be great. I’d love that. Thanks.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Peter: Bye.