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3542 words
SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Lauren B. Davis

Interviewed by Derek Alger

Lauren B. Davis is the author of three novels and two story collections, with her most recent novel, Our Daily Bread (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2011; HarperCollins Canada, 2012), named as one of the “Best Books of the Year” by The Globe & Mail (Canada) and The Boston Globe.

Davis was born and raised in Montreal, and has lived in Nova Scotia and Toronto. She lived in France for ten years from 1994-2004, and now lives in Princeton, N.J. with her husband, Ron, and her dog, Bailey, known as the Rescuepoo.

Her first novel, The Stubborn Season (HarperCollins Canada, 2002), was a national bestseller and named as one of the Top 15 Bestselling First Novels by and Books in Canada. The Stubborn Season was also chosen by Robert Adams for his prestigious 2003-2004 book review series.

Davis’s second novel, The Radiant City (HarperCollins Canada, 2005), was a finalist for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Award. Her story collection, An Unrehearsed Desire (Exile Editions, 2008), was longlisted for the Relit Award, and her story collection, Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives was published by Mosaic Press in 2000.

Davis has taught creative writing in Geneva, Paris, and Ireland, as well as in the United States and Canada. She is also a past Mentor with the Humber College Creative Writing by Correspondence Program, and past Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church, Princeton. She currently leads “Sharpening the Quill” writers’ workshops in Princeton, and also has taught at various correctional facilities.

Derek Alger: Your most recent novel, Our Daily Bread, is beginning to get the recognition it deserves.

Lauren B. Davis: It’s lovely. Our Daily Bread has been named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by the Boston Globe and Canada’s The Globe & Mail. Even though past novels sold well and were shortlisted for awards in Canada, this is my first US-published book. Considering it’s published with Wordcraft of Oregon, a very small press (albeit one that’s wonderfully supportive of literary writers), the attention is a nice surprise.

DA: The novel has been called Nova Scotia Noir at its best.

LBD: Well, actually it’s been called “Backwoods Noir at its best.” The book is inspired by a true story concerning the Goler Clan in Nova Scotia, but it is neither set in Nova Scotia, nor is it really about the Golers. It’s inspired by them. I created a fictional town and fictional characters because I wanted people to wonder if this sort of thing—this idea of “The Other”— might be happening in their neighborhoods. The point is that it could be anywhere.

DA: Tell us a bit about the Goler clan.

LBD: The Golers were, and are, a clan living on South Mountain in the Annapolis Valley area of Nova Scotia. While living in Nova Scotia in the 1970s, I heard stories about a community up on a nearby mountain. They were terrible stories, involving incest, aborted and deformed babies, prostitution, bootlegging, and so forth. I told myself these dreadful tales couldn’t be true. I believed, naively, that if they were true, surely someone would have done something about it. Then, in the early 1980s one of the children of the Goler clan told her story of generational abuse to a teacher. This teacher came from another province and hadn’t been in Nova Scotia very long. She in turn called an RCMP officer, who also hadn’t been in the community for very long. They insisted an investigation begin and eventually many of the clan adults were in jail and the children in foster care. (I’m sorry to say I learned from a Halifax journalist that there has been more abuse in the community recently, and more arrests.)

DA: Obviously, this story struck a creative nerve.

LBD: I was horrified, but also mystified. If all those rumors were true, why had it taken so long for someone to intervene? Well, the answer seemed to be that the people who lived on the mountain had, for generations, been considered “Those People” as in “What do you expect from those people?” The people who lived in the prosperous Annapolis Valley nearby, in communities founded hundreds of years earlier on Puritanical religious principles, believed their neighbors were so “Other” as to be beyond the pale.

Those stories composted in my subconscious for years. The extreme marginalization of the community and the terrible repercussions of ostracism haunted me, but only recently, as I was obsessing about the polarization all around us today, did it come back to the surface as what seemed like the perfect framework to explore how such ordinary people could do such dreadful things, or permit such dreadful things to continue.

DA: What was your childhood like?

LBD: As has been said before, it isn’t absolutely necessary to have a dreadful childhood in order to be a writer, but it helps. I was born in Montreal, Canada and am an adopted child (although when I was around thirty I found my birth family and have since developed a close bond to my birth-father and step-mother). The family who adopted me had no other children and, alas, my mother had mental health issues and my father was an alcoholic. I suspect that to people outside the family we might have looked relatively normal; however, inside the family it was often pretty grim. Let’s just say that I got married and left home at sixteen. The fact my parents gave the necessary written permission for me to do so gives you an idea of what life at home was like. Still, although my mother had serious issues, she did give me the gift of reading at an early age and a lifelong love for books. I found great refuge there.

DA: When you were 14, you discovered James Agee and Graham Greene. Why were they such important influences?

LBD: Agee, in his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is absolutely desperate to make the reader understand the plight of 1930s sharecroppers. I wanted to do something with my life that felt that morally important. Greene had this deep understanding of human nature. Added to that list should be Gabrielle Roy, a Montreal writer, and the British writer Elizabeth Gaskell. Roy’s book, The Tin Flute, is not widely known but it’s a masterpiece of compassion. The same is true of Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s amazing how Gaskell guides the reader to see beyond first impressions. Those three things—moral relevance, understanding of the human condition and compassion—are what I strive for in my work.

DA: You married at an early age and left for a geographical cure in Nova Scotia.

LBD: The marriage didn’t last long (only a few months), and the year or so I spent in Nova Scotia before coming back to Montreal was an extremely difficult one in many ways, but it did teach me it was possible for me to survive without having to depend on anyone. That was an important lesson, and I never regretted it.

Regardless of how difficult my time in Nova Scotia was, I fell in love with the place and the people. The wild rocky coast, Cape Breton Island, The Annapolis Valley, the Bay of Fundy…it’s a magical place, as are all the Canadian Maritimes.

DA: You found a home in Toronto and, perhaps more important, a husband who was a true, supportive partner.

LBD: I moved to Toronto from Montreal in 1980 and worked at a number of jobs— in a stock brokerage; with the singing group, The Nylons; as an office manager; as a secretary in a number of places; as Business Manager for First Nations House at the University of Toronto…a number of mostly mindless, soul-numbing jobs, but they paid the rent, and as I said earlier, being self-sufficient was always important to me.

I met my husband, Ron, in 1987 when I was working as Manager of Corporate Relations for Crown Life. Ron’s incredibly supportive of my work. No matter what I was doing to put a roof over my head, I always wrote and Ron respected that. He’s my first reader and my champion. He guides me back from the dark woods when I wander in there too far, when self-doubt assails me (as it does any writer who’s willing to admit it), and when the difficulties of this industry—the rejection and criticism, low pay and loneliness—get me down.

DA: And then it was off across the ocean.

LBD: Indeed, Ron’s company asked him to head up the French operation for the company and we landed in Menthon-St.-Bernard, near Annecy, in the French Alps for five years and then in Paris for another five. To be truthful, I found Paris too noisy and crowded. I understand why people love it, it is a stunningly beautiful city, but I’ve always needed more peace and quiet than any city offers. In order to stop me from going nuts amid the construction and the car horns, we rented a farmhouse in Normandy the last few years and it was there, in absolute bucolic bliss, that I wrote most of The Radiant City.

DA: France was the site of another major change.

LBD: I also got sober in France. I had arrived at a place where it was either give up drinking, or lose everything, including my health. I come from a long Dynasty of Drunks (in my birth family as well as my adoptive family) and have lost two half-brothers to suicide as a result of addiction. Alcohol had taken away my ability to write. There’s a quote in “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “Alcohol once gave me wings and then it took away the sky.” That’s how it was with me. I was writing these wonderful first paragraphs and then a lot of drunken drivel. By the end of my drinking I wasn’t writing at all.

By coincidence (if there is such a thing) one of the few English-speaking people in the tiny village where we lived had been sober for eight years. She was my bridge back to life. Ron used to drive me over the mountain passes to Geneva once a week to go to AA meetings. I’m delighted to say I stopped drinking on March 21, 1995, and haven’t had a drink since. I believe if I hadn’t stopped drinking, I’d be dead by now.

DA: A little known secret is the fact that many writers write in spite of their drinking, not because of it.

LBD: Once I got sober, I had to learn how to write sober, and I wasn’t sure I could, since my idea of a Real Writer involved booze. But, since I don’t do anything else even remotely well (okay, I make a mean lamb tagine, but other than that…), I felt urged to try. From France I did long-distance education courses in creative writing through Indiana University, became a part of the Geneva Writers Group, and then was accepted at the Humber College Creative Writing Program, under the mentorship of Timothy Findley, who I’m proud to say became a real friend.

DA: Geneva became important to you.

LBD: Absolutely. Susan Tiberghien and the rest of the people at the Geneva Writers Group were invaluable to my development as a writer. I felt part of a community of writers there, which is incredibly important for a writer, especially during the emerging years. Writers work in isolation and it can get a bit unsettled rattling around in our own minds without a guide. It’s healthy to have other people around you who are supportive, who understand what you’re trying to do and who you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback.

I’ve since taught at the bi-annual Geneva Writers’ Conference and recommend it to anyone.

DA: It’s been said your short stories are examples of what the great Canadian novelist Timothy Findley said about real writers, that they “don't appropriate voices, they hear them.”

LBD: Tiff, as he was called, was very kind. As I said earlier, he became a friend, as did his partner, Bill Whitehead. Tiff edited my first and second collections of short stories, Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives and An Unrehearsed Desire. He lived long enough to see both Rat Medicine and my first novel The Stubborn Season published and earn some praise. He died in 2002. I still miss him.

DA: Your first novel, The Stubborn Season, has been described as covering “a wide landscape and intimacy” and “compelling social history.”

LBD: I started out to write a smaller novel—the story of a girl growing up in a house with a mentally ill mother and alcoholic father, set in the 1930s to protect the guilty. I wanted to explore how one survives, or doesn’t, the tyranny of mental illness in the family. I asked, “where does one person end and another begin?”

However, when I was researching the era, I discovered so much about the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Canada, the labor movement, the terrible conditions in the “camps” the government set up in the high north where thousands of unemployed men were interred, and the untold number of people who were forcibly deported, well, the book became much broader than I originally intended. It’s still the story of a girl, Irene, her family, and the boy, David, whom she meets, but the David character, who is Jewish and involved in the labor movement, provides the opening to a much larger story.

DA: How did the idea for your novel, The Radiant City, evolve?

LBD: When I began writing The Radiant City, it was about a bunch of rootless drifters in Paris, a kind of meditation on what constitutes belonging. However, after September 11, I found I wasn’t interested in those characters any longer.

I had to rethink what I was obsessing about, since I can only write about what is really bugging me. And here I was, devastated by 9/11. I stood at my window in Paris and kept looking at the Eiffel Tower, wondering if it was going to be attacked as well. I was glued to any news media I could get. I cried on and off for months. I was inconsolable. And I felt guilty about the intensity of my feelings. Why? Because bad things have always happened, right back to the beginning of history—ravaging hordes, berserkers, Vlad the Impaler, the Holocaust, Rwanda, to name just a few. I felt I should have known! How could I not have known? I was disappointed in myself and disillusioned not only with the world, but with my understanding of it and my apparently limited empathy.

DA: That makes two of us.

LBD: So what was it about this particular event that crushed me? I’m still not sure, but I suspect I felt closer to 9/11 than I did to Chechnya, or Yugoslavia, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that, because I like to think of myself as someone whose mental borders are global, not national, and certainly not tribal. But for whatever reason, I now knew something, viscerally, profoundly, about the world’s potential for barbarity, that I didn’t fully recognize before. And it shocked me. And the fact that I was shocked, shocked me, if that makes any sense. So I began writing about different characters, with different responses to violence.

To know this new thing about the world is one thing, but the question remains: what do you do with the knowledge? A friend in Paris, Al Kessler—he passed away a couple of years ago, sadly—who was an artist, writer, and retired neurosurgeon once told me that he thought the definition of “original sin” was humanity’s inability to learn from our mistakes. It’s the best definition I’ve heard. And that’s precisely what the characters in The Radiant City are struggling against—their inability to learn from their own devastating pasts. They are all battered, brittle survivors of violence in one form or another, and yet they still may be powerless to turn away from violence. Is that our fate? Or is there hope? Is there the possibility of redemption for our species? And if so, what form does that possibility take? How do we protect ourselves against the insidious cancer of cynicism? Rev. Ernest Hunt, who used to be the Rector at the American Cathedral in Paris, said once, “Cynicism is the last refuge of the broken-hearted.” That idea stuck with me and formed a kernel of intent for this book.

DA: You’ve now found a home in Princeton, New Jersey.

LBD: Yes, in 2004, after ten years abroad I was ready to set down permanent roots and after quite a long trek through thirty or so different towns, looking for the right fit, we drove up the main street of Princeton and I knew I’d found a place I could make my home. This is the first house I’ve ever lived in that I really feel is mine; that I feel I belong in. I have my own office overlooking the garden and the pond. It’s quiet and nourishing. I need a LOT of quiet. And it’s lovely to finally live in a country where I’m published. I never was published in France, and Our Daily Bread is the first book published in the US, so that’s rather fun.

DA: You’ve also given back by teaching at a men’s prison.

LBD: A few years ago I was asked by an organization called “The Petey Green Prison Assistance Program” to lead some creative writing classes at the A.C. Wagner Correctional Facility. I taught there for a year and continue to teach in various correctional facilities and halfway houses as part of the “People & Stories” group. I’ve met some extraordinary people and some exceptional talent. It’s true some of them are what a friend of mine refers to as “felony stupid,” having made some remarkable (although often understandable) choices, but they are, almost without exception, smart, funny, moral, kind, eager, engaged young people. They are not them; they are us, under different circumstances.

DA: Tell us about “Sharpening the Quill.”

LBD: I’m not a fan of writers groups where people sit around trying to get “in touch with their inner writer.” I figure if you’re at a writing class, you’re already in touch with your passion for writing. What you need to know is how to DO it. The workshops are based on a program I developed for the American University of Paris. It’s about craft. Character, setting, pacing, point of view, psychic distance, dialogue, etc. We meet on the last Saturday of the month in Camillo’s Café in Princeton. Camillo provides an amazing lunch after the morning class, and then in the afternoon we have a critiquing session. There’s a core group of perhaps twenty students and they’re a wonderful bunch of people, with some real talent. Several have started publishing. It’s quite exciting. And it’s terrific for me, because teaching forces me to stay on top of my own craft and help stop the slide into bad habits. You can learn more at

DA: You have said writing is a practice, like meditation or prayer.

LBD: That’s my experience. Writing’s a different experience for everyone, however, which is why asking a writer what her rituals are like in the hopes they’ll work for you isn’t beneficial. We each have to find our own way to the page, and we have to keep at it, day after day, regardless of whether the quality of the writing seems good, or nothing at all seems to be happening. That’s the faith part, I suspect. But I will say that when I’m writing I feel I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing, and when I’ve spent the day writing I go to bed at night completely at peace. A friend of mine, Sister Rita, tells me that’s Grace.

DA: You keep to a regular writing schedule.

LBD: Years of working in industry taught me good work habits. I keep a regular schedule, as much as possible. I get up early, walk Bailey, our rescue dog, work out for about forty-five minutes, shower and then hit the page, by mid-morning. I work a more or less regular “business” day, with a break for lunch and another dog walk in the afternoon.

However, no matter how long a day it makes, if I’m in the midst of writing a novel (and I usually am), I must write 1,000 words per day (it used to be 500, but I’ve upped that). And, since I start every day by rereading yesterday’s work and sometimes scrapping the whole darn thing, I often end up writing far more than that.

I have been known to take days off, but unless I’ve just finished a draft of a novel and am letting it “rise,” so to speak, I always feel hunted, haunted, hounded, and pestered by the page. Although lolling about in the hammock sounds like a lovely idea in principle, unless those 1,000 words are written, I just can’t relax. It’s easier just to write the damn book than it is to ignore its nagging.


SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Derek Alger

is a graduate of the MFA fiction-writing program at Columbia University, and currently editor-at-large at Pif Magazine, where many of his interviews with writers are published. His most recent fiction has appeared in Confrontation, The Literary Review, Del Sol Review, and Writers Notes.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury