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Upending our stories

Francis Davis’s  first book, West of Love: A Story Cycle, isn’t a memoir; it’s fiction, but you can read these Philadelphia, Montana and Nebraska stories that way, if you wish. The author, in a Q&A, talks about his personal fiction and ‘slacking it up.’

I think I was beautiful once. I think everyone has moments.

And I think our alternative selves race alongside us,

mocking our choices.

It’s a 100-yard dash to the finish and we don’t look left or right

for fear of falling farther and farther behind

what we might become. – From “In the Kitchen”  

Interview by Scott Winter​, Bethel University


Montana author Francis Davis shares his life story in simple terms: grew up in the suburbs of Philly, graduated from Temple University and moved to Montana. There, he learned to write from Debra Magpie Earling, William Kittredge and Deirdre McNamer in his MFA program at the University of Montana and in newsrooms as a journalist. He also married poet Sally Cobau, who was in the same program. Then, he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and returned to the Rockies with his family, including three children. Now, he’s teaching at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, where he and Cobau are both in the English Department.


Brighthorse Books published Davis’s first collection, West of Love, in September 2017. His work has also appeared in Story, Natural Bridge and Weber: The Contemporary West. He’s been a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and achieved fellowships at The Millay Colony for the Arts, Ragdale Foundation and Vermont Studio Center.


Davis writes about Philadelphia and other places he’s lived. He writes about failed relationships, working-class poverty, and Gen-X angst in this linked collection of short stories.  On his 52nd birthday in February, he talked more about his stories and characters:


Where and when did you find these stories?


I wrote quite a few, at least two-thirds, of these stories in 2006, while I was living in Nebraska. They were more autobiographical than my usual fiction. Then I revised them for years.  What I was hoping to capture was a time in my life that was beginning to slip  away from my memory—my twenties and early thirties. I wanted to record some of my experiences because I knew, down the road, I wouldn’t feel the same, wouldn’t remember my life  in the same way.   

Why is this book more autobiographical than your past work? What changed?


One reason is an experience I had in a workshop at the University of Nebraska. I handed in a story that someone said was good, technically, but was also kind of dead. So, I ended up going back to this time in my life, these stories, and began working with a different type of voice—one that was both fictional and not. The voice has elements of the memorist’s, and it’s definitely not beholden to the idea of showing over telling.  I chose to forget a lot of the Chekhovian stuff, and I know the literary gods will never forgive me for doing so.


My  dad had also recently passed, in 2005, so this motivation for juice, for life, in my fiction most certainly was related to his passing.  I guess I just wanted to write something that didn’t feel dead.


What I was trying to do was get a certain truth down by using the voice of a memorist as a fictional device.  My very first published story, not in this collection, was called “Grief Marginalia,” and it had a similar “truth-telling” voice.  I’d submitted this story to workshop as well, and I recall the class was split on it. Some really hated it, for whatever reason, maybe because it wasn’t ironic enough. And I had another contingent that really like it. The story eventually was published in Natural Bridge (Missouri), so that gave the voice some validity, and I realized these stories had something.


Here’s a passage from your book: “We all have these stories, but most people keep them to themselves. I wish Ted were here now because I might ask him what does not telling a story do to it?” (from “Love Park”). Many stories in the collection are about the stories we construct for ourselves, or about lying to ourselves, no?


That’s definitely one idea addressed: cutting through some of the pretense of living and how we as humans often try to frame our experience in a way that puts it in a positive light. … I do think that’s one thing the book is about, to upend that, to get at some deeper truths about ourselves—how we maintain the story of ourselves and/or how we breaththrough into a different self, a different story.


And that process, that journey, is a big part of being alive in your twenties when everything is up in the air—you may not be married, may not have kids, may not have a permanent job.  Everything is in flux. It’s often a time when you can try on all kinds of identities over the course of a year, month, or even a weekend. And, of course, a big part of your twenties is your romantic relationships with other people: “Is this somebody I want to be with for the rest of my life or just for now?” That question always seems to lurk … It makes turning 52 seem pretty boring.


Finally, travel is important  in this collection: trying to use a physical journey as a catalyst, or even a replacement, for a mental or spiritual journey. My narrator, Stewart Simmons, roams the country, especially the West, and he’s doing so to solve the problem of his heart, but he’s also enacting a grand American tradition, as well as evoking the Beats, who are his true forbearers.


The stories are set largely in the late ’80s and ’90s. Stewart is part of Gen-X, as I am, and a defining feature of our generation might be how we find ourselves between the baby boomers and millennials, almost floating, which is a little bit of how it felt to be young back then. The world was relatively peaceful, and even though the economy wasn’t great, especially in the late 80s, it was better than it is today, and the zeitgeist was you could pretty much do anything, or go anywhere, you wanted—or you could just do nothing at all right where you were, just slack it up, with apologies to Richard Linklater, who, by the way, is one of my favorite filmmakers.  


So almost like a journalist, which you were, these characters are searching for that deeper level of honesty?


The quest for a deeper truth with others and yourself—that’s a way of thinking of the book.  Getting away from the bullshit. That’s some verbiage I use in the book, this idea of getting at essential truths.  And part of the framing of the book is to create this realness, this confession of secrets through the voice and the use of certain suggestive (some might say embarrassing) details that are often par for the course in memoirs.  It’s not a memoir, of course, though people can read it any way they want.


One book is out. What’s next?


I’m working on a novel. I’ve had a draft that’s pretty solid for the last year or so, but I want to polish it up a bit more and then send it. … It has some overlapping themes and characteristics with my collection, but it’s not very autobiographical.  It’s a family epic, in a way, of three generations. Three narrators, two are women, set in Maine and Philadelphia. I wrote a draft of it during a month residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2015. I also have a collection of stories I’m starting to circulate again and it’s going OK, too.

Contact Francis Davis, University of Montana Western.

Photo by Saul Mastandrea, University of Montana Western.

Edited by Scott Winter, Bethel University.

Photo by Saul Mastandrea, University of Montana Western.
Published in September 2017.
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