A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of hearing Washington University alumnus Jeremy M. Davies read from his new novel Fancy. I was immediately captivated by the strangeness and musicality of the voice, and the idea of basing a novel entirely on an elaborate set of cat-sitting instructions. So when I had to tag a writer with a new project in this interview, Jeremy’s novel immediately came to mind. It is a work of fiendish brilliance that is unsettling, original, and weirdly fun to read, even as it seduces readers toward its core questions about being, perception, and solitude. It also documents some illicit activity in library stacks.
Jeremy M. Davies is also the author of Rose Alley (Counterpath Press, 2009) and an editor at the legendary Midwestern publisher Dalkey Archive Press, based in Champaign, Illinois.
What is the working title of the book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Exposure to cosmic rays. Living in Central Illinois for altogether too long. Daring myself to write a book without using any similes or falling back on my usual tricks. A casual conversation with a couple of cat-owners about the perils of leaving over-complicated instructions for the people they’d gulled into taking care of their pets. Which led me for some reason to speculate in turn on the (comedic, ontological) potential of leaving instructions that, like Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano rolls, could never actually be performed by a human being, or that, like certain compositions by La Monte Young (among others) function more along the lines of a “happening,” without a concrete or controllable result intended (release six butterflies into the room while petting cat #7 lengthwise with a dough whisk). And then, further, imagining how a person confronted with such instructions might react, if he or she took them in deadly earnest and read into them some greater significance. What it might mean, indeed, to live or think in such a way that something so formal yet inconsequential and ridiculous might creep out into your life and even the world at large and start wrecking up the joint.
What genre does your book fall under?
All it or I intend to fall under is the 7:59 to Chicago.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
My first novel, Rose Alley, is rotten with cinema (or cinephilia, I guess). I don’t think I left much room for adaptation here. I have no idea how anyone would go about it, so I’ve never given it any thought, nor would I know how to begin. (That said: Ben Rivers, call me …)
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
I can write very long sentences, you know. How about: “Fancy purports to be a series of instructions given by an elderly shut-in to a young couple who’ve come to pet-sit his many cats while he’s away on an uncharacteristic trip abroad; but his continual comic, erotic, and surreal digressions range far from his intended subject, leading to hints that something sinister underlies his peculiar lifestyle, and that his protégés’ duties might not be entirely as advertised.”
Or, if you prefer, Henry James’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
Or, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cat Care Essentials?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About four years.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The absence of anyone or anything to inspire me to write a saner one.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It has some pretty filthy bits for all it isn’t meant to rely on the same tools as Rose Alley, which is “purple verging on blue,” as they say. There’s also a fair amount of slapstick, repetition, philosophy, and strange happenings on trains. Oh, and cats. Probably.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Oh, neither, I shouldn’t think. It will end up buried in soft peat, most likely.
My tagged writer for next week is: