Issue 121 |
Fall 2013

About Peter Ho Davies

The novelist and short-story writer Peter Ho Davies was born in 1966 in Coventry, England. Peter’s father had grown up in North Wales and Peter spent most of his boyhood vacations there with family, amid countryside he has described as beautiful but also—from a boy’s perspective—“slightly dull.” His mother was of Chinese descent and met Peter’s father in Malaysia. After marrying, the two of them settled in England. As a young boy, Peter wrote science fiction stories in his spare time, and excelled at mathematics and science. He did a joint honors degree in physics and the analysis of science and technology at the University of Manchester, before going on to Cambridge University, where he earned a BA in English.

In the early 1990s, after having worked in Malaysia and Singapore, and having served as the managing editor for the university newspaper in Cambridge for a couple of years, Peter moved to the United States to pursue an MA in creative writing at Boston University. This was his first trip to the States, and with the exception of returning to England and Wales to visit family and friends, Peter has never really left. Shortly after he completed his studies at BU, Peter’s first collection of stories, The Ugliest House in the World, was published by Houghton Mifflin. The book won the John Llewellyn Rhys and PEN/Macmillan Prizes in the U.K., as well as the 1998 H. L. Davis Oregon Book Award. Peter’s second book, another collection of stories entitled Equal Love (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His third book, a novel entitled The Welsh Girl (2007), received a litany of praise from reviewers and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Peter’s short fiction has garnered multiple Best American Short Story awards (1995, 1996, 2001) and an O. Henry Prize in 1998. In 2003, Granta magazine named him one of twenty “Best of Young British Novelists,” and in 2008 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in short fiction. Since 2000, he has taught in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Michigan. In April of this year, Peter came by my house in Ann Arbor for dinner, after which we had a wide-ranging conversation about his life and career as a writer. What follows are some of the topics we covered.


DT: So, Peter, having lived in the States now for more than twenty years, how do you see yourself? Are you a British writer? A British expat? An English writer with a Welsh background?

PHD: I certainly don’t identify as English, per se. I’m more comfortable with the designation of British as a person. English seems a little too narrow for me, with my Welsh father. And British both embraces the Welshness and, as a term, has evolved to embrace something more multicultural than when I was a boy. But the British writer thing is trickier because while some of what I have written meditates on Britishness, I feel as if I had to come to America to become a writer, I had to get away from Britain, away from a nonwriter version of myself. It was necessary to get away from people who knew me as a physicist, or a friend, or son, and to reimagine myself. The exposure to American writers and writing also made a big difference when I first came to the U.S. The exposure to the short story form, which I associate with America in part because there are so many fewer venues for publishing short fiction in Britain, was particularly important. Because I identified as a short-story writer, and still do to a degree, American short-story writers really resonated with me. The models careerwise for me were more rooted here than in Britain.

DT: The novella in your first collection, “A Union,” seems to some degree a companion to, or preparatory for, The Welsh Girl. It’s about the effects of a slate quarry strike in turn-of-the-century Wales. We see the aftereffects of a similar strike looming over the town in The Welsh Girl. Esther’s father, Arthur, lost his job at the mine as a result of the strike (although he ends up returning to work at the mine late in the novel). Were these motifs that you thought you might return to?

PHD: “A Union” certainly felt like something of a prequel to The Welsh Girl. While it wasn’t planned that way, it was a touchstone for me during the writing of the novel. The villages, for example, in both, are more or less the same, just separated by forty-five years.

DT: Were you thinking consciously about writing a historical novel when you were working on your first collection?

PHD: No, I wasn’t thinking even about writing a novel. I had no idea whether that collection could be sold. I remember I put it together a year, maybe eighteen months, after I had finished at Boston University. I think I had sent a few query letters to a couple of editors in Britain. And then, “The Ugliest House in the World” appeared in Best American Short Stories (1995) and Janet Silver at Houghton asked if I had a book and I sent her some of the stories. OK, she said, those are interesting, but do you have a novel…

DT: That is the curse of the short-story writer. You produce a story and they ask for a novel.

PHD: Right. But Janet, thankfully, said to come by and have a chat. I remember distinctly telling her that I knew she wouldn’t be able to publish the collection in the States because it was too British, and when I went up to have lunch, my intention was to ask her for recommendations of people in England to whom I could send the book. Instead she offered me a contract.

DT: How did the idea for this novel—set in Wales during the end of World War II—emerge, then? Had you started The Welsh Girl while you were still working on Equal Love?

PHD: No. I’m not great at starting a book when I’m working on another. When I had finished Equal Love, I did feel from a career perspective that I had run out my string with collections. I had already published two in a row, and I had ducked the writing of a novel as long as I could. And I felt as if I was more or less ready to do it—or at least was ready to welcome the challenge of it. But the first novel I tried to write after Equal Love is actually close to the material I’m working on now: a historical novel about the Chinese in nineteenth-century America. But then I decided that the twin challenges of researching the historical space and still finding my feet in the U.S. were perhaps too great a leap to take at that time.

DT: I’ve heard you talk about this project as focusing on the Chinese who worked on the transcontinental railroad. Was the project initially imagined in broader terms than that?

PHD: Well, even when Janet and I were talking about Ugliest House, we worried—or at least I worried—that there needed to be a “hinge” story. There are these stories in Britain, and these stories about Chinese people in Malaysia, but nothing really tying them together. I had a story in mind for a while that would try to bridge these two spheres but it never quite worked. Still, even afterward, I was looking for something that would encompass those two distinct heritages represented in my first book. The story of the construction of the transcontinental railroad appealed to me for obvious reasons. There were the Chinese building the line from the West, and then there were the Irish (I would have smuggled a Welshman or two in there) building from the East. For a time, this novel was called The Great Race. But what I learned as I did more research was that the two railroad lines were in fact very different beasts. And the research required began to present itself as a major undertaking that I wasn’t really ready for. The thing about The Welsh Girl that is slightly embarrassing to remember now is that it was supposed to be a more manageable first novel. It was a small stage, in an area I knew well, connected to things I had done before. It was supposed to be my quick, small novel. Eight years later—longer than World War II itself lasted!—it came out.

DT: So Rudolf Hess plays a significant role in the book. Was it planned at the very outset that he would figure prominently? I ask because that’s such an audacious move to make as a writer, to inhabit the mind of a Nazi henchman, and of course a lot of the reviews lingered on the deftness of your portrayal of him.

PHD: No, it was an ongoing question up until almost the eleventh hour as to whether he would be in it. It wasn’t in my mind at the outset. I had worked on the book sporadically for maybe a year or two. I found it hard to keep the momentum going, particularly when I was teaching. Usually in those stuck moments you feel like you need to be reinspired in some way. For me, that’s a good time to do more research. And the research was really varied: about what it was like to be Welsh in that time, to be a prisoner of war, and so on. I read some narratives about POW camps, during which Karsten, the German prisoner in the book, began to assert himself narratively. I hadn’t planned on telling any of the story from more than one point of view, not to mention his, but then I changed my mind—

DT: Initially, Esther’s point of view was going to govern the whole book?

PHD: Yes, that’s who I could really see at the beginning. But I didn’t plan the novel out very much. “A Union” had been my only previous experience in writing anything long and that had just flowed. The Welsh Girl came together with much more difficulty. Hess made his entrance in a later stage of research. What I was struck by was, here was Rudolph Hess—the most famous German prisoner held by the British—and he was imprisoned in Wales. So I read some stuff about him, and I think I was probably drawn to it for a few reasons. The broader scope of the war wasn’t fully represented by these guys in the POW camp. I wanted to remind us of where they had come from, what they had fought for. And I didn’t just want to look at ordinary soldiers. I wanted to look at someone who gave the orders. It almost felt like an ethical imperative to do so. I wanted to allow for sympathy toward some of my German characters but not to what they were fighting for.

DT: Was Karsten’s escape from the camp in the original plan? I ask because I recall wondering, the first time through the novel, how Karsten and Esther were going to build any kind of relationship, set apart from one another to the degree that they were. The possibility of escape didn’t occur to me. The prisoners in the book dismiss it. And, ingeniously, Karsten doesn’t talk about wanting to escape. The novel certainly doesn’t feel like it’s about to turn into The Great Escape. But when Karsten hops the fence, basically to spend some time by himself, it made perfect sense to me that he would do that.

PHD: Well, it wasn’t in the plan originally. Initially the idea was for Esther and Karsten to spend a lot of time together working on the farm, which German pows did in Wales toward the end of the war. I thought their relationship would spring up from that. The first draft of the book was about 550 pages long, of which pages 300450 were about them working on the farm. There was a lot of sheep farming stuff! And in that version the temporal scope of the book would have gone from 1944 to the 1980s. I thought of ending with the jeopardizing of the sheep-farming business by Chernobyl fallout on the Welsh hills.

DT: So why did you scale back the novel in the manner you did?

PHD: Well, actually, when I took out those scenes, I rewrote them into the story that became “The Bad Shepherd” and actually appeared in Ploughshares. That was the title of the novel for a while—though it began to fit less when the center of gravity shifted away from Karsten’s time working on the farm. What probably derailed the book for me was what happened to Esther at the beginning. I always had this scene, in which Esther was raped by an English soldier, in mind. In fact, I wrote that scene as a separate story that also ended up appearing in Ploughshares as “Think of England.” One of the reasons I sold the piece as a story was that I wanted to get out from under it. Rape is so consequential that I felt it was shaping the opening of the story too much, when all I really wanted to do in the early pages was introduce the characters to the reader. But after the story appeared, and got picked up for Best American in 2001, I felt that I had to keep it. And then I kept struggling to know what the consequences of that act would be. It took me two or three years to accept that Esther would become pregnant from that encounter. And once I realized she was pregnant, the temporal scope of the narrative changed. The idea that the book was going to be decades long no longer worked for me. No, I thought, it’s going to be these nine months that the book will focus on. The 550-page version of the book was huge and unwieldy—a kind of “kitchen-sink” draft—and no one liked it, myself included. So I radically cut that back to a draft that was only 150 pages long. Just Esther. No Karsten, no Hess. That allowed me to focus on her narrative from the rape on.

DT: In a different vein, the idea of nationalism, which you are really working through and thinking about throughout the novel, emerges in relation to shame. I’m thinking about when the constable of the town needles Arthur—Esther’s father—by saying, in relation to Karsten, “Your enemy’s enemy, is that it?” That kind of is it, isn’t it?

PHD: I knew that before the war, Welsh nationalists had some ties to Italian fascists. There was a sense, in my own family, that Welsh nationalism was a kind of benign nationalism: arguing for road signs in Welsh, defending the culture, those kinds of things. I still think in many ways it’s an honorable cause to argue for, and defend, such things. But I was interested in bracketing that kind of benign nationalism with the most evil form of nationalism: National Socialism. And I was interested in how these different kinds of nationalism might encounter one another.

DT: In a sense, the English represent as significant an enemy in the book as the Germans. The English “invade” Wales during the war, not the Germans, and so on.

PHD: Well, I’d like to think of the book as to some degree an equal opportunity offender. Welsh people can be offended, and German people, and English. Oddly, while I am neither Jewish nor German, Rotheram, the German Jew who works for British Intelligence as an interrogator, is the character I most identify with. His divided loyalties, his split inheritances. One of the reasons I struggled so much to finish the book, and why it was so long for a while, was because I wanted there to be a somewhat hopeful ending, for the sake of these characters I loved. And yet I didn’t feel that Esther and Karsten could end up together; it wasn’t quite in their stars. He would go back to Germany, to his mother. She would feel, after having claimed Rhys as the father of her child, that she couldn’t ask for anything more. But it was agonizing to write this from either of their points of view. But once I approached through Rotheram’s more distant point of view, I felt that I could finish the novel, because through Rotheram we can see these lives in the broader context of the war’s losses. Everyone has lost loved ones. So the fact that Esther and Karsten don’t end up together, while certainly sad, has to be considered against the scope of all that has been lost, and Rotheram could do that for me.

DT: Say more about what you are working on now.

PHD: I’m under contract for the historical novel on the Chinese in the U.S. that I mentioned earlier, and a collection of stories. The novel is going to come first, although I’m still a little ways off. Half of the collection is done. Some of the stories feel as though they are composed in the wake of Equal Love—they orbit around parental/child questions—but they’re all stories that bump up in some way against contemporary evils, or at least what we label as evil.

DT: One last question. I haven’t asked you anything about your teaching. Is there anything you find yourself saying to your students on a regular basis?

PHD: I hope I’m not that given to general advice, because when I teach, I like to keep the specifics of whatever text we are studying or workshopping in front of us, but something I do find myself repeating to students now more than ever is Flaubert’s idea that talent is long patience, which I never understood when I was younger. The talented young writers we work with, however individual they may be, tend to have at least one thing in common. Precisely by virtue of being young and talented, they do not have very much patience. We are used to thinking of youth as the enemy of patience, but talent is probably the real enemy of patience. We think of talent as an accelerant, after all. So one of the things I try to emphasize is patience, including patience in the revision process. Waiting it out. Trying to hang around with the story or novel long enough to find the layers of complexity and depth that were not first apparent to us. That’s something I find myself returning to a lot, for myself—The Welsh Girl, of course, was a hard lesson in patience, if a worthwhile one—as well as for them.


Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know (SixOneSeven Books, 2013), and the short-story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space (University of Iowa Press, 2005). Thin Tear won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. He lives in Ann Arbor, where he is an associate professor of Renaissance literature and creative writing in the English Department at the University of Michigan.