A Conversation with Peter Ho Davies
Could you say a little about the origins of your new novel?
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself grew from a short story I wrote around a decade ago called “Chance,” about a couple coming to terms with challenging test results during a pregnancy. The story came out in 2012, but the material stayed with me, partly I’m sure because my wife and I were parents ourselves, and partly too because whenever I gave readings of that story over the years the audience response was always very intense, very emotional, as if the piece gave voice to something unspoken. That made me think of it as an experience that resonated powerfully with others, as well as one to explore further for myself.
Your previous novels, The Welsh Girl set during WWII and The Fortunes which charts the Chinese-American experience from the nineteenth century onwards, could both be described as historical fiction. Your new book, by contrast, feels like a departure, not just contemporary in setting, but seemingly very close to home. Would you call it autofiction?
I’m not sure it’s for me to classify my own work, but autofiction seems close enough. It’s good company to be in – I’ve admired a lot of recent works labeled that way – just don’t ask me to define it! And actually maybe that’s the appeal – it’s an uncertain form, part fiction, part memoir, and often self-conscious of its own uncertainty. That quality felt right to me for this book. My characters are grappling with uncertainty, the uncertainty of diagnosis and how to live with it, so that the book’s formal question – is this true or not? – mirrors their dilemma and invites the reader to share it.
I’d argue, too, that it’s not quiet such a departure for me. The last section of The Fortunes played with some of these ideas – in that case with a character uncertain of his hyphenated identity – and historical fiction more broadly is always interested in the intersection of fact and fiction.
It sounds like you’re intent on raising the question of what’s true and what’s made up, but not necessarily in answering it?
Well, the book does have “lie” right there in the title!
All fiction, all mine at least, is autobiographical to some extent, even if it’s disguised autobiography. I’m “in” many of those historical figures of the earlier books. Over the years I’ve also written evil-twin versions of myself, worst-case-scenario versions, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I versions…but yes, this new one goes a bit further. I share more, if not everything with the main character. The most honest way of putting it might be to say that the whole is fictional, but many of the parts are true. Ultimately, though, the book may be less about me than about you, the reader. We say we read books, of course, but books also read us back, reveal us to ourselves. The issue is not what’s true and what’s not, the issue – as with any fiction – is what the reader believes.
Your mention of uncertainty reminds me that your protagonist is a former student of physics – as you were – who dwells on the uncertainty principal and the famous thought experiment about Schroedinger’s cat. Do you find yourself, like your character, reaching back to your study of science?
I wasn’t much of a physicist, I should say. Even though I graduated with a good degree in it (the equivalent of summa cum laude) I was mostly better at math – and tests – than understanding the actual physics, very little of which I remember today. That said I’ve never forgotten the eye-opening, mind-opening idea of wave-particle duality, the notion that light, or matter, can be understood via these apparently mutually exclusive concepts – as waves or particles. That duality continues to be a touchstone for how I think about characters and people – we’re all made up of these apparently mutually exclusive qualities, neither good nor bad (to put it in its simplest terms) but both. Schroedinger’s Cat is more of the character’s obsession than mine…but it too has a kind of fictional analog. The idea behind the thought experiment is that the imagined cat in the box is somehow suspended between life and death and that we can’t know its fate until we open the lid and observe it. In a sense a book is a kind of box, its cover a kind of lid – maybe every page we turn another lid – beneath which we’ll find the characters to be alive or dead, good or bad, happy or heartbroken.
It’s often noted that writing about parenthood is hard, and yet you’ve now done it twice both in your early collection of stories Equal Love and now again in A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself. Are you being foolhardy or is there some secret to doing it well?
Probably foolhardy when I wrote Equal Love! That was 20 years ago and before I became a parent – in a way the book was a rehearsal for, or a way of working out some of my fears of parenthood – and several of the stories in it are told from the child’s, rather than the parents’ point of view. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is a kind of reply to my younger self: Here are the fears you failed to imagine.
But generally speaking you’re right, there is this perceived difficulty of writing about parenthood, though I suspect that’s much more acute for women writers who have historically faced a gendered bias against so-called “domestic” fiction. In that sense, it would be fairer to say I’m writing about fatherhood than parenthood. Still the subject does present other challenges. You’re writing about an experience that is near universal (in the sense that even those who aren’t parents have had parents) and can thus easily feel generic. What’s so intense and fresh to a new parent, after all, is often commonplace – old hat – to anyone who’s already had a child. That’s a real challenge for a novel – the very roots of the term suggest we’re trying to convey something new. And yet, as parents most of us actually aspire to, or are reassured by, these time honored experiences. They’re normal, average, typical and there’s a safety and comfort in them. So, I suppose my “secret”, such as it is, in A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is that my characters yearn for that normality, that universal familiarity, but fear they’ll be excluded from it.
Then again – who knows? – my literary interest in parenting may even owe something to the fact that I grew up in the same town, went to the same school, as Philip Larkin, though I can never quite choose between his “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,” and the suspicion that what fucks you up is being a Mum and Dad! (To be fair Larkin had grounds: his father was a Nazi sympathizer back in the 30’s, which seems guaranteed to fuck you up).
One of the ways you defamiliarize parenthood here is by writing about it alongside another challenging and charged subject: abortion. Could you talk about how you approached that?
Carefully…at first, and then I hope more and more frankly. Not the politics of it, but the feelings, which as a character in the book notes don’t always fit neatly into the familiar political boxes. Don’t get me wrong, I have strong opinions about the politics of the issue, which in many ways seems to me to be the faultline running through the country (even if I’d also suggest it’s one that’s been cynically contrived to divide us). But I wanted to tell the personal story of these characters as people, not politicians, not talking points. That’s not so easy, of course. Politics invades the private emotional space, even weaponizing our feelings against us. The book’s title, taken from an Anais Nin quote, “Shame is the lie that somebody tells you about yourself,” alludes to this. (That’s actually also a pretty good description for racial stereotypes, a subject of my last book). And yet, for all that I want to resist and reject the shame imposed by others, I also sympathize with, and recognize, the feeling. Shame strikes me as an essential, maybe fundamental capacity of humanity, especially compared to shamelessness, which often seems like a failure of something, a lack of decency, paradoxically.
An epigraph for the book quotes Italo Calvino to the effect that “every male should bite his tongue three times before speaking about” abortion. And yet you do. Can you talk about that?
As that choice of epigraph suggests, I was very conscious of being a man writing about what’s sometimes – in reductive pol-speak at least – described as a women’s issue. Some, I’m sure, will wonder if that makes this an appropriative story, and indeed that very question comes up in the book – it’s a subject of the novel, an integral part of the character’s drama. He’s acutely aware that there are too many men (law-makers among them) who feel free to speak against choice; he’s trying to find a way of speaking for it. (The Calvino quote, in fact, comes from an impassioned letter he wrote in rebuke to a anti-abortion article by a male friend). Still the role of ally isn’t uncomplicated; there’s a difference between standing with someone as a partner and standing for someone as a champion. The latter feels like a very male, very atavistic instinct – fatherhood is arguably another, of course! – and the book’s interested in examining such instincts (which might also be called privileges).
As someone of mixed race, an immigrant to the US, I’ve always been drawn to writing about identity – national, racial, ethnic identities have all featured in my past work. As this new book developed it became clear to me that I was extending that personal exploration of identity in the context of gender.