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Willie Davis

Willie Davis's work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, and storySouth. He is the winner of The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize (judged by Zadie Smith) and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize (judged by Amy Hempel). He received a Waiter Scholarship from The Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. He teaches English at Kentucky State University.

Blurbs

"The reader needs to tread carefully, or he (or she, as the case may be) will wind up as a character in Nightwolf, and never be seen alive again. Happened to me. Nightwolf is delightful, compelling, utterly original, funny as hell, such a bright new light on the literary landscape it makes the turn of the century seem like ancient history. Linguist are applying for NEA grants in such numbers to study Nightwolf, they have had to resort to handwriting because of declining access to digits."

– Gurney Norman, Poet Laureate of Kentucky

"Even among Nightwolf's vivid landscape of smart-assed car thieves, bruised oracles, and horribly named bar bands, Willie Davis's tender, witty voice utterly steals this show. Every page of this brilliant, tough-willed novel is so alive with laughter, vulgarity, insight, wonder, wisdom, and heartbreak, often within the same impossible breath. What a book."

– Mike Scalise, author of the Brand New Catastrophe

"Davis, a master of wit, one-liners and dead on observations, has done everything right. Nightwolf, often funny and always smart, is told through the eyes of Milo, a devastatingly funny and keen social critic. And through him, this story of Kentucky and youth and angst and self-discovery gleams."

– Natashia Deon, author of Grace

"This is a story of profound loss- missing mothers, brothers, babies, hearts - populated by trash-talking, drug-addled, thieving, violent, wickedly funny, elegiac, fail and fail better profits and preachers. Part Elmore Leonard, part Padgett Powell, part Eugene Ionesco if he'd trained his eye on the seediest corner of Lexington, Kentucky, Davis is a wild fire talent who understands there is no end to seeking, only endless reckoning with desire and mystery."

– Maud Casey, author of The Man Who Walked Away

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Nightwolf

Nightwolf: An Interview with Willie Davis

09/06/18

Sometimes things come to you unexpectedly, in a plain wrapper with an unfamiliar return address. And the best that can happen when you open these unexpected things is that you make a welcome new discovery, unwrap something that you didn’t even know existed before this very moment. Something exciting, something you are not eager to put down.

That’s the feeling I got when an email from someone I didn’t know showed up in my inbox. I opened it to discover an evocative new novel Nightwolf, by a very engaging writer, Willie Davis. Immediately the book excited me, its story, its prose, its damaged and compelling characters; I read it deep into that first night, and the next, and more after that. By the time I finished it, I wanted to talk with Willie about it. Lucky for me, we were able—through the miracle of email—to have that conversation.

*

Patty McNair: There are quite a few things I'd like to ask you about Nightwolf, but let's start with the role Lexington plays in the novel. The city serves more like a character than just a backdrop, as some settings might. I have traveled quite a lot, but I have never been to Lexington. It felt wholly unique to me, its seedier parts, its neighborhoods, its inhabitants. Would you talk a little about how you chose Lexington for this story and why? It seems like a choice made not just because you know the city, but because this story could not take place anywhere else.

Willie Davis: My mother lived in Lexington, and my father lived in East Kentucky (the hillbilly, coal-mining part of the state). I grew up bouncing between the two places. Lexington, the urbane college town, called East Kentucky a bunch of stupid rednecks. East Kentucky called Lexington a bunch of pussies. I’d switch accents and agree with whichever set of friends was talking. I left Kentucky when I was eighteen because I couldn’t figure out a way to leave there sooner. If you’d have told me then that they built a moat around the state line of Kentucky I doubt I’d have cared. I pretended I didn’t like country music because I didn’t want to be thought of as a stupid Kentuckian. But, of course, the minute I left, I began to find Kentucky fascinating. In short order, I went from being embarrassed by my accent to playing it up to make girls think I was interesting. I wrote about Kentucky, and through writing, I fell in love with Kentucky, but only at a distance. I wanted to tell the stories of Kentuckians, but I wanted to stay away.

I started writing this book shortly after moving back to Lexington. Suddenly, I love living here. A lot of that is how the city has changed but mostly it’s how I’ve changed. What irritated me about Lexington before now seemed gorgeous to me. I used to call it the middle management of cities, a suburb to nowhere. But, of course, the hillbillies of my youth have moved to Lexington. It’s a city that’s getting constantly reinvented. The rural and the urban mix down here, but not much.

Lexington is a city that has a great deal of joy and shame and anxiety for me. It’s a place I love and is very close to my emotional core. It’s worth noting that the Lexington of my novel is at best a second cousin to the real Lexington, Kentucky. Some of that is practical. I have—this is not an exaggeration—the worst sense of direction of anyone I know. My mind simply has no spatial memory. There’s no way I could keep a map of the real Lexington in my imagination. I fictionalized it so it can react to the characters’ needs. If they need a walkable neighborhood or a reservoir, then Lexington could react to them. In that way, my off-center Lexington could interact with the characters around it.

McNair: Perhaps that is why the city seems so unique to me as a reader; it is both real and not. Like your characters. Milo, for example, is a complex character. When your reader is first introduced to him, Milo is behaving rather badly. He is a tough seventeen year old, engaged in regular illegal and often brutal activities. But he is funny, witty, quick with the one-liners and sharp repartee. And there is a real vulnerability to him as well, despite his yearning that there not be. He longs for his runaway brother, for his mother to be well, to be normal. Later, he yearns for the people, friends and family, he has lost in one way or another. How did you discover Milo? I wonder if you have other characters you've read that might have influenced his forming?

Davis: Milo came to me in drips and drabs. When I first started thinking of him, I was in my early 30’s and so was he. He talked to me like a drinking buddy, full of good cheer and fun stories. In my mind, he seemed a little scarred but basically well-adjusted. I saw him as a conduit to his group of friends. But the story wasn’t working. I got about 200 pages into his story and realized it felt lifeless. Whenever he and his friends talked about their childhood, the story suddenly felt alive, like they had some secret they were keeping. I finally decided I had to deal with that time when they were kids head-on.

Suddenly, Milo wasn’t a conduit to a group of friends anymore—his hardships were the story. I still saw him as the same jokey, hardscrabble guy I’d known before, but suddenly his story was a tragedy. He was a kid dealing with these godawful hardships. Meanwhile, he’s joking through them. To me, it seemed natural, but some early readers saw this kid submerged in darkness. As far as I was concerned, he jokes about his tragedy because people joke about everything. Almost everyone surviving in adulthood has dealt with tragedy, and we all, at times, think it’s hysterical. I’ve had many generations of him in my mind, so he’s not scared to get into the meat and gravy of his misery.

One of my favorite stories is Mark Richard’s “Strays” about two kids abandoned by their parents, having to answer to their Uncle Trash. They wind up burning their house down, and in the summary of events, it sounds tragic. But the story is hysterical and hopeful and makes me want to scream with joy. I don’t know Mark Richard’s thought process, but he grew up in hospitals with one leg longer than the other. No doubt a child grabbing the reigns on his own circumstances would appeal to him. It’s grim, but it’s also wish fulfillment.

McNair: When Milo finds a baby in the backseat of a car he steals, he conceives of a way to try to return the child to safety. However, he is haunted by the baby, by the way he felt in his arms, held close to his chest. Much of this story has to do with parenting: Milo's mother is very ill and dies midway through the novel, his buddy Meander's father dies. There is another mother who has a failed relationship with her son, a boy who may or may not have been "played with" at a party held by one of Milo's friends. Did you know as you started this story that so much of it would have to do with absent parents, with children and parents separated?

Davis: I don’t necessarily think of them as incompetent parents, although, as I say that, I’m unsure how to finish that sentence. They’re self-absorbed to a degree, lost in their own stories, and consumed with their own pain, and they bring that element to their parenting. So, yes, I guess, kind of bad parents. Until you asked this question, I don’t think I realized how much the notion of parenting—present and absent—hangs over this book. It makes sense. About twelve hours after I finished the first draft—which was over twice as long, and quite a different book—my wife went into labor. When I first envisioned a few of these characters, I was a bachelor, living in Baltimore. When the story started to form for real, I was married, living in Kentucky. Then once the characters approached their endgame, I knew fatherhood was imminent. It doesn’t exactly change the story, but, then again, how could it not?

Let me go ahead and say what you’re already thinking: there is a place in hell for all parents who talk about how people without kids can’t possibly understand the emotional depths of the world. I agree. I can’t believe how many otherwise sensible people say, “As someone with a ten year old, I find pedophilia disgusting.” Like people are saying, “As someone with no children, I find pedophilia hilarious.” We have imagination and empathy—the childless, like everyone else, can put themselves in strange situations.

Still, as I re-entered the book, the perspective had changed. The mother dying of dementia no longer felt like a tragedy for the son—it was a new level of pain for the mother as well. Milo rescuing a child from a car he stole started out as the most bizarre comet out of the blue that could hit him. Now I was thinking about what it would take for a mother to leave a child in an unattended car. It helped give me empathy for the parents, which I should have had more either way. I thought of these as comedic situations, but suddenly they felt more human.

Take the scene where Milo’s best friend’s father dies. It started as an exercise where I imagined a character taking a metric ton of acid, and, as he’s waiting for it to kick in, he gets the worst news he can: his father’s dying and he needs to deal with his extended family That’s a (kind of) funny situation, but when the confrontation happens, it’s not funny. The family understands he’s a kid in trouble and they treat him with kindness. Life feels comedic to me, but the harshness often blows it away. I wanted this book to show the spirit of forgiveness.

McNair: Speaking of what you knew when you started the novel, and how that shifted through the writing and re-entering (as you say), there are a few major mysteries in the story: what really happened to Otto, the boy at the friend's party; where did Aaron, Milo's brother disappear to; who is Nightwolf, a notorious tagger, really? These questions give rise to others in relation to them as well. I thought it was interesting how Milo changed his mind regularly about what he thought the answers to these questions might be. What's that old writerly adage? No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader or something? I wonder if you knew the definitive answers to these mysteries at any time, or did it shift for you as well? Perhaps even now you may not know for sure what happened to Otto, to Aaron, and who is Nightwolf.

Davis: There’s no less satisfying answer to any of the questions than “I don’t know, so it’s up to you.” But I don’t know. Or rather, I don’t know exactly. This book is, in part, about the unknown—the way that there are major mysteries that drive us that we will never solve. The point is, we search, and by searching, we generate stories.

These characters first appeared in a story called “No More Chatter” that revolved around a mystery. Milo, now thirty, was dating a married woman and while she was away, he breaks into her house, not to take anything, just to sit there for a minute. He leaves undetected, but the next day, he finds out that someone else had broken in after him and trashed all of the furniture. I never had any desire or interest to solve that mystery and figure out who broke into the house. The story was published, and I was happy with it. Then one woman told me she figured out who broke in the house, and she laid out the reason why. I tried telling her it didn’t matter, but she kept going. It was pretty annoying because she was right. I genuinely didn’t know the answer, but an answer existed below my detection. So I’m absolutely genuine when I say my reading is not a definitive one.

Fair enough, but it’s also a cop-out. If you ask someone whether God exists, there are a million intelligent, complicated, valuable answers, but you want to hear “yes” or “no.” So while, I don’t know exactly, here are my best guesses: Otto was most likely not molested by Thomas the Prophet. At the time, Otto doesn’t seem to think anything happened. But as his situation becomes more desperate, he loses any sense of surety that he had. He might have seen something that disturbed him, maybe was touched, but I doubt it was by Thomas. There’s nothing in Thomas’s nature that would indicate that. The accusations are all vague, and no one ever specifically says what they think happened. I do think Thomas endangered Otto: he let him in the house and didn’t take care of him. Thomas was caught up in the excitement of those times and forgot there was a child there he had to monitor. But I sincerely doubt he actively harmed him.

Is Nightwolf Milo's runaway brother? I find the evidence that has convinced Milo of the fact pretty unpersuasive. The odds are that Nightwolf is just some random punk, and Milo’s brother is unobtrusively decomposing somewhere. But just because that’s most likely, it doesn’t mean that’s true. The unlikely happens so often that we usually can’t even be bothered to act surprised. Is it less likely than the rest of what happens to these characters? Is it less believable than the scores of absurd, crazy things that happen to us in our lives? As Milo says toward the end of the book, all it takes for miracles is for you to believe in what you do not believe.

McNair: Let’s talk about humor. How do you know it's funny? Because there were a number of times when I spit coffee out of my nose reading this, sometimes at inappropriate moments in the story. How, too, do you balance the humor with the horror? Because there are some rather horrible things that happen in these pages, and still I laughed out loud.

Thank you, that means a lot. Humor in literature is hard because humor relies on surprise, and by the time you write something, rewrite it, edit it, sit on it for a year, and reread it, then it’s certainly not surprising. Humor ages poorly because jokesters stand on each other’s shoulders. Whatever shocks you into laughing tomorrow is going to seem tame in a month and it’ll embarrass you by Christmas. Most everyone reading this has left a friend in hysterics, but writing means you have to put the joke on a shelf, strip it of all context, and hope it connects with someone reading it in a different world than you wrote it in. The jokes that age the best are absurd, and that’s helpful, because these characters have an absurd view on life.

How do I separate the humor from the horror? I don’t. Horror, like everything else, contains comedy. That’s not a plea for edgier jokes, just an acknowledgement that people joked on 9/11, they joke through broken limbs, they joke after the cancer diagnosis. Not everybody, of course, but those who do aren’t doing it to mask their pain or to “laugh to keep from crying.” They do it because that’s the honest way they experience life.

McNair: This is a real coming of age narrative. Seventeen-year-old Milo becomes twenty-three-year-old Milo, and he learns a lot about life--good stuff and bad stuff--along the way. Characters on the verge of adulthood are fascinating to me; they know so much and so little at the same time. Why were you drawn to this age for these characters?

Davis: This was never meant to be a book about teenagers. Teenagers are a conglomeration of hormones trying to shape themselves into a passing fashion. So I guess, that’s like older people without the hormones or the excuses. I wanted to write about a group of friends.

The buried story is about Milo trying to understand his friend Shea’s disappearance. Shea vanishes shortly before Milo starts telling this story. He recounts these searches as a young man because he’s not ready to go on his current search. The telling of the story is Milo’s way of gathering himself for the new challenge he has to face.

McNair: Despite the toughness of Milo and other characters, despite their seeming autonomy, the role of friends and friendship is essential to the story. I don't know what my question is here, but I guess I'd like to hear you talk about this some. Maybe specifically about Meander, Thomas, and Shea.

Davis: At heart, this is a story about people who genuinely care for each other. I’ve heard people assume that Milo and Shea are in love with each other. I think they are, but I don’t know if they are romantically. It’s about a group of friends who like each other, and within that number, four (Milo, Meander, Thomas, and Shea) who, in at least some twisted way, love one another. Thomas and Shea understand it. Meander can’t express it, at least not baldly. Milo comes to understand it through the telling of this story. But at its heart, this is a tribute to the ways lost people love each other.

McNair: You mention in the acknowledgements pages that storytelling was part of your upbringing, part of your family's way of communicating. Is it this deep connection to storytelling that drew you to writing? Whose stories were you most eager to hear when you were growing up?

Davis: My family is unusual in a lot of ways, but I don’t know that our love of storytelling was one. My mother is a novelist who wrote one of the hundred most banned books of the 90’s. That novel, which is called Sex Education and is dedicated to me, was assigned to my 7th grade class. My mother’s sex book, dedicated to me and disseminated to my classmates, made for a long 7th grade. My father was a producer for a lot of Appalachian documentaries. When I was a child, he’d tell me goodnight stories, but if he tried to read me one, I’d say, “Tell me one from your mouth!” My brother was a storytelling savant from an early age. Once, when I was five or six, I heard my mother talk to her sisters about cynicism, and how she was a cynic, and how the country needed more cynics. I asked my brother what a cynic was, and without hesitation, he said, “Someone who has sex with corpses,” and then just watched as I regarded my family in horror. So my family prized telling stories above most things. Even lies were acceptable if they formed a story.

I don’t think this is particularly unusual. Kids grow up telling stories. While most families don’t have my stories, they have stories that are as strange and valuable as mine.

McNair: What are you reading now? What books are on your nightstand?

Davis: The best book I’ve read in the last year (maybe the last couple years) is The Tsar Of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. When I finished it, I literally shook my head at how something could be so goddamn good. I just finished Because by Joshua Mensch, which is a memoir done in poetic form where he details his sexual abuse. It’s engaging but an absolute scorcher. I listened to the audio of Anthony DeCurtis’s biography of Lou Reed, and I’m about halfway through Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. Up next is The Third Hotel from one of my favorite contemporary writers, Laura Van Den Berg.

McNair: Would you like to tell us about what you are working on next?

Davis: I’ve been poking around a couple of characters and see how they form together in a story. I have an idea about the son of a famous country musician, a man married to two women at the same time, and a boy who realizes his birthday is exactly nine months after 9/11 and he therefore hates his parents. I don’t know if these characters will come together. I had an idea of writing a full-on love story for no other reason than I don’t think I can do it. Then again, Nightwolf started as a light comedy that kept getting darker, so what do I know?

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