Getting Rilke with Jenny Davidson

We all want someone to talk to, who understands us, and maybe that’s why generations of writers, readers and searching souls have responded so strongly to Rainer-Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a series of exchanges that, while exactly as it sounds on paper, soars to the stars in its unrelenting attempts to unravel the complexities of life on a scale that makes sense in our everyday lives. Remembering how nice it was to read the first time, we thought we’d return to the text to unearth those searching queries, and ask some of our brightest stars today to either answer questions drawn from the text or write a letter to their teenage selves. Today, we have Jenny Davidson, who we have admired since 2004, a century in internet years, ever since the New York Times Book Review praised her debut novel, Heredity, for its “steadfast refusal to invest Elizabeth with the base-line likability that American readers seem to demand in their fictional heroines.” Her new novels for young readers are The Explosionist and Invisible Things. Here areJenny’s answers to some eternal questions.

1) Why must you write? What would you do if you weren’t a writer? (Or, what was the best job you had before becoming an author?)

I must write because I would go completely out of my mind otherwise!  I have a list of fantasy alternate careers – neurologist, epidemiologist, information theorist – but it is possible that my interest in these subjects only goes deep enough for me to want to describe and explain them as a writer, not to practice them on a daily basis…

2) What two books do you find indispensable? Who has given you the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity?

The complete work s of Shakespeare: both the language of the most gorgeous passages (The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the characters with their extraordinary soliloquies (Richard III, Falstaff, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth).  King Learfor me represents the pinnacle of achievement in both of these two modes.

There’s no other single book that’s as important to me – if we’re talking desert-island picks, I guess I’d have to ask for some kind of poetry anthology.  But I reread War and Peace this summer, and it is surely one of the most extraordinary novels ever written: it pained me to turn the last page and close the cover and leave the world of the book.

3) If you could not send a reader all of your books, which one would you recommend first?

The Explosionist: I wrote it because I wanted to write something that would be like the imaginary book I most wanted to read, and I think it is the most immediately appealing of all of my books.

4) Which question did you once have, that you love most in retrospect (and have since answered or not answered)?

What will I be when I grow up?

5) Where is the place in which you most love to write?

A cafe, with background noise buzzing around me (quiet music – no Xmas carols! – and some light conversation) but nothing too loud or distracting.  Preferably nobody talking on a cellphone nearby!

6) What is the value of solitude to a writer?

Beyond calculable.

7) What advice would you give to a young person, or your younger self, about love?

I have no advice about love!

8) What is the value of sadness to a writer?


9) What book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?

The novels of Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice.

10) In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?

Patience, patience, patience.

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