On Monday, March 10, Amanda Davis showed up for our interview smiling, waving and wearing a bright red sweater. We met at the Regulator Bookstore cafe, 45 minutes before the first official reading of her first novel, the highly praised Wonder When You'll Miss Me. She was warm and friendly, and a little scattered, apologizing for being late (which she was not) and playfully exasperated by a day spent with her parents in Durham. "My publisher doesn't have very much money for this tour so my Dad is flying me around," she said. "You know how it is with parents," she added with an affectionate smile.
On Friday, March 14, Davis left Asheville at 12:30 p.m., with father James and mother Francie. Davis was scheduled for author appearances in Pittsboro and Chapel Hill on Saturday, and James was scheduled to take a flying lesson in Salisbury. When the Cessna Cardinal failed to arrive, Guy Mayer, James' flight instructor, asked the FAA to begin a search. A local pilot found the crash site around 8 o'clock Saturday morning. Davis and her parents had all been killed when the plane crashed into Old Fort Mountain in McDowell County.
We had a saying in the air: Fly and forget it ... if we were sad, angry, glum: fly and forget it. There was something about being above the earth arcing toward a horizon that made the world and all its messy problems seems small and manageable. We felt, literally, above it all.
--from Circling the Drain
When I met Davis, I liked her immediately. She was without pretense, interrupting a question about her writing with "Oh, I love your earrings!" and then launching into her next thought. She talked fast and with her whole body, her hands occasionally banging into the microphone as she illustrated some point. She laughed easily, and my mom, who was sitting across the café waiting for the reading to begin, said to me afterward, "I couldn't hear what you were saying, but I could hear you both laughing and it sounds like you had a lot of fun."
I had spent the week reading everything of Davis' I could get my hands on, and found myself caught up in her writing--the depth of her narratives, the scope of her vision, the near perfect pitch of her language. Her written presence was very different than her spoken, living, messy self--and that juxtaposition was delightful. Davis and I talked until the moment she stepped away from the table, with several false endings--just one more thing--and one more thing.
Davis graduated from Durham's Jordan High School, then left to attend Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn.; then to New York, where she earned a MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Most recently, Davis accepted a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. "The thing about this place is that I get off the plane in North Carolina and there is a part of me that just relaxes," said Davis. "I just feel like I'm home and I haven't lived here in forever."
I asked Davis about the influence of growing up in the South, on her writing. "I got exposed to a sense of storytelling, I think, and an appreciation of language. I think the thing about growing up in the South is that every time anyone answers you a question, they answer it with a story--everyone. The way that people put words together is both very musical and has a lot of storytelling in it. And that I definitely feel like I absorbed and loved and drank in."
Davis described herself as a "secret writer." "It's funny ... even in college, I didn't take any creative writing classes. It was what I was doing and wanting to do, and when I was 24, 25, I finally got up the courage to show my work to a friend who had graduated from an MFA program and she was very encouraging. Then I started to feel more comfortable with it."
In eight short years, the 32-year-old Davis had published two widely heralded books--her debut novel, Wonder When You'll Miss Me and a collection of short stories, Circling the Drain. Her work was also published in Esquire, Seventeen, Story, Poets and Writers, and McSweeney's, among others. Her story "Louisiana Loses Its Cricket Hum" was printed in Best New American Voices 2001 and her short story "Blue" will be forthcoming in Lit Riffs, to be published by MTV Books.
"For me what's really fun about writing is not the logic part of things. ... What's so much fun is the discovery; whenever I know what is going to happen I get kind of bored and I just want to move on. So for me it's sort of blindly forging ahead and then being surprised at what happens."
The final story in Davis' collection, "Faith or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," is the starting point for Wonder When You'll Miss Me. The story follows Faith, a 16-year-old girl, who has lost her father and is invisible to a mother who can't see past her expectations of what a teenage daughter should be. When she is 15, the overweight Faith is gang-raped by a group of boys, who lure her below the bleachers at a homecoming game. After a suicide attempt and a six-month stay in a mental hospital, Faith has lost 48 pounds and returns to high school, hopeful that her new thin self will be noticed:
"It was after what I did, the long summer after I'd shed myself completely and was prepared to come back to school like a whole new person, only inside it was still me. ... I'd lost 48 pounds and my skin had mostly cleared up. I'd missed a whole semester of school and disappeared for seven months. It seemed like nobody had even noticed I was gone."
It is amid Faith's silence about the rape and her invisibility that she meets "the fat girl"--her former self--in a movie theatre bathroom.
"The second stall opened and a girl walked out holding an ice cream sandwich. She was enormous, her face almost squeezed shut excess flesh, her eyes slits, her cheeks gigantic half-melons. Her fingers were huge and thick."
Davis described the fat girl as a "wisecracking ghost of [Faith's] formerly fat self. I don't think of her as being cruel, exactly. I think of her as being protective, and I think that she, as a character, believes that she has Faith's best interests at heart."
"I just had these characters that started talking, and they wouldn't shut up," said Davis, describing the genesis of her novel. "I had the character of the fat girl and actually both of them sort of visited me in a dream--and I often write from dreams. ... And so this character showed up, and she was just eating and making sort of snappy, hilarious but obnoxious comments and she was just this kind of amazing character," she continues. "I started working with her and the story emerged, and I thought I was done with the story, but these characters kept talking and talking, and so I realized I wasn't done and they needed more space. And that was the birth of the book."
It is the fat girl that engineers Faith's escape from Gleryton, "an imaginary town that in my mind is located about 30 minutes away from Durham," said Davis. Faith sets out after Charlie, her only friend--who's lover, Marco, is a circus performer--and the one person she believes can see her, other than the fat girl.
Leaving behind "a mess ... and my mom," Faith follows a series of tips from various tattoo artists across the Southeast until she finds the Fartlesworth Circus in Mobile, Ala., sans Charlie, or Marco. She manages to sign on with the circus anyway, first picking up trash before being promoted to shoveling hundreds of pounds of elephant pooh.
"There is so much elephant pooh, man," recalled Davis, laughing. "It's an interesting thing, because I just wrote in so many different directions before I felt I was really following her. And one of the things I really became conscious of is that she has lost all that weight but she doesn't really feel that she owns that body. It's doing this work that makes her strong in so many different ways; she starts to feel that this body belongs to her. I also think that owning your body is part of owning yourself and that is a really hard thing to do when you are a teenager and even as a young woman. It's a really hard thing to do period."
Davis learned about the drudgery and hard work of the circus life first hand. For two months in 1999 she traveled with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, one of two circuses that resided in a large warehouse in Brooklyn where Davis lived in the early '90s.
The pacing of the novel and its sense of movement evolved during the time Davis spent on the road. "It was always the next show the next show the next show. I remember one night we did a show in Asheville--the Bindlestiff was from outside Greensboro so we spent a lot of time in North Carolina--and then we loaded out at 2 in the morning because we had to do a show in New Orleans 12 hours later. That is a 12-hour drive--and I drove most of it--we traded off a little bit but I drove most of the way. There's no sleep and you just do it because you have no choice. So there is kind of a dreamy quality to that life because you also get used to the sense of motion."
In spite of Davis' willingness to perform deep research about circus life, Miss Me is not a book about the circus, or about body image, or about rape. Neither is it about the cruelty of high school cliques, or of the deadening culture of the suburbs, or about distracted parents whose expectations for their children make it impossible for them to recognize, forget about, or understand the inner life of their kids. Miss Me is a book that resists literal characterizations. While these contemporary elements of fiction are present in the novel, Davis works with more transcendent themes, such as hunger, invisibility and the self-imposed boundaries that maintain--and can destroy--our fragile sense of self. The fat girl represents what film theorist Mary Anne Doane calls the "grotesque body": "the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process and change." Confesses Faith: "My need was as voracious as it was hideous and the only sensible thing to do was to choke it all back." She describes "the spilling of secrets like so much spoiled milk. I felt that if I whispered any of it, the flow would be unstoppable, bottomless white liquid curdling as it came out, endlessly replenishing itself."
Miss Me works as a straightforward narrative and as a surrealist fable. The ending is wonderfully ambiguous and satisfying. It is much more of a beginning, than an ending.
And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched out above us, longer then the sky.
--James Baldwin, opening quote from Wonder When You'll Miss Me
As I wait in line for Amanda to sign my copy of Wonder When You'll Miss Me, I think how I'm generally in awe of writers whose work becomes necessary to me; whose narratives seem to leave me with something essential, substantial and true. So I wait in line for Amanda--the red-sweatered girl I had laughed and talked with for less than an hour, but also, Amanda Davis--the writer. She wrote--around the notes I'd scribble in pencil on the title page--"For Dawn: Thank you for a lovely last few pre-reading moments. Lots of luck and all best wishes. X, Amanda."
It felt like the beginning of something. And to discover, the following Monday, that it was instead "an ending"--was incomprehensible.
When I'd shared with Amanda some of my thoughts about her writing, she'd said, "I always think of that thing E.M. Forster said--'I know what I have given you; I don't know what you have received.' You write this thing, you spend like four years, which is what I spent anyway [and] you are dressing this child, and you just hope that when you send him out in the world that his socks match. And it's a funny thing, you just don't know what is going to happen. ... For me, it was like these people knocked on my door and I just thanked them for coming and went wherever they wanted to go."
If her protagonist Faith was invisible, Amanda was all presence--in writing, as in life. Absence, on the other hand, is quite different from invisibity. There is a gap, something missing, a noticeable loss. The title of her novel seems especially poignant now, as I write: Wonder When You'll Miss Me.
Now, Amanda. And for a long time ...