Francis Davis, whose debut short story collection, "West of Love" was published in September, moved west from Philadelphia in 1994 to attend the University of Montana.
He earned his MFA in fiction in 1996, with plans to get into teaching. Instead, he managed to create a career for himself in journalism for the better part of a decade. He worked for a number of Montana papers, including the Ravalli Republic, the Montana Standard, the Independent Record, and the Daily Inter Lake.
Approaching burnout, he went back to school and earned a doctorate in English from the University of Nebraska. He’s lived in Dillon since 2012, where he’s an assistant professor of English at the University of Montana-Western.
"West of Love" contains 19 linked short stories, and was named a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction.
Q: How did "West of Love" come about? Was a short story collection something you’d always wanted to do?
A: It came about particularly after a workshop experience I had at the University of Nebraska, where I was a Ph.D. student. One of the students described a story I submitted as a “workshop story” in that it was technically good, technically proficient, but dead [in an emotional sense]. That bothered me. So over the Christmas break — this was about 2006 — I sat down and tried to rewrite the workshop story, trying to incorporate more “realness,” not caring so much about the setup and structure and all that. So I wrote the majority of the stories pretty quickly over maybe that two or three weeks, and then I’ve revised them for years. Plus I’ve added some that I’ve written more recently. So it wasn’t something I was planning, it was more the fact that I’d received that comment and reacted to it.
Q: Would you say your reaction was, “Yeah, you’re right, I need to rethink this” or was it more a case of “Eff you, I’m going to show you!”
A: Maybe a little of both. I thought it was accurate that the story I’d submitted was technically proficient but lacked maybe soul or heart. I knew I had those stories in me, and I knew it was something I could do.
It was also a period in my life where I was looking back at a time that was maybe slipping away, my young 20s. I was in my mid-30s at that point. I was looking back and realizing that this was a period of time that I am probably not going to remember as well as I do right now. So there are autobiographical features to it, too. The comment [from the workshop] certainly led me away from writing the kind of stories that might be more accepted in a workshop. Stories that are maybe a little more confessional, almost like a personal memoir-type thing.
Q: That seems to be the position of people who knock MFA programs, that they are just churning out writers writing only a certain kind of meandering “literature” that has alienated itself from the average reader. What’s your take on that?
A: I’d be careful with that entirely. I do think programs are essential to nurturing writers and giving them a community, especially in Montana. I loved the community I was part of in Missoula in the mid-'90s. I loved my teachers, Dee McNamer, Debra Earling and Bill Kittredge. They were great, great teachers. At the same time I do think there is a tendency to write a certain type of story, sure. Sometimes people fear going outside certain parameters. Of course I got my MFA in the '90s, so I don’t know if it’s gotten better or worse since then.
Q: Now you’re the instructor, teaching undergrads. The world is so different, with social media and all the different ways we experience reading and writing today. Do you find your students much different from what it was like when you were a student and how you approached studying and reading and composition?
A: Yes, definitely. Reading has changed. Not only the amount of reading, but what the students are reading. I remember being an undergraduate and being fired up about reading Faulkner and Hemingway and Carver and Virginia Wolfe. These days, of course you do find a few students as excited about some of those writers, but not so many. Overall I think less reading is going on because of all those other activities, but also I think genre is bigger. I’m surprised how many of my students, even the English majors, are into fantasy and sci-fi, at least in terms of literature. I have to work upstream of that a little bit. I’ll tell them we are going to write literary realism, and they’re like, “What? What’s that?”
Q: Is this because this is the generation raised on Harry Potter?
A: Exactly. They read the literary stuff I assign for classes, but when it comes to reading for pleasure, they’re mostly reading fantasy.
Q: Who do you read now, whether for pleasure or for inspiration?
A: I’ll read Alice Munro. I like the Japanese writer, [Haruki] Murakami; Knausgaard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer who is writing "My Struggle." I’ve read all five of those books. I really fell in love with him. He writes fiction; he calls it fiction but it reads autobiographical. Reading him I was really inspired. My collection hadn’t been accepted yet for publication, and I was hoping it was a trend, that people would start looking for more fiction that was somewhat autobiographical. That was very inspiring, and continues to be.