Lauren B. Davis’s new novel, The Empty Room, is a harrowing glimpse into the world of alcoholism. Based in part on Davis’s own experience with addiction, the book follows a day in the life of Colleen Kerrigan, whose world is unravelling. Davis’s previous book, Our Daily Bread, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Here, she reflects on the influences that have shaped her work to date.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
James Agee. Fourteen years old, far too young to be reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. There was something about how desperate he was to make the reader understand the plight of these sharecroppers, how it bled off every page. He’s so afraid that he’s not going to do them justice, that he is going to fail these people. I remember thinking that that’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.
Did you imitate him?
I don’t think I did. I think I tried to find his subject more than I tried to find his style. When he was writing, those were the voices who had no voice. I wanted to find a story that mattered that much.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
Self-publishing. It produces a glut of truly horrific work that nobody should be subjected to. But it also doesn’t do the young writer any favours, because they publish too early. Their eyes are focused on the bookstore window, not the work in front of them. I didn’t publish until I was in my 40s – and I shouldn’t have.
Which books were important while writing The Empty Room?
There were a few. The Song of Lunch, by Christopher Reid. It’s an interior poem, and he’s a drunk and a publisher, and he’s going to have lunch with a woman he once loved. Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys, the classic of its kind. Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Those were really the ones that I held on to. I have this thing about clever writers versus compassionate writers. I can appreciate the clever ones on a cerebral level. But when it comes to books that I’m going to drag around for the rest of my life, it’s always about compassion.
Which authors do you think are most influential today?
I live in Princeton, and when you live in the same town as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, there’s always that going on. Which I’m not privy to. There’s something nice about going home and just being the schmuck who mows the lawn.
This interview has been condensed and edited.