Princeton author, one of Canada’s best, infuses book with real life

Lauren B. Davis’ "The Radiant City" nominated for Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

By: Jake Uitti
   "I left home at 16 and worked. I come from the Hemmingway school of writing," said Princeton resident Lauren B. Davis, author of "The Radiant City," a novel nominated for the prestigious Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
   Established in 1997, the prize recognizes Canadian writers of exceptional talent, granting prizes for the year’s best novel or short-story collection.
   "I write every day. The novel must go forward," Ms. Davis said.
   "The Radiant City," which has received a great deal of critical acclaim and is published by HarperCollins Canada, is about a freelance war correspondent, Matthew Bowles, caught up in the Paris underbelly during racially tense times.
   In the book, Matthew finds himself torn between two poles: the seedy world of his troubled friend, Jack, a Vietnam veteran, and Saida, a woman who fled the terrors of war-torn Lebanon with a determination to steer her son away from the city’s dark side.
   Ms. Davis, who grew up near Montreal, moved to Toronto and then lived in Paris for five years before moving to Princeton in April 2004, said she started working on the book while in France.
   "People show up in Paris with no means of support," she said. "Paris is different from other major cities, however, because of the social services it offers. One can fly under the radar for a lot of the time there. So I was writing about those people.
   "But then 9/11 happened, and I didn’t care to write about the beachcombers in Paris anymore," she continued. "I didn’t feel qualified to write about 9/11, but I did want to take a look at how people respond to violence," she said.
   "My inspirations come from what’s obsessing me at the moment," she said with a smile.
   "Living in Paris was quite interesting then," she added. "Paris, I am sorry to say, is a very racially divided area. I wanted to write about the people in Paris without money — like in Barbez and Belleville, the Arab neighborhoods."
   Matthew comes into Paris as a reporter, an observer — an angle, Ms. Davis said, she felt comfortable using.
   Writing, she admitted, has a great deal to do with observation — which is why, perhaps, she chose a war correspondent as her main character — with some of the writer’s most important tools being narrative distance and psychic distance, she said.
   What was obsessing Ms. Davis as she wrote "The Radiant City," her third book, was violence and the human responses that ensue, she said.
   The book also has to do with a sense of the other: How do we survive while surrounded by violent times? And though she feels it is not the job of the author to answer questions, but to ask them correctly, Ms. Davis said she receives an answer: We live in violent times by accepting the existence of violence around us, but at the same time saying to ourselves, I will not let it touch this person I love.
   "How does one inoculate oneself against the insanity of violence?" became her overriding question, with the book being an attempt to provide an answer: We do through the care of the specific other.
   Matthew, she said, crosses over later in the book from being an observer to being a participant in sordid affairs. We learn through flashbacks the trauma he has been through and the difficult cross he bears.
   "He had an undiagnosed breakdown," she said.
   Of the craft she works on tirelessly every day, she said, "I find writing difficult. But I find it far harder not to write. It’s like having a huge German shepherd dog in your house, and it’s pouring rain and snowing and sleeting outside, and you don’t want to walk the stupid dog. But if you don’t, it will pee on your furniture and destroy your house.
   "Writers," she continued, "for whatever reason do not process the world to make it easily accessible to our conscious mind. So we write to relate to the world."
   With a developed sense of humor and another smile, she said, reflecting on her own history, "You know, having a dysfunctional childhood isn’t a requirement for writing fiction, but it doesn’t hurt."
   Ms. Davis, who studied creative writing at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto and at Indiana University, started and teaches a course at the Princeton YWCA, which, if the student cannot make the class, she said, is available by e-mail.
More information on "The Radiant City" and Ms. Davis can be found at