A Conversation with Philip Dean Walker about his new story collection, Better Davis

By Zach Powers

ZP: Better Davis is a sequel, or a continuation of, your first book, At Danceteria. So, you’ve been working on stories set in this cultural, historical moment—celebrities during the AIDS epidemicfor at least five years, and likely much longer. How do the newer stories differ from the earlier ones? Have you learned anything along the way in terms of research, writing, or selecting a subject?

PDW: I really have learned a lot of new things since the last book and I’m glad you asked this question. Or maybe not “new” per se but more like refinements of things I was already doing in the first book. How to research and what sources to pull that research from. One of the biggest differences, I think, is that I wrote Better Davis from beginning to end knowing that it would actually be a book. That was not the case with At Danceteria. The majority of the stories in that book were written and originally published separately. In a way, I think this new book completes the “project” started by the first book, but it really exists on its own. There was this sense in the first book of “we’ve got to have fun and party our asses off because we might all die tomorrow!” and an emphasis on escaping the epidemic by way of the thrill of the night life. The dance. Better Davis has a “the show must go on” kind of mentality and is a more direct engagement with the creative arts.

Once I came up with the driving theme of this collection, it became so easy to tie the stories together. I would say that my level of research increased for this book and became, at times, almost exhaustive. But I think that ultimately helped shape the book.

Now that I’ve read thirteen of these stories over two collections, I’m extra impressed with how you select (and imagine) your scenes. You place your celebrities in human moments. And I suspect you deliberately avoid the most obvious moments from their lives, even if those moments are close. How do you find the moments where you want to set your scenes? If it’s not a “grand” moment, what makes a scene interesting for you?

I always let the research guide me to the moments in which I want to set my scenes. Sometimes it happens very late in the research process, too. There was a small paragraph in one of the books I was reading about Michael Bennett that described a costume party that Michael and the cast of A Chorus Line attended in 1982 and I was just like, “Bam—that’s it.” Sometimes you just know, instinctually. It can also be the most ordinary scene (waiting in a doctor’s office for test results, for example) that can become “grand” when it gets dissected and sifted through. I love doing that. I always knew I wanted to set Natalie Wood’s story on the night of her drowning. There was so much I wanted to do and say in that story. A casual dinner out turned out to serve as the perfect backdrop.

These stories are all about real celebrities, but fictionalized versions of them. How do you balance research and imagination? How do you take a real person and convert them into your own fictional character?

I treat each character in these stories as I would treat any character that I was making up from whole cloth. They have to be three-dimensional. They must demonstrate all the messy emotions, bad decisions, and believable dialogue that I would give any other character. I never wanted to rely on the associations the reader would naturally bring to the story once they knew who the character was. Why my research often lasted so long was because I felt like I couldn’t write the character until I had discovered the “human” behind the “icon.” These are very boldfaced names but I never wanted to rely on cheap tricks to show the reader who the character was. The reveal that the “Elizabeth” in the story “Elizabeth/ Regina” is actually the Elizabeth Taylor mostly works because, at that point, you might be suspecting who the main character is, but she’s just having this very human moment and not, like, sashaying in a commercial selling her perfume White Diamonds or walking a red carpet at the Oscars. In that sense, I never saw myself as converting them into my own characters but really more like melding the inside with the outside persona with which we might all already be familiar. It is always such a fine balance. I’m happy to hear that I might have (mostly) struck the right chord in this new book.

After reading stories about celebrities I didn’t know as much about, I often went straight to Google to learn more about them. How do you consider your audience as you write? Do you hope your readers already have some knowledge of your subjects? Do you hope that they’ll be like me and go look up more info? Or do you hope the stories can stand alone?

Building on my last answer, I always feel like my stories should be able to stand alone. But I love the idea of people getting so invested in what they just read that they want to look up what happened to that person or read up on their lives. Every celebrity was chosen for a reason and brings their own special gaze to the book. And several of them aren’t very well known to readers, so I’m happy to bring them back to life, so to speak. Especially the ones who are no longer alive. In “Brainstorm,” I began to see myself as an advocate to tell Natalie Wood’s version of the events of that night since she’s the only one not here to talk about it. That story, in particular, became a story about domestic violence and it didn’t necessarily start out that way.

Most of the stories are absolutely about the AIDS epidemic, but also not quite about the AIDS epidemic. They’re about characters who were alive during the epidemic and influenced by it and maybe lost to it. I think that indirect approach is executed brilliantly. How do you write about a subject, but keep yourself grounded within the humanity of your characters?

I appreciate that compliment. I thought the indirect approach was oftentimes the best way into the story. No one’s life is about one thing all the time. I wanted the AIDS epidemic to haunt certain stories without ever taking center stage. I like the way you phrased that about maintaining the “humanity of the characters.” I think by not treating the characters simply as mouthpieces to deliver a “message” about AIDS is honoring their humanity. It’s so boring and obvious when writers do that. I am always beholden to the characters above all else and I think readers appreciate that and have connected with the characters because of that.

Last time we talked, you recommended that writers must write the thing they’re afraid of. Excellent advice! Do you have another piece of advice for aspiring writers?

My new piece of advice is to just take a second and recognize that you are the only “you” this world has got and your writing is singular. Don’t worry about anyone else’s “career” or book deal or Twitter following or whatever. Own the fact that you yourself are a unique, one-of-a-kind “product” and act accordingly.

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