“I’m in a hurry—which is a great way to live.”
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Stephen Davenport has taught and coached in both day and boarding schools and has been the head of The Country School in Madison, Connecticut and of The Athenian School in Danville, California. Davenport draws on his long experience of working in independent schools in the creation of the Miss Oliver’s School for Girls series. Saving Miss Oliver’s is the first novel in the series. The second, No Ivory Tower, came out in March 2016, and he is currently writing The Encampment, the working title for the third novel in the series. His articles have been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Sunday travel section, and The Saturday Review.
Jaeger: In “We Were too Young for World War II,” a non-fiction vignette appearing in the March issue, you explore your childhood memories of World War II. How did you come to write about this topic, and is it part of something longer?
Davenport: I recall memories by way of images. I’m impelled to write about the ones that haunt. In that vignette, I write about seeing the face of a Royal Air Force pilot, sent to Connecticut for a brief surcease from the Battle of Britain. His understanding that he will probably be killed when he goes back to England and the war. I can still see him. He will always be framed in the window behind him. He’d been gazing through it at a peaceful New England scene when he turned, our eyes met, and I learned his secret. I think my desire to write about being fourteen and safe, when so many were dying, starts with that moment. That pilot could not have been more than ten years older than I was. I hope to someday expand this piece into a memoir.
Jaeger: You evidently served in the navy for two years after graduating from college. Why was it important to begin your discussion of war in this piece as a child, living far away from the war-zone itself?
Davenport: Even though I served in the navy, most of the two-year hitch on a ship, I did not experience war. I went to college during the Korean War, graduating in June 1953, and went into the navy just a few months after the Korean War ended. Another coincidence of age and circumstance which kept war at a distance. Thus, World War II is still more vivid than my experience in the navy where we merely practiced for the event of war.
Jaeger: In the short vignette, you devote three paragraphs to the memory of you and your brothers playing with model airplanes. Your detail and imagery here is striking:
Thin strips of balsam wood, glued together with airplane glue, which made you dizzy when you sniffed it, covered with tissue paper, which we lacquered with airplane dope to make it hard, like a real plane’s skin….”
Could you talk about your stylistic choice to give such attention to detail in this section?
Davenport: I chose those details for the same reason that, as I write this to answer your question, I can feel the airplane glue hardening on the tips of my fingers. This is how we made our models of death: step by step, safe in our commodious house, under the care of loving parents. I focus on the “how” of making the models, as much as what they were models of, to convey our innocence.
Jaeger: Your previous novels, No Ivory Tower and Saving Miss Oliver’s, are both set in and center on school dynamics. How did you come to set these works in academia?
Davenport: I know the territory having spent a lifetime in independent schools as student, teacher, school head, board member, and consultant. Independent schools are hermetic, mission driven, politically fraught, emotionally tense; and they are often, but not always, loving and supportive communities. Everything that happens to humans happens in schools. You don’t have to leave the campus to find the stuff of novels.
Jaeger: You served as the headmaster of a boarding school for some years. How were you able to spin off of your own academic experience into the fictitious?
Davenport: To get at deeper truths, you have to alter the superficial facts. Non-fiction narration often describes what happened to happen, while serious fiction tries for what universally happens. I mix together elements I have experienced or heard about in my career and put them in a sequence that I hope gets at a larger truth, one that transcends the particular environment of an independent boarding school. None of the characters who operate in Saving Miss Oliver’s and No Ivory Tower are modeled on people I know or remember. They are composites. Everything they do, feel, think about, hope for, or dread is true of inhabitants of that world.
Often, though, I have had to write a less dramatic event than the real one for the sake of credibility. Would you believe, for instance, that the board of trustees would fire a school head for changing the coffee cups in the faculty lounge? Well, it happened. The faculty still loved the former head, whose spouse, years before, had given the cups to the faculty at the annual Christmas party. Early readers of the manuscript advised me that those who were unfamiliar with school politics wouldn’t believe this, so I deleted it. But things change fast. When I wrote Saving Miss Oliver’s, no one would have believed that we would ever put a deranged, racist woman groper and would-be dictator in the White House—if I were writing the novel now, that the surreal has become the real, maybe I would not delete those coffee cups.
Jaeger: The “character” of the narrator in “Too Young for World War II” is memorable in his own right —do you see potential in these childhood remembrances for greater development? Even into the fictitious?
Davenport: I think the potential is located outside of the narrator. I certainly don’t want to write about me. I just want to tell stories about the people I knew and the world we lived in. I would like to bring my memories of events and those who populated them back to life so that the reader experiences them as if their own. I am also interested in exploring how memories of past events have been tinged by the wisdom gained or lost over time.
Jaeger: Who are some important influences, artistic or otherwise?
Davenport: Hemingway, when I was a kid. It was stunning to discover how much could be said in the white space between the lines. He showed us how to be in the world during the 1950s: keep it all inside. Never cry in public. Don’t dance in the end zone. A course in freshman year in college on African-American poetry.
Living in New York City, just married, going to the theater: The Lark. Death of a Salesman. The curtain went down. Total silence. Someone was weeping. Then we all stood up and clapped our hearts out. The discovery, early in my teaching career, that The Great Gatsby, The American Tragedy, and its movie version, A Place in the Sun, and The Death of a Salesman are exactly the same story! Galway Kinnell reading aloud from his poetry while next to me, my wife so moved she cried her eyes out.
Directing Mister Roberts, and then a few years later, losing the kid who played Ensign Pulver to a land mine in Vietnam and, soon after that, discovering Wilfred Owen’s war poetry and then, years later coming across Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy, Regeneration, in which Wilfred Owen is a major character, then years later hearing Wilfred Owen’s words sung in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” It goes on and on. Most lately, a re-reading of Willa Cather’s magnificent prose in Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Jaeger: What other projects are you working on or next steps that you would like to take in your work?
Davenport: Right now, I’m part-way through the second draft of The Encampment, about two students from Miss Oliver’s School for Girls, Sylvia Bickham and Elizabeth Cochrane, who form a friendship with a homeless Iraq War vet. Sylvia and Elizabeth sneak out of their dorm several nights a week to bring him food and clothing. They don’t know that in the frenzy of combat, he inadvertently killed a girl whom Sylvia reminds him of. He fears he might kill Sylvia to get her out of his life.
I’d like to write the memoir discussed in the other questions. I have another long novel, set in rural New Hampshire, that is still a mess despite several rewrites. I’d like to give it one more try. I’d also like to write a non-fiction piece on the successful growth of Aim High, a life-changing summer educational program for underserved Bay Area middle-school kids where I have served as a long-time member of the board.
Jaeger: You evidently started out your career expecting to devote it to writing, then transitioned into the teaching. It seems it wasn’t until you retired that you made your way back to the writing. What made you sit down to write again?
Davenport: I have always had the urge to write. But I would not have been able to support a growing family as a writer, and I have been deeply rewarded by my career in education. I got at least as much as I gave. I did do some part-time, freelance journalism early in my career with The New York Times Magazine and other publications, and sometimes I wonder if I could have parlayed that into a successful career in journalism. But I am very glad that I became a school head instead. Now that I’m “retired,” I have time to write. I have more projects in mind than I can complete before the lights go out. So I’m in a hurry—which is a great way to live.
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