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The revitalized writer
A newfound intensity fuels Terry Davis as he writes new material and revises the old
By Joe Tougas, Free Press Staff Writer
Photo by John Cross
A new work titled 'The Silk Ball' and a re-released, rewritten edition of his 1984 novel 'Mysterious Ways' are two of several new events in the life of writer Terry Davis. He will read from his work tonight at MSU's Good Thunder Reading Series.
When Terry Davis talks, he often does so with a fierce intensity marked with serious, silent pauses. There's a suspense to those pauses.
For starters, they have you wondering - if only for those few seconds - where this author, screenwriter, motorcycle fanatic and colorful college English professor will land on a particular topic.
Plus, that dead-serious look on his face makes you half expect him to hit the roof in furious anger. The funny part is that this silence often ends not with a flourish of high volume, but often with gently raised eyebrows, a soft smile and an almost whisper of a response.
And that's just the small talk in his office on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, in which Davis mentioned both an appreciation of how Americans seemed to get closer in the previous year, and an embarrassment over what he called a media-led orgy of grief. Whatever goes on in those silent moments, it's not a concern as to what will sound comfortable.
Those who attend Davis' reading at MSU tonight will discover this as he reads from a work in progress titled "The Silk Ball," a story of Laotian refugees who wind up in Spokane, Wash. Davis defines the story as being about the power of love and what happens to people who don't have love.
"It's a strange mixture, I'm afraid, of tenderness and violence," Davis said, eager to read from the work. "They've never heard anything like this at a reading before."
Davis' writing career, as well as his personal life, has had extremes. In the early 1980s, while living and working in Washington, he saw his first novel, "Vision Quest," become a major motion picture starring Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino. The book had drawn praise from, among others, John Irving, who compared it to "The Catcher In The Rye." Davis followed the book up with 1984's "Mysterious Ways" and, after moving to Mankato to teach at Mankato State University, "If Rock and Roll Were a Machine."
Despite success, his depression during the past 15 years would grow so strong as to make him doubt his own talent or take himself seriously. He'd still write daily, but his depression would get so deep that, on the occasions he found himself onto something he liked, he considered himself unworthy to be associated with good material.
Having recently undergone successful treatment and medical care, Davis is burning again. Like musicians on stage or athletes in their prime, there's a burning that takes place when they are performing, said Davis, a former wrestler. And today he feels as good as he did when he was at his athletic peak.
That burning is going into his work, where it before may have gone into thin air. Not only is he finishing work on "The Silk Ball," but he will by next week hold the new edition of "Mysterious Ways," which he has spent the past few years rewriting to a more mature voice.
A similarly rewritten "Vision Quest" was published last year after being out of print for two years, and "Rock and Roll" will be reissued in spring 2003.
Davis said he has no problem going back and rewriting the old books, noting that Louise Erdrich rewrote "Love Medicine" twice after publication. Both "Vision Quest" and "Mysterious Ways" needed a more mature voice, he said - from both the characters and the author.
"I'm such a different person and a different writer now," he said. "Terry Davis at 25 wrote that book ... I did my best with those books, but I can do better now."
It's showing. He has editors already expressing interest in "The Silk Ball" as well as an agent ready to promote it to the major publishers. Davis is pleased that he's still able to generate that kind of interest and faith in the industry.
"I'm trying something that's kind of out there, and it looks like I'll have some people hanging out there with me," he said.
Davis is also working on a sequel to "Vision Quest" in which Louden Swain's son is a main character who befriends a young fan of his father's and finds an enormous challenge trying to live outside of his father's shadow. Davis has talked in the past with Modine about appearing in a sequel, and while Modine didn't think a sequel was necessary, Davis said, he told him to keep him posted on progress of the book.
"I was thinking he might want to direct," Davis said. "If I'm able to get rolling on this, who's to say somebody else with more money and power could get him on board?"
Davis is getting reacquainted with the industry of book writing - the business side of the business, he said - and how essential it is if the goal is to be published and distributed on a national level. It can be exhausting and, as in the recent decision of publishers to cut a chapter from the "Mysterious Ways" reissue, frustrating.
But the business end of it all is a necessary stretch requiring the kind of endurance - and burning - of a long-distance writer.