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Davey Davis on “X,” True Crime, and the Fantasy of Screwball Comedy

Whether in their debut novel the earthquake room or in their consistently fascinating substack DAVID, Davey Davis is one of the sharpest chroniclers of contemporary queer culture. Their writing goes beyond discourse, excavating the complexities of topics our communities love to simplify. Their new book, X, is a noir based in a present much like our own. It’s as sticky, thought-provoking, and, simply, entertaining, as we’ve come to expect from Davey.

After years of Twitter friendship, I finally got to talk to Davey about writing X, resisting the seduction of apocalypse, and being a recovered true crime person.

Drew: It’s so nice to talk to you!

Davey: I know, right? I was really looking forward to this.

Drew: It’s funny when you have these long-standing Twitter mutuals who you don’t actually meet in-person or talk to.

Davey: Yeah totally. It’s the sort of thing where you’re like, oh yes bananagrabber420, we have such a long relationship and I don’t even know their name.

Drew: (laughs) Actually we can start there because there’s a point in the book when Lee mentions that X is such a difficult name to search. But then your book is still called X. And it’s not lost on me that your Twitter handle and username aren’t your name. I think a lot about visibility and the benefits of staying somewhat anonymous. How do you find balance between the visibility you need to get your work in the world and whatever public visibility you want to avoid?

Davey: Well, there’s this pressure to tag all these different aspects of your identity in whatever bio or profile you have. It’s a way of becoming more legible, more findable, more scannable, and I understand the value of that and, of course, to an extent I do it. And I also chafe against it a little bit as well. But now… I am just trying to sell this book. (laughs)

Drew: (laughs) Absolutely. It’s also interesting to think about visibility within queer community. I love the scene at Dyke Adjacent when all of the characters are there. In a book that isn’t queer, that might feel contrived, but instead it’s exactly what those nights are like. There’s no being anonymous when you’re in a city long enough, in the same queer community long enough.

Davey: (laughs) Yeah totally. And you know within the bounds of a noir there’s lots of room for that melodrama — the unrealistic is a little more realistic. But you’re totally right, we’ve all been at a party or a get together and are like that’s so and so from Oakland and they fucked so and so from Seattle who’s over there with so and so.

Drew: Exactly. Okay so this week has been hard — every week is so hard. I don’t know how it’s been for you but this week has felt especially rough. I feel like I’m constantly being surprised at the ways in which I can still experience new levels of despair.

Davey: Yeah.

People use words like dystopian or spec-fic for the fiction that I write. But I don’t consider myself a world builder of any kind. I’m more operating from like okay I’m reading the news and I’m having some anxieties and then I go from there.

Drew: And while X doesn’t take place in the present, it feels truer than a lot of books that do take place in the present. What does creating worlds of slightly heightened fascism and climate disaster allow you as a writer that setting it in our current fascism and climate disaster wouldn’t?

Davey: Part of that is I feel a little nervous about trying to box myself in with a very specific timeline or setting. I usually have a really strong idea of what I’m going to be doing beforehand but a lot does come up organically.

A friend of mine asked me if I was trying to predict anything. People use words like dystopian or spec-fic for the fiction that I write. But I don’t consider myself a world builder of any kind. I’m more operating from like okay I’m reading the news and I’m having some anxieties and then I go from there. (laughs)

Drew: It also demonstrates that if things were 10% worse or whatever we would carry on much the same. That’s an aspect of the book I really appreciate. Maybe emotionally it’s not the same and yet you still are getting coffee — it’s just shittier coffee — you’re still having hookups — you’re just feeling a sense of unease and you don’t know if it’s related to the hookup or to the world around you. It’s very effective for me as a reader because it’s how life feels right now. You need that heightened aspect to feel the way real life feels.

Davey: And in a way a sudden annihilation or apocalypse is its own kind of fantasy, because then it’s done. The wait is over. You’re free. But I’m kind of a Calvinist at heart so I’m like what would hurt more? To me it seems more realistic that you wouldn’t get that pay off. You wouldn’t get the cum shot of a nuke. It would be like… things aren’t going so good… and they’re just going to keep getting worse… (laughs)

Drew: (laughs) Yup. Do you describe yourself in terms of optimism and pessimism?

Davey: Hm. Do you?

Drew: I think I used to think of myself pretty staunchly as a realistic optimist, but I don’t know if those words feel encompassing enough anymore.

Davey: Yeah they do feel really… (laughs) binary. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but I do think that nihilism is really seductive. It takes you out of reality enough to make you complacent. But there are things to be optimistic about and to be motivated about and empowered about. If you choose not to see those things, then you just do nothing. And I’m against that! I can say that.

Drew: I was just talking to my roommates about a zombie apocalypse and when you think of that version of apocalypse, at least theoretically, it feels like you have more control. Because it’s like, oh I have to make a choice right now. Am I going to barricade myself in here or am I going to go outside and fight? Am I going to kill my friend who was bit by a zombie or tie them up or hope for the best? Whereas the more structural, slower paced tragedy, you feel less control around it.

Davey: It’s so banal. It’s like Elvis dying on the toilet. We’d rather have our brain eaten really dramatically. (laughs)

Drew: I do think that Lee’s obsession with X feels like an attempt to control something. It feels like they’ve put a lot onto this one individual as a means of having a goal amidst people getting exported and personal struggles they’re grappling with. Can you talk a bit about control both in the context of BDSM and in the context of surviving in this sort of society, our society?

Davey: X is a fantasy, right? And that’s what a fantasy is. It’s about control. We all have them, and they’re not always about sex. Some of us don’t feel the need to act on all our fantasies because that’s part of the appeal — you have total control when it’s not part of reality. I can’t speak for everybody but people who are into SM tend to have an instinctive understanding of that and are leaning into that and playing with that. And a lot of people I know like that are control freaks. (laughs) And like with any fantasy or compulsive behavior or relationship with unhealthy boundaries, it’s interesting for me to watch where people go when they’re not in a good place. What’s the thing that’s going to save me? What’s my coping mechanism? Having it be another person is very interesting to me.

Drew: Are there past literary representations of BDSM that feel true to you and inspire you? And are there ones that especially bother you?

Davey: The nature of the fetish being what it is is that it’s not always called out or explicit. Taeko Kōno has a collection called Toddler-Hunting that I love. If I were writing a review of her book for the New York Times, I would compare her to Mary Gaitskill or something. She’s fabulous. She’s a good one even though her stories are not about BDSM per say. But a novelist whose work is explicitly about BDSM that I’m obsessed with is Jane DeLynn. She’s a New York writer, I think she’s still around. She wrote a lot of short lesbian fiction in the 80s and it kind of ran the gamut but she definitely has a darker side. She wrote this novel called Leash about a disaffected bougie white lesbian who’s so bored and gets so unfulfilled that she enters into this 24/7 relationship. It’s really sexy, really good, really challenging. And that one is about leather.

And then bad ones… I mean…

Drew: You don’t have to name titles. But are there things that you’d like to see less or more of in literary portrayals? Not necessarily in the mainstream. Like I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. But even among queer literature?

Davey: Well, I mean you bring up Fifty Shades of Grey, and I would like to see more of that energy. The thing that gets me about a lot of people’s just criticisms of Fifty Shades of Grey is, as a romance novel, as a ravishment novel, it’s a lot closer to real SM, real sexy pulp, than most. It’s about two people fucking and it’s hot. And I like when that’s in books! So I think we could all take a page from that — at least in that one respect.

Drew: At one point in the book, Lee mentions being a bad sadist because they think about why they ended up a sadist. I’m interested in the range of both sadism and masochism that Lee displays and how different those moments feel throughout the book depending on the circumstances. While writing, do you create a distinction between the moments where Lee is acting from a place of harm, self-harm, and moments where it’s more pain as pleasure? Or does it all get blurred together?

Davey: I don’t remember thinking about it because Lee’s behavior — whether sexually with their partners or in their life how they’re treating other people or treating themself — they’re just kind of extreme examples of how all of us treat ourselves and each other. Sometimes we treat ourselves well and sometimes we don’t. And one of the main reasons I wrote this book was because I wanted to ask the age old question, why do we hurt people we care about? And how do we survive being hurt by people we care about? There’s a lot of material to work with because people are mean to each other. It’s interesting to have characters who have assumed this persona like, as my identity I am a sadist, because there’s a difference between summoning that self-knowledge and then applying it to aspects of interpersonal relationships that are less structured. They’re not scenes, they’re not controlled. That’s really interesting to me.

Well, I mean you bring up Fifty Shades of Grey, and I would like to see more of that energy. The thing that gets me about a lot of people’s just criticisms of Fifty Shades of Grey is, as a romance novel, as a ravishment novel, it’s a lot closer to real SM, real sexy pulp, than most. It’s about two people fucking and it’s hot. And I like when that’s in books! So I think we could all take a page from that — at least in that one respect.

Drew: How did you come upon the structure of the book? Did it always jump around in time? What’s your process in placing and organizing moments?

Davey: I think for me any kind of new project starts with moments that are disconnected. I’m just writing out scenes and trying to find a throughline for them. And then once I do that I have enough I can then start to work on plot. I have a loch ness monster spinal column popping out of the water, and I can see some of it but not all of it, and have to fill in the parts that aren’t there. Do you write fiction?

Drew: Yeah. Most of the fiction I write is in screenplay form though.

Davey: Oh cool!

Drew: Yeah! I’m primarily a screenwriter. Like I think of Autostraddle as my day job, which makes it the best and lowest paying day job I ever could have come up with.

Davey: (laughs)

Drew: Like while I try to make it as a writer, I’m going to pay my rent by being…a writer. (laughs)

Davey: Well, then you know how it is. When you’re writing fiction, hopefully you’re not so far down the line and realizing you have to reorganize the timeline. But it can happen. For this book, I began thinking it was all going to happen in the present. Then I realized I wanted to challenge myself by writing about someone’s development which I didn’t have any experience with.

Drew: I also like how much of the book X is talked about before we have the scene where we meet her. It felt very Harry Lime in The Third Man to me. Like who is this person? She’s the title. She’s being talked about. She’s the whole point of the book. And then the payoff was Orson Welles-level satisfying.

Davey: Oh good! And then it’s like Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the screen. That’s the title! She’s here!

I think while she’s the fantasy, this object of desire, X is also the movie monster. And I hate when they show the monster too soon. It ruins it. All the air leaves the balloon. Also I love the idea of this glamorous reveal. Like in Gilda when we see Rita Hayworth for the first time. It’s old school glamor beauty queen. They have the light right in her face. It’s so dramatic. It’s a great way to show us this character without popping the balloon and giving that character interiority.

Drew: I want to pivot to talk about true crime.

Davey: Yesssss.

Drew: First, are you into true crime? Are you a big true crime person?

Davey: I’m a recovered true crime person.

Drew: Oh interesting. Say more about that.

Davey: When it was having its renaissance five years ago, I got into it — not without a strong sense of conflict though I didn’t really know why. And now I’m over it, I’m through it. But I feel like I know about serial killers a little bit. I’ve read Ann Rule.

Drew: I’m interested because I really struggle with it. So many of my friends use it the way that Lee does — whether it’s a true crime podcast or Law & Order reruns — as a sort of comfort way of dissociating. I have pretty similar politics to most of the people in my life — at least the people I choose to keep in my life — and it’s probably our biggest point of disagreement. You know, they insist that it doesn’t negatively impact them and I go, okay, I have my opinion, you have your opinion, I guess we can disagree about this. But it really bothers me.

Do you as a recovered true crime person think it’s inherently toxic? I mean, look, so many of the things we do aren’t good for us and good for other people, so even if it is inherently toxic that doesn’t mean everyone I know needs to stop or that I’m judging them as people. But I guess I have two questions. 1) Do you think it’s possible to have versions of true crime that are ethical? 2) Do you think it’s possible to consume all of it and then resist the negative impact consuming it has on your worldview?

Davey: What you’re speaking to is a sense of goodness and usefulness to what is ultimately a compulsion and means of dissociation. It’s an indulgence, right? It’s a guilty pleasure. And I think a lot of people feel that way about it because they know it’s scratching an itch they have but it’s not really addressing what’s causing the itch. And they also know that while it can be fun and an escape, it can be… I don’t want to say contaminating. I’m trying to be really careful in my word choice. You know what? I’m just going to speak for myself.

Drew: Great! That’s always a great way to go about discussing complicated things. (laughs)

Davey: (laughs) I enjoy dark things. I enjoy the macabre. I don’t mind a slasher. I don’t mind a violent video game. I think all of that is well and good. But as far as true crime goes, I started getting really frustrated by people who make it and create it. Based on the amount of research and obsessiveness a lot of true crime fans have — they’re fixated on the criminal system and the police and they know all this stuff about how it works — I get frustrated when that doesn’t change their opinion about policing and it doesn’t turn them into abolitionists. I don’t know if that’s a totally unreasonable thing to think, but how can you be so obsessive about this thing and know so much detail and not let it change your political perspective at all? It took all of the pleasure out of it for me. I’m not against what is basically trauma porn, gore porn. People are going to do what they want to do. But I just get frustrated with someone who doesn’t let that change the way they see the world. It’s pornographic the way they’re interested in the details of someone’s murder. There’s an intense degree of magnification. But then they’ll be like, it’s so wild why only this kind of person gets murdered. They don’t examine that. They don’t take the same level of scrutiny to systems.

Drew: Yeah and it’s interesting because I also love horror movies. And there is crossover there. And again just speaking for myself, it’s interesting the distinctions I’m making. I think what you’re talking about is exactly right. A lot of the stuff labeled true crime frustrates me with its framing. It’s largely about the framing and the indulgence itself is one that I do in my own way.

Davey: And with something like a horror film, someone has made art, they’ve rendered an experience. Most of the true crime I’ve come across is just relating the events that happened. It’s not like somebody made something with it. They’re just passing on the information.

Drew: Okay from the genre of true crime to the genre of screwball comedy…

Davey: (laughs)

Drew: I just watched The Awful Truth for the first time a few weeks ago.

Davey: Oh my God! What did you think?

Drew: It’s so good.

Davey: So good.

Drew: I often say that my comfort viewing is stuff that’s darker because it’s engaging with what’s bothering me, but screwball comedies are the major exception. They bring me so much joy. And that movie was such a delight.

Davey: Same.

Drew: And I didn’t realize that dog is the same exact dog as in The Thin Man movies and in Bringing Up Baby! This dog is one of my favorite actors??

Davey: Oh my God?? That means he’s friends with Cary Grant!

Drew: Yeah! I was like oh they always have that dog that kind of looks the same in these movies. And no it’s like the same exact Hollywood dog who had great comic timing.

Davey: He deserved an Oscar.

Drew: Truly. Even though your work is pretty dark, do you feel like screwball comedy influences your writing? Because you do reference them a few times in the book.

Davey: I think it’s more what you were saying — they’re such a comfort to watch. They can be really funny and they can even be subversive. But we’re in this scenario that’s completely controlled. The stakes are so low. They’re also a fantasy. I’m going to overuse that word for the rest of my life.

X by Davey Davis is out now.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 562 articles for us.


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