Dylan Landis, a longtime newspaper and magazine journalist, is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a novel-in-stories that Elizabeth Strout called a “wonderful, intriguing and original debut.” Her work has appeared in numerous publications including BOMB, Tin House, and Best American Non-Required Reading, and she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Norman Mailer Center, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Dylan’s stories, written over five years, focus on mother-daughter relationships, coming-of-age sexuality, and the secret lives of girls on the verge of becoming women.
The Rumpus: I’d like to begin with the people who populate Normal People Don’t Live Like This. The characters you write about are mainly teenage girls and their mothers, all of whom exist in a space that is equal parts love and cruelty, truth and lies. And part of what makes this in-between world so convincing is your animation of your characters’ anxieties about existing in such a state. In “Fire,” this is particularly vivid with Leah’s enchantment and fear of Rainey Royal, a girl who teases her to the point of humiliation. And we also see this desire for acceptance in Leah’s mother, Helen, in “Normal People Don’t live Like This,” when she meets Bonita Prideau, a chaotic woman who in many ways is her opposite. How do you get close enough to your characters to reveal their vulnerabilities and nail these nuances?
Dylan Landis: Is nuance too slippery to actually nail? I find I have to sneak up on it, via many revisions.
Sneaking is better. I think nailing’s what you do for stereotypes, and stereotypes come first for me. I write the alluring bad girl, like Rainey, or the literary, over-permissive mom, Bonita, or the selfish molester Richard who pins Rainey down in the park when she’s thirteen.
Then I have to work the nails out, slowly, with this damned teaspoon that’s my metaphor for endless revision. (I promise I’ll explain the teaspoon.) What I mean is, during revision, I need another character to view the stereotyped person with nuance. You mentioned “Fire,” in which Rainey’s teasing gets so calculated and cold, Leah comes to believe she might get pushed off a roof.
But while I built up that nasty teasing and heightened Leah’s fear, I heard the hum of Leah’s desire. She wants to French-inhale like Rainey, she wants her jeans to fit like Rainey’s, and she kind of wants Rainey herself, though she doesn’t have a language for that. She would happily let Rainey push her around if Rainey would just like her. When you have feelings like dread and desire wrestling with each other, and you turn up the heat, something has to happen.
You can do this with any character. Rainey’s a bully, but her vulnerabilities come out in “Jazz,” where she’s pinned down by Richard, her father’s 39-year-old best friend. But Rainey’s not merely a victim. She’s only thirteen, but she loves that Richard loves and desires her. She likes to set fires and she likes to watch them burn. Richard is a fire way bigger than she can put out.
Rumpus: When I read the first story of your collection, “Jazz,” I knew you would take me to all kinds of lush places with your prose. You write with such lyricism and yet it does not ever subsume character or take over any other important aspects of craft:
“Through the ground, Rainey feels the crowd gathering, she feels blankets unfolding on the grass, she feels tuna-fish sandwiches nestling in wrinkled tin foil. She feels John Coltrane place his fingers on the soprano sax like it is her own spine. She feels how a concert swells before it starts and she wants to be there, she wants to lie on a blanket while Richard smells her toes and is driven insane, and she wants to feel the exact moment when the sound of the sax shimmies over the Transverse and toward the sky, change the course of the East River and starting every fountain in the city.”
How do you strike that balance? And how important is musicality and cadence to your writing on a sentence level?
Landis: Music is important to the characters. Cadence is crucial to the writing. Music in writing isn’t like salt in cooking. It’s not just there for flavor. It has to be inseparable from character, like dialogue. Just as no one should be able to say another person’s lines, each character needs his own musical DNA. Rainey lies to people that she plays jazz flute―in truth, she stumbles along with classical flute lessons. Her lying gave rise to a cadence that became the rhythmic spine of the story: It is true that…It is a lie that…
Musicality―what I’d call lyricism―that’s my voice, though it doesn’t come naturally. It arrives after a prolonged struggle. There’s as much cutting involved as there is writing.
Can I talk about the spoon now? The spoon was an art assignment we had in tenth grade, in public school. We had to form an egg from wet clay, and I remember digging this wet, elephant-colored clay out of a barrel with my fingers and fingernails. We had clay eggs hardening on the windowsill forever.
Then we brought in teaspoons from home, and every day for a week, for the entire art period, each student polished her gray clay egg with the back of her teaspoon. No talking, I’m sure. It was that kind of school.
By Friday, my egg looked like polished pewter. It was pretty, and shiny, but, I mean, why? Why would you polish a clay egg with a spoon for a week? This baffled me for twenty-five years. And then I began writing fiction.
Egg-polishing is how I get to lyricism. But it took me a while to grow up and grasp that lyricism means nothing without character, story and conflict. It has to be in their service.
Rumpus: As a follow up to that, I’d like to ask if we can now call revising egg-polishing? I like it as a replacement term.
Landis: Can I get royalties with that?
Rumpus: “Rana Fegrina,” is one of my favorite stories in the collection. In it, the shy and introspective Leah Levinson collides with Angeline Yost, the school “slut.” They work together on dissecting a frog, whose Latin name is Rana Fegrina. At this point the story rises to biblical levels. Can you speak a little about this story and how it took shape?
Landis: Backward. It launched backward. You’d think it would start with the idea of a frog dissection, wouldn’t you? Instead, I was trying to write Leah into English class the day after she’s jabbed Rainey in the eye with a key. This opening bored me for weeks, till one morning The New York Times ran an article on a fantastic book called Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, by Leora Tannenbaum. Apparently every school designates one girl to be the “slut,” not because she’s doing the football team or even having sex at all, but as a punishment. Maybe she dated someone’s boyfriend. Maybe she doesn’t conform to what’s “normal.”
That day I couldn’t get to my computer fast enough. My high school had a reputed “slut,” and thank God I didn’t know her―we had 3,200 kids―so I was free to make up Angeline Yost. And, baby, Angeline Yost does not conform.
So now I had two opposing chicks on a collision course to the bio lab. I had a crucible―the close, smelly quarters of the lab table, over which these two people must collaborate over a creepy task.
I opened with a litany on Angeline, partly to list what I knew about her, and partly to create conflict: What’s true? How could it possibly be true? How much could I reveal about this girl through rumor and her social circle and her fingernails? By the time I got back to English class, two things were happening at once―and that’s always useful for the writer. (For a great example read the first story in Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.) Leah was worrying about Angeline’s rampant sexuality and toughness. And she was also listening to her teacher read Whitman, who is very spiritual.
Researching the frog got pretty spiritual too. If you’re in the right frame of mind, looking at a splayed frog will make you think about the beauty of our internal architecture, and the need to stop and marvel. Maybe you’ll think, this frog died so I might learn. Seriously. I studied frog anatomy till each organ, like that heart with its one-way valves, practically sang, till weird things began linking up: the father, Rana Fegrina, Christ in Gethsemane not wanting to die (insert here: author is Jewish), Leah’s inchoate longing for her father to find an afterlife and her own longing to live.
So they crucify the frog. It’s true. They pin the hands and the feet. That’s about when things got really olfactory: frog smells, hospital smells, body odor, the odors of Whitman’s poetry. All those perfumes were connecting Leah to life while she was being forced to relinquish her father.
Readers like Jim Krusoe and Mary Otis encouraged me to keep adding and subtracting things and revise like crazy. The story accrued layers, as Andrea Barrett puts it, for a long time.
Rumpus: Bigger picture now. Linked collections require that a story work well on their own as well as take part in the arc of a larger work. Images must echo, motifs appear and reappear, and the characters must continue to build and complicate. No easy task. What was your process for developing your collection, and did you see it as a linked collection from the start? And, part two: what were the difficulties in writing a linked collection, and what ways did it set you free?
Landis: Linking wasn’t hard because I was so dumb―I had no idea how intricately stories could be linked. And I had no process. I wrote a story and then I wrote another set in the same neighborhood. All I knew was that Flannery O’Connor said grace must be offered at some point in a story, often triggered by an act of violence. Which is why, for an AWP panel on linked stories, I dissected Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and talked about that instead of preaching from my own work. Love Medicine is a truly brilliant work of linkage. Some of my notes on that are here, on a blog that raises its head about twice a year.
Linking set me free in this regard: I didn’t have to come up with a new set of unrelated characters for each story. How do writers do that? I can only hold a few people in my head at a time.
My model―can I say goddess?― might be Andrea Barrett. Her stories and novels―the historic ones―are linked across decades, centuries, sometimes in ways that seem as minor and sweet as grace notes, and sometimes in ways that stop your heart and make you want to grab perfect strangers and cry, “Nora found her brother! In an entirely different book!” Erdrich too, if we are talking across many books and I am allowed multiple goddesses.
For single linked collections I go back to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, and I’m excited about Elissa Schappell’s new linked collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, because her last one, Use Me, had these loose, dazzling links that made you want to rush out and try the form.
Rumpus: I love how certain points of view in your book don’t overwhelm the other ones (and the relationship I’m thinking about mainly is Helen and her daughter Leah), but rather they speak to each other. Is this something you consciously thought about when you were creating a linked collection?
Landis: Consciously thought about―oh, no. I was just learning how to write stories, assigning myself one challenge at a time. Try first person, present tense. Okay! Now try first person, past tense. Try third person! Try Leah’s mom’s point of view! It kept things exciting, and moving, and I loved building one small world of a few square blocks, as opposed to, say, Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam, which would have terrified me. (Try writing a man!) In the end I transposed as much as possible into the same key: third person, past tense.
I never considered, a la Erdrich: “What might link the stories more powerfully? What might heighten the narrative arc, besides Leah getting older? Should links ripen each time they crop up?
I was reading some great examples of the form, but not close-reading. I’ve since taught myself to do that, to suck the juice from the stone. I teach a seminar on close-reading now.
Rumpus: Do you feel that linked collections need to be held together by a particular place or one central character, like Leah, in your collection?
Landis: To paraphrase Denis Johnson: What words can be uttered about Jesus’ Son?
It’s held together by place and a central character, but if Fuckhead were never in the same place twice, what power could possibly be lost? If none, is it because voice is the central link? Voice, violence and the movement of grace? Do the links between stories―like the Vine, where people nod out and drink, or Fuckhead’s $65 car with just an emergency brake―strengthen and deepen each time they reappear, or is every link perfect the first time and in need of no more freight the second? Is there a narrative arc? I haven’t figured that book out yet, but I just listened to it on tape―it makes each story and each link feel new.
Rumpus: I’ve spoken a lot about what your collection means to readers, and the many ways it has spoken to me. What does the collection mean to you?
Landis: This may disappoint you, but what it means to me is this: I did it. I did this one thing. I wrote and published a book of fiction! And it seemed so improbable. I started writing fiction at forty with no English degree. I didn’t even know how to read properly. My best friend just got a contract for a gorgeous debut novel that took her eleven years to write. It can be done, if you, personally, have an urgent need to do it more than you need to do anything else. That’s what my collection means to me. That’s my private evangelism.
Rumpus: What writers do you consider your teachers? Who do you return to over and over again?
Landis: The teacher-writers I go back to are what Jim Krusoe calls translucent, meaning you can see and study the watchworks inside their books. Read the first chapter―it’s two and a half pages―of Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. In my close-reading seminar we spend two hours on those pages. You can see how the first two lines are sprung rhythym, that natural, conversational rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry―and how that pulls you in, and then there’s a shock at the end of the first sentence that fastens you to the page. Woodrell shows you precisely where and how tension is ratcheted up, and how concrete details anchor moments of revelation or decision. He will teach you a dozen ways to reveal character, and the meaning of the word crucible.
Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr, teaches me every time how to treat place as a living thing. Landscape never sits there in a Doerr story. Her Mexico is a force. Characters resist it, drill through it, divine it, drown in it, and learn it through strange misunderstandings.
As I Lay Dying by Faulkner and, at the other extreme, Bee Season, Myla Goldberg’s first novel, and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace are books I’ve dismantled over several readings to parse how different points of view or ways of structuring can reveal different brands of truth.
In stories―and this is a short list by necessity―I’ve gone back many times to Mona Simpson’s “Lawns,” Kate Braverman’s “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta,” and Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” They’re all in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. I wear that collection out.
But some books are so complex, I just drink from them a lot―I’m not good enough yet to be their student. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; Portrait of The Artist, by Joyce; Angels, by Denis Johnson; everything by Edward P. Jones; and most of Cormac McCarthy―Blood Meridien if I had to choose. Even my goddess, Andrea Barrett: not so translucent.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about what you are working on now?
Landis: No. And you can’t dig it out of me with that spoon. I talked about one novel-in-progress too much, and now all these dear, well-meaning people keep asking cheerfully, “How’s that Big Fat Novel of Yours going?” till the pages glared at me and I put them in a closet. For now. Just for now. Trust me. I’m working.