I was thrilled when I discovered that Dylan Landis’s new book, Rainey Royal, was all about my favorite Landis character, Rainey, a girl who makes some unforgettable cameo appearances in Landis’s first book, the collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This (which made Newsday’s Ten Best Books of 2009 and More magazine’s list of 100 Books Every Woman Must Read). Landis, who lives in New York City and in a past life wrote six books on interior design, has also received a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, and been published in such venues as Tin House, BOMB, House Beautiful and the New York Times. Now, in Rainey Royal, published in September by Soho, we follow the title character from age 14 to 26—the years when she is navigating a profoundly messed-up adolescence while experimenting with her tremendous powers of beauty, talent, youth and an intuitive understanding of other people’s weaknesses. Rainey is infinitely alluring and sometimes startlingly dreadful; a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew and adored.
The Rumpus: In your previous book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, Rainey Royal was one of the minor characters. How did she end up taking over a whole book on her own?
Dylan Landis: Rainey appeared only twice in that first book, and then I squelched her. In the first story of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, she’s lying trapped under her father’s best friend, feeling his hands on her body, and you’re privy to her thoughts—”She wants to light fires, and she wants to control how they burn.” In the second story, she’s bullying the main character, Leah, but now you know how she got that way. Bullying is the thing she can control; it gives her power.
And then she vanishes, because I was focusing on Leah. My mentor, the novelist Jim Krusoe, said, “You need another Rainey story,” and I thought, Oh, no. I’d been writing that book for five years. I didn’t have six months in me to write another Rainey story. I willed her to be silent, and we sold the book as it was.
Readers kept saying, “Is Rainey going to get her own book?” But I was busy trying to write a novel set in 1902. I spent four years in 1902 before Rainey burst through, stopped that project, and got her own book.
There’s a moral to this. Write what’s in your heart, not what’s in your head. Write from the basement, not from the living room. Write from the places that make you afraid.
Rumpus: In the story “Trust,” which comes early in the sequence, Rainey does something that is coldly and carelessly cruel, something many readers might find unforgivable. What was your thinking about throwing her into this situation where she would appear so unsympathetic?
Landis: It’s carelessly cruel, but Rainey is my alter ego: I could forgive her anything. And she sacrifices something of herself to protect her victim at the end. I never meant to make her unsympathetic—I meant to make her flashing, dangerous, cruel, and still vulnerable. That’s where sympathy lies, for me. I mean, she looks at the neck of the woman she is robbing at gunpoint, and she thinks about how her own neck feels when her father’s best friend is touching it. Then she looks at photos of her victim’s mother and feels her own anger and yearning over the abandonment by her own mother, though she could never articulate that.
Meanwhile, she’s renegotiating her relationship with Tina, the friend she loves more than anyone on the planet. To me this feels fairly sympathetic, even considering the gun in her hand.
Of course, to write a character, I have to love her and her flaws first. That might not mean the reader will follow me there.
Rumpus: The mother is a character we never see but feel profoundly in her absence. She has left Rainey vulnerable to all sorts of dangers and temptations; a girl without guidance in a jungle of predatory men. The absentee mother is the set-up of most Disney movies but you’ve really turned it around and given us the anti-Hannah Montana.
Landis: I’m pretty detached from pop culture, so I miss the Hannah Montana reference—but I agree that Disney stories have some darkness around their edges or in their set-ups and Rainey’s life certainly has that. Her life is disturbing and exciting and has its moments of great compassion and real artistic connection. I’m interested in exploring what it means to be a teenage girl, which means sexual power and its inverse, vulnerability and powerlessness; and I’m fascinated by the ways in which parents, who are by nature flawed beings, fail to love us properly. (And I speak as a parent myself—I’m not trying to condemn my own parents, who loved me openly and powerfully.) Perhaps all of these things are best dissected in the vacuum of parental abandonment, when a girl has to process grief, and anger, and shape herself.
Rumpus: Has your mother read this book? What does she think about Rainey Royal? Does she see you in any of these characters? Do you see yourself in any of these characters?
Landis: My mother, thank God, did not read this book. She held the galleys as proudly as if I had stitched the binding and painted the cover by hand, and she turned it over and ran her fingers over the blurbs, but she did not, mirabile dictu, open the pages. Maybe it’s because she is eighty-eight and slowing down as a reader—though she’s reading Seabiscuit—but more likely it’s because my last book hurt her a great deal. She saw herself, not me, in those pages; she read the mother’s anorexia as a metaphor for distance and depression. She’d be distressed by Rainey’s mother’s abandonment. She was not a psychoanalyst’s wife for 59 years for nothing.
Me, I’m in most of the characters in Rainey Royal. Maybe all of them. I’m embedded in Rainey, who’s based on the mean girls I once feared and revered. My desire, in adolescence, to turn off my feelings and be tough and invulnerable is the spine of Tina. The selfish ways I’ve hurt people comprises about an ounce of Howard, but it’s the critical ounce that allowed me to write him believably. I’ve got Leah’s desire to both play it safe and hurl myself into risk.
I think you can write about almost anyone if you find the empathic strand in yourself that connects you to the source of their damage.
Rumpus: Did you write these stories in the order in which they appear? Or did you arrange and rearrange? How did you play with the reader emotionally, was there a plan?
Landis: I wrote this book with very few rules, and perhaps as a result it came out fast—in about sixteen months. First, I lurched forward in a vaguely chronological manner, because I had an arc in mind. But I took digressions and side trips, and sometimes stepped back in time. Then I returned later and shifted stories around, changed everyone’s ages, got chapters into a meaningful, novelistic order. And in revision I undertook a lengthy weaving process, so that certain strands of each story or chapter carry all the way backward and forward through the book.
So: no plan. True seduction meant admitting the reader into the darkest, most intimate moments of Rainey’s life, and that was far more crucial, in terms of process, than mapping out chronology.
Rumpus: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you have any rituals or superstitions? Were there any books or writers that particularly inspired or guided you?
Landis: No rituals. No superstitions. No candles, no lucky pens, no requisite coffee at the perfect temperature, no need for a neat desk. I can write anywhere, with all kinds of background noise. I write in bed while my husband reads the paper. Both of my parents were sick for years—my father died recently—so I have written a lot in hospital rooms.
The book that inspired me most as I wrote was Elissa Schappell’s Use Me. I kept thinking of the story “Try an Outline,” of the girl tasting her father’s ashes. And yet I couldn’t have Elissa’s words in my head as I wrote. And so I just ran on the gas fumes of that book, on my memories of having read it twice. I was also blown away by Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and so humbled by it that I stopped writing for several days. She lingers over the smallest details and stirrings of emotion until they are radiant and vibrant and telling.
Rumpus: Where do you see Rainey in ten years? Does she live in your mind beyond these stories? Do you think you will write about her again?
Landis: Rainey is growing up a little while I write another novel. Then we’ll catch up with each other again. Rainey will be a little older and caught up in some challenging relationships, and maybe she’ll have a kid during the course of the book. I’m not sure. Maybe her mother will come back. I trust her completely to reveal herself.
Photograph of Dylan Landis © Lauren Shay Lavin.