Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dylan Landis

Dylan Landis is the author of the debut novel Rainey Royal and Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a linked story collection.

Landis's Q & A with Soho Press Editor Mark Doten:

What was the first short story that you remember really having a powerful effect on you? And this might be a little harder, but do you remember the first time you read a full collection and started to have a sense of cumulative power the right group of stories can have?

The stories in Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, really peeled me apart as I read them. You could tell they were constructed with a fine instrument and I spent some time dismantling and studying them. I'll go to my grave remembering Henry Lamartine, Jr. in "The Red Convertible" walking into the river and saying, "My boots are filling," before he drowns.

That's also the first linked collection—Erdrich calls it a novel, so forgive me—that made me really grasp how much power the whole can have when the parts harmonize. And it's not just about repeating names and places; it really is about resonance, about events told from more than one point of view and deepening or developing each time, or iconic objects taking on new meaning as they recur. Watch what happens with King Kashpaw's car every time you see it: it's freighted with more emotion. My copy of Love Medicine bristles with scores of tiny Post-its.

I also have to mention Elissa Schappell's linked collection Use Me, another beacon for me. Years later I still remember Evie Wakefield tasting her father's ashes, swallowing—then finding out, two stories later, that her best friend and her father had kissed. Escalation—that's what you get to do when the stories are linked. I hope I pulled that off.

Music and visual art both play big parts in the book. Do you find that art or music are an influence on your fiction? Do you ever write to music?

I do look at and live with a lot of art. But when I write, I find myself wide open to things that aren't part of my life. For instance, Rainey is deeply moved by a pieta and by what she learns about Mary Magdalene. I'm Jewish and not all that spiritual. I don't listen to music, either, which might be why Rainey doesn't like her father's jazz. This is embarrassing to admit, but I live in my head, and listen to my thoughts, and music just distracts. Yes, I realize this is like missing a limb, or a sense. I did start listening to jazz to research Rainey Royal—though never while I wrote—and that was fascinating; it felt like auditory abstract art.

Rainey Royal shares characters with your previous book, Normal People Don't Live Like This. Did you know when you were finishing the first book that you weren't done with them yet? When did the form of Rainey start to take shape?

Rainey appears in the first two stories of Normal People Don't Live Like This, first as a girl who's being molested, and then as a bully. And then she vanishes from the collection. My mentor, Jim Krusoe, had read the manuscript and said, "You need a third Rainey story to balance out the book." But I was closing in on fifty and frankly I was impatient to have a book out. My agent sold it as it was, and I thought I got away with it, but readers kept asking: "What happened to Rainey? Will she get her own book?"

I loved Rainey. For a long time I used her name as my email address. But I spent four years trying to write an altogether different novel, banging my head against the wrong wall, before I finally listened to my heart and wrote that third Rainey story my mentor had wanted—and then a fourth, and a fifth, and finally enough to fill a book.

Before you turned to fiction, you wrote several books about interior design. I'm curious about that--are the satisfactions and challenges of putting that type of book together at all similar to fiction? Do you see any relationship between that work and your fiction? (I will say that Rainey Royal has some very richly realized interior spaces!)

Rooms protect us and cosset us and define us and hopefully are filled with the objects that reflect us. So they're important to fiction. And I like taking rooms apart the way I like taking books apart: to understand how they are made.

But putting a design book together is not like writing a novel. It's about selecting pictures and analyzing rooms; it's a form of journalism, with interviewing, and a little poetry in the writing. You might structure the book on color, or style. Whereas in fiction, structure has to do with story, and in order to write you have to first tap into the subconscious, the mind's basement. That's where I hear and see and smell everything. I can't know a character without seeing his or her space in detail. I can see the furniture and what's in it. The colors, what's on the walls. For me, in fiction, a room is both a stage set and a mirror of the people who live there.

When did you start writing fiction? Is there any advice that present-day you would give to the you that was just starting out?

I was forty, writing articles and books on interior design, and a friend insisted I take a fiction workshop given by Madeleine L'Engle. It was mind-altering the first Wednesday night. Madeleine said, "Nonfiction is about what is true, but fiction is about truth." I knew my life had to change.

I went to workshops and took notes, which became my textbooks. I learned how to read with an eye for craft. I developed a thick enough skin to withstand rejection, which I got plenty of. It took twelve years to publish my first book, which was really my second.

So I would keep telling my younger self, Don't get discouraged. It's not about talent, it's about staying in the chair. And I would say, Stop revising and show your work sooner. I used to polish endlessly before I'd let another writer critique my pages. Now I get the benefit of other eyes on my early drafts, and I'm a faster, better, more fluid writer. Finally I wish I'd heard sooner what my mentor, Jim Krusoe, would tell me later: You have to have the faith that you can do the work, and the patience to get the work done.

What are you reading these days?

I just finished Natalie Baszile's Queen Sugar, which has urgency and beauty in rural Louisiana. And I've begun Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, which is practically needlepointed, the language is so fine. On the nightstand is an advance copy of Robin Black's Life Drawing, which comes out here in summer 2014 and is getting rave reviews in the UK. It has a gently ominous first line; I love that.

What can you tell us about your next book?

I'm afraid of jinxing it, so just the title: The Hoarder's Daughter. I'm fascinated by hoarders; there's one in Rainey Royal. What are these people really constructing? And why do we feel like if we could just go through all that stuff we'd find secrets at the bottom?
Visit Dylan Landis's website.

Writers Read: Dylan Landis (November 2009).

--Marshal Zeringue