Mary Akers: Hi, Dylan. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us today. Where do I begin?? I loved your short story ROSE. It was one of those stories that I simply devoured–for the language and the characters and the circumstances. It struck me as being fresh and pristine. However, I know that what reads easily on the page often requires its author to sweat blood. Could you talk a bit about your writing process and what it takes for you to feel like you have a finished story?
Dylan Landis: I can’t see resolution coming till the very end, and then I struggle toward it. If you wanted an image, I’d give you this—imagine crawling through a culvert for a long time. You don’t know if it will let out, if you’ll ever see sky. And then you smell the ocean, you anticipate sky.
That’s my first glimmer of an ending. It’s a feeling, a grasping for something. In Rana Fegrina, I sensed a profusion of smells on the way, mixed up with a line of Walt Whitman. In Rose, I sensed it would be about the loss that comes with maturity and knowledge, and the imagery of a flower opening. Often I understand my endings viscerally, but not cerebrally.
And I receive false endings, meaning the language appears full of truth and beauty, but it’s really just pretty. The more perfect my ending seems when I first reach it, the more certain it is that I have to get back in the culvert and crawl. It’s always hard.
MA: Your stunning novel-in-stories (in which I first had the pleasure of reading “Rose”) is titled NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS (Persea Books, 2009). How did you arrive at that title? It’s perfect for the book, and yet I feel like I struggle with titles every time one is required of me. I’d love to hear how the titling process went for you.
DL: I began with a barbiturate title: Daughter, Fifteen. Helen thinks those words in a moment of connection with her daughter, Leah, who’s been stealing and smoking, and it was a story title at one point. So I typed it on the manuscript, where it looked poetic for about five minutes.
Then I tried Rana Fegrina, because the pulse of the book beats hard in that story. My mother thought people would struggle to remember it, and she has good literary instincts.
So I reread the manuscript from page one. I asked it to instruct me, to please tell me what it wanted to be called. At one point Helen marvels at the wreckage of another woman’s apartment and wonders why Leah, whose best friend lives there, never confided in her about the mess: “She knew normal people didn’t live like this.”
I should have bowed to the manuscript at that moment. What a gift.
MA: I’ve found that my readers often feel compelled to tell me which of my stories they liked best and which the least. I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s that “box of chocolates” thing–finding the chocolate truffles and avoiding the toothpaste-filled ones, but ironically, one man’s truffle is another man’s toothpaste. Have you found (after publishing your collection) that readers feel compelled to tell you which story was their favorite? And their least favorite? And did that vary widely?
DL: You too? Maybe it’s psychological. If you spread a table with Rorschach cards, people are bound to pick one up and start divulging. But then you’re talking to a psychoanalyst’s daughter.
Some women want to talk about Jazz, in which Rainey Royal, thirteen and sexually precocious, gets molested and possibly screwed by her father’s best friend. It’s not that Jazz is necessarily a favorite. Rather it seems to hold some urgency for them. Some want to discuss whether or not this is rape, because Rainey is feeling both her power and her lack of power. Some want to carefully work their way around to asking if this ever happened to me, but I think what they are really saying is that some kind of violation has happened to them, and they want to know if it’s okay to tell about it.
For that I prescribe the Sharon Olds poem I Go Back to May 1937.
Some people tell me they like Excelsior, about the mother, in which Helen is on the verge of awakening from a life of rigidity into a life of sensuality and art. These readers are often mothers or women in mid-life, like me.
Fiction writers gravitate toward Rana Fegrina. It’s the best thing I’ve written. Sometimes I have no sense that Rana came out of me, and yet I still feel it powerfully.
Richard Ford said, “If loneliness is the disease, the story is the cure,” so perhaps each reader picks out the most cathartic chocolate in the box.
MA: Along those lines, Rana Fegrina was definitely a truffle story for me. I wanted to savor it with tiny bites and make it last, but I also wanted to devour it in one big pleasurable bite. It has stayed with me for years. (I’m sure that says something about me, as a reader.) As the writer-creator, which story is your favorite?
DL: Rana Fegrina is my truffle too.
Writing Rana is the only time I’ve been emotional throughout the process. Symbols of the crucifixion and of Christian grace began appearing during Leah’s biology lab, at a time when her father is dying. I’m Jewish and secular, but I stood in the shower every morning and cried every morning before getting to my desk, thinking about my own father and what the world would be like without him in it, or about Jesus in Gethsemane not wanting to die. Then I would dry off and read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, and get weepy again, reading about grace.
Then I’d work on the story.
Crying every day made the story so much harder to pull off. Too much sentiment. You know Chekhov’s advice—”When you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart…you must be cold.” I was neither cold nor in control. Jim Krusoe, my first reader, said the story failed to capture the transcendence I’d been aiming for. I remember despairing about that, and it took three more months, finally working from some emotional distance, to finish the story—a total of nine months, a gestation.
MA: I’ve read that you feel one of your themes to be “the redemptive power of art.” I love that. It makes so much sense to me, but I’m wondering if you could extrapolate on that for our readers.
DL: I’ll say this inadequately, as neither a scholar nor an artist. I’m an ex-newspaper reporter who spent thirteen years getting her first book of fiction out.
Art requires so much discipline, and receptivity; and in return it connects you with humanity, and transcends what is mundane about humanity, too. This may sound crazy, but striving for all of that makes me feel forgiven, like I have a right to be here after all. Just the act of reading and writing, or answering your questions and looking up what Chekhov said about being cold, bonds me with other souls who care about story, books, language, a higher purpose. I need that. And I need to write about people who don’t yet realize what it means to be touched by that.
Of course I may be producing absolute dreck while rereading Faulkner or Toni Morrison. But as long as I show up, I’m plugging into something larger and more vibrant than anything else I could probably manage to do.
So I wish that for my characters. I see art—and science too; think of Andrea Barrett’s work—as a driving force for some of them, or as a real lack in their lives. Remember that art can be provocative, and artists troubled. The possibilities in fiction are intense.
MA: I’m a big fan of Andrea Barrett’s work, in which art and science are closely linked. My undergraduate degree is in fine arts and I’ve thought a lot about the function of art, the accessibility of art, and the conversation between artist and “consumer.” I believe that art takes two. The artist makes a thing (poem, sculpture, meal, song, whatever)–we could even call it an art widget–but at first it is simply the artist talking to him-or-herself until there is someone on the other side of that art, enjoying it, experiencing it, or even hating it. But in a sense, art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. Would you like to comment on this?
DL: Janet Fitch talks about the novel as a half-empty envelope. The novelist writes enough to fully engage the reader, who in turn uses her imagination to fill the rest of the envelope. Maybe this is the difference between art and craft: Art invites the participant to interact with it, to complete it. To respond with an imaginative and also a subconscious kind of thrumming.
There’s an extraordinary series of fourteen paintings—black and white lines—called Stations of the Cross, by Barnett Newman. Really, it’s just vertical lines. You walk into the room and think, “What stations? What cross?” and either you dismiss the whole thing, or you keep engaging with it. It seemed to me that on each canvas, he had deconstructed the crucifix into its two component beams—this is simply what I felt, and it was my doorway into the work. It also seemed that the beams’ edges got more static-y, more distressed, as the moment of crucifixion approached.
Barnett Newman said, “A painter should try to paint the impossible.” If the reader or viewer is led to perceive the world in some way that transcends the usual, haven’t mundane and sad and terrible things been washed away, if just for that moment? Is that not redemptive?
MA: I recently had the opportunity to visit the Georgia O’Keefe museum and it felt like a pilgrimage to me. I found myself shedding tears during the movie about her life (and trying to wipe them away discreetly without the other moviegoers noticing). One of the things she said was that the first time she saw New Mexico, she knew it was “a place where she could breathe.” Do you have a place like that?
DL: It sounds inspiring and enviable and productive. But no.
I like to be near other writers, inhaling the same oxygen, and often it helps to leave home to work. I love the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Center for Fiction in New York. I’ve written many pages while sharing desk and dining-table space with novelist- and poet-friends: Susan Coll, Natalie Baszile, Heather Hartley. Once I flew to Portland to work at Cheryl Strayed’s dining table for ten days when she was away. I like writing anywhere while my husband reads nearby.
A perfect space where I could breathe—that sounds a little intimidating, like my writing would have to be perfect, too. My writing is terrible, until it isn’t. The only thing that sends me screaming from the room is the sound of television.
MA: And finally, since we are a recovery-themed journal, what role do you think recovery plays in the creative process? Have you found yourself drawn to /images or themes that you later realized stemmed from something you needed to work through?
DL: Yes, and I hope I never finish working through them. Self-worth, sexuality, body image, childhood. Has anyone finished dealing with this stuff? If you can find it in my book, I’m probably grappling with it in some way – but not in the way that it appears in any one story.
Because this is fiction.
When I gave my galleys to my parents, I said, “I hope you’ll read this as a work of imagination. Fiction is not a Rorschach.” And my father, who is not only a psychoanalyst but a painter, laughed gently and said, “Yes, it is.” Of course, we’re both right.
There’s a bit of my troubled psyche in every character. Or is that empathy, or both? I’m in Helen, the mother, when she’s starving herself. I’m in Rainey when she’s bullying Leah. I’m in Pansy when she’s her most emotionally detached. I’m in Bonita when she thinks she’s embodying Kahlil Gibran’s wisdom and really she’s letting her daughters down. I’m even in Richard, when he’s damaging Rainey with his appetites, though I could never, ever be Richard. I just mean: I couldn’t write Richard if I couldn’t sympathetically inhabit him, if I couldn’t find some small, sick part of my own soul that briefly aligned, during the writing, with the enormously sick part of his.
That’s the dark side, and it’s critical. Think of Mary Gaitskill. But I’m also aligned with Helen when she is loosened by art, and with Leah when she is spiritually moved by science, and with Rainey when she’s lifted above her problems by the sound of jazz.
If any recovery was involved—and surely there was—it probably had more to do with the discipline of writing and revising than with the creative process. I don’t write in order to recover. I write in order to write.
MA: Yes. Perfect. Thank you so much, Dylan. This has been a wonderful, redemptive interview for me and I’m sure our readers will find their own take-away meaning, too. And now for the links.
Dylan’s wonderful collection NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS, which I highly recommend, can be purchased here.
You can find out more about Dylan and her work, as well as find links to other outstanding interviews at her website.
And here’s a great audio interview with Dylan. (Hers starts halfway through.)