Dylan Landis [photo credit: Lauren Shay Lavin] is the author of a novel, Rainey Royal, and a collection of linked stories, Normal People Don't Live Like This. She has received a 2014 O. Henry Award and a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Prose, and her work has run or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Tin House, Bomb, The Normal School, Black Clock and House Beautiful.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I revere Anne Lamott but I think she is wrong when she says publishing a book changes nothing. For me, publishing was an arrival. My father was a painter, and he used to say, "I paint for only two people, you and your mother—why do you write to get published?" But I do. There is no limit to how hard I'll work to get to keep doing this.
My second book, Rainey Royal, is a novel about a girl who appears in my first book, a linked story collection called Normal People Don't Live Like This. Rainey is the mean girl at school. She's been abandoned by her mother and is being inappropriately touched by her father's best friend. She essentially has to raise herself and make her way as an artist. It's also a novel about Rainey's two closest female friendships, which sometimes need a lot of triage.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I was writing books and articles full-time about interior design when a writer friend, Claire Whitcomb, insisted I take a workshop with Madeleine L'Engle, the late author of A Wrinkle in Time. And Madeleine converted me to fiction as if it were a religion. "Nonfiction is about what is true," she said, "but fiction is about truth." She told us the story of the Good Samaritan, and explained that some scholars believe that the man beaten by robbers was Jesus, while others believe the Good Samaritan was Jesus. "If you can understand that both are true," she said, "you can write fiction." I went home that night and told my husband that I had to change my life.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Every sentence seems to come out like sludge. And my first drafts are sludge, though "first" may be an exaggeration. I revise extensively during the actual writing process. I have to forgive myself over and over in order to inch forward. I work very closely with a particular reader who helps me revise each draft, and it's lovely not working in a vacuum.
4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Fiction begins for me with a character and a problem—a crucible, an impossibly tight spot. I've been writing about Rainey Royal and her friend Leah Levinson and their parents and their circle for years, and each narrative launches for me with a kind of photographic image of one of those characters in a jam, or a situation leading up to a jam.
Ultimately I write books, not stories. But if I thought about that while I was at my desk, I'd freeze. So during the actual writing, I'm just an author of sentences. Only when I'm halfway there do I think about the entire story or chapter. And only when I have half the stories or chapters in hand do I think about the book. It keeps me free, and limber. And yet books remain the point of the whole exercise, unless I'm struggling with an essay.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
An audience has the effect of making me feel tremendously focused. I feel my own words coming up through my body; I feel the beats. With Normal People Don't Live Like This I razored the pages heavily before I read them, cut out every extra word. I made sure every paragraph was tuned it for the ear, not just for the eye. My own copy was all inked up. Public readings have definitely taught me something about the creative process: when you think the manuscript is finished, read the work aloud to yourself at least once. The ear is more rigorous than the eye; it picks up even small missteps in rhythm that can break a story's spell.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I'm not trying to answer questions. I'm trying to ask them. How do we love ourselves if parents can't love us properly? How can a teenage girl sort out power and sexuality? Can art save us? Is a good artist necessarily a good human being?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Wasn't it once very straightforward—to entertain? I think the writer's role is to grip us emotionally, to translate human experience into story, to mirror society back to itself, and in the process to pay close attention to detail. But I think the writer's job is not to think about any of that or she would never get anything written.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It's a blessing to work with a good editor. It's even more of a joy to work with several, sequentially. I'm blessed with a mentor, Jim Krusoe, who reads all my work first, and there's one reader in particular, Heather Sellers, with whom I've come to work so closely I call her my writing wife.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to journalism to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I didn't find it easy at all and yet it's been irresistible. Moving from journalism to fiction required an entirely new language and thought pattern, an awareness of conflict and subtext. Nothing I knew from journalism applied except for two things: that detail and sense of place were important. The shift into personal essays meant relearning structure, and reconsidering the things that matter to readers. Poetry I've only attempted once; I don't know how poets do it, how you write something so small and distilled that works on two levels at once. I need at least ten pages to pull that off.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I'm a jittery writer, but an addictive one; starting quite early in the morning, I bounce between the words on the page and email and Facebook and the cat and the fridge and the words again. This can go on much of the day. Somehow it gets done because I write or revise almost daily and for hours. I'm pretty obsessed. I love writing dates where there's a friend across the table, typing and concentrating. When I look up, I'm inspired by the sight of another writer concentrating on her work, and I get back to my own.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I look for a "guide" book in my shelves, a book on which I want to model my own, either for structure, or voice. At the moment my guides are for voice: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and John Banville's Ancient Light. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon never lets me down, because of its directness and its exquisite complexity and the way she handles flashbacks and the importance of its story.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Current home? Childhood home? The sense of home I carry inside, no matter how many times I move? I am always faintly homesick. The scent of home is whatever candle I am burning at the time. My mother used to wear Joy. That might be it.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art and the sciences and the decorative arts and poetry and even jazz, about which I know nothing, all end up in my work; they're inspirations for my characters more than for me. Characters need passions and talents just as we do.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is the sun around which my very tiny planet revolves. I reread Cormac McCarthy, Junot Diaz, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Deborah Eisenberg, William Faulkner. I'm also in love with Bee Season, a debut novel by Myla Goldberg. It's painful to think of the authors I'm leaving off this list, and worse to think of the ones I haven't read.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write more personal essays. Keep a true and daily writer's journal. Get unaddicted to email. Organize my files. Write about my father's death. Learn to ski. I'd like to get off the bunny hill.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Waitressing? Typing? I might be lost. Or I might have kept my old job as a lab tech working with rats, and gone to graduate school in the sciences. I wouldn't be happy.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing always seemed so exotic and unattainable, something madly creative you had to be born into. A gift, like a great singing voice. And yet I wanted to craft something decent with words—a sentence, a paragraph, a newspaper article, a story, a book. I started very small, as a secretary in an advertising agency, writing bits of ad copy. I'm embarrassed to say how thrilling it was when they got printed.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I don't go to the movies; they overwhelm me, partly with emotion and partly, because I am faceblind and don't always recognize people, with confusion. I loved Greg Baxter's The Apartment, in which nothing exactly happens except that a man finds an apartment in an unnamed Eastern European city, but the voice, oh my God. He has a crisp, quiet attention to even the plainest details that's inordinately satisfying.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel, The Hoarder's Daughter.
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