A Conversation with Dylan Landis

By Cynthia Romanowski

Dylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a linked collection of stories surrounding the young Leah Levinson. The collection is one that strikes an impressive balance, as each story is all at once elegant, harrowing and jocular.

She is a writer who approaches her work with a passion and intensity that is easy to detect in her carefully crafted stories and also evident in the way she talks about writing. My first encounter with her thought-provoking insights on story telling and craft was at the 2011 AWP Conference where she spoke on a panel about linked collections and novels in stories. From that panel, I immediately knew she would be an ideal candidate for a TCR interview. Now, nearly a year later, I was finally able to catch her for a quick conversation. Here’s what she had to say about close reading, tapping into overlooked areas of expertise and self-revision:      

So I know you come from a journalism background—writing about interior design and, before that, medicine—can you talk a little bit about how those areas influence your work? Related to that, you’ve also talked about pulling information from different “jars of experience,” and how that creates authority in writing. Also, do you believe in the old adage "write what you know?”

E.L. Doctorow said, in a Paris Review interview: "How do you know what you know until you've written about it? Writing is knowing. What did Kafka know? The insurance business?"

To be precise, what I suggest is: "Don't just write what you know, write what you can imagine." And, of course, what you can research. Flaubert said he wrote as male and female, and that he also inhabited "the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered."

My mentor and teacher, Jim Krusoe, says people love reading about characters at work. (And of course it helps if they run into trouble while doing it.) I think most of us have areas of expertise we don't sufficiently value for fiction, expertise we can pull from those jars of memory and experience and give to our characters. From my journalism beats I have two deep jars: science, which I gave to Leah, who's in high school, and interior design, which I gave to her mother, Helen.

But I'm also an expert in being fifteen and applying tiny labels to glass vials of shampoo after tenth grade lets out. I'm an expert in working in a travel agency that sold phony charter flights, and having to learn all my co-workers' phony names on the first day. I'm an expert in men molesting girls—what woman isn't, in one way or another? Every writer has so much expertise to draw from, plus there's all that research begging to be done. It's a great springboard. Write what you know, then write what you can imagine.

Since you teach a class on close reading can you talk about how you approach this? I noticed on your blog that both you and a friend (back in 2010) were studying Away by Amy Bloom together; how did you go about that?

And can you further illustrate Jim Krusoe’s idea that certain works are “translucent?”

When I switched from journalism to fiction, at the age of forty, I only knew how to read for pleasure; I would devour Toni Morrison and Denis Johnson the same way I devoured mysteries. So I began to slow down and look at the sentences. I asked every book I read to teach me something. It was hard; I didn't know what I was looking for, and I didn't even know how to look. For a long time, I just read slowly, and I read prescriptively—whatever my mentors or teachers or published friends told me to read.

And over time I figured it out: you can read for pleasure with your right eye, so to speak, and for craft with your left. For me they are really the same thing.

I can't close-read every book, and I can't explain why. Only some books are "translucent," meaning you can see through the language to the craft—like seeing through a watch to the gears, I suppose. Winter's Bone is translucent. Toni Morrison's books are much less so, though I have learned something about flashbacks from Song of Solomon. Harriet Doerr's Stones for Ibarra is clear as glass. Denis Johnson is partially translucent; I close-read him for dialogue and for Flannery O'Connor's concept of grace.

I close-read Amy Bloom's Away with my friend Natalie Baszile, whose novel Queen Sugar was just bought by Viking Penguin. We analyzed the opening, sentence by sentence: what made it work? What gave it sweep? Where it did it zoom in and become personal? What made it concrete; what gave it authority? We moved loosely through the book, talking out of order about any part that moved us, whether because of action or character or language. It began as a project that I blogged about here and here, and became something freer than that. I remember driving in Washington, DC, with my telephone headset on, while Natalie read aloud from the book from San Francisco and talked about it. It was exhilarating.

Do you remember who you got the term “de-boning” from? How exactly did you go about “de-boning” Love Medicine by Louis Erdrich, or any of the other books that you’ve examined for structure?

Tara Ison, who writes novels, short stories and screenplays, prescribed Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace for me when I was looking for a structure for a complex novel that I'm still wrestling with. I took Alias Grace with me on a residency and mapped out each chapter until about thirty sheets of typing paper were spread across my studio floor, and when I called Tara to tell her what I'd done, she said, "You deboned it!"

Deboning has to be orderly. How will you extract an intact skeleton from the book? Will you make notes for each chapter on POV, tense, narrator reliability, length or number of sections, the way sections or stories are linked and how those links strengthen or change? How will you make your notes clear to yourself?

I deboned Love Medicine to learn about linked stories, a process I've also blogged about—many Post-its were involved—and, for structure and POV, I've done Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (which took about five readings) and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season. I draw quirky pictures of the books' skeletons that wouldn't make sense to anyone else. Deboning different books for structure made it easier to see structure through language as I read.

How can writers get better at self-editing and being more critical of their own work? Close reading seems to be a great place to start that process.   

Close-reading lets you bring the lessons of craft back to your own work; it gives you rigor. So does critiquing the work of others, in workshop or elsewhere. It's only by reading the work of other writers—where you have neutrality and distance—that you can eventually come back to your own writing with a reviser's eye.

Sometimes you hear students object that other stories in their workshop are below par. I say, bring it on. Learn to be a patient and useful critiquer; learn to say the one thing or ask the one question that will help another student return to her work with an excited, fresh start. Good critiquing leads to good self-revision, and revision is ninety percent of writing.

Do you think working on short stories is more beneficial to writers who are just starting rather than jumping into a novel?

Try instead to start with a character you're obsessed with, and follow him or her into trouble. At some point you'll discover whether you're writing a novel or a story. I'm not so sure you always get to choose the form up front—unless you're in a workshop with assignments. In which case, go ahead and write stories about the character you're obsessed with. Throw a problem at this person high up, and use it as a chance to learn more about him.

Personally, I started with a novel, Floorwork. Four agents offered to represent it, but no publisher took it. It's only been published in pieces, one of which was a finalist for a Pushcart Prize. Around the time I was struggling to finish it, I wrote my first short story—partly to figure out what a story was (I don't have an English degree or an MFA), and partly to learn more about my protagonist's teenage years. You could say I was obsessed with her; I ended up writing a linked collection, over five more years, about Leah Levinson and the friends she adored, the girls who bullied her, the girls she worshipped.

That was my first published book of fiction, Normal People Don't Live Like This.
Start with the character, and let the character tell you what to write.

I read an interview in which you explained how you went to Paris and kept a journal in the voice of your main character, Leah, and how that helped you finish the final story in the collection. What other exercises have helped you dive in and immerse yourself in your characters?

The travel journal was the best exercise, and I fell into it by chance. Everywhere I went in Paris, I kept a notebook in Leah's voice, writing only about what she would have experienced, craved, obsessed over. It truly was her journal (I don't keep one), though I may have written mostly in third. She worried about germs in public bathrooms; she tried to look rapt in the Louvre. She panicked over sleeping with the boy she was traveling with, she found ecstasy among the bones of the Catacombs, and she greatly desired the painter Eugene Delacroix while staring at a portrait of him. I came home with copious notes entirely in her voice, or in the right narrative voice: enough raw material for the longest story I've ever written.


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