debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don't Live Like This, was a finalist for the Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction. She has
published fiction in Bomb, Tin
American Nonrequired Reading
and has won a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the
Arts. A former journalist, Landis covered medicine for the New
Orleans Times-Picayune and
interior design for the Chicago
Tribune, and has
written ten books on decorating and other subjects. She lives in
with Dylan Landis
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Dylan Landis: I'm still revising!
Right in the book, before every reading, crossing out words—even
paragraphs—so strangely it's still a work in progress. But I'd say
five years to write ten stories. Then six months to finesse the
galleys, which Persea Books had to wrench out of my hands.
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
DL: The collection grew by
accident. I started writing stories to research my main character,
Leah Levinson—her adolescence, her parents, her sexuality, the
reckless girls she fears and reveres as a teenager—because she was
central to a novel that agents had loved, but publishers weren't
snapping up. After four or five stories and a few prizes I knew I was
wedded to a collection.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
It's got every story I ever wrote but one, written exactly in
order—except in the manuscript, I switched the first two. So you don't
meet Leah, the main character, first—you meet Rainey, who torments her
in school. It complicates things in a way I like.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
I envision a train that
picks the character up at one station and drops him off at another,
changed, or on the verge of change. He might not know it. But you do.
And somewhere on the
train tracks (sorry; I think in pictures) there's a weed growing that
sends down one of those long skinny roots you can't dig up with a
trowel—a taproot. A story has to snake a taproot down into
something murky and subconscious. It can't just travel along on the
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
Finally I subscribe to
Flannery O'Connor's belief that at some point in a story, there comes
a moment—often triggered by violence—when grace is extended to a
character. Again, the character may not recognize that moment; she
may not even believe in grace; or she may turn away from it. I have a
broad definition of grace, and a generous definition of violence. But
the more I read and write, the more I am a disciple of O'Connor on
No, rather a process of
endless polishing until my own mind, and ear, are satisfied.
wait. I do have the voice of one teacher in my head; he reads for me,
and his words run through my mind at the keyboard. His lessons
comprise a kind of litany: Am I writing toward a "hot spot"—a
place of deeper, almost mysterious meaning? If a scene with two
people isn't working, should I bring in a third? Are my characters
just standing there; does one of them need a task? Is it time for the
task to go wrong? I suppose I write for him, too, though I don't
worry about what he'll think of the work until the last revision, or
I'd be paralyzed. He's Jim
Krusoe, author of the novel Erased, and he teaches a
fiction workshop at Santa Monica College.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
DL: Do you wish the book
had more moments of human connection, of love?
Does it feel too dark to you?
TSR: How does
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
DL: Happy. Grateful beyond
What are you working on now?
A novel about Mary
Mallon, an Irish cook who was working for a rich Park Avenue family
in March 1907 when a sanitary engineer tracked her down and accused
her of spreading typhoid. She would spend the rest of her life, much
of it in quarantine, insisting on her cleanliness and her innocence
and resisting what the papers called her, which was Typhoid Mary.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
DL: Or reread, as it turns out:
by Pia Z. Ehrhardt. These empathic stories keep proving why it's
crucial for a writer to slow down for emotional discomfort and just be
with it. That's where the payoff and all the dark beauty lies. I also
love the way a buildup of spare, almost stark sentences will be
followed by a line of heartstopping description—a father dropping his
hand to his daughter's rear end "like I was a bronze and he wanted to
warm the metal."
by Elizabath Strout. Strout does an extraordinary job of making the
reader feel deep emotion without splashing emotional words on the page;
and for letting Olive, a difficult and often ungiving woman, emit
light, especially at the end. On the second read, just as moving as the
first, I began unweaving paragraphs to see how she does it.
Stones for Ibarra,
by Harriet Doerr. I learn more about writing fiction every time I
reread this book. How, and why, to make a simpler sentence. How to
write about landscape without being dull. How to ramp up tension. How
to write without adjectives until the burst of an adjective becomes
essential. How little actually belongs in dialogue. I don't know why,
but Stones for Ibarra works for me as a writing textbook cloaked as a work of fiction.