Dylan Landis' 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 House, Best 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 Washington, D.C.

Short Story Collections

Normal People Don't Live Like This
(Persea Books, 2009)

reviewed by daniela I. Norris

Interview with Dylan Landis

The Short Review: 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.

TSR: Did you 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.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

DL: 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.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

DL: 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 surface. 
  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 this point.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

DH:  No, rather a process of endless polishing until my own mind, and ear, are satisfied.
   Well, 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.

TSR: Is there 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 measure. Relieved.

TSR: What are you working on now?

DL:  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. 

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

DL: Or reread, as it turns out: Famous Fathers, 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."

Olive Kitteridge, 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.
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