Accordions, Stepladders and Salvation (New Orleans Review 2010)
When I first met Dylan Landis in 2009, I learned that she’d lived in New Orleans and had married into a well-known New Orleans family, the Baquets. I told her I’d just been to Lil Dizzie’s (her brother-in-law Wayne Baquet’s restaurant) the week before and eaten eggs over medium with a side of fried catfish. I’d published my first short story collection and she would soon publish hers. We started yakking about the city and our books and fifty other things, and we haven’t stopped since.
PZE: NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS is a collection of linked stories, and many of them follow a sensitive and observant young woman, Leah, and her astute, intense, rail-thin mother, Helen. Were you ever tempted to write these stories as a novel? How early in the process of writing these stories did you know they would be linked?
DL: I began writing stories to solve a novel. The novel came first, and was giving me trouble. I needed to know more about Leah, its central character. She was twenty-two and seemed to have no past, and I thought, why not write stories about her adolescence? Plus I needed to learn what a story was. I’d never studied writing, so I spent months listening to stories on tape. It felt like standing inside them while they revolved around me, like giant models of molecules, and revealed things I couldn’t yet articulate–that a story had to be about something other than its plot; that a character had to change. Over five or six years I wrote eleven stories. I couldn’t not link them—I only had this one girl and her people to write about. Characters find me very slowly.
The Tao of Mean
PZE: You know mean girls like the back of your hand. Reading these stories took me back to pain exacted by the Hattiesburg cheerleaders and how they’d stop talking when I walked in the bathroom, or blow me off at dances while they chatted up my boyfriend. I wonder: what did girls like this have that we wanted? And what do we learn from them that’s useful? One of the many things I admire about your collection is how vividly you show the generation before i.e. the girls and their mothers, as a way to deepen our empathy and our understanding of where these behaviors come from.
DL: I loved the girls who knew things, dangerous things. Sex and drugs and talking in code; adult things; secret and illegal things. I sought out intimacies with knowing girls, older girls, who could unlock certain mysteries. I wasn’t exactly mean, but I did turn around and act out this knowing role for other, more innocent friends. What the mean girls teach us is that trouble is fascinating, and everyone is vulnerable.
PZE: A searing example of this danger is in the opening story, “Jazz,” where we see Rainey, a beautiful, bully girl who thinks she’s in control, being sexually abused by an older man, and how she instinctively soldiers through his violence, registers the power shift and that the seduction’s been taken out of her hands. You write, “She wants to set fires and she wants to control how they burn.” Everything she does in later stories makes good, sad sense.
DL: Vulnerabilities are passed down, and I don’t mean genetically. Perhaps the mean girls teach us that everyone has the potential to be saved—but that would come long after the story ends, and I don’t know if it’s true-true or Flannery-O’Connor-true.
PZE: Have the friends you knew growing up read your collection? Do they know you are a writer?
DL: I don’t know what people know. I don’t revisit the past much. No reunions. I was a different person. My friends now are mostly writers and poets I’ve met in the past thirteen years, and some journalists I met earlier.
What about you? Do the Hattiesburg cheerleaders know you wrote a book?
PZE: I’m not sure what the Hattiesburgers know about my writing. I’d dearly love for them to buy and read my book.
Escalation & getting unstuck
DL: My copy of FAMOUS FATHERS is full of stickies and they tend to mark spots where things first look inevitable, and dangerous. In “Running the Room,” I’ve noted lines where I first believe that Beck, the narrator, will follow her 57-year-old mother into adultery—when she slides her mother’s wedding ring over her own, or tells Bob, her classmate in restaurant school, You can fill my bathtub with hollandaise. It sounds like a blameless comment about a sauce, yet it’s so provocative. Or in “How it Floods,” after spelling out the escalating moves she makes on a married man, the narrator goes on: When I was young, my dad taught me about men by telling me how he was with women. Her dad’s moves, too, escalate.
This is a long way of asking: Do you consciously think about inevitability when you write about characters in trouble?
PZE: Yes, inevitability, but also patterns and repetition compulsion, and revisiting the parent’s mistakes, and hopefully getting unstuck.
In “Running the Room,” the daughter Beck vicariously enjoys the mother’s courtship, and returns to the feeling of being treated—even for an evening—like you’re new. She flirts with Bob, but she’s not going to bed with him. I was preoccupied with adultery in Famous Fathers, but not for the sex. Rather, as a way to echo the mother’s life, or empathize with the father’s affair, or to understand a father’s objectification of a daughter. I’m hoping that at the end of each of the stories, there’s an unseen decision that’s been aided by some small decent act.
DL: Wait! This is fascinating. Apparently I misinterpreted what might happen after the end of “Running the Room.” When Beck tells her husband from the bar, “How about you go to sleep and I turn off the bat phone?” I thought she’d stay out all night with Bob, physically cheat with him. But now I reread and think: all she is doing is touching Bob’s hand and wrist. All she is doing is taking a walk with him. It’s just a moment of feeling new.
I think we bring our own baggage and alarm bells to everything we read. Most women tell me that Rainey Royal, in my story “Jazz,” is a rape or abuse victim, but some believe she’s in control, even though Rainey is 13 and the guy is 39 and Rainey’s saying “Stop.” One woman in a bookstore told me,”Oh, she knows exactly what she’s doing.” Who was it who said, “Nobody reads the book you write?”
“Getting unstuck” gives a story loft, doesn’t it? It’s why your endings often feel to me like they are opening out. I felt it strongly in the last sentences of “The Longest Part of the Day,” in which Jilly, who is 15, has run off for the day with Jimmy, who is 20 and “remedial” and works at Piggly Wiggly. And she is jerking him off (rather sweetly, saying “Take your time”) at the top of a water tower in Beaumont, Texas.
She looks out at fast-food restaurants, gas stations, at Cracker Barrel with fifty toy-sized rocking chairs in front. There’s a Motel 6, a Super 8, a Target with a giant parking lot. It feels safer up there than on the ground. Places are still open and every one of them has an electric sign telling you who they are, like they want to be sure you know if you need something, there’s enough.
More light, more love
PZE: There’s a story, “Excelsior,” where you move Leah’s exacting, interior decorator mother, Helen, into a welfare women’s hotel, let her wear Wrangler jeans, and gift her with the intuitive building manager, Osiris. “This is a good thing, a corner room,” said Osiris, and stopped at the blind end of the hall. (and later) “You look like a woman in need of privacy.” The story’s doors keep opening into music, fragrant food, sumptuous fabrics. It’s lovely that you have the mother make curtains as she comes out, with Osiris’ help, from behind them. Did forgiveness come naturally to you in your collection?
DL: It came with revision. I began to see that my early stories, as I was learning to write fiction, implied easy blame: chilly, starving mother (Helen) creating high anxiety in her daughter (Leah); lax, creative mother (Bonita) creating slack promiscuity in her two daughters (Oleander and Pansy). I was grateful to have revision-time to complicate things—to soften Helen’s angularity, let her quote her daughter’s story about John Lennon, let her find her artistic side, have her touch Leah’s face and pity Bonita. Some readers find her the most interesting character. I hope my characters have unexpected moments of connection. Honestly, if I were writing the book today I’d have more forgiveness, more art, more light, more love. Whether that love works out or not.
I’m not surprised you ask about forgiveness; your stories have it too. I’m looking at this moment in your story, The Longest Part of the Day, in which Jilly’s father, Al, has been accusing Cam, the mother, of being an inadequate mom—and suddenly shifts gears.
“I worry about her when she’s with you,” Al says. “And when she’s with me too.”
And then Cam takes a drag of Al’s cigarette, and a span is built across their antagonistic divorce, and even across the fact that Al knows Cam is sleeping with his brother. A small, decent act.
PZE: Tell me about the novel you are writing. What’s working? What’s giving you fits? (Notice how I don’t say, “What’s it about?”)
DL: Don’t you love the way writers give each other that kind of space—no “what’s it about”? So much respect is inherent in that space. An unwritten novel is like an egg without a shell; if you talk about it wrong, or get an unsupportive response, something vital gets lost.
The novel I’m writing now is about a hardworking woman named Mary Mallon, who was in a great deal of trouble in New York City in 1907—she was about to be quarantined on a tiny island for unknowingly spreading disease. What’s working is, oh my God, the complexities underlying her story: guilt, innocence, power, sexuality, cleanliness both literally and as a metaphor. But a lot of that is still working in my head. It’s like there’s a neon sign over my laptop flashing “historic novel” and I just want it to say “novel.”
What’s giving me fits is voice. I’m not trying to fake an Irish brogue—this is my fresh take on her story—but Mary was a serious and highly paid cook, and I can barely boil an egg; she was Catholic, I’m Jewish. With my science background it’s easier to channel the doctors who pursued her. I made her voice 3d person and am moving around in a big accordion outline, shifting things around. I wish I had a six-foot ladder and could look down at it all.
Structure: squeezebox to dining table
PZE: It sounds challenging and wonderful. I love the visual of an accordion outline. There’s a lot of music to be made out of a squeezebox.
DL: I made my accordion during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA gave me a huge studio, and on the floor I laid out many sheets of typing paper on which I’d clumsily outlined Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Tara Ison, a novelist and screenwriter, had told me that Atwood’s novel held the key to a structure I should examine for my Mary novel, and I needed the floor to see it, maybe because I’m so ignorant of structure. I overlaid my own scenes and ideas over the scribbled vertebrae of Alias Grace. I taped paper bones together into, I don’t know, a skeleton? A bridge? A mess? You could barely walk in there.
PZE: You could step up on a ladder! You just need floor space and good eyesight. Needing an aerial view makes perfect sense to me.
DL: That’s really what I was striving for. I spent days on my hands and knees—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Then I began typing a loose list of scenes and chapters and little inserts in very rough order, with page breaks everywhere. If I wanted to stop and write dialogue, I wrote it. If I wanted to spend four days writing an insanely long scene, I did that. It was my accordion and no one was watching.
After four weeks I walked out with 145 pages, some accidentally blank, many with one sentence: “Write this scene here.” I’m still strangely terrified to look at the whole thing. It might collapse.
Story drafts aren’t sacred things
PZE: You were part of a successful writing workshop in Santa Monica. As you write this novel, do you miss the feedback? Do you think you’d be proceeding more quickly if you were showing up with chapters?
DL: Probably. And I miss breathing the same air as other writers. Jim Krusoe’s a great teacher (and novelist), and quite a few books have come out of his workshop. It’s loosely structured. You can bring work or not. I’m Miss Inhibited—if something isn’t close to polished, I won’t read it or show it.
So if I had to show up regularly with chapters, they’d be half-baked and I might not go.
But you would, wouldn’t you? Aren’t you part of a super-supportive group that came together with a lot of care, and meets online? At what stage do you start showing work?
PZE: I’ve been a part of the Zoetrope community for over ten years, and inside of that community I’ve come to depend on twenty or so writers who read my work at early stages and allow me to read theirs. I also benefitted from workshops. In graduate school, with Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison, and then in San Francisco with Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian who edit Narrative Magazine. I crave feedback on my drafts, before I start to second guess myself and squeeze the air out of sentences. What I learned from Barthelme is that story drafts aren’t sacred things, and sometimes they need to be roughed up, turned on their heads, which keeps the process exciting and improvisational and hopeful, at least for me. Also, I’ll go anywhere, anytime to break the isolation of writing.
DL: It’s like you’re writing with all the windows open, letting the air in. What a freeing word, improvisational. Support is such a gift. I’ll talk a story or a book through, early on and at certain stages, with writers who will ask critical questions or make suggestions without trying to shape the idea. Jim Krusoe, Tara Ison and Judith Freeman have been incredibly helpful this way. But drafts rarely feel improvisational to me. They feel clumsy and false, until they aren’t. My job is the opposite of yours—while you’re trying not to squeeze the air out, I’m trying to get mine to inhale. Sometimes I’ll show an advanced snippet to Krusoe or to my agent, Joy Harris, just to see if I’ve got it: a new character’s voice, for example. I trust them hugely. A few times they’ve said a voice isn’t clear, or nothing happens in a chapter—and I junk it. I feel dumb for a day, and get back to work. They were right.
Surge and ambush
When I first met you, you were talking about a novel called Speeding in the Driveway—and suddenly you emerged from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in a great surge with a different novel working, called Surprise Valley, and also, I think, a memoir brewing. What happened during this incredibly fecund month of November when one novel yielded to another? And how did you make the intensity of NaNoWriMo work for you?
PZE: What you call fecund, I call skittish. I came to the place in the first novel where the father has to die, and I pulled up. NaNoWriMo threw down their challenge, gave me a target: 60,000 words in a month, but you make a promise to not fold in old work, so I started a second novel. It felt good to write a daily word count, unbridled, with the internal editor ignored, although it’s exhausting and there’s no time to think about structure or how you’re going to deal with the trouble you’re making for yourself in December.
The memoir I started six months ago was an ambush, but I think we pause our work for good reasons. I went back and wrote – and thought – about my first marriage, something I’d avoided doing for thirty years, and about my fractured relationship with my father, which will help me finish the first novel, I think. I’m back into writing it, on the other side of the father’s death, stumbling around with the characters.
DL: What does it means to be stumbling around with the characters?
PZE: By stumbling, I mean putting myself in the character’s shoes, since I’m the one who thought up the trouble they’re in. I’ve been writing the book organically, which I don’t recommend. There’s no outline, but I think there’s a through line, an arc. I started it pre-Katrina, then rewrote it post-Katrina, and now I’m thinking there’s so much that’s been written about flooded houses and mold and displacement and starting over, I probably need to take Katrina out of it and write about how we live now in New Orleans, five years later. Do NOT let me work the BP spill into this book, or I’ll never finish. Kick me if I do.
DL: I love this Jayne Anne Phillips quote from Narrative magazine, on writing organically:
I don’t make a plan about anything. My books occur to me in the language itself. The first voice that occurred to me in Lark and Termite was Lark’s. The beginning of the book was her line about bringing Termite out and putting him in his chair. It was her talking about him. She was teaching me who he was.
Why does a modern-day New Orleans writer whose city’s been profoundly affected by two recent disasters feel the need to strip them from her fiction? Especially in light of 9/11, I’m really interested in this.
PZE: I’m not stripping Katrina, but there’s a narrative distance five years later, a history, and I’m still deciding when after the disaster I will set the novel. It’s a fact of life for those of us living here. I want to get at the tensions that are at play now.
DL: You’ve written an essay about load-bearing sentences. What are they and how do you arrive at such a sentence in a story, or recognize it? It’s something I can only sense intuitively, which may not be sufficient, and I think my writing would be stronger if I could say, there, that’s my load-bearing sentence right there, and carve away the adipose tissue surrounding it.
PZE: Load bearing sentences come out of drafting, when I’m not thinking yet about where I’m going. There’s what I mean to write about, and what I don’t want to write about, and these reticent sentences pop out before I have a chance to quell them or cut them. They’re not better written sentences, and they don’t disqualify the other sentences, but they redistribute the story’s weight. They keep the narration honest. Or more honest.
Writing it down for later
DL: I’d love to hear about your notebook. I own one for first-draft writing or research notes, but it’s not personal; it’s not a journal. It’s just there if I need paper. How do you use yours? Do you work in it daily; is it ever personal? And I suppose most important: how is it useful in terms of your essays or fiction?
PZE: I always had diaries when I was a kid, and now I always have a Moleskine in my purse. It’s like my security blanket. If I’m waiting for a friend who’s running late, I can put my head in it. And it helps me remember details I so easily now forget. Also, I am determined to slow down my handwriting and make it pretty again, but that’s not going well. Things I write in there can end up in stories or personal essays. Sometimes it’s just list making and me telling myself how perfect my life would be if I lost ten pounds. They used to be more personal, when I had more to hide.
Where do you jot down the things you overhear, or record the unexpected bits that catch your eye when you’re not looking? How good is your memory?
DL: I get memory white-outs, and probably write fiction partly to fill in the gaps. But I guess I don’t record the unexpected bits. I write down research notes and phone numbers. Two days ago I did write down something down said by an artist I know: He was sorting through canvasses he’d painted, trying to weed some out. It was painful to part with his own work, he said—”Each one is like a vial of blood.” Some non-artist character of mine will probably utter that.
That paper-scrap vanished. And when I found my next short-story idea I didn’t write that down either. And you know, as I say this, it feels wrong. I think there urgently needs to be more notebook-writing in my life.
Why are all my answers wordier than yours?
PZE: That’s your imagination. Have you written your Mary novel more than one way? Changed POV or the starting point?
DL: Everything’s still fluid. I wrote Mary’s voice in first and third person, discarded lots of dreck, and chose third. I wrote chapters from at least five POVs, including a dying child’s, before Judith Freeman suggested sticking with three. I trust her, plus Jim Krusoe said nothing was happening in the dying-child chapter, so out it went. I tried opening with Mary, but the antagonist was more riveting. Now he opens the book, especially after Tara Ison pointed out antagonists can do that—we meet Iago before we meet Othello. Thank God for writer-friends.
And finally I tried opening the story chronologically before deciding to open in the middle, in 1907, which requires some graceful flashbacks. For inspiration and instruction on flashbacks, I’ll look at Amy Bloom’s novel Away and maybe Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu. Both Bloom and Suri are very fluid about time and POV. Amy Bloom is the queen of flash-forwards; I love that.
Judgment, despair, beauty, flow
You have a nonjudgmental attitude toward your process that unleashes both flow and material for you, I think, and lets you go mining deep where the walls press in close. You can’t guess how much I admire that. I emailed you about despair recently—mine—and you wrote back, “Writing doesn’t make me despair, but I do tend to start other things when I get stuck in what I’m doing.” When I get stuck, it’s because I’m convinced of failure. Instead of trying something else, I revise like a maniac. It’s like polishing something that’s already shiny; it’s like obsessive handwashing. But you trust the stoppages; you turn them into detours, like the memoir, which became an underground spring for another book. Tell me where that trust comes from. Did someone show faith in you early on? How did you come to be consciously “kind to yourself” as a writer, as you put it in the email?
PZE: I feel safety in movement, in attempts and failures, in taking the work from darkness to sun. My parents are both highly critical and pretty caught up in their own music, but I had great teachers who listened to the work, and now colleagues and readers who want to read what I write. Writing’s my way to be heard but also to think.
What do you consider failure? Because pretty much everything you say and write is interesting, intelligent, thought-provoking. Who are you writing for? Is writing stories and books terribly different for you than letter writing, and talking out loud?
DL: Writing stories and books (and essays) feels like chipping sentences out of stone. It’s not natural. But failure? Feeling like a piece of writing will fail is a deep-blue writing mood that I often experience, but don’t confuse with real failure. Real failure has nothing to do with rejection, or how long it takes to write a book, or whether the book finds a publisher. Failure is not writing. Success is staying at the desk over time, caring about craft, staying part of the writing community. I truly believe that. I just struggle periodically with writer’s despair and there is no cure for that but hearing another writer say, “Yeah, me too,” and getting back to work.
PZE: Which leads me to my last question. Throughout NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS you play with different ideas of beauty. Earlier on in the title story, the mother thinks, “ . . . a well decorated room was a fact of beauty, indisputable, the way a rose is indisputable.” In the last story, “Delacroix,” the daughter, Leah, is in Paris with a boyfriend she will not be sleeping with, deep in thought: “ . . . her mind (was) on another, more embedded kind of beauty: the neurons themselves, spidery of axon, tendrilled of dendrite, misfiring to a symphony no one hears.” Were you conscious of how the understanding of beauty arcs inside your characters? Did the fact of beauty change for you after writing this book?
DL: I was conscious of so little, Pia—but definitely of this one arc. Because I do think art can ultimately save us, one at a time. Helen, the mother, comes to understand that true “decoration” is something deeper and more compelling than a well-arranged room. It involves mystery, and resonance, and elements of nature. Her understanding of beauty deepens; it begins to approach art.
For Leah, beauty is the lens through which she sees biology—by which I mean life—from a miscarried fetus to misfiring nerve cells. That sense of scientific reverence prepares her for that moment in the Louvre at 19 when she falls in love with the portrait of Eugene Delacroix and has her sensual awakening. She will, in fact, sleep with that boyfriend.
I came to see beauty as one path to art, writing this book, and also to see beauty as embracing what may at first appear ugly or dark. Maybe this is why I try to work every day, even when my own work feels so inadequate.
Art is salvation, no matter where you find it.
Dylan Landis is the author of the debut novel-in-stories Normal People Don’t Live Like This (Persea Books), which made Newsday‘s Top Ten Books of 2009. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among other awards. A former reporter (she covered medicine for the Times-Picayune), she lives in Washington, DC, and is writing a novel.