Dylan Landis’s debut novel, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, offers readers ten chapters that function together as a novel, as linked short stories, and stand-alone stories, creating flexibility in the perspective, tone, and chronologically pushing through large gaps of time in the protagonist, Leah’s, life. However, all of the stories are brought together with rich links that are thematic, geographical, image-based, and, also, linked by Landis’s evolving cast of characters. I spoke with Landis about the conception, growth, and release of her first novel, touching on her experiences writing the stories as well as how she interacts with the novel three years after its release.
Colleen Kolba: As a linked short story collection, your book functions as a novel, yet each story can be read individually, which makes me think of the revision process and how each story has to function as both a whole, yet also a part of a whole. What was your revision process like? The collection also covers a wide range of time and character. How did you decide what to include? How did you know you were finished?
Dylan Landis: Normal People’s technically a novel-in-stories, which implies something a little more fragmented than a novel—but stories are what I wrote, not chapters. I wrote them chronologically because that’s how I got to know my characters: as they grew up.
So when I stacked these pieces into a manuscript, it was as if I’d knitted a highly patterned scarf in 10 separate pieces without looking at the others as I worked. Not surprisingly, not all the patterning fit together. So in revision I unraveled, I reknitted, I stitched, I reworked. It still was a better method for me than if I’d had to chant, “book, book, book,” as I worked on individual stories.
I’d written eleven stories, ever, and included ten. The first just wasn’t good enough. It got published. It even won a competition. But one of the characters needed to be more sympathetic, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it for the book.
How did I know I was done? I wish I could say the book just felt flawlessly well-rounded. In truth Normal People would have been stronger with one more story on Rainey Royal. But I’ll be frank. I was nearing fifty. This was to be my first book of fiction. I knew I had a good manuscript and I pulled the trigger.
While the majority of your book comes from Leah’s perspective, the narrative moves through many different characters at many points in time. What was your “in” for “Normal People Don’t Live Like This”? Did a character come first, New York City as a setting, one story or part of a story that you had the urge to explore further?
Each story’s first image arrived alone—a character in a New York setting. For “Fire,” I had a clear vision of Leah in a classroom in a particular type of uber-liberal New York City private school, very much of its time, the early 1970s. Every story’s “in” was always twinned: character plus place. Rainey Royal and Bethesda Fountain. Leah Levinson and a Broadway jewelry store. I have to see place very clearly—down to the grout between the tiles, I sometimes say. The story might not open in that spot, but it’s often where I start to write.
As I read each story, I couldn’t help but notice how the gaps in time and hints at the “in-between events,” such as Leah’s father’s death, show what a well developed, full character Leah is. The more I knew about Leah, the more I felt you as an author knew almost everything about her, and that a lot of Leah stayed between the two of you. How do you get to know your characters?
Some critics took issue with those gaps between stories, especially the death of Leah’s father: how could something so momentous be skipped? I’ve since taken apart an extraordinary novel-in-stories, Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich, and understand now that gaps should not be haphazard spaces between the ending of one story and the launch of the next, but must be shapely and engineered. They are like a painter’s negative space; one must be in full control of them. And I was not there yet.
Some of Leah’s life stayed between the two of us because it was mundane and didn’t merit print. Sometimes I had to kill my darlings. And some of it I just didn’t know how to write—but at least I knew it.
I knew it, and left things out, if not always for noble reasons. It works because of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. Hemingway wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
There are many rich links apart from characters and place, such as coming of age, compulsions and mental illness, sex, sensual understanding of people and environment. Once you started noticing links, how did you strengthen those threads without forcing it? Or were the links intentionally crafted from the start?
The links began subconsciously, I swear, and were strengthened later, partly as I wrote the later stories but particularly as I revised. I didn’t sit down to do these things on purpose—quite the opposite; sometimes I wished I could break away from them, write something new.
I think it works best to strengthen, and lengthen, the threads in revision. You see what your subconscious mind has dredged up, what gifts you’ve been handed up from the basement of your mind, and start working with them, aiming for repetition and deepening. Ninety-five percent of this business is revision anyway. Students don’t always like that number, because the five percent of generating writing takes so long, they can’t bear the thought of multiplying that out. My early drafts are so bad you’d think my only real skill is typing. You’d have to wait a few months to discover it’s revision, too.
The narrative doesn’t look away from any parts of coming-of-age; it covers stealing, eating disorders, substance abuse, tackling molestation, teen pregnancy and miscarriage, and sex. And all of these events are rendered in a way that felt real to me, like it was memoir, rather than fiction. How do you deal with the inherent “danger” that writing poses? That you’ll reveal a secret about yourself, that people will assume that you are thinly veiling your life story by changing names and calling it fiction, that you will in some way get caught for the way you feel and experience the world on a personal, intimate level? What do you see as the “occupational hazards” of being a writer?
Most readers believe that most fiction is memoir. Aren’t we writing about being human, something we’ve all experienced? That confuses people, who then make assumptions about fiction-as-memoir, the way they think that the speaker in a poem must be the poet. Students often read the first story, “Jazz,” about Rainey being molested, and want to know if that happened to me. And I say, “Is there anyone in this room whose boundaries have not been crossed in some way?” Everyone starts nodding. “Couldn’t you fictionalize it?” Hopefully they get it. The day my parents sat me down to ask if a family friend had ever molested me was the day I knew I’d written a persuasive book. I think I had to swear on the life of my son that the answer was no.
Is it an occupational hazard? Only for every fiction writer I know.
While you unflinchingly “report” on events in Leah’s and the other character’s she interacts with lives, your book is distinctly literary fiction in the way that you paint a picture of the stories with words through Leah’s intense sensual experience of her environment, and the bias of the narrative perspective. How has your background in journalism affected your fiction writing?
Fiction needs a believable universe in which to take place, and that universe requires concrete detail—detail experienced through the senses. In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor quotes a sentence in Madame Bovary in which Emma plays a piano whose strings buzz, and across the village a bareheaded clerk in list slippers often stops to listen. Why bother writing in such detail about the clerk? Flannery writes, “Flaubert had to create a believable village to put Emma in. It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.”
I remember a newspaper editor who said, “Give me the color of the car and the name of the dog,” and that’s one thing journalism taught me: how to scavenge detail for the concrete, believable village.
Colleen Kolba lives and writes in Chicago, IL. She is currently completing her first novel, The Loser Clique Will Be Alright