A Conversation with Dylan Landis: Rainey Royal “comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls”


Dylan_Landis

Interview by Ellie Gaines

Special Contributor to Read Her Like an Open Book 

 

During the last semester of my senior year in high school, I did an internship with the novelist Jessica Anya Blau. I was beyond excited when I saw that on the long to-do list that Jessica made for me was a request that I read two galleys (Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal and Katie Crouch’s Abroad) and interview the authors. Reading a book that wasn’t out yet seemed a lot more exciting than organizing bookshelves (that was also on the list!), and to be honest, it made me feel pretty special. And getting the opportunity to interview these writers truly thrilled me.

From the opening pages of Rainey Royal I fell in love with Landis’s prose. When I finished the book, I went to Jessica’s bookshelves and borrowed Landis’s debut novel-in-stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Over the next two days, I devoured the stories every chance I got. Here’s the conversation I had with Dylan Landis.

 

In your first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, we see the characters Rainey and Leah. What made you decide to continue on with these characters in Rainey Royal, and make a whole book dedicated to Rainey? Where did you get the original idea for this character?

               Rainey was one of the most compelling characters in Normal People Don’t Live Like This—a school bully, a radiantly sexual girl with serious troubles at home. But after the first two stories she vanished, because I was focusing on Leah, who had troubles of her own, and also because this was my first book of fiction and I didn’t know much about structure. My mentor and teacher, the novelist Jim Krusoe, suggested I add another Rainey story, but I was impatient to have a book out and thought my manuscript was finished. That unwritten story left a little hole in the book that readers often pointed out—”What happened to Rainey?”

And that became the opening for the new book, Rainey Royal. The fact is that I missed her and she never stopped talking to me. She comes from my own lifelong fascination with mean girls. I grew up not just wanting to hide from these girls; I wanted simultaneously to be them. They seemed so beautiful and fearless and free; they seemed to have some knowledge about the world and its mysteries, which I took to mean sex. I wanted to stand near them, just out of their sight. I wanted to absorb something magical from them. Later on I became a bit wild like them, but I never became the real thing. I write about them instead.

Normal People Don’t Live Like This is composed of connected short stories while Rainey Royal is more novelistic in that each story centers around Rainey, and we move forward in time. Why did you choose to do it one way or another?

All I knew, moving from story to story in Normal People, was that Leah would get older. She grows from twelve to twenty-two. I circled her life, pausing to write about a conflict here, a problem there. That circling and pausing is what makes it more of a linked story collection, though because she matures it’s possible to see it as a novel-in-stories.

Writing a novel, or something closer to a novel, felt like a natural next step, a more fluid way to tell a story that took place over fourteen years.. I tried to stay conscious of a narrative arc, aware of specific problems that had to persist and either blow up or resolve as the book progressed. The novelist Benjamin Percy calls these problems “flaming chainsaws.” They have to keep recurring, and they have to move forward each time. So a chapter may stand on its own and may be published as a short story—I was thrilled when the story “Trust” won an O. Henry Award—but if the flaming chainsaws are juggled well through the entire book, you should end up with something that has the weight and the arc of a novel.

In Normal People Don’t Live Like This we see a few short stories that revolve around Leah and her mom. The fact that Leah’s mom is anorexic adds an interesting tension to Leah’s relationship with her mom. Why did you decide to have Leah’s mom be anorexic? Did you want to relate her lack of food to the lack of connection she has with her daughter? A starvation in two senses?

That link between anorexia and emotional starvation came straight from the basement, the writer’s subconscious. So it wasn’t a decision but rather a discovery that Helen was anorexic—though that word wasn’t so much in use in the 1970s. We just called it dieting. You put your finger on it exactly, though: a starvation in two senses. I didn’t think about it while I wrote, but in revision I saw the starvation as being Helen’s lack of connection, not just to Leah, whom she genuinely loves, but to her own self. It always intrigued me that when Helen first gets sensually involved with a man, she takes a bite of food from a spoon he holds.

Rainey Royal begins with Rainey making connections between Saint Catherine of Bologna and herself. When you started writing did you know that Saint Catherine would be woven throughout the book? Or did you write about Rainey and then discover their similarities? Why did you believe it was important for Rainey to relate to such an unusual character like a saint from the times of Columbus and Queen Isabella?

I had a moment of inspiration, while making notes for the first story, that Rainey—who loves libraries—would look up the patron saint for artists. And of course she’d make the connection personal, and call her Cath. To Rainey, Cath is not some ancient, inaccessible religious figure; she is a chick just like herself, a girl who can draw like crazy, and whose mother is out of the picture, and who must have problems with grown men, because don’t all teenage girls have problems with men? If you’re Rainey, isn’t that part of the territory? I knew right away, reading Saint Catherine of Bologna’s bio, that she would make a great sister-protector for Rainey, who desperately needs one.

In Rainey Royal we follow Rainey from the age of fourteen until she is in her mid-twenties. Is there something important about those years particularly in a girl’s life? Is there something important about a girl’s relationship with her father in those years?

Those are the coming-of-age years; they’re packed with emotional growth and pain. My memories of those years are the most vivid I have, more vivid than yesterday’s. So it’s good, rich earth to turn over and pick through when I’m looking for psychological material. And I think by the time a girl is fourteen or fifteen her father has taught her, by example or by neglect, how she should be with men, and how they should be with her. If that’s a lesson she has to unlearn, as Rainey does, she’s going to have a struggle on her hands.

Tina is Rainey’s best friend and is very protective of her. She also does the one thing that scares Rainey the most, when she develops a relationship with Howard. Can you explain the love/hate dynamic between the two girls? Do you think all female friendships are double sided?

Adult female friendships can be utterly devoted in the most straightforward way, but in adolescence I remember them as passionate and sometimes two-hearted. There’s a moment where Tina thinks about how she and Rainey are so close, “she doesn’t get why God made them both girls,” and a contrasting moment where Rainey thinks about how, with Tina, she “always has to mention the one thing that hurts; it’s like nudging a loose tooth.” Those are the two hearts, the urge to push away and the urge to fuse. It’s not always that complicated, but as a writer I’d rather explore both aspects of female friendship.

Both of your books are centered around the 1970s.  Why did you choose this time? Do you think your stories would be different if you set them in modern day times?

               The era chose me. I was writing about teenagers, and that was the time of my adolescence, the decade when emotional memory, and memory of visual and auditory detail, were strongest. If the stories were set now I’d be consulting the internet and my friends’ teenage children for details and veracity, and it’s possible things might not feel as true.

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