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Details Are My Weakness: Michael Kimball Interviews Dylan Landis

Details Are My Weakness: Michael Kimball Interviews Dylan LandisDylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This (Persea), a debut novel-in-stories that has won praise from Vanity Fair, More, and The Los Angeles Times. Her fiction has appeared in Bomb, Tin House, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others, and she has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and other awards. Normal People was a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Booklist calls the writing “delicious.”

Michael Kimball: There are some great opening lines in Normal People Don’t Live Like This. One of the most striking opens the book: “It is not true that if a girl squeezes her legs together she cannot be raped.” My favorite is this: “Angeline Yost keeps a switchblade in her sock.” Could you talk a little about your thinking behind those opening lines and whether your journalism background comes into play with them?

Dylan Landis: First lines were hard to write for newspaper stories, and they’re harder in fiction. What goes on behind them is too graceless and accidental to be called “thinking” till I’m in deep, deep revision.

Like Angeline’s switchblade in “Rana Fegrina.” Boy, did I not see Angeline coming—I’d been coaxing Leah Levinson, my main character, into a classroom with two girls she fears and idolizes in a story called “Fire.” While that was going nowhere in five different ways, I opened my New York Times one morning to an article on a book called Slut! by Leora Tanenbaum, about how every high school designates one girl as the slut and she can’t escape the rep, even if she’s a virgin, even if it’s a lie. Angeline just burst through that newspaper and into my story, headed for a collision with Leah. I began writing a litany of ubiquitous slut rumors, and while writing the litany I remembered the switchblade. I was in sixth grade, zoned for a violent public junior high school in New York, when my mother came home and said she’d heard one girl threaten another at the school bus stop—”Don’t fuck with me. I got a knife in my sock.”

Pure Angeline.

So a lot of molecules had to bump into each other before I found that opening line, or any other first line. If I’d had eight arms, I couldn’t have typed fast enough that morning. But the story still took nine months. Journalism is fantastic preparation for researching, and for noticing key details, but even with deadline training I just can’t rush fiction out of the basement of the brain.

Kimball: Journalism as preparation for noticing key details, I like that. And you have fantastic details throughout Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Could you talk about key details as they relate to fiction—how you think about them, what work you want those details to do?

Landis: The novelist Jim Krusoe talks in his Santa Monica workshop about “enabling details,” the one or two quirky, often out-of-place details that let the reader instantly visualize the entire person or setting.

A woodstove stained from tobacco spit stood in the center of the room … A variety of bird wings were pinned to the wall.

–Chris Offutt, “Barred Owl,” from the collection Out of the Woods

It’s a stringent requirement to place on every detail—but it’s so freeing. No more pileups of adjectives. No clichés. A hunting cabin with antlers over the hearth is invisible because you’ve seen it untold times, but when Offutt shows you those singular tobacco stains and bird wings, you see this cabin in all its particularity; you see a hunting cabin as if for the first time.

In my mother’s hand was a fishing rod, and she was wearing a green fishing vest and pearls—a touch I’d always liked.

–Jim Krusoe, from Erased

An enabling detail tells you something about the person being described, or the person doing the noticing, or both. This can be subliminal, or telegraphed loud and clear. It can also be funny.

Details are my weakness. I spend forever excavating them; I fall in love with them; they’re the darlings I have to murder in revision. Just once I would like a permission slip from God that says, “Honey, it is okay to just write that an old woman has dementia.”

Leah’s grandmother, Sophia Rose, washed and dried her dinner plates, stacked them in the oven and set it on broil. She hid her pearls in the toilet tank, where they coiled under a rubber flap and created a perpetual flush.

–Dylan Landis, “Rose,” from Normal People Don’t Live Like This

Kimball: Your details do things other than give the reader character, though. There is a scene in “Underwater” where Angeline has a miscarriage in the toilet and Leah reaches into the toilet for it: “Slippery fish. Hanging half-deep in the water is a small, complicated clot, streaming veils of thin tissue.” Could you talk about what you were after with those descriptive details?

Details Are My Weakness: Michael Kimball Interviews Dylan LandisLandis: You’re right—details like this go to voice. Lynn Freed says, “Voice is the thumbprint of a piece,” and if your details are enabling and particular, if your cadences are interesting because you think about sentence structure, and if, finally, you try to eliminate every unnecessary word, you might end up with voice. I don’t know, but I think so.

A good detail always comes back to character, though, doesn’t it? Leah’s the one reaching for the fetus, so whatever she and I notice has to be in character. She’s precise, scientific, and subconsciously spiritual, and that dictates how she takes in the world.

So I’d guess my subconscious fed me the fish as a symbol of Christ or eternal life, never mind that Leah and I are both Jewish; and through many revisions I made the clot strangely beautiful—with those streaming veils—because Leah sees beauty in cells and dissected frogs and the ways that nature forms itself.

Say it was Angeline looking into the toilet—an impossibility, she never would. Trust me, she wouldn’t think “slippery fish.” She wouldn’t perceive delicate veils of tissue. She’d see gore. And all my details would be tinged with violence—which would tell you a lot about Angeline, whose stepfather isn’t afraid to leave bruises when he beats her.

Kimball: The details definitely go to voice, but there’s also something a bit shocking for the reader here. Reaching into a toilet would engage the disgust mechanism for most, so I’m also wondering what you were after in portraying these startling details so beautifully.

Landis: You’re right: I was worried that editors would think I was twisted and that readers would turn away. I truly didn’t want Leah to fish for that fetus. But moments of grace are usually precipitated by moments of violence, and miscarriage is a form of violence, and so I let her reach. It was in character. I also believe that if alarm bells go off, warning you not to write a scene, you need to write that scene.

I began researching miscarriages and 14-week fetuses, which is harder than it sounds. Some of what’s online, if you scrutinize the language, is tinged with awe. It looks like science but it’s subliminally reverent. I ended up suspicious of everything, even wondering if photos had been enhanced.

Then I realized that Leah’s perception of the fetus-details mattered more than the fetus-details themselves. Janet Fitch once said, “A character’s reaction to events is more important than what happens.” So I might not know if you could clearly see the fetus’s eyelids, but I could make the point of view so intensely Leah’s that more, not less, information is conveyed, and strict accuracy becomes almost moot.

Those could be eyelids, fused shut beneath the veiling. She decides they are. She imagines them lit by the ghostly blue glow of blood. Everything in this world that he needs to see, he sees.

–Dylan Landis, “Underwater,” from Normal People Don’t Live Like This

I’m still amazed by how spiritual it is—the blue is unoxidized blood, but later I learned that blue is the Virgin Mary’s color. Subconsciously I may have sensed it from visiting churches and looking at art. The unearthly internal light, the all-seeing vision: it’s Christ-like. That wasn’t deliberate; it resulted from a mix of subconscious flow of concrete imagery, followed by rigorous cutting, over and over, back and forth.

Kimball: So what other scenes did you write that another writer might have been warned away from writing?

Landis: No matter what scene you find in Normal People that looks troubling to write—and people ask about everything from the molestation-rape in “Jazz” to Helen’s starvation to Leah’s tapping-behaviors—no alarms ever went off due to personal trauma. Some writer once said: Don’t write only what you know, write what you can imagine. I can imagine a lot. You can’t possibly guess what part I found hardest to write.

Alarm bells do go off when I anticipate criticism or loss of privacy—this is really common. Freud said, when two people marry, six people get into bed. He should have seen the writer’s study; it’s far more crowded. Disappointed parents, shocked offspring, siblings who feel betrayed, your ex-wife’s lawyer, and all your Jewish, African-American or gay friends who don’t like the way you’re portraying your own. Personally I was horrified that my teenage son might read the stories and wonder how his mother knew about smoking and drugs and girls having s-e-x. But you write your story. You worry in revision.

The only scene that really hurt, that I never want to relive while writing, was the last part of “Rana Fegrina.” Leah’s father is dying, and as she suffers with this, the frog, Latin name rana fegrina, becomes Christlike. He becomes a source of wisdom about the nature of eternal love. I cried every morning in the shower for weeks, fearing the loss of my own father—who is still alive—and thinking about Christ in Gethsemane, a young man wanting to stay alive, and how I wanted my parents to live forever. I would rather write twenty versions of “Jazz” than write “Rana Fegrina” again.

Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).

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