INTERVIEW: Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal

Dylan Landis is the author of the linked short story collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the novel, Rainey Royal. At the center of these two books is a group of mercurial teenage girls who psychologically torment one another but remain inseparable, and exude cool that masks their vulnerability. Landis depicts a 1970s New York City that is a permissive playground and menacing nightmare.

I asked Landis about the hidden lives of teenage girls, pre-gentrification New York City, and the ways we talk and don’t talk about sexual abuse.

Adalena Kavanagh: Your two books, Normal People Don’t Live Like This and Rainey Royal are both set in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Why that time period? Why New York? Did you rely on memory to evoke this specific version of New York or did you do research?

Dylan Landis: I once heard an author say she couldn’t write about anything till it had “filtered through memory,” and that is my experience exactly. Happily for the fiction I write, I found those eras to be risky, even dangerous times to be a New York kid and a teenager. I grew up in New York City, went to a suburban high school and moved back to New York. Our parents seemed to have no idea what we were doing, and they left us alone to do it. Music got darker. Clothes got more expressive. Kids could get drugs at school so easily, and attitudes about sex were so much looser. Men slept with teenage girls. There was no word for this. Maybe “gross.” A tenth-grade teacher got high with students. Shoplifting was a recreational sport. Every year one set of kids tried to blow up a small bridge.

That’s the research I did from memory. It was all about the vibe. The details that shore up the vibe I garner assiduously from the internet. What year were The Doors singing “The End”? What is a miscarriage like? Does anyone really play jazz oboe? What was Sotheby’s called in the day? I was a newspaper reporter for years, before the fiction, and I still fact-check like a maniac.

AK: I also grew up in New York, in a different time period than in the book (in the ’80s and ‘90s), but your depiction of the city rang true to me. At first I thought this was nostalgia, but the more I thought about it, the fact that so much of what you depict is “gritty” and what I experienced would also be described the same way, I decided that it wasn’t nostalgia I was feeling, but recognition of a New York that isn’t always portrayed accurately. Namely, you show the lives of middle and working class teenage girls in New York. It shouldn’t feel like a radical act to write about teenage girls, but it feels that way, as if you’ve given us a glimpse inside a secret world. What drew you to these particular characters? On the one hand they seem universally adolescent, but in a way that is specific to New York.

DL: That secret world is sex and girls and power and vulnerability. We lose access when we age out of it, which is why that glimpse feels so radical, and why fiction is the password that gets us back in. For me, the settings might be invented or conflated, and the characters must be, but the feelings come straight from the past: exhilaration on a rooftop with wild friends and wine and cigarettes, disorientation in an unfamiliar apartment with older boys and a stolen tank of nitrous, confusion at the seductive approach of an older man, the prickling sensation of shoplifting…always, the cathartic thrill of music. Such feelings must be uploaded from memory in a concrete and sensory way, which is the only way to channel anything when you’re writing.

The New York part of it is a curious chemistry of intensity and neglect, anxiety and independence. My mother warned me very early about the man who lured a child to his hotel room, then beat her to death with a hammer — but then she let me run free in Riverside Park, where men regularly exposed themselves, and asked to take pictures of me and my best friend. I never told my mother one thing. Children and adolescents lived private interior lives back then.

AK: Yes, I think you’re right. It’s the sex mixed with the power and vulnerability that makes the depiction of these girls seem radical but also realistic — it’s not the way we want to see girls. I agree — I had men ask to take pictures of me and I didn’t tell my parents. I wasn’t willing to trade my freedom for protection from those men. But then Rainey is a character who isn’t safe in her own home. Where did Howard Royal (Rainey Royal’s father) come from? He is a jazz musician who is characterized as someone who lives up to all the stereotypes people celebrate about the hedonistic male musician, but you take that a step further and show us how his hedonism disrupts and shapes his daughter’s life. Had you meant to critique the “free love” coming out of that time period, or were you just trying to depict things as they might have been?

DL: I never “mean” to do anything when I write except get into the basement, the subconscious, channel some sensory detail, and see who and what takes shape down there in the primordial, psychological muck. I found Howard in the basement, a man who loves his daughter, but loves himself so much more he’d send her at night to Central Park with his 39-year-old best friend, and fill the house with young men, and expose her to sex and drugs as if they were character-building. His voice came to me as I listened for him. It wasn’t a passive process, of course; I was casting about for the concrete, for the exact way he smiled at his daughter, the way he sat in a chair, the ironic cast of his speech, his choice of words, his choice of drink. He was one of the easiest characters to write, even though I didn’t know a single parent like that.

But I knew he could have existed, because parents, to me, were unreliable at best and dangerous at worst. I knew girls whose fathers molested them. One girl’s father said, “I know you’re doing it with everyone else.” Another father kept touching his daughter’s breasts. I could go on. One girl’s mother bruised her when she beat her. My close friend, at fifteen, was seduced by her boss after school — you know what we call that today, but then we said seduced. One friend’s mother openly smoked pot when I was eleven and my friend was twelve. When I was fifteen and told my mother that two adult men had pressed me into a corner on a train, she said, “What did you expect?” because my dress was short. The world was flammable; it was already burning. Coming up with Howard was not a stretch.

AK: I saw you read at Franklin Park in Brooklyn in the fall. Around this time there were several news stories about rape and sexual abuse involving members of the New York literary community, followed by the Bill Cosby rape scandal and the UVA rape scandal. The story you read was about your protagonist, Rainey Royal, and her rape at the hand of one of her father’s musical acolytes. Did you consciously choose to read that story and if so, why? What reaction did you get from the audience?

DL: We were asked to read for eight or nine minutes, something like that, and “Baby Girl” is my only story that reads in eight. It’s that simple. The stories of sexual abuse in the literary community were indeed huge at that time, and people at Franklin Park did ask if my choice was deliberate — but no. These topics have been just as alive for me since men first approached me in the park. I believe the only differences now are that people are speaking up, the media are reporting rape more, and the definition of rape is being refined and discussed. We didn’t have language for these things back then, never mind a forum for public discussion. We had a bunch of girls smoking cigarettes and confiding in each other. And thank God we had that.

AK: It definitely feels like the world is catching up to a dirty secret that has been suppressed to protect abusers and those in power. I think that’s another reason why your two books feel like we’re voyeurs into a secret world, or one that isn’t readily acknowledged.

There has been talk in the literary world about “unlikeable” characters, particularly unlikeable female characters. That conversation seems to treat characters in fiction as if they were moral guides, rather than representations of people that are possible (the same way you say that even though you didn’t know a parent like Howard Royal, he was certainly possible). The three adolescent girls at the center of these two books, Rainey, Tina, and Leah, are vulnerable but also manipulative — in short, they are incredibly three-dimensional. This seems important to me, and refreshing. Why do you think we’re debating about unlikeable female characters?

DL: Your question made me think of Flannery O’Connor. She said, in her extraordinary Mystery and Manners, “I myself prefer to say that a story is a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person — that is, because he shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation. A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” She isn’t just talking about men, and she doesn’t say a word about likeability, which has nothing to do with the mystery of personality. All of her characters are damaged in some way; they may or may not, at some point, be touched by grace. They don’t have to be moral guides — quite the opposite. In her Catholic world view, all souls are in need of grace. It seems to me a character must be interesting and flawed and vulnerable enough to keep you fastened to the page, and to leave room for some kind of deep internal shift.

Someone told me recently that my friends all tended to be good, generous people and I thought, yes, they do. But that’s life, not fiction. Would you want to read Madame Bovary if Emma was a perfect wife?

The most recent body blow in this debate, I think, is when Publisher’s Weekly asked Claire Messud, regarding The Woman Upstairs, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” And Messud’s answer is vital enough to replay here. She said: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters inInfinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but ‘is this character alive?’”

Rainey teases a schoolmate without mercy. She robs a couple at gunpoint. She’s seductive toward male teachers. She’s also deeply vulnerable, having been abandoned and neglected. So if I’ve done my job, you care what happens to her. That matters more to me than whether you want to be her friend.

AK: Maybe you can articulate how these three particular girls came to life for you? Why them, in particular? I’m especially interested in Tina because we so rarely have representations of Latina women in fiction, and in a way it seemed like she was passing for white until she couldn’t anymore. Was Tina always Puerto Rican (or bi-racial Puerto Rican) in your mind or was it something that developed as you wrote these books? This seemed like a truer representation of New York in fiction than I have read in a long time because you might believe New York doesn’t t have as large a Latino population as it does if you only read literary fiction!

DL: I didn’t know Tina was Puerto Rican as I initially wrote her — I only knew she had a secret, something she was hiding that concerned being raised by her grandmother, which made her ashamed. She was a tough chick, and when Rainey and Leah followed her on the subway to see where she lived, I had her go to a tough place for 1972, Spanish Harlem. We white girls all thought we’d get killed there. It was still all “us” and “them” back then, not that it isn’t now, but that divisiveness was right on the surface then. So I never intended for Tina to pass, no, but later I understood why she did. She was a scholarship kid at an Upper East Side school. That couldn’t have been fun. I’ll never forget my own second grade public-school teacher screaming at the only Latino kid in class for forgetting his pencil. I passed him a pencil and she screamed at me. I got the message, and I was seven. I still remember the boy’s name. And Tina might have thought she would lose Rainey, though she was dead wrong about that.

The character of Rainey feels like she has always been inside me. I was quite taken, at an early age, with a girl who bullied me. I knew nothing about her; I just thought she embodied beauty and mystery and sexuality. When Rainey came to me she had that girl’s edge. That’s all I borrowed from life, an edge and a laugh. I invented a damaging family to explain the cruel streak. The rest of Rainey was my own mean-girl alter ego, because for a while I did become, well, bad. Not mean, but prone to misbehavior. I was present at a stabbing. An ex-boyfriend went to prison for homicide. It’s not that far a leap to Rainey robbing someone herself. And Leah was the shy side of me, the science-nerd side, who was right there all along. I suppose I’m splintered into everyone in the book.

AK: Earlier you said that “parents, to me, were unreliable at best and dangerous at worst,” and that rings true, at least for the parent characters in both of your books. Rainey’s mother is offstage at an ashram, her father is busy with his acolytes, Tina is being raised by her grandmother, and Leah’s mother is lost in her own world of anorexia. You depict a world of permissiveness that the girls wouldn’t necessarily trade for something safer, but it’s clear that this permissiveness will leave a lasting mark on all of them. Is this permissiveness a characteristic of the time period in which the books are set or are these simply the parents that would have produced Tina, Leah and Rainey?

DL: Certainly I knew parents who were strict in the 70s, but their strictness was a sieve: the intensity of the decade punched holes in it. I had a friend whose father broke her bedroom door down because she dared to close it, and yet she found ways to participate in the culture that went on around her. My own parents were a curious balance of strict, distracted and naïve. Translation: they bought a chain-link ladder in case of fire when we moved to the suburbs for high school, and every weekend after curfew I lowered it from my bedroom window, Rapunzel-style, and escaped into the night. And then I knew parents who drank heavily, or were nudists in their own home, or put their kids on the Pill, or smoked pot with their kids, or simply didn’t believe in curfews, which made everything possible.

As a writer I’m interested in how you can have parental absence when the parent is, in fact, right there. How can you have both love and neglect, and what does that look like? What are the possible reasons for it? Can it be written about metaphorically, like Leah’s mother’s self-starvation? My writing mentor and teacher Jim Krusoe says writers often keep knocking at the same door, and that’s one of my doors.

AK: In your first book there is a story told from Leah’s mother’s point of view, and we can see how her need to control her body and her environment shaped her daughter’s need for control, but in your second book the parents are only shown through the points of view of the three girls. Was this intentional? If so, why?

DL: It was an intention that dawned slowly. I didn’t want to write from the POV of Rainey’s absent mother, because I didn’t want to move the action out of New York and into Colorado. But I did think about writing a story from the POV of Rainey’s narcissistic, seductive, jazz-pianist father, Howard. I talked to my writing partner Heather Sellers about what this might add. She’s the author of the short story collection Georgia Under Water, also about a teenaged girl in troubled circumstances, and with one story from the father’s POV. We weren’t sure Howard’s thinking, his insights, would add a dimension to Rainey. Howard already revealed himself in damaging ways; he talked about being sexually abused by a babysitter. We felt he was already on the page. I think the writer senses when there’s more to explore, or trusts her close readers to tell her.

This was a great relief, because there was a second factor. Howard is a jazz musician and I know virtually nothing about jazz. I couldn’t have sustained a whole story in which Howard sounded like an authority, a true musician. What I know about jazz comes from YouTube and Google and reading and a little satellite radio. If you look closely you’ll see that the music descriptions are all from Rainey’s point of view, and Rainey knows nothing about jazz, and doesn’t like it, which made my job easier. I only had to describe the music from her perspective. I could say, at one point, that jazz sounds to her about as rhythmic as a flock of startled birds flying up from the sidewalk.

AK: And lastly, what are you working on now?

DL: A new novel. I don’t stray far from my obsessions.

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