mother daughter relationships

Dylan Landis

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2009

I started to write an introduction for this interview that talked about the hidden lives of girls and their mothers. I mentioned bullies and victims, shoplifting, unwanted pregnancies, and other topics Dylan Landis takes on in her debut short story collection, NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS.


In the end, I scrapped that intro because it felt too academic. It didn’t at all capture my true emotional response, which is this: I love, love, love this book. Every sentence. I hope all of you will join the conversation and then rush out to read these gorgeous stories for yourselves.


In Jazz, the first story in this collection, you write about a girl who “wants to set fires and she wants to control how they burn.” To me, that’s what this entire collection is about, walking that fine line between thrill and danger. Talk to me about that fire and what draws these girls toward it.

Rainey Royal, who is thirteen and wants to set those sexual fires in men, was abandoned by her mother physically and by her father emotionally. In the ten minutes consumed by the story Jazz, she’s lying under her father’s best friend, wondering who’s in control. Did she set this man on fire—which would prove how powerful she is—or is he about to rape her? That’s how razor-fine that line is. And Rainey’s balancing right on it. She’s drawn by the thrill, but beyond that, in the center of the flame, she’s drawn to self-destruction, which can be powerfully alluring if you think that’s all you’re worth. Rainey’s right on that line, about to stumble. Whereas Leah, the teenage protagonist of most of the stories (and the girl Rainey bullies in Fire), only walks up to the line. She gets vicarious thrills by worshipping and befriending the burning girls. It singes off some of her anxieties, though it provokes new ones, too.

Richard’s hands are mashing her wrists. His hands have hair on the back. Andy Sakellarios, who might or might not be her boyfriend, has smooth hands. Richard is a fire she has lit, and men are flammable, and Rainey believes it is her born talent, the one she sees reflected in the mothers’ eyes, to set the kind of flickering orange fire that licks along the ground. (Jazz, p. 6)


Wondering who’s in control. I love that. And you see how powerful and full of life they feel the closer they get to that line. I think that’s why I was so nervous when I was reading this because I could see the appeal. So let’s talk about Leah, then. The fire that attracts her is trying to befriend people she doesn’t trust. Her instincts tell her someone is likely to humiliate her or use her, and she’s always got to test it. What’s that about?

Someone who’s really healthy might not get this, viscerally. But Leah senses that the girl who’s most likely to use her is also the most exciting to be around. First she’s enamored with Rainey Royal, who torments her—but who also starts to lift the veil on adult mysteries: mothers who leave, fathers who screw their girlfriends right there at home, and the possibility of friendships so close that words aren’t needed. I’d trade a lot for that at twelve. Then she’s friends with Oleander, who shares a casual adult knowledge of sex, stealing, cutting, drinking, drugs—more chaos than Leah can handle, almost. And finally there’s Lorelei, so determined and damaged, with terrible and magnificent mysteries to reveal.

When she survives the testing, Leah makes it into the secretive inner chamber of intimacy, where it’s safe and even fascinating—but also suffocating and a little dangerous. In that final test with Lorelei, she only wins by walking out.

“Thank you, gentlemen, for giving my daughter a beer. Did she happen to mention she’s only twelve?”

“Not for long,” Rainey said.

One of the boys had opened his mouth into the shape of a shocked twelve, and the blond boy with the gold earring and the cross had looked straight at the mother and said: Sorry, we didn’t know. The cross made Rainey want to find the badness in this boy. She wanted to ignite him with a brush of her arm. She wanted to steal this boy from God. (Jazz, p. 10)

I’d have traded for that, too. For intimacy. For something that made my heart beat faster. For that sense of being on the inside of a secret. And it’s not just the girls in your stories who are trying to control fires; it’s their mothers, too. Tell me something you learned about mother-daughter relationships from writing this book.

*That motherhood doesn’t come with instructions. Anxieties get passed down—through generations, I sometimes think—about love, sexuality, girlfriends, body image, body boundaries, how to survive loss, and figuring out what on earth in this life a person might be good at. And yet gifts of all kinds, hopefully including love, pride, and faith in who the daughter is, may be transmitted. As Bonita Prideau, Oly’s mother, says: “We never know what we inherit.” I would say instead: It takes time to understand what we inherit.

*That the mothers who look like the easy, fun mothers may not have it all together: Bonita, at first, seems like a blast. She lets her girls smoke and drink beer, and hang out on the roof; she’s conveniently oblivious, and she’s book-smart. She thinks she’s bestowing respect, independence. To Leah, she’s a dream. But one Prideau daughter is a cutter, and both girls are promiscuous; they’re going hungry on that laissez-faire diet.

*That mothers, not just daughters, must take risks if they are to blossom. Helen starts out obsessed with decorative beauty and control—her scissor-thinness is a mark of that—but later, when she takes creative and romantic chances, she starts becoming a woman of appetites.

*That all daughters, including mothers, must come to terms with what they inherit. Leah can’t see it clearly, she’s only 19 when the book ends, but from Helen she’s inherited her sense of order (perhaps too much order) and beauty and an appreciation of good design that at times is almost spiritual—whether she finds it in a French cafe or in the guts of a frog she’s dissecting.

*That the expression of love is not a native language to every mother—and yet. And yet. When Helen touches her daughter’s face, it’s with such tenderness she almost expects it to leave a mark. When Pansy Prideau appears with fresh cuts on her arms, the pain is visible on her mother’s face. And in the title story, Helen grasps that the most loving thing she can do for Leah at that moment is to silently have faith in her.

My own mother is a great expresser of affection, by the way. That’s a lovely part of what I inherited. I probably give my son more space—maybe too much space; I truly hope not. I’m taken with the words of a rabbi who once said: A couple that’s truly in love can walk down the street holding hands without holding hands. Some of my own fears and flaws about motherhood got funneled—fictionalized and exaggerated—into the character of Helen.

She had a daughter who seemed to be smoking and stealing and dressing underneath like a prostitute, who wrote in a secret notebook with tight slanted script, one arm curled protectively around the page.

She had a recurring fantasy of being struck by a bus. The bus would knock her into a coma for many days. All she’d have to do was breathe. (Normal People Don’t Live Like This, p. 64)

Since we've been talking about mothers and daughters: Dylan and her mom, 1967.

Since we've been talking about mothers and daughters: Dylan and her mom, 1967.

Just beautiful. Your answers are setting off so many emotions and memories. I’ll let the sparks from this answer hit the comments section and move on to a question about structure. What made you tell these interconnected stories as a collection rather than a novel? And was this an issue with publishers?

I wasn’t aiming for a collection or a novel. I just wanted to master the short story. I have no MFA, no English degree, so I was struggling along by ear, literally: first I listened to short stories on tape, for months. Then I wrote about Leah’s girlhood because I already knew her—I was finishing a novel about her, called FLOORWORK, in which she’s 22, intoxicated by a woman who lives a mysterious, possibly dangerous life and tells mesmerizing, possibly untrue stories. Four agents wanted FLOORWORK, but when it went out to publishers, nothing clicked. I don’t read my rejections, but my agent finally selected a few that said, gently: fabulous writing, but can you dig deeper for Leah’s motivations?

I got pretty depressed. Then I wrote more stories, chronologically. I’d found a great teacher, Jim Krusoe, who runs an amazing workshop at Santa Monica College. Structure was the last thing on my mind—I was learning about Leah, revising FLOORWORK, and getting an education in fiction, long and short. My agent never told me what other publishers thought, but Persea loves that everything links. They see NORMAL PEOPLE almost as a novel told in ten segments.

Grandma Rose’s mind looked like her bedroom, Leah decided. It was a wonderful room. Hair pins napped in the rumpled bed. Dark hairs from her wiglet drifted into the cold cream. Tubes of Bain du Soleil lost their caps and slid into open drawers, releasing the oily fragrance of summer into white nylon bloomers. Nor did Sophia Rose seem to register, when Leah was allowed to stay with her, that Leah smoked in the basement, riffled through her grandmother’s pocketbook and skimmed every paperback with a passionate couple on its cover. (Rose, p. 38)

You chose a very interesting order for your stories. I love, for instance, that I met the tormentor first. She was fully sympathetic and complex. I felt like I knew her and loved her, and then, bam, in the second story, told by Leah, I saw how mean she could be.

You’re seeing the result of a structural renovation, in which I moved the front door to the book—switched  the first and second stories. Now, instead of entering through Leah’s point of view, you enter via Rainey Royal, who torments Leah at school. In “Jazz,” Rainey’s thirteen and lying beneath her father’s best friend at nightfall in Central Park. His hands are wandering her body, and her mind is wandering everywhere, including to the mother who packed up one day and left. In the second story, “Fire,” Rainey menaces Leah with great calculation, and Leah vacillates between sheer dread, attraction to Rainey’s beauty and power, fascination, and dread again.

If the stories had stayed chronological—and it’s such a slight thing, less than a year’s difference—you’d perceive Leah as a victim and Rainey as a bully, and that’s too simplistic. Flipped, I hope it’s clear that Rainey has less power than she thinks, while Leah has more.

“Hate is so much more interesting than love, isn’t it? I hate a room without books. I hate a desk without papers. I hate not having a cat, but I’m allergic. I hate the way laundry piles up around here. We all share clothes, so nobody feels that the laundry is exactly theirs, do you know? I hate that Pansy—” Bonita laughed. It was a tight, hard sound. “But I’m not giving you anything useful, I’m sure.” (Normal People Don’t Live Like This, p. 71)

How about a story of you and fire?

I was a teenager in the 1970s, with everything that implies, and I thought partying was my one great skill. Certainly not school. And writing—I thought that was a gift you were born with, like a Joni Mitchell voice, not something you could practice. I remember standing with dread and desire outside a closed door at a party, willing it to open. (It didn’t.) In that room, some kids were shooting up. Into the backs of their hands, one told me later. What a vivid detail, which of course I would use, years later: who knew you could shoot smack into your hand? I was forever wanting to try something new and terrible so I could lose myself in it, conquer my fear of it, and brag about it. That was me at fifteen, and later too. I needed the bad girls to escort me into the flames, and the good girls to be awed by my recklessness. One sells people short, categorizing them like that, but it’s fascinating how confused a young girl can be, and how anxiety and recklessness may be inseparable. When I mine these feelings for fiction and make up characters, I love them all. The more messed up they are, the more I love them.

She is growing desperate. She has bumped something fragile off a shelf, a thing she must snatch from the air before it shatters. And she is genuinely surprised to realize that she is going to just stand there and let it fall. (Delacroix, p. 172)


And finally, what’s next for you?

Two, maybe three novels.

I can’t keep my hands off the first. It’s a novel-in-progress about the woman whom the papers called Typhoid Mary. Her real name was Mary Mallon, she came here from Ireland as a teenager in 1883, and she was so talented with food that she cooked for some of New York’s wealthiest families. She adored dogs, and she loved a cop named August Breihof. In the winter of 1907, a “sanitary engineer” knocked on the servants’ door of the Park Avenue townhouse where she worked, and told her that though she was healthy, she carried and spread the typhoid germ. She was so mortified and disbelieving, she chased him off with a sharp fork. And they came back and quarantined her. She maintained her innocence till she died, and infected relatively few people, but the question is: did she know, deep down? Or suspect? And what does it mean to be guilty or innocent, clean or unclean, or (even if she disbelieved it) that powerful?

The second is FLOORWORK, which never sold. It’s in first person; I want to transpose it into third, deepen it in places, slow it down. Meanwhile, it has the sweetest ghost-life. Eight chapters ran in literary magazines; one, in the New Orleans Review, won special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.

And the third I started, but it has to wait for Mary Mallon: it’s about an artist in the Joseph Cornell style whose home slowly becomes a hoard, and her two daughters.

Plus there’s Rainey Royal. I don’t think she’s done with me yet.

I have no doubt Rainey’s going to pull a fourth novel from you. She may even cut in line!