Grad students ask it all the time: When I write about Rainey Royal getting molested, is that based on personal experience? There’s a story about that in my first book, too, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. But my writing teacher in Los Angeles, the novelist Jim Krusoe, once said: Answer the question you want to answer. So: Can I just talk about writing? I like going to the basement, to dark, uncomfortable places, and seeing what kind of unfamiliar language I can construct for what’s going on. And as a writer, I think the less you say on paper the more the reader imagines.
In the new novel, Rainey Royal, my protagonist, gets molested for several years by her father’s best friend, and I try to describe how violation feels without using the vocabulary of molestation. There’s also a date-rape in Rainey Royal, except we had no word for that in the 1970s, when the book takes place.
How do you write a date rape without writing about sex?
She feels like pieces of her body might be falling off, like turrets and bell towers from a castle.
Is there any good sex in Rainey Royal?
Yes, but it’s illicit, and not explicit. It’s between a man and an underage girl—is that allowed to be good? It was the ’70s; things were different then, wilder. Also you don’t find out about it till later. There’s a tinge of lesbian sex, too, but you’re never sure.
So there’s no overt sex in the book, yet it emanates sex.
Rainey is hypersexual. She’s always sending out signals. She is always aware of her “powers,” whether she can handle them or not. So there’s sexuality on the page, but I try to keep it shimmering like twice-reflected light—indirect.
Why have you insisted that your stories and books link up because of a “failure of imagination?”
It’s really true. I’ve been obsessed with Rainey and Leah and Rainey’s best friend, Tina, and Rainey’s father, Howard, since the first Leah story got published in 2000. These people act out in the most fascinating ways. Rainey commits an armed robbery. Leah’s mother is anorexic. Rainey’s aunt is a hoarder. Her mother walks out on the family. Her father is a supreme narcissist. I can’t get enough of them. I love them all.
I wrote a book of short stories about them first—that’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This—and then I tried to write a novel about an Irish immigrant and cook named Mary Mallon, who was lacerated in the press as Typhoid Mary. I tried very hard for four years and finally listened to my heart and wrote Rainey Royal in less than a year and a half.
So you’ll write about these people forever.
No. I’m writing a new novel, The Hoarder’s Daughter. All new people, about a mother-daughter relationship and the dissolution of a marriage. It’s got married sex—he likes to keep his clothes on. Rainey keeps badgering me, though. When I open my closet door I feel like I might see her clothes in there. I can smell her. When we both get older she might get another book.
DYLAN LANDIS is the author of a novel, Rainey Royal, and a collection of linked stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. She received a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, and had a story selected for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Tin House, Bomb and House Beautiful. Find her at www.dylanlandis.com.