Art Talk with Dylan Landis
DC-based writer Dylan Landis was one of 42 prose writers to receive a 2010 NEA Literature Fellowship. Her body of work includes Normal People Don't Live Like This, a novel-in-stories that was listed as one of Newsday's "Ten Best Books of 2009" and one of More magazine's "Top 100 Books Every Woman Should Read." We chatted with Landis about her particular take on the writing life.
NEA: How long have you lived in DC, and what brought you here?
DYLAN LANDIS: My husband supports the arts in our family---he's a journalist, and I'm portable; I can write fiction anywhere, happily. I followed him here from Los Angeles in October 2007. DC is our fifth city in 25 years.
NEA: What?s your version of the writing life?
LANDIS: I try to lay hands on my novel at least five days a week---usually at my dining table, sometimes at the Starbucks on 7th & E St., NW (where they always ask how my book is going), or at the Politics & Prose café. But no schedule: I have nerve damage in both hands, from decades of addictive writing, so I write when they cooperate.
Coffee's required---is that a ritual or a prop? Also these little rubber fingercots that protect my fingertips, or they'd burn when they touch the keys---I keep them in a vintage leopard-print Fendi cosmetics bag so I won't hate them. Maybe this is a ritual: I love having a friend across the table, equally absorbed with her own laptop; sometimes I write with Leslie Pietrzyk or Susan Coll, both novelists. But I can write in solitude, without leaving the apartment, for days. Cigarettes would be dreamy, but I let my characters smoke instead.
And I read fiction daily. That's an inextricable part of writing. Today I'll finish rereading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which has the most extraordinary opening. I'm working through Ulysses with a Politics & Prose group. For twelve days in July at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, where I was a fellow, I gorged on work by the writers there. Richard Bausch's new novel Peace. Jillian Weise's shattering poetry collection The Amputee's Guide to Sex. Christine Schutt's novel All Souls, Matthew Pitt's story collection Attention Now Please, Baltimore writer James Magruder's novel Sugarless---all kept me up at night.
NEA: How important is your NEA fellowship to your writing life?
LANDIS: The fellowship lets me travel for work, which is huge. And it makes me feel deeply validated during an insecure period: The first book's out, the second's still taking shape.
I expect to go to Ireland next year for a long research-and-retreat trip, and do a retreat at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Last month I spent a week at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where the medical historian and author Judith Walzer Leavitt opened her archives for my novel-in-progress. I photocopied 450 pages of material, and changed my take on certain characters. It was an extraordinary trip.
It's hard not to be aware of where this funding comes from?taxes paid by my friends, by the cleaning crews in my building. This adds a dimension of ambition, and enormous gratitude, and pressure to create something worthy.
NEA: How would you characterize the arts community in the District?
I haven't sought out the arts community?only the art itself. My loss, truly.
For a long time, I repeatedly sought out Robert McCurdy's stunning, unsmiling portrait of Toni Morrison at the National Portrait Gallery. I'd tell Ms. Morrison silently about my writing problems, and she'd tell me silently to stop staring at her and go home and read and write. What other answer could there be? I've read Song of Solomon twelve times, and I miss that painting.
Now I'm drawn back to this radiant yellow rectangle of hazelnut pollen on the floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, by Wolfgang Laib---you can't tell if it's floating or sinking. And I'm definitely revisiting Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross at the National Gallery of Art; it's as if he's deconstructed the crucifix. People walk through with their BlackBerrys reading about the actual stations.
I keep returning to the aluminum-foil altar by James Hampton in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. At the very top it says in foil-wrapped letters: NO FEAR. I cried when I first saw that. The name of this piece is The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millenium General Assembly, and it takes a whole bunch of signs to tell its story. Flannery O'Connor would have loved it.
NEA: How would you characterize DC's writing community?
LANDIS: Intense. Diverse. Supportive! A little more spread out than New York's---where I'm from---so I'm still discovering it.
I took a terrific class on Chekhov at the Writers' Center with the novelist Robert Bausch, and go to many readings there, and at the Arts Club of Washington and at Politics & Prose. The PEN/Faulkner reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library brings in brilliant writers like Amy Hempel and Susan Orlean; I subscribe though I'm traveling half the time. We have Split This Rock, the poetry festival. Richard Peabody, an author and teacher and co-editor of Gargoyle magazine, has published five anthologies of fiction by Washington-area women (and one by men); he's one reason there's a strong community here.
I'm psyched that we now have 826DC, where students get tutored in writing. And the AWP conference gathers here next year; we'll be overrun with writers.
What I miss: a place like San Francisco's Grotto, or New York's WriterHouse, where dozens of writers rent office space together. We could use a water cooler.
NEA: How has living in DC shaped/affected you as a writer?
LANDIS: We live in Penn Quarter, in a second-floor apartment, and I write to a symphony of truck rumbling, traffic, occasional sirens. It's urban music; it lulls me to sleep at night. Across the street is a row of beautiful old buildings, including Clara Barton's Office of Missing Soldiers, that puts me in constant touch with another era---good for what I'm writing now. And we have huge loft-like windows, so [in winter] I get an expansive view of "wintry mix." What is this stuff, and can we make it go away? That sense of falling slush will find its way into some written scene, somewhere.
NEA: What has living in DC made possible for you as a writer that might not have happened anywhere else?
LANDIS: It's more about what has happened, by chance, since I moved here.
That first winter, before I had friends here, and while I was still learning that you can't drive through wintry mix in a Miata with summer tires, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When that healed, I understood that writing, reading, family, and friendships are the only important things in my life. I can't spread myself any thinner. Moving and medicine consumed my first year in DC---I really only woke up to the city about 18 months ago. I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) for four weeks, got deeply engaged in a first draft of my novel, made wonderful friends---poets and novelists, my favorite kinds of people. VCCA just said yes to a second fellowship. Who knows how life would unspool anywhere else?
NEA: What do you think DC can do to better support its artists?
It seems like the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities is already supporting a lot with its grants. I'd love to see---in every city---low-cost studio and writing space for artists in need. Perhaps in exchange for that space, we could embed artists in the public schools. I'd love to see a poll on this question of artists who've lived here longer.
NEA: Anything you wish we would have asked? And how would you have answered?
LANDIS: Who's the most recent DC-area writer you've read and loved?
Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu. He handles time and point of view with such fluidity and authority. It's a gorgeous novel; I can't wait to read his second, The Age of Shiva.
I had to take Susan Coll's Beach Week off the nightstand, because I kept laughing and waking my husband. And I never laugh out loud when I read.