Q&A

Dylan Landis on her book 'Rainey Royal' and wild 1970s New York

'Rainey Royal' is a bully, a victim, a Greenwich Village wild child

Dylan Landis' novel "Rainey Royal," out today from Soho Press, takes one of the characters from her short fiction and builds out her life. A teenager in Greenwich Village in the early 1970s, Rainey is gorgeous and motherless, with a jazz musician father who is inattentive at best. Wild, dangerous, sometimes certain and other times totally lost, Rainey is a fascinating, unique character; the book follows her into her 20s.

Rainey's friends -- some of whom appeared in her first book, the story collection "Normal People Don't Live Like This" -- are the most important people in her life, and their relationships involve shifts of power and understanding. They inhabit a bygone New York full of creative loafers and bad behavoir.

Landis reads from and signs "Rainey Royal" tonight at Skylight Books in Los Feliz at 7:30.

When "Rainey Royal" begins, Rainey and her friend Tina are finding power in their sexuality as young women. The year is 1972. What opportunities did the difference between sexual mores then and now present to you as a writer?

So much inappropriate behavior was taken for granted in the 1970s — like men making advances on adolescent girls — and that gave me the freedom as a writer to explore a gray area that no longer exists, and to construct a very particular kind of crucible for Rainey. We didn't have a language then to contain or explain that kind of predatory behavior. As a result, we could barely judge it. A girl like Rainey had her intuition, and her friends; and she could act out. 

Rainey appeared in your short story collection "Normal People Don't Live Like This." What about Rainey made you want to expand her story out to a novel?

Rainey is the most vibrant and empowered character in that book. She's a bully, but she's a bully because she's a victim. Yet even as a victim, pinned to the ground by her father's best friend in Central Park, her mind is free, and she's feeling herself capable of making this man lose control. Rainey appeared in only two stories, and readers would ask, "Is she going to get her own book?" It made me more conscious of listening to her. Why was she trapped under her father's friend? She had so much left to say.

New York City in the 1970s and '80s is a character, too. Going uptown is dangerous, a brownstone is being stripped of its valuables to pay the bills, a drug dealer fills his loft with parrots. Is this a place and time you know -- did you live in or visit New York then?

That was my era. I grew up in New York in the '60s and '70s, except for four years when I went to high school in the suburbs. It was slack and permissive and decadent, and parents had no idea what was going on. I made up that particular brownstone and loft and even the birds, but the settings aren't unlike places I saw. Even in the suburbs we had a school without rules. I'm guessing that the scariness of uptown was a myth, though — that fear was bred into us as kids. 

Rainey becomes an artist who creates tapestries by quilting together artifacts of one person, then another. What was it like to imagine the creations of a fictional artist? Did you have a real-world model?

I am too clumsy to make art myself, so dreaming up these small, complex tapestries on the page was deeply satisfying. I knew they'd be somehow kaleidoscopic, but I couldn't quite envision them til I saw my friend Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's small framed quilts made from tiny rectangular scraps of paper. They're quite different from Rainey's work but they gave me a starting point. Stephanie also collects odd bits of metal the size of a thumbnail to use in collage. That combination was a spark for me, because Rainey makes tapestries from many materials — fabric, jewelry, photographs.

Other characters in the novel, like Leah and Angelina, also have appeared in your short fiction. In your upcoming books do you want to stay in this universe with these people, like a "Game of Thrones" set in 1970s-'80s New York City?

Everything I write is in the same ZIP Code. Rainey was in an early draft of the novel I'm writing now, and it appears to have sprung free of her. But there's an artist in the new book, and a hoarder, like in "Rainey Royal," and it takes place in New York — so all my obsessions remain, along with the 1970s, an era when I was a teenager, when every nerve ending was alive. And I am sure Rainey will be back.

As your novel moves forward in time, the chapters are told from the point of view of different female characters. Men are fathers, victims, aggressors, boyfriends, but they're never the center. There's this thing called the Bechdel Test (from a comic by Alison Bechdel, applied to film): 1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something besides a man. Do you think contemporary fiction could stand up to the Bechdel Test?

I love this test. My reading is so all-over-the-map that I can't speak to contemporary fiction, but "Cat's Eye" by Margaret Atwood is about girls terrorizing girls over things that have nothing to do with boys. "All Souls," by Christine Schutt, is a brilliant study of girls at a New York private school. "Housekeeping," by Marilynne Robinson, passes the test. I don't think it's the norm, but it's there.

The young women, even as lifelong friends, seem to be in a constantly shifting battle for power; under the surface it often is connected to secrets and knowledge. Do you think women (or the women in your fiction) wield or value knowledge differently than men do?

Oh, yes. I think secrets — which is to say, knowledge — are a kind of currency to these young women. Each wields or hides her knowledge for different reasons. Leah withholds valuable information from Rainey because she's feeling slighted, Rainey keeps her secret out of shame, and Tina keeps hers out of necessity. Only one man in the book has a secret, and it's a weapon: Gordy does not tell anyone, of course, that he goes into Rainey's room at night.

What are you looking forward to while in Los Angeles?

My husband and I lived here for seven years, and there's nothing better than seeing dear friends, including my mentor and former writing teacher, Jim Krusoe. He was the first reader on the manuscript and this is a great chance for me to thank him publicly. 

Book news and more; I'm @paperhaus on Twitter

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