The dynamic of an author interview can be radically altered if it’s conducted by a person the author knows well—most often for the better. This conversation between authors Pia Z. Ehrhardt and Dylan Landis takes that dynamic to another level, since they’re mutually inquiring about each other’s works. Each occasionally tries to out-humble or out-flatter the other, even though a closer look reveals that this translucent facade merely veils a healthy mutual respect.
Pia Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories (MacAdam/Cage). Dylan Landis is the author of the debut novel-in-stories Normal People Don’t Live Like This (Persea Books). Ehrhardt lives in New Orleans. Landis used to. They are friends. Here, they discuss stumbling around with characters, mean girls, and the elusive load-bearing sentence.
(This is an excerpt from the current issue of the New Orleans Review, edited by Chris Chambers, used with permission.)
Pia Z. Ehrhardt: Throughout Normal People Don’t Live Like This you play with different ideas of beauty. Earlier on in the title story, the mother thinks, “ . . . a well decorated room was a fact of beauty, indisputable, the way a rose is indisputable.” In the last story, “Delacroix,” the daughter, Leah, is in Paris with a boyfriend she will not be sleeping with, deep in thought: “ . . . her mind (was) on another, more embedded kind of beauty: the neurons themselves, spidery of axon, tendrilled of dendrite, misfiring to a symphony no one hears.” Were you conscious of how the understanding of beauty arcs inside your characters? Did the fact of beauty change for you after writing this book?
Dylan Landis: I was conscious of so little, Pia—but definitely of this one arc. Because I do think art can ultimately save us, one at a time. Helen, the mother, comes to understand that true “decoration” is something deeper and more compelling than a well-arranged room. It involves mystery, and resonance, and elements of nature. Her understanding of beauty deepens; it begins to approach art.
For Leah, beauty is the lens through which she sees biology—by which I mean life—from a miscarried fetus to misfiring nerve cells. That sense of scientific reverence prepares her for that moment in the Louvre at 19 when she falls in love with the portrait of Eugene Delacroix and has her sensual awakening. She will, in fact, sleep with that boyfriend.
PZE: You know mean girls like the back of your hand. Reading these stories took me back to pain exacted by the Hattiesburg cheerleaders and how they’d stop talking when I walked in the bathroom, or blow me off at dances while they chatted up my boyfriend. I wonder: what did girls like this have that we wanted? And what do we learn from them that’s useful? One of the many things I admire about your collection is how vividly you show the generation before i.e. the girls and their mothers, as a way to deepen our empathy and our understanding of where these behaviors come from.
DL: I loved the girls who knew things, dangerous things. Sex and drugs and talking in code; adult things; secret and illegal things. I sought out intimacies with knowing girls, older girls, who could unlock certain mysteries. I wasn’t exactly mean, but I did turn around and act out this knowing role for other, more innocent friends. What the mean girls teach us is that trouble is fascinating, and everyone is vulnerable.
PZE: A searing example of this danger is in the opening story, “Jazz,” where we see Rainey, a beautiful, bully girl who thinks she’s in control, being sexually abused by an older man, and how she instinctively soldiers through his violence, registers the power shift and that the seduction’s been taken out of her hands. You write, “She wants to set fires and she wants to control how they burn.” Everything she does in later stories makes good, sad sense.
DL: Vulnerabilities are passed down, and I don’t mean genetically. Perhaps the mean girls teach us that everyone has the potential to be saved—but that would come long after the story ends, and I don’t know if it’s true-true or Flannery-O’Connor-true.
When I first met you, Pia, you were talking about a novel called Speeding in the Driveway—and suddenly you emerged from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in a great surge with a different novel working, called Surprise Valley, and also, I think, a memoir brewing. What happened during this incredibly fecund month of November when one novel yielded to another? And how did you make the intensity of NaNoWriMo work for you?
PZE: What you call fecund, I call skittish. I came to the place in the first novel where the father has to die, and I pulled up. NaNoWriMo threw down their challenge, gave me a target: 60,000 words in a month, but you make a promise to not fold in old work, so I started a second novel. It felt good to write a daily word count, unbridled, with the internal editor ignored, although it’s exhausting and there’s no time to think about structure or how you’re going to deal with the trouble you’re making for yourself in December.
The memoir I started six months ago was an ambush, but I think we pause our work for good reasons. I went back and wrote—and thought—about my first marriage, something I’d avoided doing for thirty years, and about my fractured relationship with my father, which will help me finish the first novel, I think. I’m back into writing it, on the other side of the father’s death, stumbling around with the characters.
DL: What does it means to be stumbling around with the characters?
PZE: By stumbling, I mean putting myself in the character’s shoes, since I’m the one who thought up the trouble they’re in. I’ve been writing the book organically, which I don’t recommend. There’s no outline, but I think there’s a through line, an arc. I started it pre-Katrina, then rewrote it post-Katrina, and now I’m thinking there’s so much that’s been written about flooded houses and mold and displacement and starting over, I probably need to take Katrina out of it and write about how we live now in New Orleans, five years later. Do NOT let me work the BP spill into this book, or I’ll never finish. Kick me if I do.
DL: You’ve written an essay about load-bearing sentences. What are they and how do you arrive at such a sentence in a story, or recognize it? It’s something I can only sense intuitively, which may not be sufficient, and I think my writing would be stronger if I could say, there, that’s my load-bearing sentence right there, and carve away the adipose tissue surrounding it.
PZE: Load bearing sentences come out of drafting, when I’m not thinking yet about where I’m going. There’s what I mean to write about, and what I don’t want to write about, and these reticent sentences pop out before I have a chance to quell them or cut them. They’re not better written sentences, and they don’t disqualify the other sentences, but they redistribute the story’s weight. They keep the narration honest. Or more honest.
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