David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

J.D. Landis Full Interview Transcript

Interview conducted on April 20, 1995.
Also read the published article based on this interview.

J.D. LandisQ: Did you know all those words, or did you spend a lot of time with a dictionary?

The character knows the words. They’re only mine by extension.

Q: Is his voice your writing voice?

There are times when I find myself falling into a certain formality of sentence structure like his. I would call her voice equally mine. The creation of voice is something that happens beyond one’s own voice.

Q: I saw in your book a conscious division of the world into two dichotomous views — Clara is an extrovert while Johnny is introspective, Johnny uses words while Clara uses language…

No. I wasn’t, thank goodness, writing with that in mind. I didn’t want to create a dialectic of any kind. Certainly in a book that’s so limited in its characters — there’s only two — if I was going to do a dialectic it would have seemed to be too schematic in a way. I wanted them to be in love. That was my goal, in a certain sense, for them to be in love. Whether anyone else feels they’re in love or approves of them being in love I didn’t really care. I would hate to write a book where one character is the mind and the other is the heart, you know something like that.

All you have here are two voices, so you don’t have mine. There is no narrator who’s overseeing this business. He may have an impression of her that’s wrong, or she may have an impression of him that’s wrong. It’s not that they’re not to be trusted as narrators, because I don’t like that either — you know, that kind of writing where the narrator is always lying. But they’re a couple. I was very interested in writing about marriage. And this is the couple I have ended up with in a way, and I’m very happy with their relationship personally. But that’s just my feeling. It wouldn’t bother me at all to find people who don’t feel they belong together. Certainly there have been many readers who can’t stand him.

Q: He is a very cold person.

Well, I don’t know. He’s absolutely devoted to her, he’s very tender and caring for her. The question is, to what extent is intellect — and I’m not asking this in the book, I’m not trying to say that this is what the book is asking; and anyway I don’t have the answers, all I have is more questions — why do we assume that a person very much of the mind is cold or not passionate? He certainly becomes quite passionate and quite a connoisseur of her body. He’s quite attracted to her, as she is to him.

Again, I don’t see him as cold. He’s withdrawn, certainly. But I think almost everybody’s withdrawn, certainly. I don’t hold to the theory that man is a social animal, that we desire to go out and communicate with others. I think he’s a solitary animal. I think deep down inside we’re all very solitary. He’s a very natural man, and it’s natural wanting to be by yourself. I think his retreat into silence is very natural. It’s not always a secure thing to be silent. Communication is obviously very difficult for so many of us in a way, in very mundane ways. If you spend time listening to people talk and see them struggling to talk, to communicate — but he’s definitely withdrawn. You can see that he had a sort of normal life before he went into silence, you remember the thing with the coin. Everything lost its meaning for him. You’re never silent, there’s always this interior voice in your head, it’s never complete silence.

Q: I wanted to throw out what I thought were some of the themes of the book. First: the book is about the two characters’ search for permanence in a world where everything is transient. Johnny’s striving to overcome this feeling that he got when looking at the coin, you know, “truth is nothing,” and Clara gives him the permanence and grounding that he’s looking for.

The permanence in a way, what they’re both looking for, he more than she, is permanence of passion. He never had anything like this before. He’d had sex only once before, and this whole life — and it’s very much life — It’s like that thing where she describes after much prodding her first orgasm to him. And he says, did you feel guilty? And she says yes. And he says, for what? For not understanding how beautiful life is. And he says, Sex? And she says, No, life. Sex is life, and they’re very much combined in this book. Within this room that they live in, sex is life. And what he’s trying to figure out is how to maintain passion together.

It’s a very practical sort of thing in a way. People who are together a long time are frightened of losing it. That’s the permanence he’s looking for. There’s nothing symbolic that I intend. The everlastingness, because he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, is his passion for a woman. Which he’s found through her. And that’s what he’s struggling for is to find a way to maintain this. That’s the permanence. He’s a failed artist in a certain way, not that he practiced. Because he wouldn’t see a musician as an artist, someone who plays other people’s music. He talks about Bach, he says if you try and approach that kind of genius you’re doomed. But in this other area, he’s transcendent. In passion.

Q: And when Clara announces that she’s pregnant at the end, that’s an immortality in a way. It’s an act of creation of their love.

To me, it’s a story element.

Q: Maybe I’m trying to think about this book too symbolically. It doesn’t seem that you think about it that way.

I wrote it. At least I wasn’t cursed with thinking about it. Besides, I’m very open to any kind of interpretations people can find. The idea of him having a child is in there from the beginning. He very much didn’t like himself, he didn’t like himself as a child. He didn’t exactly see the way his parents were raising him. He never wanted to have children. There’s that Nietzsche quote — he realized he was only going to justify himself by becoming a better father than his was. In the first comic sex scene, you know the one with the condoms and all, he says he doesn’t want to replicate himself on earth, because he doesn’t like what he is. But the issue of children has been throughout the book. It’s been a theme, it’s there.

What he doesn’t know is she’s taking birth control pills. He’s so naive, he’s kind of waiting for something to happen. He wants to have a child, but he never quite stops to think about what’s happening, why she’s never gotten pregnant even though they’ve been screwing. Why is she taking the pill? It’s not that she doesn’t want to have a child, she doesn’t want to share it with him. I don’t want to have a child, I don’t want to share my husband with anybody. It’s something that is happening to him. Aside from the fact that a child is what he calls a resurrection… since the book from my point of view very much concerns marrige as a concept and is a celebration of it, and he celebrates it, he sees it as the only resurrection there is, which is the creation of a new being by strangers. The creation of blood. When you’re born and you have parents and sisters and cousins and grandparents, you’re blood relations. But the only way you create blood relations is with strangers. He lives with a religious faith. The baby is in a sense that, but I wouldn’t want people — the baby is just a baby that’s coming.

Q: Can you explain what’s happened with the Chinese guy at the end? I have to confess that I didn’t understand why he’s come back to life, or if that was just a dream.

I’d just prefer to leave it that way.

Q: I wanted to bring up what I saw were a few influences in the book. One particular quote reminded me a lot of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and after I caught that I found myself seeing a lot of the book in those terms.

That’s you. There aren’t any Whitman references in the book. I haven’t actually read Whitman since I was in college. If you look at the names that are actually mentioned, If you look at the names that are mentioned, they would be incorporated in some way… Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf. There’s no literary subtext in the sense that it’s meant to imitate, mock, or use other writers in some other way. There are references throughout because of the way he talks. She’s different, but she’s well-read. I didn’t want her to be a dummy. To the extent that she wasn’t going to be an intellectual, I didn’t want her to be some sort of — you know, the way they used to use whores in old movies, bringing joy and life to the dull intellectual. She’s a reader of fiction, and he can’t deal with that. But he’s not a fiction reader. She’s always quoting fiction to him. She had that affair with a professor, and he gave him some very quintessential American writers, Walker Percy.

Were there any more references you saw?

Q: Well, one which I thought that if he wasn’t an influence, there certainly were similarities was Nicholson Baker’s Vox.

I think he’s great with language and does many things that I couldn’t do. I don’t know when Vox was published, but this wasn’t an attempt to take Vox to a higher or lower level. I was already working on this book at that point, especially in my mind. I haven’t read his latest, but it’s my understanding that he was unfairly maligned.

The shadow of Dostoevsky hangs over the novel a bit, there are a couple of explicit or veiled references. He says “I’m an underground man, but I’m buried in the sky.” He mentions Crime and Punishment. One of the more important ones is where he says “I repudiate the tyranny of the gene.” It reminded me of something in my memory of Dostoevsky, because I haven’t read him in years, it came out of a version of what a mad genius would say. To repudiate the tyranny of gene is about as noble an intention you can have, because it’s about as difficult a one as you can have. Can you imagine that, repudiate the tyranny of the gene? You’d have to change your hair color, your eyes. But in the book he’s reborn, he’s resurrected. He’s saved by marriage and destroyed at the same, he’s repudiated the tyranny of his genes. Let’s leave it at that….

One thing about this book is that it is written, if you know what I mean. Sentences come to a conclusion for a specific purpose. That seems to be going without saying. Even somebody as obsessed as he is knows that there are rhythms in life, it’s not all in one level. Anyone who’s as interested in music as he is would know that anyway. There’s balances and tradeoffs and that’s something he expresses.

Q: Tell me something about your background in publishing, what you’ve done and writers that you’ve edited.

It’s only my whole life. I was an editor essentially for my whole regular working life. I entered publishing in 1965 or ’66 — I can’t remember which. I went to Morrow in early ’67, stayed until ’91, that’s almost 25 years. I began as an editor and remained an editor, but also became an executive and administrator, whatever terrible things that can happen to you as time goes by and you get older. That was my work, publishing, discovering writers. My greatest joys and accomplishments were discovering new writers. It’s not necessarily a easy thing to make one’s way doing that. That’s sort of what I did.

Q: Who are some of the well-known writers that you’ve worked with?

That brings up my feeling about that kind of work and the culture. The best writers are often not known. I could name writers to you and you would say, who’s that. I resist and resent it when anybody’s known simply because they have a connection to those that are known by themselves. Being known by many or being known generally is no distinction whatsoever. Anytime someone is asked what did I do and we name people who are known, we’re feeding this ridiculous idea that there’s something special about celebrity. I resist answering that question because I don’t have to answer it anymore. Every editor, no matter how successful, is scrounging for the next new book, the next new hot thing. There’s great insecurity in that kind of life, where you’re living off of other people’s work. When you’re pushing yourself, which is what others must do — I’m talking here about acquiring editors, not the kinds of editors that read and correct people’s manuscripts — you go out and you’re either talking to people and you say “I do this person” and “I do that person,” and those are the ones who are known because they’re in your circle of friends.

Q: I think that sort of sentiment would really appeal to City Paper readers, because there’s a great resistance among readers of the paper to name brands.

Many people have differing attitudes about this, but often that’s just related to what status they happen to be in. I worked with many popular authors and enjoyed it very much. Many of them who get hammered by the critics believe that a writer is as good as a writer’s audience. That’s how they defend their place in the world. If you get hammered enough critically, it’s very hard to avoid coming forward with such a statement. “People love my work, millions read me, therefore I must be good.” Then again, people who don’t sell at all justify their own obscurity by saying that obscurity is better.

Q: I’ve always been pretty cynical of those who say that they don’t care at all about the public’s view of their work.

When you’re actually producing something for the public, it’s very hard to maintain a single standard, really. It’s easy to be mistrustful of everybody’s attitude in a certain way. The admiration for sales in this culture, for numbers, for things of that nature, is in many ways deplorable. It relates to nothing except itself. The number of readers that a writer has is no reflection on the work itself. Now the number of intelligent readers that grasp the work at hand and truly absorb it or understand it is a blessing to an artist, to find people who really enter into the work who could sit down at a moment’s notice and discuss it with the writer, often more intelligently than the writer can. Often the writer is the last person to talk to.

Q: Why do you think that is?

First because you get sick of your stuff. I don’t know why. You can’t experience it innocently. When I was an editor, I would resist reading works in progress — you know, some would send in their whole finished book and others would send in partial manuscripts. I had a guy who would send in a book page by page. You’re innocent only once when you experience a work. When you’re an editor and you’re expected as editors are these days to contribute to the actual aesthetic of the book these days, change it, be involved in the changes, you’re supposed to experience the work as a reader would. You’re supposed to sit down and read it when it’s done. If you read it piece by piece, you never get that experience. The writer who’s written one word at a time is going to have the greatest distance from his work. Then again, a writer’s just going to defend what he’s written anyway.

But that doesn’t answer your original question. There were far-out people who readers of your paper would know. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I did fiction, I did non-fiction, I did poetry. I was Jacqueline Susann’s editor. She was great! She was wonderful, she was a gas. She was quite good at what she did. There are things to be learned from these popular novelists. “Serious literature” can learn a great deal from the popular literature, because popular literature is often just great literature simplified. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her memoirs about how, when she was having a love affair with Jean-Paul Sartre, they would go on these long vacations and read only detective novels. I can’t read detective novels, you know, whodunits. But if you read stuff like that, you can learn stuff from it. Often these people are masters of plot and suspense and timing. Jacqueline Susann wrote a book where she killed off her male lead character in a plane crash in the middle of the book. That’s a very courageous thing to do, characters take a lot of energy to create. That’s an interesting thing. Tolstoy would be reading that sort of thing and say Gee! I think I’ll kill off one of my characters. Popular novels are very transparent and you can see what’s going on inside of them.

You could do a whole Ph.D. on the withholding of information in fiction. But you have a narrative, and the writer no matter what he says is aware of something that is going to happen later. Of course some writers don’t say that, they claim that they don’t know where they’re headed. But of course they have some idea. They’re withholding what they know. You’re giving up what you’re withholding it as you go along, and how you do that tells how you write.

I did pop novels. I did an author named Richard Powers, we did his first two or three books. One of the most gifted writers I ever did was an American in Central America, R. M. Koster, he wrote the Tinieblan Trilogy, about a made-up Central American country called Tinieblas. Those of us who did editing for a while have great secret passions, and secrets, wonderful writers who haven’t been great celebrities. Powers has won the McCarthy Prize, and Tinieblas was nominated for the National Book Award. I did The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I’ve done feminist books, left-wing books, The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone.

I was publishing at the time that the counterculture was emerging. And I was a young editor and interested in these things. I did books on communes when we thought we’d all end up living there and stayed on a commune while editing a book. I did those things. It was a vastly interesting time, far more than our own time. If you look at issues in our time, if you look at today you don’t see young readers arguing over issues in books today. You won’t see young people arguing so much about, say, The Bell Curve. And young readers are the best readers. Can you think of any big abortion books, for instance? I did a lot of black writers, Leroi Jones before he changed his name. Books on race relations, revolution. It was a wonderful time to be publishing non-fiction, issue-oriented books. And now I really don’t see young people getting involved and arguing over serious books these days.

. . .

This book was created on a manual typewriter. Then I got a computer, Bob Persig took me out, because he’s been involved with computers since the 50s, since before people really knew about these things, he took me out to shop and told me to buy this Macintosh. I had been very resistent because I enjoyed my manual typewriter. This book was written on that and revised on the computer, and I’m not ashamed to say I loved it. As a publisher, I noticed that as computers began to become phased in, books became a lot longer. When you’re a publisher, you have to deal with size of the books. I am virtually certain that books are longer than they were before. I know that when I got into publishing, the average novel was either 224 or 256 pages. It was a rare book that went over 296.

Q: John Barth has said that when you type on a computer, you see how pretty your words look all neatly lined up on the screen and you get psyched into thinking you’ve written something wonderful, even if you haven’t.

You get past to the point that you realize your words are a piece of shit.

Revising is where it’s great, because you don’t have to change a whole page to change a few words. You used to start retyping a whole page and you’d end up making more and more corrections as you retyped. If I only zero in on a couple of words in a line and the rest of the page justifies on the computer screen, I don’t have to type the whole thing over again. That was how I figured it, but I was wrong. I know I revised more with this machine than I would have otherwise. I wouldn’t have been able to do all the revisions….

There will be people who will always write on pencil and paper. It will be rediscovered. Just like smoking will come back.

Q: So what are you doing these days? What have you been doing since you left Morrow? I know you’ve been working on this book.

What else? I’m raising my children, I walk my children to school every day. I’m studying the piano. I worked very hard on this book. Books are very hard things. The first word and the first sentence are very easy. Every word you write imprisons you in certain ways, restricts what follows. My idea of the perfect novel is the novel that ends on a certain word because that’s the only word you could use, it’s been narrowed down to that. I’m studying the piano, my son and I are studying the piano together, because I’m probably going to write about a musician next in an adult book. I used to be a musician as a kid, I made my first money playing in a band.

Q: Tell me about some of your other published books.

Most of my books have been children’s books. I have a futile ambition to write humorous narrative poems for children. I’ve created a character named Strangely Strangely. Most of my writing recently has been working on my Strangely Strangely poems.

Others: The Sisters Impossible (Knopf), a book from the late ’70s about two sisters in ballet. The sequel was called Love’s Detective. They were quirky books about girls from girls’ points of view — I thought that would be safer. I did a number of kids’ books. Daddy’s Girl was another. The latest was The Band Never Dances, about a girl drummer in a rock band, it was up for the California Young Readers’ Medal, but it didn’t win. That’s the problem with children’s books, is that there’s always adults between you and your readers.

All mine have been novels, no pictures. Mostly young adult, some for younger. It’s much different and more restrictive than writing for adults. When you write for adults, at least no one say “make it for 42-47 year olds.” Good writing bursts through these artificial boundaries anyway.

A huge figure in children’s publishing told me that children’s poetry was a dead issue. He was basing that on the fact that sales figures for children’s poetry were going down. Children adore rhyme. I just wrote this whole novel about words. When somebody tells you there’s no market for something, that’s the time to strike. It’s like the stock market, when everyone says the market’s falling apart, that’s the time to make money. Somebody says you can’t do something, you should want to do it.

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  1. Corrin Avchin on November 6, 2012 at 9:24 pm  Chain link

    Do you know how I could contact Mr. Landis??

  2. David Louis Edelman on November 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm  Chain link

    No, unfortunately, I do not know how to contact him.

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