David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

J.D. Landis Interview: Jactations of a Former Diaskeust

Originally published August 23, 1995 in the Baltimore City Paper.
Also read the complete interview transcript.

J.D. LandisA man lies in bed waiting for his wife. She’s gone out on some mysterious errand in the city. He spends the evening fantasizing, listening to music, ordering Chinese food, and seeking ways to reinvent their marriage.

If that doesn’t sound like the plot for your typical piece of literary erotica — especially not the “psychosexual thriller” promised on the jacket copy — neither is Jim Landis your typical debut novelist. Landis spent twenty-four years in the heart of the publishing world as an editor at New York publishing house William Morrow & Company, where he worked with such diverse authors as Robert Persig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls).

And now, four years after his retirement from Morrow, Landis has produced this stunning, if opaque, literary gem (under the name J.D. Landis) and is on the phone with me acting frustratingly elliptical about it.

“One thing about this book is that it is written, if you know what I mean,” says Landis. “Sentences come to a conclusion for a specific purpose. That seems to be going without saying.” Er, yeah. I guess so.

A Straightforward Tale of Love and Discovery?

Landis seems to have the odd notion that he’s written a completely straightforward tale of love and self-discovery. (“Then again,” says Landis, “I wrote it. I wasn’t cursed with thinking about it.”) He discounts the technical difficulties of confining an entire novel to the space of a single New York apartment (albeit a large one). He breezily mentions that Lying in Bed has no outside authorial voice, just the present-tense narration of John Chambers alternating with the journal entries of Clara Bell, and therefore what you read in the book isn’t completely reliable. “It’s not that they’re not to be trusted as narrators,” he hastily adds, “because I don’t like that either — you know, that kind of writing where the narrator is always lying.”

If Landis’ narrators aren’t liars, neither are they apt to steer a clear path for the reader. Lying in Bed can be exceedingly difficult at times, both in deciphering John’s odd vocabulary and ultra-logical thought processes, and in piecing together Clara’s story from her vague and non-chronological diary entries. The result is an engrossing and often touching story of love and redemption, unique in its challenging, self-absorbed views of love, language, and sex.

Landis: The Odd Man Out

Certainly in the publishing world, Landis was something of the odd man out. While other acquiring editors in the business were chasing after name-brand authors and bestseller manufacturers, Landis took the high road: he wanted writers with talent that went beyond the ability to lure your average B. Dalton browser to the pulp paperback rack.

“The best writers are often not known,” he says. “I resist and resent it when anybody becomes well-known simply because they have a connection to those that are already well-known. Being known by many people is no distinction whatsoever — we’re just feeding this ridiculous idea that there’s something special about celebrity.”

According to Landis, that notion only leads to writers justifying the quality of their work in either the popular or critical sphere by their popularity. “Many authors 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. ‘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.

“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, especially when you find people who really enter into the work who could sit down at a moment’s notice and discuss it with the writer. Often they’re much more intelligent about these works than the authors themselves.”

Given Landis’ loathing of popularity as a determinant of quality, it’s surprising to find him only minutes later mounting a passionate defense of popular fiction. “Serious writers can learn a great deal from popular writers, because popular literature is often just great literature simplified,” says Landis. “Jacqueline Susann once 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. It’s the type of thing a Tolstoy might look at and say, ‘Gee! I think I’ll kill off one of my characters.'”

The type of authors Landis looked for seemed to be just the type who would make such daring creative moves. He began his publishing career in the late 1960s during the height of the counterculture, when books were the prime medium of disseminating new ideas. “I did books on communes when we thought we’d all end up living there, and I stayed on a commune while editing a book,” he says. And over the years, Landis ended up publishing some of the Left’s most well-known faces: Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex), Robert Persig, Leroi Jones, and more recently, Naomi Wolf.

But Landis is insistent on drawing the focus away from him and towards the work in question. “I don’t want this to be an interview about me,” he says. Okay, fine. So what about the book?

Sex, Revelation and Game-Playing

Perhaps like Landis himself, his narrators aren’t disposed to reveal themselves to the reader. What keeps John and Clara together is a strange mixture of kinky sex, personal revelation, and game-playing that harks back to the twisted relationship of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nicholson Baker also comes to mind, although Landis claims that Lying in Bed was in the planning stages before he had read Baker’s groundbreaking dirty-talk novel Vox.

John Chambers, a millionaire by inheritance and aesthete by temperament, describes himself as a rhetorician (“someone who studies the power of language”). He speaks with horribly arcane words not listed in your everyday desk Webster’s dictionary, such as in the following:

“Diascuties?” [he said.] It was either a brilliant agnominative response or a defensive logodaedaly of the first order.

This is a man who tells his sexual partner after lovemaking, “You were sarmassational!” (pun on sarmassation, n., love play). This is a man who, on being told that his lover was born on November 22, 1963, exclaims with a start that that was the day Aldous Huxley died. This is a man who once went an entire year without speaking because he had lost the sense of purpose to his words.

John’s soul mate Clara Bell seems at first a distant figure, more an enigmatic Beatrice than a flesh-and-blood partner in the marriage. But as we begin to see more of her through her personal journal entries, Clara emerges as an even more complex character than John. Where Chambers is deliberately obscure, pedantic, and insular, Clara is a free spirit devoted to sensual pleasure. Her journals invoke Led Zeppelin rather than Schubert, Virginia Woolf instead of Nietzsche or Strindberg. They also detail Clara’s obsession with a peculiar type of sex act — she likes to numb her fingers by sitting on them and then engage in mutual masturbation with her partner.

“I didn’t want her to be a dummy,” Landis says. “To the extent that she wasn’t going to be an academic, I didn’t want to use her the way they used whores in old movies — you know, bringing joy and life to the dull intellectual.”

It certainly seems at times that John could use such treatment. Ensconced in his own self-contained world and deaf to the realities around him, Chambers is sort of an inverted Rain Man: too intelligent for his own good, a genius savant who hasn’t yet bothered to figure out what the feminine menstrual cycle is all about.

But don’t make the mistake of calling him cold, an adjective Landis emphatically rejects. “Why do we assume that a person very much of the mind is cold or not passionate?” Landis asks. “He certainly becomes quite passionate and quite a connoisseur of Clara’s body. He’s withdrawn, certainly. But 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 deep down inside we’re all very solitary. He’s a very natural man in that respect.

“At one point, John says he wants to ‘repudiate the tyranny of the gene,'” Landis states. “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, repudiating 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 time, he has repudiated the tyranny of his genes.”

J.D. Landis Today

There does seem to be a little bit of John Chambers in J.D. Landis — or vice-versa. He admits that “There are times when I find myself falling into a certain formality of sentence structure like Johnny’s,” although he quickly qualifies this statement by calling Clara’s voice equally his own. And like Chambers, Landis may make frequent use of obscure words like “malapert” and “stichomythia” in his book, but he seems to regard simpler words much more suspiciously. He gets particularly flummoxed by the straightforward question “What are you doing these days?”

“What am I doing?” he replies, as if enunciating the most general of verbs is a much more difficult task than sounding a sophisticated lingual construction from Finnegans Wake. “I’m raising my children. I walk my kids to school every day. I’m studying the piano.” He’s also become an accomplished writer of children’s fiction, with several well-known adolescent titles for girls published under pseudonyms, including The Sisters Impossible, Daddy’s Girl, and most recently The Band Never Dances.

“The problem with children’s books is that there’s always adults between you and your readers,” says Landis. “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. But I figure that if somebody tells you that you can’t do something, you should want to do it anyway. When somebody tells you there’s no market for something, that’s the time to strike.”

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  1. anonymous on May 13, 2009 at 10:53 am  Chain link

    Jim Landis was a fine book editor.

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