December 2010

Sean P. Carroll


An Interview with Stephen Dixon

Stephen Dixon has always been known as a writer’s writer. This moniker is often applied when the critics don’t know how to classify a talent as singular as Dixon’s. He has been practicing his unique brand of urban American realism since the publication of his first story collection, No Relief, in 1976. However, his first published story, “The Chess House,” goes all the way back to a 1963 issue of The Paris Review. Over the intervening three decades Dixon has garnered two National Book Award nominations, for Frog (1991) and Interstate (1995); while crafting such critically acclaimed books as Quite Contrary: The Mary and Newt Story (1979), Movies: Seventeen Stories (1983), Gould (1997) and 30: Pieces of A Novel (1999); to name but a small sample, that blur the boundaries between story and novel.

What Is All This?: Uncollected Stories, published by Fantagraphics, is Dixon’s 28th work of fiction, and it offers a fascinating perspective on his long dialogue with the short form. The book consists of 62 stories, divided in three sections, which Dixon has gone back and rewritten from beginning to end. None of the stories in this monumental volume have ever appeared in a book, and Dixon’s unmistakable style and experimentalism draws not only on his familiar New York City locale, but also includes unexpected digressions that offer ample evidence why he is one of our foremost practitioners of fiction. It is a masterful tome that exemplifies Dixon’s ability to transform the vagaries of the everyday into a lasting work of art.

This interview was conducted via email in late October and early November 2010.

You have been a prolific short story writer throughout your career. However, it has been over a decade since you last released a new collection, Sleep (1999). What moved you to go back and rewrite all of your previously uncollected stories? How did Fantagraphics become involved with this project?

Fantagraphics became involved because Melville House, the publisher of three of my novels, didn't want to bring out the three collections in one book. They thought it would be too expensive and a losing proposition. I thought the collections would generate no interest if published one at a time. That publishing 62 stories, never in book form and all rewritten, except for the unfinished ones still in manuscript form, which I finished for the collection, would be interesting and unusual if not unique as a body of work.

Paul Maliszewski, a friend, then suggested Fantagraphics and said he would put in a good word for me with them. He seemed to know them and they respected his suggestions. Paul, by the way, was instrumental in connecting me to Melville House. So he's been very important in helping me to continue being published. I remember him saying over the phone, "There's a new publisher that I think might be interested in your work. Let me call them to see if that's so." I wanted to bring out the three collections in one book.

Why did I rewrite all 62 stories? Originally there were about 80. I threw out about 20 of the stories of mine never in book form as not being worth republishing in book form. The 62 I did rewrite or finish, I thought worthy of book form, and I just wanted to either complete them as stories (the incomplete ones) or improve on the ones that had been in magazines. Several of the stories -- "The Chocolate Sampler," "Meet the Natives.," "Shoelaces" -- go back to 1959-60, when I was a newsman in D.C.

The book is divided into three separate sections. Did you use original publication chronology or another method as the organizing principle?

I had 80 stories never in book form and some of them now completed for the first time, in a box beside my writing table. To be honest, I just took them out of the box at random and rewrote them. The first story I finished became the first story in this enormous three-volume collection.

I thought the three Playboy stories ought to be together (they're in Book 1). But they got mixed up. "What Is All This?" should have been the third Playboy story, but what of it. I like randomness. I also got to include the parts of that story that the Playboy editors, without my permission, left out. I also got to publish the original ending of "The Young Man Who Read Brilliant Books." That was the first story of mine Playboy took (in 1968) and wouldn't publish with the original ending. I was broke then, couldn't even afford a telephone (the acceptance came by telegram on my apartment front door doorknob) and Playboy paid me $2,000 for the story, added a thousand for making it the lead story, and also gave me a pair of cufflinks and a $100 bonus at the end of the year. I was aggrieved at letting them change the ending to one that was hideous and I've never allowed a magazine to change a story of mine again unless I agreed that the change helped. That's happened a couple of times.

I have never associated the word political with your various fictions, but in this book we are treated to several stories that address that thorny subject. "The Bussed" populates your familiar urban landscape with the terrors of a totalitarian regime, while "China" and "The Leader" offer up a military fable of sorts as well as a scabrous portrayal of Hitler. What was the impetus for these departures from your usual fiction making?

I wrote those during very political times, which I was strongly influenced by. You didn't mention "Mr. Greene," which was influenced by the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King and others. As for Hitler in "The Leader," I'd read an article about him in Psychology Today and thought that portrait of his sexual aberrations would make a good story if told from the prostitute's point of view. I wanted to write about a Hitler that hadn't been written about in fiction before.

I also wanted to write a story from the prostitute's point of view. How she reacts to Hitler's aberrational requests, and the whole operation in getting the right woman for Hitler. I also, odd as this must read, wanted to recapture a certain historical time.

In marked contrast to most contemporary fiction there has always been a very frank depiction of sexuality in your work; in this collection most notably in "Fired." Is this bluntness intrinsic, or just one of the mosaic of elements in your pared-back prose, or does it also refute the distinct lack of realism that permeates most fictional treatments of sex?

I write about sex the way it is. I try not to be salacious. I, in fact, go out of my way not to be. I feel the best way to handle sex is naturally. I don't write to get anyone excited by my depictions of sex. But I don't want to write something other than the way it happened.

Lots of times I just say the couple did it. Other times, because of what's happening in the sex act that reveals plot and character, it's necessary to go in to greater detail. Sex has usually been an important part of most of the characters in my fiction, but just one part.

You have spent your career chronicling the vicissitudes of the hectoring urban male, usually a writer or a member of the working class, and numerous examples abound in this collection. Why have these characters continued to fascinate you over the years, and why are they so prone to irrational behavior and failure both professional and personal?

I write about the working life because I started a working life when I was ten years old, and worked for the next 50 years. I find my male characters to be both hectored and loved, and argumentative and sometimes irrational but often loving. I found great love and peace in my relationship and marriage to Anne Frydman, but we had, as any couple has had, moments of anger and bitterness too. I write a great deal about breakups because I've had a number of breakups, and I write about reconciliations too, because I've had a number of those too. What can I say? I write about the emotional life as I've experienced it and as I see it. I write about extreme emotional moments, and extreme psychological moments, not only because they exist and I find them interesting, but because I've lived them. And I'll confess to having written about them sometimes, after a breakup, to get something creative out of that breakup. There have been times -- before Anne -- when the woman would say "That's it; we're through," and slam my door, and I would immediately, or soon that day, go to the typewriter and write a story about the breakup, or she would tell me to leave and I would return to my apartment and begin to write a story about the breakup, of course much fictionalized to make it a story, and not repeat a breakup story I've previously written.

These stories, along with most of your fiction, are set in your native New York. Your novel Fall & Rise (1985) even charts the beginnings of a courtship that careens pell-mell through the streets of Manhattan, and your work has always been filled with the vernacular specific to urban life. Why has the city been such a fertile field for your imagination? Or does it take on the role of a character in its own right?

I write so much about New York -- starting with No Relief -- because I was born, raised, educated and lived so much of my life in New York. The answer is as simple as that. I KNOW New York, walked its streets, worked in its bars, restaurants, schools (middle, junior high and NYU Continuing Education), CBS News, Fawcett Publications, and so on. Not an artful answer but the straightest one.

I always write about the places I've lived and loved in. A lot of my recent writing -- the past 30 years -- has been about Baltimore and Maine and New York -- all three, because those are the three places I've lived in with my wife and children: 2-3 months in the Penobscot area of Maine, in the summer; most of the time in Baltimore and Baltimore County, and an apartment in NYC, which we were evicted from about five years ago. The novel I've been working on for four and a half years, His Wife Leaves Him, takes place in those three places.

Many of your books seem to blur the line between story and novel. Gould (1997) is billed as a novel in two novels and Frog (1991) consists of linked novels, stories and novellas. The subtitle of 30 (1999) even refers to it as pieces of a novel. Is there a point when you realize that a story or a group of stories is bound to become part of a larger work?

First of all, it was the publisher himself at Henry Holt who gave the novel 30 the subtitle of “Pieces of a Novel.” I didn't want it but was urged by the editor and literary agent to agree to it. I considered 30 my best book and wanted it published, and knew, because of its size -- though it has fewer pages than Frog, it has more words -- and its structure that I would have trouble getting it published elsewhere As for my diddling with the forms, that's what I like to do. But each time I do it, there's a reason, of course.

With Gould, I first wrote the first short novel in it, Abortions. Henry Holt accepted it and was going to publish it, but then I wrote the second novel in it, Evangeline, and suggested to Holt that they publish the two short novels as one, and I chose the title Gould because he, the character Gould Bookbinder, was the connecting link. I also wanted them published together because I didn't want to wait another year for the second novel of Gould to come out. I was in a writing frenzy, more so than usual, and I wanted my completed works to come out soon as they could so the works I was writing wouldn't have to wait so long to be published.

With Frog, I wrote the first draft of the first story (chapter?) in it in Prague -- it's called "Frog in Prague" -- and I finished it in Maine, summer, '85, and continued to write stories with Frog in it, and then the stories got longer and I had novella-length and novel-length stories, and that's how it was written. I never know how long a work is going to be when I start it, and I rarely know where it's going to go and what the structure of the work will be.

With Gould and 30, this is how they were written. I was in NYC with my wife and daughters, May and June, 1995. Every day I wrote a first draft of a short story. Some would take me two days and a few took three. Then one of those seemed to want to grow, and after it grew, wanted to be completed, so I completed it. It became Abortions. Then I continued to write first drafts of stories in Maine, every day or two a new one, and again, one started to grow and wanted to be completed, so I completed it after it had grown. It became Evangeline. Then I thought I'd written enough first drafts (stories? chapters?), and started to work backwards: completing the last first draft, and then the penultimate last first draft, and antepenultimate, and so on. I thought that would be interesting. That's why one section (story? chapter?) is called "His Mother Again" and a section about ten sections after that is called "His Mother."

You see my point. "His Mother" as a first draft was written before "His Mother Again," but as a completed piece was finished after "His Mother Again." I had a lot of fun writing this way. All those first drafts -- other than for a few I threw out and got rid of -- became 30, the novel, at least the first half. Because there's more to this story (foolishness?). After I was finished with that part of 30, I wrote a lot of first drafts of new sections, but completed them one at a time. That became the Ends section of 30. Like Gould, the book is divided in two.

In two stories in this collection, “Long Made Short” and “Nothing New,” you utilize a method that I might best describe as false or abandoned starts to the story; some of which seem to parody clichéd beginnings. How and when did you first start developing this technique? Also, why was “Long Made Short” excluded from the collection that bears its name (1994)?

I don't know when I started to do this with stories like “Next to Nothing.” Probably 30 years ago. I didn't know what to write but I was compelled to write, so I wrote about my inability to start a story and my compulsion. A lot of my work is generated that way. As for "Long Made Short," it was in the original collection I sent Johns Hopkins University Press, which had asked for another collection of mine. The collection was titled Long Made Short. The editor, John T. Irwin, liked the title for the collection -- it represented what a short story is -- but not the story, I assume, so he lifted it from the collection. I have no idea why I didn't include the story in my next collection, and a big one, Sleep, but I didn't. It could be that I had so many stories I forgot about that one.

It's one of my favorite stories. Deeply emotional but constructed, I thought, originally. I like melding those two worlds -- emotion and originality. Where the odd construction of the story doesn't stifle the emotion of the story.

You have written compulsively over the years about traumatic incidents inspired by the history of your own family. Despite the recurrence of subject matter you always seem able, unlike lesser writers, to use it as springboard for innovation. Do you consider yourself or your characters obsessive? How do you manage to continually expand and digress on a seemingly fixed point in a narrative?

I am obsessive in that I always have to have something to write. I would probably get ill if I didn't have something to write. That's why I usually start something new the day after I've finished something new. And if nothing comes -- I might try three or four times that day -- I try again the day after, and if nothing comes that day, the day after that. I only feel good when I have something to work on.

As for the other part of the question, I suppose I am naturally innovative. Innovation comes easier to me than traditional writing. I enjoy saying old things in a new way. I stopped writing in a traditional way in 1959-61, when I was writing stories in D.C. like "Meet the Natives" and "The Chocolate Sampler" and "Shoelaces." I was young and wanted to try out new forms. Some of these forms came naturally but other times they were willed. Some took some thinking and others just burst out of the pod. Some came as I sat in front of my typewriter and others came as I walked on the street or looked at a painting in a museum or was taking a shower or making love or waiting on a table in a restaurant or as a bartender, pouring a guy a drink in a bar. I never knew where or when a story idea or new form would come. But they always came, and always when I was looking for something to write, and they never took long to come. As I said, it probably has to do with health. If I want to be healthy, I must have something to write and a way to write it.

There seems to be a timeless aspect to your fiction. There are never any references or signposts that would indicate a specific year or even decade. Was this a conscious decision on your end or did it develop as part of your unmistakable prose style?

There are some pieces or parts of my fiction that are timed. Examples: Fall & Rise has references to the very late seventies. No Relief has a story in it with a reference, I believe, to Nixon's -- president, then -- shirt cuffs.

George Bush II is referred to, not flatteringly, in Meyer. In the story “Contac," in What Is All This?, onions go for about three cents a pound. And so on. But I like my work to be mostly timeless. I am not an historian. I think the timelessness of my work keeps the fiction from being dated.

Rhythm is an underexplored aspect of fiction. In your case I feel that that one of the most vital elements of your work is the seamless marriage of pace and language. How difficult is it for you to create and sustain this hectic momentum?

Every piece of fiction I write comes with its own language and pace. It comes naturally and appropriately. If it's an exciting scene, the pace is picked up. The pace is as much a part of the story as the language. And the language is part of the pace. They work together. An unexciting scene wouldn't employ a hectic pace. And the other way around too.

But it all comes down to words. The right words. The right union of words. The right number of syllables in the words. The right number of words. The right union of sentences. The right number of syllables in the sentences. The right number of sentences. Nothing can stick out. Everything has to work together. I work to make everything work. I know when everything is working to the whole. Pace is important to the actions and emotion of the piece, of course, and the words and juxtapositions of the sentences are important, of course, to the pace.

There have been numerous references over the course of your writing career to the number 30; most notably in the thirty years worth of stories included in The Stories of Stephen Dixon (1994) and the aforementioned 30: Pieces of A Novel (1999). What does this number signify to you?

The number 30 signifies completion and end. I was once a newsman. At the end of the story I wrote, I'd write: -30-. It was originally the symbol for the end of a telegraph message: the number 30 with two wings. Apparently simpler to telegraph, and shorter, than the words "The End." It meant the story was over. I liked that symbol for my own writing. Not only the completion of a story but the end of many ends: the end of a life of a person the narrator loved; the end of innocence; the end of a job; the end of a love affair, health, childhood, etc.; the end of ends. I have other reasons, but I think I've said enough. Symbolically, it's the most important number to me.

You taught in the John Hopkins writing program for 26 years before your retirement. What sort of impact did this role have on your own fiction? What were some of the most vital lessons that you endeavored to impart on, what turned out to be, a generation of writers?

I taught for 27 years. Sept., '80 to June, '07. Maybe that is 26 years. Teaching had no impact on my writing.

My main characters were often teachers in college, but you rarely saw them teaching. One story, "Eating the Placenta," in my 1984 collection Time to Go, has a teacher trying to avoid an unavoidable student who wants feedback on a story he's written. The teacher wants to hurry home to attend to his wife, who called him in his office to say she needs to be taken to the hospital to have their first baby. The student is unrelenting, follows him most of the way home. That's an example of how I included my teaching experiences into my writing.

Or in Frog, a writing teacher goes crazy in the classroom, turns over a table, needs quick psychiatric help. Otherwise, I found the academic setting void of material. I kept the experience of teaching on the outskirts.

Lessons? I taught line by line, story by story, word by word. I told them there were no rules in fiction writing. I was always encouraging, pointed out where they were writing well, was very easy on them when they weren't writing well. My young writers were very sensitive about their work, and I didn't want to hurt any of them. My impression of their work meant a lot to them. Somehow, they all became better writers. Benevolence works. I told them never to fool themselves that something is better than it is. Don't call a work finished till it's the best you can do. Never change anything if you don't agree with the change. Develop self-editing skills, because one day you'll be out there writing alone. And so on. Practical advice. Don't let rejections stop you if writing is what you love most to do. And don't change a word just to get it published. If you do, even once -- I don't care for how much money or recognition -- you might soil your writing from then on.

You have had a very peripatetic publishing career both with traditional publishing houses and as of late with more progressive entities. Do you think the uncompromising nature of your work is the primary reason for this vagabond history?

Yes. Also, my works have never made a publisher money, except once. So they drop me and I have to find a new publisher. I've had 14 different publishers for 28 books. The only publisher who made money from my work was Cane Hill Press, which published my novel Garbage. I wrote Garbage in 1979. It came, as did Work, from my bartending experiences. My agent at the time, Felicia Eth, submitted it to Harper & Row, which had published my two previous books: Too Late and Quite Contrary.

Harper & Row rejected it, as did about 40 publishers after that. In 1987, Steven Schrader, a fiction writer, and a good one, had gone into publishing and phoned me, asking me to submit a manuscript to be his first published book. I did, and Garbage was published in '88, almost 10 years after it had been written and long after I ever thought it'd be published. It turned out to be my most lucrative book: earning about $3,000 from Cane Hill Press, another $2,000 from the French publisher, Balland, and enough money from the movie sale for my wife and I to buy a small house in Baltimore. So you never know what's going to happen to a book.

Usually, the ones you think will make a dent, don't. And others you doubt you'll even get published, do. But I've always been lucky in getting my work published, once I got my first book published, which took 17 years of submitting various finished full-length manuscripts.

You have published short stories over the course of the past four decades. What are your thoughts on the evolution of the short story in that time and the state of the myriad guises that encompass contemporary short fiction?

I don't know; honestly. I don't think about it. I just write. My own evolution in the short story might be interesting to discuss. Just about all my short stories since 1985 have been part of long works: novels and interrelated collections. I've written very few stories since then -- maybe Long Made Short is my last collection of uninterrelated stories -- that don't belong with other stories.

You have been working on a novel, His Wife Leaves Him, for the last four to five years. How would you best describe the scope and scale of this epic length work-in-progress?

I'm not quite sure. It's definitely my most emotional work as well as, perhaps, being my funniest. It might also be my most adventurous structurally, and also the cleanest and clearest writing I've ever done. It's also my most elegiac. I've never been so satisfied with a work, which is why it's so difficult to complete. I don't want to let it go, but it's told me recently I have to -- that I've come to the perfect finish -- and anything beyond what I've planned as the ending will hurt the book.

Today's November 15. I'd say that by December 1, the novel will be done. It won't reach 900 pages, but it'll be close.