We Go On Way Too Long Here

Ryan Rivas asked me to write a short introduction to an exclusive excerpt from Stephen Dixon’s latest novel His Wife Leaves Him, fresh out last week from Fantagraphics. I was––and remain, somewhat––at a loss for what to say about the book and, moreover, about Dixon. No, that’s not it. That’s not it at all. No, it was the nature of the request: “a short introduction,” to Dixon, of all writers. First––and Rivas, of all my friends and compatriots in the literary arts, knows this better than anyone––I don’t do “short” anything (I blame reading Dixon regularly for the past twenty years, in part, for my developing that habit, but that’s another matter for another discussion).  Second, how do I introduce a man who I consider to be not only one of our finest and most important short story writers and novelists, a writer worthy of serious critical study, a writer who is truly––to use the cliché––“a writer’s writer”?  Third, how do I even begin to delve into the nature of Dixon’s genre-defining (and, at the same time, genre defying) stories (of which over 600 hundred have been published) and novels (he’s published fifteen, I believe, depending on how you define a “novel”) in the course of a “short introduction”?  How do I even begin to explain how Dixon––though we’ve never met in person and I’ve never taken a writing class with him––effectively taught me nearly everything I know about short-story and novel writing, that he, even more so than other writers I studied with––writers who, frankly, have won more awards, sold far more books, been studied a hell of a lot more––made me believe that stories and novels––the act, that is, of creating them, of creating characters and imagining worlds––actually mattered and could change one’s––be it a reader or an author’s––perspective on the world?   How might I begin to trace Dixon’s influence upon two, maybe three generations of writers?

Of course it strikes me that this introduction to Dixon is itself––with its false-starts, hyper-awareness, self-depreciation––decidedly Dixonian. This, you might say, is what reading Dixon––I mean really reading Dixon like I have––does to you. His style, disposition and voice are infectious. Spend too much time reading Dixon and you end up reading Dixon. Spend a few years trying to shake Dixon out of your system and you’ll fail miserably. There are only a handful of writers who I think the same can really be said for: Hemingway, Beckett, O’Connor, Paley, Baldwin, Faulkner, Burroughs, and maybe Hunter S. Thompson. The goal––the best you can really hope to achieve––is to make his or her style your own, to adapt your vision to the author, to … I don’t know. Well, I guess I do. You catch the virus and you either let it consume you––which might not be a bad thing––or you treat it as best you can or, and maybe this is the best approach, you make it part of yourself. Maybe.

The other day we published the first several pages of Steve’s––I can’t keep calling him Dixon like I have been; he signs his emails and letters “Steve” and I address him as “Steve”––new novel, and one which I think is as good as his novels Interstate, Frog (my favorite) and Gould.  If you like what you read then I strongly suggest buying His Wife Leaves Him. It’s really something to behold. We hope you enjoy it.

Here we have some excerpts from a very long conversation I’ve been having with Dixon by email for the last few months. Talking to Stephen Dixon by email is much like reading a Dixon story: full of halts, asides, gags, rants, digressions, apologies, delays, jokes, personal revelations, etc. The interview started in May of this year and is still going on. These questions and responses stand largely uncorrected (I’ve only resolved a couple of typos on both of our parts ((our conversation, it seems, usually takes place between the hours of 2am (((when I write to Steve))) and 7am (((when Steve’s responses come in))))), with neither Steve nor myself reviewing or revising any of the questions asked or responses. Here are some highlights.

––James R. Fleming

dixon_pencil

Fleming:  I think part of what’s always worked for me in terms of your writing is your sense of play. You’re work is funny––sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny. But I always think that it’s next to impossible to be funny in writing. I used to write a humor/satire column for McSweeney’s––The Cosby Codex––every two weeks. The first one was a hit and folks liked it. However, being funny every two weeks in 1500-2500 words was the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a writer. Now, I was just mocking academic/theoretical arguments and interpretations in that column––and it’s easy to make fun of literary/cultural theory––but the need to come up with a few gags every two weeks drained me. How does one write humor?  I’m also asking because I was asked to teach a class on humor writing this fall. I have no idea how to teach or show people how to be funny. For me, I have to get into a pissy, ugly mood––sometimes with the help of a beer or two––and make myself laugh first before I can even begin to write something humorous. (I once had a shrink tell me I couldn’t possibly be depressed because “you keep making jokes; sad people aren’t funny!” I said to him, “ever read Hamlet? It’s a laugh riot and also tremendously sad and probably written by Shakespeare when he lost his son and was suffering …”) Still, I don’t understand what technique there is (or techniques there are) for being funny. So––how do you write humor?

Dixon: Humor? How do I write humor? Well, I’ve always been a guy who liked to make people laugh. So my main character, and often the main situation, is often a funny guy and a laughable situation. Most of my fiction is about a man and a woman. And I like one of them to be serious, so there’s a contrast, and that’s usually the woman: serious and good and intelligent, but often the wrong woman for him. And sometimes his sour or silly jokes make him the wrong man for her. I like that the guy often tries to get out of serious situations with humor. Lots of times it doesn’t work, but it helps him out. I like my women to be humorous too, when it calls for it, just as it must call for it with the man. I don’t write something with the aim of being funny. But my characters often seem to get into situations that are funny. “The Watch,” “The Shirt,” “Only the Cat Escapes,” “Small Bear,” “Eating the Placenta,” “An Outing,” “A Sloppy Story,” “Movies,” and so on. I like situations that are inescapable, and my characters do get into those. I don’t start out to be funny, but as I say, if it calls for it, I can be––and my character becomes––a comic. I can also be tragic. I feel things very deeply and I try to get as deep as I can into them. No time for humor. I’m being serious. And I make fun of nobody. Writing a humor column would be impossible for me. Using humor in a fiction where it calls for humor is a cinch. I can remember the first time I intentionally made someone laugh at something I did. It was in Miss Bullock’s 4th grade class in P.S.87 in Manhattan. One of the kids asked me if I was related to Dixon pencils (the pencil of its day). I said sure, and took two Dixon pencils and pretended the erasers on top of the pencils were talking to each other. “Are we related to Steve?” one pencil said. “Sure,” the other Dixon pencil said, “we have the same last name and we’re all skinny.” The students found that funny and I liked that they laughed at something I made up.

Fleming: How much does Hemingway matter to you?  Hemingway, these days, is trashed by critics and scholars, which makes me like him more than I used to. Sometimes I find his stuff to be very showy and humorless, though highly teachable. I always start any creative writing or American literature or even non-fiction writing with Hemingway simply because he could really write, but I always find myself drifting. Of course there’s a generational issue, here. I think far more of you and Pynchon than Hemingway and usually make more use of your respective materials when I want students to read and work with good writing.

Dixon: Hemingway? I think he was a failed novelist in all his novels, with some good parts in them, but as a whole often sentimental and silly and made for the movies. But so many of his stories are superb. I guess he felt he had to write novels to be considered a great writer. I love his A Moveable Feast. Best book on writing I know of. Oh, though, how fame kills the writer. I’ve been blessed. No fame. Nobody to write for. Very little money coming in for my work. I didn’t have to depend on it to live on and marry and have a family and take care of them. Teaching did that. And before that, lots of jobs that gave me good material and atmosphere. And no agents to pressure me, because an agent never sold a work of mine but Anne Elmo when she sold my story to Playboy, and also no editors or publishing or large audience to write for. I’m a loner, I guess, and I like to be alone with my writing. I’ve had agents, and I’ve always left them. I like to work alone. And I’ve had editors who liked my work but I always got kicked out of a publishing house because my work didn’t sell. Did I care? No. I always found a new publisher, on my own or people who were looking out for me. I’ve published now 30 books of fiction with15 publishers. Sure, I would’ve liked one publisher for all my books, like Updike and Roth, maybe, but it wasn’t meant to be. My work wasn’t cut out for that. And I never went from one publisher to another one because the second publisher paid more. Nobody offered and I never sought more money than was offered me, and often no money was offered. I just looked for a publisher who would publish my work with respect and artistry. My work, it seems, was cut out to be published and fail.

It’s worked out. Now I’m down to my last book, I think, which I’ll probably never finish, although I could call it finished anytime I want. The last piece in the interlinked collection is being written in my head as we speak. But I’m having too good a time writing it to stop. So, look where I’ve taken this since I started talking about Hemingway.

Fleming: What’s your writing routine like?

Dixon: My routine? I write in the morning, after a short jog in the neighborhood and breakfast. I write for about three hours, or two. Then I take a break and go to the local Y and work out for about an hour (resistance machines, weights, exercise bike for half an hour) and shower and come home and have a light lunch (often a chicken salad or tuna salad wrap I buy at the food place in the Y), and write for two to three hours. Then I take a walk and think about things, like my work, and before I go to bed I look at the page I’m on and might add, in pen, some things to it. I always write a first draft of a story or “chapter” in a novel and then start the process of finishing it. The first draft might take a half hour to an hour to write. The story or “chapter” might take two weeks to several months  (if the five-page first draft turns into a 40-page story or 140-page novella) to finish, or even a year or two to finish if it’s turned into a 240-page novel. I rewrite the first page over and over till it seems as good as it can get to me, and then I go to page two, if I’m not already there at the top of it, and go through the same process with that page. On and on, page to page, till the work’s complete. Then I photocopy what I’ve written at a copy center here, and go home and think about what I’m going to write next, if I haven’t already an idea or a first line in my head or written down for a story, since I get a little edgy if I don’t have something to work on the next day. If I ever really get stuck, and I never have, since ideas for stories always come, I have a small pile of stories I need to finish. I keep them as insurance against the dark mood I could fall into if I haven’t come up with anything to write for a couple of days. That ‘s the one drawback of being a writer: not having something to write. But I always have something to write.

Fleming: [original question lost in the slew of email correspondence]

Dixon: I like questions about technique and form and how I go about doing things in writing. I’m not much for divulging what the story or novel means or what I was getting at.  I leave that up to the reader. And as Beckett said, or said something like it––I’m miserable in remembering quotes; my wife was great at it––if I have to explain it I wouldn’t have written it. Your questions obviously got me talking, which a lot of questions don’t. I often answer clumsily, unintelligently, sloppily. I answer the questions once and don’t correct them except for the typos, which my heavy fingers are always making on the IMac keyboard.

Fleming: Sometimes I feel like I walk a fine line in my work. Mailer used to say that writers are without loyalty, everything’s fair game. And that’s something I’ve always believed. What do you think? Is everything fair game for you in your work? Am I a bastard for using everything and everyone from my life if a story demands such?

Dixon:  Everything in my life isn’t fair game for me. If I write about someone, or let’s say, if something that’s happened between me and someone else inspires a story, I try to disguise that person as best as I can so nobody will recognize that person and maybe even that person won’t recognize herself. I’d be deluding myself if I thought that writing about someone is an expression of my love for that person. Sometimes it is. Other times it is, in a way, taking advantage of an encounter for the purpose of writing what I think’s a good story. My wife also objected to some of the material I used that came from our experiences together. But she gave up protesting, and the protests were never vociferous. Some of the incidents in His Wife Leaves Him and other books and stories are close to what actually happened, though always different because I was fictionalizing them, and much of what I write is somewhat imagined or totally imagined. The birth of their first daughter in His Wife Leaves Him, for instance. Strokes instead of M.S. The opening scene. So, a lot. And some of my dreams I turned into real incidents, since the characters were the same, and some of the incidents that took place in my life I turned into dreams. Why? Because they were too unbelievable to work as real-life incidents. So all to make a convincing story. I would never write anything that I thought would embarrass or infuriate the person the character was taken from or resembles. I did that in my story “Last May,” and swore never to do it again. Of course, I’m to be the judge as to whether it would be embarrassing or infuriating. I’m sure I’ve erred on this a number of times. I don’t show my work around to anybody before it’s published as a book, unless it appears––a story, an excerpt––in a magazine. But the magazines I’m in are not major big ones, so my work there doesn’t get around, which I guess means that my potential victims don’t get a chance to look at my work before it’s published in book form. There have been other times where someone has asked me not to write about her, and I didn’t, really, because I’d hidden her so well in changing what she looked like, the place, often the time. But I have to admit––listen, I’ve written a lot––that at times I’ve been something of a literary cannibal. If I don’t think what I’m writing about would hurt in any way the person whose life I’ve adopted for the fiction I’m writing, I don’t worry too much about hiding her identity except for what’s automatically hidden and changed just by writing about it. It’s a delicate issue to talk about. I hope I haven’t hurt too many people with my fiction. Life is sad enough. I’d hate to inflict more pain.

One more thing. Sometimes I could only write something taken from one of my encounters, after the person died. I still disguised the person but I used the encounter. I did it in a way where no harm was done. It would be easier if I only wrote allegories. I’ve written a number of them but those are less transparent than the non-allegorical stories. Enough. I’m talking too much. Now I’ll go back to my bedroom and sit down in front of my typewriter at my work table and continue writing my new short story––part of the interlinked collection Late Stories––”Ducks.” It came from seeing last week, as I was bringing my just finished story, “The Note,” to the copy center in Timonium, a mother duck leading her eight, tiny, almost featherless ducklings. All this in a shopping center with the bare minimum of greenery. It got me thinking about Robert McCloskey and Chekhov. And I’m sure the mother duck wouldn’t squawk at the way she’s being portrayed.

Fleming: I asked you during one of our previous talks about your literary influences. I mentioned that I see traces of Chekov, Hemingway, Pynchon, Kafka, Carver, O’Connor and all sorts of writers in your work. I’m wondering who your models are. Do they change? Is there anyone’s work that you’ve come to disregard over the years? Who do you especially like now, if anyone?

Dixon: Okay, influences and models. My three models for work were Joyce, Beckett…make that two; no, three, add Kafka. Just that they stuck at it despite the unusual work they were doing and worked hard and then, maybe except Joyce, didn’t think of money. The work was the thing, no matter how long it took to do just one page. But they’re models as workers. As for influences in fiction: early on, Dostoevsky. Then Hemingway, his stories––I also like “Snows…” and “…McComber” and lots of the shorter ones. And Joyce’s Ulysses and Beckett’s short plays and his story “Ping,” which to me is one of the best stories written (I doubt he finished it; just pared it down and gave it up). But I didn’t want to sound like them and made an effort to go out there on my own. Write the way I wanted to and needed to, no matter how odd or different the structure and style might be. It was kind of exciting and definitely encouraging, getting criticized and even ridiculed. Plimpton again, though know I liked him and admired what he did for literature––the magazine, the interviews, that Hemingway interview especially. He said “Not only are you not a novelist but you’re probably not a short-story writer as well.” Oh yeah? I thought. I think Malcolm Lowry should be added to the list as models. An awful life, a pitiful drunk, a very fine writer, and whose Under the Volcano got rejected, I think, 47 times. So there you have it. Early on Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, Lowry, principally. Others I liked: Bellow for Seize the Day and Faulkner here and there, and for the last five years, Thomas Bernhard’s been my favorite writer. I think he’s the best or among the two or three best in the 20th century. We both write long paragraphs but that’s where the similarity ends. I like almost everything he does. And to me the best memoir written is his Gathering Evidence. And I recently finished Correction, and it’s a great work. But I don’t recommend him to anybody anymore, because everyone I’ve told about his work is disappointed in it. I like Handke––especially Left-Handed Woman; not that much anything else. And some of Boll and Sebald and others. Flannery O’Connor. Some of Paley. Some of I.B. Singer. But reading for me is strictly for pleasure, not to be influenced by, of course. I want to read great works. I never read crap voluntarily, though a lot of stuff that starts well becomes crap. Mailer interested me in his early stuff. Not the earliest, though. Not Naked and the Dead. I liked the way he stuck his nose out to get cuffed, not the way he stuck his fists out. To me, a writer has to be modest and retiring and not self-promoting to an egregious and embarrassing degree. Recently (just two books) Leonid Tsypkin. Enough. But I always have to have a book to read. There’s a lot of talent going around today but I’m a hard guy to please. My misfortune, maybe, but I always find something to read. My former colleague John Barth continues to read lots of the younger writers and praises them. He’s generous and open to things in a way I’m not. Of course, Chekhov. I think he’s the greatest fiction writer. He almost never disappointed and was almost always right in how he started a story (or novella), continued it and finished it, and lived his life. Early on, too: William Saroyan (he made writing seem easy), and Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley. No more. I’ve gone on way too long, but I’m sure you’ll know how to cut it down to size. Sorry.

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StephenDixonStephen Dixon was born in 1936 in New York City. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1958 and is a retired faculty member of Johns Hopkins University. He is also a two time National Book Award nominee — for his novels Frog and Interstate — and his work has been selected for 3 O. Henry Prizes, 2 Best American selections, 3 Pushcart Prizes, one Best Stories of the South, 2 stories in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and possibly more he’s too modest to list. He still hammers out his fiction on a vintage typewriter.