by Stephen Dixon
Issue #16 • February 20, 2003•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Who would’ve thought? This idiot writes a book and a publisher actually accepts it and then publishes it. Who would’ve thought it’d be reviewed and taken seriously and some are even great reviews in very good places? Who would’ve thought this inarticulate not very smart guy who has little to say to people in regular life and isn’t very clever or funny or anything like that...is dull, in fact, and nobody has ever really paid much attention to him and certainly not to anything he previously wrote or at least not anywhere but the smallest places and who doesn’t do well in social situations and even his own kids make fun of him sometimes and is one stinking college teacher, would write a book and everything like what he said would happen to it? It’s amazing.
Stephen Dixon has published 23 books of fiction since 1976, 13 story collections and 10 novels. His most recent novel I., the first in a trio of I. books, was published by McSweeney’s Books in June 2002. He lives in Towson, Maryland, with his wife Anne Frydman and daughter Antonia. His older daughter Sophia is in college. He is currently working on a novel called Phone Rings.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
SD: I was reading THE IDIOT by Dostoevski and I thought I’d write my own story about an idiot. So I wrote the 1st part of “Three Novels”, called it “The Idiot.” But then, after I was done with it, I thought This story wants to go on. Continue with your idiot. So I wrote the second. Now I had two, attached, and it didn’t feel complete; I wanted my idiot to get his comeuppance. To get something. To get out of the story, really. So I wrote the third, saw it was about three novels and not an idiot, and re-titled it and sent it out. Bye-bye, idiot, hello three novels. I also titled it that because a colleague of mine insists that everything I write, or since 1985, is involved with twos. GOULD, for instance: subtitled A Novel in Two Novels. 30, which is in two parts. I., my most recent novel from McSweeney’s Books, divided, really in two: the first set of story-like chapters and the end section, a novella: “Again.” Just the title, Again: that it comes again, twice. So I decided, to prove I can count beyond two, to write about something with three. Hence, “Three Novels.”
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
SD: The last line—action—of the third section. I wanted to do something—wanted the character—to do something perverse. What he does-well, I won’t give away what he does; I want the reader to be surprised...so reader: don’t go straight to the ending! I wanted something out of character but, we realize, is part of his character; something he doesn’t want to face...In other words he thinks he can dispose of something by just dropping it in the trash. Darn, gave it away!
HT: Is any part of this story close to your own publishing experience?
SD: No. My first book of fiction, in 1976, NO RELIEF (From Street Fiction Press) was a small story collection, thematically interconnected. The publisher was small too. The book was 128 pages (longest they’d done till then). It got some good reviews—first original softcover Christian Science Monitor ever did, etc., and then the daughter of Sean O’Faihlein, I think one spells his name—no, I’m wrong on the spelling—destroyed the book: called it dirty, filthy, ee-gads, a couple make love on a chair in the hospital room the narrator’s father’s dying in? Scatological too, if you didn’t know it, and sales dropped precipitously of the book: one week it sold 17 copies and the next week sales dropped to 8 and then 5 and then zero. Book dead, long live the book. Now it’s a collector’s item because it’s my first. And my second book? Oh, that one. Called WORK, also published by this wonderful and imaginative Ann Arbor, MI publisher who wanted to change the world of publishing with original softcovers and bold photographic covers. It got one review. Not even a review. A “mention” in a Long Island newspaper, Newsday, a book reviewer’s weekly (Sunday) book column...saying something like “A first novel about work called WORK by Stephen Dixon was published this month by St. Fiction Pr.” And about 6 months later, South Carolina Review, probably because they’d published about 8 of my stories, did a combined review of NO RELIEF and WORK. And WORK was relatively short; about 180 pp. And my third novel? TOO LATE from Harper & Row. Boy, I was on a roll with that one. Great pre-pub reviews, stars, squares, diamonds, clubs...the book was hot till Alan Chews of Public Radio (now) wrote a multiple review in the NYTBR (Sunday) showing why the other two novels—one about ice fishing and the other about logging—were superior to the urban trash guys like me were putting out. Rural over city. It was such a silly review that I sent a copy to the Times for Chews to read along with my last will and testament, saying I’d killed myself after reading that review by banging out this Last Will and Test on the typewriter with my forehead. For some reason, they never published my letter. Those were my 1st 3 books, ‘76, ‘77, ‘78...no prizes and few reviews and scant attention. Who said I had to start big?
HT: Have you ever been harassed by a fan (or critic) of your work?
SD: No. But I have, in my writing life, written a couple of letters to writers, accusing them of stealing my themes, characters, titles, dialog, plots, and trying to steal my style. I asked for half their royalties and the rights for the next 10 years to use their beautiful beach houses on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard for one of the two prime summer months. They never replied. And I always thought I was a good persuasive letter writer.
HT: How do you maintain the line between fact and fiction?
SD: I don’t know how I maintain the line. Changing the names of the characters, for one thing. Sometimes, what I write—and I find myself doing this more and more—is pretty close. But just putting it on paper blurs the line. And adding things that didn’t happen, that helps too.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
SD: Let’s see, I have it right here. I started it on May 14, ‘02 and finished it on June 17, ‘02. This is true. I keep a record of when I started and ended something. I felt I needed one more section to END OF I., which is the third of the I. Trio. Something funny, something a bit different that took in some other aspect of the narrator’s life. That’s when I finished END OF I.—when I finished “Three Novels.” Now I have two sequels to I. Looking for a publisher: TWO (don’t tell my colleague) and END OF I.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
SD: What George Plimpton told me in a letter when, many years ago—I think it was 1966, and I’d sent him a story for a Paris Review contest and a novel for Paris Review Editions (its first incarnation): “You’re not a novelist and maybe you’re not a short story writer as well.” I won’t say this is good advice for every writer, but it sure got me to write even harder than I was. It got me going in a way that flattery or praise wouldn’t have: I knew I had to inure myself against all criticism of my work and just write what I wanted to write and take the consequences, and also to write better than I was doing.
HT: What are you working on now?
SD: A new novel called PHONE RINGS. I started it in June, when I wrote the entire first draft, something I never do: I usually write from section to section, completing a 1st draft of one, then the completed manuscript of that section. I wrote the first draft in 3 months, around 200 pages. Now I’m working on the final draft. I’m on p. 148 and it’s going as well as any book—novel—I’ve ever written. I’m totally immersed in it, can’t think of doing anything except getting to it every day. But since I have to get to other things-the work that pays, for instance, plus family chores—I get to PHONE RINGS as often as I can, and every day, but not for as long as I’d like. It’ll end up being about 600 pp and as good as anything I’ve done.