Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman
An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal
Stephen Dixon Takes the Fifth
Interview and photo (above) by Daniel Libman
Walt Whitman may have contained multitudes, but a Stephen Dixon character has a capacity for the infinite. Dixon’s people misremember, fantasize, re-remember, and perseverate to the point where accuracy is not only out of the question, it’s beside the point. The author of twenty-eight published works of fiction, he has also amassed a shelf-full of awards and accolades including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Book Award nominations. Dixon may be that very rare artist: uniquely gifted, utterly original, uncompromising in his vision, and revered among people for whom literature still matters.
On a recent September afternoon I sat with him in his Baltimore-area home, talking about his quixotic literary career, the recent death of his wife Anne Frydman, and his current project, an enormous novel called His Wife Leaves Him. We sat at his dining room table drinking coffee, beside a short stack of copies of his latest book, What Is All This? Uncollected Stories from Fantagraphics Books.
FWJ: I know you spent some of your pre-writerly days as a broadcast journalist, and you interviewed some pretty impressive names. Do you have any tips for me on how to conduct this interview?
Stephen Dixon: I was brash. I got my interview with Richard Nixon walking down the hallways of Congress when he was totally resistant to being interviewed other than at press conferences. But I got it, and I got my interview with Khrushchev by running up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which would get you shot today. I did this by being brash, by going under the separating barrier and just rushing up. Same thing with Nixon. I saw him walking in the halls of Congress, and I ran up to him and asked if he’d give me an interview. He thought I was cute — I was all of twenty-three years old, and he gave me an interview. I did the same thing with Lyndon Johnson when he was Majority Leader. He was very skeptical of reporters, but he gave a rare radio interview because I just put a microphone in front of his mouth.
FWJ: So you couldn’t go back and neurotically test the equipment over and over like I just did.
SD: Oh, no. But I should have at the Democratic convention. I had a feeling that Adlai Stevenson was going to be ushered through the convention and there was going to be a big uproar. So I got very close to him with my Wollensack, which was a big reel-to-reel recorder that weighed about forty pounds, and I was squeezed. I got the interview but it didn’t come out because the crowd had squeezed me so much the tapes had jarred loose from the spindle.
FWJ: Who were you working for?
SD: I was working for a company called News Associates and Radio Press. They were a news services for radio and TV stations and newspapers.
FWJ: I want to start by asking about your writing habits — Paris Review-type questions. You showed me your writing desk earlier, which is a long table in your bedroom covered with books and loose-leaf papers. In the center is your typewriter under a dust cover. Not a computer. Tell me about the typewriter.
SD: The typewriter is a Hermes, a Hermes Standard, so it’s between a portable and a table model. And it’s the most reliable typewriter I’ve ever had. It’s never been broken; it’s never been repaired. I’ve just had to get it cleaned. All the other typewriters I’ve ever had, mostly Royals, would break apart eventually.
FWJ: How did you come upon the Hermes?
SD: There was a guy who used to sell me equipment in New York and he said this was a great typewriter and he was the sole representative of it in the United States. I bought one and I liked it so much I bought two, and then I bought a third, which was a table model, which was too big.
FWJ: How much time a day do you devote to writing?
SD: Three to four hours. If not more.
FWJ: Always the same time of day?
SD: No, it’s whenever I get a break. For instance, I probably normally would be at the typewriter now. After I read the newspapers and have my morning coffee — I usually write between nine and twelve or ten to one. Then I go to the gym and then get back to the writing. But because you were coming over I went to the gym early today, and then after the interview I’ll start my typing.
FWJ: You’re not one of those people hung up on the morning hours.
SD: If I have ten minutes free — and this has happened to me a thousand times — in other words I only get ten minutes to write, I’ll go to the typewriter and work on a sentence or two for ten minutes, five minutes. I can say, “Well, I got something done today.”
FWJ: Do you write from longhand notes that you’ve written out ahead of time?
SD: I just write — the part I’m on now [of His Wife Leaves Him], which is called “Outtakes” and has about forty different scenes that haven’t been dealt with in the novel heretofore, I write out the first line by hand ahead of time. I say, what’s the next segment I’m going to write? Because they’re usually two to five pages, a line comes to my head and I write it down, and then I take it to the typewriter and the scene usually follows. So I know that I’m going to be writing for the rest of my life because I have this way of starting that enables me to just sort of set off on something that leads to a piece of fiction. My joke was that the only “writer’s block” I knew was the one on Seventy-Fifth where I lived. I would walk down the street in the summer and there were three or four writers — one of them was Harold Brodkey — and I would hear them typing away. I’ve never had a writer’s block in my life and I’ve been writing now more than fifty years.
FWJ: Do you listen to music when you write?
SD: No, I don’t. I listen to music, but only before or after I write. I would find it very distracting. Other writers can be very surprised to hear that I don’t listen to jazz when I write, but to me that’s a distraction. If a guy’s outside with a leaf blower, that’s a distraction.
FWJ: As we’re talking now I can hear children playing in the schoolyard across the street.
SD: That doesn’t distract me. Kid voices are beautiful. Leaf blowers are ugly. And he does it for thirty minutes. If it goes on I’ll just move the typewriter to another room, which is the advantage of having a portable or a moveable typewriter. I can come out here [to the dining room table] to type, which is where I wrote for years while Anne was sick so I could be nearer to her. And I wait for the leaf blowing to stop and then move back to my desk. Jarring sounds are distracting. Writers are very sensitive to noise — to grating voices, to machines that make sort of horrible clashing sounds.
FWJ: You said you often start out with a line you’ve written out ahead of time . . .
SD: I always start with a line I’ve written out ahead of time. And that line will lead to that completed first draft of that particular section of the novel. In other words, from that line I go to another line and then another line and then another line and eventually I have a completed first draft and then I start refining that section.
FWJ: Are the first lines usually description or dialogue or something else?
SD: No, they can be anything. This novel has everything. I’ve been working on His Wife Leaves Him for four years and four months, but for instance the one I wrote yesterday, a first draft, begins: “He never told her this.” That’s all I needed. “He never told her this,” because I knew what I wanted to write about, which was how he almost killed their cat by leaving it outside and a fox grabbed it and maimed it and the cat almost died. But he never told her this. I wrote it down and then I went to the typewriter and typed the line, and then I wrote the next line down, which was: “Because he knew she would be very angry with him.” And then it proceeds to being a finished section about what the experience was. The line is a catalyst.
FWJ: You aren’t superstitious about talking about what you’re currently working on?
SD: No, no. I don’t mind. It’s eight hundred pages now. These are manuscript pages. And I always have twenty-four lines to a page, and ten to twelve words to a line, so you can figure out how many words there are to this novel. It’s in five sections, and it’s all predicated on the narrator saying in the kitchen while his wife is in the bedroom — and his wife has had two strokes already — “I wish you would die already.” He’s so fed up at that particular moment of taking care of her. And he goes, “Oh God, I hope she didn’t hear that.” And he goes in to see her and she had heard. And she does die that night of a stroke. And so the whole novel is really to go back in their life. It’s a novel about a marriage. That didn’t happen, by the way.
FWJ: Do you worry about that? Because so much of your writing is based on or begins in your actual situation. People in your books don’t always behave in the way we wish we would behave. Do you worry people will think badly of you?
SD: The novel is very close to me, certainly many of the sections are. But no, I’m not worried about it. Some things are pretty close to the bone and other things are made up. The section I’m working on now is the last few hundred pages of the book, where he’s just lying in bed after the memorial for his wife and recapitulating different scenes in their life: how they met, when they first went to bed together, when she broke up with him, how they got married. But not sequentially. The novel is in third person and totally unsequential, unchronological. Then the last part is to fill in the blanks that are in the first four parts. That’s my phone.
FWJ: Do you need to get that?
SD: Ah, no. To hell with it. They can leave a message if they really need to.
FWJ: I know you have a book called Phone Rings, where a phone call sets off the actions of the story. What do you actually do if the phone rings when you’re writing?
SD: I answer it. It never stops me. In fact I often get new ideas after I leave my typewriter to answer the phone. It helps, it hurts. It adds up to be even. So the last section, “Outtakes,” comprises forty to fifty small sections of stuff that I hadn’t written about yet and a couple of them he has written — not written, but thought about. He thinks, haven’t I thought about this before? Because it’s also an examination of a human mind and how it operates. And then it goes right back to the beginning of the novel, a very short passage which I’ve already written, about the knock on his classroom door telling him that someone is on the phone. And it’s about the first stroke. And then he gets out of bed after four hundred pages of thinking and makes himself a cup of coffee.
FWJ: What’s a good day of writing versus a bad one?
SD: I don’t have any bad ones. I usually get a page or two at least. Since three months after Anne died at least a page day, because I took a hiatus from writing when she died. A good day is two pages, but that doesn’t happen frequently because I rewrite the page so often that I’m exhausted by the time I finish rewriting the page. The system is I write that first section and then I refine it page by page. But the first segment is written in twenty minutes, an hour, two hours … and I never go right back to it. I usually start the refinement the day after so I can think about the sections I just wrote and read it and see what I’m doing and how I can improve it as I’m refining it.
FWJ: When you’re refining, are you making macro changes in the plot as well?
SD: It could be. I could be changing something that is illogical, like he might be in the car when he says something and I might need to take him out of the car when he says it because she wouldn’t have heard him when he was in the car. In other words, I might change things around. And usually if the “Outtakes” section is two pages it’ll end up being five pages. I always expand. I never condense in my refinement process. My work usually doubles from the initial draft.
FWJ: Have you ever gotten hung up on a single sentence?
SD: Oh, sure! I could spend an hour or two on a single sentence. I don’t want any sentence to go by until it’s as perfectly written as I can write it. And it has to be absolutely clear. This is the clearest novel I’ve ever written. I rewrite it and I say, what’s another way of writing it, and I write that and then finally I get it and I add that line to the section. I like a fast pace and simplicity.
FWJ: Which do you prefer: banging through those first drafts, or the slower work of refining the original?
SD: I like the revising better. The first draft has a lot of anxiety built into it because I don’t know if I’m going to get it right. The refinement is sometimes a little taxing, but it’s easier because I already have the skeleton, the first draft, I’m going to turn into the finished draft of that section. But the first draft also has that ecstasy at the end where you get to say: I got it. Hey, look what I got. I didn’t know it was there, and it’s there now. After I finish the section, either right afterwards I go to the next one because I know what the next one’s going to be, or else I wait until the next day and start the first draft of the next section. In which case, I guess I get the rest of the day off.
FWJ: So it seems, then, you must have a pretty good sense conceptually of the size and shape of each novel even before you start.
SD: Yes. That’s right. But no, not length. This novel I thought would only be three hundred pages. But that’s the wonderful thing about a novel: it grows and grows. It leads to places that you didn’t know existed.
FWJ: I was going to ask you how the computer has changed the way you write but it seems now that it really hasn’t.
SD: No. I communicate with editors more through e-mail, but that’s about it. I don’t think my writing habits have changed at all in the last twenty years.
FWJ: How often does an editor make major changes in your work?
SD: They don’t edit my work. I remember with Henry Holt, Alan Peacock was the editor and he said, “Are you the type of writer who wants hands off or hands on?” I said hands off. Of course if there’s something that doesn’t make any sense then they should tell me. Otherwise, I’ve worked very hard on these manuscripts and I don’t want them interfered with.
FWJ: Over the years you’ve worked with quite a large number of publishers.
SD: I’ve had fourteen publishers for twenty-eight books. I was with Holt for four books and then they republished Frog, so really for five books. And then when I sent them Old Friends, they said no more from you, you haven’t made us any money. Same thing with Melville. They said they didn’t want to publish What Is All This? because they said I had lost them a lot of money with the three books they did publish. I would love to have a relationship with a publisher similar to John Updike’s where one publisher, Knopf, publishes all your books. Editors might change but usually you get a good one. But it didn’t happen that way. I published two with Harper and Row and I gave them my novel Garbage and they rejected it and said no more books. I don’t leave publishers. They leave me.
FWJ: Do you feel bad when a publisher passes on your next work?
SD: No. I feel a little bad because there is safety and it means I have to look for a publisher again. But that’s OK too, because I’ve always been able to find a publisher for my work. And lately I’ve been having help. For instance, with British American Publishing there’s a writer who knew the reader and thought the reader might like my work, and they published Love and Will and then Frog. And with McSweeney’s I had a student — an undergrad but an older undergrad, twenty-three years old — who had a beer with Dave Eggers in California after a reading. He said, “My teacher is Stephen Dixon, do you know his work?” And Dave said, “Oh, yeah.” And he said, “Well, he was just telling us in class that he has a new novel he can’t get published.” Dave said, “Tell him to send it to me.” That was I., and then they published End of I. after that. Then there’s this guy in D.C., Paul, who I met because he sent me some books to sign. In other words, he’s a fan, but he’s a sweetheart. And when McSweeney’s rejected the second of three books that were all related, he said, “There’s a new publisher, Melville House, and I think they would like your work. Let me contact them.” So he called them and they said, “Yeah, tell him to send the manuscript,” and they took it in a week. That was Old Friends. And then they took two more. Then when they kicked me out because my books didn’t make enough money for them, which is OK, I understand, that doesn’t bother me, I understand the consideration. But then Paul said, “There’s a house called Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, which I’m familiar with, let me check with them to see if they’re interested.”
FWJ: Publishing your work has become sort of a grassroots movement.
SD: I don’t ask them to go to bat for me, but they do it on their own.
FWJ: It must feel gratifying but also sort of strange to be suddenly “discovered” by a whole new generation of readers. Now that Daniel Clowes has done a cover for you and you’ve got that Jonathan Lethem blurb on your books, it seems as though the cool kids have finally taken notice. Do you hang out with Lethem?
SD: No, but we’ve e-mailed, and of course his name is on all my books now. And apparently he didn’t give either publisher permission to use that quote, but he doesn’t care. And I knew that we shared some similar habitats. I sent him a copy of Frog thanking him for his endorsement. As for the younger people … I am relatively unknown, so it could mean young readers are attracted to my fiction because I haven’t been discovered for them by older readers. They discover me themselves.
FWJ: Do you think had that sort of adulation been constant or had come earlier it might have changed your work in some way? I’m thinking of your story “The Victor,” which I assume is about the National Book Award you didn’t win. In the story you have two versions of the awards ceremony, “Way It Happened,” where the protagonist loses the prize, and then “Way It Didn’t Happen,” where he wins.
SD: Yes, that was about the first NBA nomination. It would have changed me a little. I certainly would have been more solvent than I was, and it would have been a real pleasure to go on a half-teaching load, which I would have done. I would have had almost the same salary for a half load as I would for a full one because I would have won the National Book Award. But it was good because it sort of roused in me — not in anger — but a sort of fighting spirit that I always have. Sort of an “I’ll show them.” Listen, I was lucky to be nominated and we had a great time in New York. The judges read Frog in manuscript form. And not from page one to page seven hundred and sixty-three, whatever it was. They read page one to fifty, then page three hundred to three hundred and sixty-five. That’s how the editor sent the novel, in complete sections, but they were out of order. And I still almost won according to two judges. But I like the idea of a story like that [“The Victor”], a “what if” story. Whatever happened to the guy who actually did win? I think he wrote one book after that. Maybe he’s working on a two-thousand-page novel or something. It took him a long time to get the first book out, although that was a pretty good book.
FWJ: Your second NBA nomination was for Interstate.
SD: That one I had to face Phillip Roth. There were three other candidates but apparently the judges voted two-two. I spoke to Elena Howe, Irving Howe’s wife, and she said, “Who are you running against?” And I mentioned the other four but when I said Philip Roth she said, “You lost. He’s too well connected, he’s too famous.”
FWJ: Do you feel like you’re part of a literary scene?
SD: No, no. I belong to no group, no movement, and no organization. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone is writing like I write, so I’m all by myself. And I like it that way.
FWJ: Do you ever tour with the books?
SD: I really hated it when I was having to do readings. I’ve only done tours twice, and both times were for Henry Holt when they sent me with The Stories of Stephen Dixon to a couple of places out of town, and for Interstate they sent me twice, all the way to the west coast to Seattle and Colorado. Two week tours, separated by a week. It was tough on Anne, too, leaving her home. I never liked it, and not many people ever showed up, and that’s embarrassing. It’s really embarrassing when only two or three people show up. I have been to Washington, D.C., for the Melville House books, and that’s about it.
FWJ: The first story you ever published was “The Chess House” in The Paris Review.
SD: Issue 29, 1963, Spring. I was working at CBS as an editor for a news program called In Person, and Ron Cochran who preceded Walter Cronkite as the host of the show was the main guy. The guy who was the writer for the show was Hughes Rudd. Hughes had stories in The Paris Review and was a friend of George Plimpton. Instead of going to lunch I would go into a room with a typewriter and work on my fiction. Hughes said, “Why don’t you show me your work? I know George Plimpton.” I gave him ten stories and he took two of them, “The Chocolate Sampler” and “The Chess House.” George chose “The Chess House.” But the story goes on. Hughes says, “You know George is taking one of your stories. Your first story is going to be in The Paris Review, but he wants you to call him.” So I called him and he said, “I want to get this in the next issue. Could you come to my apartment right away?” So I go to his apartment during my lunch break at CBS, and it’s very swanky, and he’s very dashing and dapper and pleasant and bright, but he doesn’t like many of the things I did in this five- or six-page story. He said, “You know nothing about chess,” and I said, “I know something about chess,” and he says, “You made a couple of mistakes here, and I want you to correct them.” And he went through the story, just sort of tore it apart, and he says, “Go home, rewrite it, send it to me express within the week.” So I go home and rewrite under his specifications. But I don’t send it express because he lives right across town and regular mail will get to him. And I don’t hear from him in six months, so obviously I’ve missed that issue. Then I got the story back from him and he says, “You didn’t do anything I said. You didn’t do this, this, and this.” He gave me a whole new set of corrections, so I work on them and I send back the story. And I wait another — must have been three months. And he sends it back and says, “You didn’t do a thing I said. If you did, then you didn’t do enough. Rewrite the story again.” So I just thought, screw this. And I got the original manuscript the way I had originally sent it to him and sent that again and I didn’t hear back, and that’s what he published. It sounds like fiction, but it’s not. And from then on, even though they published three more stories of mine, and gave me the John Train Humor Prize, which was OK because it was a thousand bucks, from then on it was a love-hate relationship between George and myself. Someone doing a profile on me for the City Paper here in Baltimore asked George what he thought of me, and George said, “Stephen Dixon thinks I ought to change the name of my magazine to The Dixon Review.” But I liked George — and he did a great service to literature too.
FWJ: A lot of the stories and novels are about memory, and the struggle to remember things as they were, and thinking about how things might have been if this hadn’t happened or if that did happen. Some of what is remembered in Frog contradicts scenes that the reader has already experienced, events presented as facts. Other chapters are things that couldn’t possibly have happened, such as Howard and his family on a transport car headed into Auschwitz. All of this is presented as the reality of that moment.
SD: That’s right. For me, fiction is about memory. So much of my fiction is about my life. There could almost be two kinds of writers: the inventor and the memoirist. One deals with memory and one who invents. I invent too, but I’m more on the memory side than on the invention side. I invent when the memory doesn’t satisfy the fiction, the aims of the fiction. So then I invent things around the memory.
FWJ: I don’t know that there exists such a complete portrayal of one individual in fiction. By the time the reader finishes you know Howard’s every impulse, his ugly thoughts and his good moments and his cowardices as well as the occasional triumph. I’ve told people that to me Frog is like Moby Dick in terms of its encyclopedic nature. Not to overstate it.
SD: I wanted to get everything in. And in the subsequent books I go deeper and deeper. For instance, my novels after Frog deal with some of the same material, but I go deeper and deeper in.
FWJ: Do you see your novels all as one continuous work? Like Kerouac, for example, who wanted to go back and give all the characters in all his novels the same names?
SD: No, I don’t. There are similarities in the main narrators probably in all of my fiction because I take my fiction out of myself.
FWJ: Are the unusual structures part of what moves you in the creation?
SD: I like an unusual structure. I like to structure my books in ways that no one ever has before. I’ve already written books that are chronological, where they begin with a certain point in one’s life and end at a later point. Now I like to mix it all around for the reader to sort of have the mix, but be able to put the mix together to make a whole.
FWJ: So you must then have a sense of that structure even before you start.
SD: No, it develops as I go. The only sense I have is this book is not going to be structured like any of my other books, or like anyone else’s other book. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I know it’s going to be different and interesting to the reader because he or she hasn’t seen this kind of structure before.
FWJ: And the words, too, are like a deluge.
SD: Yes. I love that flow of words. And now my sentences are much more concise. I don’t think there is even one flowing sentence in the entire book I’m working on. Stream of consciousness sentences have been pretty well worked on at this point. But in some of my work I’ve had sentences that go on for ten, twenty, forty, fifty pages. But I’ve intentionally written them like that, with the intention that the reader would not know there was no real punctuation break, no periods. And then maybe the reader will be impressed with himself that he has read something so long without a period. In His Wife Leaves Him all the sections are single paragraph. And I’ve been writing that single-paragraph way for almost twenty years. I just don’t know when to stop except when it’s at the end of what I’m writing about.
FWJ: How important is a title to you?
SD: Very important. It’s supposed to mean something else, in addition to what it means. I like titles with multiple meanings: a comment on the work as a whole or an additional reflection.
FWJ: Where does it usually come in the process?
SD: After the first draft or during the writing of the first draft I sort of know what the title will be.
FWJ: Something like Interstate is pretty straightforward, but the title Frog really changes the entire texture of the work in a lot of ways. It seems to not have any bearing until the very end when it turns out there’s a pet turtle with that name.
SD: Exactly. That’s my private little joke at the end. The last story I wrote two years before finishing the book, which took me five years. I remember we were on our way to Maine and Anne was beside me and the kids were in the back, so it had to be around 1989 or ’90. And I said, “Wait, I just got an idea for a story about why it’s called Frog.” And so I said, “Sophia, write it down for me. I’m going to dictate what the first few lines are.” So she wrote it down, and when we got to Maine I wrote the story, and then I wrote the rest of the novel that got to the final story. But to me the multiple meaning of Frog is that he’s a turtle. And what is a turtle? A turtle hides. Everything that a turtle is I thought Howard Tetch was. He has a shell, he’s amphibious.
FWJ: You had the title Frog before the idea of what it meant?
SD: Oh, yes, because the first seventeen stories are Frog does this, “Frog Made Free,” all this stuff. “Frog Remembers.” “Frog in Prague.” That’s where the novel started, in Prague.
FWJ: Was it actually in Kafka’s cemetery?
SD: Yes, which I never got to. I was on a tour. I was going to Prague and Germany with Anne and Sophia, who was then two, two-and-a-half years old. And Poland. The first stop was Munich and then we went to Prague. And we took a couple of books with us, and Sophia had the Frog and Toad books, which you must have read to your kids too.
FWJ: Oh, yes!
SD: So we took Frog and Toad and when we got to Prague, Sophia said, “Frog in Prague.” And then later I went to find Kafka’s grave, and what happened to Howard happened to me. The tour guy was giving me the runaround. He just wanted his shekels, or whatever they got. His money. He finally said, “If you want Kafka you have to go to some other cemetery.”
FWJ: What do you read for pleasure?
SD: Whatever I can find. Recently someone turned me on to a Finnish writer born in 1942 named Albo Passilinna. He only has two books published in America, and I really liked both of them. And yesterday I finished another book, so now today I started Walter Benjamin’s chronicles of the 1900s, about his boyhood days. It has to be serious books I read. I don’t read pulp, nothing that’s been on the bestseller list. I recently found a book on my daughter’s bookshelf by Junichiro Tanizaki, and I had read his work before. The Key is a terrific novel. But this was called Some Prefer Nettles, so I started that and I like it. I always find something worthwhile to read. Thomas Bernhard, if he has a new one coming out.
FWJ: Did I miss anything?
SD: You’re the interviewer.
FWJ: Is there something a more brash interviewer would have asked that I haven’t?
SD: The interviewee never supplies the questions.
FWJ: No? Never?
SD: This one doesn’t.
Daniel Libman served as past fiction editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. He is currently the book reviews editor for FWJ. His story collection Married But Looking is forthcoming from Livingston Press. Read Dan's article about his writing life on the Writer's Rainbow blog.
This interview appeared in the Spring 2011 Issue 8 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.