An Interview with Stephen Dixon
Interview by Tao Lin.
Stephen Dixon is the author, most recently, of the novel Meyer (Melville House, 2007). He has published 26 other books including the novels Interstate (1995) and Frog (1991), both of which were nominated for the National Book Award.
I have read about 10 Stephen Dixon books. I think my favorites were Meyer, Old Friends, and Fall and Rise. I have read a lot of his short stories also. I have read a lot of his writing. If I didn’t like his writing I would not have read so many things of his. I usually do not read more than like 15 pages of something if I don’t like the sentences or tone. I interviewed Stephen Dixon by mail. He also drew a self-portrait. You can see it below. Melville House will publish more of his books in the future.
3:AM: Can you describe a novel that you would like to read?
SD: I don’t understand the question. A novel I’d like to write that I’d like to read? I’ve written all the novels I’ve wanted to write and I’ll probably write a few more of them. Do I like to read my novels after they’re published? No. But I’m reading MEYER, my newest novel, to my wife because she can’t hold the book in her hands. This is new for me. I forget my novels soon as they’re published, or the parts (I forget) that aren’t the parts I read at readings. I’m enjoying reading my novel to my wife.
3:AM: Can you describe a short story that you would like to read?
SD: Again, the question baffles me, or sort of. Second time around, I’m less baffled. What do I want to read in a short story? What kind of story do I want to read? To answer questions one and two: interesting and adventurous and original and clear stories and novels. Stuff that hasn’t been done before but is done in a way that doesn’t have to be done again.
3:AM: What do you think about Kafka?
SD: Kafka’s one of my favorite writers. He’s inimitable. The Judgement is one of the best stories ever written, and same goes for Penal Colony and Metamorphosis as novellas and The Trial as a novel. He’s deep and unusual and original and…and…inimitable. I always go back to Kafka. I like his very short pieces too. The Castle got tedious, though, and I didn’t like Amerika.
3:AM: What do you think about Chekhov?
SD: Chekhov could be the greatest writer who ever lived. And I don’t say that because my wife is a Chekhov scholar (his stories) and teaches him. I’m always reading Chekhov…so, always rereading him because I think I’ve read all the published stories in English. I’m amazed sometimes the things he pulls off. Language and character and dialog and story and the endings, those superb endings, and the great scenery—brushstrokes, quick but intensely visual…a master.
3:AM: I felt emotional, calm, and without despair when I finished Meyer (and also while reading it especially the last third), as I do when I finish many of your books, I feel very aware that life will end, that the process of it ending is currently happening, even while I brush my teeth or stare at a computer screen thinking about what I’m going to eat, and that the process includes bodies and brains getting gradually less effective even with exercise, eating well, etc. Knowing all that at a heightened level makes me feel calmer, more emotional, less despairing, less angry or frustrated, and less anxious. What is its effect on you, to know those things (mortality, decay, etc.) at a “heightened,” maybe, level, while typing it into sentences into books and then working on those sentences every day?
SD: I’m sorry, I’m not good at explaining what I do and how I did it and what my intention was in doing it. I just do it and redo it and reredo it till the page is perfect, or as close to perfection as I can get it, and then on to the next. I don’t think I write at a heightened level. I’ve been known to get very lugubrious when I write something that’s sad. And I’ve laughed at my own prose after I’ve written it. For instance, when I read the last line—that one particularly—and some other things Meyer’s mother said in chapter 12, my wife and I had a good laugh. It’s a good line, I think, coming after all the times she’s had to tell him the same story about the Duke of Windsor or Prince of Wales. I try to get in deep, emotionally, and I try for honest emotions, real emotions, emotions. I love emotional writing; I don’t like sentimental writing, syrupy writing. I’m not really answering your question, or answering it well. I’m failing at answering these questions. The questions are good, I could do better with them, but I’m not. I think I’m tired. I don’t get much time to write these days, despite my retirement.
3:AM: Your books present, among other things, many different scenarios for the future, for example different ways family members might die, and then how the narrator might feel or react. Has something ever happened in real life where your actions or emotions were “changed” or else somehow “different,” maybe “better,” because you’ve already, in your writing “played out,” or “practiced,” the event and also the possible reactions or emotions the narrator might feel after the event, for example a knife going into the character’s eye while in his kitchen or a close friend dying unexpectedly?
SD: The knife never goes into the narrator’s eye, if you’re talking about one of the chapters in Phone Rings. I would never have a knife go into a character’s eye. Too brutal. I wouldn’t even write “A knife went into Joe’s eye,” or “Joe is blind in one eye because a knife went into it when he was a boy.” I leave that to J.C. Oates and Stephen King. They don’t seem to have—in almost back-to-back stories in the New Yorker a number of years ago, trouble writing about knives or needles in eyes. But yes, sometimes things did happen that I last wrote about. In Time to Go (story and title story and one of my best stories) I did have, in the story I wrote days (finished it) before my wedding on January 17, ‘82, the character’s mom say “Those are tears of happiness (he cried at his own wedding) and then at the actual wedding my mother saw me crying and said “Those are tears of happiness.” In the story, she cries for his dead father. In real life I cried because of my happiness at being married to my wife Anne. There are other examples. But that one should do it.
3:AM: What living writers do you have good feelings toward?
SD: Garcia Marquez, though not recently. David Evanier and Steven Schrader are friends and I like their work a lot. We have literary rapport. But there aren’t many writers I like. I liked T. Bernhard and Joyce and Beckett and Kafka and Chekhov and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (when I was in my teens and early twenties) and Mann (T.) and a lot others. But I can’t put a list together of that many living writers I like today. I’m very particular and you can say my opinions of living writers is worthless and unhelpful.
3:AM: In another interview you said, about Thomas Bernhard, that you like what he directs his anger at in his books. What is it? What does he direct his anger at?
SD: He delivers it to the targets in society who deserve it: pompous assholes and fakes and farceurs and could-be’s and lousy writers and opportunists and so on. He goes deep and he hits hard he doesn’t hold back. He was no fake. Some writers can fake being real but that guy was real and original.
3:AM: Have you ever, maybe at some reading or something, met another writer who wanted to talk about writing with you? What would you talk about? What interests you in terms of talking about writing?
SD: To tell you the truth, I’d rather talk about classical (serious) music and painting than writing. I do—or did, since it was when I got to NYC more frequently—have great literary chats with my friend David Evanier and, before he got symptoms resembling Alzheimer’s, my friend Henry H. Roth, another writer I liked very much as a person and as a writer. I get into literary discussions with my wife, who’s very literary and very smart. Most writers I know, and I don’t know many, like writers I don’t, so what’s the use of discussing their or my writers. Another writer-friend who’s very literary and likes many of the same writers I do (a few) and dislikes many of the writers I dislike (many) is Tristan Davies, a good writer and a very smart guy too. We laugh a lot when we talk about writers and writing and the literary world. But at readings, no, I rarely stop at one long enough to talk literature. I don’t like reading my work in public. I get anxious and it affects (stultifies) my writing days before. I’m glad when they’re over and I can have a drink and relax from the ordeal of reading. I’m a reader of other writers.
3:AM: In another interview you said, “I’ve never thought more of my work than I thought should be thought of it.” What do you think should be thought of it? And what do you yourself think of it?
SD: I have thoughts about my own work and my place in the canon and so forth but I’m not going to reveal what I think. I just write the best I can and try not to fool myself that it’s better than it is and is good enough for me to go on to the next page, when it isn’t. I don’t fool myself. I don’t recall making that ‘thought’ quote above, although it sounds like something I’d make. You know, you’re very kind to be taking so much time for my work. I appreciate it. But again, I’m not good at explaining what I do or how I do it. I’m good at statistics: born June 6, 1936, at 6 minutes after six a.m., my mother claims (when I was a boy she said 6 seconds after six minutes at 6 a.m.). She also says I started coming out in a taxicab to the Lying In building of N.Y. hospital. I’m good at stories—anecdotes, scenes—I’m good at numbers, but I’m not good at the exegesis of the works of Stephen Dixon. I leave that to experts. Jerome Klinkowitz repeatedly astounds me what he finds in my work. Have I answered your question? No. Have I digressed? Yes. I’m also good at digressions. I don’t think about my work. But my eyes are failing me and my brain is going soft. I’ll have to stop. I will say that I thought 30 in 1999 got a bum deal and that I like all my published work but don’t want to dwell on them because I’m writing new things and I’ve new things to write.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 28th, 2008.