Despite fifty-five years of nearly nonstop writing, the prolific Stephen Dixon shows no signs of slowing down. Although often called “overlooked” throughout the years, he has earned enduring critical acclaim and is admired by many younger writers, who often look to his work for inspiration and instruction. His new book, His Wife Leaves Him, is a moving, immersive meditation on love, marriage, and grief, and he is already deep into his next project, Late Stories.
When I met with Dixon on a sunny April morning, I brought him two books: a slim paperback of Dreamtigers and an equally portable Ficciones. He took Dreamtigers, but returned Ficciones because he doesn’t read Spanish. Later, he made a gift to my sons of Robert McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine. I asked him for his book recommendations and we talked about what to read, how to write, and how his work balances memory and invention.
Among contemporary writers, he mentioned Jonathan Lethem for his original take on genres, and his language; David Evanier, for his clear writing on raw emotional subject matter; and Kristopher Jansma, a former undergraduate student. “Since we’re talking of living writers,” he said, “one of the best is Peter Handke, an Austrian, who’s best work, as far as I’m concerned, is The Left-Handed Woman. It’s almost written like a screenplay.”
Stephen Dixon: I like to read screenplays. It’s sort of like reading a novel in two hours.
The Rumpus: Has that mode influenced your writing at all?
Dixon: No, I started reading screenplays long after I started writing. That the narrative move quickly and clearly is maybe the most important thing that I do or that I want to do in writing.
Rumpus: I noticed that you were reading Kafka.
Dixon: I’m always reading Kafka. He’s one of my favorite writers. I always pick up Kafka. In the shorter works. Kafka or Chekhov or Thomas Bernhard.
Rumpus: Did you first come to Chekhov through the stories or the plays?
Dixon: The stories. I don’t much care for the plays. And then when I happened to be dating a Chekhov expert, who became my wife, Chekhov became even more important in my life, because I had somebody who really knew Chekhov and who I could talk about him with. And also endings are very important in my short stories, and he is the master of endings. I admire something that he does and that is just to get out of a story easily, quickly. I used to tell my students, “If you have any problem with ending a story, just shut the door, close the window. Have the characters say goodbye and leave, just simply end the story.” And I’m fascinated by the endings of short stories and how poorly it can be done and how easily it can be done, too. By just sort of ending. Simply.
Rumpus: You were friends with Henry H. Roth.
Dixon: Henry was my dearest friend. He was the inspiration for writing my novel Old Friends. We used to have so much fun, so many laughs. And he was a very, very good writer, and an honest writer. Ninety-five percent of his writings were short stories, so we had something in common. I’ll never forget when we went into a store and neither of us had had a book published. The bookstore owner said, “There’s a new press, Street Fiction Press, and they do a very nice job.” So we looked at the books, and I said, “Henry let’s both send manuscripts to them.” He said, “Okay!” So Street Fiction Press took my first book, No Relief. So I called him up, I said, “Henry they took my book! How about you, how’s it going?” He said, “I didn’t send it!” He was so laid back. He just wanted to write. He was a great guy.
Rumpus: You said once that you work more from memory than invention.
Dixon: It’s a combination. You can’t just write what you remember, so you have to fix it up, to make it readable fiction, and you have to accelerate the life that you are writing about.
Rumpus: Do you often have to articulate that line between what’s fictional and what’s real?
Dixon: When I’m asked, I say it’s close to my life, but the book is entirely different. Everything’s been changed around a little, but the feelings are there that are real.
Rumpus: The stuff of life transformed?
Dixon: Yeah. Yeah. I mean my work is very close to my life, but it’s still fiction.
Rumpus: I wonder if your concern was always interiority? I ask because this is the most salient thing that struck me about your work when I first encountered it: the sense of consciousness rendered.
Dixon: It’s become more and more like that. I just became that kind of writer. When I look back on my earlier writing—the stories in Fourteen Stories and Time to Go, the writing looks different. I became more interior in structuring the work and also in writing the work. In structuring the work, I fell in love with long paragraphs.
Rumpus: Around Frog?
Dixon: Yeah. Frog is when it started. Frog starts off with thirteen or fourteen short stories, and most of them are open. And it becomes more interiorized, and then it becomes really interiorized where the actions just sort of flow into each other without paragraph breaks, and I like writing this way. I’ve been doing it now for more than twenty years. In my new collection, there is a story or two that resumes linear writing—you know, linear dialogue—because it just seems right for the story.
Rumpus: This is Late Stories?
Dixon: Yeah, Late Stories.
Rumpus: Since you say you often start with a line—
Dixon: That’s right.
Rumpus: Do you know once you’ve got it whether it’s a novel or a story, or are you completely open to whatever happens?
Dixon: I don’t want to write any more novels. They take too long.
Rumpus: What if a line gave you a novel, then? Would you follow it?
Dixon: Yeah, I probably would. In fact, in the new book, Late Stories, there is a 110-page novella, and there are a couple sixty-page stories. But I really want to just write short stories for the time being. They’re very satisfying to write again. So, yeah, I just start off with a line. If that seems like a good opening line, and if that line generates more and more lines, then I have a story. I’ve had stories that were ten pages long, that turned into 250-page novels, and I never got to the tenth page of the story. In other words, I wrote the first draft, and then I started writing the final draft of the story and it just grew.
Rumpus: Just kick me out when you’ve had enough interviewing.
Dixon: Oh, please!
Rumpus: So, you tell this funny story about George Plimpton and The Paris Review. Your first published story, right? And how you resisted his revisions. I’m curious if that had an impact on your development as a writer. Your stories have the feeling of eschewing artifice—without deliberate obfuscation, yet still complex.
Dixon: That’s right, I put a lot of work into making the work look unvarnished. It has more to do with my understanding of editors and their effect on my writing. I had three really good lessons. The first was The Paris Review. George Plimpton would have had me make a new version of that story forever. After he asked me to revise the story for the third time, I said, He’s never going to take this story. I wanted my first story in The Paris Review, but it wasn’t going to happen, so I sent it (the original version) back as my message to him, and he never responded to it. He just published it.
The second one was Playboy. They took a story. What was the title? “The Young Man…”
Rumpus: “The Young Man Who Read Brilliant Books”?
Dixon: They didn’t like the ending. So I rewrote the ending over and over again. They said, no, we want our ending, and my agent at the time said, “Do it! They’ll take more stories.” So I let them rewrite the ending and I was mortified. I told myself never to compromise again, no matter how much money they give you. I said, You went off the track once, now don’t go off a second time. If you do, you’re finished as a writer. So they did take two more stories, but they didn’t ask for revisions.
The third is with The American Review. Theodore Solotaroff took a story, and he said, “But come to my office.” (This anecdote might go on too long.) “Well, Theodore—Ted,” I said, “do you want to have coffee?” So, he went out and got me coffee, and I saw my manuscript (“Love and Will”). At the time I thought it was the best story that I had ever written. I had taken the most chances, and I had succeeded, I felt, with the chances I took with that story. And I looked at the copy he had, and he had five or six, ten corrections on every single page.
When he came back, I said, “You have too many corrections, I’ll never go for them.”
He said, “Well let’s just go over them one by one.”
I said, “No. And no. And no.”
He said, “Listen, you have to say yes to one of them!”
I said, “Okay, yes.” I said “yes” four times.
But when I got downstairs I said “no.” NO. You can’t let him change the story. Even four times in a story where he wanted to change it a hundred times. So I called him up from downstairs. I said, “If I saw that they bettered the story, I would agree, but the story is good as it is.” So I stood up for myself.
And Allan Peacock, the editor at Henry Holt, when I gave him Interstate, he said, “What kind of writer are you: hands-on or hands-off?” I said, “Hands-off!”
Rumpus: Can we talk about Stegner?
Dixon: The one criticism that Stegner gave me was in class. “By the way, Mr. Dixon,” he said. “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.” I said, “Are you saying that my characters say ‘like’ instead of ‘as’? Well, they say ‘like’ instead of ‘as,’ because that’s the way they talk!”
The fellowship gave me time to write. But, I’m sort of self-centered as a writer, and self-directed. There were words the other creative writing fellows were using. Quixotic. Derivative. English major words that I never thought to apply to fiction.
Rumpus: You had a career as a journalist.
Dixon: I was a reporter in DC for two years. And then I worked on detective magazines in NYC. And then I got a job at CBS as an editor of a news radio show. And then the show went off the air, and I had enough money to just write.
Rumpus: And that’s when you went to Paris?
Dixon: I went to Paris in ‘64. Then I was notified that I got the Stegner fellowship. I had gone there to live, but I decided to take advantage of the fellowship. It was $3,000 a year, which was enough to live on in ‘64 and ‘65. After a few years, I came back [East] to help my mother out with my father. And then I just stayed in New York until I got a job at Hopkins in 1980.
Rumpus: Now that you’re no longer teaching, have you ordered your writing day differently?
Dixon: I have more time than I need to write. I usually get a page done a day, and 300 pages or so done in a year, which is plenty when you think that in ten years you’ll have three thousand pages and the equivalent of about ten books. So, a page a day, that’s what I go by.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that many young writers are accused of trying to do what you have already done.
Dixon: One funny thing is that in 1994, when The Stories of Stephen Dixon came out, my publisher, Henry Holt, sent me to Boston to read. The Boston Globe had a review of my book. It said, “It will take writers twenty years to catch up with what Stephen Dixon is doing.” Well, the twenty years are up! That review made me happy. It was wonderful that it came out that day, when I was there. And it printed an announcement of my bookstore reading.
Rumpus: Did you have a packed house then?
Dixon: No, very few people showed up… I write really for myself. I write because I enjoy writing. I’ve been doing it for more than fifty years, and I write every day. But realIy, I have no idea who my readers are. I’m very happy just to write and send it out.
Rumpus: You must know that other writers are reading you—that you have a large following of other writers?
Dixon: Jonathan Lethem toasted me in a bookstore in Maine. The guy had about fifteen of my books. Which was, of course, a tremendous compliment, you know. But I have no idea who else is reading me. The New Yorker certainly isn’t. I’ve sent to them for fifty years. I’ve been sending since 1963. That’s fifty years of rejections.
Rumpus: Were the usual conventions of narrative already suspect to you when you began as a writer?
Dixon: I started off writing very naturalistic stories. I finally realized to, you know, stop repeating myself. After those first twenty stories that I wrote, I said, You know, you’re writing too much like all of the writers, so I had to make myself write differently. And then it became natural.
Rumpus: The central action in your stories is often comically thwarted by the quotidian. Even when the action is tragic.
Dixon: Humor is very important in my work. Tragedy and humor can be on the same page. I think I’m a funny writer. But I also think I’m a tender writer. Emotions mean a great deal to me.