Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email


The End of U

Novelist Stephen Dixon Talks Writing, Reading, And Retiring From Johns Hopkins

Photographs By Michael Northrup
"I got a letter from George Plimpton saying, 'not only are you not a novelist, but you’re probably not a short-story writer either.' That’s the exact quote."
"When I give stories to undergrads, I'll ask who's read Tolstoy. Nobody's read Tolstoy. When I first started out, kids were much more serious as readers, and I could actually have literary discussions with them, which I cannot do now. They just want to write."
"I needed this job to make a living. And I've had to fight my ass off to get my work published. I've been published by 12 different publishers, if not more. I had to get every single one of them myself."

By John Barry | Posted 2/7/2007

Sometime early this May, Stephen Dixon will read his last student manuscript. If he handles it like he's done any of the thousands he's pored through since he started teaching fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars 26 years ago, he'll read it once, reread it, and if he still doesn't understand what the hell the student's talking about, he'll read it again. Then he'll type a half-page of comments, single-spaced, no caps. He'll use a manual or, in a concession to the information age, an electric typewriter. He'll staple it to the 10- to 15-page story. And it'll be over with. Done. Finis.

"And then I'm not reading another manuscript," he says, moving his imposing 70-year-old frame in a window seat at a shoebox-sized Starbucks. "Ever." And as he cradles a small regular coffee, he looks like he means it. Not that he's not a nice guy. He is. But if you think you're the next big thing in literary fiction, and you've got something for him to read, get it to him before May 5. That's when Steve Dixon becomes a full-time writer.

He's had his name in print before. Since his first book, No Relief, was published when he was 40, in 1976, Dixon has published 26 books, including novels, short-story collections, and the occasional as-yet-unproduced play. He's also published 500 stories in literary magazines, which is an unofficial record. More books are on the way. After producing a trilogy of novels--I, Old Friends, and End of I--already this century, Dixon published Phone Rings in 2005, and Meyer is due out in September. Currently, he's working on another book, titled His Wife Leaves Him.

Dixon has picked up plenty of admirers in the course of his late-starting, intensely productive career. He won the Stegner Fellowship at 28. He's a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Pen/Faulkner Award finalist, and has taken three O. Henry Awards, two NEA Fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters literature award.

But the more one talks with him (he retains a slightly husky New York accent from the days when they had accents in upper Manhattan), the more he sounds like a school bus driver who just saw his first book in print. That's no surprise because, somewhere in his extended résumé, he was a school bus driver. Take this passage from End of I; interpret it as you will:

    Who would've thought? This idiot writes a book and the publisher actually accepts it and then publishes it. Who wouldn't 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, who would write a book and everything like what he said would happen to it? It's amazing.

Call him postmodern, call him hyper-realist; his storytelling technique has turned Dixon into one of the more recognizable writers around. You've got an insult, a self-doubt, a family tragedy, a baseless fear, or a very real one? You wonder if, despite everything you've done, you may be an idiot? Treasure that, nurture it, and turn it into a story no one else could have written.

Take his story "The Intruder" from 14 Stories (1980). All men are afraid of being cuckolded. Well, the narrator here has to watch his girlfriend getting raped, and then he has to give the guy a blow job. In "Milk Is Very Good for You," a story from the same collection, a middle-aged teacher's healthy sex drive is turned by a typo into a bizarre excursion into the underworld of human desire. More recently, in the novel Interstate (1995) a concerned father imagines the drive-by shooting of his daughter, which inspires an extended web of paranoid revenge/self-destruction fantasies. Afraid of losing your mind? In Old Friends (2004) an aging writer descends into the abyss of self-doubt as another writer loses his mind to Lyme disease. The more lemons get hurled in Dixon's direction, the more lemonade he makes. At 70, as a series of recent interviews show, the stories just keep coming.


Dixon was born in 1936 and moved into New York City in 1937, where he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He had three brothers, four sisters. His father was a dentist. He says he was a stutterer and thumbsucker at first, and then, "when I was about 10," the stuttering just disappeared. Then the reading began. As he arrived for the interview, he was holding a book, Kafka: The Decisive Years, so that's where we started.

City Paper: So you're reading a Kafka bio.

Stephen Dixon: An unusual biography.

CP: I remember reading about the night Kafka decided that he was a writer, instead of an insurance salesman.

SD: Yeah, he was up all night writing "The Judgment"--the first draft of it--from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. When he finished writing it, he went into his sister's bedroom and read it to her.

CP: Was there any moment like that in your career?

SD: Yes. I was a reporter in Washington in 1959. I had nothing to do at night and little money. It was an entry-level job. So I started to sit down and write a story. It was a complete first draft. But it was the first time I'd ever sat down and written a complete first draft in my life. It was an ecstatic experience. So the following night I sat down and wrote another . . . and the next night, another one. Every night it was like that. Then my brother Jim came down--he was a short-story writer. I told him I was writing short stories, just like he was. He said fine, but you have to finish them. There were 10 first drafts. So when I started to finish them, it made me feel that I was more of a writer than a reporter.

CP: Who were you working for as a reporter?

SD: I was working for News Associates and Radio Press. I covered Congress for two years [1959-1960]. I interviewed people like Kennedy, Nixon, Khrushchev, Johnson.

CP: Khrushchev?

SD: I interviewed him when he came to America. I was the first person to get an interview with him. If I did the same thing [now] I did then, I'd get shot. Running up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial. All the reporters were cordoned off, but I just went under the cordon and ran up the steps, and Khrushchev looked at me and said, "Well, who are you?" in Russian. And then the translator asked me who I was in English. I said I just wanted a brief interview. And I got an interview. That was in 1960, when he was visiting America.

CP: And Eisenhower, I guess, was president.

SD: Eisenhower was president. Khrushchev visited Eisenhower, and then he went around the country--Iowa, California. I remember when I got back to the pool of reporters, they asked me, "What did he say? What did he say?" I told them I didn't know, it was all in Russian. And I had to get the exclusive back to the office. So I hailed the cab, gave the driver money, and told him to drop it off at the radio station.

CP: Sounds like you enjoyed the work.

SD: It was the best job I ever had in my life. And I was 22 when I got it. I had the credentials to do anything I wanted. I would call Kennedy in the Senate--because we had two stations [in Massachusetts], one in Boston and one in Worcester.

CP: Was Kennedy running?

SD: This was a little before. I remember he was young, skinny, really inexperienced, and a little nervous. Whenever we were in the station together, and I was interviewing him on the air, he kept tapping his pencil on the microphone. I kept telling him that everyone could hear it. He also taught me how to fold newspapers, so I could read them on the bus. In two years, though, I noticed how polished he became. Then, after he beat Humphrey in the West Virginia primary, suddenly, he'd transformed into this eloquent, dashing figure.

CP: So you quit this job.

SD: Well, I decided to quit after Kennedy was elected in 1960 because this other fellow and I were going to start up our own news service. I was going to be the leg man, based on the press gallery in Congress. My first interview was to go down to Cuba and interview Castro. What happened was I went down to New York to say goodbye to my family. Then I was going to go down to Baltimore, to meet my brother Jimmy. He was coming down by freighter from England. The freighter disappeared and Jimmy died.

CP: There are lots of references to your brother's death, in Frog and Phone Rings.

SD: He died in 1960, when I was 23. I've never come to terms with it. He was writing me from Thailand and Japan and Greece, telling me about his experiences. Then, suddenly, he's disappeared. I also felt somewhat responsible for his death. He had the opportunity to come back in this freighter. Jim wrote me and told me, "I have tickets to come back on the ocean liner, or this guy Ben Krasner said he'd take me on as a crew member." I said, "Go on as a crewman, that's a great experience as a writer." My father got on the line and said, "Don't do it, those freighters are unsafe." But Jimmy decided to come back on the freighter. The freighter disappeared. They never found his body. I don't know how my father was able to talk to me after that.

CP: Your other brother, Don, seems pretty interesting. He's also a prototype for your main character in Phone Rings.

SD: Don died a tragic death just four years ago. Exactly six months after Sep. 11. He died in 2002. He was a reporter during the Korean War, for [International News Service]. [A friend] bought a boat and they went out for a test drive in the China Sea. And the Chinese gunboats pulled him over. They said, "You're spying for the Americans." They commandeered the boat. And they put Don in prison for a year and a half. Two times they took him out and pretended they were going to kill him.

CP: Sounds like what happened to Dostoevsky.

SD: Oh, yeah. Where they took him out and cocked the rifles. With Don they cocked the rifles, too. He was in a dungeon for a year and a half. Then he got out and did very well as a reporter. He became a head of public affairs and special events for National Education Television. And when he retired, he had a great career as a marathon runner. He was a champion--what do you call them?

CP: Masters.

SD: Masters. Of the whole country. Through his 40s and his 50s, he was the fastest in his age group. Then, when he was 63, someone finally beat him. But then, four years ago, he was running in Yonkers [N.Y.] and a tree just fell on him. He was running alone. He was supposed to be running with a doctor friend, but the doctor friend had to go to a funeral. It's in Phone Rings, which is sort of my elegy to Don.

CP: So Jimmy died in 1960, and you went to live in New York?

SD: Well, I was going to try to start this two-man news service, but the guy who was going to be in New York died of a heart attack. I decided that finishes it, and gave up my apartment in D.C. Then I got a job in New York with a magazine called True Police Case and another one called Startling Detectives. It was just a job. Then I heard about another job at CBS. I was allowed to be editor of the show. It was a program called In Person With Ron Cochran. It was a daily show, 15-20 minutes. I call it a precursor of All Things Considered. No news, but stories of people and interviews with them. Then that show went off the air. And that's when I finally left journalism. They gave me a bucket of money [for the show]. I was already writing novels and short stories, and I used the money they gave me to write.

CP: How much was a bucket of money?

SD: $165 a week, which was a lot then. I was 24 or 25. For a few years I had a job as a schoolteacher. Then I got a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford in 1964. Before going, I also spent about six months in Paris. But I was too lonely, and I didn't have enough money.

CP: I guess Stegner was in charge then.

SD: Well, he didn't like my writing. I don't know why he admitted me as one of the four fellows. My work was too urban for him. I really had no contact with the guy. We called him Mr. Stegner or Dr. Stegner. He was a nice guy, but he didn't give me good advice. I had one conference with him, and we talked about things that had nothing to do with writing. That was that.

CP: You were in California during the Summer of Love?

SD: Well, I finished [the Stegner Fellowship] in 1968. I had lots of jobs. I had a job with a systems analysis company writing technical stuff--TRW is the name of the firm--and I taught for a little while for the San Mateo Board of Education. I taught middle school and high school. I was a school bus driver. I modeled at art school. A whole bunch of other things. I worked for the Emporium, a department store, for about a year. Sometimes I had three jobs at once--I worked for the Emporium at night, I was an analyst, and I was a schoolteacher. I'd moved in with a woman and child, and I was supporting them. And then in '68 I decided to go back to New York, particularly because Playboy took a story of mine. They gave me a lot of money--$500. So I used that to go back to New York. My father was ill with Parkinson's, and I wanted to help my mother take care of him.

CP: Your father was a dentist?

SD: Yes. By 1968, he'd retired.

CP: Some of your characters speculate that they might have become dentists.

SD: Yeah, there's a lot of dentistry in my novels. I think I write more about dentistry than any writer alive. Except Frank Norris--he wrote a whole book [McTeague] about an old-fashioned dentist in the Wild West.

CP: In dentistry, the idea that you follow in your father's footsteps is important.

SD: It's just what my father wanted me to do. See, I was the youngest of four boys. There were seven of us in the family. He wanted each boy to become a dentist. But each one became a journalist. So I sort of followed in my brothers' footsteps rather than my father's. My father put the onus on me, saying, "You have to become a dentist. I have to give my office to you." So I tried. I tried harder than my other brothers. I was pre-dental in college for two years. The truth is, I got caught cheating in a biology practicum and was put on suspension at [City College of New York]. It just showed my desperation to do well in the science courses, because I wanted to please my father.

CP: If this gets published, that's not a career option anymore.

SD: (laughs) Well, good.

CP: I guess, among your other jobs in the '70s, you became a bartender.

SD: I got a job as a bartender in 1975. I went to interview at Brew and Burger on West 57th Street as a waiter, and they said I was too old to be a waiter. I was 39 years old. They said, "How'd you like to be a bartender? You've got the looks of a bartender." I told them I didn't know how to tend bar, but I'm a quick learner. So I went home and read the Playboy bartending book. I kept it underneath the bar. And if anyone came in with a complicated drink, I would say, "Excuse me, I forgot something underneath here," and I would like to look at the recipe. Bartending was pretty good to me.

CP: Somewhere along the way you must have been getting published.

SD: I was a bartender until 1977--when I had an injury, because I kept banging my knee against the bottle shelf under the bar. It ended up turning into a Baker's cyst and it was operated on. It was a big mess. At first they thought they might have to take a leg off. But I also began selling books. Selling them is a euphemism, though. I got $600 for No Relief [1976], and nothing from Work [1977] because the company that published it went bankrupt. Then Harper's magazine hooked me up to Harper and Row, and I've been publishing ever since.

CP: When did you get your first story published?

SD: Paris Review. 1963. Issue 29. It was called "Chess House."

CP: I guess that means you were discovered by [Paris Review editor] George Plimpton.

SD: We had a love-hate relationship, George Plimpton and I. They took that first story of mine, and then I got another letter from them saying that they were taking another story. I didn't hear from him for another year and a half. Then I sent him a part of a novel for their Paris Review editions. I didn't hear from him. So I was living in New York, in 1968, as a schoolteacher--very poor--and I kept calling and calling the Paris Review. At that time you kept getting this phone service. I said I want to know what the hell happened to that story I sold you. The woman took the message, and they didn't call back. At that time, I got tired of saying Steve Dixon called, so I told them I was Menashe Skulnick, a famous Yiddish comedian. I didn't get a call back, so two weeks later I called. The woman asked who it was; I said I was Howard Duff. He played Sam Spade on the radio. She said, "Oh, I know how to spell that, Mr. Duff! I saw him with Ida Lupino on Broadway yesterday!" So I go to school, and the next night I come home, Lola, who I was living with, said that George Plimpton called and he asked for Howard Duff. I called him up and told him I was Steve Dixon. Then the next day I got a letter from Plimpton by express mail saying, "Not only are you not a novelist, but you're probably not a short-story writer either." That's the exact quote.

At 44, Dixon began his career as a teacher. Academia didn't necessarily do anything for his writing, but it did help him support a family. "It's been great," he says. "They gave me a raise every year, they had a great health plan, and they helped pay for my daughters' education." Then again, he emphatically adds, he's kept his teaching and writing separate. And he advises anybody else to do the same.

City Paper: You finally started teaching at Johns Hopkins in--

Stephen Dixon: 1980. I had had one year teaching at NYU, continuing ed. I had applied to about 40 schools for teaching positions. Even though I'd had four books published and about 100 short stories, not one place ever wrote me back. I'd given up with getting a teaching job. What happened with Johns Hopkins, I saw an advertisement in The New York Times Book Review for Johns Hopkins Press, and I saw John Irwin's name on it. I sent him a book of short stories, and he took it--it became 14 Stories [1980]--and he said, by the way, we have a position open. I was broke at the time and I wasn't making any money, so I interviewed and went and got the job. But I didn't want to take it. Then Anne [Frydman], who became my wife, said, "Listen, if you want to get married and have a baby--in that order--you've got to take the job." I said that will mean we're separated. She had a Ph.D. in Russian Literature at NYU. She said, "Don't worry, it's just a three-year job." So I took it, and then it turned from a three-year job to a tenured job. We got married after two years, and I guess Hopkins liked me, too.

CP: Two of your novels, Frog and Interstate, got nominated for National Book Awards. You've written about the experience of being considered but getting turned down at the end.

SD: Yeah, in 1991, when I was nominated for Frog, two of the five judges came to me and told me that they wanted me. Two wanted the other guy. The fifth, a woman, wasn't sure who she wanted, but the other two were obviously more convincing. Then I was nominated in 1995 for Interstate, and the same thing happened. I got turned down.

CP: Getting nominated is great, but winning that would have changed your life.

SD: Well, the truth is, I wish it had happened, but I'm glad it didn't happen. First of all, I got a story, "The Victor," out of it. In my story, the winner of the book award stops writing and goes on the speech circuit. The guy who won the first award, in 1991, was Norm Rush--he `s a very slow writer, very turgid. And Philip Roth, who I've never liked since Goodbye Columbus, was the guy I was up against in 1995. But [Roth] is a monument. I remember when I was nominated in 1995, a good friend of ours, Irving Howe's wife, Ilana Howe, told me, "You're up against Philip Roth, you lost."

CP: And if you beat him, you'll probably find yourself in one of his books.

SD: Yeah. He has too many friends and he's too powerful. But sure, it would change your life. First of all, you'll probably be a million dollars richer. Then the next book, the advance you get . . . you know, I get nothing for my advances. If I get $2,000 for a book, that's a lot of money. But if you get the National Book Award, and you win it, you get a couple hundred thousand dollars easily--and it gets translated in different languages. You're on easy street. Maybe that's not so good. Yeah, it would have been nice. I would have been a lot more comfortable. But it would have also meant a lot of attention would have been directed my way, which I don't like. I sort of like to live in solitude. I call it living in the basement.

CP: You work in the basement?

SD: Well, we don't have much of one now. But when we lived in Mount Washington, there was one, with a little window. It was paradise.

CP: Some of your work, I guess, has been turned into films.

SD: I've had several films made of my work, but only in France. I had Interstate turned into a movie in France, called Dissonances. Six stories of mine were turned into a movie called Life Is a Joke. Now a guy's going to do a movie of the last story in I. That's going to be an interesting movie.

CP: And they're all French?

SD: I think I've had 11 books translated in France. I've had a little difficulty getting [recent books] accepted in the last four years or so. I have a French agent. She's comfortable that things will pick up. Now I get books published in Italy--I, Old Friends. End of I is coming out. So I have a new audience there. I've never seen a review, so I don't know if anybody cares.

CP: How did the Interstate film turn out? It's a complex plot line.

SD: They didn't do such a great job. They shot it in South Africa. Somebody says they saw a giraffe somewhere in the film, but I don't know. Maybe they were just joking with me. They had a beautiful script, but for commercial reasons they changed it. All the movies of my books there got awards, but in France there must be 50 awards a month given to movies.

CP: But are you popular in France?

SD: I don't think I'm popular in France. I'm just getting published. You'd think after four novels get made into films, it would translate into popularity at the bookstore. But it doesn't.

Dixon has been a tenured professor in the Hopkins Writing Seminars for 26 years. That's a long time, and a lot of manuscripts. It's also been a period of great change in the educational marketplace. When Dixon first received the Stegner Fellowship in 1964, there were three schools that offered paid fellowships for graduate writers: the University of Iowa, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford University. Now there are more than 150 graduate programs and 350 undergraduate creative writing majors in the United States. Talk turned to some of his experiences, and his thoughts, after 26 years of teaching students.

City Paper: Can you tell us what some of your best memories are as a teacher?

Stephen Dixon: I'll tell you what Eisenhower said when he was asked to recite some of Nixon's virtues: "Give me some time to think about that."

(A few days later, he called to complete the thought: "OK, I've got it. It was the day when I brought my daughter Sophia in to workshop the class we were writing on children's fiction. That was a great day.")

CP: Any less-than-stellar moments?

SD: There is a standout memory. Some couple had been going together, a guy and girl, and then they broke up, and the guy was bitter about it. He wrote this terrible story, and I didn't know it was about her. So I gave it to his ex-girlfriend to critique. She just tore him apart, talked about his small penis, and then he got up in tears and called her a cunt. It was total madness. Then the girl's new boyfriend got up and spoke up for her, and the two guys were ready to throw chairs across the table at one another. I didn't know how to handle it, so we just had to go into my office to settle it.

CP: You started teaching at 43. What if a twentysomething kid told you that he had the chance to teach? Would you tell him or her to take the job?

SD: No. I would have lost all those other job experiences. It's best that I came there when I was 43. It was pretty late for an assistant professor. When my students tell me that they want to get into teaching early, I tell them live a life.

CP: Now there are more than 350 writing departments across the country.

SD: That many? I have a theory that I developed today, talking to my wife, Anne. I think a lot of them are going to fold, because it's getting tougher and tougher for young writers to get published. And it's getting tougher for them to get jobs teaching. I think we'll go back to the way--not the way it was when Hopkins, Stanford, and Iowa were the only ones in the country--but I think fewer and fewer will want to go to graduate school, because there's no work for them when they graduate.

CP: So it's harder for young writers to get published?

SD: I think they can get published in little journals and stuff. I think publishers are still taking chances on a young writer, but I think after the first or second book, if it flops, then that's it. Then they'll have to go to publishing houses that no one's ever heard of and get no attention, which will discourage some of them enough to make them stop writing.

CP: Now you have a generation of writers who have grown up in writing schools.

SD: Just in writing programs, yes. It's a flat way to live, I think, not having experience. I cannot get any good fiction from teaching in a university. I have maybe two stories which take place in a university setting, and a couple of scenes in Frog, and that's it. It's just an uninteresting atmosphere. And what there is to write about has already been written about very well.

CP: Has the quality of writers changed over the years?

SD: Actually, it's gotten better. First, I thought that the computer would make writing too easy. The thing is, it's made writing more fluid for undergrads. The graduate students remain the same. But the undergraduates have become better writers. Better at constructing sentences. Better at revision. Better at listening to criticism. And better critics.

CP: According to a recent National Endowment for the Arts study, "Reading in Risk," they're worse at reading. They're writing a lot more and reading a lot less.

SD: They're right. They're actually right. When I give stories to undergrads, I'll ask who's read Tolstoy. Nobody's read Tolstoy. Or I mention James Joyce, when we read a story from Dubliners, maybe one or two have read a story in high school. When I first started out, kids were much more serious as readers, and I could actually have literary discussions with them, which I cannot do now. Even the ones who are the most avid writers are not avid readers. They just want to write.

CP: Everyone has a novel inside them, but no one reads anybody else's, then. Is that a problem?

SD: It's a paradox. It hasn't really stopped undergrads from becoming better writers than the readers who were writing before. You would think just the opposite. But then there's a problem. We grew up on Dostoevsky, Conrad, if there was ever a serious name, we read that writer. It also told us what not to write, because if the thing has been taken up already, and you have a history of having read it, you want to go on to something new. So a lot of students are sort of writing what's already been written.

CP: Can you tell people how to teach writing?

SD: I never really read articles about the teaching of writing. I find them really boring, and I find them unhelpful, too. Maybe I'm just so set in my ways of teaching that I don't want any new, fresh ideas interfering, particularly because I'm in the home stretch.

CP: Four more months.

SD: And then I will never read another manuscript in my life. I probably won't even walk into the university, except for a Writing Seminars party.

CP: You have any favorite teacher or mentor of your own?

SD: No. Nobody ever helped me. The only one who gave me any advice was my brother Jimmy. He's the one who told me I had to learn to finish stories. Those are the only words of advice I've ever really used. After that, I never really listened to anybody. When I was a Stegner Fellow, the criticism was abominable. The only thing Stegner could tell me was, "Mr. Dixon, Winston tastes good as a cigarette should." I asked, "Come again?" It was because my character was using the word "like" instead of "as." I said, it's incorrect because that's the way he talks! I couldn't convince the guy. He was a nice guy, but a lousy teacher.

Getting Dixon to talk about his own writing can be a little tricky. First, it's difficult to keep track of what his latest novel is. The last book in Dixon's trilogy, End of I, has recently hit the presses. Another book, Meyer, is due to come out in the fall. And he's finishing yet another book, His Wife Leaves Him. Second, he doesn't like talking about his writing. So we took a circuitous route. He's 70 years old, from New York, spent the '60s in California . . .

City Paper: Are you Thomas Pynchon?

Stephen Dixon: No. I won't say I wish I was him, but we're the same age and he's had an amazing success. I mean, I wonder what it's like to have been just a writer for 50 years. I remember when V came out, I was in Stanford in 1964. Since then, it's been 42, 43 years of tremendous success, and he's never had to do anything but write. He's always had enough money, and, you know, he's a guy who doesn't want attention, so he can sit at home and write, go to the store, have a beer, read the paper. I mean, it's unlike my life. I needed this job to make a living. And I've had to fight my ass off to get my work published. I've been published by 12 different publishers, if not more. I had to get every single one of them myself. Henry Holt was the only one who came after me. But it didn't last. After four books, and the republication of Frog, they dropped me.

CP: You spent the late '60s in California. But you really wouldn't know it from your writing.

SD: Yeah. In fact, at the beginning I tried to write a story about psychedelic experiences, and I just abandoned it. You know--about all the drugs and stuff I did in California. I look back a little at that in a chapter in Frog, at a time when I was paid to be a guinea pig for a cannabis experiment at a hospital. But there's very little drug taking in my work. I mean, some things take place in the '60s, but it didn't have the influence that it had on, say, Robert Stone.

CP: His bio just came out.

SD: Yeah. I knew him in the '60s, just like I knew all those people up in California. I knew Ken Kesey, because the woman I was living with, Lola, was a good friend of his. Her ex-husband, George Walker, was the one who paid for the bus trip. He had a lot of dough. He used to be married to Lola, so I helped bring up his son for three years. I guess I was his surrogate father, from 3 to 6. And Ken Kesey came by a lot. So there were a lot of drugs going around, I just didn't do much of them.

I didn't think much of the Kesey group--I thought they were way overestimated as an intellectual force. I knew he would fall apart because all of those drugs. But he was a smart guy and, as Stone says, charismatic. I was just out there, being myself, writing my own work, and not being influenced by anybody around me.

CP: Well, then, here's a quote by William Vollmann I'd like to see you react to: "In this period of our literature, we are producing insular works, as if all of our writers were on airplanes in economy seats."

SD: Put up or shut up, I would tell him. I don't really care for his writing. I think he overwrites and he's not careful. I think he goes out for experiences more to have something to write about, not because he enjoys them. He's prolific, but I don't know if that's a virtue. My work is insular, but I don't think it's insular like anybody else's. It's also got a style.

CP: You do have a distinct style, which people identify you with. How did that come about?

SD: It took about three years of writing. I really started writing in 1960. At first I was writing realistic stories that had no oomph to them. I told myself I had to change, that there was something very static to it. So many writers really sound alike--everything is in its place. So I felt I had to break loose. So I did.

CP: When you talk about writers being static, can you give me examples?

SD: Well, read [literary quarterly] Glimmer Train. Or you read that magazine One Story. I've been in both of them, but mostly it's just the same story over and over again. Maybe that's why they chose that name. Same thing with Story Quarterly, a magazine I've been in maybe 12 times. Maybe it's what they call graduate fiction-workshop writing. It's dull. It's not deep. I wonder whether people write that way because it gets published.

CP: I could only find one critical essay of yours--of Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer.

SD: I just like his intensity. The idea that he could have a guy who spends the first half of his novel--Woodcutters--just observing people. I like his anger. I like what he directs the anger at. I also think that the best book he's written is not a novel; it's his memoir, Gathering Evidence. It's funny and adventurous.

CP: So anger is a motivating factor. Are there other things that drive your writing?

SD: To me the motivation for a long time was girls breaking up with me. The door would slam, she'd tell me to go screw off, and I would sit there sulking. Then I would tell myself, don't sulk, write a story about it. So I'd sit down at the typewriter, write the first draft. Then I'd say, well, I got something good out of this.

CP: There's also a lot of anxiety about your children.

SD: Oh yeah, always. I still have them, in my real life, when they drive around. But you have to let your kids go, especially when they're 21 and 24. I'm a very nervous guy, somewhat neurotic. No question about it. About my children, about my wife, about my life. I have my fears, you know, my anxieties, but I manage to get over them.

CP: So being neurotic helps?

SD: Well, equanimity can help, too. But I guess neurosis gives writing an edge. It gives a certain truth to it also. I don't flinch from any topic. I try to get as deeply as I can into it.

CP: And then, in your upcoming book, His Wife Leaves Him, I guess, there's guilt.

SD: This is going to be about a wife, a woman who dies, and her husband feels he's responsible for her death. She's had two strokes in the novel. He says something about not being able to take care of her anymore, and she dies. Then comes the memorial service. Then he takes a nap and goes through a series of dreams related to her death. Then he goes chronologically through their 25 years together. It ends when someone knocks on the door with a phone call about his wife's stroke.

CP: In Phone Rings, the narrator's brother dies, in His Wife Leaves Him, the wife dies, in Interstate, the daughter dies. Then, in Frog, you die.

SD: I thought I'd try it out, see if I liked it. People say, you know, you don't write fiction, you write autobiography. I say, well, come on, in this one I'm dead! You know it's fiction if I'm dead.

CP: Any last words of encouragement to a 20-year-old kid whose friends don't read, and who keeps getting told that literature is going out of style?

SD: You write because of the pleasure. I write because I love the activity. I've always been honest about my stuff. I've never thought more of my work than I thought should be thought of it. But there's the phrase they keep repeating, "Write what you know." I don't agree with that. Write about what you don't know. And then find out about it.

Related stories

Feature archives

More Stories

The Lady Vanishes (8/4/2010)
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of

David Franks (1/27/2010)
Birthdate unknown-Jan. 14, 2010

A. Robert Kaufman (1/6/2010)
March 8, 1931-Dec. 25, 2009

More from John Barry

Creative Proof (7/14/2010)
Documentarian Steven Fischer pushes artists to talk about what makes them make art

Green Machine (7/7/2010)
The Charm City Circulator is more than a cool free bus--it's part of a hopefully sustainable relationship

Drama Splice (5/20/2010)
Recent Towson University theatrical conference wants to break contemporary Russian playwrights onto American stages

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter