Stephen Dixon by Ted Hendrick

Stephen Dixon on growing novels, compound perspectives, and cutting a path through bereavement with memory alone.

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Stephen Dixon has been publishing fiction for fifty years. He is the author of sixteen novels and fifteen collections of stories. Throughout his writing career he has been an innovator in literary style, developing new ways of presenting characters through dialogue and point of view.

In his latest novel, His Wife Leaves Him, a husband and father, shocked and guilty over his wife’s death, recalls their life together—their meeting, years rearing children, her illness, and the strain of caring for her. In doing so, the character recovers his courage and strength of purpose.

I interviewed Stephen Dixon at his home in a hilly suburb of Baltimore. The house, with its brick fireplace and oak trim, reminds him of a hunting lodge, albeit one filled with books. He writes every day, usually in the morning.

Ted Hendricks Could you tell me about the title, His Wife Leaves Him?

Stephen Dixon It’s a pretty complicated title.

TH It’s double-edged.

SD Yes. I don’t so much want to explain what the title means. His wife does leave him, by dying, and there’s also the process of her leaving his memory. In other words, she leaves his memory on the page or I leave his memory on the page, and his wife leaves him in life. I won’t say it’s about the consequences of this, but rather the way she leaves him—that’s partly what the book is about.

TH By “the way she leaves him” do you mean her long period of disability?

SD Well, she doesn’t have that long a disability. It’s the way she leaves him. She leaves him with a lot of guilt because of his final action, which is clear in the novel. I’m not giving anything away. He thinks he was responsible for her death, which is pretty heavy.

TH Does the guilt of the main character, Martin, go further back? Certainly the first part of the novel is harrowing. I think of the series of dreams he has after the memorial for his wife, Gwen. The dream sequence suggests he is anxious; there are memories of times when he lost his temper with her.

SD Like in any marriage, it hit bottom a few times, but I don’t think he’s guilty about that. He’s guilty about what he said to her the night before she died. But the dreams are there for a couple of reasons. One is to elucidate the story more and carry on the story of their life. They open it up and seem true because dreams are so often wishful thinking.

TH They are very convincing.

SD Well, some of those dreams I’ve had, others are made up. And one dream is something that actually happened, but I put it in a dream because I didn’t think it was believable. I put it in one of the vignettes, one of the fifty or so that occur toward the end of the book. It’s interesting that one could have an experience that is believable to you because you actually experienced it, but, when you try to put it on paper, it turns out to be unbelievable to a reader or even to the writer writing about it. So it turns into a dream. This dream, by the way, is of a tree that falls when they are driving on the highway. The tree missed hitting their car, meaning my car, with my daughters and wife inside, by about one and a half seconds.

TH The entire novel consists of dialogue. Martin is talking to other people or recalling himself talking to other people. There is very little external description.

SD I don’t like description in the novel. In fact, in one story I wrote long ago, “A Sloppy Story”— it’s in 14 Stories, I think—I satirize description. “Something is like this, something is like that.” The character jokes about it. Anyway, I don’t like description.

TH Your characterization comes through the dialogue. Did you consciously use this technique to develop character?

SD Yes, I choose to write that way because it moves the fiction along faster than stopping to describe what someone looks like or what the surrounding area is like. I only add those other things, description, when it’s absolutely necessary for the clarity of what I’m writing. But I love dialogue.

TH His Wife Leaves Him is told in the third person. You use the third person the way another author would use the first person. Is that something you developed yourself?

SD Yes, it’s something I developed. I’m glad you caught that.

TH What effect do you want that to have?

SD Just what you said. It’s third person, but it sounds like first person. See, first person is, of course, very immediate, but you’re limited in what you could have happen between two characters. But with third person done in first-person style, you have the advantages of both. I’m not being clear here, but I’m coming close.

TH There is almost no “action” in the novel, in the traditional sense. Martin goes to bed for twelve hours. Is that part of your concept?

SD Yes. I wanted most of the novel to be in his head. For this, he has to be lying back in bed with his room dark and his eyes closed, remembering things in their marriage. Of course, there is action in the dream. There’s movement, I should say. It’s a very interior novel. He lies down and thinks for maybe three hundred pages.

TH Do you often work that way, presenting the characters as thinking rather than acting?

SD Yes, for the last twenty years or so. My stories and my novels used to be a lot more “exciting.” And then they gradually became more interior. Now they’re entirely done in the narrator’s mind. It takes him, with his reservations and anxieties, fifty pages to call her for their first date. I like that format.

What compels a man not to call a woman he’s attracted to? Is he afraid of being rejected? Yes, as long as he doesn’t call her there’s still the hope that she will go on a date with him and that their relationship will materialize into something more. This all suggests that what he really wants is a relationship. I think he’s about forty-two when he meets her. He has no children; he’s never been married. He’s had lots of affairs, a long-term relationship, but they didn’t work out. And so he’s not frightened but really anxious that she’ll reject him, that she’ll have second thoughts. Who knows when the next time will be, when he’ll be able to meet somebody who’s a prospective mate?

And he is also having fantasies about her too, from their very brief encounter. That was my sort of trick—to have them just say a few words at the elevator. For that to be so brief, for so few words to be spoken. And he goes on for fifty pages, in his apartment, his hand on the phone, dialing and hanging up. I like that part.

TH Was meeting Gwen the turning point in Martin’s life?

SD That’s the most important moment in his life. That’s why I go over it so often. Not only in this novel but in other books.

TH How do you develop a novel? Do you start with a story?

SD Too Late started as a short story, and I said, “No, this is growing.” And usually when I let it grow and if it gets to fifty pages, I say, “You have a novel here.” So I would start it over, and so on. The last book from Melville House, Meyer, started as a short story, and all the chapters in it are self-contained. They could be short stories but I link them together to, I think, turn them into a novel.

With my novel Fall and Rise, which was published in 1985, I started with a concept—a man meets a woman. My novel Work, which was my first published, also started as a concept. Man is looking for work, finds work, works, loses work, goes back on unemployment. That’s what the novel was about.

This one, His Wife Leaves Him … did I say it started as a story? Because it didn’t, just as a line or two as I was writing. I was certainly influenced at the time by the sickness of my own wife—she wasn’t dead—and it just sort of carried on.

TH Many of the events in His Wife Leaves Him seem to correspond to events in your life. What is the relationship between fiction and autobiography?

SD The whole book is fictionalized. It’s a novel, not a memoir, although it might read like one in parts. Every event, the ones closest to me and ones that I made up, is fictionalized.

TH Do your stories start with things you’ve experienced?

SD No, sometimes they start in my imagination. For instance, I have a story that was in one of the McSweeney’s books, “Miracle.” A man’s wife is sick. He makes a wish, and she becomes well overnight. Of course that can’t happen, but it’s a story. Then she goes back to being sick. That’s a story of wish fulfillment, you might say. But it’s a nice story because they get the reactions of their daughters to her sudden good health, things like that.

Some things are closer to what actually happened and some things aren’t. I’m not going to say exactly which are which in His Wife Leaves Him. But I will say that the woman in the book dies from a third stroke while my own wife died of MS. The woman in the novel is sick for four years while my own wife was sick for twenty years.

TH The last section, the “vignettes,” strikes me as brighter and brighter. Martin’s memories are generally positive.

SD Yeah, there are a lot of good moments and they usually get simpler: she just looks at him happily without saying anything. That makes him happy, that’s she’s happy, and she’s happy because of something he did. He’s summarizing their life together, collecting the memories.

TH What are you working on now?

SD I’m working on sort of a sequel to His Wife Leaves Him. It’s called Late Stories. It’s a sequence of stories about a man whose wife has died about four years before. And how he’s carrying on. He’d like to have a new relationship, but they don’t seem to work out. And, you know, he’s retired and it’s his life and his continued bereavement, but there are some good moments too. Again, it deals with his dream life; his daily life is mainly composed of writing and going to this bar every day. Now that doesn’t seem like the material that could make an eight, nine, ten hundred-page collection of short stories that reads like a novel, an un-chronological novel, but I’m having a good time with it. I really think I’m doing something different and new. The language is even fresher than the language in His Wife Leaves Him. Clearer.

TH So Late Stories will be a novel, but it will consist of interrelated stories?

SD Yes, it’s a novel in the sense that it’s all about the same character. I’m on number thirty-nine now and I have about eight hundred pages so far. In every story it’s mentioned, very briefly, that his wife is dead. That may not have anything to do with the story, but it’s to show that she’s still on his mind.

TH Do you have a publication date?

SD Oh, I don’t have a publisher! I’m just going to write this until I finish it and it might be quite long. It’s already quite long, and I don’t want to think of a publisher. I sort of think that this time around maybe the publishers will come to me. Probably not. And so I’ll have to look for one again. I’m sure Fantagraphics will be interested, but they don’t do too many books. They only do one non-graphic novel or non-graphic collection a year.

TH Have you enjoyed working with Fantagraphics Books?

SD I actually had a lot of trouble with the first book I published with them—What is All This. There were about a thousand errors in the hardcover version, but they were mostly my fault because at the time I was in a deep bereavement state over the death of my wife and didn’t pay sufficient attention to the galleys as I should have. The second edition of that book is the one to read since it has all those errors corrected and the softcover packaging is beautiful and original. I consider it a strong member of my literary family. Fantagraphics did a great job.

TH Has publishing with them exposed your work to a younger audience?

SD Well, it probably has, but that started in the 2001, when I published two novels—I and End of I—with McSweeney’s, which probably caters to an even younger audience than Fantagraphics. Then I continued with Melville House where I published three novels. They also seem to have a young audience for their books.

TH I think readers who know your work may be surprised at the structure of His Wife Leaves Him. It strikes me as more clearly structured that some of your other novels.

SD Well, I try to make all my fiction clearly structured. I’ve been writing a long time, and maybe I’m finally doing something right.

Ted Hendricks teaches American literature at Stevenson University, near Baltimore.

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