Dixon's 17th Book Examines Pain Of Losing A Child To Violence By Lisa Mastny For writer Stephen Dixon, recognition has come slowly. His non-traditional style, always evolving and forever irreverent of grammatical propriety, has made critics--and readers--wary of his novels. Publishers don't know whether to call him an "experimental" writer or avant garde, to print his work for the masses, in small presses or in literary magazines. He has no category and no parallel, having abandoned his early influences--Kafka, Hemingway, Joyce and Beckett--30 years ago because, he says, he didn't want to write like anyone else. But while the writing style itself may remain elusive, one cannot fail to recognize a story with universal appeal. And Interstate (Henry Holt and Co.), Dixon's 17th book of fiction and his latest novel, has just that. A fictional but timely reflection of the pervasive violence in America today, the book will ring familiar to anyone who has watched the news or picked up a newspaper in the past week. It is comprised of eight narratives, each examining in a distinct, and not always linear, way a father's reaction to the senseless shooting of his youngest daughter on the interstate. "In the broadest sense, the book is about love, loss and imagination--the imaginary death of a child through a violent crime," said Dixon, a professor in the Writing Seminars. "But it really exposes the reality of the violent times we live in. Emotionally, it shows that such events have repercussions in the deepest way." The father of two young girls himself, Dixon simply wrote about how he would feel at the loss of one of his own daughters to senseless violence. He originally intended to use a crayon sketch of a father leading a child by the hand, drawn by his nine-year-old daughter Antonia, for the cover of the book. "Having children, you tend to imagine what could happen to them, and how you would react if anything did happen to them," he said. "I would die--whether emotionally or physically." Much of his inspiration for the novel also came from looking at photographs of grief-stricken parents, collected from newspapers and magazines and vividly capturing the violence on the American streets and in war-torn regions such as Bosnia. "It's called empathy," Dixon said. "You read about somebody else's children dying and you empathize with the photograph of the parents distraught over the death of their child. The snipers, the dead children in the street, the parents at the grave sites--you can feel the growing barbarism by just looking at the images." Dixon also listened to two classical music pieces about human suffering and loss--the Third Symphony by Czech composer Gorecki and the Quartet to the End of Time by French composer Messiaen--more than 50 times during the writing of the novel, probably because they were in the right emotional mindset, he said. "Even if it's never happened to you, the imagined death of someone you love can be as deep and tragic at the moment that you just think about it," he said. "In that sense, only a writer of fiction can play God, taking life away and giving it back again as often as he wants. Even a doctor can't do that." Tragic as the story is, though, Interstate is not without the humor and moments of happiness that pervade much of Dixon's work. "There can always be elements of humor in a tragedy," he said. "These are the wonderful moments, the simplest moments, like singing to your children as they peacefully go to sleep. And then something happens and you realize that even the simplest things are no longer there for you." Compelled by his emotions and a desire to express in writing the deepest human feelings of love and grief, Dixon completed the unedited, 700-page manuscript in two years. The published version now runs 374 pages. "It possessed me like no book I've written," he said. "I worked on it every possible free moment. It was so compelling to write." But it was often difficult, emotionally, for Dixon to complete some of the more poignant scenes in the novel. "There were times, like when I was writing the scene at the hospital with the daughter, that I was very depressed," he said. "I cried. But then when I wrote funny parts, it made me happy and I laughed." While Interstate is the longest work he has completed on the topic, the theme of the worrying father is not a new one in Dixon's writing. In "The Rescuer," a short story published several years ago, he wrote about a father who shuts all the windows in the house after hearing that someone else's young child has fallen from a window and died. On June 12, Dixon will be leaving for a two-and-a-half week tour of approximately 12 U.S. cities to promote the novel. It will be the first full book tour he has ever done, and is a sign that the publisher has high hopes for the success of the novel, he said. "Maybe I've been good, maybe they finally trust me," he said. "This shows they are really backing the book, giving me advertisement, air time and a book tour." But while Dixon is looking forward to promoting his novel, he is not terribly excited about two weeks of intense travel. "It's exhausting," he said. "The last thing I want to do is be in a hotel room. That's not why I became a writer. I think a writer has, if anything, the exact opposite personality. A writer is someone who works in a room alone, who is articulate on the page and not on the mike." His biggest fear in the next month is freezing up on a live radio talk show and being unable to finish a sentence on the air. Nevertheless, Dixon is fairly confident about the success of Interstate. "It's gotten good reviews," he said. "It has a certain topicality that would create more publicity, especially after Oklahoma, highway killings, tourists in Miami, people shooting indiscriminately for no cause--not for property, not for rape-- just shooting. It's absolutely nuts, but it's out there."
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