Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 15, 1995

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

     "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

     "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

     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

     "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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