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Door Opens

After 26 years of teaching, Stephen Dixon has retired from the Writing Seminars — but not from writing. He says, "How many books can you read without wanting to write one?"

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Steve Spartana

DOOR OPENS. Stephen Dixon greets me at his home wearing black trousers, blue T-shirt, white sneakers. The pants are a little baggy, a little long, and bear a good bit of fur courtesy of Streak, Dixon's mostly white long-haired cat, who will rub against your legs and then bite the hand that pets him. Or not, you never know. The cat was named for a streak of darker fur on his head (now more of a smudge), but Dixon says these days the name could be short for Mean Streak. This afternoon, the cat behaves himself and submits to a little affection. Dixon offers tea, coffee, then gestures to sit at the dining room table.

At one of the table's places rests a Hermes Standard typewriter, and next to it a stack of typescript. The pages are a novel-in-progress, "His Wife Leaves Him." Forty-four years ago, The Paris Review published a short story by Dixon titled "The Chess House," commencing his career as a fiction writer. Thirty-seven years ago, No Relief, his first novel, appeared in bookstores. In September, Melville House will publish Meyer, Dixon's 27th book. Over the years his work has garnered three O. Henry Prizes, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, two appearances in the annual Best American Short Stories, two Pushcart Prizes, a National Magazine Award nomination, and a Guggenheim. Two of his novels have been finalists for the National Book Award: Frog in 1991 and Interstate in 1995.

Dixon has never had a bestseller, never earned a large royalty check. If he gets $3,000 as an advance for a new novel, that counts as a big payday. When Frog was shortlisted for the National Book Award, its hardcover edition had already gone out of print. There were copies on the shelves of stores, but the book's publisher had distributed its entire first press run and had no intention of printing more, award or no award. Dixon wouldn't say no to a prestigious prize or sudden commercial success. But at age 70 he still types every day for what seems the least complicated of reasons: He likes to tell stories, and there is always another one percolating through his mind. Besides 15 novels, he has published more than 500 short stories.

In May, Dixon retired from teaching and now can do what he has wanted to do most of his adult life — stay home and write. He tries for one finished page per day. That may not sound like much, but he'll rewrite a page 30 or 40 times until it feels right. He says he is satisfied if he produces 200 finished pages a year. "Most of my stuff starts with a single line," he says. "I take the line to the typewriter and I write it out, and then the whole process begins. A line comes after that line, a line comes after that, and then the characters begin emerging, almost like cartoon characters. You can almost see them running around on the typewriter."

Often they are running from or toward heartbreak or disaster. Though his work is frequently funny, he writes about tragedy, anger, anguish, cruelties large and small, petty lies and profound dishonesties. The people in his books suffer indignities, sometimes grievous loss, they bumble through life hoping to dodge their worst anxieties, and they talk. Dixon's characters are not taciturn stoics. They talk and talk and talk, they ruminate and digress and muse and mull, often in long sentences, paragraphs that can run the length of a chapter. Conventional plot is rare; his work hews more to pastiche, the random walk of thought process, and the protean nature of memory and perception. A reviewer, Roger Gathman, once described Dixon's prose as "writing that has come out in its undershirt." It often feels like it has just rolled out of bed and onto the page with no art whatsoever. Then you look closer and begin to notice how carefully every word has been placed. His colleague at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, Tristan Davies, A&S '89 (MA), says, "When you look at it, there are unbelievable narrative structures in the final work that can't be coincidental. There are moments of just genius. When we're dead, gone, and forgotten, people are still going to be reading Steve Dixon."

Dixon's 2005 novel, Phone Rings, is an elegy to the author's late brother. It begins: "Phone rings. 'It's for you,' his wife says. 'Manny. He doesn't sound — '" Without another word the reader knows this is one of those calls everyone dreads and everyone receives sooner or later. Dan Fine, older brother of Stu Fine, the novel's protagonist, has been killed by a falling tree. Successive paragraphs, then successive chapters, begin with the phrase "phone rings," and the calls are all tragic bulletins, or the seeds of poignant reminiscences. In the last wrenching chapter, when the phone rings yet again, Stu says to his wife, "You answer it, I can't."

Sometimes what happens to Dixon's characters is a manifestation of his own worst fears — something dreadful befalling one of his daughters, or his wife dying. Michael Silverblatt, host of the public radio program Bookworm and an admirer of Dixon, says, "He attempts to render reports of unbearable experience." Dixon's life has supplied the raw material of actual tragedy, hardship, and anguish. Multiple sclerosis has for years confined his wife, Anne Frydman, to a wheelchair. His father spent time in prison in the 1940s. One brother, Jimmy, disappeared at sea in 1960 when a freighter bearing him across the Atlantic vanished. Five years ago another brother, Don, actually was killed by a falling tree, in Yonkers, New York, and Dixon got word when the phone rang. Says Silverblatt, "The outside world is calling with its terrors, and he as a writer is responding to the onslaught."

Which suggests one way to think about his body of literary work: For more than four decades, Stephen Dixon has been the man who answers the phone.

DOOR OPENS. Dixon walks into Gilman 38, a classroom notorious for its clanking radiators. He has taught at the Writing Seminars for 26 years. Today he greets a dozen undergraduates, 10 women and two men, his Rudiments of Fiction class. He is bemused by the half-dozen laptop computers open around the table. He has as little to do with digital technology as possible. His typewriter at home isn't even electric.

His reputation as a teacher is as someone generous with his time and effort and direct in his criticism. Davies recalls the first time Dixon critiqued his work in a graduate workshop. "He tore my story to shreds. Line by line." When he was done, Davies says, "the story was cole slaw." Today, Dixon's in a genial and complimentary mood; he won't be serving slaw. "We've got a lot of good work," he tells his young group, as the radiator bangs and rattles. The students' latest assignment was to write children's stories, and today they will discuss four or five of them. First up is a modern fairy tale that features a princess who rides in a carriage but also plays soccer. Dixon likes the story but has a few questions for its author. He tends to home in on inconsistencies, and says, "She's a future queen, and that she's going to a public school seems odd." The student replies that she wanted to set a fairy tale in a contemporary milieu, but, "if I had to write it all again I wouldn't make her a princess."

Dixon praises another student's story for its cleverness. This one begins with the familiar Mary who has a little lamb, though actually she has a zebra, not a lamb, but what rhymes with zebra? Dixon doesn't point out that in the nursery rhyme "lamb" is never part of the rhyming scheme. He merely smiles, perhaps because the opening sounds a bit Dixonian, given how his characters are wont to continually revise and amend and explain their thoughts. Later in the story, a wolf shows up looking for Little Red Riding Hood, but settles for another girl who's wearing red, figuring she'll be just as tasty. There's even a fairy godmother named Mrs. Godmother. Dixon, who loved to read Mother Goose stories to his daughters, Sophia and Antonia, when they were little, says, "Almost everything is great in this story. The dialogue is terrific. Even the ending is right on target."

Dixon ends the class by noting that in two nights he will give his final reading at Hopkins, at 6 in the evening. "You don't have to come," he tells them.

DOOR OPENS on Stephen Dixon's life on June 6, 1936, but at birth he isn't Stephen Dixon, he's Stephen Ditchik, son of Abraham Meyer Ditchik, a dentist, and Florence Leder Ditchik, a former beauty queen and Broadway chorus girl, both born and raised on New York's Lower East Side. Stephen is the fifth of seven children, last of four boys. He grows up mostly in a brownstone on 75th Street that has lodgers on the top three floors and his father's practice on the first. "He was an old-fashioned dentist," Dixon recalls. "If he extracted a tooth and that cost $15 and you only had $10, he'd take $10." When he works on his children's teeth, Abraham considers Novocain an unnecessary expense. He is not much on preventive care, either, and by high school Stephen's mouth is a wreck. He decides he needs another dentist, goes out and finds one, and takes jobs after school to pay for root canals and the other procedures his decayed teeth demand.

"I would have been killed today, but I just ran up the steps and said, 'Premier Khrushchev?' and he turned to his translator and said, 'Who is this little guy?' even though I was much taller than him." His mother, Florence, is not allowed by her father to become either an architect or a doctor, her first wishes, so she becomes a professional beauty, and as Miss New York competes in an early edition of the Miss America pageant. Off of that success she lands a two-year contract to dance in George White's Scandals, a revue, modeled on Ziegfeld Follies, that in its day furthers the careers of W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, and Rudy Vallee. It also acquaints Abraham with Flo. He comes to the show one night and watches her from the theater's front row and, as Dixon surmises, likes her face and shape and begins courting her. The night before they are married, she has a toothache. Abe pulls the tooth in the kitchen, without Novocain.

In 1941, he loses his license to practice dentistry and goes to prison for 18 months, when he's implicated in a scandal involving a physician who was performing illegal abortions. When Abraham goes to jail, Dixon's mother, furious and humiliated, never divorces him, but she does legally change her name and those of her children. Dixon says, "She went through the phone book. There was a question, would the name be Dodd, or Dixon? She did it over the kitchen table." Thus 5-year-old Stephen Ditchik becomes Stephen Dixon.

DOOR OPENS. Dixon leads me down into the cramped basement of his house in the Ruxton section of Baltimore County. On shelves against one wall are cartons full of his books, one box atop another. Over the years, he has bought stacks of his own remaindered novels and short-story collections because another writer once told him to, so he'd always have copies if he needed them. Now he jokes about setting up a folding table somewhere and trying to get rid of the whole lot. "What am I going to do with all this stuff?" he says.

As a boy, Dixon does not aspire to be the author of all these out-of-print books. Abraham Ditchik's wish is that his four sons become dentists. He imagines a group practice in Manhattan in the Chrysler Building, one Ditchik to a room. The three older boys opt for other work, but in 1953 Stephen makes a real attempt, enrolling at City College of New York (CCNY) in a pre-dental program. But the science coursework does not go well. He walks into the biology building and the smell of formaldehyde makes him sick. Students in the program have to dissect earthworms and fetal pigs, and he can't make himself do it. He recalls, "The whole thing repulses me. I did very badly. I finally had to tell my father, after two and a half years of college, that I was just not cut out to be a dentist."

His oldest brother, Don, is a journalist in D.C., and when Stephen graduates from CCNY in 1958 with a degree in international relations, Don helps him land a job as a radio reporter in the capital. Stephen interviews Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy, who teaches him how to fold a newspaper so he can read it on the bus. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev comes to Washington for the first time, Dixon watches with other journalists at the Lincoln Memorial. "We reporters were behind ropes, and I just broke free. I would have been killed today, but I just ran up the steps and said, 'Premier Khrushchev?' and he turned to his translator and said, 'Who is this little guy?' even though I was much taller than him." The Russian allows the brash American to ask a few questions, and thus Dixon becomes the first American reporter, he believes, to interview Khrushchev.

One night during that first year in D.C., he is sitting around his apartment with nothing to do. He rolls a sheet of paper into his typewriter and begins writing a story about a guy who goes to Rock Creek Park to pick up women. He doesn't stop typing until he has a complete draft. "It was like a cork popping out of my skull. I was in ecstasy." The next night, he does it again. And the next night, and the next, 20 nights straight. He just drafts the stories, nothing more, until his brother Jimmy, himself an aspiring writer, points out that real writers revise their work. So Stephen begins rewriting and immediately knows he has found his calling. From now on, everything he does will be to support his fiction.

A few years later, Dixon works for CBS Radio in New York, where reporter Hughes Rudd, who later became a CBS news anchor, notices the young man who sits alone and types when everyone else goes out for lunch. Rudd asks him what he's doing, Dixon tells him, and Rudd asks to see some of the stories. Dixon hands him 10, and Rudd sends two of them to George Plimpton, co-founder and editor of The Paris Review. Plimpton picks one of the stories to publish but asks Dixon to rewrite it first. Dixon does. Then Plimpton sends it back and asks him to rewrite it a second time. Dixon does. When Plimpton makes the same request yet again, an exasperated Dixon mails back the original story with a note: "Here, this is my rewrite." Plimpton makes no reply, but in 1963 publishes "The Chess House" in issue 29 of The Paris Review.

Sometime in 1963, Dixon turns on a television program and there's Rudd, talking about university writing programs. That there is such a thing as a university writing program is news to Dixon, but he likes what he sees, especially the scenes from Stanford University. "I thought, 'You can get paid to write? In California? This is for me!'" The application stipulates that he is to submit 30 pages of writing, but he sends a complete novel. Stanford responds by making him one of that year's four Wallace Stegner Fellows. In California, he says, he doesn't learn that much but he does have fun. He gets to know the novelists Robert Stone and Ken Kesey, and Jack Kerouac's sidekick Neal Cassady. "He was nuts." To support himself after his one-year fellowship runs out, he sells goods in a department store called Emporium, he teaches school, he works as an artist's model, he drives a cab and a school bus. He sells a short story, "The Young Man Who Read Brilliant Books," to Playboy for $3,100, the equivalent of about $18,000 today. "I lived a whole year on that." Playboy even throws in a pair of cuff links.

In 1968, after an unsatisfying stint as a technical writer in Los Angeles, Dixon heads back to New York, where he teaches in the city schools and tends bar at Brew Burger on West 57th Street. Always he writes, the typescript accumulating, and in 1976, Street Fiction Press publishes his first novel, No Relief. The book earns $600 in royalties. This is $600 more than he makes for his second novel, Work, after the same publisher brings it out, declares bankruptcy, and never pays him a dime.

One night, Dixon goes to what he thinks will be a simple birthday party for a friend. Instead, the party is a large literary gathering that includes Irving Howe, Saul Steinberg, and a young Paul Auster. "I walk in and it's wall-to-wall illuminati. I saw a woman across the room and thought, 'Boy, I'd like to meet her.' But I looked like such a jerk. It was a winter day with snow but I had on a short-sleeved shirt because it was the only good shirt I had. It was a striped shirt with a white collar. I looked like such a goon. But I followed her with my eyes and then realized, 'She's got her coat on!' It was now or never. I got her as she was leaving and said, 'You probably don't want to speak to me.' How about that for an introduction?" The woman in the coat looks at the man in the dorky short-sleeved shirt, considers his unusual approach to meeting women, and replies, "I'm the only Anne Frydman in the telephone book."

DOOR OPENS. Inside the Johns Hopkins Club, John Irwin, Decker Professor in Humanities, says hello in his hearty manner and sits down to talk about how he brought Dixon to Hopkins.

In 1980, Irwin is chairman of the Writing Seminars and editor of a fiction and poetry series published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Four years before, as editor of The Georgia Review, he had published a Dixon short story called "Names," which had stayed on his mind. Now, as an editor for the Press, he thinks about publishing a collection of Dixon's work and asks him for some stories. He expects to receive three or four. Dixon sends 20. "I picked four and asked him to send me four more. By return mail I got another 20. I picked four more, and he sent me another 20. I quickly realized that he was a man who wrote a lot."

Irwin also tells Dixon that the Writing Sems has an opening for an assistant professor, with a three-year contract. Would he be interested? Dixon is not interested. The job is in Baltimore and Anne, by now a serious girlfriend, is in New York. Also, the job requires him to teach one literature course per semester, which he does not want to do. But Anne tells him that if he plans to marry her and have children, he needs a steady job; he has published four books but he's Stephen Dixon, not Stephen King, and his advances and royalties will not support a family. So he takes the job, living in Baltimore four days a week and riding the train back to New York for the weekends. He finds the first years of teaching scary and discouraging. After each Thursday class, he walks from campus to Penn Station feeling like a flop and an impostor.

But he proves to be a popular teacher, and at the end of his contract, the university asks him to stay. He and Anne, now married, buy a house and have two daughters. She teaches literature at Hopkins and he continues to turn out stories and books: Movies, Time to Go, Fall & Rise, Garbage, The Play, Love and Will, All Gone, Friends, Frog. His father never sees any of his children become dentists, but a dentist appears in many of Dixon's books and stories. "I've written more about dentistry than any writer alive," he says.

DOOR OPENS and Stephen Dixon walks into his Tuesday afternoon graduate seminar, in the Writing Sems' fourth-floor room under Gilman's bell tower. He's wearing a gray long-sleeved T-shirt and the same black pants he's had on every time I've seen him this week. "Any news?" he asks the dozen students. "Any good rejection slips?" One young man notes that his latest turned-down story, from Michigan Quarterly Review, earned a "Thanks a lot!" scrawled across the notice. "Send them another one!" Dixon says. Perhaps because he knows Dixon's tale of working with George Plimpton, the student says, "Should I send the same one?" The class laughs.

The manuscript has grown. It may become a shorter novel, a longer novel, two novels, maybe even three novels. Dixon is fearless about following a story wherever it wants to go, and his books veer and morph and sometimes divide. One by one, students read stories they've written for the workshop. Dixon smiles a lot and gently instructs, pointing out deficiencies, inconsistencies, well-wrought sentences. During a break, he walks over to the bookshelves that line one wall of the room. Years ago, he stocked the shelves with hundreds of copies of literary magazines, the contributors' copies he'd received when the magazines published his work. Now he pulls one from the shelf. "This is the first time I was ever in TriQuarterly." He opens the magazine and inside there is a note in his hand: "Mom — This is a copy of the magazine with 'Time to Go' in it." He can't believe it, a note to his mother. He laughs and takes the magazine with him.

At the end of class he mentions his impending valedictory reading. He is uncomfortable with people making a fuss about his retirement. "I don't want a dinner," he says. "I just want to swivel out a side door." He lingers to talk to a student who says he has 50 stories currently in circulation. "If you have 50, you'll place one," Dixon tells him. "You'll place three or four."

DOOR DOES NOT OPEN, not right away. Through the glass, I see Dixon appear from another part of the house when he hears my knock. Coming across the kitchen he builds up a little speed and playfully slides up to the door. "It's fun to slide in sock feet," he says. He's in a good mood. His reading the night before went well. The Writing Seminars presented him with a fancy new fountain pen and announced establishment of the Stephen Dixon Literary Prize, to be awarded annually to a graduating senior "whose work has demonstrated distinctive stylistic flair in keeping with the high mark established by Professor Dixon's stories and novels." At the end of the reading, the audience awarded him a standing ovation. He says it embarrassed him, but telling the story now he's pleased and smiling.

By his typewriter, the manuscript for "His Wife Leaves Him" has grown. It may become a shorter novel, a longer novel, two novels, maybe even three novels. Dixon is fearless about following a story wherever it wants to go, and his books veer and morph and sometimes divide, as if by mitosis. Years ago when he sat down to write 30: Pieces of a Novel, published in 1999, he intended to draft a chapter a day. After about 40 days, he had 30 chapters, but one of them kept growing and split off as a separate novella, which he titled Abortions. He sent it to the publisher Henry Holt, which accepted it. Then he worked backwards on the manuscript for 30, revising the last chapter first, and as he worked through the book another chapter burgeoned into another novella, Evangeline. He mailed that to Holt and suggested they combine it with Abortions to form a novel in two parts. Call the book Gould, he said, which Holt did. The rest of the chapters behaved themselves and became 30: Pieces of a Novel. So who knows what will come out of "His Wife Leaves Him."

He is excited about all the time he will have now to write. "I feel like I'm always doing something new. I'm a compulsive writer." Each time he finishes a novel, he tells himself to relax, take some time, think about what might come next. "That lasts about a week or two. Then I get all pent up and frustrated and anxious and I feel worthless. I'm not doing anything! How many books can you read without wanting to write one?"

Dixon will not miss reading 250 submissions each year from writers applying for the Writing Seminars' graduate program. He will not miss critiquing dozens of student stories each semester. It has all been very nice, he says, but now he wants just to sit at his dining room table and type, and take care of Anne, and read some good books, and maybe paint. Dixon likes to paint and draw. He points to a color mockup of the cover for the forthcoming Meyer. The type on it matches the type on his Hermes Standard. This pleases him. He smiles again, which he has been doing a lot lately, and as he passes Anne's wheelchair to walk me to the door, he pats her on the arm. The last thing he says to me could be meant for all his students, his colleagues, his readers, for his daughters and for Anne.

"Thanks for everything."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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