On the hook with author Stephen Dixon

In `Phone Rings,' he explores brotherly bonds and grief

October 23, 2005|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN REPORTER

Phone rings. I pick up the receiver, say "Hello." "Hello," says Stephen Dixon. He sounds ...

The phone rings after I punch in 10 digits. Brpuppupp. Bruuuuup. Brp. "Hello," someone says. "This is Stephen Dixon. No, it's fine. I can talk now. Just give me a minute, while I hand my wife a shirt."

Phone doesn't ring. Why not? I'm sitting at my desk, waiting for Stephen Dixon to call. I drum my fingers. I want to chat about his 25th book. It's called Phone Rings.

It's fair to say that Dixon, a critically acclaimed Baltimore author, has a writing style that is easily parodied. He blends truth and fiction, presents alternative versions of the same event, jumps back and forth in time, and crafts paragraphs that seem to go on forever.

Because these elements call attention to themselves, Dixon's books are as much about the art of fiction-writing as they are about the particular story.

Phone Rings, which was published last month (Melville House, $15.75), explores the bond between two elderly brothers, Dan and Stu, and Stu's grief after Dan, the older brother, is killed in a freak accident. Bit by bit, memory by memory, we come to know these multifaceted men, and our feelings about them change constantly. The second we begin to admire Dan, a war hero who served as a third parent for his younger siblings, he does something cruel or sneaky or sly.

There is considerable power beneath Dixon's spare, understated prose, a gradual accumulation of emotion that seems barely held in check by his short, staccato lines. And it is a style that has won Dixon critical acclaim. Frequently lauded as "a writer's writer," he was a finalist twice for a National Book Award, for Frog (1991) and Interstate (1995). He also is in his 26th year teaching in the writing program at the Johns Hopkins University.

To read Dixon is to parachute directly onto the landscape, picking up clues from the surrounding countryside. It is to be Hansel and Gretel, following a trail of bread crumbs partially eaten by the birds. Though Dixon, of course, never would approve of mixing metaphors. In fact, he's not big on metaphors, period. There's very little action in his books, and less description. Mostly, he just writes what people say.

The Sun caught up with Dixon (by phone, of course) a few days before he was scheduled to appear at the 12th annual Book Bash, a fundraiser for adult literacy that will be held tonight at Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley.

How did you get the idea for the book? My older brother, Don, died and in that respect, the story is pretty close to my own life. In the book, I named Don "Dan" and I was "Stu." You don't spend much time in your books pontificating. I don't like long descriptions of things. And I hate to have fiction over-explained; I think the writer thinks I'm stupid. I want to bring the reader in as a participant and decide for himself why things are the way they are. Is it true that this is the first of your books to be divided into chapters? I'd been writing in these self-contained chapters for a while. They were broken by the end of a paragraph, or a double space.

But in this book there are 38 chapters, some quite short, and each headed by a number. I kept hearing from readers that there was no place where they could stop to go to the bathroom, so I made my books easier for their urological systems. Why, in the beginning, do you come up with various explanations for how Dan is killed? It's my way of fictionalizing the novel. I'm saying: "This isn't true, and I'm telling you that it's not true through the different ways that he dies."

I also think it's more powerful if you hear of his death more than once. Because it gets ingrained into you, like after 9/11, when we all kept seeing the twin towers crash and burn on TV? Yes. Did writing the book help you deal with your brother's death? Because if you were fictionalizing it, you could keep it at a distance, make it not real. But you were thinking about him all the time. Yes, somewhat, yes. Writing the book made me really think about my brother and about my life with him. He was a very complex man of many emotions and dimensions: mean, helpful, destructive, generous, bossy, warm. And you were nine years younger. In the novel, it's clear that you looked up to him. There's a segment in which you describe how he whipped you with his belt when you were a kid, and you told yourself that you deserved it. Did that really happen? That's right. He mellowed as he got older. I always respected his work. He was a war correspondent who was captured by the Chinese during the Korean War and later worked for CBS. I know that your fiction is based on your own life. But it's not a verbatim, word-for-word recounting of conversations and events. True. My brother really did die while he was running, but he wasn't really hit by a tree. We really do have a cat named Streak, but we never buried him alive.

I fictionalize when I need to, for the purposes of the story. Do you ever get flak when your real-life subjects recognize themselves in your books? Yes. I try to fictionalize the people I'm writing about sometimes, but I don't always do it very well. I promised my wife that I won't write about her illness again. [Anne Dixon has multiple sclerosis.] But I think I'm finished with that as material, so it wasn't really that much of a sacrifice.

Sometimes, people complain. I feel lousy about it, but I continue to do it, and in that way, I'm not a very nice person. But my art comes first.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

BOOK BASH

What

Twelfth annual Book Bash fundraiser for Literacy Works Inc.

Where

Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley Town Centre, 118-AA Shawan Road

When

6 to 9 tonight

Featured writers

Former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner and former Baltimore Colt Lenny Moore are among the 50 authors scheduled to attend the event

Tickets

$60 per person, $70 in advance

Information

410-771-3022

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