Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday Interview: Keith Dixon

Welcome to a new feature on the blog: Sunday Interview. Once a week I'm going to try to interview someone in the crime fiction world about the genre and the world in general. There should be some insights into the craft of writing by those I will be interviewing, and some really inane questions by yours truly. Hopefully you'll find these interviews informative.

My first guest is Keith Dixon, whose latest book, The Art of Losing, I reviewed yesterday. Keith was gracious enough to agree to this interview (and answered all the questions) before he saw that I gave the book such a great review - very brave. However, if I hadn't have liked the book I'd have probably started the interview with a question like, Why did you write such a crappy book? But fortunately for everyone, Keith wrote an extremely good book.

Some biographical information (stolen from his website): The Art of Losing is Dixon's second novel after Ghostfires, which was named one of the five best first novels of 2004 by Poets & Writers magazine. He was born in North Carolina, but now lives in New York City where he works as an editor for The New York Times. And the dude is friends with Will Shortz.

I e-mailed some questions to Keith earlier this week.

Noir Writer:In the writer's tips section on your webpage, you tell beginning writers: "Understand the difference between commercial and artistic success and accept that one doesn't guarantee the other." This is also a major theme in The Art of Losing. Was this something you thought of before writing, or did it emerge as you wrote?

Dixon: This was an understanding that was thrust upon me when my first novel, 'Ghostfires,' received lots of terrific attention from the critics but did not sell as well as I had hoped. This can, I realized, be a good thing: it keeps you intellectually hungry. But it does have the capability to make you bitter, as well—and a bitter writer is not an entertaining writer. So I do my best to maintain perspective, and I invite others too, as well.

Noir Writer:Was it important that the main character was an artist?

Dixon: With the book I wanted to depict a clash of high and low culture, of utopia and dystopia, of cynicism and innocence—and there's nothing so innocent as a starving artist. My character had to be a believer, and a hungry one at that. I think the book's impact would have been dramatically different (and less believable) if he'd been, say, a fatcat stockbroker.

Noir Writer:I thought the threat of losing his eyesight (something a filmmaker would obviously need) was great. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Dixon: Absolutely; with the degrading of his sight, I was alluding to the more generalized 'blindness' he was experiencing in his life.

Noir Writer:What were the difficulties you faced in creating and developing a character like Mike Jacobs?

Dixon: I write very little autobiographical material, which means I've got to do a great deal of research—I hit the track, the OTB, interviewed professional card-sharks and professional gamblers. Too, I had to get the film stuff right, so I interviewed my brother, who works in the film industry, regularly. That was the tough part; his worldview, however, was easy to convey, as it's one I share.

Noir Writer:One of the themes of the book seems to be the limitations of friendships, which can be a pretty frightening topic to examine. Do you think serious writers, or any type of artist, are more fragile than the average person because they look at these themes, or do you think it makes us more callous?

Dixon: Yes, I do think writers pay a price—most people spend all day every day avoiding the things they cannot bear to think about. Writers, on the other hand (the good ones, at least) spend all day staring right at things they cannot bear to think about. I think writers hope to gain mastery over these things by placing them in the text. In that sense, I think writers manage to somehow be both fragile and callous at the same time—when you're doing the work none of it can touch you. But afterward, when darkness falls, and you've got a long night ahead of you, sometimes the stuff you were thinking about comes back to haunt you. . .

Noir Writer:In that same vein, dark books such as this usually have terrible things happening. After you finish writing one of these horrible scenes do you find yourself in a funk afterward, or can you shake it off?

Dixon: I don't worry about the stuff that happens to my characters—that's their tough luck. It's all in the service of showing my readers a good time.

Noir Writer:For a book that revolves around gambling on horse racing, there seem to be few scenes at the track. Why is that?

Dixon: I find it's best to have one or two richly rendered scenes than ten so-so scenes. That way you leave the reader wanting more.

Noir Writer:Do you think this book is noir?

Dixon: Well, I didn't set out to write noir, but it seems to have been received that way. In my mind, this book is what's commonly known as a "Pardoner's Tale," the sort of novel in which, as Martin Amis so wonderfully describes it, 'Death roams the land — disguised as money.'

Noir Writer:The FAQ on your website lists your favorite writers, but none that would be considered genre writers. Are there genre writers that you admire? And if so, who?

Dixon: I admire the hell out of Elmore Leonard in particular—but there is a growing battle cry amongst serious critics that Leonard belongs to the mainstream. I still see him as a preternaturally talented crime writer. (Matter of fact, I'm reading "Tishomingo Blues" right now!)

Noir Writer:One of my favorite lines is said by Mike after he is beat up by Clive when he describes himself as looking "like a Tod Browning extra." Were you afraid that people wouldn't get the reference?

Dixon: Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and leap. I figured the scene had enough momentum that if they didn't get it they'd move right on. First and foremost I wanted to be faithful to Jacobs—after all, it technically wasn't "me" thinking that line, but "Mike Jacobs"—and that struck me as something he'd think without explanation.

Noir Writer:You're relatively young considering that the average age of the published author in this world is closer to fifty than thirty. Fitzgerald and Hemingway both hit the literary jackpot in their early twenties, but over the past few decades there have been fewer and fewer significant works of fiction by those under 40. Even Time magazine last year found it difficult to find just a small handful of important fiction writers under 40. Why do you think that there are fewer great "young" writers than there have been? Do you think it's a trend?

Dixon: The talent-pool is just as rich as it's ever been. I think the absence of great "young" writers is more the fault of the publishing industry, which insists on flailing about for the "next big thing" rather than building the careers of writers who have proven they have talent. For example: I have starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus, and an 'editor's pick' from the Philadelphia Inquirer—and yet Opal Mehta, a plagiarized novel roundly derided, is outselling me. Check it out on and you'll see it's true. Thank God, then, for blogs like yours, which are making this business more of a democracy—or rather a meritocracy.

Noir Writer:Another of your writing tips is to "get a job that has nothing to do with writing", but doesn't your day job have something to do with writing? What exactly do you do at the New York Times? And do you see Maureen Dowd at, like, Christmas parties and such? And if so, is she as feisty in real life as she is in my dreams? And if so, can you
pass my e-mail address along to her? (My wife wouldn't find out who did it, so don't worry.)

Dixon: I don't hang with Maureen, so, sorry, Stephen—you'll have to stick with the fantasy. But I am buds with Will Shortz. This is because I am actually something of a techie; I develop, install and support production software here at the Times—right now I'm converting the crossword puzzle software to Adobe Indesign from Quark.

Noir Writer:Yet another writing tip instructs new writers to "never write with another man's pen." Does that sound as perverted to you as it does to me?

Dixon: I'm not, uh, "touching" that one.

Noir Writer:If you were invited onto The View to discuss this book, which host would you be most afraid of?

Dixon: I don't know who the hosts of The View are.

Wait—I'll go look it up.

All right, I'm back. I would have to say that Hasselbeck woman worries me—her bio says she was a contestant on "Survivor," which means that if I dared to disagree with her conservative views she'd probably kick my ass right there on-set.

Of course, I'd also be afraid that Babs would make me cry. Isn't that her schtick?

Noir Writer:If the 22nd Amendment were repealed and George Bush was able to seek a third term in office, would you jump for joy or weep for humanity?

Dixon: Well, as a Times employee I am expected to maintain a largely neutral public political identity. However, my previous answer may contain clues that answer your question.

Noir Writer:And to end on a high note: What is your favorite swear word?

Dixon: Though I almost never use it, Wanker. So great.

I want to thank Keith Dixon for taking the time to answer all of my questions (even the silly ones). I hope you've enjoyed this interview and will return for another next Sunday.


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"I still see [Leonard] as a preternaturally talented crime writer."

Meaning that crime writers are not usually talented?

Steve Allan said...

Patrick, I think what Keith is saying is that Leonard is an extremely talented writer in any genre. It's a compliment to Leonard not a put down on the crime genre.

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