USA Best Book Awards Finalist
Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist
“Reading Dixon’s work always makes me feel smarter…” —Kirk Tuck, The Visual Science Lab
“Dixon’s books are written…with a sharp use of wording and a keen eye for the ridiculous.” —Nancy Horner, Bookfoolery
“The reader gets [an] intimate view into the mind of a frustrated writer who is surrounded by other writers and the noise of life..” —Sandy Nawrot, You Gotta Read This
Excerpt from Novel Ideas
Two years ago at the urging of his tax attorney, Stephen Styles, an obscure Seattle writer of unconventional fiction, donated his papers to the University of Washington for a piddling but, nonetheless, welcome tax deduction. These papers, such as they were, might have suffered the fate of similarly insignificant caches and languished unexamined in perpetuity were it not for the collective industry of an especially energetic gaggle of graduate students (Advanced Library Science 501) whose quaint scholarly aspirations encouraged the zealous practice of their dark arts on whatever meager materials might be at hand.
This book, the product of that industry, is a judiciously abridged version of this ambitious group’s thesis project. A collection of excerpts from letters and emails written by Mr. Styles to his close friend, the novelist Alan Dodd, it offers us a look at the author and his tentative foray into nonfiction from an unusual and, I think, informative angle.1
Dr. Arthur Crimmons
1 I would be remiss if I did not mention here that Mr. Styles was asked in advance of publication to supply additional contextualizing commentary, but he declined. While I, of course, respect his decision on the matter, I cannot feign an unconflicted endorsement of it.
Alan, that was a terrific review of Conversations. You must be pleased. I liked the part about you being “quizzical, modern, and urban.” How does it feel to see your name in the same sentence as Calvino’s?
I am in the dumps again this morning. This book I’m working on, the one I mentioned to you—the phony, upside-down and backwards memoir—is making me very unhappy. It’s not cooperating. Also, there is Aaron (the publisher du jour) who has been hinting for some time now as diplomatically as he can that the new reality of the book business has made taking on marginal projects like the ones I offer a harder and harder thing to do.
Natalie and I had one of our talks last night. She insists on them occasionally and—I must reluctantly admit—for good reason. I have certain obsessive tendencies, and she feels compelled from time to time to reorient me. She is worried. She thinks I have been getting conspicuously and intransigently stranger, that certain psychic requirements are becoming borderline pathological (for example the antisocial inclinations, the need for serenity and seclusion). She thinks I have been slipping little by little, book by book, and that something in this latest effort of mine has taken me over some edge. (It feels a little that way to me as well.) She had an idea. Maybe I should take a little time off—not just from my formal fiddling with the epistemological puzzles of narration, but from fiction in general—time off from imaginary people and imaginary experiences. Maybe I should try something “conventional,” reportorial, nonfictional—get in touch, even if just obliquely, with the real world again. She has always had a lot of faith in the real world.
It looks like Russell Walker has finally decided to give us a memoir. I suspect he will be well served by the general public’s insatiable appetite for scurrilous detail. Right now, as I understand it, his focus is on his relationship with his mother. That could be a book by itself. I assume he will succumb to temptation and give us a page (or three) on the genetic basis of various personality disorders.
Jason Hedges’s son Peter has signed up for an evening class in screenwriting at the Pacific Northwest Film Center. The class is being taught by Evan Hunter, an iffy character with an extravagantly imagined resume. The classroom itself is a standard-looking one—ugly, functional, all hard surfaces—the sort of place that is easy to hose out.
Natalie’s sister Allison (the one I told you about who lives in Portland) is apparently in one of her distant and distracted moods. She is perplexed by the world and everyone in it—including her kids, which, of course, is understandable. This mood—which is becoming a perpetual one for her—was triggered in part, I think, by the impending arrival of her parents. They will be visiting for a week. She and her husband John are meeting them at the airport tomorrow. (I don’t think there is a place on earth that I like less than an airport.)
Robert, my morbid father-in-law (who I think is growing more morbid by the week), has never seemed all that comfortable with Allison. He thinks she has a devious nature. Needless to say he and John don’t get along. Natalie has advised Allison to prepare herself for the usual sort of thing, but she has not—which means, I guess, we should expect her to be upset and to have had her feelings hurt by the time they get to baggage claim.
Unfortunately, it looks like the Walker book is going to be just what I feared—mind-numbingly thorough. As a reader, I can’t think of anything that has done more damage to the art of biography than the pedantic pursuit of definitiveness. Right now Russell is ankle-deep in elementary-school lore. It’s not my eyes, but my brain that glazes over. According to RW (if you read between the as-yet unpolished lines), it was his early failure as an athlete that doomed him to a life of compensatory excess.
Peter’s rough-draft screenplay is about a chemist who loses his mind. He is doing drug research (on a supposedly side-effectiveless antidepressant) with an imaginary lab partner named Arthur—an apparition who likes classical music and smells of cinnamon.
Allison’s father always tries to look happy to see his son-in-law, but he never quite succeeds. John wonders why he bothers. He stopped playing that game with Robert a long time ago. If there are a number of things about Allison to which her father objects, there are more than a number of things about John. His hair style, for example. Robert finds it leftish and, consequently, provocative.
The more I think about that idea of Natalie’s, the more I like it. I have over the years (apparently like everyone else) found myself being drawn in my reading life more and more toward nonfictional work. I’ve been attracted in particular to the literary variants of the “true crime” genre.
I am probably not the best judge of this sort of thing (as I am rarely able to engage with the mom-and-pop parts of these bios), but I think Walker is overworking the backstory—Patricia Walker’s especially. I am not really that interested in the pre-Russell lives of his mother and father—in what was done to them. I am interested in what they did to him. I know Patricia is important (I can’t think of any fiction more cravenly autobiographical than Walker’s), but do I really need to know about a distant genealogical relationship to Daniel Boone or a date with Adam West (the actor who played Batman on television)?
Allison’s parents flew back to KC yesterday. The night before, she and John took them out to dinner. Robert ordered steak (he finds scallops, stuffed sole, and crab effeminate). The dinner conversation was a familiar one—an inquiry into John and Allison’s current financial situation; questions about the kids (Justin and Hailey); and a dithering, dyspeptic disquisition on Second Amendment rights as set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
Have you heard any more from your frightening fan—what was her name? Leah Keen? I know your initial response to her flattering note was simply a common courtesy, but, as I said at the time, one rarely regrets a defensive restraint. Good manners are unusual. They have of late become even more so. Fewer and fewer people know how to interpret them.
Natalie came home tonight with two cantaloupes. They are the size of bowling balls. They look like experiments. I’m afraid to eat one.
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