Q&A with Keith Dixon

One of the perks of being a book blogger is the free books. The drawback is the guilt one sometimes feels at not being able to read and review all the books that find their way to you. There is often, for me at least, a sneaking suspicion that some gems are in that stack of books, but you only have so much time. The joy comes from the surprises; the books you are sent that allow you to find a book or author that you really enjoy but wouldn’t likely have found without the publicist.

I had this experience recently. The good folks at St. Martin’s sent me Keith Dixon’s soon to be released The Art of Losing. I will post a review here soon, but the jacket copy certainly piqued my interest:

Michael Jacobs, a talented but obscure New York City filmmaker, has just watched his third film flop at the box office. With few options available, Jacobs is tempted by the prospect of easy cash when Sebby Laslo, his producer, makes a one-time offer. With the help of a corrupt jockey, Laslo plans to fix a horse race, but his gambling debts have left him untouchable and he needs someone he can trust to be the public face of the operation. Though Laslo is known for taking risks, Jacobs, hoping to repay an old favor to his friend, agrees to help.

Jacobs soon meets two Atlantic City bookmakers: Nikos Popolosikc, a quietly menacing restaurateur known for breaking hands; and Lad Keegan, a soft-spoken bar owner whose superstitions are bad for his clients’ health. When Laslo’s plan fails, Jacobs, heavily in debt, is ensnared by a violent underworld he neither knows nor understands. In the inevitable reckoning, Jacobs and Laslo become hunted men—and only one of them will escape.

Keith Dixon’s second novel is a morality tale of stunning resonance and breathtaking symmetry. Hard-boiled yet deeply contemplative, allegorical yet starkly realistic, The Art of Losing divines the corrosive nature of greed, the terrible power of recklessness, and the consequences that erupt when those forces meet.

“Hard-boiled yet deeply contemplative, allegorical yet starkly realistic” sounded like my kind of book so I moved it up the TBR pile and read it. It turned out to be one of those gems I noted above, an enjoyable and entertaining read that also makes you think; an author that leaves you wanting to read more.

Seemed like an excellent candidate for a Collected Miscellany Q&A. Luckily, Keith was gracious enough to agree to answer a few questions. The interview that follows was conducted via email.

One side note: the book jacket describes the author thus:

Keith Dixon is an editor for The New York Times. His first novel, Ghostfires, was named one of the five best first novels of 2004 by Poets & Writers magazine. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica.

As you will see below, I was under the impression that “editor at the New York Times” meant editing text. That turns out not to be the case. I could have edited the questions and answers to avoid looking slightly silly, but I don’t think it unduly marred the proceedings so I left it in. After all blogs are supposed to be more immediate and honest, right?

The questions and answers are below.

1) Have you always been a writer? At what point did you decide to write novels?

I began writing in seriousness soon after I graduated from college and moved to New York. For many, many years I wrote only short stories—which is the best way for any serious writer to begin. Before you can write a novel you first have to learn to write a decent sentence, then a decent paragraph, then a decent page, and so on. Sure, I made a few halfhearted attempts at a full-blown novel, and brother, they were terrible. I have burned every last shred of evidence. And for a long time I thought it just wasn’t in the cards for me.

I was inspired to try again after my brother Tim moved to New York City one summer to attend a three-month session at the New York Film Academy, where he would produce his first ten-minute film, writing it, casting it, shooting it, editing it. He was still in college at the time and yet he showed a level of commitment that was far beyond his years, and I thought, Well, Keith? He’s going after what he wants. Shouldn’t you be going after what you want? So that very summer I dug in and four years later Ghostfires hit the shelves.

2) Being an editor yourself, what is it like to work with book editors?

I should note that I’m a technology editor, which means I have very little to do with the words that go in the paper—I’m in charge of setting up and maintaining the software we use to produce the paper. In many ways, it’s the perfect arrangement, as I get to escape words at work, which charges me up for the next morning of writing fiction.

The relationship between a writer and an editor is always a tricky one, as no one likes to have his work criticized, altered, corrected. Least of all fiction writers, since most everything in a novel is a matter of taste, and every fiction writer is certain that his taste is unimpeachable. That said, I’ve been lucky—Diane Reverand and George Witte, the editors who have watched over my books, are terrifically nice, fabulously intelligent, and just plain interesting people to be around. Also, both are writers in their own right, which earns them my confidence outright.

3) Is there a different skill set involved in being a good editor versus being a good writer (or vice versa)? Have you always wanted to do both or was one a way to make a living while doing the other?

You do use a different skill-set, especially since, as I noted above, I morph into a tech-guy when I walk in the front door of The Times. But that’s purely out of necessity: like everyone else, I have to pay the bills. If I won the lottery tomorrow and could afford to do whatever I wanted, I’d write all day, every day, seven days a week.

4) What do you enjoy the most about writing fiction? The least?

I love the obliteration of the self that comes with hard work. When you’re really in there, when you’re really doing it right, the experience is exactly analogous to falling into a trance. You cease to be yourself, which means you cease to be your job, your bills, your nagging backache, and so on—instead you get to experience the coke-rush of being the absolute master of what unfolds.

I think what I like least about writing fiction is the series of compromises one is forced to make in publishing one’s work. Publishing a book is a process of having that book taken away from you. Basically you work for years, for thousands of hours to get it just right—and then everyone you meet along the way tells you to change it. And in a way the book sort of ceases to be completely yours—it’s still yours, of course, but not in the way it was before you brought it out into the light.

5) Your books seem to deal with people and relationships impacted by extreme circumstances. How would you describe or categorize your books?

It’s hard to categorize one’s own book—clearly it’s a work of literary noir, but I never set out to write lit-noir. I just set out to write a book about money and money’s cost.

6) The Art of Losing (TAL) is set in the world of film and gambling. Are these worlds that you are familiar with? What kind of research was involved?

My brother Tim now works as a film-editor here in New York, and over time I’ve become acquainted with his work and the crowd he runs with—mostly young, very with-it creative types who have a lot of ambition and strong opinions about their work. I’d admire the hell out of that. At the same time I’ve always had a passionate love for film; back when I was single I’d see two or even three movies a week. As a result, it felt very natural to me to have a character who is steeped in that world. I learned a lot.

As to the gambling, I had a roommate a while back who was a professional gambler. A member, actually, of a team professional gamblers—they would pool their money until they had exactly one million dollars, and then, on weekends, begin hitting all the spots, from Vegas to Atlantic City (with the occasionally riverboat in between), where they’d count cards, pass signals, and generally make a hell of a lot of money. Because they were such high rollers, they’d have all their expenses comped: flights, meals, shows—even helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon. He’d come home from these weekends tanned and exhausted, full of stories about twenty-hour gambling sessions, big hands won or lost, etc. It seemed like quite a sordid world to me, and it offered a lot of rich material that I mined for the novel.

7) TAL seems to contain a thread that questions the point of faith or religion; or is uncomfortable with it in some fundamental way. Is that fair or do you see it differently?

I think TAL is ultimately very concerned with religious matters—specifically, the matter of providence as it relates to the guardianship of whatever divine force is out there. The characters in the book all seem to think that God is unknowable—but they are united in their fear of Him. Ultimately the book suggests that there is some living force that holds us accountable for our actions.

8) Michael Jacobs acts out of seeming desperation and ends up paying a very heavy price. Is the temptation to go for the easy money, or the just-this-one-time payoff, exist in all of us? What makes that kind of decision, despite its obvious dangers, tempting?

I think all of us, no matter how lofty our ideals, dream now and then of making a quick buck—why do we want this? The reasons are sure to vary from person to person, but in general I think we all want quick money so that we might gain the independence that relative wealth brings. I often reflect on how much of my life I’ve effectively given away in exchange for money to pay bills.

9) There seems to be a running dialog in the book between doing what you love and being financially secure. Is the grass always greener on the other side? Is this one of those “easy for you to say” things?

Yes, what you’re getting there is an articulation of my current obsession: the desire to earn enough money to write fiction full-time. Problem is, fiction doesn’t pay well. Some might say fiction pays poorly. My experience has been that one cannot have both: one cannot be financially secure and live doing what one loves—writers can’t, anyway. So with this novel I was trying to convey that sense of agony, of having happiness on the one hand and financial solvency on the other, and the two mutually exclusive.

10) What do you find the most rewarding: the satisfaction of writing or finishing a novel; praise from a trusted friend or colleague; or a positive review in a prominent venue?

For me it’s all about the writing. Nothing else can touch it, not when it’s going well.

11) Do you obsessively follow sales figures, Amazon rankings, read reviews, etc. or do you just figure “what will be, will be”? Somewhere in between?

I’m horrible: I make myself nuts. I look at Amazon every day. I look five times a day. I Google all the reviews, all the comments. I pull my hair out, I grind my teeth, I bang my head against the wall. Why? I care about these books. I’m not just in it for the jacket photo. I put everything I have to give into them. I don’t even care if people know it’s me who wrote them—I’d happily write under a pseudonym. I just want them to be read, to be experienced.

12) Are you very involved in the marketing of your books? What type of strategies do you think work well?

I try to stay extremely involved in the marketing of my book—specifically because I don’t have a marketing budget and it’s important that I do all I can for it. The good news is I’ve got a wonderful publicist at St Martins Press—Colleen Schwartz. She and I have been in close contact from the start, and we’ve agreed that the best way (perhaps, the only way) we’re going to get this book off the ground is to get people talking about it on the web. We need word-of-mouth advertising, which is the best kind out there.

13) Are you familiar with literary blogs? What kind of impact do you think they have or what roles do/should they play?

I adore the literary blogs. First of all, they’re fun. But more than anything they’ve changed the way the game of publishing and marketing is played, because the lit-bloggers have realized that people who like to read don’t like to be told what to think, instructed, lectured. By their nature they’re independent people with creative minds. They like to participate, to have a dialogue, to share opinions in an open forum, and the lit-blogs allow for that. I think the lit-blogs also give a book like mine, one that has garnered good reviews but has little or no marketing budget, a chance.

14) You work for a newspaper, what could/should newspapers be doing to promote quality fiction?

It is a little disheartening to see that most newspapers only review one book per day, while covering, say, five or six plays or concerts. Again, that creates an empty space that the blogs are filling nicely.

15) What’s next for you? Another novel? Or are you just focusing on the release of the current one?

I’m already seventy pages into a darkly comic novel about literary envy: a subject I know well. And I’m having a ball.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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