Sean Dixon - actor, playwright, novelist (The Girls Who Saw Everything, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn)
CBT: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. Furthermore, the short story seems to be under siege as well: many agents and multinational publishers do not handle/publish story collections, small magazines seem perpetually underfunded, and a YouTube-ification of text and image seems to be taking short narrative in new directions.
What is your opinion? Do the novel and short story have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very forms of them? If so, how?
SD: I rarely read short stories, to be honest, unless they’re parables of just a few paragraphs, which I love. But when I look at a book, I like to imagine it as having a rarified, singular world entirely bound within it pages. If I see that the book is short stories, it loses its magic for me. Except when it doesn’t. I’ve tried to love them. I just don’t.
Re non-fiction vs. literary fiction, though: if things keep going the way they’re going, someone is going to come out with a wholly artificial novel, with overblown characters and an improbable plot line, and everyone’s going to get their minds blown, rediscovering this notion of imagination. ‘How did she do this amazing thing?’ they’ll ask, mouths agape over the pages. And then no one will read another non-fiction book for a hundred years.
CBT: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?
A few years ago there was some talk about the death of TV viewing, due to the internet. Then, earlier this year, Netflix released its first fully-funded endeavour, ‘House of Cards’. When I watched it, my computer was plugged into my television. This was considered revolutionary, but it was only revolutionary for the middlemen. There was no difference in how the series was written by its screenwriter, shot by its director or interpreted by its audience.
Obviously the form is changing, and the internet is influencing the way that form is changing. But the prose medium of fiction is several centuries younger than, say, the the medium of painting. And rumours of the latter’s demise has been, in the past, greatly exaggerated. It’s probably not over. The 19th Century was the Century of the novel only from a 21st Century point of view, ie. a limited point of view.
The invention of the camera was supposed to destroy painting. It certainly sent it into its most experimental phase but it didn’t destroy it. We’re even back now into a time of figurative painting and we have painters these days who are as technically proficient as any of the great masters of the Renaissance. No one ever thought that would happen in the 1950s. The future of these disciplines is just not clear.
CBT: Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
SD: I don’t know. Aren’t more things getting into print than 50 years ago?
CBT: Do you have an author's website? Does it help you sell books?
seandixon.org. I put it together recently when I was laid up with back troubles. I haven’t looked at it in weeks. I expect I’ll tend to it in the fall though. I have a play being mounted at the Tarragon next spring and, as it happens, I have a lot to say about it.
CBT: How do you feel about running an author's website? Do you feel its a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
SD: I loved setting up and maintaining the blog for my first book — lacunacabal.blogspot.com — and would maintain it still if I thought there was any point. I consider it to be unfinished. I set out to do the same for Kip Flynn but I realized I had nothing to say about that book beyond its own confines. Which is one of the reasons why I took so long to get back to you re this interview.
CBT: Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
SD: Probably not. Probably not.
But I don’t like the fact that, if I understand correctly (and I’m by no means an expert on this subject) it seems to have become very easy for a publisher to look up a writer’s ‘numbers’ and make decisions accordingly. It could mean a writer has less of a chance to develop through her lifetime if she is not fortunate enough to be successful right from the start.
CBT: According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
SD: I’m not sure that stat is as true as it was when you first sent that question. Is it? But I also think, if we don’t get back to reading print books, everyone is going to develop new, insidious forms of open-angle glaucoma.
CBT: What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture's ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren't?”
SD: I would pay a lot more attention to literary prizes if they were run the way jury duty is done within the legal system, virtually pulling names out of a hat and then going through a voir dire process with a number of publishers (whose involvement could also be decided by lottery!) It could be a sort of Hunger Games scenario for critics and publishers. The chosen jurors would then be paid very well, coming from all walks of life. And we would be privy to their lifestyle changes and menu choices during the period when their task would be to read these one hundred books.
Then we’d both be more fascinated by the process and also understand better how arbitrary and ridiculous it is.
CBT: One thing that struck me about THE MANY REVENGES OF KIP FLYNN was the degree to which is was self-consciously a Toronto novel; it wasn't just a novel set in a place, but it was about having specific concerns about that place (fighting over-development -- a quintessential Canadian concern that one finds in Asia, too, but not to the same extent). Is part of what defines a literature its regional character? And if so, is there not a "CanLit" but a series of RegionLits, including, say, VanLit, HaliLit, TOLit, QueLit, MonLit, and so forth?
SD: Yeah, maybe. Like that Akashic series of city noir books.
The sad thing about Kip Flynn, though, is: I was setting out to create a myth of Toronto for a projected reader from elsewhere. It was (originally) a commission for the UK market. So I was imagining an idealized British reader sitting down with my book, which is something that never happened and, really, a stupid idea on my part. Especially since I knew Torontonians would mostly feel bored by my effrontery in daring to present a myth of their city to them. Like some small-time Michael Ondaatje. That turned out to be pretty much the case, in Toronto, at least with the print reviewers, who didn’t even bother to pick it up. I did get some appreciative bloggers. Kip Flynn’s biggest adherents have turned out to mostly live in Kensington Market itself. So, then, it’s more from the genre of KensingtonLit. Which is its own kind of accomplishment.
CBT: The first time I was exposed to your work was when I saw you at a reading at a kind of ad hoc art space on Queen. You were reading from a work in process about being harassed by a stubborn and wrong-headed tax auditor. The reading still is quite vivid in my memory. Furthermore, I note your experience across genres (music, theatre) and your play-writing. In effect, you are writing literature on "many platforms", but writing in forms that tend to be pushed out the standard category of literary prose production -- the short story collection and novel.
In your opinion, should artists do more work across disciplines? After all, it seems to be something of an accepted norm in a crypto-version anyway: artist are now expected to maintain websites, be energetic and theatrical at readings (that, at least, is the ideal), and so forth. Is there such as thing as literature off the page? And if so, should it be recognized as an equal partner to literature on the page?
SD: I like your idea of literature off the page, but working across disciplines is not something I would advise, no. I would advise against it: A writer needs to develop an audience. Passionate adherents of theatre don’t tend to be studious followers of literary culture, and vice versa. If you’re working in both media, you’re more likely to pass right under the radar than to be seen as a double-threat. I’ve been a playwright in Toronto since 1990 and most of the current crop of theatre critics aren’t the least bit familiar with my work. Ditto for the theatre community. That came from novel writing.
That’s not to say I regret doing it. I’ve spent most of the last couple of years trying to claw my way back into a certain visibility in the Toronto theatre, during which time I vowed I would never write prose again. Today, though, I have two or three things in development in a couple of theatres, and I’ve found myself being pulled into an impractical prose project.
The way I came to novel-writing from playwriting is something that could not have happened any other way than the way it did. Really, I’m an actor whose training involved to picking up skills, as needed: that’s why I started the banjo and that’s why I started writing text to be spoken aloud.
CBT: What are you working on now that you're excited about?
CBT: Play: A God In Need of Help, to be produced April 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre.
Play: A Painter in the Dark, in development at the Tarragon Theatre.
Play: The Orange Dot , commissioned by Vikki Anderson for DVxT, Toronto, as a companion piece for Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, and featuring (at least at the moment) several songs composed on the banjo, for the 2014-15 season.
Play: White Boy from Gyntford, a free adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, unapologetically Ontarian. Currently homeless.
Play: Adaptation of Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, currently being shopped around.
A new novel.
Sadly though, I’m running out of money. This seems to be the time when I’m most inspired. I don’t know what/why that is.
Bio:Sean Dixon is a playwright and novelist. Recent plays include Lost Heir, The Gift of the Coat (ATP PlayRites 2008), Right Robert & His Robber Bride (Caravan Farm 2012), andFRANCE—or, ‘The Niqab’ (Summerworks 2012).
He lives in Toronto with his wife, documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek.
Two upcoming plays: A God In Need of Help (Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, April 2014, Richard Rose, dir.), is based on a true story from 1606 about four strong men who are compelled to carry a large painting on foot over the Alps from Venice to Prague; The Orange Dot (DVxT Theatre, Toronto, 2014-15, Vikki Anderson, dir.), is a play with music about two city workers who are beginning the process of taking down an old tree when it starts manifesting otherworldly behaviour.
Sean’s first novel, The Girls Who Saw Everything (2007) aka The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal (UK, US, Australia), is about a young women’s book club in Montreal that sets out to read the world’s oldest book. His second novel, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (2011), is about a young, low-level entrepreneur who takes on one of Toronto’s most powerful building developers.
He’s also written two YA novels, The Feathered Cloak and The Winter Drey, both set during the time of the Vikings.