In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Stephanie Dickinson
1. Tell us about your fiction piece, “The Harlow Postcards,” in Volume 21. How did it come to be?
As an Iowan by birth I had always been interested in the actress Jean Seberg, another native Iowan, and created an imaginary interview with her. I knew nothing about the earlier Jean whose last name Harlow stands for the whole. An Old Hollywood sex symbol, the original blonde bombshell, I assumed she couldn’t compare to the trilingual, intellectual Seberg. A quick google search cued me to Harlow’s uniqueness, and then I read all the Harlow biographies I could find and was dumbfounded to learn that she too was a reader and achingly intelligent. In that era the ironic fate of the dumb blonde was to be brilliant. Before my research I had no idea she died at age 26 of uremic poisoning after acting in 42 movies, having had 2 abortions, having been twice divorced and once widowed. She suffered from a suffocating and manipulative mother, as well as her own passivity. I identified strongly with her passivity and set to work trying to open a conversation with a ghost.
2. What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Language, imagery, intensity are my holy three. I’m a reader in love with the power and beauty of words. It’s glorious to be in love with something that embodies the best in human culture. You can’t buy the talent to write Bonnie Jo Campbell’s darkly humorous American Salvage or the electrifying work Darcey Steinke has accomplished in Suicide Blonde. Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw is infinitely more valuable than a gold train or a 1-percenter’s fortune. Nothing can buy an inspired poem, story, or novel.
Recently, I judged a regional contest for books (in the fiction category) published during the prior year. Some of the books had been published by major houses, one being a Pulitzer Prize finalist, others hailed from prestigious fine arts presses, and many were self-published. Three-quarters of the entries, both highbrow and lowbrow, could be classified as thrillers, and while some achieved excellence and deconstructed the genre, others followed the conventions, drearily. I wonder if even serious writers are so anxious for readers that they turn to the thriller genre. The category is a tricky one as the matter-of-fact language tends not to reach me and the descriptions are often too familiar. After finishing the best of them there is no desire to return to the prose again, whereas my fictional favorites I read and reread. The genre is comforting to many readers and sells, so there’s a great attraction in the world of literary writing where there are too many delicious offerings that suffer lack of readers.
The year a certain book excited the publishing world, I heard co-workers talk about it being the first book they’d bought and read in years. The subject matter of sadomasochism has been handled beautifully by a number of literary writers, so the subject matter can definitely be character-driven and fascinating. When a writer friend lent me her copy of the book, as she too wanted to see what the fuss was about, she called it an S&M Gothic romance. She managed to force it down and I tried but couldn’t persevere past the first chapter. The descriptions, the language, the dialogue, the everything fell flat as if a machine had written it and the only element allowed to live was the cliché. These are the kinds of things that cause me to stop reading.
3. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I have books everywhere but my special shelf consists of about 30 favorites including Jill Hoffman’s Jilted, Cynthia Cruz’s The Glimmering Room, Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, Charles Bowden’s Blues for Cannibals, Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, and Rosalind Palermo Stevenson’s The Absent. My earliest mentor was the poet Philip Dacey, who I studied under as an undergraduate and who became a lifelong friend. William Packard, founding editor of The New York Quarterly and a truly overlooked American original, was also my teacher (albeit much later) and a mentor. His masterpiece, the “Ty Cobb Poem,” written in the long-form tradition, is a gift to literature. For years I’ve attended Mudfish editor Jill Hoffman’s salon-style Glass Table Workshop in the heart of Tribeca. Poet, novelist, and artist, her work integrates those previously mentioned three elements of language, imagery, and intensity. We meet on Wednesday nights, a close group often starting late and going to midnight. Most of us are longtime writers working in the jobs unrelated to literature. It’s wonderful to gather in Jill’s apartment where her art covers the walls and her enthusiasm and insights are transformative. The candles flicker over the bread and cheese. The world melts away and the interior world opens.
4. What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
In the beginning of my writing life I smoked and drank coffee until I jittered. Now I make do with green tea and gum. I still jitter but not with a hard-edged caffeine high. On weeknights I write in the deserted office where the afterhours are hushed. My muse is a solitary one. Aloneness is her one requirement. Other writers have muses that appear to them best in the presence of others. I envy those who sit in the Olive Garden or at The Bean, hunched over their laptops and able to concentrate. Quiet isn’t easy to come by in Manhattan. On weekends I write in the red room of the East Village walkup I share with the poet Rob Cook and our feline Vallejo. The red room is stacked with books and stuffed with clothes, as it’s a closet too.
5. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’ve been working on a hybrid non-fiction manuscript entitled Maximum Compound. Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women houses New Jersey’s female violent offenders. Two of the women imprisoned there, Krystal Riordan and Lucy Weems, are longtime correspondents. Their friendship is storied among the prisoners—almost a thing of wonder. I’m weaving lyricism into the harshness of that world. The two women eat mac n’ cheese, shower together after work, hold dance contests and laugh. On nights Lucy can’t sleep, Krystal swaddles her, wrapping her in sheets and blankets.
I’m also working on the prose poem fictions that will make up the Jean Harlow / Bessie Smith Postcards. The two icons represent two worlds, one white, one black, and two art forms, one an actress, the other a singer extraordinaire. I find myself thinking about the importance of friendship and its ability to enlarge and anchor us. In both projects friendship seems thematically central.