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Interview: Richard Chwedyk on “Dixon’s Road”

– Tell us a bit about “Dixon’s Road.”

Alice works at an historic/cultural site, once the home of a poet named Laura Michel, on the terraformed planet of Alceste. One morning, she finds a visitor standing at the threshold of the place. It’s far too early for the regularly scheduled tour, but she offers him a cup of coffee and a personal walk-through of the house.

They move from room to room. Through the course of this tour we learn about the original inhabitants of this house: Michel, the honored poet, and Jim Dixon, the terraforming engineer responsible for the planet’s very existence. He is also the man who built the house. Alice believes it’s the “love story” between these two that really attracts tourists to the home. The visitor, of course, is Dixon himself, back from a century away on another terraforming project.

By the time Dixon leaves, we find out something more about the love story, love in particular and stories in general.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story?

It came, as most of my stories do, from a collision of ideas that blew up in my head while I was trying out a number of traditional science fiction themes. It was supposed to be a story about terraforming, then suddenly this poet shows up. It occurred to me that you could balance the making of planets and the making of poems. A poet and an engineer, good ones at least, are working toward the same ends, though I wonder how many would agree with me on that.

About this same time I ran into Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture. I’m paraphrasing here (maybe I should look this up)* but he stated that if language is humanity’s defining attribute, poetry must be its highest achievement. I sort of believe that, though I’m not sure why. Poetry may be the most complex of our arts though it’s made with the simplest of tools. And yet there’s poetry in a beautiful building. There’s poetry in making a salad. There’s poetry in a piece of working plumbing. You can stop me right there and say that the poetry isn’t in those things, but in the poet – and that’s the point. We’re all poets, or we can be. I think that’s Brodsky’s point, too.

Also important: the notion of historical sites and “restored” homes of notable people. I live in Chicago – that should be “’nuff said,’” but in case you haven’t heard, we have a very bad record when it comes to preserving our history. The city propaganda tells you otherwise, but you can’t fool an old fool, and I’m about the oldest fool I know. As a cab driver once told me, “We’d bulldoze Christ’s tomb and put a Walgreens on it if there was a buck to be had.”

I have mixed feelings (maybe I should say I have complex feelings) about words like “heritage” and “restoration.” They are often used to mask the creation of fictions and myths. Perhaps that’s part of our nature. We’re creatures of language, as Brodsky might say, but we may even more be creatures of story. We make stories. It’s what we do. That the story is a lie or a truth matters less than whether we want to believe the story (what we mean by “believe” is a matter for a whole other conversation) or not.

Here in the States, we don’t have as many of these preserved homes, not like in other countries. We have some – mostly of statesmen and prominent rich people. Not so many writers and artists. So be it. We define ourselves in large part by what we revere.

History is one (of many) things humans do with time – the concept of time. This fascinates (or should) science fiction writers because much of what we know of the road ahead has to do with how we understand the road behind. The home of Dickens is preserved, for example. But what would Dickens feel about the place were he granted the chance to see it now? Would he recognize it as home? Would it be his home? Or has the passage of time, by its sheer brute force, rendered the place different and strange?

There’s nothing particularly new here in terms of concepts or ideas, other than the notion that, maybe, after humanity has played with every toy it can invent, we come back to poetry, because that’s who we are.

Then, of course, the story is also about death but, as Major Calloway tells Holly Martins in The Third Man, “Death’s at the bottom of everything.”

 

– You’ve mentioned that it took you almost 25 years to write “Dixon’s Road;” could you talk about that struggle, and what it was like to finally finish it?

The first time around with “Dixon’s Road,” I did dozens of drafts, settled on a third-person p.o.v. looking over Dixon’s shoulder. I felt some was missing, so I rewrote it some more. Sent it out to dozens of places, presented it at readings – even a reading where I inadvertently left the last three pages at home. That’s the reading equivalent of driving right off the pier (Advice to writers doing readings: don’t leave home without counting your pages first).

Eventually, Kris Rusch accepted the story for Pulphouse, but the publication folded before “DR” saw print. I gave up on it after that. Every writer has many stories jamming the lower drawers of file cabinets and desks, and “DR” was one of mine.

End of story – almost.

I’d think about “DR” every now and then. Or someone would ask me about it – didn’t that story make print? I was glad it hadn’t – something about it still didn’t seem finished to me.

Years go by. I’m out of work, looking for stories I can quickly finish to get some work out in the market. I’m on summer break from one of my few paying gigs. Bills are coming due. A friend, Julie Stielstra, tells me how much she loved “Dixon’s Road.” Well, I think, Julie knows a thing or two. Maybe I should look at it again.

Then – I run into that quote from Louis H. Sullivan: “Behind every building you see is the image of a man you do not see.” I have to thank Roger Ebert for using that in one of his blogs. May he rest in peace.

Boom.

Something came together in a way it had not before. I completely rewrote the story – only glanced at the old typescript for some names. Changed the point of view. Found a first sentence and last sentence and tried my damndest to make everything else in the universe fit between them.

I sent it out, as most writers do, feeling mostly relief and exhaustion. When it was accepted, I began to feel, finally, that maybe I got it right this time.

 

– What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I don’t know if I have any specific aims for what I want readers to take away. It would be pretty neat if they came away with feeling that human emotions can be as deep and mysterious as the universe in which they exist. We’re all co-authors of the universe, and it’s up to us whether we make a wasteland of it or, if not a paradise, at least a tolerable place to spend some time.

 

– What are you working on now?

I am currently furiously at work on a novella I’ve been promising people for years. It’s called “The Man Who Put the Bomp” and yes, it’s another saur story (at last!). Once it’s done, I hope to have enough wordage to put together a collection (again, at last).

If that’s not enough, I have another novella, a sort of prequel to the saur stories, currently called “Reggie Sent Us.” It may be the beginning of a novel – at least that’s what it started out as many years ago when I first came up with it. Not all the saurs are in it, but Agnes and Sluggo are featured.

I’m also at work on a novel called The Va-va-va VOOM! It all takes place on October 26, 1973, just that one day, and follows a teenager sent on a mission by an obscure-but-powerful office of the Inquisition in search of the greatest evil on the planet (the Chilean Coup, The Yom Kippur War and the Saturday Night Massacre, for examples, are all happening that month in that year). This, most obviously, takes her to the Southwest Side of Chicago, where I grew up. Kids are buying this weird green angel dust that glows in the dark, and once they’ve snorted up the stuff they grow tentacles out of their lower torsos. And all this horrid stuff comes from the lagoon in Marquette Park: the place where, in 1966, Martin Luther King said he felt more fear for his life than anywhere in the South.

I could never write about the old neighborhood before, and the only way I can do it now is by couching it in a kind of Lovecraftian horror – as interpreted by a bunch of proto-punk kids who hang around with a band called The Knuckles. I’m describing the novel as “Ulysses with tentacles.”

 

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I know some folks are going to read “DR” and think it’s retro or anachronistic. I’m not living in the Fifties, honest. I’m just trying something different and it doesn’t necessarily follow the script for the way science fiction writers are supposed to write about the future now.

I do an exercise with my Columbia science fiction writing students where we look out a window and I ask them two questions: 1.) What do you see? and 2.) What don’t you see? Extrapolating “The Future,” or any science-fictional landscape, foreground or background, requires us to account for absence as well as presence. We can fill all the emptiness or empty all the fullness, where we need to, if we need to. “Can you do that?” I hear that from students every term. The whole point of science fiction, for me, is “It won’t be easy, but … why not? This is science fiction. We can do anything as long as we don’t suck.”

* “If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature – and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution – is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species.” – Joseph Brodsky, “Uncommon Visage,” Nobel lecture, December 8, 1987

“Dixon’s Road” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can purchase it here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm

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