About “Beatrice” by Stephen Dixon (PGP Stories vol 6 of 7)
In the new issue of Rain Taxi, Caleb Bouchard presents a great reading of Beatrice, the gorgeous novella by Stephen Dixon that Publishing Genius released a few months ago. Caleb sums up Dixon’s writing handily:
“If Dixon’s storytelling seems mundane, it is deceptively so. Under the surface, there lies a cerebral sensibility of the best kind, one that’s organic as opposed to esoteric. That said, there is plenty of complexity in the average Dixon passage to keep the reader on their toes. The man has a rare talent for turning the ordinary into something revelatory—and that’s something worth celebrating.”
So, to celebrate, I thought I’d continue my Publishing Genius festschrift and talk about the story behind the story of Beatrice (this is volume 6 of 7—read the other ones here). Remember that all Publishing Genius books are currently on sale: 50% off, and free shipping with coupon code “backagain”—and that’s something else worth celebrating.
Here’s the straight dope on working with Stephen Dixon, one of the greatest writers alive today, someone with 32 books with his name on the spine, two of which were nominated for the National Book Award.
I first met him after he did a reading for What Is All This? the massive short story collection released by Fantagraphics in 2010. After the reading, which was at Baltimore’s wonderful bookstore, Atomic Books, a few of us went down the street to have a drink at Frasiers, which always smells kind of bad.
Dixon had a Bloody Mary or two, which was a cool move. I’ve only ever seen people drink those before noon. After a friendly social hour, I had the opportunity to walk him back to his car, taking his arm to step off the big curbs so he could keep me steady (or maybe the other way around; he is 80+). We had a nice chat and later—this was a couple years ago—he referenced the occasion when he contacted me about publishing a book he had just finished.
He didn’t contact me out of the blue. I believe John Dermot Woods, whose book Activities was a PG sensation in 2013, and who was one of Dixon’s former students at the Writing Center at Johns Hopkins (where Dixon taught for years, which comes up in Beatrice as it does in many of his 32 books), agented the submission.
I had heard he was going to come at me with a 900 page novel that McSweeney’s had just passed on, and was relieved when it was Beatrice that FedEx dropped off instead.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the envelope was that the manuscript was a photocopy of typewritten pages. That’s what I expected. I had seen output from his typewriter before, when John Woods showed me 12 or so pages of typos that Dixon had listed from “What Is All This?” He was sending that document around because he was so embarrassed at how many errors found their way into the book.
Which, you know, intimidated me, since PG books have their own fair share of regretful blunders.
Thankfully the manuscript was only 108 pages of double spaced type. I set about transcribing it, which was amazing. If you haven’t done so, you should retype some paragraphs of your favorite writers.
I got about 50 pages through the book and realized it was going to take me too long to do the whole thing. I invited a few friends to help me, and we got through another 10 pages that way. Edward Mullany was one of the people on the crew and he got absorbed by the book and read the whole thing.
I sent the book off to an intern to have her finish the transcription, and she did a great job. Then Stephen and I scoured it for typos, sending lists of changes back and forth. Usually Stephen would start his email saying, “If I hit send too soon, I’ll just follow up.” A lot of his emails end mid-sentence.
One of the highlights of my career was when he told me I was a great editor (I think I found a spot where there were two spaces between words).
Beatrice is a novella about an aging, retired writing professor named Phillip Seidel, whose beloved wife, Abby, passed away several months before the book begins. It’s recent enough that he’s still actively grieving, long enough ago that he feels life should be getting back to normal when Beatrice, one of his former students (now in her middle age, successful in her own academic career, divorced), arrives at his door with a basket of goodies. They strike up a friendship. She eases him back into society. He develops a bit of a crush on her, almost casually, even though she’s told him not to. He tries to give her a kiss at Christmastime but she rebuffs him and their friendship comes to an end.
There’s an awful scene when, after Beatrice flirtatiously gestures with her buttocks, Phillip goes to the bathroom and discovers he’s ejaculated a little. You really sense the sadness of his age at that moment.
I announced the book with a simple cover mockup, and then I sent several more complete designs to Stephen, none of which he liked. They look kind of like start-up company logos. He did some drawings and mailed them to me, but they never arrived. After a few weeks, they came back to him from the USPS. What a bummer.
After I couldn’t come up with anything good, Stephen said I should just go with the original mockup, which he liked a lot. That’s what became the book cover. I’m glad it did.
We had a launch party in May at Normals Books & Records, the greatest bookstore in Baltimore and maybe the world. Jamie Perez also read from his Big Lucks chapbook, and the lovely experimental band, Sparkle Psych, played at the beginning and end of the show.
If you’d like a review copy of this book, let me know. Also, remember, it’s on sale at 50% off with coupon code “backagain”—plus free shipping.