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Michael Dibdin
208 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Michael Dibdin

Novelist Michael Dibdin discusses what he terms the 'Silver Age' of the contemporary arts and tells us why his best writing can be so unpleasant to produce.

Thanksgiving is a bit of a departure for you. Why did you decide to write a literary novel after so many mysteries?

Dibdin: I would like to think that all my novels are "literary," in the sense of being well-written, as well as "mysteries," because life itself is a mystery. Ideas for books come the way they come; the problem is to find the appropriate tone and form for them. Thanksgiving originally "presented," as doctors say of a pre-natal baby, as a mystery, but once I started getting to grips with it, I realized that the issues it addresses—grief, loss, aging—are ones that can't be resolved by having someone come through a door with a gun in his hand.

WAG: How did the experience of writing literary fiction differ from the experience of writing mysteries? Was it as satisfying?

Dibdin: For me, at least, writing is never satisfying, because whatever you do is never as good as you feel it ought to be. Knowing when to stop is a matter of knowing when to give up. Someone said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. The same goes for novels, whether they're packaged for sales purposes as "literary" or "mystery." But Thanksgiving stretched me in a way I've never been stretched before, and it wasn't altogether pleasant. Reaching your limits as a writer is like reaching the top of a mountain where the air is thin: the sense of accomplishment is rewarding, and the view is great, but it's hard to breathe and you start to panic.

WAG: Thanksgiving has a clean, cinematic quality. Do you ever think about your novels as screenplays or imagine them as films as you work?

Dibdin: Never. Books and movies are completely different media, and the more the Hollywood crowd learns to knit their own stuff, the better. Filmed books bear no more relation to the original than Berlioz's Les Troyens does to The Iliad. But we live in a movie-saturated culture, and this affects the way people behave. Darryl Bob Allen, in the opening chapter of Thanksgiving, definitely (and perhaps even consciously) sees himself as the star of his own movie.

WAG: You leave unanswered Thanksgiving's central plot question (Who killed Darryl Bob?). Did you always intend to hold that information back from the reader? And does that in some way underline the distinction between Thanksgiving and your mysteries?

Dibdin: Of course I intended it. Every aspect of anything I write is intentional. If it weren't, I wouldn't be doing my job properly. Thanksgiving is a first-person narrative, hence all we can know about what happened is what the narrator Anthony knows, and he doesn't know how Darryl Bob died. Or better, he claims not to know. Do we believe him? On balance, I think we do, but it's a judgement call. With regard to the last question, this is by no means the first of my books to have left the answer to certain questions to the readers' discretion, e.g. The Tryst and Dirty Tricks, both to be published soon by Vintage.

WAG: Some critics claim literary fiction has lost its heft these days. Where do you think contemporary literary fiction stands? And how does it compare to the best of what's being done in mysteries?

Dibdin: I think we're living in a "Silver Age," as regards all the arts. In other words, we're very accomplished, very knowing, and very ironical, but with a strong understreak of disgust at our essential shallowness and inability to cut to the quick. We live in a post-everything culture, and hate it. And since you get no marks for trying in art, only for succeeding, maybe it's a good time to be a mystery writer. Richard Strauss once said that while he may not have been a first-class composer, he was a first-rate second-class composer. Maybe that's all we can aspire to. Raymond Chandler went to his death with the job description "mystery writer;" now he's published by the Library of America. Bottom line: there are good novels—all too few of them—and bad novels. 'Twas ever thus, and always will be.

WAG: Will we see more literary novels from you in the future?

Dibdin: I honestly don't know. To me, this is a distinction made by academics, critics, publishers and maybe some readers. Writers just do the best with whatever ideas come and insist on being written.

WAG: You've received critical and popular acclaim for your Aurelio Zen series. Is there a drawback to working with a recurring protagonist? Is it, for example, self-limiting? Or does it, on the hand, offer liberating possibilities?

Dibdin: It's definitely a challenge, and challenges can inspire. Keeping the Zen series alive is a bit like keeping a marriage alive. It might seem more fun just to have serial affairs, but a long-term project brings its own rewards. As a writer, I try to do both, alternating the Zen novels with one-offs like Thanksgiving.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. First, many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer--someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself?

Dibdin: Almost anyone who's dead and doesn't have an agent, to quote Polanski on why Shakespeare didn't get a credit in his film of Macbeth. Writers who can't be interviewed and put on tour are invisible in our culture. Some names? All right, Penelope Fitzgerald, Flann O'Brien, Patricia Highsmith, Lawrence Durrell, Georges Simenon...I could go on.

WAG: And second, who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Dibdin: Apart from me, you mean? Actually, I don't think under-appreciation is what writers working today suffer from. Rather the reverse.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted July 1, 2001


Photo Credit: Isolde Ohlbaum

Michael Dibdin is the author of fourteen novels, including his award-winning Aurelio Zen series. Thanksgiving is his latest novel. An Englishman who was raised in Northern Ireland, he now lives in Seattle with his wife, mystery writer Katherine Beck.



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