A Chat with Iconic Comic Book Writer Chuck Dixon

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By Trisha Sugarek

Dixon3What Julia Child was to cuisine, what Stirling Moss was to racing, what John Glenn was to space, Chuck Dixon is to the comic book and animated TV world. Chuck Dixon is a veteran comic book writer with thousands of titles to his name, including a record run on Batman at DC. Much to his fans’ delight, Chuck has recently moved into the genre of true crime fiction. I’ll be honest with my readers; I hadn’t read a comic book since Archie and Veronica. While doing my research for this interview, wherever I went in the comic book world, the aficionados told me I was in the presence of royalty. Today, we’re going to read about Chuck’s writing process, where he finds the characters for his stories, and what led him to murder mysteries.

IM: Where do you write? Do you have a special room, shed, barn, special space for your writing? Or tell us about your ‘dream’ work space.

CD: I work in what is described by realtors as a “home office.” It’s basically a cubby hole filled with books and toys. It’s where I work since moving to Florida. My dream work space was the office I had up north; a big addition to the house, with built-in bookshelves and lots of room for artwork on the walls.

IM: Do you have any special rituals when you sit down to write? (A neat work space, sharpened #2 pencils, legal pad, cup of tea, glass of brandy, favorite pajamas, etc.?)

CD: Does checking emails count? A neat work space is NOT a priority. All I require is enough desk space for my keyboard. A mug of mate or tea is nice.

IM: Could you tell us something about yourself that we might not already know?

Dixon1CD: When I was a kid I found the metal-munching mice in the Bullwinkle cartoons frightening. For some reason, the idea of a huge robotic mouse climbing to the top of the house to eat our TV antenna unsettled me.

IM: You are such an icon in the comic book and animated TV world. What inspired you to switch from that genre to writing fiction?

CD: I simply got tired of waiting for someone else’s permission to write. The possibilities offered by digital publishing are endless. Why go through the painful, tedious, and often fruitless, process of pitches and development when I can simply go from idea to finished product on my own? I turned to prose because of the massive production expenses involved with doing comics. My only investment is my time. And, truth to tell, there are a lot more people who read prose than read comics. I’m reaching readers now that I never could have reached writing comic books.

IM: Was it a challenge to switch to a novel format and ‘point-of-view’?

CD: Mostly, it was the intimidation factor. In comics, my chosen medium, the bench for writing talent is pretty thin. But in prose fiction I’m up against thousands of years of awesome writing. I mean, who the hell do I think I am, going to work in the same shop as Alexander Dumas or Jane Austen?

And now I have to actually write descriptive text that evokes images in the minds of casual readers. In comics, my descriptions are utilitarian. I simply tell the artist what needs to be in the panel. It’s not artful in any way. In prose fiction I need to be more subtle; more circumspect. More of a wordsmith, which is something I have never considered myself to be.

But pacing, plotting, characterization, and all the rest are the same for comics as they are for prose.

IM: Do you have a set time each day to write, or do you write only when you are feeling creative?

Dixon2CD: I write even when I don’t feel like it. The crushing deadlines of comics taught me that. Writer’s block? Phah! You have to hunt down those muses and cage them.

IM: What’s your best advice to other writers for overcoming procrastination?

CD: I read an interview with a screen writer who said that he never writes down his last idea of the day. In that way, he knows where he’s going to begin the next day. It sounds like a silly gimmick, but trust me, it works. It’s like having the pump primed before I even sit down to write. Because getting started is the second hardest part of writing.

The first hardest part is that middle passage where I’m past the halfway point and have convinced myself that everything I’m doing sucks.

IM: Where/when do you first discover your characters?

CD: I tend to define my characters through their actions. They have to be up for what I’m going to put them through in the story. Once I have the story, I build the character that can make that story happen. I prefer solid stories populated with interesting characters rather than stories that are only about the characters with the story being secondary. I’m not into “portrait” stories.

And my characters, beyond the basic requirements of the story, are either created from whole cloth or constructed from people I know or have met.

IM: What inspires your story/stories? 

CD: I never know how to answer that. Mostly, I write the kind of stuff I’d like to read.

IM: Do you ‘get lost’ in your writing?

CD: Yes. That’s when it’s all going right. When eight or ten pages of solid, useable stuff seem to flow from my brain to the page.

IM: Who or what is your “muse” at the moment?

CD: Is it corny to say that my readership is my muse? The fact that my stuff is being read by an audience who likes it and wants more drives me more than almost anything else. Anything else except my compulsion to make things up, of course.

This new feature with the Kindle program, where you can see how many pages are being read each day, is compelling. For a writer, it’s as close to performing live as I’ll ever get. I can release a novel and see how many people are reading it that day. My latest, Levon’s Night, was being read within hours of becoming available. It’s a kick to see that.

IM: When did you begin to write seriously? 

CD: When I started getting paid. I fiddled with comics stuff a lot, drawing my own stuff because I didn’t have an artist to work with. I worked doing storyboards for an ad agency. I wasn’t one to write short stories or poetry or anything. I didn’t fill notebooks with treatments and characters and such. My first paying work was in children’s books. That’s when it became real for me. Deadlines, contracts, and a paycheck. That’s when it looked like I might be able to write for a living.

IM: How long after that were you published?

Dixon4CD: Immediately. But a better question would be, ‘How long between that first job and your second one?’ An eternity. I was a year between writing gigs in kids’ books. It was all hustle for little reward.

IM: What makes a writer great?

CD: If a writer’s work can survive a few generations past his initial readership. History is filled with writers who were considered white hot in their era and forgotten only a few years past their death and never re-discovered.

IM: What does the process of going from “no book” to “finished book” look like for you?  

CD: Everyone works differently. No writer’s approach is the same as another. I usually start with the Big Scene. It’s the moment of highest drama or suspense. It’s Kong atop the Empire State Building or Birnam Wood coming to Macbeth’s castle.

Then I need to create a story to justify that scene or situation. I begin working out the logic that might lead my characters to that moment. How does that bulldozer wind up on the roof of a skyscraper? When does the lead character learn that the man he’s been hunting is his son?

Once I’ve worked out a chain of events that makes my story seem like something compelling enough for someone I’ve never met to want to read it, I think about where the story should start.

When I have that opening scene worked out in my head, I start writing. Some of the connections are still tenuous in my mind and some of the characters are only sketched in. But I have a skeleton of a plot either in my head or scribbled on a few pages of a notebook. It’s enough for me to start and begin working through the moves for my cast.

I make it through that painful middle passage to the downslope and then, if I haven’t already, I work out where I want to end. I always know how I want to end but not always where. I want my main character to come out the winner in the final chapters. That’s in the nature of the escapist fiction I write. But pat endings suck. Sometimes I’ll bring things to an abrupt end as a kind of shock to the reader. Like that final shove against the safety bar at the end of a roller coaster ride. In my first Levon Cade book I ended with a chapter that was like a sad little coda to the action that came before. I felt it added to the grim events that preceded it by showing that there were ongoing implications to the choices a character had made in the story.

IM: How have your life experiences influenced your writing/stories?

CD: I was sick a lot as a kid. I mean, extended hospital stays. I think that kind of isolated me a bit during a time when my brain was developing. I could create rich imaginary worlds just to entertain myself. It also made me an observer, as opposed to a participant. All writers are, to some degree, outsiders.

IM: Have you, or do you want to write in another genre?  

CD: I’ve done a bit in the western genre and want to do more. I love westerns more than any other genre. I’d also like to write more straight historical fiction. My Bad Times series, which is a time travel action thing, is way to kind of stick my oar into the historical epic. But I’d like to take a shot at a story set entirely in another era.

A straight-up mystery story would be a goal as well. But mysteries don’t come easy to me. I’ve written them in comics form and learned that a workable mystery that is compelling, and not contrived, is hard work.

IM: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

CD: I will be continuing the Levon Cade and Bad Times series. I’ll have a Levon novella out before Christmas. I’m finishing it now. It’s called Levon’s Ride and it will feature some artwork by a top illustrator. More on that later.

Visit Chuck on his website: https://dixonverse.wordpress.com

 

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Learn more about our interviewer at: Trisha Sugarek

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