SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: CAROLA DIBBELL / by Jenna Leigh Evans

Carola Dibbell

Carola Dibbell

Previous to the RECENT release of her debut novel, The Only Ones, Carola Dibbell’s fiction could be found in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Fence, and Black Clock. Her writing on books, film, children's media, and music appeared frequently in the Village Voice at a time when she was one of the few women writing rock criticism. Her work appears in Rock She Wrote and Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. Dibbell will be reading from The Only Ones March 19 at The Center for Fiction in NYC, May 5 at the St. Marks Bookshop in NYC, and June 4 at Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn. You can order books from Twodollarradio.com and VISIT her website at CarolaDibbell.com.

Carola Dibbell! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

The short answer is, I've rarely been paid much for my short fiction, and sometimes nothing. And—while I support authors' groups that fight for our rights as workers, and I get the politics of that—I'm so glad to have my work out in the world, I don't think a whole lot about the money. I fret much more about publishers' (and perhaps reviewers') ideas about literary worth, which can be so frustrating that part of the job of being a writer, I've found, is to figure out your own worth.  Any journalism I've published has been paid, though only glossies paid handsomely. The New Yorker was probably the most generous fiction publisher I've encountered, now many years back. My recent short fiction was paid modestly, if at all, but as I think about it, I appreciated even token payments, as a sort of gesture acknowledging that what I'd done was actually work. But in this field, it's sometimes hard to define the difference between work and promotion—by which I mean that even unpaid publishing sometimes improves your credibility with future publishers.  The experience of having a novel actually published, after many years of trying, has been a little different. While my delight at having Two Dollar Radio take The Only Ones was so great that I barely thought through how the advance and royalties would play out, my dealings throughout the process have made me understand my work as a saleable product in a way I never had, and I like that a lot. It seems healthy. There are also financial fringe benefits I'm already seeing—an audiobook, for instance—got a check! There could be others.   

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

I may have briefly earned a living wage from journalism, when I had some dealings with glossies. And I actually earned good money working on a film script once.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

I haven't held a regular day job for years. At some point, my husband and I decided that keeping at my fiction, paid or unpaid, was more important than the hole that cut in our income. When I have held day jobs, I did some pretty good writing on the weekends and at night. I also learned things I never would have at my writing desk, things that changed my writing. Some of my best work draws from those experiences. And that's not even counting what became my most interesting day job—bringing up my daughter.

How do you know for sure when something in your work truly needs revision?

Wow! I always assume everything needs revision.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

I ask trustworthy friends, especially my husband [the writer Robert Christgau]. Sometimes I just make the decision based on how totally nuts I notice I've become.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Writing always called me, or at least since I hit double digits. But there was a point in my life when I made the decision to go for it. That changed my approach tremendously.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Well, I read Brothers Karamazov too young, but then I just re-read it later. So, no, nothing like that.