When I read the title of Athena Dixon’s latest book, The Loneliness Files (Tin House, 2023), I knew I had to interview her. As a single empty-nester mama, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, daughter to parents who were only children, and only child to my mom, loneliness has been my unrelenting bedfellow. Loneliness began with my earliest memory of being an only child and wanting desperately for someone to play dollies with me.
I enviously watched children in school have siblings to cajole with, but I had no one my age to share life with. Instead, I had my Barbies, stuffies, and imaginary pink unicorn. In human form, I had my Holocaust survivor grandmother, who was my primary caretaker. But she spoke almost no English, so she herself felt isolated in a country where she couldn’t understand or be understood. Growing up, both my parents wished more than anything that they had siblings and more extended family. I didn’t grow up with aunts and uncles and boatloads of cousins that could, perhaps, in a small way, compensate for missing siblings.
This year I turned 51. I’ve been divorced for more than a decade and an empty nester for almost a decade. When I had my kids in the house, life was filled with laughter, sharp Legos, happiness, and youth. Now, alone, I can mostly hear the humming of my AC unit and the occasional owl who lives outside my bedroom window. Hoot-hoot.
In her memoir-in-essays, Dixon, in her mid-forties, addresses her lifetime of loneliness while also addressing communal loneliness. She asks how past decisions have left her so alone. Even though Dixon and I had very different upbringings, we still share the gut-wrenching feeling of being alone in this second half of our lives. As single women, will she, will I, meet a partner, eventually? What will older age look like if we do ride solo? These are universal questions so many of us struggle with on the daily.
Dixon wrote The Loneliness Files during the pandemic, but she is very clear that these feelings have been constant. During quarantine, Dixon lived far from family, without children or pets. She began watching YouTube videos and listening to true-crime podcasts to hear human voices. She learned about Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died alone and whose body was found three years later in front of a still buzzing television.
The story of Carol reverberates throughout the text, proving the very worst can happen when someone lives and dies alone—no one knows how, when, and/or why someone died. Bodies slowly decay as television screens hum and drum and strum along.
Tamara MC: I’ve been staring at your cover. I’m a lover of polka dots and the color purple, so I have to ask you the meaning, if any, of your cover.
Athena Dixon: Tin House allowed me to give them colors and styles that I liked. I gave them samples of covers that I really liked and explained why I liked them. This was the first cover that they presented to me. My ultimate goal was to have a book that looked like a vintage Penguin book cover, especially the ones from England from the 1960s. I love the graphic nature of my cover. It reminds me of loneliness in a good way because the dots come out at the bottom. My dad thinks that the dots resemble breaking out of loneliness as you come to understand what it’s like to be lonely. So, I’m interested to see what other people think about it.
TM: I’m a total fangirl of everything Tin House, so I’m dying to know how you published with them. They are definitely on my dream pub list. Did you send your manuscript in their tiny submission window? If I’m correct, they have only three submission periods per year for only two days each. Or did you have a connection of some sort?
AD: I did not submit during the window. Tin House was on my dream list. But there was no possible way this was going to happen because I didn’t have an agent and the genre they accept each year changes. So back in 2019, I applied to the Tin House Winter Workshop. I got to go into an essay pod with Hanif Abdurraqib. He was my workshop leader in 2019. So, during that week, I was working on some of the essays that eventually ended up in my first book, The Incredible Shrinking Woman. And then, in 2021, I applied for Tin House’s Second Book Residency, and I was awarded one, so I got to go to Portland for a little under a month and write. I had an apartment right on Tin House’s little block.
Roughly six months later, I got an email from Hanif asking me if I was working on a book, and I was like, yes, I am, but I don’t have my proposal together because it’s overwhelming to write a book proposal. He was like I read a sample of your work, and I’m interested, so get your book proposal together and let me see it. It started from there. I finished the proposal and sent Tin House a couple of sample essays. They asked for a couple more. I sent a couple more. From there, they said they really liked it, and we started the process of signing the deal.
TM: I am also such a fangirl of Hanif Abdurraqib. What was it like to work with Hanif as your editor?
AD: He was one of my favorite writers prior to signing the book. One of the things that I really appreciate about him is that he’s from Ohio. I’m from Ohio, different parts of the state, but in the same state, so there’s a similarity in terms of growing up in the Midwest. He loves music, and I grew up the daughter of a DJ. Music is a very, very big part of my life. So, he was hitting all the notes as a writer, but as an editor, he is very good to work with.
Hanif wants to know how you like to be edited. He doesn’t take his editing style, his writing style, and force it upon you. We had a conversation before I turned in the draft of my book. How do you want me to edit you? Piece by piece? The whole thing at one time? He said feel free to push back if I didn’t like something or needed it to be changed or moved around. He said, “You don’t have to listen to me.” He was very open to making the work what I wanted it to be. One of the things he said early on was that he was there to create guardrails for my work.
TM: How did you say you want it to be edited?
AD: The whole book all at once. He came back with the draft with all his in-text notes, and then we had a conversation about those notes, and then we did some more tweaking on individual pieces, but it was like a whole body process from the beginning.
TM: Your book contains three parts. Part One: Life as It Is, Part Two: Out in the World, and Part Three: Coming Home. Each part is preceded by “Recommended Listening” with about three songs. Why did you decide to include playlists, and what do they mean?
AD: There’s actually a four-hour-long playlist on Spotify. I am a person who everything that I create has some kind of soundtrack to it—individual characters, individual essays, and books. It’s a way that I center myself. I don’t listen to anything while I write, but before I start to actively write, I have to have an entry point. For me, it’s music.
In the last section, one of the songs by Kendrick Lamar, “Sing about me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is very much a song about death and remembrance. The last few essays in the book are very much about those themes. I tried to give a little guidepost for each section.
TM: You mentioned Hanif also loves music. How did he support your choice to include Recommended Listening?
AD: Originally, there wasn’t a list of songs for each section. There was a lyric for each essay in the original draft, but we distilled it down to something that was more manageable. And, because of copyright issues, lyrics are a big deal. You can’t just put them in a book. It made more sense to give a high point at the beginning of each section and not to break up the momentum of the essays by having a lyric between each one.
TM: On your back cover, your book poses the question: How have your past decisions left you alone? I’d like to ask you that question now.
AD: How I ended up in this lonely space is because I was very short-sighted at the time that I made the decision to move away from my hometown and to separate myself emotionally. In some respects, it was because I was in such immense personal turmoil; I was in such pain. I had gone through this divorce, and my roles had been stripped away. I didn’t know who I was. I’ve always been the big sister. I’ve been the wife. I’ve been the good daughter, the oldest daughter. Then all those things shattered, and I didn’t know who I was.
All I could do was try to take control and just move somewhere else. At the time, I needed to survive by myself to prove that I didn’t need anybody else. But I didn’t think about how that would look in the long-term. Looking back on it, I ran versus standing still and letting time do what it needed to do. Part of it is a sense of hyper-independence, a feeling I don’t need anybody to do anything for me. I can pay my own bills. I can live by myself. I can do all these things by myself. And if I can’t do it myself, I can find somebody to hire to do it for me. That sense of hyper-independence is good short term, but without community, it gets old very quickly.
TM: What would a return look like now?
AD: Physically, it will be me moving back to Ohio, at least for now. And being able to reconnect with my sister and my parents and my family and giving myself time to settle back into a slower pace of life and a more connected pace of life. But I’ve also been talking a lot about the isolation that will come from going back. Not only have I built a life here in Philadelphia, but I’ve been gone for a total of 11 or 12 years between two states. Life in Ohio has not stopped in the years I’ve been gone, so the people I know have a decade of experiences and community and conversations with each other. And I’m coming in almost as a new person.
So, it’s just like a two-tiered view. I’d be very glad to be home because I miss my family, and I want to be with them. But also, my peers are now 10 years different than they were when I left. I don’t know how to deal with that isolation. It’s not the same on either side when you go back. Going from a city of a million and a half to a town of like 20,000 is like a whole other thing too.
TM: What do loneliness and isolation look like in your life today?
AD: It’s really an absence of intimacy. In terms of a partnership, like I mentioned earlier, I have a sister and a mom and dad who I talk to pretty much every day. I have friends that I see at work, or we have a group chat, so I’m very connected to the people that I love on a daily basis. But the vast majority of my time in the evenings and the weekends is just me alone. And so, isolation for me in this current moment looks like an absence of a person to share my life with, an active spirit to bounce things off of. My family and friends understand I’m a writer and understand it’s exciting, and I’m very into it, but I’m missing a creative energy.
I feel in some ways creatively isolated, but in a physical sense, not community-wise out in the world. But just to have a physical partner to bounce things off of, I really miss. Loneliness for me looks like future fears, meaning that I’m getting older. I’m in my 40s, so now I’m starting to think about what my life looks like in the future. In this present moment it looks like a very lonely future. I have no children. I don’t have a partner.
If I continue to live here, what does my life look like as an older person? You mentioned a moment ago about older people not having a choice but to be alone, and that’s what I’m feeling in terms of loneliness —a future fear of being alone when I’m starting to slow down towards the end of my life. That’s a very scary prospect.
TM: You wrote about the importance of legacy. What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
AD: The biggest hope for anything I do is to leave the people in my intimate spaces better off. I want them to have a better sense of love and care than they had at the beginning of life versus the end of their life. I want them to know that they’re loved, supported, and indulged. They’re truly, truly cared about. And then, creatively, I want my legacy to be as a person who was able to write and memorialize experiences for people who also often feel voiceless or invisible.
I spent a lot of my life feeling like I was not seen or heard. Whatever I write, I want people who feel the same way to know I’ve left this work for them to be seen.
TM: Because I am interviewing you for Write or Die Magazine, I’d love to know what the saying, “write or die” means to you?
AD: It would be bad or maybe a little cliché if I said it is actually write or die. As a writer who has a full-time day job, if I were to not write, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself mentally. I would probably wither. Even if I wasn’t actively publishing or speaking or editing or doing anything for money in this industry, just my curiosity and my desire to manipulate words and create sentences make me happy. I write a lot of fan fiction, so being able to write in a way that can engage an audience will always be there. If I didn’t have that outlet, l would fundamentally be a different person. I think that I would be so dampened in my everyday life.
Even during my regular work hours, I know I’m going to be able to go home and open my laptop and create something. I don’t know what kind of person I would be if I didn’t have that. It really is a write or die situation. I don’t think I can survive without some kind of creative outlet.
Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is the author of The Loneliness Files (forthcoming from Tin House Books in October 2023) and The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press 2020). Her work is also included in the anthology The Breakbeat Poets Vol.2: Black Girl Magic and her craft work appears in Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. Athena is an alumni of V.O.N.A., Callaloo, and Tin House and has received a prose fellowship from The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a Second Book Residency from Tin House. She writes, edits, and resides in Philadelphia. Learn more at www.athenadixon.com