While The Photographer may be Mary Dixie Carter’s first novel, she has been writing and creating art her entire life. Mary Dixie tells Zibby how her previous roles as an actress and a journalist helped shape her into the writer she is today, the bizarre real-life interaction with a photographer that inspired her dark and suspicious protagonist, and why she finds life more fascinating behind the metaphorical camera.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary Dixie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Photographer.

Mary Dixie Carter: Thank you, Zibby, for having me. I’m so pleased to be having this conversation with you.

Zibby: You too. Would you mind telling listeners what The Photographer is about? Also, what inspired you to write this?

Mary Dixie: The Photographer is Delta Dawn. Delta Dawn takes pictures of wealthy New Yorkers and their children. At the opening of the book, she goes to the home of Amelia and Fritz Straub to photograph their daughter Natalie’s eleventh birthday party. She falls in love with this family. She becomes obsessed with this family. The book is the story of her trying to insinuate herself into the family. I got the idea for the book because I hired a photographer myself a few years back to photograph my two kids. My kids are now eleven and eight, but this was a few years ago. The pictures came back of my children. They were beautiful, but my children’s eyes were cobalt blue, vivid cobalt blue, and they’re not in real life. I said to the photographer, “I’d like for my children’s eyes to be their real color.” She said, “There is no real color.” I was so struck by that point of view. If you kept going with that point of view, what would that woman look like? What would she do? What would she be capable of? That is how I started thinking about Delta Dawn. Delta is —

Zibby: — Wait, wait, did she fix the eyes?

Mary Dixie: She did a little bit. She never fixed them completely. The end result was some hybrid.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I would say give her royalties, but now I’m annoyed at her on your behalf.

Mary Dixie: She’s very talented. I can’t say that this character is really based on her.

Zibby: No, I know. I’m kidding.

Mary Dixie: That core idea of, there is no real color, and then you can apply that to photographs, and you can apply it to anything. Delta, it’s sort of irrelevant what was there in the first place. This photographer, it was irrelevant what my children’s eyes color really was. It really didn’t matter. She’d kind of erased it from her mind because she had a vision of what it ought to be or what she wanted it to be. That’s what Delta does in her photography. That’s what she does in her life too, creating the life that she sees for herself and wants for herself.

Zibby: Wow. By the way, it kept saying in the book that Delta Dawn was a real song. Is it a real song?

Mary Dixie: It is a real song.

Zibby: Oh, okay. I should’ve googled it.

Mary Dixie: It’s Tanya Tucker. “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?” It’s a song from the seventies or something. It was a sort of famous country song at the time. I knew that song. My mom’s Southern, so that might be part of the reason why I knew that song growing up. Delta Dawn, her name, some people have asked me about choosing that name, Delta Dawn. The song is one way I got that name, or the main way, I should say. The lyrics, if I kept going with the lyrics, which I won’t, but the lyrics to the song kind of speak to this character. There’s an emotional tie-in, nothing specific in details about either the person in the song or the person in my book, but a similar feeling about the two things. Then the other thing is, as we were discussing earlier, my name, Mary Dixie Carter, a very Southern name, a double name — I’ve always lived in New York or Los Angeles. Never lived in Tennessee, which is where my mom’s from. I’ve never lived in the South. My name has always been noteworthy. People comment on my name. People are confused by my name. It makes me a little bit different. That’s what I was going for with Delta Dawn. I wanted a name that would mark her as an outsider a little bit. There are a lot of things in the book that make her an outsider, but that’s just one more thing that makes her an outsider.

Zibby: Interesting. I like it. Another question about the house that you describe in such detail, is that a real house? Did you go to someone’s house and sort of co-opt it for this story? Did you make it up?

Mary Dixie: I made up the house, but I took elements of houses. I even walked a little bit around Brooklyn looking at houses and thinking, would it be that house, or would it be that house? Then I looked online. There’s so many pictures of beautiful townhouses that you can see online. I spent a lot of time looking at the different elements. I didn’t choose one house completely, but there was one house that I saw online that I was like, I think that’s very close to it. Then because I needed outdoor space or I needed something different for this house and this story, I changed it accordingly.

Zibby: I’ve fallen in love with this house. I’m going to be searching online. The way you wrote about it, and your writing in general, is so clear and vivid that you feel like you’re literally standing in the gleaming staircase or the double-height ceiling or whatever the details were, and the bathroom and the towels. It’s very immersive, which probably is part of the reason why the reader is so drawn in and kept on their toes, is because it all feels so real.

Mary Dixie: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to hear you say that.

Zibby: I was very disturbed by the powers of this photographer. The idea that you can just manipulate reality — our lives right now are all so tied up in photography, Instagram. Our culture is all about that and what you see and what you post and what that means about yourself. The fact that you’re cozying up to the wrong guy, it’s very dangerous stuff.

Mary Dixie: It really is dangerous. That was one thing that I was thinking about as I was writing it, was how much photographs are playing such a huge role in our lives and how we see ourselves and how we see each other and how much is about presentation as opposed to having a real interaction that doesn’t have anything to do with images. Images play such a huge role in everything that we do. I’m guilty of it too. I’m not commenting on something or thinking about something that I don’t do myself, but it’s frightening how far it can go.

Zibby: Very true. You had some really interesting lines about photography itself. You said something like — hold on, let me see if I can find it. You did say, “I need to believe in that person’s beauty, and if I can’t see it, then the camera won’t see it,” which I though was really interesting. There was one where you said — oh, here, this is also really funny. “Try photographing a moron. It’s next to impossible. What I’m always looking for is the sparkle in the eyes, the curiosity. If the subject of my photograph is not thinking or doing anything, the photograph comes out blank.” Moron is one of my favorite words, by the way. I know that’s in the very, very beginning.

Mary Dixie: My dad uses the word moron. That’s how I came up with the word moron. This character would think — it shows something about her. That she would even use that word describing any kid says something about her and her state of mind.

Zibby: Yes, and just the way she manipulates everything, the calculation behind everything, the texting and the offering to — now I’m like, has anyone offered to housesit? Should I be a little more nervous about everybody and what their motives are? She seems so normal and nice and warm and whatever on the outside. Yet she’s walking around naked. This is not stuff you want to have happen with your photographer at all.

Mary Dixie: She’s a really good liar.

Zibby: She’s a really good liar.

Mary Dixie: One thing that makes her a good liar is she lies to herself. Once she’s lied, she convinces herself of this new truth. She believes it. I’ve known people like this. I’m sure you have too. I think we all lie to ourselves a little bit, but some people really go extreme in lying to themselves.

Zibby: Forgive me if this is the wrong — I just learned, and I don’t think this was in this book, the reason why the whites — was that in this book? That the reason why, in evolution, there were the whites in people’s eyes, it’s so you could tell if someone’s lying because the most dangerous thing to other humans is not being able to trust other humans. There’s this imperceptible movement in the eye when people lie. We’re all so tuned into it on some subconscious level. You need the white space to see when the eyes sort of go back and forth.

Mary Dixie: That’s fascinating. I wish it was in my book, but it wasn’t.

Zibby: Now everything’s just melding into one. I just read that in the last week. I’m going to have to go back and figure out whose book that was in. If whoever wrote it is listening, I’m really sorry. I did just learn that about lying.

Mary Dixie: Interesting. I never knew that.

Zibby: I never knew that either. Gosh, I hope I didn’t dream that. I’m pretty sure it happened. I’m pretty sure I read it. Being able to lie and not being able to trust, these are — if everybody’s lying, of course, society falls apart. What happens then?

Mary Dixie: Right, exactly.

Zibby: Wait, so tell me about how you got into writing to begin with.

Mary Dixie: I was a journalist before I started writing novels. I’ve been writing in some fashion for my entire life. I started off as an actress. I mainly was on the stage. I mainly did a lot of plays, classical theater. Just as an aside, I’ll say that I think my acting background and my journalism background has been really helpful for my writing a novel. I feel like I use the same kind of muscles or skills as an actor as I do as a writer, thinking about the characters, really getting into the character. Then in terms of my journalism background, it’s being able to write succinctly, concise, clear, and short. I think those things have been helpful. I went to work for The New York Observer. At the time, my father was the — he started The New York Observer — the owner and publisher of The New York Observer. He then sold it, but I had gone to work in the family business. When he sold it, I wrote at The Observer. Then I wrote for other publications too. I wrote for The Economist and San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune. Recently, I wrote a couple pieces for Time. When I was pregnant with my first child, I wrote the first draft of another novel that was not published. I still like it. I had an agent, a different agent, who sent it around. People said really nice things about it, but no one bought it. It’s still sitting there. Maybe someday. We’ll see. It was very helpful to write that first novel and then have that as — I just knew more about writing a novel having done it once. The second time around, certain things, I understood a little better.

Zibby: How long did this take to do?

Mary Dixie: This novel took about three years, but some portion of that was more focused. Some portion of that was less focused. Other things were happening, too, at the same time. Then that three years was really — I’m talking about the time that I was on my own before I got an agent and before I was working with my editor at Minotaur Books and everything. That was the three years before, so the whole process has been longer than that.

Zibby: Did you know what was going to happen the whole time?

Mary Dixie: This book?

Zibby: Yeah.

Mary Dixie: No, I didn’t know. For this book, and I don’t know if I would always do it this way, but I really got into the head of this character. I was interested in her voice and what she would do. I kind of wanted to allow her voice to drive it and not decide it ahead of time. It was the best way for me to write this book. I had no idea what was going to happen at the end. The very, very end, which I’m not going to describe in case someone hasn’t read it, but that surprised me. All of that ending section and the very, very end, it was like, oh, this is what happens. It was not something I plotted out.

Zibby: It was interesting, too, how you talked about, or not you, but the uncovering of the miscarriage and infertility and layering that heartbreak onto the situation and how somebody can still use such an emotional thing for their own personal gain, in a way, is really unbelievable.

Mary Dixie: Yeah, definitely. Delta has no boundaries on what she is capable of doing. She just kind of goes. She knows how to behave in front of other people and how to have a nice conversation with someone and ingratiate herself. When no one else is around, she doesn’t have the normal societal constraints that the rest of us do. However, I will say that I didn’t want, and I’m hoping that this is true, that the reader doesn’t see her as the bad guy. I think the Straubs are guilty just as much as she is, but in a very different way. They bring a lot of this stuff on themselves. They’re entitled and arrogant. They’ve got a lot of issues themselves. Delta, I hope someone who’s reading it will feel a little bit of compassion for her because a lot of what’s driving her is the feeling of being an outsider and really, really wanting to be part of something and belong to something. The camera’s kind of a metaphor for that. It’s keeping her on the outside. She has something between her and the scene that she really wants to be in, but she’s not. I hope that people connect to that. That’s the way I connect to that character. Occasionally, someone’s asked me, this character doesn’t seem similar to you. Is there any part of you in Delta Dawn? My main answer has been, the feeling of being outsider, I think that everyone can relate to. At some point, everyone has felt like an outsider in different situations even when the external circumstances don’t necessarily warrant it.

Zibby: I don’t know, if you come over, I’m going to make sure I do not have half-open bottles of pinot grigio on the of my refrigerator. I might rethink the fact that we have no cameras in this house. I don’t know, I’m going to keep a close eye on you. You just don’t know. The thing about photography — I love taking pictures, by the way. I feel like it’s part of when you’re more of an observer than an actor. I always like to watch and see what’s going on. Being behind the camera is such a great buffer and such an interesting way to experience things. Even now, I have to be like, you don’t have to take a picture. Everything I’m seeing is that way. In that way, I totally related to Delta Dawn as well.

Mary Dixie: One photographer said to me — I can’t remember who it was. This person, he said, “I like that about photography. I like being on the outside and being able to observe the scene.” I’m not sure which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Are you a photographer because you like being on the outside? or which way it goes. His whole point was taking kind of a positive spin on being the observer. I get that. I am too. I feel like I’m often more comfortable in that role of being the observer.

Zibby: I think a lot of people who are in that role tend to write books. I do think there’s this intersection of people who like to stand around and check everything out and notice. Now I’m making us both sound creepy. What is coming next for you? What are you working on now?

Mary Dixie: I am working on another novel. It’s too early to tell you too much about it because it isn’t that far along. It will have certain similar themes. I’ve already seen in the pages that I’ve written, none of which are very good, that the outsider theme is reappearing, and not because I planned for it. It’s just there. I guess that’s just something that I keep coming back to because I’m interested in it.

Zibby: Aside from your name, what else has made you feel like an outsider?

Mary Dixie: I think that most people would look at me and not think that I’m an outsider. There’s not much concrete that would make me an outsider. The only thing I can think of is that having parents who got divorced and remarried and divorced and remarried a few times makes you not totally feel like you belong to this household or that household. Where do I belong? Where do I fit in? This is nothing negative about my parents or my stepparents, but just the nature of that childhood I think can make you question where you belong. You know what I mean?

Zibby: Yes. Oh, gosh, now I’m feeling bad. I am divorced myself and have to shuttle my kids off tomorrow. Yes, I am also a child of divorce. I do know what you mean. There is something to that, for sure. What advice would you give for aspiring authors?

Mary Dixie: One thing I would say is that you need to accept that you’re going to write a lot of bad pages. It’s almost like, embrace that, that you’re going to write a lot of pages that are awful. That’s not wasted time, wasted effort. You won’t even be able to get to the good pages — this is true for me. Maybe it’s not true for everyone. You can’t get to the good pages until you write the bad pages. Just settle into that and don’t criticize yourself. That’s been true for me.

Zibby: Excellent. Amazing. Thank you. Thanks, Mary Dixie. Thanks for coming on. I am in solidarity with you having a name that requires some explanation, so I get that as well. I am probably never hiring a photographer again. Oh, well.

Mary Dixie: Before I go, I just want to say how much I love your book.

Zibby: Oh, thank you.

Mary Dixie: Your anthology is so good and resonated with me. So many of those essays resonated. Congratulations. It’s really beautiful.

Zibby: Thank you so much for saying something. That’s really nice. Yes, Moms Don’t Have Time To.

Mary Dixie: I highly recommend it.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Thank you so much for coming on. Bye.

Mary Dixie: Bye.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER by Mary Dixie Carter

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