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Interview with Stuart Dybek





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Stuart Dybek

An Introduction to the Interview

by Elizabeth Kadetsky, Fiction Editor


This writer was profoundly affected by a visit Stuart Dybek made to the UC Irvine MFA program in 1997––the same month, more or less, that The New Yorker published an astonishing story of his, “If I Vanished,” in which Dybek, as in much of his fiction, seemed to be bending and breaking the rules of the short story as we knew it. Dybek graced us with a workshop, a reading, and much face-time during which we discussed the art of the short story in a time and place when the short story was—as we’d been hearing from the front lines of New York City publishing—less than viable, at least for anyone working outside the bounds of the mainstream, of the story-collection-masquerading-as-novel, of the trope-of-the-interlinked-stories, of the international, or of, merely, the derivative. In his workshop that day, Stuart Dybek illustrated to us that the wisdom as we knew it was exactly the opposite—shallow, short-sighted, and wrong. Dybek’s career as poet and short-story writer has, likewise, defied what we thought we knew about what the industry could bear. He is currently the author of three short story collections, two volumes of poetry, four stories in that industry standard The New Yorker, and zero novels. Funny, all the literary agents who came to visit our MFA program told us you couldn’t have a career as a fiction writer unless you dedicated yourself to a novel—no matter if your style lent itself more organically to that wondrous, specific and underappreciated form that is the short story.
______Dybek’s newest short story collection, the critically acclaimed I Sailed With Magellan, while consisting of intertwined stories, structurally snubs its nose at the conventions of the novel. In subject matter, it depicts lowlife and mystics—often in the same guise—in a style that is part prison-humor, part transcendent and magical realist. There is a rhythmic switching between profane and holy, down-and-out and sublime, that leaves the reader both on edge and transported. It is the kind of writing that Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever achieved through heightened contrast—irony mediated by instances of surprising, off-putting sincerity and depth, lowlifes redeemed through the authenticity of their visions of the lives they chose to lead, convention be damned. Dybek, this writer was convinced, was one of the generation’s greats—deeply American and Midwestern—not the kind of voice the industry seemed to favor, at that current moment, for collections and New Yorker stories. Nevertheless, it is his own authentic vision and voice that seems to have enabled him to transcend the seeming conventions of our time, the strictures and rules on style and publishability. As if out of a magical realist novel itself, Dybek’s work seemed to have slinked through a wormhole; time and space seemed to have warped to make room for him.


Interview questions from
Elizabeth Kadetsky, Justin Nicholes and Alexis Enrico Santí

: Forgive me for being slavish for one second, but if I were on the MacArthur committee I would choose you for the award as well, and I think the reason is embodied in your wonderful “tale” “Breasts,” and the way it portrays the sacred through the profane. I have a lot of questions for you and I just may not get to too many of them because I am preoccupied by the brilliance of “Breasts.” Pop culture right now is also concerned with the refined as expressed through the crude, for instance in TV shows such as Deadwood and The Wire. Richard Price’s novel Lush Life, and likely his writing on the TV series The Wire as well, is, at the very least, fixated on the profane side of that dichotomy. No offense, but I don’t see them asking you to write for The Wire, though your insight into the minds of lowlife mobsters and Mexican wrestlers easily bests Price’s point-of-view writing from the underworld. So the question, for now, is, Where do you see your work intersecting with or interacting with mainstream culture? What would you do if they asked you to write for The Wire? (Have they already?) While you write about a culture that is far removed from the world of refined speech, where does such an audience fit in? Is religion, its concern for the sublime, the point of intersection? Forgive me for being verbose.

: I finally made it to the Keys where I usually manage to hole up for a month each year and work on a project. Thank you for your generous words about “Breasts.” That was a story I wrote part of here in Florida some years ago. It was based in part on something I glimpsed briefly one afternoon when I walked into a bar in my old neighborhood for a quick beer. One guy with hairy breasts was sitting stoically on a stool and another guy was feeling him up and laughing. That piece, which is a novella, also is based on a murder that took place in Little Village, the neighborhood I grew up in. I do recall thinking briefly about the genre aspects of the story as I wrote it--a certain "hardboiled" noirish quality that is a motif in American popular culture. But beyond that I didn't think about any of the larger questions that you pose. It was written before The Wire but there were already any number of cop shows that aimed for a sense of place, naturalism, and characters one got involved with from week to week. The Wire is the latest manifestation and a good one, wilder and more cynical and better photographed than its predecessors. Also it is more literary. A friend of mine who worked on a paper in Baltimore, Rafael Alvarez, was one of the writers. He has a literary book of stories published by a small press set in Baltimore that he sent to me many years ago before he worked on The Wire. I like that he comes to his material first hand and informed. I am wary of the kind of slumming one sometimes feels is going on in such stories, especially Hollywood's fascination with violent bad guys. As I said earlier, so far as “Breasts,” some of it is imagined and other parts of it are about a world I grew up in. It was the world I knew early on. Only later did I become aware of what might be called middle class or Main Street America.

: One of the things that makes “Breasts” and several of the other “episodes” in I Sailed With Magellan so dreamlike and arresting is that characters who are unlettered have access to the language of epiphany and the ineffable. They remind me of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. As when Sancho utters platitudes that wind up being profound, when Teo, the Mexican wrestler in “Breasts,” acknowledges an “undisguised undercurrent of desperation” or describes himself as “Noah-like,” sending messages “flying out over the wet rooftops,” my believability is not stretched. It seems to defy the “rules” of fiction to put delicate thoughts in the mind of characters so crude. Are you aware of this disconnect when you are writing, and how do you navigate that divide and make the disjuncture “work”? Is there a technique at play here?

: I of course don't think that the imagination, dreams, visions, epiphanies, etc. are limited by social class or education. Stories such as “Hot Ice,” “The Death of the Right Fielder,” “Blue Boy,” etc. are about how poverty, racism, and a host of other societal forces conspire to snuff those possibilities out. In what might be the iconic epiphanic story in Western Literature, Joyce's “The Dead,” the wonder of the epiphany is not that it comes from an unlettered character but from a self-absorbed pedant. You are right, there is always a delicate negotiation between the character and the writer. But point of view, the tool that allows for it to take place, is capable of the most subtle gradations of sensibility.

: You may have noted my use of inverted commas around the terms I use to describe the pieces in your collection I Sailed with Magellan, which—am I repeating myself too much on this?—is in my opinion a masterpiece. I’m following the cue of the publisher’s copy in avoiding the word “story” to describe the “episodes” in this interlinked narrative/ “novel-in-stories.” Since two or even three of the eleven pieces might more aptly be termed novellas, I wonder how you place your work in the context of how the publishing industry—and, alternatively, the literary world (if there can be said to be such a thing)— views short stories. In other words, editors and agents cringe in fear at the task of selling a story collection, and prefer to call anything with even vague linkages a “novel,” whereas, alternatively, in MFA programs there is a gods’ pantheon populated by Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Anton Chekhov. What do you make of this paradox? And why not call your long stories novellas? Why not call the interlinked stories in Magellan…a novel? Why avoid the term “story”? Does length intrinsically affect form?

: Linked stories or the novel in stories is a form with a legitimate history that includes seminal books such as Winesburg, Ohio. It is a form that takes naturally to one of the key ingredients of modernism: fragmentation. That is not to say that the novel––and not just the modern novel––has not explored fragmentation as well. Both the fragmented novel––the nonlinear novel––and the novel-in-stories overlap so far as engaging the reader to make connections that are not spelled out as in a conventional linear novel. The novel in stories or linked stories lend themselves naturally to representing individual self contained stories, but at the same time portraying a community whether is it the town of Winesburg or the platoon of “The Things They Carried.” Those are all literary uses of the form which is a consideration different from the marketing of books.

: You were raised Catholic and not Jewish, but that doesn’t erase the odd coincidence that your last name is nearly the same as the Yiddish word for a possessing spirit, or, in a sense, conjurer—dybbuk. This seems fortuitous. Has it ever occurred to you that through a Yiddish–Polish linguistic overlap back in the old country your family may have been named for a caste of conjurers? Your narrator in I Sailed with Magellan does acknowledge a possible 1/16th Jewish ancestry. I mean this, in part, facetiously, of course, but I do wonder to what extent you see your writing as incantatory, or if you can speak to the potential and power of fiction that weaves spells.

: Yes, the name has given several friends with yiddish backgrounds a good laugh. In Kracow I was told by a rabbi who has the same name that it was a Jewish name and that my father's side of the family was probably Jewish. Because my grandfather died in a state mental hospital there isn't much inherited history. That is hardly uncommon to the American immigrant experience. I suppose especially given the enormous resources of the Internet, I could research all this and there are many fine books by writers who have done so. Such books are usually very well researched and carefully documented and the incantatory tone you mention would be a hard one to integrate with that kind of memoir like writing. I grew up in a neighborhood that still had remnants of the Old World––whether defined as Krakow or Mexico City. I was always attracted to those aspects of American culture and still am. The street peddler crying for old junk or hawking watermelons was as incantatory as any priest.

: In your interview with Robert Birnbaum, if I understood you correctly, you seemed to oppose linearity against “the world of dreams or the world of hashish visions, mental illness, religious experience, all those kinds of ecstatic, semi-ecstatic states.” I like that. Your stories often remind me of matryoshka dolls, those Eastern European, nested, dolls-within-dolls. A story leads to another story leads to another story, but somehow we always find our way back to the many frame-stories-within-frame-stories. Would you address the role of culture and ancestral history, a cultural genetics—if you will—in your storytelling technique? What comes from the Old Country? Who is this Adeline Dybek, who, at age eighty-nine or ninety, passed away, and to whom Magellan...is dedicated?

: Adeline Dybek was my mother who died while I was writing Magellan. I don't oppose linearity. I think it can be beautifully rendered. It is mnemonic, a way of remembering. But I don't think that it necessarily represents the imagistic, compressive power of memory.

From Justin Nicholes

: You're known to hold on to your manuscripts, reworking and rethinking them, and to avoid talking about early drafts for fear a story might dissipate. What are your thoughts about the role of awe, or the sort of magical or even superstitious feelings, writers have for those early, vulnerable drafts?

: In early draft especially I am partly aware of what may qualify as the single greatest mystery about storytelling: who tells the writer the story. If I read something by Welty, I think Eudora Welty is telling me this story. If I give a reading of my own work, people in the audience think Stuart Dybek is telling us a story. But when a writer sits down to create the story where does it come from? Sometimes from the same unmapped—unmappable–place where melody comes from. Or from which an image surfaces like a waking dream. Sure, many stories are consciously rooted in experience, the writer is re-creating the story, rather than creating it from scratch. But even those autobiographical stories are mysterious in that all stories whether composed or "experienced" are artificial constructs, ways in which the human consciousness organizes random experience into rational patterns. All that, for me, is going on in the shadows of early draft. It is a process that depends on hints, clues, accidents, feeling one's way in the dark, getting down enough of the "work" so that it––the story or poem or whatever it might become––can begin talking back, participating in the shaping of its own existence apart from the writer. Once a little of that work takes shape and acquires substance, then the writer has the raw material with which to continue working and craft can assert itself. First draft is a potter digging his own clay, a sculptor standing in a scrap yard looking for scrap with a statue inside it.

: You've been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship ("Genius Award") as well as the Rea Award for the Short Story. After more than thirty years of producing some of the best poems and stories not only of a generation but in the English language, how did it feel to receive these distinctions (especially from a body of anonymous nominators), and what did they enable you to accomplish that you might otherwise not have accomplished?

: Awards from one's peers are always humbling because writers are mostly also deeply engaged readers and we all know how much good work is out there, work deserving of awards. Awards with monetary prizes attached almost invariably buy time. They also sometimes buy recognition, which keeps books in print or attracts translation, and so it is a way of broadening the audience.

: Your story "Bijou" appeared in The Coast of Chicago and touches upon a movie whose techniques seem to shun mainstream movie elements, and imply revolution, but that still ends with credits to, at least indirectly, self-promote artists in a mainstream way. What are your thoughts about the role of blogs and websites, now pretty much mainstream methods of promoting art, that not only offer art for free but allow almost anyone to tap into a worldwide network, and has the Internet exerted any pressure or perhaps nudged you in a different direction concerning your own art?

: To move directly to your next question concerning the Internet, that is another resource for broadening an audience, for connecting readers and writers. It is obviously an amazing resource for research and for the effect that research can have on the imagination. I'd be surprised if it hasn't already to lesser and greater degrees affected patterns in which we––that abstract editorial we––think. However, I'm not a blogger, I don't have time. Someone made up my Facebook entry and I don't know quite how to dial it up. I don't choose to spend what time I have staring at a screen. I don't have my own website––at least not yet. So, compared to someone who is more invested in the online dimension I don't have enough of an informed opinion to add anything to all that has been written about the effect of the Internet. I don't know that finally it has affected the basic act of reading and the basic act of writing, maybe rather than basic I mean the primitive act. Does the cave wall affect what is inscribed on it? Could be. Does it affect the inscribing itself? I don't know.

: When it comes to fiction, you're known for beautifully poetic prose and sometimes surreal, dreamlike strangeness (we've got silhouettes in shadows, detached lips of women who make one's heart ache, piano music coming from the neighbor, bottle caps become grave stones), yet throughout your fiction, readers encounter stunning emotional clarity. Can you comment on your conclusions, and maybe how those might have changed over your career, about the creative process as a mode of thought?

: Does the Internet affect the creative process as a mode of thought? If so, I don't think it does so on a level deeper than the craft of the process itself. That is I don't think that whether one writes with a pencil on a paper bag or composes on a keyboard, is of greater importance to, say, telling a story than the act of thinking in the narrative mode, arranging events in scenes along a linear time line, having access to flashback and flash forward––in other words the basic craft of storytelling. The same would be true of the other modes of creative thought, thinking in the lyrical mode, for instance, via the association of images and sounds. When we think lyrically in, say, rhyme and meter, that thought is mnemonic, as it is when we think narratively, in, say, a linear story. There is a deep link between the various modes of creative thought and memory and they seem to me to come from that deep, instinctive, primitive level that was there before technology. Art is about many things, but certainly one of the basics is the preservation of memory.

: Every writer comes from a family, and sometimes family members feel (George Willard-like) that their writer brother or son or daughter somehow fulfills or affirms something in them. What has your being an exceptionally successful writer meant to you as a member of your family as well as to your family members themselves?

: It is that preservation of memory––in "preserving" it, one is, of course, also interpreting it, recreating it, asserting ownership and control over its relative nature––that figures in discussions of writing a personal history, a family history, a tribal history, a global history. As a younger writer, writing when my immigrant and first generation extended family were all alive I looked back to their past, our past. I felt I was writing out of affection and hoped that if they read what I wrote they would feel that. Most of them are gone now. I think I am facing in a different direction now that the past generation is gone, toward the generation beyond mine.

: As a sort of follow up question, what, then, can writers mean to an increasingly global (I'm sending these questions from China) community that, as we've seen, is subject to similar global forces?

: So far as a writer’s relationship to global communities, I think it is twofold: 1) writers––artists in general (think World Music) participate strongly in redefinitions of such realignments, and hopefully turn abstractions such as global community into stories with human dimension, & 2) writers also maintain a link with history, the folk foundations, if you will, that continue to resonate under what are often transitory and fashionable redefinitions.

From Alexis Enrico Santi
: During the AWP conference this year, during the Q&A period after your reading, you were asked a question which seemed to shed light on the different modes that writing is produced. Expository. Narrative. The memory is hazy to me now, trying to put together this question, yet, I don’t doubt that you’ll remember what I’m talking about because it had the ring of workshop wisdom to me and I’m hoping you can recreate it for us here.

: At the AWP conference I talked about a writer employing modes that transcend genre, so that, say, a fiction writer working in the narrative mode, which would be the signature mode of fiction, also employs the lyrical. It is the counterpoint between modes in various genres that gives them their complexity. They are modes not just of craft but of thought. Narrative thinking––thinking through organizing events into stories––is different from expository thinking, and different from lyrical or metaphorical thinking. All those different levels of thinking go into creating a piece of writing.

: Our Stories is a peer review literary journal. As a professor, why do you believe the arts and the journals of higher education have shied away from such ventures (ironic since the MFA is almost exclusively peer review) while other academic fields, e.g. Psychology, Social Work, etc., publish exclusively through such peer review journals?

: So far as the question about peer review, I don't agree with the formulation of it. In my experience contemporary writing isn't an entity defined by its relationship with academia. Peer review goes on in numerous, often competing and even warring, journals, anthologies, conferences, literary competitions. Most of these are staffed by writers, editors who write, panelists who write, etc.

: Is Chicago the center of the world nowadays or has it always been?

: Is Chicago the center of the world? I guess it was for that one glorious night of the election. The two O's––newly elect President Obama on stage and Oprah shedding tears of joy in the adoring crowd. I guess to be precise, given that Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, the center would by Hyde Park, Obama's 'hood. At one time it was also Saul Bellow's.

: What advice do you have for the young writer?

: Advice to young writers. The standard advice: READ, is of course always a good place to start. Keep a notebook. Look for interesting jobs. Devote yourself to learning the craft of your medium, which is a little less visible than the craft aspects of other mediums––visual arts, music, dance, etc.––but easily as complex and demanding.

: In our Winter 2007 interview with George Saunders (listen to it here), during the recorded Q&A section of his reading, he discusses your influence on his work. He claims to have gone to the library to prove to himself that there was no one else alive that was writing anything decent. This was before his days at Syracuse’s MFA program. He spent the afternoon in the library, thumbing through their journals until he came to a story by Stuart Dybek and accepted the fact that there was a master out there. True story, not sure if he ever told you that. I was wondering what your thoughts were on your literary influences and what stock you put in writing from a familial line, such that your work has touches of Borges and Calvino. Do you see yourself responding to that aesthetic and what is your sense as to how your writing has changed over the years?

: I love George Saunders’s work. I have always felt a kinship with him, that we share a set of values. Influences were of course formative especially when I was at an early state––trying to find my individual voice, trying to gain some control of the craft. But there have been so many influences it is difficult to name them all. The word influence itself is somewhat misleading, as when one names a writer as an influence it sounds as if one has read that writer in depth whereas sometimes it is only one particular book, a few stories, a handful of poems where the actual influence lurks. As your question implies I have had different influences at different times in my life. When I was just beginning to take writing seriously, in senior year of high school––when I still wanted to be a jazz musician––my influences were the Beats. Later, in college, it was the Twenties generation––Anderson, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald and the writers who followed them such as Salinger. Also the poets from that same amazing generation: Eliot, ee cummings, Hart Crane, W.C. Williams and Yates. Eliot in particular was a conduit to the French: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Appolinaire, the Surrealists. I also loved the Russians, both for prose and poetry, and early on began to read a lot of European and some Japanese writers in translation. The Spanish, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo were a revelation and even more so was the work of Isaac Babel, a writer who remains a source of constant inspiration. But all I am doing is making lists. And they are not even complete lists. I haven't mentioned that generation of Chicago writers who were important for me, for instance, Bellow, Algren, James Farrell. (I am probably misspelling a lot of these names, my spelling sucks.) Or Kafka. Calvino, especially the Calvino of Invisible Cities and his fellow Ligurian, Eugenio Montale, are writers I find myself rereading along with Herbert, Cavafy, Szymborska, etc. I am attracted to writers I think of as imaginative and to writers who I think of as stylists who are swimming against the abstraction of the medium of language. So far as whether I see myself as part of one tradition or another, it honestly is not anything I think about.

: Stuart, thank you very much for your time.


Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek is the author of three books of fiction: I Sailed With Magellan, The Coast of Chicago, and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. Both I Sailed With Magellan and The Coast of Chicago were New York Times Notable Books, and The Coast of Chicago was a One Book One Chicago selection. Dybek has also published two collections of poetry: Streets in Their Own Ink and Brass Knuckles.  His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Poetry, Tin House, and many other magazines, and have been widely anthologized, including work in both Best American Fiction and Best American Poetry.  Among Dybek’s numerous awards are a PEN/Malamud Prize “for distinguished achievement in the short story,” a Lannan Award, a Whiting Writers Award, an award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, several O. Henry Prizes, and fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation.











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