Interview with Stuart Dybek

by Barry Pearce

Appears in Other Voices #29

Stuart Dybek is the author of two books of short fiction, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and The Coast of Chicago, and a book of poetry, Brass Knuckles. He has won numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim, an NEA fellowship, a Nelson Algren Award, a PEN/Malamud Award and a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A first generation Polish-American, he grew up on Chicago's Southwest Side, a place magically located between realism and fantasy in his stories of urban life. Barry Pearce interviewed him in Kalamazoo, where Dybek teaches at Western Michigan University.


OV: In your intro to the last Ploughshares you talked about maybe turning it into a forum on form. I found that interesting because I was cruising around the Internet and found a short-short of yours, "Lost," posted on a poetry web site, and there was a debate about whether or not it was poetry and should be there--

SD:   Well, I don't think that particular debate would have been useful to me because I'd already gone through my own internal debate on that subject and arrived at a conclusion, but I think that the general debate is, I guess, important in that there's so much we're taught that we don't have the opportunity to reflect on. You kind of inherit somebody else's positions, and sometimes on close inspection, you realize that those positions need further consideration in order to be helpful to you as a writer, and maybe even need further consideration as far as attitudes that a readership has that might need to be dismantled. That whole poetry-fiction debate is hardly new. It's at the heart of the 20th century. Work that we've decided to call poetry, like William Carlos Williams, I'm sure would have just seemed like chopped up prose to somebody living in the time of John Keats. Conversely, some of the things that Joyce wrote, huge passages of Finnegan ~ 1441ke--if you define poetry as the lyric, and as writing in the lyric mode--in many ways he's a more "poetic" writer, in terms of music, than somebody like William Carlos Williams. You can write in the lyric mode, the narrative mode, the discursive mode, the dramatic mode, and you can combine them. It's the combinations and the interplay and the counterpoint that interests me more than just sitting around worrying about the definitions of genre.


OV: A  piece like "We Didn't," would you consider that--it's much more lyric than most short stories.

SD: Yeah, I consider it a short story that makes heavy use of the lyric mode. One of the reasons it does is that it started out as a poem and was tremendously inspired by another poem by Yehuda Amichai called "We Did It." I actually incorporated the language of Amechi's poem and wove it into "We Didn't." His poem has a slightly incantatory rhythm about it, at least in translation, that found its way into the story. I'm not particularly fond of allusion as a technique, for me it was more of an ornamentation than anything--but once I decided to use allusion, I started fooling around. I went back and I read, I think they're called Twenty-four Love Poems, whatever that first book by Neruda is. I borrowed some of Neruda, and then I ended up borrowing some of Molly Bloom's soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, almost in a tongue-in-cheek way.


OV: In addition to combining modes, you also seem to sort of switch modes. l'm thinking of the end of "Chopin in Winter," which seems to me--not that the whole story isn't lyric in a way--but that the end especially...

SD:   That's exactly right. There's a switch there from the narrative to the lyric, which is really the preeminent switch in 20th century short story writing. Frequently what we call an epiphany, what Joyce called an epiphany, involves that switch. The great epiphany story, and one of the great, truly masterpieces of 20th century literature, is the story "The Dead." If you read that story, up to the end, it's almost a story of manners, something that would come out of Jane Austen. The mode it's written in is really an almost severe narrative mode, which, during the dinner table speeches, actually enters the dramatic mode. You sit at the dinner in real time. And then right at the end of the story there is that astonishing, gorgeous switch to the lyric mode. And that's how that epiphany works. That's, in fact, how most epiphanies work.


OV: Of course, in that story and in "Chopin in Winter" you've been prepared for it the whole way.

SD: Yeah, and--I'm talking more about Joyce than myself here--but that's the difference between a real epiphany and a fake epiphany, which I guess is kind of like a fake orgasm. It's easy once you understand the superficial mechanism, to load up on language and go spiraling off somewhere, but to actually have the rest of the story generate that leap--that's what makes for a good story. In Joyce's case a great story.


OV: So, when you sit down, you don't think, I'm going to write poetry' or I'm going to write fiction, you just sort of--

SD: Well, I kind of do. It happens something like point of view, that is, the single most essential decision a fiction writer makes--point of view--is almost always an instinctive decision. Most writers I know never sit down and say, should it be third person, should it be first person, or I'm in kind of a second-person mood today. My habit is to record things in a notebook in verse, not poetry, but in verse. Almost everything starts out with that pattern. Whether it stays that way or not kind of depends what else happens as I begin working on it. If characters appear and a story starts asserting itself and I lose control of line, generally that's going to turn into a piece of fiction, even though I may have spent two or three years trying to work it into a poem. But that heavily affects the fiction because by that point, some principle of compression that I associate strongly with poetry has kind of implanted itself in that piece of writing. As a poem it may have seemed to lack compression. But oddly, what lacks compression as a poem, sometimes still has the effect of compression as a piece of fiction. Why that is I'm not sure. It certainly has something to do with the fact that readers still do have some different expectations of fiction and poetry even though events in poetry in the last ten years should be calling that into question.


OV: As well as playing with form, you seem to have a lot of fun with experimenting not for its own sake, but out of playfulness, l'm thinking of stories where you start with something fairly outrageous like a virgin saint being frozen for years in a block of ice, or people going to work on a time machine, and then follow it with a narrative line in a way that surprising and l2~rces the reader to take it very seriously. As a reader I feel like--and I may be totally), off on how the process works--but it feels like the writer has set himself a challenge up front with the premise and then has a blast rising to the occasion.

SD: I certainly like those collisions. They create interesting problems for you when you're writing, tonal problems, language problems, so on. You're always looking for a way to challenge yourself as a writer. Of course, you haven't seen all of the failures where I've challenged myself to a point that I couldn't come up with answers to the literary problems the poem or story posed. One of the central examples for me in fiddling around like that was a film called The Ruling Class. I loved the effect that movie had, which was that it began as a seemingly zany British comedy about a bunch of eccentric Brits. In very black humor, a guy is playing with a noose around his neck and, accidentally, the chair falls and he ends up hanging himself. For about three-quarters or two-thirds of the movie it's this kind of farcical black humor. Then there's an extraordinary, what I would call a bridge, a word I'm borrowing from Bartok, actually. It's one of the ways he felt he connected his string quartets. It's just this little hallucinogenic section of the movie. On the other side of that bridge, suddenly Peter O'Toole becomes Jack the Ripper, and the movie absolutely pulls the carpet out from under you. Suddenly it's no longer light and comic, it's brutal and terrifying. I couldn't think of very many other pieces I had seen that did that. It was one of those things you come out of, saying to yourself, there ~ more to be done there. I want to do that, I want to fool around with that.


OV: It ~ easy to see the influence of visual and other arts on your work. Some of your stories actually seem to be after the mechanics and effects of other art forms. In a story like "Chopin in Winter"--I almost remember that story as a piece of music, not only because of the lyric mode, but because of its effect and, also, because it seems in some ways to be structured like a piece of music

SD: Well, I started out wanting to play music, and really lacked the talent to play what I could hear. I mean, there's constantly music going on in my head. But when I tried to play this stuff, I was never able to play it the way I heard it. It became so frustrating, I finally turned to writing, and I was at least more often able to translate what I was hearing or thinking into a fair facsimile on the page. With music, it would never happen, but music has remained for me the art I have the deepest attachment to. I don't even want to know what I spend on CDs in an average year. It's just something that permeates my life and because of that, it can't help but reflect itself in my writing. Music is the greatest teacher of our emotions. All the arts teach our emotions, but music has this way of almost acting like a drug. What I love about music is the refinement of emotion, the way it will take you to emotions you don't have language for, and yet you understand them. I think you can do that--I know you can, I know a lot of writers have--you can do that with writing as well. That is, even though you're using language, you get to emotional shadings that we don't exactly have words for. We only can create constructs of words to get at them, images and stories. There's this lit. interpretation tendency, which really is very easy to discern in a lot of genre writing, television and in most American movies, where at the end of a piece, you are offered a formula. A moral that right triumphs over wrong, or bad guys must be killed, or that love conquers all. But there's this whole other range of writing where you could never arrive at notions like that. I think of a writer like (Italo) Caivino, or a writer like (Yasunari) Kawabata, where you know that your emotions have been deeply moved, but you'll be damned if you can explain it in a capsule or a formula of any kind. In fact, you might no more be able to explain the final vibrations of a Kawabata story than you could explain the sublimity of a Debussy string quartet or a Monet painting. Somehow the writing has gotten on that nonverbal level, the effect of the writing--the writing itself is, of course, a verbal construct--but the verbal construct has taken you to a nonverbal place that you associate with the other arts.


OV: I guess 1 have to ask you about the influence of Chicago as well. Your style is pretty different from a lot of people you're mentioned alongside--Dreiser, Sandburg, Nelson Algren. I'm curious to what extent you see yourself as a kind of literary descendant of theirs--if at all--or what influence they've had on you.

SD: Let me put any answer in the context that it seems enormously kind for anybody to flatter my work by including it in the context of what is really a wonderful literary tradition of the Chicago style of writing, whatever the hell that tradition is. When my first book came out I was very aware that I had organized it around Chicago. I love writing, any writing, that has a strong sense of place, whether it's Chicago or New York or Calcutta. And I like writers whose identities are formulated by the places they write about--Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty. Chicago just happens to be my place, it was given to me, I was born there. But it's really that whole notion of sense of place, the broader notion, that I respond to. Chicago has a great tradition, and those writers are important to me because not only were they writing about a place that interested me, but they were writing about a place I knew about. So, it was a good way for me to understand the different ways one can write about a city. The thing that they all have in common, for all their differences, is that they're realists, which is the style of the realm in the 20th century. Whatever departure I made was not a conscious decision on my part, at least in the sense of saying, well everybody else who's written about Chicago has written about it realistically, I'll try writing about it as a fantasist. But however these influences are present in the way I've written about the city--Kafka, Babel, a lot of Eastern Europeans--I'm sure it's a response to the Eastern European neighborhood I grew up in. I found recognizable elements in those writers, and they were recognizable because of the Polish-speaking household I was raised in and so on. So there was that kind of hybridization there, or stew of different influences, and into that I'll also add American literature I liked from the 19th century, particularly Hawthorne and Melville and Poe. American fiction in the 20th century is essentially realism. But American fiction in the 19th century is not realistic. I didn't see any reason that we have to have a dividing line.


OV:          As well as a sense of place, which is something your books share with Winesburg, Ohio and Dubliners, two other books they're often men­tioned with, they also share a tightness and a link between stories and a concern with how things work in relation to each other that you don't .find in a lot of collections that are great but seem like, Here's what I've been working on for the past ten years. At what point in your writing do you start to recognize how things work with each other? Are you conscious of writing a book all along or are you more--

SD: Now I am because I've been through the process a few times, but at first I wasn't. I really was looking for an organizational principle the first time, and I found it by accident. The Polish-American Club asked me to give a talk. I didn't even have a book published, but I'd had some stories and poems published. They asked me to do something i hate, which was to title the talk, so the woman who was organizing it would have something to put in the brochure. I finally came up with the title Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. As soon as I had that title for the talk, I realized I had a formative title. Once I saw that, I left out a lot of stories--some set in Italy, others, science fiction stories--I set aside all the stories that didn't fit that title. Then I laid out what I did have, and on a purely instinctive level felt how much more I needed to give the feeling of a book. At that point it occurred to me that I wanted it to be a book, not a collection. The distinction I would make would be the one you made in your question, that is, are things interrelated thematically, in terms of' place, imagery, maybe overlapping characters'? Whatever it is that makes Winesburg, Ohio and Dubliners and Red Cavalry books was something I wanted. One of the things I always loved about that format is that you can walk both sides of the street. If you have a good reader to work with, it gives the reader all kinds of opportunities to draw lines between the dots and to enjoy doing that, without having it laid out for him. But it also creates the possibility for the intensity of a short story over and over and over again. I think the reason I haven't published a novel is just that I have never been able to figure out on a personal level how to work with falling action. What's beautiful about a novel is the rising and falling action. But my temperament is such that I panic when I hit /'ailing action. I always kind of want rising, rising, rising action. In a short story, because its more of a sprint than a distance race, you can accomplish that. The question then becomes, how can I have that but also have some of the formal complexity of' a lengthier piece? The answer is to try to create things that are connected, interrelated.


OV: It seems that when it works well, you can have the same kind of cumulative effect, come away from a book of stories feeling like you’ve ,just read a novel.

SD:   Dubliners definitely has that effect on me, and so does Red Cavalry. And so does In Our Time. I know Hemingway's reputation is under assault right now, but I think that really is one of the great works of American literature.


OV: 1'11 just finish by asking you what you're working on now. You have a lot of fans who have been awaiting a book.

SD: It's an extraordinarily frustrating time for me. It goes back to the question about collections. If I just published what I have collected, I have a book of poems that would go over 150 pages, but in essence, they're really three different books of poems, two of which are very close to being completed. Each one is now well over 50 pages of published work. Neither one has anything to do with the other. I hate to talk about stuff before it's in a book--it's still drawing castles in the air--but I have a lot of pages on a novel that I haven't given up on, chapters of which have been published in things like Chicago Magazine, Atlantic Monthly. I easily have enough stuff if I just wanted a collection of stories, but I'm trying to write a book, not a collection.