Interview with Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek’s writing life spans decades and genres, from his debut poetry collection Brass Knuckles, to his most recent collections of short fiction, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. Dybek is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for writing, including a PEN/Malamud Award, an O. Henry Award, and Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. A Chicago native, Dybek received his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and an MA in literature from Loyola University Chicago. He currently teaches fiction at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies.

Prior to visiting The Ohio State University for a weekend workshop and reading, Dybek spoke with associate fiction editor David E. Yee about approaches to craft, voice, and literary inspiration.

David E. Yee: I read in a previous interview that your focus has been more on craft than process. How have your opinions on craft changed over the years? Or to be less broad—what is something that has surprised you in terms of craft, something you wish you could tell yourself when you were still coming up in writing?

Stuart Dybek: I’d like to think that a writer’s relationship with craft is at once established on a foundation of basic “moves”—scenic construction, dialogue, etc.—that can, depending on the subject, be combined and recombined (the way that, say, dance operates) and that allow for an agility that accommodates change and an ongoing evolution of a personal style. At this point in a writing life, I am more consciously attracted to and fascinated by compression. Compression rather than minimalism—they are not the same. Verse offers forms that seem by nature compressive—the sonnet, for instance, and many of the poems I’ve published over the last five years have been sonnets. There’s no equivalent of the sonnet in prose, and yet I think that flash fiction can offer pieces that feel sonnet-like, that emulate, for instance, the feature in a sonnet called the turn. My old friend, the recently deceased essayist and editor, Judith Kitchen, and I used to bat that idea around.

DY: I’m fascinated by the voices in your narratives, namely the ones that are hinted throughout a story and arrived at in the end. I’m thinking of the husband of Cole’s love interest in “Tosca,” and the woman on the phone in “Cordoba.” They are surprising, crushing, and entirely vital to a story, yet the characters themselves are absent in the physical narrative before their voice appears. Can you talk the process that goes into establishing this sort of narrative control? Is this something you know must be arrived at, or do you surprise yourself on the page and circle back?

SD: Thanks for the kind words. I wish I had something cogent to say in response, but in those two stories you use as examples it felt to me as if each story dictated those voices. “Cordoba” is a pretty close account to something that really happened to me when I was in college and is simply retold in a first person linear narrative. I carried that story around with me for a long time before I finally wrote it in response to an invitation from The Washington Post magazine to write a piece for a Valentine’s Day issue. “Tosca” is a more invented piece and was far more surprising to write. I didn’t know much of anything about where it was going or how the fabulist frame of the story was going to interact with the realistic vignettes. In “Cordoba,” experience is a guide. In “Tosca,” it is imagination and instinct. I’m not the kind of writer who thinks out a story if I can help it. A piece like “Tosca” depends more on being guided by the associations and taking the jumps they offer. I have written several stories in which music is a central motif, such as “Blight” in The Coast of Chicago, and many of the pieces in I Sailed With Magellan, a book I think of as a homage to music, so despite feeling my way through a story like “Tosca” I was also in territory I’d ventured into before.

DY: With regards to digressive aspect of your fiction, especially in the stories of I Sailed With Magellan where the narration seems to follow a structure tied to the associative aspects of memory rather than more conventional story structures, I was wondering how you go about constructing these stories as they pull away from the starting point, how you keep yourself in check, how you let your narratives expand.

SD: My influences back in my early twenties, when I was consciously working on stories in order to learn the craft of fiction, were American plain style writers. I admired the work of that line of modernist-leaning writers that runs from the 1920’s—Sherwood Anderson through Hemingway and Fitzgerald—and on into the writers from WWII, who were writing in a by then established tradition—Salinger, Yates, Cheever, Algren, Bowles. (Later, at the Iowa Writers Workshop I’d have a chance to study with Yates and Cheever.) I was aware, though, that in learning by imitating that plain style, the stories I was writing sounded generic, even though each of the writers I admired enough to emulate had managed to arrive at a style and voice of his own. That was not happening in the stuff I was writing. Those writers were all realists and there was a part of me back then that wanted to write, not fabulism necessarily but work that made more of mood and atmosphere. I hadn’t read much Kafka yet or Borges or Singer, or Malamud, for that matter, and Calvino and Marquez hadn’t published in English, but I had read Welty whom I loved, and Joyce’s Dubliners had made a strong impression.

So, that turn to heightened mood was a personal departure waiting to happen, as was giving myself the permission to digress. In some ways the two seem connected to me. The foray into fabulism in my early stories surprised me, as those stories had started out with the intention to be realistic, and, at least at first, I had to allow myself to cross that line. And the digressions occur in stories that seemed as if they were going to be straight-ahead linear. I love that clean line and sleek pace of the straight-ahead linear story and I knew that digressing could wreck that. But I’d reach these places in a story where it was so tempting to take a turn to see where it might lead and yet at the same time I knew I was paying for that, and that giving myself permission to do it was done at a cost. Digression was a real risk, as there was no guarantee the digression was going to lead to something interesting. It certainly was going to screw up the formal beauty of a linear story.

I was not consciously aware at that time that digression could function as a tool for arriving at organic structure, or at asymmetrical structure, at a structure based on association that emulated memory and dream (isn’t dream after all a kind of remembering?). I was aware that once I allowed a story to jaunt off, I needed some mechanism to get it to loop back. That gradually made me aware of the art of transition. Reading and writing poetry helps enormously with transition. And I also knew that the few stories I had written in which I had given myself permission to depart from my models had been told in a voice on the page that I didn’t know I had. It was finally the urge of finding my own voice accompanied by the realization that I couldn’t think out a personal voice, it could only appear on the page, which allowed me to grant those permissions.

DY: In 2014, you published two collections of fiction: Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. It feels like each book is more ambitious than the last in terms of the overall scope of the collection. Can you talk a little about the process of completing two books of short fiction at the same time? I’ve read that some of the stories in these books have been ongoing for years. What helped you complete them for these collections?

SD: When my first book of stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, was published it was preceded by a book of poems, Brass Knuckles, published six months earlier. The same kind of doubling up happened when I Sailed With Magellan was published. That book was followed almost immediately by a volume of poems, Streets In Their Own Ink. So, bringing out Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern together pretty much fits a pattern that goes back to my first books. I have what I think of as poet habits in that I am often working on different books at the same time. Ecstatic Cahoots isn’t a book of verse though it is influenced by the prose poem. The going term for many of the pieces in it is flash fiction, a “form” of sorts that I’m glad to see has attracted an audience. If you’re a young writer in the U.S. today, flash fiction is a given so far as being part of the literary landscape. There are many magazines, anthologies, contests, classes, etc. that promote it. That wasn’t the case when I was writing those little pieces back in the 20th century. The term flash fiction didn’t exist. About the only places one could publish such pieces were poetry magazines that were interested in publishing prose poems. The prose poem had been around since the 19th century but didn’t assert much influence on American letters until the 60s. It was sort of regarded as an experimental form, something that fit the definition of what the poet Nicanor Parra called Anti-poetry.

I am going to avoid trying to describe how a prose poem is different than a piece of flash fiction because the differences which might seem apparent in theoretical conversations are, on the page, often a matter of degree, and in the eye of the beholder. In fact, for me, it is the overlap of the prose poem and fiction miniature that makes the form intriguing. I don’t care if a piece fits someone’s abstract definition of whether it’s a prose poem or flash fiction. I care if the piece moves me and takes me somewhere interesting. But I digress.

I was writing those short prose pieces from way back in high school and by the time I was a student at Iowa, I wanted to do a collection of them, but I kept gutting the collection by mixing those short pieces in other books rather than allowing them to stand-alone. I published several such pieces along with verse poems in Brass Knuckles. I included a sequence of such pieces called Nighthawks, along with other short pieces that served as counterpoint spacers in The Coast of Chicago. I was finally able to put together a collection that had been long in the making in Ecstatic Cahoots. I also had over a long throw of years several stories that did not fit into earlier collections such as The Coast of Chicago. Those earlier collection were organized around place—Chicago. The stories collected in Paper Lantern are not organized by place but by theme. They are love stories in the broadest sense of the words and in each story there is an uneasy interaction between art—opera, film, poetry, painting—and life.

DY: I’ve noticed that in your stories, going as far back as “Pet Milk,” memory has been of the utmost importance to your narrators. In these new collections, this theme pervades, especially in the stories of Paper Lantern. Can you talk about the process of narrating in the retrospective voice?

SD: For me, at the heart of the literary arts, the arts whose medium is language, there is the need to remember, to preserve—not, of course, that the visual arts don’t excel at the same. A great power of narration is that by arranging the messy, disparate, possibly random details of life into a narrative line and telling a story gives experience a sense of cause and effect. Once experience becomes a narrative, it becomes, as well, history, a story makes it possible to repeat and to remember what happened. Of course the story is a made up linguistic construction, there can be many competing versions of what happened, but each of those versions expresses itself as a story. So, to make memory a subject—a theme—of story is, whether one states it or not, an investigation and sometimes a celebration of story’s mnemonic power—how it shapes the history of the tribe as well as that of each personal life, a power that makes us human.

The same can be said of poetry. It, too, is mnemonic as we are wired to think both narratively and metaphorically or lyrically as we do in dreams—through association, and we remember through association.

I am often struck as to how, when the subject of memory comes up, there are people who see most any act of remembering as an aspect of nostalgia. Of course, nostalgia is an emotional connection to the past that is part of the repertoire of memory. And part of the palate of human emoting. I especially love how Gabriel García Márquez employs it. But the reflex to reduce all work that looks back into the past to that single term misses the enormous complexity of the relationship between dream and memory and between present and past. A writer like Welty—actually, like many Southern writers—is not nostalgic. She’s haunted. Winesburg, Ohio is a wonderfully haunted book. Derrida coined a term with a pun inside it, Hauntology, to describe how the past—he is especially interested in the political past—asserts itself in the present. Some of the memoirs that I most admire such as Stop-Time, This Boy’s Life, The Duke of Deception have that quality.

DY: Thank you for your time, Stuart.

David E. Yee is a fiction MFA candidate at the Ohio State University. Sometimes he misses Baltimore. His writing can be found in the Sycamore Review. In 2015, he was a finalist for the American Short Fiction Short Story Award, a semi-finalist for the Glimmer Train New Writers Award as well as the Southampton Review Flash Fiction Award.

Stuart Dybek is the author of three books of fiction: I Sailed With Magellan, The Coast of Chicago, and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, and 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 journals.