An Interview with Stuart Dybek

by James Plath

photo and text © 1998, James Plath; the interview, conducted 4-27-90, was commissioned by The Cream City Review and published in CCR 15: 1 (1991): 1-13.

Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Stuart Dybek writes of characters so ethnic and working-class that they would have appealed to Nelson Algren and his poolroom pals. Dybek's situations are also gritty enough to reflect the fictional world of James T. Farrell and other Windy City chroniclers of ethnic neighborhood life. But he takes Chicago realism a step further, pushing gently beyond Lake Michigan, beyond the "real" to reflect the magic of ethnicity and the power which oral storytelling has to fashion new myths. Three of his stories have appeared in O. Henry prize story collections: "Hot Ice" (winner, l985), "Pet Milk" (l986), and "Blight" (l987). His first collection of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (Viking, l980), has recently been reissued by Ecco Press, and while he hasn't published a volume of poetry since Brass Knuckles (Pitt Poetry Series, l979), Dybek continues to write both poetry and fiction. His work has appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, Antaeus, and Ploughshares, and in l984 he won the Whiting Writers Award. Dybek, who teaches at Western Michigan University, lives in Kalamazoo with his wife and two young children. The interview took place after lunch at Abu's Jerusalem Foods in a room at the Park East Hotel on Milwaukee's east side, where Dybek was in town to serve as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Asking the questions was James Plath, editor of Clockwatch Review, assistant professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University, and a UWM alumnus.

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Q: A reviewer recently criticized your new collection of stories, The Coast of Chicago (Knopf, l990), for deviating from the Chicago realistic tradition. It seems to me that writers are always juggling reality with invention. How do you approach that problem?

A: Both instinctively and consciously. It's really not that great a problem, because my allegiance is always to the imagination. I think that's what a fiction writer's allegiance should be for. Even a so-called realist writer is finally not a journalist. If you want to have an allegiance to fact, then you probably ought to be working in a different genre.

Q: What facts do creep into your work, though? Realities of character, realities of incidence or coincidence?

A: Sure, but it always has to fit the formal pattern in some way. The test isn't whether it's real or not, but whether it's convincing or not. A lot of times, in order to make something convincing in this created world of the story, one has to either manipulate--that is, create composites, for instance, or telescope time in some way--or one has to out and out invent.

Q: Sometimes it's easier to talk about invention and reality if we don't abstract. What if we talk about "Blight," one of your stories which has the same kind of childhood-based narrative that a lot of writers are using, but which somehow goes beyond youthful reminiscence into areas I suspect are pure invention? Do you remember what elements of reality were the factual base upon which you built? Or did you work the other way around, adding factual details to support a basically inventive structure?

A: I have a fairly good recollection of the process of writing that story, which I don't think is exactly the question you're asking me, but I think it touches on that question. I was giving a reading in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve, and I had a very good friend from Chicago who was teaching there. We went out and had quite a few drinks before the reading, and on the podium, made garrulous by drink, I began rambling about certain kinds of Chicagoese things that I felt would entertain them. Probably more out of politeness than anything else, people began laughing. And that night, when I was staying at his house, he said, "You know, did you ever write some of that stuff down that you were talking about at the podium? It's funny stuff--you ought to write it down." So before I went to sleep I made notes of some of the things that had spontaneously come out. My first thought was--and it's something I still keep in mind--one of my favorite things to go to are comedy bars. I love to watch stand-up comedians. The improvisational quality of it reminds me of musicians, and then there's this daring theater quality. Plus, a lot of them are terrific storytellers. And I thought, well, would it be possible to do something posing as a comic monologue which is really a poem? And that's the first way I tried to use that material. So immediately anecdotal stories told on a podium started being reconceived of as some kind of formal design based on popular entertainment rather than a literary model. Finally I gave up on the idea, because the characters in the anecdote seemed to want to assert themselves more strongly. As soon as they did that, the piece turned into more of a conventional story.

Q: Did you ever try to turn it back in, once it started expanding?

A: No. The part of it that took off on its own was characterization, and that's happened to me before, where a piece has started out as a poem, and then some element in it just seemed to place itself at odds with the kind of compression that I was after. I'd keep trying to force it back, and it would keep trying to force its way out. Finally, when that pressure becomes strong enough, I'd sort of say, Why am I trying to make it this, when it seems to want to be that? And the "that" that it usually wants to be is a story, and the pressure is usually coming from characterization. The characters in "Blight," as a matter of fact, are what people would call a semi-autobiographical story.

Q: So there was a Pepper and a Ziggy and a Deejo?

A: Yeah. By the time I had written the story--and this is something that's happened to me plenty of times--I totally forgot that those were, at one time, based on real characters. I mean, sometimes I forget that there's a real Chicago. That is, you've invented enough so that you think, Geez, I've made up everything. And it's only when you go back and you're suddenly startled to see that you've been more precise in describing reality than you thought you were being. What happened with that was I started getting letters from the guys that they were based on--so that even though the portraits are composite portraits, the people who made up the composites saw themselves clearly enough in them that they wrote letters, and we ended up having reunions and things like that.

Q: You said that you wanted realistic details to fit the form. This story in particular interested me because I wondered if it was influenced at all by jazz. You have a basic, underlying one-word storyline--"Blight"--and a main narrator, but various characters you introduce seem to take turns picking up the narrative of urban blight. There were massive subject shifts, as if each character were taking off on a solo, but then suddenly you'd rein it in for the chorus: back to "Blight."

A: It's a very digressive story, and I realized that while I was writing it. There's a risk in that, so even as you let the digression go, I think you already have one eye cocked as to how you can swing back to the storyline--or what is perceived to be the main story. In fact, in that story the narrator tries to clue the reader in on the fact that he knows it's a digressive story. Deejo is writing a novel, and his first sentence is something like, "The dawn rises like sick, old men playing on the rooftops in their underwear." And then his next sentence is twenty-three pages long. It has nothing to do with the first sentence; it's about a battle between a caterpillar and a spider. And the narrator said, "It wasn't Deejo's digressing that bothered us. That was the way we all told stories." Number one, that's true. But number two, I think at that point in the story the narrator is probably trying to suggest to the reader that it's okay--you can read it this way, I know these digressions are going on. Just take it on faith and read. So whether jazz figures into it or not, I couldn't say. It certainly wasn't conscious. The story is very much about music, but it's much more about the kinds of music you'd find on a three-minute side of a 45 in those days--AM radio rock. On the other hand, jazz was one of the hugest influences for me. In fact, it was probably the thing that got me writing. I frequently write to music, and frequently the music I write to is jazz. I'm always hoping that musical structure will somehow assert itself on fictional structure in some way. I think it's finally impossible that you're going to substitute one for the other, but the example or the influence I think can legitimately be there.

Q: Have you studied musical structure at all?

A: I played saxaphone for seven or eight years, and was in a group somewhat like the group that you read about in "Blight"--The No-Names. And I think the reason I began writing was that I reached a point with music where my chops just weren't up to what I wanted. I just couldn't express the ideas that I wanted to express technically. I just didn't feel I had enough talent to play the way I wanted to play, so at the same time I began writing. Even though the writing I was doing wasn't really very good, somehow it wasn't as frustrating. It seemed to offer more possibility for me than the music did. Possibly one aspect was that I was so in awe, I was so reverential towards music that it might have been getting in the way a little bit. I didn't develop that kind of reverence for writing until later. Music was a real avenue out of the area I grew up in. It was an alternative to the prejudices that you were surrounded by, and it was a legitimate way of thinking and feeling that wasn't necessarily academic. So if school had been problematic for you in some way, music was somehow an alternative that wasn't just being stupid. I mean, one alternative to school is to just be rebellious by being dumb, whereas music is an alternative that doesn't insist upon ignorance.

Q: Do you see a musicality in your work, other than that which you've mentioned?

A: Uh-huh. I'm working with a musician on a musical right now, and one of the things he said to me really pleased me. He said one of the reasons he was attracted to my stories was that music appears in so many of them. And it's nothing I ever sit and plan, but it's such an interest of mine that it just seems to pop up all the time. One of the kinds of music that most fascinates me is Latin American music, Hispanic music. The structure of their songs is so different from the structure I've heard anywhere else--whether it's jazz, popular music, world music, or classical music--the way it constantly wants to ebb and flow, but continue to rise in intensity. And the way it deals with repetition, rhythms, and counter-rhythms absolutely fascinates me. I'm always listening in some way--not that I expect that I'll suddenly say, Aha, I see how I can do this in writing, but that if I listen long enough somehow that structure, through some kind of osmosis, will express itself in form. Whether that's an illusion or not, I don't know, but it's something I'd like to think might happen. There are stories that I have written where I did have musical structure in mind, but if you ask me how, or to take it further, I really couldn't.

Q: So you're mainly hoping to feed the subconscious.

A: Exactly.

Q: We were talking about digression as if it were only a negative, but what are the positive aspects of digression in a story?

A: Number one, the digressions themselves have to be interesting, in order to justify being there. So hopefully the very reason you're digressing is because you are creating anecdotal dimensions that the story wouldn't have if you did not. But there are a lot of other aspects. I think anytime you depart from a narrative line you're taking a risk, but you're also opening up the possibility of point/counterpoint, different kinds of pacing--that is, the digressions themselves become rhythmic shifts--and the way you talked about "Blight" earlier I think is one of the ways the story tries to work. That is, they aren't just random digressions, but the reader begins to feel a pattern of digressions. So when I start talking about pattern, that means you've added some hopefully unpredictable and yet at the same time predictable formal patterns to a story--which on some level should make it an even more pleasurable reading experience.

Q: It seems that the promising young literary talents with the most power and appeal are those with a strong sense of place, as you have with Chicago. Does your strong narrative voice--that elusive thing which all writers seek--derive its strength from setting?

A: That's a great question. It does, but how it does I'm not exactly sure. It would be easier for me to think about how voice comes out of Flannery O'Connor, or Faulkner, or Anderson, or Joyce, who are good examples of voice coming out of setting. An obvious way in first person narration, but I think also in third person narration as well, is that the actual meter of the writing --the sentence rhythms--are expressing whatever regional quality the content of the story is expressing, and nobody ever did this better than Twain. The word "voice" itself implies oral story-telling, and so we hear the story in the regional voice of the writer. By the regional voice I'm certainly not talking about whether they're using dialect or not, but just the very way that the cadence of the sentences are telling the story. That's one aspect. The other aspect, I think, is that setting, in a way, in the kinds of writers I'm talking about, is a disguised obsession. It's actually a string of obsessions. Usually what we're calling "setting," among other things, is a continual return to a set of images that are tremendously resonant for the writer on all kinds of levels: visual, emotional, formal, symbolic, or what have you. And the writer returns in the setting to these images and explores them time and time again. In some writers they might be a swamp, in other writers they might be close, dark urban streets, while in another writer it might be something else. It always seems as if the writer is describing place, and indeed the writer is describing place. But one of John Gardner's wonderful lines out of The Art of Fiction is that description always brings the writer very closely in touch with his subconscious. That's exactly what's going on in the description of place. In order to describe the place, the writer is also returning to obsessive images of place, and those obsessive images are putting the writer in touch with deep levels of himself. The same thing is truly clear of Frost's poetry, so what first seems like some kind of easy way to categorize writers as being regional or something, if you actually start examining how they build that world in which they're working, you find that there's all kinds of lyric and poetic qualities to it, because it's so based in obsessive returns to imagery.

Q: Now "obsessive returns" implies a personal, rather than a regional point of view. But I was wondering if the personal can be so much a part of the collective consciousness of a region that it derives additional power as a result.

A: I think that's exactly what happens. Generally, the writers that we're talking about, even though they may be critical of places, they also have deep emotional ties to these places, and on some level there's a kind of empathetic rendering. So you're right, "obsession" seems to connote some kind of personal view, but when the obsession is with a region, that means that the writer is also getting, as much as concrete images of landscape or cityscape, an entire strata of population.

Q: So why are you obsessed with ethnic neighborhoods and ethnicity?

A: Why am I?

Q: I'm just using the word "obsession" here because of the many returns.

A: I'll grant you the word "obsession." What I'm not sure is how wise it is for writers to analyze their own obsessions. I actually think obsession is a gift for writers, and the old cliche of not looking a gift horse in the mouth might not be a bad idea to stick to. I can talk as a reader about what I have written, if that's at all helpful. A lot of the people that I write about represent a class that interests me. Call it what you will--blue collar, working class, lower middle class--I find it an interesting class to write about. Also, the neighborhood that I grew up in gave me an opportunity to see people before they really had become "Americanized." I remain fascinated by any ethnicity in the United States, whether it's Polish, Czech, Russian, Spanish, African-American . . . . It's just the dichotomy between the homogenized United States and what's at the heart of each ethnic group. The tension there seems interesting to me.

Q: American writers have a history of tromping off to exotic lands. Everyone heads for the South Seas or for darkest Africa. Is there, in writing about ethnic communities, an element of the exotic or mysterious?

A: I think there certainly is, sure. And depending upon the sensibility of the writer, more so or less so. I mean, the sensibility of some writers is such that it wants to tame it--Phillip Roth, for instance--whereas the sensibility of other writers--Isaac Bashevis Singer--is that they want to explore the most mysterious, untamed elements of it. I think it really depends upon the emphasis of the writer.

Q: You seem fascinated, in almost a religious way, by ethnicity. I sense even in your writing of the word "babuska" a certain reverence that someone might see in an altar boy referring to a portion of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

A: (Laughs) That's probably true. I am. I said I wasn't going to do any analysis, but I mentioned music, and a tremendous value of music is that it's a great teacher of our emotions. One of the things I love about music is that sometimes it teaches you something emotionally that you then have to catch up to intellectually. But your emotions have learned it first. A lot of times when I sit down and write, I get an idea for a story first out of hearing a piece of music, and I somehow try to aim the story at that nameless emotion that the music has created. Another enormous teacher of emotion for me was my Polish grandmother on my mother's side, who couldn't speak English very well. And the intensity of emotion that I remember from her, and the genuine love I felt for that woman I think is something that has a lot to do with my attitude towards ethnicity. She was many things for me, and one of them was mysterious. But she was also so generous and intense and open in many ways that I think that entire aura has rubbed off on my attitude towards those aspects we're discussing. So when you said that thing about "babushkas" it really gave me a chuckle, because you're right. If we were playing one of those Freudian games--What do you associate with babuska? --the first thing I'd say would be Bousha, which was my name for my grandmother. And as soon as I say that word, I just have that enormous rush of emotions that someone like that leaves you with, and so clearly that's an element of my work.

Q: Which shows through. Your work has a descriptive power. It's very lush and rich, and certainly we think of all ethnic cultures of having this richness somehow, of being very colorful. I was going to ask you, though: Hemingway said that a writer should be able to walk into a room and be able to tell, from memory, what he saw. But you're writing about a Chicago childhood. Is your memory that fantastic? How are you conjuring up all of this rich detail?

A: Well, let me answer it in two ways. There's a difference between trying to write about a room that you've just left, and trying to write about something that's in the distant past. One of the differences is that in the latter, I'm not sure that you're trying to write about that room anymore. I think one of the things you're trying to write about is memory itself; that is, memory itself has become a subject. And so that has a lot to do with your need to re-invent--not to remember. You might be writing about the past, but what you're really writing about is your present response to the past. And that's really different. I don't read Proust as somebody who just wants to write about the past out of nostalgia, but somebody who wants to write about the power of the past in the present, and the participation of memory in our present lives. Memory itself becomes a theme.

Q: And the detail?

A: For me, that detail is an approximation of feeling. I think the way you're describing my work, you're talking about stories that are ones that combine realism with another aspect--whether its the fantastic or the grotesque or whatever one wants to call it. I never sat down to consciously write that way. It actually just popped out. One time while I was writing to Zoltan Kodaly's three cello pieces--he and Bartok were among those who brought ethnicity into music; they went off to what were the wilds of Hungary at that time and did all kinds of ethnographic recordings, but then into their own music they tried to bring the actual ethnic scales and modal playing, and all kinds of things--anyway, I was listening to that, and I just started to write to that the way a kid in fourth grade would write to music (Bolero, or something like that) a teacher had brought in: Now today, children, I'm going to play this music. Write anything that comes into your mind--and what came into my mind are these images that you're talking about, images of the past. For me, I'm not saying that there weren't ragmen or foreign men going through the alley and wagons of junk being hauled by horses--there were--but what called these things up was music. I don't want to make it sound like I was sitting in a trance state or something, but I don't think I would have ever come up with those images without that kind of prompting. That's what I'm trying to say. It doesn't seem to me that I'm ever remembering; it's more like I've got the soundtrack, and here's what's playing on the screen.

Q: Thresholds interest me. You've indicated that you were happy with Childhood and Other Neighborhoods as a collection. Do you recall that threshold at which you felt you had broken through to think, I am writer?

A: Well, I recall the threshold at which I felt like I was suddenly writing in a way I hadn't written before, when I was suddenly much less indebted to writers that I thought of as models. And that was the exact thing that I just described with those records. Up until that time my models really had been pretty much realists. For instance, I love Hemingway's early work, and one of the things I love about it is that I see so much Sherwood Anderson in it. I think Winesburg, Ohio is one of the great books of American literature, and I like a lot of the other individual stories of Anderson. I liked all those twenties writers--early Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald--all mainly Americans. The one exception is that I was absolutely floored by Dostoyevsky, but I never thought of him as somebody I would try to write like. My models were American realists, although I guess somebody might debate how realistic Anderson and Hemingway really are. And then there were a lot of other writers in there. I loved Saul Bellow. But in any case, every time I sat down and tried to write, I was really aware of imitating them, and I was starting to get kind of impatient with that quality--as, I think, anybody does. When, suddenly, this other way of writing presented itself to me, I recognized that something a little different was going on. And it also prompted my reading in a different direction. After that I found myself paying a lot more attention to Kafka, and I began reading a lot more continental literature. So yes, there was that recognition. I do remember realizing that the kind of book I was accumulating would have realistic stories in it, but one of the dimensions in the book would be that it would also offer other kinds of stories from the same place, but from kind of a different perspective. And that maybe there would be a kind of continuum in the book: some of the stories, the realism, you could place at one extreme, and the other stories, the fantastic, you could place at the other extreme. My hope was that in between there would be a range of stories which might make for an interesting book.

Q: Where would you locate a story such as "The Wake," where a young girl attends the wrong visitation?

A: Probably more toward the fantastic end, though that happened to me. I went to a funeral home that had three viewing rooms, and I couldn't understand . . . . I mean, I hadn't seen a lot of those people in a long time, but I didn't recognize anybody.

Q: Do you consider yourself a good evaluator, a good critic of your own work?

A: Well, I hope so. Because after the initial roughing-out of the story, you're really depending upon yourself to be one. I don't mind an intrusive editor.

Q: Did Childhood undergo heavy editing?

A: Not heavy editing, but I had a very good editor for that particular book. She really took a deep interest in the book, and made a lot of helpful suggestions--including the need to write a final story, which I wrote while the book was going through the rest of the acceptance procedures. Working with Roger Angel at The New Yorker was also an enjoyable experience. I just enjoy working with somebody who's really good with the nuts and bolts of writing. Everybody has their own approach to that, but I'll take all the help I can get (laughs).

Q: A second collection of stories usually makes a writer feel that some distance has been covered. Is there a way to describe the distance you've traveled from Childhood and Other Neighborhoods to this new Coast of Chicago?

A: I think the second book is recognizable as being written by the person who wrote the first book. I would like to think that the better stories in this last book are better than the better stories in Childhood. I'd like to think--and I really mean "like," because one never knows--but the way I'd like to think they were better was that they approached more complicated levels of what it means to be a human being. Or maybe the sentiment in them was more complex, might be a better way to put it. I think that the first book was probably more interested in what might be called the fantastic or the grotesque, and the second book was more intersted in what might be called the lyrical. In the first book, one of the things that I was working out for myself was the combining of the realistic mode with the fantastic mode. And in the second book, one of the things that I was experimenting with was the combination of the realistic mode with what might be called the lyric mode.

Q: Should I punish you by asking you to offer a personal definition of "lyric," especially as it applies to fiction? Usually, we associate the term more with poetry.

A: Well, that's exactly why I've used that word. I think it's a much more precise word. Sometimes people say someone is a "poetic" writer, when I think what they are generally saying is that the person is a lyric writer--that one can actually combine, to interesting effect, the narrative and the lyric modes. In the narrative mode one thinks in terms of cause and effect: a character has behaved in this manner because he has these motivations to do so. Whereas in the lyric mode, one proceeds more by association, the way we do in dreams--that there are jumps between imagery. I'm not saying that language isn't important for a narrative writer, but that a different kind of language is necessary for somebody working in the lyric mode. A really terrific example of that is you couldn't have a more beautifully realistic, narrative story than James Joyce's "The Dead," and yet that story would not be the remarkable and influential story it is if, right at the end, he hadn't changed modes. That's really, I think, how he achieves the thing he called "epiphany." At the end of the story, Gabriel begins having visions and insights of a universal nature that he couldn't possibly have had if we were just going by the cause and effect of the narration of that story. The narration brings him to a point that justifies the shifting of gears, and at that point Joyce's language is up to the challenge. The language becomes incredibly alliterative, the sentence rhythms change, the images begin to predominate--the snow in particular--and you get the faintly falling alliterative F's that make it such a famous passage. But it's the switching of modes at that point that's the true mark of Joyce's genius in that story.

Q: What about your most successful stories? When they're firing on all cylinders, how would you describe them?

A: My answer has to be put in the context of what you hope your best stuff is doing, rather than what you think it's doing. The simplest answer would be a paraphrase from Studs Lonigan, where one of the kids in the neighborhood asks Danny O'Neal--who is sort of James T. Farrell's portrait of the artist as a young man--how one recognizes good writing, and O'Neal answers, "It's alive." I totally agree with that. It's the essential question, the ultimate test: one way you you can always sort out the best stuff--yours or anybody elses--is by how alive it feels. What often goes along with that feeling is that the story gets smarter than the writer, exceeds his initial conception, or starts making moves that the writer doesn't think of fast enough to make on his own. When stories start misbehaving like that, you suddenly reach the point where there's this overwhelming urge to digress from a nice, tidy narrative line, and allow what might have been an easily written story to become far more chancy and complicated. That critical recognition lasts a split second, and then it's too late: you're off digressing--or rather, the story is off digressing and you're riding along with it. If it's going to be one of those better stories you asked about, the digression ultimately expands or extends its reach and depth--and does all that without finally disrupting the narrative flow. There's an undercurrent to it, some kind of chemistry and interplay between the original narrative line and the digressions, that makes for greater resonance and allows the story to throw a longer shadow.


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