Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

Earlier this year, Stuart Dybek released Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, two short story collections that—together or separate—are as good as (in many cases, better than) any title that has gobbled awards and accolades within the past ten years. Ecstatic Cahoots is Dybek’s cluster of short-shorts—new material as well as selections culled from throughout his four-decade career—wherein the author consistently and marvelously conveys entire lives in a matter of sentences. He accomplishes this through the meticulous use of detail—A nearly-drowned woman has confused eyes after the failure of her attempted suicide seeps in; teenage boys lean in to memorize her exposed nipple. It would do little good to probe for the origins of such details; they are simply the natural consequence of unflinching observation by an agile literary mind.

Paper Lantern is not the flip side to Ecstatic Cahoots, but a companion through its unabashed subject matter. Lantern boasts the subtitle: Love Stories, and, while it is true that characters fall in and out of love at breakneck speed, their emotional range is not limited to the sometimes-constricting nature of the term. Dybek’s love is all encompassing, prismatic, angular and broad. It concerns partners and mothers, lost friends and even inanimate objects. A story called “If I Vanished” centers around a viewing of the Kevin Costner-directed movie Open Range as a desperate effort to understand a failed relationship via a stray utterance about the film. By the end of the story, in addition to knowing all about the doomed relationship, you know a heck of lot about Open Range, as well. It’s funny stuff, and it’s a delicate, captivating high-wire act. The love in Paper Lantern’s stories is as much disappointment as it is exuberance.Cahoots Dybek’s writing creates a lamentable celebration stemming from the understanding of our big feelings ebbing as the result of nothing but simple time or the fickleness of human nature. This is how, and what, we are. In Dybek’s world, Love is the great leveler, deserving of praise, respect, and a starring role. The fact that we are forever changed through it is the point. It could be said of both collections that Dybek’s titular love is ultimately meant for the art of the story itself—how an affinity for communication through this certain form can lead to illuminating self-discoveries—which is, in itself, a special thing.

Perhaps the greatest achievement in these collections (and all of Dybek’s impressive oeuvre) is the coalescence of meticulous craft and raw heart. Dybek has built his career writing loveletters to America many times over—of shithead kids learning and forgetting, of stilted adults still fumbling just as much—but his work never seemed pat or redundant. That’s due to the realistic lifeforce he’s able to capture on the page time and again. Form without feeling is bland, largely a tenet of the type of post-modernism that propelled the early aughts away from writers like Dybek. Perhaps that Dybek never veered or bought into the type of wry eye-winking narrative that dominated the shelves is why so many are unaware of his prowess. While many writers have their deserved popularity and respect in literature, Dybek’s regard is far more underground. It’s time that changed.

This autumn, I was fortunate enough to speak with the man himself:


Fogged Clarity: Mr. Dybek, your place is in the most revered pantheon of contemporary American authors, and your writing over the past decades has emerged and remained among the most sound and relevant work of anyone writing today. Can you take us through your fiction writing processes, noting how they’ve evolved over the years? Additionally, much of your work seems very cognizant of a rather harsh reality to which many of us can relate. How has watching the outside world and climate change over these years affected the work you do?

Stuart Dybek: Process, as opposed to say subject matter and craft, isn’t something I think much about, Michael. I don’t mean to be dismissive of it as if it’s unimportant but I think that for me process has from the start remained somewhat disorganized, reactive to the daily demands of survival, hit or miss. And yet, at the same time, a writing life has been something I have organized my life around. I think the longer that one practices a craft, the more he not only shapes it, but is shaped by it. For instance, like most writers I know I keep notebooks—I call them, tongue planted firmly in teeth, my Great Thoughts notebooks—dreams, notions for stories, images, overheard dialogue, quotes, names, recollections… Sometimes I actually get stuff out of them to paste into poems and stories. But over a long time of keeping them, what may be more important than what gets utilized is their effect on one as an observer and on the relation between observation and language. A lot of what I record is recorded in line as each notebook is part of an ongoing poem. There’s a lot of images that sometimes go into poems, and other times open into stories. My fiction has from the start been mostly generated by what I’d call the habits of a lyric poet. So far as process goes, for a variety of reasons and instinctive choices, every so often some idea gets selected out of this daily flow and accumulation of what Donald Barthelme termed dreck and I begin working on it, shaping it. The thing about writing is that instead of going to a scrap yard like a sculptor might for raw material, or digging clay like a potter, a writer has to make the junk, make the clay, before any shaping, any imagining of form, can begin. Process isn’t about the time of day when one writes or where one works or any of that. It’s about how the art itself shapes you, in the way that an athlete is shaped by his sport. Part of collecting that dreck is, of course, watching the outside world you talk about. Whether it’s the gap between rich and poor, climate change, race, the writer is going to play those threatening outer conflicts off the conflicts of his inner life.

FC: Your excellent collection “The Coast of Chicago” has been rightly placed in proximity to Joyce’s “Dubliners” for its magnificent rendering of a place as well of its people. Many of the characters in that collection are unmistakably Chicagoan, and at times, that special thrust of a setting dictates the course of the stories themselves. Can you talk about place as it functions in your fiction? Beyond that, can you describe some of your ideas on certain fundamental elements of existence in relation to fiction writing? Basically, what is it about the human condition that makes you keep writing about us in the very realistic way?

SD: Place for me is often one massive, multi-layered image. I’ve always been attracted to the work of writers of place whether the place is a made up Midwestern town called Winesburg, Ohio, or a city like Dublin rendered so accurately that one might get about it as if the writer, James Joyce in this case, is a gifted cartographer. I love urban writers for their visions of a city and the way those imagined visions integrate themselves into the actual paving stones and skylines. Dickens’, for instance. His vision of London is part of the actual place, the way that Twain’s vision of the Mississippi is part of the river even as it flows today. Obviously it’s not just cities I am limiting myself to. Some of America’s greatest writers of place are writers of the South—Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. It’s tricky ascribing the power of place to a simple realistic depiction. It’s a writer’s vision of the place, realistic or not, that’s transformational. Yoknapatawpha County, Macondo, Kafka’s Prague, the Paris of A Moveable Feast, they are all imagined places that are often very real places as well. I’ve taught in Prague the last 15 summers and every season there I hear the same thing said about Kafka’s Prague by people who’ve arrived for the first time. “I thought he made it up, but it’s just like in his books.” I come from a city that has benefited from brilliant depictions—Bellow, Farrell, Algren, Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks. As Studs Terkel and Mike Royko knew, if you’re from Chicago you don’t write about the city. You have your ‘hood—Brook’s Bronzeville, Bellow’s Hyde Park. I got Pilsen and Little Village and they’re gifts because those are port of entry neighborhoods and if you put all your energy as a writer into trying to make their daily life come alive, then all the great themes will naturally emerge—not be imposed by the writer, but rise up from the characters and the place itself—assimilation, minority culture, race, ethnicity, it will all be there as if waiting for you.

FC: What is it that takes a character or story idea you may have from an impression into a fully realized piece?

SD: The impression, if it is an image, and for me it often is, has to be resonant. If I can make it come alive, then the image has to be smarter than I am. That’s why I write, to try and make something that knows more than I do. And the characters, if the piece has characters, have to come alive. They won’t always do that and those pieces remain unfinished. The language has to sing somehow. That won’t always happen either but when it does then usually that piece gets finished.

FC: Earlier this year you released two new collections of stories, “Paper Lantern” and “Ecstatic Cahoots”. “Ecstatic Cahoots”, a collection of short-shorts, contains bursts of scene, dialogue, or detail (sometimes as short as a sentence or two) that still manage to render lives behind the words. I’ve always been wowed by the economical use of prose that is still able to convey emotion that heavily. I’d love for you talk about your specific use of detail in these stories. How do you decide what’s to be included or left out? Please tell us about approaching what Leo Strauss calls the logographic necessity—that everything is necessary in the place it occurs.

SD: I sometimes tell an anecdote in my writing workshops about how in my 20’s when I was trying to teach myself to write as all writers do, by writing, I wrote a story based on a night I spent with a couple guy buds when we we’d decided we’d make daiquiris from scratch. We had limes, a juicer, bar sugar, a shaker and a couple bottles of cheap rum, got really drunk, ran around the house playing hide and seek, real asshole guy stuff. At one point I was hiding, looking out through a keyhole and my buddy Jack opened the door into my face. I sat at the white kitchen table where we’d been making the drinks with my nose leaking blood and in the story there’s a description of how the drops of blood strike and blossom into red rivulets on the layer of fresh green lime juice that covers that white tabletop. The story went on for maybe 12 pages and never came to life, never was funny, the guys weren’t characters, just guy types, but those drops of blood spreading through the lime juice—I could see them, feel them, smell the lime in the room and I realized consciously at the time that I’d taught myself something about detail. That if I could take what I liked about that one little section of the story and do it more often, sustain it, that I would be getting the kind of life on the page I wanted.

FC: Writers like Chekhov and Tolstoy were adamant about their beliefs on the business of fiction—that it should, in Tolstoy’s words, “tell the truth because it expresses the highest ideas of man.” Contemporary opinions seem to lean on the notion that the truth may not be possible to render through the form. Where do you fall on the issue? What (if any) are the writer’s responsibilities to the truth? Additionally, is there a different edict or principle that guides your work?

SD: Among the most enigmatic lines of Romantic poetry are those of Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. I use that poem, though not those lines as an epigraph for Paper Lantern. And a character in a story in that book titled “Oceanic” disputes those lines. I think Tolstoy may have agreed. The problem, of course, is the relativity of those terms. Who is defining Beauty in the specific? Who is defining Truth? One aspect of modernism has been to redefine beauty. Pound’s “make it new.” One aspect of post-modernism has been to focus on the relativity of those notions. To react for instance against the decorative in art, tonality in music, against the majority culture’s norms. If I could paint or compose music, I would want to finally arrive at what I felt was beauty for me and for others. I would trust that if I could make something that was beautiful, it would also be true, the way Charlie Parker is true or a Shostakovich cello concerto is true, and I feel the same way about writing. I try to make something beautiful out of language.

FC: You said that you don’t much think about the writing process, but I’d love to hear about your routine. It’s always fascinating to me to find out the daily practice of authors, whether it be strict composition locked away from everyone or a more casual write-when-inspired approach. Take us through a day of writing, after the dreck has been collected and reflected. What are the quirks of your routine? I read that you felt under a spell while composing your first collection.

SD: I listen to music while writing early drafts. Not always. But most of the time. I do that more writing fiction than I do when writing poetry. After the piece gets to a certain level of completion—when that is, is an instinctive decision—then it is time to turn the music off, which allows the critical self to participate more in the writing process. The music kept that self at bay until it was safe to release him. The music invited out the self that wanted the impossible from language. The critical self is there to correct the crazy ideas, the excesses, to collaborate, to compromise. Describing it this way makes it sound more schizy than it is. They’re not Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it is more a matter of emphasis.

FC: In addition to a fruitful career as an author, you’ve also been a writing teacher, spending over thirty years as faculty at Western Michigan University, as well as teaching fifteen summers in Prague, as you mentioned. While teaching is not for every writer, I’ve found myself that great knowledge can come from both sides in the classroom. Can you talk about the pressures, challenges, and rewards that come with balancing the two? How have they competed or complimented one another?

SD: There are several ways—interrelated—to answer this question. Rather than try and talk about all of them and try and come up with a whole, I’m going to pick and chose. For starters, most fiction writers who aren’t writing popular fiction, can’t live on their writing income and need to work another job to pay the bills, and the majority of those, teach, so I am hardly unique in that. In fact, as a teaching writer I typify the boomer and post-boomer generations. The transitional generation was the one that fought WWII. They came back to the GI Bill, which was how a lot of them were able to go to school. That was also a time when the first writing programs were taking hold and it was mainly that WWII gen that staffed them. I was at Iowa when Vonnegut, Vance Bourjaily, and Richard Yates were teaching there. That generation in some ways typified by Mailer, Styron, Salinger, and Gore Vidal had writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald as models—writers who when they were broke went to Hollywood, not into the classroom. There was a suspicion, sometimes a contempt toward teaching. You find it in Algren, who was very much about attitude, for instance. I was not a good student and if all I’d had as models were the kinds of teachers I had as a kid growing up in Chicago, teaching would have been the last thing in the world I’d have wanted to do. But because of my anger at the shitty education I experienced, the models I did have were the books that shared and harnessed that anger. Many of them were written in the historical context of the civil rights and the anti-war movements, and so seemed at one with those anti-authoritarian times: Death at an Early Age and The Shame of the Nation, How Children Fail, DeSchooling Society, Summerhill; and there were books that offered alternatives, The Montessori Method, Dewey’s brilliant writing on the subject, especially Democracy and Education, a book I loved like I loved Catch 22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, books that placed themselves in opposition. And there were other books I loved, the great bildungsromans and erziehungsromans—Rousseau, Mann, Dickens, Twain, Joyce, Richard Wright’s Black Boy. After I quit my job as a caseworker on the south side of Chicago, I got a job teaching in the Virgin Islands—black kids going to a landfill of a school in the tropics in sight of the fancy hotels, the school with broken overhead fans and no air conditioning. When I applied at Iowa, besides sending in manuscripts in fiction and poetry so that I could study in the Workshop, I also applied and was accepted into the PhD program in Education. I wanted to go back, Dewey-style, to some impoverished neighborhood and establish some kind of experimental school. Did I manage that? No. But it shaped and continues to shape my attitude toward education. Dewey said something along the lines of “school doesn’t prepare you for life. School is life.” I’ve long felt that it’s a privilege to teach.

FC: Of the many things you’re able to render so well, I often detect the exuberance (and folly) of youth as a driving force in your work. I believe this to be especially true of the characters falling in and out of love throughout “Paper Lantern”. Can you talk about the engine of youth in your writing? And why is it that naïveté often makes for a good story?

SD: I don’t want to romanticize growing up in the inner city because there were some very dangerous limitations, but it was also a place of great gusto. There’s a passage in Henry Miller’s Black Spring about growing up in the Fourteenth Ward of Brooklyn, in which Miller breaks into some kind of cross between a rant and psalm about being born in the street, being raised by the street. To be born in the street, he says, means to wander all your life, to be free. When I read that I knew exactly what he was talking about. I guess today it’s called an unsupervised childhood. What a pathetic label for the exuberance, the adventure of it. Once you feel that flavor to life you want that taste in your mouth. Writing about it brings it back and hopefully allows you to pass it on to people who know what its about and to those who didn’t get it or didn’t get enough of it. I think I was after that in part in Ecstatic Cahoots.

FC: In 2014, you put out two thoughtful, poignant story collections. What happens in 2015?

SD: I’m working on a novel-length bildungsroman. Chapters have appeared in The Atlantic, Playboy, Harpers, Bomb and ESPN Magazine. I want it to be comic.

Stuart Dybek is the author of two collections of poetry and five books of fiction, the most recent of which are Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. Among many other honors and awards Dybek has received a Lannan Prize, a PEN/Malamud Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O. Henry Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. He teaches at Western Michigan University.
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective founded in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.