An Interview with Stuart Dybek

Bojan Louis

Bojan Louis: You’ve released two collections of fiction this year, Paper Lanterns, which is a collection of more “standard”-length love stories, and Ecstatic Cahoots, a collection of fifty short stories that range from being two threads of dialogue to more traditional lengths, say, twelve pages. Was the genesis for these collections always to be separate books? What’s the connection between them for you, the current?

Stuart Dybek: My three previous books of fiction were all organized around place: the inner-city neighborhood on the south side of Chicago where I grew up. Putting those books together involved selecting published stories that were set in Chicago and then writing new pieces that I felt were needed to complete the particular design of each book. Working on those books generated stories I probably would not have written if I hadn’t been trying to finish the book. For instance, way back with my first collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, the design I set up was to alternate a fabulist story like “The Palatski Man” with a realistic story like “The Neighborhood Drunk.” After the ms. was selected by Viking, I realized that I was short one fabulist story that I wanted to end the book with, and so as the book was close to going to press I batted out “The Apprentice.” At the same time that those Chicago books were being written I was also writing stories that didn’t fit in a book organized around a Chicago neighborhood. Long before the term “flash fiction” was around I’d been publishing very short stories and prose poems. Over the years there were enough of them for the book-length collection that would become Ecstatic Cahoots, in which form rather than place serves as an organizing principle. I also had numerous stories of conventional length that didn’t fit in with the Chicago books either and those would become Paper Lantern, which is organized around a theme: the love story. Each of those recent books is made up of older stories that never fit in earlier collections and also new stories that I wrote to complete the books’ designs. And, in each of those books, the older stories were often extensively rewritten to create a greater sense of unity and interplay within the context of the book.

BL: Many of the themes and leitmotifs in Ecstatic Cahoots have to do with story, with the fascination of character, life, possibility, and imagination. The narrator of “Córdoba” recalls the story “Grief” by Anton Chekhov, in hopes of understanding the motivations of the man who offers him a lift during a blizzard; and in “Swing,” a story of imagination and the limitless possibilities of fiction due to the story’s execution on the page, a woman describes to the narrator her favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, and reveals a passage where Nick believes that he and Gatsby are in “ecstatic cahoots,” a kind of symbiosis, and she concludes “What kind of dream do you have to have to know when you’ve met someone you should change your life for?” How has reading influenced your writing and do you see yourself as having entered the stream, the current, the conversation of literature?

SD: Thanks for pointing out how often literature figures in the various stories. The art that my work has always had a lot of references to is music — in fact, for me, I Sailed With Magellan was a homage to music. The title comes from a song one of the characters sings, and in each story in that book music asserts its transformative self in one way or another. Music remains a presence in both Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern. The opening story in Paper Lantern is titled “Tosca.” But, in those two recent books, the other arts — literature, film, photography, painting — are just as integral to the narratives of the stories as music is. In fact — at least so far as intention goes — the often dissonant counterpoint between art and life is the organizational principle in Paper Lantern. In the opening story, “Tosca,” it’s opera; in the next story, “Seiche,” it’s poetry; Hemingway’s fiction interplays with the narrative in “Waiting;” while in “If I Vanished,” the love story counterpoints a B-grade Kevin Costner cowboy film. The form of each story in that book counterpoints art and life. I used an epigraph from “Ode On a Grecian Urn” to try to call attention to that. I did not want that element of art in each story to seem arty. What I wanted was stories in which there was a dramatic collision between art and life.

BL: Your early work, and I’m thinking of your first collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, encompasses elements and images of the old world, by which I mean perhaps of first- or second-generation immigrants, their histories and tales. The stories possess an air of homage to writers who’ve come before; I’m thinking Chekov, Tolstoy, Kafka, Hrabal, Bashevis Singer, and even Calvino. The importance of storytelling, place, transference, and influence ring throughout. Your second collection, The Coast of Chicago, reads as a more defined voice, completely its own, your voice. This collection has shorter works, vignettes, I’d say, the likes of which we find in Ecstatic Cahoots. Your third, I Sailed With Magellan, is definitive, a monument of American fiction. With these latest two collections, it seems to me, you’ve reached both backward and into the beyond, and have transcended how one is to think of and regard fiction. How do you view the growth and progression of you work? Would you call it Jazz or Classical?

SD: I began writing in the short form that’s currently referred to as “flash fiction” way back in my senior year in high school, which is also when I started taking writing more seriously. I was playing sax in a band then and when I’d sit down to write, it was jazz I wrote to. Miles Davis was as important to writing for me as any of the great Chicago urban writers I was reading, all of whom were alive then — Bellow, Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks. I was also attracted to the writing of the Beats in large part by their identification with jazz, though by college the Beats got rather quickly replaced by a love I’ve never lost for the writers of the ’20s with their fascination with fragmentation in both fiction and poetry, and their take on French modernism — Dos Passos, Jean Toomer, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Eliot, W.C. Williams, Stevens, Joyce. What an amazing period of literary history that is. I also was fascinated by the Russians — both the poets and prose writers. Sometimes what I was reading would lead me to music the way say that reading the Russians led to Pictures on an Exhibition, and sometimes it was music that led to reading. The first classical music that I loved as deeply as jazz was Debussy and Ravel and they in part led to the French poets, who led to Modernism and the prose poem and to a reappraisal of Poe and the importance of mood and how a story could end on an “effect,” a frisson. There was always that synthesis between fiction and poetry, between literature and music, between all the arts really. Tracing out the entire still-ongoing evolution over a writing life would take too long. I’ll end by saying I don’t make much distinction at this point between jazz and classical and world music. Whatever it is being called, I look for attention to mood, for what Lorca called duende, for the blues, and I don’t care where it’s coming from or what it’s getting called. I don’t think I’d ever have made the personal jump as a writer into the nonrealistic, folkloric stories in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods if I hadn’t been listening at the time to Zoltan Kodaly’s cello music as played by Janos Starker on a couple LPs I borrowed from the Chicago Library. That music led not only to Bartok and Shostakovich but to Eastern European literature, especially Kafka. Zoltan Kodaly is in a real way responsible for how my first book, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, staggers nonrealistic and realistic stories. What is getting staggered there as well is the American realistic tradition with the fabulist traditions of Europe.

BL: Can we digress a minute and talk briefly about Andre Dubus? More specifically the organization of his fictions and books; never a straight collection, always a novella or novellas and a story or stories, an amalgamation of fictions. Has Dubus’ work influenced you in any way?

SD: The novella is one of my favorite literary forms and Andre Dubus was a master of it. I love the role that the spiritual plays so authentically in his work and when I reread him, which I do, it is especially to re-experience that aspect. Another writer that I do that with is Flannery O’Connor. That old ideal that a piece of writing should feel like it had to be written, like the writer had no choice but to write it, is true of them both.

BL: I want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. You’ve gathered writing from the many years that you’ve been writing; stories that hadn’t fit anywhere else previously. What’s next? More poetry perhaps? Or is it all still in the ether, waiting to be written?

SD: I’d like to come up with another book of poems — I must have 150 pages or so of verse that hasn’t been collected, but what I’m most far along on is nonfiction novel. I suppose it could pass for a memoir. There are about 90 published pages done, including stuff in ESPN magazine describing my first and last CYO boxing match. I’d like it to be comic. It’s fun to read some of the sections and hear the laughter in the room. It heads in a very different direction from the books published this year.

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