The Handshake Interview with Stuart Dybek
by Kevin Kane / Photograph Courtesy Stuart Dybek
Rest assured when sitting down to a story by Stuart Dybek that you’re placing yourself in the hands of a great storyteller and master craftsman. His abilities and craftsmanship have been recognized by a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, and several O. Henry Prizes, and his story collection The Coast of Chicago was chosen as a One Book One Chicago selection. Whether you know it or not, you’re also reading a veteran teacher of prose writing with decades under his belt. What quickly becomes apparent as the stories unfold—perhaps the oft-anthologized “Pet Milk” or the more complex “Breasts” from I Sailed with Magellan— are the landscapes of Dybek’s native Chicago—a place rendered with beauty and honesty through the lives of his characters. If you haven’t yet picked up one of his books, you’re missing out on one of the best voices in short fiction writing today.
I knew Dybek from his work, and also from taking a writing workshop with him at Western Michigan University in the smallish town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. For this interview, I sat down with him in a small café in Evanston not far from where he teaches at Northwestern University. Classical music filled the space around us, fitting with how close music is to Dybek—he wanted to be a musician when he was young. Lucky for all of us perhaps that he realized a different dream. –Kevin Kane
The Handshake: How long have you been at Northwestern?
Stuart Dybek: Well this last time I think I came in ‘05 or ’06, but I taught there before at the Center for the Arts in late ‘90s and turn of the century. So, at this point, I’ve probably been over there for seven years.
HS: Was it hard to switch from Western Michigan University?
SD: I was at Western so long that anywhere I went was going to be a big shift. Over the years I’ve had a lot of offers, and it just happened that this particular time it worked out. Some of the other ones that were very attractive, I had reasons not to take them. An ailing mother in Chicago, for instance. Because the time was pretty good, it wasn’t that difficult. And they let me teach whatever they want. I like to teach writing, so I’m teaching writing.
HS: Nice to fully come to Chicago?
SD: One of the things that kept me at Western for a long time was that it was such easy access from there to the city. Clearly, living two hours and fifteen minutes away in Michigan wasn’t the same as actually inhabiting the city, but I was in and out so frequently. And there were summers I spent here. My father-in-law managed the Lincoln Hotel, so it was always possible to just come in and hole up. In that sense it wouldn’t be like say moving to San Francisco or even New York.
HS: Speaking of your father, he emigrated from Poland?
SD: He did, just a little kid.
HS: How old was he?
SD: I’m not even sure. He was a toddler, maybe a little older. Both his father and mother, I mean the whole family emigrated and he was the oldest. Several of his siblings were born here, but he was born in Poland.
HS: So much of your writing takes place with the full cultural awareness of immigrant lives.
SD: Both sides of the family were immigrants.
HS: You have two brothers?
SD: I do.
HS: Do they affect your writing?
SD: My brothers? Well, yeah. Several of the stories I’ve written fall under the sobriquet of sibling stories. There’s a story in Magellan, I think it’s about a novella size actually, called “Blue Boy.” I really had to think whether I wanted to make that a memoir or story it’s just so strongly autobiographical and I just opted for fiction. But it easily could have passed for memoir. I changed names sometimes. But the family stories are the family stories no matter what you’re calling the genre. And one of my brothers is a wonderful storyteller. I mean, they’re both terrific storytellers. When we get together, it’s not that I’m consciously looking for material, but it’s always there because they tell stories so well and they have a great sense of the anecdote.
HS: I have four siblings myself.
SD: So you know the drill. And you also know how different memory is between all of you. You know that you’ve all experienced the same and yet how various the memory of it is. Can’t help but fascinate you even though it’s the mechanism for a lot of jokey arguments between us.
HS: When you’re moving into fiction out of the family stories, how much does the movement into fiction affect what you’re doing? Are you conscious that this was a true story in some way?
SD: Well, I am, but by the time you do a little of inventing and all that re-work I tend to forget that it actually happened, and sometimes I’m surprised to recognize that it did. I have a general frame of mind that I think is kind of counter—not on purpose, not to be a contrarian—which is counter to the time we’re living in.
You remember at Western they used to do this thing called Writer’s Lives, and I was at the event one time and Jaimy Gordon, who used to organize them, and most of the writing faculty was there, among them, two poets that I have enormous admiration for, Nancy Eimers and Bill Olson. And somebody asked the poets a question, and because I write poetry, someone turned the question around and said to Bill and Nancy, “Do you ever write fiction?” And Nancy, who is an incredibly modest person to start out with in her modest way said, “I never write fiction because I couldn’t. I don’t have the imagination for it.” And something that should have been so obvious to me never was until she said that: I think that, like most poets, she regards poetry as nonfiction and that a lot of the memoirists—let’s go back a step, many, many, many poets when they have taken a step into prose have worked in nonfiction—Li Young Lee, the great Deborah Digges, Mark Doty—it’s a huge long list. That step from poetry into memoir seems very natural. And far fewer have written fiction. And at that point I just kinda noticed that kind of the thrust of the age is to nonfiction and yet it’s so there in the air that it’s something you take for granted. But I don’t really feel that way about it.
I feel that poetry is a Grand Fiction—something [Eugenio] Montale said (but not because he said it). And I feel fiction is fiction. And I feel memoir is fiction. No matter what people are calling it, to me it’s all essentially fiction. And that’s kind of an anathema statement to several memoirists. There I could see it where they’re trying to defend their genre and mark out the boundaries and you get all these tempests in the teapot like James Frey so on and so forth. Poetry’s a different story because you can go back just as far back as the unbelievably dominant-still ‘20s generation like Eliot and to some degree Stevens and then beyond them when you get to Rimbaud and Shelley and Keats to all the people in Europe who influenced them. They’re writing fiction. And if you go beyond that, it’s Paradise Lost. It’s fiction.
You know if I’ve got material that actually happened, one of the great things about today is you can make a decision because nonfiction is such a commercially popular form. If you want, you can publish it as memoir or something else in nonfiction and the reason I keep choosing fiction—besides the fact that I seem to wired to have this bias that it’s all fiction—is where your allegiance lies. Your allegiance doesn’t lie to this very unreliable thing called memory. Your allegiance lies to invention. That doesn’t mean that memory doesn’t interplay with it. It means that you’re not going to be sitting there worrying how reliable or unreliable memory is. I’m just comfortable in that zone.
HS: When you write your poetry you think of it—?
SD: —as fiction. I think of it as fiction.