Interview: Stuart Dybek, Author
By Anonymous in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 14, 2005 1:49PM
Chicagoist hearts Stuart Dybek. We first came across his work when his second collection of short stories, The Coast of Chicago, was chosen for One Book, One Chicago in 2004 and recently fell head-over-literary-heels with I Sailed with Magellan, his most recent story collection. We especially like the linked nature of these stories--we're partial to the narrative depth of novels, and I Sailed with Magellan has a similar feel with a constantly shifting momentum that keeps us on our toes. It's a coming-of-age story in exquisitely detailed snapshots, following Perry Katzek's Southwest-side Chicago youth. We loved it, and especially after last week's reading, we're really looking forward to reading more of Dybek's work.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Dybek about his writing, his influences, and his love for Chicago despite residence in Michigan.
Chicagoist: Your work has been compared to that of many other authors: Bellow, Algren, Welty, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, Henry Roth, Leon Forrest, Garcia-Marquez, and others—what do you make of these comparisons, and who do you consider your influences?
Stuart Dybek: I think the comparisons are very flattering. But, you know, it’s really just a shorthand way for a reviewer to say something. You take them with a boulder of salt. As far as my influences, there have been so many at so many different times. Certainly some of the people on that list were influences. Writers I still read regularly are Isaac Babel, James Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Eudora Welty. Those are five; I could have named another dozen.
C: I Sailed with Magellan is frequently referred to as a “novel in stories,” some of which were published separately many years before appearing in the collection. Did you set out to write a series of interconnected stories?
Dybek: Yeah, I did.
C: What made you decide to do that, as opposed to a novel or a book of short stories?
Dybek: Two of those stories were actually chapters from a conventional novel that, for a variety of reasons, I just didn’t like the way it was working. And so one answer to your question is that it was another strategy for trying to approach the same set of characters and the same core of stories that I’d been wanting to tell for years, really. A second answer to the questions goes back to your first question, which is when you ask about influences, is that a lot of those writers that I named worked in that format, so, you know Isaac Babel’s most famous book is Red Cavalry, which is essentially linked stories, or a novel in stories. Some people consider Dubliners to be a very loosely linked, certainly linked stories if not a novel in stories. And Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is probably one of the pivotal American books and it’s also in that genre.
C: How would you compare Perry’s childhood to yours?
Dybek: There are similarities, but another decision I made was whether to work in memoir or fiction. And I wanted the freedom to make a lot of departures, and so I guess, in some ways you start off with one foot in experience, and the next foot you’re looking to places in imagination.
C: Your work is so deeply associated with Chicago, I think some people would be surprised to learn that you live in Michigan, and have for quite a while. Do you think your physical distance from Chicago has an effect on your writing, for better or for worse? Or is it irrelevant?
Dybek: Well, just for starters, I’m only two hours outside of the city. For some people that’s a commute every day. And I’ve made decisions about jobs that would have taken me much farther away, and so I’ve kind of maintained for many years that proximity. And in fact at this point in my life, I’d like to move back into the city. But I think when it was really a more critical decision, or more critical issue because it really was never a decision, you know, like the majority of young people, I had a burning desire to see the world, which also meant leaving one’s hometown behind. And it was only after I did that that I really began to write more about Chicago and I think what happens is that sometimes you need the divorce of physical distance in order to let the imagination work on the city and let the city become part of your imagination. And I think that probably was actually necessary for me.
C: When you’re in Chicago, what are some of your favorite places to visit?
Dybek: No big surprises. I go back to my old neighborhood quite a lot, which is the Pilsen-Little Village neighborhood. And I love music, so anything, any of the many meccas of different kinds of music in Chicago are always going to draw me up. Right now, I’m distraught over the notion that the Velvet Lounge looks like it’s going to close, and who knows if it will ever reopen. All the jazz venues are places I’ve haunted all my life. You know, whether it’s something like the Jazz Showcase, or something like the Green Mill.
C: Tell me a little bit about the role of music in your work.
Dybek: Well, music...was the doorway for everything for me. And...I had a lot of music lessons, and I played in groups and so on and so forth, but it was frustrating. I felt like the ideas—the constant sound of the stuff in my mind was never making its way out into anybody else’s ears. I didn’t feel, finally, the same frustration with writing, but I think one of the things that I tried to do was to take everything that I personally love about music and try to find a writing equivalent for it. I’ll give you a couple of for instances, although I could talk at length about it. One is, just in terms of using language, the sound qualities of words and the rhythmic qualities of sentences are really important to me, both in my own writing and the writers I choose to read. And one of the reasons is that those aspects in music carry emotion. And so emotion and sentiment, emotion in writing is really an important quality to me. You know, post-modernism is so suspicious of easily arrived at and clichéd sentiment, as well it should be, that one of the solutions to that has been to downplay the role of emotion in some postmodern work. And while I can sympathize with that idea in the abstract, I think the influence of music makes me shy away from it in practice. I mean, I’m still interested in work that on some level makes the reader feel something.
C: Reading I Sailed with Magellan, one gets in certain details a sense of Chicago history, but on a broader scale, I think there’s a feeling of timelessness. Do you think that Chicago has changed dramatically since you or Perry were children, or would you say that it is essentially the same today?
Dybek: Well, in some ways it’s changed radically. In other ways, it’s been remarkably non-changing. You know, it’s still a city of neighborhoods, although the neighborhoods that I grew up with are not there anymore. So there’s a kind of a give and take in what we’re talking about here. Pilsen, one of the reasons that Pilsen still fascinates me is that, while there are tremendous pressures on it right now, tremendous pressures of gentrification, when I go there, I still recognize most everything I grew up with. So, you know, it kind of depends what area of the city you’re going to talk about, but, in some ways it’s a much more sophisticated city than the city I grew up in, in terms of all the middle-class stuff like restaurants. It was really a meat-and-potatoes place, and you had to seek out ethnic food if you wanted a little gustatory adventure when we were growing up. Whereas, now, it’s become a great restaurant city. I remember the first time I went to New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York—I was just stunned by how, you know, the almost European-like role that food played in those cities. That’s not the case anymore in Chicago—Chicago has the same quality of food becoming important. So, you know, changes like that have certainly occurred. It’s become a far, far more expensive place to live, of course. But then, what hasn’t?
C: Speaking of food, where are some of your favorite places to eat in Chicago?
Dybek: Oh, I just read the other day with aching heart that Pasteur might close. And I go back with that place before it even became the beautiful, plush, wonderful restaurant it is. It just used to be a little hole-in-the-wall on Sheridan. It was tremendous even then. I love the ethnic places. There are a lot of places in Pilsen and also on Cermak Road—just little Mexican places that I love. I’m always looking for new ones. There are some great Korean places way up on Lincoln. Where no one speaks English and you just point.