Different Ways of Calling Something a Story:
An Interview with Stuart Dybek
EVERY CHICAGO WRITER has attempted to write the quintessential El story, one that centers on the city’s most popular mode of public transportation. Every writer who tackles that task inevitably fails because Stuart Dybek has already done it, and he’s done it best. (Read “Pet Milk” in The Coast of Chicago if you feel like arguing with me.) Though Dybek’s work is heavily associated with the working class sectors of the Windy City, his writing transcends such easy associations. And perhaps this is the burden of expertise. Since Dybek has long been cited as an American short story master, his work attracts buzzwords along with acclaim. Words like Chicago, magical realism, lyricism, or nostalgia. When I think of Dybek’s work, I think about how a short story can still surprise me in form and in function. To steal a phrase from Kerouac, Dybek’s writing reminds me of the “impossible possibilities” of short fiction. His latest books, concurrently released through Farrar, Straus and Giroux, exhibit the confident moves of a seasoned storyteller—complex craftsmanship and audacious technique. Ecstatic Cahoots is a collection of fifty short pieces that blur the boundaries of short story, flash fiction, microfiction, and prose–poetry while Paper Lantern bills itself as a collection of love stories.
Front Porch: Ecstatic Cahoots is a collection of your shorter pieces with the shortest, “Misterioso,” consisting of only two lines of dialogue. Those two lines resurface in later stories. Why did you choose to isolate those two lines as the collection’s opener?
Stuart Dybek: Ecstatic Cahoots was in part for me a way not simply of probing at what defines a story, but also in playing with story-telling (or story-making.) I hoped that opening with a two-line “story” announced immediately to the reader what the overall intention and tone of the book was intended to be.
FP: Do you have a different set of rules for what a shorter piece of fiction should accomplish as opposed to the stories of a more conventional length in Paper Lantern?
SD: I don’t have a set of rules, but, sure, I have leanings. I do of course recognize when I am working with a story that is more conventional and a story that is less so. Length in and of itself isn’t always what governs what a piece might accomplish. Still, length does figure into Ecstatic Cahoots in several ways. Because so many of the pieces in EC are short, I was able to pack fifty of them into the book, and I hoped that might allow the reader to experience different ways of calling something a story based on its payoff, on closure. There are open-ended and close-ended stories, stories that end in the realization of a Chekov story, stories with epiphanies, stories with freeze frames, stories with a Poe-like “effect,” stories with punch lines, stories with ironic endings, stories that end on an image, etc.
FP: You’ve published two books of poetry, Brass Knuckles and Streets in Their Own Ink. How does writing poetry affect your sense of compression within narrative prose?
SD: There has, for me, always been a fair amount of crosstalk between fiction and poetry, and I don’t simply mean between my own fiction and poetry, although that is true as well. Several of my stories over the years began as poems. It has been often observed that the short story is closer in conception to the poem than to the novel. That is one of those assertions no one could prove. It obviously depends on whose stories one is talking about. It is subjectively true for me. My favorite stories, like those by, say, Isaac Babel, are stories that I reread as I expect to reread poems. I think there are numerous writers whose fiction is written using strategies that lyric poetry employs—Joyce, Borges, Calvino—just as there are numerous poets—Frank O’Hara comes immediately to mind, as he expanded the reach of American poetry by borrowing from prose. I found Poe who wrote both poetry and prose—Poe as filtered through French modernism—to be a helpful influence so far as closure for some of the pieces in Ecstatic Cahoots. I refer to his notion that a story can end on an effect and how work in French literature often aims to conclude with a frisson.
FP: The movement of many of your stories functions through interplay rather than structure. For example, I’m thinking of the different point-of-view sections within “The Swing” from Ecstatic Cahoots. Or even those shifts from the narrator’s memory into narrative moment found in much of your work. What inspires those leaps, and how do you know when they work the best?
SD: Interplay is a good way to describe it. Or counterpoint. I think of those shifts as structural in a way that music is structured, as if the story was written in movements with different time signatures, or the way a pop song develops through interplay with a chorus. The leaps themselves are instinctive. I wish, beyond gut feeling and sometimes just taking a chance, I knew how they worked best.
FP: Time always seems to move quite fluidly within your stories. With “Pet Milk,” the narrator’s memory operates as a narrative time machine for the reader, gliding from one point in time to another. The titular story in Paper Lantern opens with a literal time machine. Do you consciously try to manipulate temporality in your stories? If not chronology, what serves as the connective tissue between moments?
SD: I think of fiction—which unlike film or theater can at best create only an illusion of real time—as the ideal medium for writing about time. While flashback always risks slowing down the forward momentum of narrative, it also offers that sense of counterpoint that makes for complexity. I don’t employ it consciously. But there is choice involved, of course. It is often digressive and a writer chooses whether to follow it or not. There can be any number of other features of a story—characterization, mood, etc.—that are over-arching and can serve as connective tissue. The transitions themselves can do that, too, and I do think of the art of transition as being central to the art of the short story, not to mention the poem.
FP: What was the genesis for the story, “Paper Lantern?” Crazy writing prompt or gentleman’s dare?
SD: Before “Paper Lantern” was a story there was a prose poem (I am not sure without looking through old drafts if it had a title) that was dedicated to the late Michael Benedikt who edited poetry for The Paris Review, and who edited and translated work for an influential book on the prose poem. He and I got really loaded one winter night in Michigan, and all the liquor stores were closed and we were left with only a flask he carried around with him filled with, dear god, apricot brandy. I never published the piece. Just as I was getting it to a point where I thought it was ready—it had the image of the time machine in it—a snowfall began with flakes of sparks and the story emerged. So I followed it.
FP: Your work is known for the collision of modes. Can you talk about what impulse compels you to make that move from the narrative to the lyrical or realism to fabulism?
SD: I can only talk about the impulse in retrospect: is an impulse perceived in retrospect still an impulse? There are times when the direction the story is taking seems predictable to me while I am writing it and making one of the moves your question describes makes it less so and I follow that out of curiosity. Stories that are image-based allow for those kinds of jumps as an image can be at once both narrative and lyrical, real and fabulist. Only a slight shift in perspective changes how it is perceived.
FP: You teach creative writing at Northwestern. Is there an aspect of fiction that you focus on?
SD: I very much enjoy an undergrad workshop that I teach each year on writing fabulism. At least that’s what it’s called. It is actually a class in disguise and might more accurately be called the role of image in fiction.
FP: What’s next for you?
SD: I’m actually working on a novel-length, memoir-type piece now. Chapters have appeared in several magazines, but I still have a ways to go, some of it across the tundra of falling action.
For more, watch Stuart Dybek read from his work below:
The New York Times recently hailed Stuart Dybek as “not only our most relevant writer, but maybe our best.” Known for fiction that defies simple stratification, Dybek is the author of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed with Magellan, a collection of linked stories. His prolific output further includes two books of poetry: Streets in Their Own Ink and Brass Knuckles. He has won a MacArthur Fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Award, and four O. Henry Awards, to name a few. Currently, he is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University.