Interview with Stuart Dybek

Q: Describe your strongest memories of growing up in Chicago.

A: A primary function of the arts is to memorialize, to defy time by using the medium—whether it’s painting or photography or poetry—to preserve the past not by storing it in a museum but by making it come alive in the present. The stories and poems I’ve written about the city attempt to serve that role and in a real sense those stories and poems are my most vivid memories. Not that there aren’t a lot more stories and poems I’d like to write about the city. I don’t know why growing up in Chicago so strongly imprinted my memory, but it did. Everywhere I look, features of the cityscape are overlaid with personal associations, so, a church steeple or a railroad bridge over the Sanitary Canal or a viaduct dripping rain, are not only interesting physical forms but, for me, are repositories of recollection. They’re also vivid images and, to convey one’s personal memories to a reader, an important first step is transforming memory into images the reader can see and feel, images that often open into stories.

Q: Your Polish grandmother on your mother’s side was a major influence in your life. What was she like?

A: We called our grandmother Busha. Her name was Julia Sala; she’d immigrated from Poland and didn’t speak much English. I didn’t speak much Polish and yet we could somehow bypass language barriers and communicate perfectly. She was a small, peasant-like woman—wise, generous, very funny—and, for me, she was an alternate reality transported to 20th century Chicago (not that I understood that as a child). Loving her was inseparable from loving her foreignness and that translated into not just a love for our particular ethnicity, but for the expression of ethnicity in general. Some critics have termed that a pan-ethnic sensibility. Ethnicity is a subject I write about, an aspect of the United States that I regard as critically important to how we define our national cultural identity.

Q: Please tell us about your love of music and how you’ve drawn upon music for inspiration in writing particularly in such stories as “Chopin in Water” and “Blight.”

A: The arts are an intersection for emotion and thought, and art is necessary because it instructs not just the mind but the heart, as well. Because of its mysterious, powerful, direct connection to the emotions, music is, for me, the great emotional teacher. I try to emulate its example in writing, not just to make language rhythmic and melodious, but to aspire to that paradoxical state where literature takes you beyond words. When I was growing up it was music—jazz in my case—that opened the doors of my mind. In order to catch up and explain to myself the feelings that I was getting from the music I was motivated to question and read. It was liberating. In music, feeling precedes thought. That’s what happens in stories like “Chopin in Winter” and “Blight,” the music opens a channel for the imaginations of the characters. It changes them.

Q: Critics consider you the natural successor to such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow. How has your writing been influenced by them and the Chicago literary tradition of neighborhood writing?

A: Well, the critics who’ve ranked me in that company have been pretty kind. Those are certainly writers who’ve influenced me and in terms of influence I should also add James Farrell and Gwendolyn Brooks. They’re all, of course, enormously different writers but they do share the city as a subject and, yes, being Chicago writers, it means that each has staked out a neighborhood. I’ve been influenced as well by other writers of place, Sherwood Anderson and especially Southern writers—Eudora Welty, William Faulkner—and foreign writers of place like Isaac Babel and James Joyce. The lesson inherent in reading the writers in the Chicago tradition is that if you look and listen, the material in your own so-called backyard is not only as significant, but as exotic as any you’d find if you traveled the world. A neighborhood such as Little Village or Pilsen resonates in its daily round of life with all the great themes and conflicts: class, assimilation, democracy, race, cultural identity, etc.

Q: In The Coast of Chicago, all the stories stand on their own but are connected by a strong sense of place. What other themes, if any, connect the stories?

A: Besides place The Coast of Chicago is connected by an attention to mood. Each story aspires to the lyrical and that aspiration becomes a repeated theme—characters falling in love or swept away by music, reaching for some ecstatic moment, transcending aspects of the environment that might otherwise grind them down. There’s also a moody sense of the nocturnal in the book, and even when the scenes are lit by daylight there’s a feeling that at any moment one might step through a shadowy doorway—whether that doorway is the doorway of a bar or a church or the mouth of an alley—into an alternate reality composed of dream and memory. Those glimpses of alternate reality can be transformative, something that changes a character’s perception if not his life. And in many of the stories that’s what happens to the characters, they’re changed by some collision between the real and various shadow worlds. Imagination for many of the characters is a survival skill, imagination is how the characters navigate the pressures of urban experience especially in blighted neighborhoods. It is also how they fashion a single personal reality from dual cities—the visible city and the invisible city we all sense is there below the surface even if we can’t see it.

Q: It is interesting that as a writer of place, you prefer not to be in Chicago when writing about the city. Why?

A: I was 25 when I left Chicago for a teaching job in the Caribbean. At that time I felt the need for the kind of education one only gets through travel. I didn’t know that being away from Chicago would make it more necessary for me to write about it. I think what happened was that rather than trying to document the city as I did when I lived there, I began to reimagine it. Being an ocean away meant the city wasn’t there just outside the window competing with my imagination. But for many years now I’ve lived only two hours away, and have spent considerable time in Chicago, and, in fact, I no longer prefer to be even that short distance away. The slightest excuse and I’m back in town. I need to get a place here. Eudora Welty pretty much stayed in Jackson, Miss., while James Joyce left Dublin and never returned and yet both are classic writers of place. Obviously each writer is wired differently. Perhaps sometimes imagination needs to be sequestered, but at others it needs the kind of nourishment that only a physical relationship with a place affords.

Q: You give a lot of your time teaching college as well as high school students. Tell us why you feel that is important.

A: I’ve taught most of my life and at every level. I consider it a privilege to teach and if writing wasn’t so seductive my guess is that I’d have put my energy into starting a school. I ascribe to Dewey’s notion that education is the most powerful engine of democracy. That makes the high school teacher one pretty important person though our culture doesn’t reward teachers as such. Early education and high school are critical and I think universities could play a much greater role in supporting secondary education than they do. So far as teaching writing, for me it’s an art that is taught like any other art—music, painting, dance, whatever. What can be taught is how to use the tools of the art, how to use the craft to harness and liberate the imagination. As a bare minimum and a rule of thumb it’s important to never forget is that if you can’t liberate a student’s imagination, then at least don’t snuff it out.