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NYT calls Dybek maybe our 'best writer'

Stuart Dybek talks about his new fiction and teaching at Northwestern

Stuart Dybek
Stuart Dybek was named Northwestern's first Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2006.

Stuart Dybek, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University, is working at the top of his game, according to a summer of rave reviews of his two new story collections — with The New York Times citing him as “not only our most relevant writer, but maybe our best.”

In a wide-ranging, recent interview, Dybek freely talked about his twin passions, writing, of course, and teaching writing, especially about how his pedagogy has evolved at Northwestern, which, he said, “has one of the strongest commitments to undergraduate writing in the United States.”

“Northwestern has a wonderful Center for the Writing Arts, a renowned English major in writing for undergraduates and, overall, a strong institutional investment in teaching undergraduates to write no matter what field they are in,” Dybek said.

The popular professor is having considerable success with teaching writing to Northwestern undergraduates — in particular with how he is guiding them to tap into their imaginations to make their own type of magic in fiction.

Jumping a particularly high bar for undergraduates, a number of Dybek’s students have been published in literary journals.

We caught up with Northwestern’s distinguished writer immediately following the Times’ Aug. 8 review of “Paper Lantern Love Stories” and “Ecstatic Cahoots” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2014) — an appraisal that could make even a writer of Dybek’s stature blush.

Read more about Dybek in his own words in the Q&A below.

Dybek already is well known in literary circles as one of the greatest Chicago writers of all time. In June, just before the release of his two new collections, Dybek topped Newcity magazine’s list of 50 Chicago literary movers and shakers.

He has been compared to James Joyce for the lyricism of his writing and its sense of place, in Dybek’s case the South Side of Chicago, where, especially in his early collections, the hard realities of urban life and the magic of his highly imagined stories play out among a tapestry of factories, abandoned railroad tracks and boarded-up storefronts.

The boy-coming-of-age feel of his earlier stories takes a somewhat darker, moodier and more world-wise shift in “Paper Lantern” and “Ecstatic Cahoots,” both primarily focused on passion and love. Dybek’s virtuosity soars in stories that often ache with longing and the impossibility of human connection, even in the most intimate of situations.

“Dybek’s stories remind us that everything we know, and everything we love, is constantly vanishing, slipping through our fingers,” said Nathaniel Rich in an “Ecstatic Cahoots” review in The Atlantic. “Dybek, with the anxiety of an anthropologist, seems determined not to let this happen, even though he understands, better than most writers do, that it must.”

Struggling to categorize Dybek’s writing in his latest collections, reviewers have cited the master storyteller’s expression of images and memories that seem to hover almost below consciousness and beyond words, sometimes taking off in fantastic and, at first glance, disconnected directions. Driven by a signature lyricism, Dybek’s language almost impossibly captures the sensuality and suffering of life as well as a profound, if sometimes bizarre, sense of spirituality.  

At the same time, Dybek’s language, always precise and often winking with a devilish sense of humor, reflects the raw realism of people caught up in lonely or desperate situations, often on the wrong side of the tracks, but also the human spirit’s insistence on finding joy — sometimes in “ecstatic cahoots” with others — no matter the setting.

“Stuart Dybek’s stories occupy a territory somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Nelson Algren — beguiled by the play of language but also gritty and specific, fundamentally urban at their core,” said David Ulin in a Los Angeles Times review of “Paper Lantern” and “Ecstatic Cahoots.”   

The impossibility of categorizing Dybek’s storytelling was eloquently brought home by Trevor Quirk in another Los Angeles Times book review of the two new collections.

“Magical realism. Surrealism. Fantasy,” Quirk wrote. “Dybek has me thinking about how these words are defined in contemporary fiction,” as his collections demonstrate “how masterful he is at creating an impressionistic typhoon of these three schools and how little credence he lends to their categorical isolation.” 

Dybek previously had taught at Northwestern before returning in 2006 as the University’s first distinguished writer in residence.

The next year, in an extraordinary coincidence of timing, within two days he was named a 2007 MacArthur Fellow (the so-called “genius” award) and received the 2007 Rea Award for the Short Story. The premier short story honor, the Rea recognizes a body of fiction that demonstrates a “literary power, originality and influence on the genre” and “makes a significant contribution to the short story form.” (Past Rea Award winners include Alice Munro, John Updike, Eudora Welty, John Edgar Wideman, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore and Antonya Nelson.)       

Shortly before Dybek joined Northwestern’s nationally renowned English Major in Writing program for undergraduates, The New York Times named his “I Sailed With Magellan” a notable book of the year. “The Coast of Chicago,” an earlier collection of his short stories, was the 2004 selection of the “One Book, One Chicago” program, sponsored by the Chicago Public Library.

The protagonists in “The Coast of Chicago” and an earlier collection, “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods,” run Chicago’s streets, crossing all kinds of boundaries, whether the idealized divides between the North and South sides of Chicago or transformative borders that turn ordinary rag men and drunks into mythical creatures.

Talking about his own experience growing up on the South Side, Dybek said in an earlier interview, “This post-World War II generation was running essentially wild on the streets.”

Dybek’s work also has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry and TriQuarterly.

Less known, Dybek also is an accomplished poet, which helps explain the lyricism of his prose. His two volumes of poetry are titled “Streets in Their Own Ink” and “Brass Knuckles.”

In the following Q&A, Dybek talks about the evolution of his work, about a style of writing that is “undiagnosable” (the diagnosis of The New York Times review) and about influences on his writing, including the ways music has taken his stories on wild lyrical rides that tap deeply into the world of dreams, fairy tales and his Eastern European roots.  

He also talks about a passion for teaching that goes way back to his college days. Dybek had originally planned to pursue a Ph.D. in education at the University of Iowa and ended up with an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

For many years, he taught writing at Western Michigan University “in a robust undergraduate program” and in the MFA and Ph.D. programs there, before joining Northwestern’s department of English in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Read more below about Dybek’s “Fabulous Fiction” course and how his teaching has evolved to encourage undergraduates to take advantage of their highly active imaginations, so they can do what Dybek values most, “getting life on the page.”  

In Dybek’s Own Words

PT: Tell me about writing at Northwestern.

SD: The leaders of this institution, including first Henry Bienen and now [President] Morty Schapiro, have set the stage so that engagement with writing operates throughout the entire University. For example, I am teaching undergraduates who come from journalism, from film, from history -- and I get a steady supply of psychology and pre-med students.

PT: Elaborate on the evolution of your teaching of undergraduates at Northwestern.

SD: When I first came to Northwestern, I tried teaching an undergrad class called “Image in Fiction,” which was based on classes I had previously taught at the graduate level at the University of Iowa and in other graduate programs. There was an understandable urge to turn the image in a story into a symbol the reader could interpret, as if an image was a clue that could be pasted onto a story, rather than that a story -- a narrative -- could be generated by an image. 

Most of the students were writing realistic stories. I was impressed by how well they used language and by their critical acumen. But, as many people who teach writing to talented undergrads will agree, controlling language is only part of writing a good story. Life experience, perhaps, especially in writing realism, is important, too. Most every writer remembers going through that same maturing process.

PT: So you charted a new direction for your course.

I decided, as an experiment, to try changing my undergrad, intellectual-sounding “Image in Fiction” class into something called “Fabulous Fiction.” It became a class in non-realistic writing — fabulism, speculative fiction, surrealism, black humor, metafiction, the absurd, it didn’t matter what. What mattered to me was that it would not directly rely on life experience, but rather on imagination, and that the images at the heart of stories — time machines, robots, magic lamps, vampires, rabbit holes, ghosts — would be inherently narrative. I was deeply pleased with the overall results.

PT: Explain the “fabulous” in your “Advanced Fiction Writing: Fabulous Fiction” course.

SD: All the stories demand invention. The invention might be a monster, a method of time travel, an alien world. The invention is the central image of the story.  

PT: Why has fabulism worked so well in producing both published and publishable stories?

SD: The stories explore an image through narrative and are highly lyrical. Realistic experience isn’t so necessary, and the students can make the imagery leap. They are working in two of the most beautiful modes -- the narrative and the lyrical -- and they come to every class wired.

PT: John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” is on the reading list for the class.

SD: He was a sensational writer, and two of his stories that I teach are central to the class. “The Enormous Radio” leads right into what I call the “magic object” exercise. In other words, if you have a magic radio, you need to turn it on, and that interaction opens the imagination to all kinds of opportunities. The other Cheever story that I teach is “Torch Song,” a much more complicated story and one of my favorite stories in all of American literature. Cheever, who  was a teacher of mine at Iowa Writers Workshop, is a great realistic writer, of course, but it’s sometimes not appreciated that he was one of the earlier and best American fabulist writers of the 20th century.

PT: How is it that two of your story collections, “Ecstatic Cahoots,” a collection of very, very short stories, and “Paper Lantern,” came out at the same time?

SD: I was at work on four different writing projects when I came to Northwestern, and two of them were published this year. Some of the stories in “Paper Lantern” were written before I came to Northwestern, but the majority were written after I received the MacArthur fellowship. I had done a kind of prototype chapbook of “Ecstatic Cahoots,” called “The Story of Mist,” in the 1990s, and the financial freedom that the MacArthur allowed me freed me up to complete projects that I had in mind for the last 20 years.   

PT: Explain how music — always a big influence on your writing — sort of dictated a type of storytelling that is very much apparent in your two new collections.

SD: Jazz was my first love in music and what I played whenever I sat down to write. In my mid-20s I was also listening my way through 20th-century classical music. I’d read about two Hungarian composers, Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, who like Alan Lomax in America, went into the hinterlands — the mountains of Transylvania — and made field recordings of folk music. I checked some of their cello music out of the public library, put it on and sat down to write a realistic story about a rag picker and — there is no other way to explain it — fell into a trance. The music led me to a story of the kind I’d never written before, my first published story, “The Palatski Man.”

PT: Up to the time that you wrote “The Palatski Man,” you had been writing to jazz, and, you said, your stories reflected more of the realism style of such American greats as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, whom you still admire today.    

SD: The story was just supposed to be about kids, written in a realistic style, but the music brought alive these deep connections I have to my Eastern European grandparents and the folk tales they told me as a kid. It opened me up to writing that could be done in another mode, material that the American writers I admired wouldn’t have used. Ever since I’ve been exploring the type of writing that occurred in “The Palatski Man” -- “magic realism” wasn’t even a term at the time, which was pre-Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

PT: That folkloric sense now seems central to your writing course.

SD: Given the stuff of our dreams, I think we all have some personal folkloric sense in us, and one of my hopes for the “Fabulous Fiction” class was that it would give students access to that primitive, subversive, imaginative wildness in them so that they would have it not as an alternative to realism but something that could be integrated with it. That’s the mix that Bartok made by combining folk music and classical forms. Bob Dylan did the same with American sources.

PT: Has your taste in music changed over the years?

SD: To some degree, sure. One always is looking for new music, so it’s a nonstop great excuse to spend a lot of money. I read incessantly about different composers and different kinds of music. I’m always listening, hoping that the music will take some interesting turn that I can then follow with words.     

PT: “Poetic” is inevitably the word that reviewers use in describing your work.

SD: I began to realize during these conversations with undergraduates in the wonderful hour and a half we spend together in class that perhaps the more precise word for describing my writing would be “lyrical,” which is a strong element in the stories of writers I love, Eudora Welty, James Joyce, Italo Calvino, Kafka. They all have a strong lyrical component to their narrative, but they also were great storytellers. Their writing, too, has been considered  “undiagnosable.”

PT: Elaborate on the lyrical mode of thinking or writing in the context of fiction.

SD: We think lyrically when we dream, and another word for lyrical is associative thinking. Lyrical thinking is a sort of emotional intelligence that can’t be measured, and it can be applied whether writing poetry or fiction. A metaphor is the quintessential unit of lyrical or associative thinking and a powerful tool for a writer.

PT: According to The New York Times review, your two new collections “share what we’ll come to recognize as the Dybek method, the Dybek mode: lightning switches between unlike parts.”

SD: I’ve written, read and adored poetry my whole life. Lightning changes are common to poetry, and its main engine is metaphorical thinking. What is a metaphor? Bringing two unlike or incompatible parts together. My books are highly influenced by my love of poetry — maybe to the point of paying homage to what I love about poetry and prose poetry. But I am calling my stories fiction, and because I do, reviewers look for other fiction writers as examples. It might make more sense to look to T.S. Eliot or a modern poet like Mark Strand.

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