Midwestern Gothic is honored to have acclaimed author and poet Stuart Dybek as this year’s Voices of the Middle West keynote speaker. This conversation between Mr. Dybek and Midwestern Gothic co-founder and editor Robert James Russell took place over the month of March, leading up to the event.
For more information on Voices of the Middle West, as well as Mr. Dybek, click here.
Robert James Russell: You’ve spent most of your life in the Midwest. What is it about this place that you find inspiring? What is it about this place that draws you—and other writers—to it? We are in the midst, I believe, of a Midwestern artistic Renaissance…folks openly and gladly talk about their bucolic lives, their small-town upbringings…and there seems to be a trend towards this in the literary world. Why do you think this region, the types of things that really represent Midwesterners, is so appealing now?
Stuart Dybek: It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest. There were stretches in Michigan and Iowa, and now I’m back in Chicago where I was born and raised. (The most time elsewhere was and continues to be islands—the Caribbean where I taught school and the Florida Keys.) You mention bucolic lives and small towns and I certainly did experience that in Iowa, a place I loved living in. You could drive out through a genuine Grant Wood landscape smelling of corn and hogs and buy milk and fresh produce from farms. I had a pet chicken and a garden I loved and I’ve written a little about it—a story called “Midwest,” and poetry. But given that writing is the reason for having this conversation, I don’t think my generalizations about the Midwest—whatever or wherever that is—are so much the target. For a writer, place means first and foremost where his imagination resides, that landscape and dimension that can be traveled to and inhabited only through the art itself, made up of the present and memory, the objective and the subjective. Think of a Van Gogh starry sky: it stretches overhead but only on canvas.
I’m writing this just days after the death of Phil Levine, a friend and a poet I deeply admire. Phil’s Midwest is Motown. The Rust Belt. A Tower of Babel built with the Whitmanesque horizontal sprawl of a production line rather than the Miltonesque verticals of a tower. My Midwest is inner city Chicago. I’m an urban writer. The bucolic for me is a great green sea rolling in from maybe Nebraska and washing up against the housing projects rising from the South Side of the City. It’s the city Sherwood Anderson came to during another Renaissance. His being there helped to make it a Renaissance. He lived in a cheap hotel in sight of downtown and wrote stories about the people he met there with their secret nocturnal lives and then in a stroke of genius he set those people and those stories in a small American town in Ohio and that remains today one of the most seminal books about the Midwest ever written. That’s what I mean about where a fiction writer really lives. He lives in a fiction that defines reality.
Robert James Russell: That’s interesting, and I see that in your work, absolutely. Coast of Chicago, for example, is so real it hurts. We live those pages even if we never have lived those lives. And there really is so much to mine from real life. While not taking anything away from long-form fiction or poetry, short fiction seems to really be a fantastic avenue to explore the real world in this way, dipping in and out of characters’ lives. Do you find this to be the case? Why do you think you spend so much of your energy writing short fiction? What magic do you think it has?
Stuart Dybek: I read as much poetry as I do fiction. A remark I’ve heard or read more than once—I have no idea who it might be ascribed to—is that the short story is closer to the poem than to the novel. Of course that depends on who is writing the story. There’s no way of proving or disproving a statement like that. The claim it’s making is that compression has been historically important to both genres.
There’s a pronounced lyrical side to several of the story writers I most admire. Some of my favorite books of stories have both that lyricism and a sense of form—of a fragmented wholeness—that isn’t linear. I’m thinking of books like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales, Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Notice how three of them have place in the title. I always been attracted by how the story in sequence, whether one calls it linked stories or the novel-in-stories, can create a sense of unity that doesn’t demand a rise and fall of action, or a plot. It’s more as if moments have been attracted to orbit around the gravity of that central image we call place.
Place doesn’t have to be the unifying element. I deeply admire Welty and Flannery O’Conner. They’re both writers of the South and place is at their core, but it seems to me to be more of an organizing principle in Welty than in O’Conner. In O’Conner there’s always something beyond place, something burning on the other side. It’s that quality not so much of story but of stories—of how they come together—in Borges of Kafka or Hemingway into a sense of nonlinear unity that I most love about the form. That idea of story orbiting place goes back to your first question about the Midwest.
Robert James Russell: It’s very telling, I think—given your own catalog—these authors and specific books you mention as inspiration; these are stories, nearly all, not of plot, but of people. Stories where we discover that it is people that are inherently interesting. I find that, in my work as an editor and publisher, this is a big thing that tends to get overlooked by writers—the characters. You can have the most interesting plot in the world, but if there’s nothing behind it, no real characters for us to read, to understand, then it mostly fades away from memory. Would you agree that it’s not actually Chicago or the Midwest that’s inherently interesting, but rather the people that make it up? That the geography itself is fascinating, but only in relation to the mythos the reside here?
Stuart Dybek: That’s beautifully said, about geography and its resident mythos. So far as plot, it can seem, especially in pop lit, that plot is synonymous with story, not unlike the way that melody can mistakenly seem like the whole of music. I hasten to add I love a good melody, who doesn’t, but besides melody in music and plot in literature there are so many other essential elements. In the narrative arts there’s style, tone, mood, and, of course, characters, just for starters.
Character have to be essential in those particular books I listed because a special quality of linked stories and/or the novel-in-stories is how that seemingly fragmented form lends itself to braiding individual stories into a sense of community. In fact that form can accomplish that braiding even without place at its center. It is how Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried creates the powerful sense of a platoon. And that sense is at work to various degrees (that is there’s more emphasis on individuals than community) in brilliant collections such as Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Leonard Michel’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes At the Last Minute to name just a few.
Robert James Russell: And I think this brings us—nicely—full circle: talking about community. You are the Midwest: your voice and your stories are representative of what we have here—our hopes, our desires, our mythos. Being a lifelong Midwesterner myself, I think the number one description of the Midwest we get from folks not only from here, but also who just know of the region from the outside, is this sense of community. An example: Acquaintances from New York who, after traveling to Michigan for the first time, were amazed that people say hello to you on the street—strangers!—and that everyone, just out and about, looks you square in the eye. Obviously, there’s more to us than that, but I do think that sums up the Midwest nicely, and it does play into what you’ve been talking about. As we approach Voices of the Middle West—this is, perhaps, part of our Voice. A big part. What do you think about community in the Midwest—do you think that’s our defining characteristic—and why it shows up so much in our art here? Do you think that’s an okay representation of our swathe of the United States…something we should keep embracing as we explore our voices and our place in the world?
Stuart Dybek: I agree, especially having lived in a town like Kalamazoo, Michigan with its wonderfully generous Kalamazoo Promise that makes a college education affordable every kid going through the secondary school system. I noticed that same sense of community in Iowa, when I lived there, and that “square in the eye” quality was evident to me as well and something I’ve remarked upon often.
We’re generalizing now about the experience of living in the Midwest and as I said at the start of the interview those kinds of generalizations, genuine as they are, are not the same as writing about it, of making it up on the page. Philip Levine’s Midwest in They Feed, They Lion, Sinclair’s Midwest in The Jungle, Algren’s in The Man With a Golden Arm, are much harsher visions. Not the beautiful bucolic sense one gets in Ted Kooser, whose work I also love. Unlike Kooser, they are all urban Midwest writers, but if we look at say, Sherwood Anderson’s classic, Winesburg, Ohio you can see him taking that idea of community in the American small town and standing it on its head. Does one vision negate the other? Absolutely not. Part of what literature does is allow the contradictions and complexities to be expressed.
Robert James Russell: Because I’d be remiss not to ask: do you have any writing or craft advice for writers just starting out, or even folks who have been doing this for a while?
Stuart Dybek: Remember that when you explore the gifts you’ve been given to work with, that a writer’s gifts include more than the essential ability to treat the medium of language in the way a painter treats paint. Gifts are also the places in your personal history where stories have been given to you—family history, the sense of place you’ve made your own, racial and ethnic histories, personal experience, which includes intellectual experience, and of course, imagination.
Unlike the other arts, writing does not come through the senses. The medium is abstract. So your tools are not paints or cameras or acetylene torches and chisels, saxophones, or even the human body. Nor are your tools computers, typewriters, pencils, paper, clay tablets, papyrus. Your tools are abstract, too, and you need to master them—metaphor, scenic construction, dialogue, figurative language, etc. We all use language for everything really—legal documents, shopping lists, advertisements, tweets, personal ads on dating sites…But using language in those utilitarian ways often essential to survival is not the same as making art.
To bring poems and stories to life you need to learn the craft.
Stuart Dybek, author of two new collections Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, were published simultaneously by FSG in 2014. His previous books of fiction are Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed with Magellan. He has also published two volumes of poetry, Brass Knuckles and Streets In Their Own Ink. His work is widely anthologized and appears in publications such as The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Dybek is the recipient of many literary awards including the PEN/Bernard Malamud Prize for “distinguished achievement in the short story”, a Lannan Award, the Academy Institute Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Harold Washington Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and four O’Henry Prizes. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and in Best American Fiction. In 2007, he was awarded both a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Rea Award for the Short Story. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University.