Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Stuart Dybek Takes the Fifth


Photo by Daniel Libman

Stuart Dybek is a Chicago writer the way the Sears Tower is a Chicago building. Sure, the tower might be called something else now, and there may be one or two other buildings worth visiting, but nothing else commands such an iconic presence in the skyline. To say that Stuart Dybek has stamped his own imprint on the contemporary Chicago literary scene is to understate the value and importance his tough-yet-lyrical stories hold. Sure, he also writes about other locations and other subjects, but his work and his voice are unflaggingly married to the city where he was raised, city of broad shoulders, city of Bellow and Algren and Dybek.

Stuart Dybek and I sat down in his Evanston apartment, where he splits his time between teaching at Northwestern and Western Michigan Universities, for a wide ranging conversation about being raised in Neighborhoods (Neighborhoods with a capital N), the impact of music on his writing, and what it feels like to have become the putative storyteller of an entire region.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: I was born at Edgewater hospital.

Stuart Dybek: Roger’s Park. When I walked there you would have these old people speaking in Yiddish. Starting around Farwell and walking down. And I would always listen because I loved the sounds of those foreign voices. You could hear snatches of conversation and see these old, plain looking guys, but you could get a sense of this enormous, compressed history. There are some nice books written about that area. Crossing California is about west Roger’s park.

FWJ: Your knowledge of Chicago is encyclopedic and it comes out in some surprising ways. I was just rereading “Breasts,” and you have the Hamm’s beer jingle running throughout, like a musical motif. The first time my friend Lola came to Chicago she asked me why all the bars were named Old Style.

SD: That’s great! Those signs are so ubiquitous Chicagoans wouldn’t even notice.

FWJ: You have a way of writing about the city which is lyrical and poetic, but also tough and hard. You get the nitty-gritty of Chicago while making it feel mythological at the same time. How did you come upon that? Was there a model?

SD: There really was not a model for that. This woman from NPR, Starlee Kine, just did a segment on inspiration. She went from the Caveman commercial for Geico which was actually inspired by George Saunders. She went to George to ask what his influence for “Pastorialia” was. He said one day he went to the library and read a story called “Hot Ice.” So she followed it to me and asked, what was your influence on that story? I said I went to the same public library George did and found records by Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok. I put them on and started to write in a way that I had never written before. It was as if listening to that music opened up some kind of folk element that I hadn’t paid much attention to, if I even knew it existed. I grew up in an immigrant family and we were all about getting as American as you can as fast as you can. It gets kind of close to bullshit when you start theorizing that there is some kind of folk memory or whether it’s just a lot of stuff you heard as a kid but forgot about, only you really didn’t. So I sat down and wrote imagery that was the same Chicago, only now it was overlaid with other images.  It was kind of like I was looking at a movie. In retrospect what was most colorful and interesting when I was growing up, most serious and threatening, was the ethnicity of the neighborhood. And it wasn’t just the Slavs, but it was the fact that Spanish — especially Mexican — immigrants were coming through these neighborhoods which already had waves of eastern Europeans. Even if you didn’t have the word, “port of entry” as a kid, you knew you were in some sort of port of entry. On a conscious level I was really trying to imitate — as everyone does when you’re just learning — the guy from Oak Park. Hemingway. And Algren and especially Sherwood Anderson. I read Hemingway first, then I read Anderson, and I could absolutely see how seminal Winesburg was. It wasn’t until later that I learned he wrote those stories in a Chicago hotel. He says the people in that Chicago hotel were the inspiration for that book. And in a supreme moment of literary savvy and caginess he changes the setting from a hotel in Chicago to a small town and it changes everything dramatically.

But the music for me is more like screen music without a screen play. For me music — and I’m going back to nineteenth century notions of hierarchy in art which I don’t — which I pretend I don’t — believe in. Music is kind of at the top of the pyramid for me. It crosses so many boundaries that language can’t. The appeal to the emotions is so profound and it can have a kind of trance quality. There is a strong directive element to music that we don’t always think about when we listen to it. But it directs our emotions, directs our attention very powerfully in one direction or another. The other thing that happens, as anyone who has ever heard the endless accounts of someone’s drug trip, is the way the mind works. When you get a feeling, the mind rushes forward to tell a story about it, or to explain it, or to create some reason why you’re feeling it. You drop this chemical, LSD or mescaline, and suddenly you come up with a story: I’m seeing God or I’m feeling God, because that’s the feeling. It’s explaining all this supernatural feeling, and the only vocabulary you’ve got is the vocabulary of religion to describe awe. And once you’ve entered the vocabulary of religion it’s a very short step to say, “I’m godlike” or “I’m talking to God.” In a way music is like that. You hear those chords in Rite of Spring or what have you, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and the mind wants to explain these feelings. You personalize it some way that brings your experience into play.

FWJ: I notice you have a guitar here. Do you play?

SD: I’m a terrible player. I played sax and clarinet for a long time. My first love was jazz. It opened all the doors for me. Way more than literature did.

FWJ: Who were your jazz guys?

SD: It got me early on as a little kid. I still remember the moment so vividly. I grew up in a family that actually did spring cleaning. When spring came we cleaned. We were in an apartment in Little Village and it had all these little moldings, and dust would collect in the year. And I was old enough at this point to go up on the ladder, and it was my job to get the dust off the molding, and so I’m cleaning the moldings all through the house, and a little tube radio is playing and Louis Armstrong comes on — I didn’t know who it was. I heard tons of music at this point. We played the radio constantly. My parents loved music though neither one of them played. And man oh man, I had to come down that ladder and hear who was playing that trumpet. And so I really started to listen because I wanted that feeling back. I gradually made that evolution from Dixieland, which I adored, to swing. I especially loved Benny Goodman — didn’t know he was a Chicago guy — and Ellington. My parents got me a clarinet. I wanted to play trumpet but I had a piece of tooth knocked out. Then I wanted to play saxophone but the thinking at the time was if you wanted to play reeds you start with the clarinet because then you can play anything. So I was in neighborhood combos and high school bands, and bands at the boy’s clubs, but I never really had the chops that I wanted. I couldn’t play what I heard in my head. I walked around with music in my head all the time, but I couldn’t play it.

FWJ: The music in your head was your own compositions?

SD: Mine. Which is how I started writing. It was far less frustrating to write. I was way more willing to make mistakes writing stories. People didn’t have to stick their fingers in their ears. And also I had developed too much reverence for music. I think when you develop too much reverence for an art form it’s actually not good for you. You want to be a perfectionist, which is preventing you from making all the mistakes you need in order to learn.

FWJ: You do have a lot of music in the stories. The pianist in “Chopin in Winter.”

dybek-magellanSD: Everywhere. Music is everywhere in my stories. I Sailed with Magellan is really an homage to music. Every story has a piece of music in it. Even the title is from a song the brothers made up in the story “Live from Dreamsville.” The first story is called “Song” and it goes on like that. In some of the stories, it’s more subtle. “Je Reviens” doesn’t seem like a story about music, but there is this key moment where this young guy’s jazz playing uncle has been buried in the church and he is now following this beautiful woman and she stops before this terrible Salvation Army band in the cold, and he stops and they’re listening in the cold and he’s thinking about not following her at this moment. The Christmas carol is playing. He’s going to follow her.

FWJ: Was that intentional to structure the collection that way or was it accidental?

SD: Combination. Once I saw it I paid a little more attention to it. Which I think is how writing often happens. You’re writing and some natural pattern occurs and you perceive it. You’re creating the writing and there comes a moment where, if everything is going okay, you’re not in control of it anymore. It’s talking back to you. And that’s what you want, to have a conversation with something you’ve made but which now seems to have a mind of its own.

FWJ: Kazuo Ishiguro writes very differently from you, but he has the same kind of seriousness in the sentences but wild and fabulous in the story.

SD: I just kind of wandered into it. It wasn’t planned. I teach a class at Northwestern now called Writing Fabulism. And what I’m trying to do there is create some of the same possibilities I learned on my own. We read a lot of fabulists too.

FWJ: Like who?

SD: Kafka. Poe. Bradbury. Calvino. Borges. Cheever — who is really a great American surrealist. Mythology. I use a lot of poems. Rilke. The very first class, I have them write what I call a “Walk through the Repository.” They have to write about all the plays and music and TV shows and movies and songs and stories they’ve read that they would consider fabulist in the broadest sense of the word. I define it as anything that’s not realism. I was a huge science fiction fan in high school — read the library out in Lawndale. Before that I got so into Greek Mythology and truth be told, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was an enormously religious kid. But what appealed to me most was the myth. I loved the stories in the Bible and I loved the characters. God is such a great character, such a cranky, unpredictable guy — and a guy for sure. And then the Christian stuff and the weird stories about saints. You weren’t allowed to have a literary response because you were supposed to be imbibing this moral code, but it appealed to me just like “The Raven” did. It was spooky. And what happened when I put that music on was I suddenly got reconnected to that other stuff. I had closed the door on all that. Writing about American Literature was about being a realist. But the thing is, the platform that I had to write about was Chicago. This was before the very handy term that no one wants to apply to themselves — apparently Garcia Marquez wanted nothing to do with it: Magical Realism. I have this very kind of realistically observed city, the neighborhood and the ethnic stuff and everything. But then there was this other element sneaking in there. And going back to Bartok and Kodaly, what I didn’t know about them at the time was that both came out of strong Western classical tradition. They understood everything about Bach to Mozart to Beethoven etc. And they were very interested in taking that step from Brahms to Modernism. Their minds were totally opened up by Debussy. But at the same time there were these national currents going through Europe. Debussy himself was not just interested in writing French music, although he was very interested in writing “A French Music,” especially in opposition to Wagner. Wagner scared the hell out of everyone because in a way he was a dead end. You couldn’t top this, you had to go somewhere else. Not that I’m a big Wagner fan I might rush to add.

FWJ: It has its moments.

dybek-childhoodSD: Yeah. But in Wagner you have these goofy, super-heated people running around with horns on their helmets. I’m not a fan of that. You can see that kind of German Nationalism popping up there. It was like Alan Lomax here in the United States taking his tape recorder and realizing that chain gangs and cotton picking and all that had this music. He knew it wasn’t going to be there forever so he went out to record it. This had a hugely profound effect on American music. Bob Dylan is unimaginable without him having access to all that kind of stuff. So what’s going on in Europe is Bartok and Kodaly were taking these early cylinders — they didn’t have tape recorders yet — into Transylvania and all these backwoods places and they were able to catch the very last music that still had bagpipes in it. Before the accordion obliterated the bagpipe. If you think about the accordion and bagpipe, they can be playing the exact same notes, but it’s a really different music. Bagpipe has that primitive nasal, keening sound to it, and the accordion kind of tames everything. The next thing that both of those guys did is try to figure out how to make that combination of Western art music and folk elements. When you explain it out like this you make it all sound so conscious, and maybe for them because they were so damn brilliant it was. But if you think about synthesizing and start with the American realistic story, that great tradition that maybe goes back and starts manifesting itself with Chekhov, Joyce, Sherwood Anderson, and Hemingway, there’s this kind of marching line into Salinger etc. And then you combine it with something else, you’re really doing something similar to what Bartok was doing. What’s attractive about doing it is that it opens up those childhood sources of deep literary enjoyment, but it also changes what you’re writing. You’re kind of mixing things together and you’re not always sure what’s going to come out of it. In a way it’s kind of a literary counterpoint. I think I was kind of wired to look for that, but once I noticed it, when I was trying to put my first book together, Childhood and other Neighborhoods, one of the things I noticed was I had a bunch of realistic stories about Chicago, and I had a bunch of these more fabulist stories. And I had a bunch of stories that weren’t set in Chicago. So trying to put the book together I thought to use Chicago as the unifying element. So all the stories that didn’t have anything to do with Chicago, they were out. Then I noticed I had an equal amount of realistic stories and fabulist stories, how about I stagger them? It turned out I needed one more fabulist story so I actually consciously wrote a fabulist story that I had some notes on just to try and complete the design. Having done that, once I began putting together Coast of Chicago I started to do the same thing. I staggered prose poem, flash fiction, short short, with longer, more conventional kinds of stories so the sense of interplay and texture was there.

FWJ: When you start writing a story do you know which way it’s going?

SD: No.

FWJ: Do you start with the idea or a character or a tone?

SD: It’s different. A variety of different ways. Stories that are autobiographical you kind of start out with the anecdotal sense of the story. As you write it, hopefully the anecdote generates stuff you wouldn’t have ever thought of, or the characters come to life and they turn out to be different than they actually were. A lot of times I’ll just start a story with an image. Some of my stories started out as poems which I couldn’t work out, so to kind of mess around with them I would try to put them down as prose and they took off. If only for that reason I’ll continue to write poetry because I’ve gotten so many stories from my poems. It very seldom flows in the other direction that a story becomes a poem.

FWJ: Do you have a sense of what you’re working on when you sit down to write? In other words a poem or a prose piece?

SD: Like almost everyone who writes, I keep journals to sketch out ideas, capture images before you forget them. A line of dialogue here and there. And almost always these ideas are in verse. Very seldom is it sentences. I read as much poetry as I do prose.

FWJ: Are you rigid in your writing habits?

SD: No. Not at all.

FWJ: Nothing? No time set aside just for writing?

SD: I’d like to be a morning writer, I know those are good writing hours, but I just can’t make myself.

FWJ: Minimum daily page count?

SD: Nope. At one time I did, but it’s gone by the wayside.

FWJ: Are you always working on something?

SD: Yes. In fact I have the bad habit of always working on more than one thing, which I think of as a poet’s habit. It doesn’t translate well to prose. I think you’re better off highly focusing on one piece at a time, getting it done. Right now I just sent off to a publishing house two different manuscripts. It’s not a way of working I would advise people to do. A lot of times a book of poems will be ready around the same time as a book of fiction and they will come out within months of each other. I’m not exactly sure why that is.

FWJ: What does a good day of writing look like versus a bad day?

SD: I think I try to write a scene. So it isn’t a page count or a word count. I think in scenes, so a good day’s writing is to get a scene done that has enough momentum to generate the next scene the next time you sit down. With a poem it’s different. Usually I’m stuck somewhere on it.

FWJ: On a story do you generally know where it’s heading when you’re starting?

SD: No.

FWJ: How do you know when you’re at the end?

SD: When it’s working, although there are rare exceptions to this, about two-thirds through the story the ending just comes. And I think of it for a second and I try to put it out of my mind, once I know I won’t forget it. It’s as if the story tells me.

FWJ: And then at that point are you writing toward it?

SD: Yes.

FWJ: I was thinking about the ending to “Breasts,” and there’s no way as a reader to foresee the total shift that comes.

SD: That one I knew was coming. Maybe even as I started that story. It was the last story I wrote for that book. And my feeling — and before I finish this sentence I have to say this is a little bit more intellectual than I like to be — but my feeling at the time was that if one is really writing a novel in stories, which is how I thought of that book, you should take full advantage of the looseness of it. You should be doing something that the straight-ahead, conventional novel can’t do. And I wanted before I let that book go, to have a piece in there that did that, and “Breasts” was that piece. I had been meaning to write that story about my brother putting that shotgun through the curtained window. So in a way that wasn’t usual for me. I knew that story was going to make that huge jump back. And I wanted the reader to think this was interesting, this story with death and gore and blood in it.

FWJ: And Mexican wrestlers.

SD: And Mexican wrestlers. And it’s set in a neighborhood but isn’t about this family. It isn’t about Uncle Lefty and it isn’t about these brothers and it isn’t about Sir. What’s this doing in here? And then I wanted that jump at the end. In a way, I guess what I was after, and I don’t know if it was at all fair to ask the reader to do it, is that when you have these violent episodes in your neighborhood, it almost doesn’t feel like it’s part of your life. They felt like some kind of story, some kind of weird thing. It just happens that we’re living on the same block where there are all these hustlers and people walking around with guns in their waistbands — but it would never be discussed in the dinner table. So I kind of wanted this sense of dislocation, but I don’t know if that came out. More than anything I just wanted it to be a good story.

FWJ: That was a Best American.

SD: Yeah, but that version didn’t have the ending because Tin House published it without the end. That was okay with me because, number one, it meant it would be different in my book, and number two, I kind of wanted to see how it read without the ending. There was a temptation once they hit that wrestling thing in the bar to leave the ending off. I prefer it with the ending but I’m okay without it.

FWJ: Did you worry the title would turn people off?


Daniel Libman’s story collection is Married but Looking. He writes regularly for Fifth Wednesday Journal and serves as an advisory editor.

The complete interview with Stuart Dybek is available in the spring 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. You may purchase it at the pre-release price until May 15th.

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