The Stuart Dybek Interview

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Today I interview one of Chicago's most beloved contemporary writers. He writes almost exclusively about the Southwest Side of Chicago, where he was born. He is the author of two collections of stories: The Coast of Chicago and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and a collection of poems, Brass Knuckles. Hurry up if you can, if you live in the city, and see a stage version of The Coast of Chicago at the Lookingglass Theatre. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have been published in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, Paris Review, Antaeus, Poetry, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares and The New York Times. He now lives is Kalamazoo and teaches at Western Michigan University.

The Stuart Dybek Interview: Just About Twenty Questions

When you do readings, how do you choose what you'll read?
The choice of what I read is sometimes planned out depending on what I know about the audience and sometimes instinctive based on the sense I get once I enter the auditorium and get a sense of who the audience might be. Or sometimes I've written something new that can be read in an half hour or so and want to give it a try.

Have any of the characters in you stories have had impact on your real life relationships? Meaning that, if somebody recognizes themselves in one of your stories, how has that impacted his relationship with you?
Despite the fact that i'm writing fiction and have taken the liberties that fiction allows for, people have at different times recognized themselves in some of the characters. Mostly the reaction has been favorable. I had one old friend who appeared in a story called "The Long Thoughts", who would give the book that story appeared in to people as gifts so that they could read about him. There was an instance however when a dear friend who saw himself in one of my stories--a
version of a story that he told to me--was offended not by his
portrayal but that Iwould use a story he'd told to me in private. I should add that the story he told to me was fantastical and I changed it further and made still more fantastical. Still, he treated it not as my stealing something but as a broken confidence

Your book “The Coast of Chicago” has been adapted for stage and is running now. How much input did you have in the adaptation from book to script?
Because I admired both the theater company, Walkabout, and the playwright, Laura Eason, I figured that the best thing I could do was stay out of the way and let them use their considerable talents.

Do you consider yourself a “Chicago writer,” and if so, what makes you one, other than just living in or being from Chicago?
I have come to consider myself a "Chicago writer" but only after years of people asking me how conscious I am of working in the Chicago tradition. Finally I simply surrendered to the question. OK, I plead guilty, I'm a Chicago writer--I was born and raised here and I write a lot about the city. One of my books even has the word "Chicago" in it. I didn't start out with that in mind.

Who are your favorite Chicago writers?
The obvious choices, for starters: Bellow, Algren, Farrell, Studs Terkel, the Mike Royko of BOSS, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and there are many writers in my generation or younger I admire and won't be able to name them all here. I think the playwright Charles Smith is brilliant as is Sasha Hemon, I love how Scott Turow has melded genres, Jim McManus is always surprising and wholly unpredictable and so is Carlo Rotella, Ed Hirsch from Skokie is a marvelous poet as are Li_young Lee, Susan Hahn, Reg Gibbons, I very much liked Billy Lombardo's book. I'll stop here but could easily go on listing including upcoming talents such as Alexai Galavaiz-Budziszewski.

The neighborhoods in Chicago seem to be ever-evolving: which ethnic area do you think has remained the most unchanged over time?
The African American neighborhoods on the South Side, China Town, Little Village...for starters...while there has been urban pioneering and gentrification many of the poor neighborhoods have stayed the same in that they have stayed poor. And at the other end of the spectrum: many of the rich neighborhoods have stayed rich.

Did your Bousha speak English? I never had a Bousha but every Bousha I ever heard about didn’t speak English, or barely did.
Both my grandmothers were Polish immigrants. Neither ever spoke much English.

I read in a profile of you that she had odd superstitions: what were some?
One of my grandmothers was rather superstitious. When she baked bread she'd always cut a slice for the dead. It would be there the next morning so I guess they weren't very hungry.

What music have you been listening to lately?
Piano music by Ernst Bloch, Enescu, Fado by Mariza, the Tord Gustavsen Trio, I'll stop here as this could go on for a long time.

What are your favorite places to hear music in Chicago?
Symphony Hall, of course, even though they ruined the once beautiful acoustics, the Velvet Lounge, the Hot House--I love that club--Jazz Showcase (I wish they'd bring David Sanchez back,) etc.

You’re described as a perfectionist: how do you know a story is ready to be submitted to an editor or ready to be published?
Actually, I don't always know. I've sent things out too early any number of times. It's a gut level decision.

What advice would you have for first time creative writing teachers? Not just how to be a good teacher, but how to even get your kids to listen to you and believe what you say.
There's no one way to be a good writing teacher. Teaching is an interaction between the individual teacher, the individual class and the subject. So it's dangerous to legislate for anyone. For me what's important is to impart to students the craft they are dealing with rather than to turn a writing course into another lit interpretation class.

When you bring your family down to Chicago for visits, what are the places you most enjoy taking your kids to?
No more Ed Debevics. My kids are young adults. They want to go to fancy restaurants and drink champagne. On me.

How do you know when something you’re writing is better suited to become poetry or prose?
If there is a strong narrative and if there are characters whom I want to bring to life then from the start I usually conceive of that in terms of prose--not that poetry can't do narration. There are pieces though that have switched genre on me. Almost always it is a poem becoming a story.

I can’t not ask a former South Sider this, but did you follow the White Sox last year? I read that your baseball loyalty is a little fast and loose but did you become any more of a Sox fan in ’05?
I did indeed follow the Sox and loved the way that team played the game. I love the Cubs, but I also love the craft of most anything--writing, cooking, dance, sports, and I'm sorry to say if you wanted to see the craft of baseball in the summer of'05 then you needed to go down the the South Side of Chicago.

How does it feel to be the 141st person interviewed for
As if i'm in a parade, maybe at the end of Lent--i'm the one with the horse costume on backwards.