Maybe I’m A Panda: 8 Questions With Author Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

By Dave Pezza

After reading a rave review in The New York Times Book Review for Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots, I picked myself up a copy and fell in love with his beautiful prose.

Dybek answered some of my questions recently about his style, Chicago, and creative writing’s place in the age of advanced technology.

Dave Pezza: Was writing always an ambition of yours? Was there ever a decisive moment when you knew crafting stories was a calling?

Stuart Dybek: I actually have an essay on the subject of discovering metaphor in fourth grade—but it is too long to reprise here. Writing caught my attention as an art around 17 in senior year of high school, around the same time I fell in love with jazz. The two have always felt related to me on a purely subjective level.

DP: I’m just about finished with one of your latest collections Ecstatic Cahoots, where you have managed to beautifully blend piecemeal narrative story telling with a poetic style of diction. There seems to be so much worked into such a small amount of words. Do these vignettes take a long time to develop and mold?

SD: Those short pieces are often worked over the way a poem is, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to single them out, as longer pieces can take as much work. One hopes the short ones, like poems, will invite a reader to reread them.

DP: Chicago is a reoccurring setting in your fiction; the city’s almost a character of its own in some of your stories. Does the Windy City still draw a lot of creative power from you?

SD: I grew up in a very urban inner city area, and so it is probably safe to say that by nature I’m at heart an urban writer, and depicting the city—for me, it’s Chicago—is akin to creating a huge back drop canvas whose imagery and mood both expresses and impacts the story. But it doesn’t have to be a city. Some of my stories depict other places.

DP: Speaking of Chicago, you are the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University. Tell us a little about working closely with the University’s writing program?

SD: NU is a school that is deeply invested in writing of all kinds. There’s an MFA program that I teach in Continuing Studies. Most of the students are older and working day jobs—cops, reporters, librarians, high school teachers. It’s a pleasure to teach because it’s a population that has work to write about. I also teach an undergrad workshop in writing fabulism that I pretty much developed for NU, and that class has been a revelation. Each quarter at least one student at age 20 or 21 writes a publishable story. I tried it as an experiment, but now I won’t teach anything else.

DP: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers looking for writing programs in either the undergraduate or graduate level?

SD: One learns writing as one learns the other arts: by doing. Want to play sax. Get a sax and start practicing. A good teacher can help make you better, accelerate the learning curve. Same with writing, only your medium is abstract: words. The craft isn’t so obvious as it is for music, but it is there, and you need to learn it by writing, practicing—i.e. rewriting—and reading like crazy.

DP: Many of your stories are set in a pre-technologically saturated America. Is that time period you’re most comfortable period of experience to draw from, or do you think there is something more romantic about landlines and photographs hidden in drawers instead of in digital clouds?

SD: I think we’re living in an age when the old and new technologies are cohabiting. The story you are referring to actually had a version in which the nude photo is hidden on a computer. I liked that one particular piece better with a hidden photo so that affected my choice, but only in the case of that particular story. What I love about your question though is its implication, which I totally agree with. You mostly can’t simply trade one for the other. Changing the technology in the story usually changes the final effect.

DP: Do you have any good book or poetry collection recommendations? We’re always looking for a good read here at Writer’s Bone.

SD: Edward Hirsch’s book-length poem Gabriel and Fady Joudah’s book that won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition with an introduction by Louise Gluck who judged it wonderful. It is called The Earth in the Attic.

DP: Last one, swear. Can you tell us something random or surprising about yourself?

SD: I can leave you with a haiku I wrote at a Japanese restaurant with my two little grand kids, Nat and Jules:

I look into my bowl of miso soup
And see a panda.
Maybe I’m a panda.

To learn more about Stuart Dybek, check out his biography on Northwestern’s website or like his Facebook page.

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