Stuart Dybek is the author of five books of fiction, most recently Paper Lantern: Love Stories and Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories, published simultaneously in 2014 by FSG. He has also released two collections of poetry. The recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Lannan Award, and several O. Henry Awards, Dybek is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University.
Dybek and I met in the lobby of his hotel during his stay in Nashville. Earlier in the day he’d participated in a Q&A in which he talked about music, memory, and walking around with poems in his head. Later that night, he would read selections from Ecstatic Cahoots that would break everyone’s hearts.
Interviewer: Stories in your new collection—“Four Deuces” and the eponymous “Paper Lantern,” for example—explore what you’ve talked about as the great gift of fiction: the ability to travel forward and backward in time. Can you talk more about how time travel works in stories?
Stuart Dybek: There are two ways that strike me immediately. Number one is that fiction depends on the same thing that memory does, which is story. When we remember, we’re creating stories. In fact, one of the still undecided upon questions about childhood memory is, Do children not remember what happened to them before they were three because they don’t have the ability to cast their experience in terms of stories? The link between memory and story seems natural to me, and when you have that kind of natural link, frequently the subject becomes the link. The second [concerns] the French writer/philosopher Henri Bergson. He was enormously influential to writers who use stream-of-consciousness like Joyce and Faulkner. He talked about how human beings are animals composed of time, and that we don’t live in one time. One of the things that stream-of-consciousness does is that it tries to recreate that sense of simultaneity of time. There’s also a third reason for the back and forth in fiction. It’s maybe the only abstract medium of all the arts. There’s a huge price to be paid in terms of immediacy, in terms of sensual impact. Writers are always swimming upstream against that. But there’s also some gains: one of them is agility. You can travel in fiction at the speed of thought. By a simple transition, sometimes even one word, you can propel a reader between past and present. Other narrative forms can do that, but those forms have real time possible for them. For instance, film can do it, but film is in real time. Theater can do it, but theater is in real time. In fiction, you can create the illusion of real time, but you can’t actually have real time. It can take you five minutes to read a story, but that’s not five minutes in real time. Because fiction doesn’t have a real time, a device that seems fakey in real-time narrative—flashback, the “F” word in Hollywood—does not seem as fakey in fiction, because it’s not competing with the real time that the art is pitched at.
Conversely, fiction has that agility but it can also slow down. Do you approach speed in fiction differently? I’m thinking about a story you referenced in Paper Lantern, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
In real craft terms, the difference [in speed] has to do with how the story is employing it. By that I mean one of the things that makes flashback misunderstood is that it’s frequently used as a simple expository device. By that nature you’re summarizing, you’re speeding up. But flashback also has the ability to counterpoint past and present, in which time is slowed down. And the writer, instead of trying to give you exposition, is in fact trying to recreate the emotional power of memory. The goal of the writing here, as in Proust, is to do that impossible thing, which is to go back where the dead are and recreate some experience whose fuel we’re still running on, even if it’s just fumes. Fiction gives the writer the opportunity to actually create memory on the page the way we experience it in our lives. That’s a very different thing from using memory as a summarizing device. In one, the slowing down and detailing of time is really essential, and in the other a speeding up might be.
In Paper Lantern, music is a subject of a lot of the stories. You also have a recurring writer character in Jack. Can you talk about what connections you’re making in this collection among music, writing, and the process of making art?
Let me go back one book. I wrote I Sailed with Magellan as an homage to music. The very first story is called “Song.” The title of the whole book is actually a name of a song that two brothers sing in a story called “Live from Dreamsville.” Each story has its own little song, its own little theme. So when I came to the collection Paper Lantern that was still in my mind. I devised stories in which there was a conflict between art and life. In the first story, “Tosca,” it’s opera. Every time someone says, “I’m living my life like an opera,” their life goes down the tubes. The idea is that life can’t be lived as an opera; life can’t be lived the way we portray it in art. The next story Jack appears, and it’s called “Seiche.” He meets a girl through a poetry class, and poetry brings them together in many ways. He tries to understand her culture through poems, and yet that relationship doesn’t work and toward the end of the story, he’s being haunted. The Keats epigraph [from Paper Lantern] is from “Ode to a Greician Urn.” That urn depicts the ecstasies of life, and in my mind, that’s what’s happening in those stories. Characters are living not in the world of art, but they’re aspiring to those images on that urn. I’m very grateful that you brought this up, because it wasn’t my idea to put “Love Stories” so big on the cover. Granted, each story is a love story. I wrote them that way. But where all the energy is going is into the interplay with art. In “Oceanic,” we’ve got a character who thinks he thinks he’s a reincarnated Shelley, wants to be a Romantic poet. It’s there story after story.
I know that you sometimes write with music. You’ve also said that reading is like dancing to music. How has music influenced your writing?
When I was sixteen and living in Pilsen, an inner city neighborhood, I found, under the Wabash El, at what is now Roosevelt University, a little jazz shop that I’d never seen before, a tiny place called Seymour’s Jazz Records. I didn’t know at the time that it was one of the premier places for record collectors in the world. I walked in there and asked for a job. They called me up the next day and hired me. That summer I worked there six days a week. From nine to six, all I did was play my way through what was basically an encyclopedia of American music, especially jazz, with the kind of voraciousness that you only have in your early teens or early twenties. When I came out of there at the end of summer, I was a changed person. The music had put in me some kind of sensitivity of the world and curiosity about everything that I didn’t have before. It was the most singular most overwhelming educational experience I’ve ever had in my life. I started to read things I’d never read before: Algren, other Chicago writers. I started reading beatnik poets, because the beatniks loved music. You pick up a lot of bullshit about race growing up in the inner city. Music absolutely changed my attitude towards race, and when that happened it changed my attitude on war. A few years later King came along, and I was waiting for him, for change. It seems ridiculous to say that I thought first and foremost through music, but that was really my experience in life. A lot of times I’ll find something interesting in music, and I won’t find the corollary in writing until later. Music is emotional thinking to me. I hear this music, it’s telling me something, but it’s only in notes. It’s giving me the chance to write it in words.
Your name gets thrown around with magical realism. “Extraordinary reality” is another term you’ve used, and I like it better to describe your work. I think it covers all your stories, from the overtly fantastical, say “Nighthawks,” to the more realistic, like “Pet Milk.” What draws you to this territory?
“Extraordinary reality” I stole from a really cheesy, suspect series of books by a writer called Carlos Castaneda, who claimed to be an anthropologist. “Extraordinary reality,” Castaneda claimed, could be reached through discipline and the use of peyote and other hallucinogenics. I was least interested in the drug aspect and most interested in the fact that things happen in our lives that so thoroughly change our perspective for the good or the bad that you end up living side by side in what we’ve all tacitly agreed to be normal everyday reality, but really you’re not in that reality whatsoever. The device is one that so many writers have used, whether it’s Lewis Carroll and the rabbit hole, or one of hundreds of sci-fi writers. The idea that you enter this doorway. The central image for me was the church. I grew up in a neighborhood full of churches. Here are these people living these hardscrabble everyday lives, hustling and bloodying their knuckles and doing everything it takes to survive, and yet you open this church door and you walk past this bleeding Jesus hanging in the vestibule, and the light is pouring through the stained glass windows, and there’s this smell of incense—which is the smell of the Middle Ages for me—and there are all these colors and shades and saints, and you’re transported into a whole different reality. Yet you walk back out and the cars are backfiring, and there’s dog shit that people haven’t cleaned up off the sidewalks, and gangbangers are hanging out on one corner, and there’s graffiti from the insane assassins on the wall. The way that a human being can make that transformation fascinates me. We go in and out of these worlds. But there’s also the times when somebody can’t get back out. On occasion you go into one and it’s so powerful, either the door closes behind you or you keep moving further and further and further into it.
Going back to I Sailed with Magellan, you’ve mentioned that a majority of your stories in that collection are autobiographical. How did calling that book fiction affect your treatment of the autobiographical elements? How does memory figure into the process?
I don’t want to generalize, because I know different writers approach it so many different ways. “Leaping the Mind” [by Mary Karr] is a brilliant essay about the way she writes memoir. It appeared in the New York Times after that whole James Frey thing. Mary talks so eloquently about the need to bolster memory with research. American literature also has one of these great unusual things in it: two wonderful writers having written about the same set of parents in Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. They’re both books founded in memory but the characters seem quite different. Toby said that the very notion of memory, the whole genre of memoir means that [he’s] not writing about what happened; [he’s] writing about how [he] remembers what happened. That’s a really important distinction. Mary Karr stresses research in a way that Toby doesn’t. There’s no one way to approach it. What I will say about autobiographical elements in I Sailed in Magellan: I did for a while, especially while I was writing a story in there called “Blue Boy,” think about turning that book into memoir. Which is a more commercial form, actually. One of the things about the time we’re living in that is quite wonderful is that there are so many good examples of memoir and autobiographical fiction that as a writer, you have a lot of options and can make an informed decision as to what you want to call your own book. And I finally thought for myself, I could make this into a memoir but there are narrative liberties I want to take with some of these stories. When I start talking about narrative liberties, I’m thinking about fiction. I didn’t have to do that, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to take those liberties. I had a genre that would accommodate. I think what happened in James Frey’s book is that he wanted to take the liberties too, but he unfortunately picked a genre that didn’t accommodate how much he wanted to make up.
How is I Sailed With Magellan, an autobiographical novel, different from one of your current projects, a non-fiction novel called St. Stuart?
I studied in Iowa with a guy named Fred Exley. In his book A Fan’s Notes, the main character’s named Fred Exley. Fred Exley has a man crush on a guy he was a student with at Southern California named Frank Gifford. Frank Gifford is the American golden boy and Fred Exley is a drunk who goes to Giants games. The book is a picaresque, highly comic memoir that any reader with any skepticism at all can see is taking comic liberties with autobiographical subject matter. That’s what I’m flirting around with right now. The comic element is so important to me in [St. Stuart]. It’s just fun to read it on the podium and hear people laugh like you’re doing stand-up. Comedy exaggerates. Everybody sitting in the room ought to know that. I just want to write a funny book. I know that if I reach a point between recording something the way it happened and making it funnier, I want to make it funnier. Fred’s idea of the nonfiction novel has never really caught on. It’s not highly accepted, nobody knows quite what it means. So I don’t know if I’m going to get away with using that or not. If I don’t, I’m going to have to decide on calling it a novel that happens to have my name as the main character, or a memoir. I’ll cross that road when I come to it.