Ignoring the No Trespassing signs, Stuart Dybek parks at the end of an unnamed gravel road near I-55 and Western, then pushes through weeds and brush to the rocky bank that slopes north toward the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It's a bright blue August afternoon, and soon he's standing in the shadow of what he calls the "jackknife bridge"--the historic "Eight Track" railroad bridge. That bridge has made cameo appearances in many of Dybek's stories and poems, most which are based on his experiences growing up as a second-generation Polish-American in Pilsen and Little Village in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.
Dybek hasn't been this close to the bridge in years. He peers up at the imposing black latticework of beams, girders, and trusses. "This bridge haunts my dreams," he says wistfully. "I spent an enormous amount of time messing around on this bridge--that story 'The Apprentice' is set here." He points to a series of concrete caissons near the middle of the murky waterway, hollow structures that sometimes fill with rain and canal water. He says kids used to call them "the tanks." Still wiry at 61, he starts to clamber out toward them, then thinks better of it--he isn't dressed for an adventure.
"Those were our swimming pools," he says. "We would flip coins to see who'd be the first to go in and break the scum of grease. There was, and perhaps still is, generations of kids who erected a series of Tarzan-like ropes where you could swing out over the river and over our swimming pools. You could also climb up on the girders, then dive down. How we never got killed or walked away with all kinds of horrible diseases, I really don't know. It had this unbelievable creosote reek to it that you would then come to associate with all the good times you had here--you would reconfigure the neighborhood through imagination so that a railroad bridge would become the world's greatest jungle gym."
One of Dybek's new poems, "Mowing," is about this spot. Part of it reads, "the secret location / of the junked backcountry of boyhood / where sanctuaries of jack rabbits / and songbirds survive along flyways / of rusted tracks, and the twittering prairie, / in broad view of downtown's smoggy range / of spires, basks in summer / behind the chain link of bankrupt factories."
Later Dybek cruises up California past the Cook County Jail, a few blocks from where he grew up. "There's this theme in everything I write about urban nature--this [greenway] we're passing once seemed to me like a vast overgrown veldt," he says. "So you have this juxtaposition between the jail on one side and the area where I felt the most free--on the way to the railroad tracks and the river."
The freedom, wonder, and lyricism of gritty industrial landscapes are hallmarks of Dybek's writing, which often combines naturalism and magic realism, though he prefers the term "fabulous." His stories, memoirs, and poems have been published over the past three decades in virtually every major literary magazine in the U.S. They've won numerous local and national awards and have appeared in many anthologies, even in the 1999 Getting It On: A Condom Reader. Many critics consider him the natural successor to James Farrell, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Harry Mark Petrakis, and Saul Bellow in the Chicago literary tradition of neighborhood writing.
"Stuart has had an earned rather than a charmed writing life," says author Howard Norman, a longtime friend. "Like any great writer, he has painstakingly evolved--there has been a tremendous deepening of the emotional dimension in his work. I can say with absolute con-viction that he is an original--I think he's the most natural and intuitive story writer we have. I'm saying that through the lens of deep affection, but I believe I would've felt that way anyway."
There have been long gaps between Dybek's books. His first short-story collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, was published by Viking in 1980 (and picked up by Ecco Press six years later). The Coast of Chicago--which included three stories that appeared in O. Henry Prize collections in the mid-80s--was published in hardcover by Knopf in 1990 (and later reissued in paperback by Vintage). Both books have been out of print for years, as has his poetry collection Brass Knuckles, which was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1979. A chapbook of prose poems and very short stories, The Story of Mist, was published by State Street Press in 1993 and is extremely hard to find. Dybek heard that as of a couple of years ago all the copies of The Coast of Chicago had disappeared from Chicago's public libraries, presumably stolen because they were collector's items. "There was only one copy left, and that was in some library on Foster," he says. "I'd been getting all these invitations to read, but it seemed ridiculous because there were no new things to read. I'm glad anybody knows me at all. It's not like I'm a best-selling author. I mean, people buy the books and come to the readings, and I'm thankful for that."
But things are looking up. In September the University of Chicago Press reissued Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, earlier this month Picador reissued The Coast of Chicago, and in February Carnegie Mellon University Press will reprint Brass Knuckles. Moreover, Farrar, Straus and Giroux just released a new book, I Sailed With Magellan, which Dybek calls a "novel in stories." Streets in Their Own Ink, a volume of poetry, will be published next year.
In The Coast of Chicago longer stories alternate with "short shorts"--compressed fictions rarely longer than a page or two. All the stories are linked by a strong sense of place, by themes concerning memory and imagination, and by an elegiac tone. The New York Times said its best stories "introduce us to characters who want to take up permanent residence in our minds," while others "read like self-conscious creative-writing class exercises." Other critics place the book in the same category as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Isaac Babel's Tales of Odessa, and even James Joyce's The Dubliners.
The Coast of Chicago isn't a true cycle of stories, because it lacks a single narrator and central characters. I Sailed With Magellan is more cohesive, with a cast of recurring characters that puts it midway between a novel and a collec-tion. Its 11 stories are told by Perry Katzek, Dybek's alter ego, as he comes of age in a changing city, from the opening "Song," in which his uncle takes the boy to a string of taverns and has him sing for bourbon, to the closing "Je Reviens," in which the adult Perry steals a bottle of perfume for a woman he's seen at Marshall Field's. The stories, which can stand on their own, have been published over the last decade in Triquarterly, Chicago, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's. One story, "We Didn't," was included in The Best American Short Stories 1994.
If you'd asked him anytime since the mid-90s when his next book was coming out, Dybek would say he was working on several projects and that a book would be published soon. He says something would have been out a lot sooner if the book he'd originally set out to write hadn't "split in half on me. As I approached the end of it I could see that the stories weren't cohabiting comfortably in the same book, and that in fact I was writing two books. The book I had imagined writing wasn't working. At that point, I saw that one of them could be [I Sailed With Magellan]. The book that I was working on was a much more fabulous book, more like The Coast of Chicago. I've got this second part of it now to finish. I'm well along."
Studs Terkel has called Dybek Nelson Algren's heir apparent and "our city's blue-collar bard." Certainly Dybek writes about ethnic neighborhoods, the working class, the rhythms of street life and urban dialect. But as Dybek wrote in the introduction to the 1993 anthology Chicago Stories: Tales of the City, the city's writers also have "an outlook in which energy is valued over elegance; instinct over fashionable theories; and street-smarts over the academic...a point of view that takes as a given the rigged, crooked nature of power and authority." It's a literature of outsiders, underdogs, heroic losers, visionaries. Most of all, he says, Chicago writing "demands sentiment--in other words, it's writing about feeling. But if you're gonna try to have sentiment in your writing the risk you take is being sentimental."
Bill Savage, a lifelong Rogers Park resident, is an Algren scholar and lecturer at Northwestern University who's taught classes on Chicago writers for the past 13 years. He says his students love Dybek's work, especially "Blight," which he calls the best short story ever written about Chicago. "The general genealogy you get is Sandburg to Dreiser to Farrell to Wright to Algren to Bellow to whomever you wish to put in there now," he says. "Dybek is right in the mainstream of that city-of-big-shoulders cliche of Chicago literature, in that he's writing about the city in an on-the-ground way, with an attention to detail and to the particulars of space--his descriptions of the city are absolutely unparalleled. He demonstrates very clearly that you can be an incredibly accomplished stylist and deal with subject matter that was long thought to be unliterary, inherently not poetic--the city--and that the industrial and the postindustrial city is as much a subject for the lyrical as it is for the huge, sweeping, brawny novel. A lot of the writers associated with Chicago, their cities are about limitations--about what you can't do and where you can't go because of who you are. But Dybek sees the city as a place where almost anything can happen. That's very unusual in the Chicago tradition."
He adds, "Chicago literature is also about divisions--divisions between groups, divisions between individuals." But in Dybek's stories "there's the possibility of people overcoming those divisions with art, connecting beyond the false dichotomies of race, class, gender, geography, neighborhood, and ethnicity."
"I know it's unfairly limiting to think of him as a Chicago writer, but he is a hell of a Chicago writer," says Carlo Rotella, a Boston College professor who was raised on the south side and wrote about Dybek in October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. "He's extraordinarily attuned to the layers of the city--past, present, and future, real and imagined, remembered and dreamed, all the different Chicagos piled on top of each other. If we're going to play the game of placing Dybek in the company of other artists, I'd suggest not only Algren and Gwendolyn Brooks, but also Edward Hopper, whose paintings share with Dybek's stories that quality of mystery. And I'd add Otis Rush too--to my mind he's Dybek's only peer when it comes to telling Chicago stories in a minor key."
Dybek doesn't deny his Chicago roots, though he tends to identify himself more generally as a "writer of place." He says he feels just as connected to writers such as Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Antonio Machado, Czeslaw Milosz, and Eudora Welty and other writers from the southern literary tradition, which he calls "the closest parallel to the Chicago tradition."
Dybek hasn't lived here for 35-odd years. Since 1974 he's been a creative-writing professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, about 150 miles from here. He says he prefers not to be in Chicago when he's writing about growing up in the city, because he wants to keep his memories pure. "If I'm writing about that jackknife bridge, for example, and I come back and realize they've changed a fence or something, then that's defeating for me and threatens to defuse some of the power of the image that's making me want to write about the bridge in the first place," he says. "I'm trying to be careful to make the mental image of it preeminent." He's set aside a 120-page story in which the bridge plays a central role. "When I pick it up again and salvage it I'm not gonna go back there and look at that bridge."
Still, he comes back to the city often, sometimes to do readings and workshops, more often to visit family, friends, and colleagues or to hang out in jazz clubs. His immediate family is no longer here. His two younger brothers live in New York. His father, Stanley, died in 1992, and his mother, Adeline, died last April.
Dybek rarely ventured into his old haunts when he came back. But having finished I Sailed With Magellan, he decided he didn't have to stay away anymore.
Dybek turns off California into a residential neighborhood. The blocks around 25th Place and Washtenaw Avenue form the epicenter of his literary universe, the place where he spent his boyhood and teen years. At the time the neighborhood's eastern Europeans were gradually being supplanted by Mexicans, who now make up the largest number of residents. It's still an urban village of run-down worker's cottages and two-flats, dotted with ma-and-pa groceries, taverns, and now taquerias--all still dominated by Saint Roman Church. Its boundaries are the 26th Street corridor to the south, Cermak to the north, a row of industrial buildings along Rockwell to the east, and California to the west.
It doesn't seem like the setting for stories that sometimes border on the fantastical, including "Blue Boy," about a boy whose skin was blue. It seems to better fit "Blight," whose opening line reads, "During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an Official Blight Area"--a designation the narrator and his thrill-seeking friends consider an honor.
"All my friends lived here," says Dybek. "I'm seeing, like, five million stories while I'm driving." He lets the car idle on 25th Place. On one side is the vest-pocket Washtenaw Park, on the other a large vacant lot that was the site of abandoned factories when he was growing up. "This street appears over and over and over again in the stories," he says. "Like in 'Blight,' where they do the drag racing? It's on this street. It didn't have these trees and shit. And it wasn't a park like this--it was a playground and a rubbled field where we played baseball." He says both sides of the street used to be lined with junked cars that winos often slept in. "Where the winos are washing themselves around a hydrant in that story 'Lunch at the Loyola Arms' after they come back from Michigan picking apples? That's right here."
At the end of the block is a three-story redbrick building that's now the south satellite of Saint Augustine College. "That's the old 3 V's birdseed factory," Dybek says. It's in a few of the stories in I Sailed With Magellan, including the novella "Breasts": "The top floor houses exotic birds--parakeets, Java birds, finches, canaries, mynahs. Sometimes there's an escape, and tropical birds, pecked by territorial sparrows, flit through the neighborhood trees while people chase beneath with fishing nets, hoping to snag a free canary."
"A lot of the things in the stories people think I make up I don't make up," Dybek says. "It might seem that it's different in the stories because they're so heavy on mood--so you're picking up on that moodiness, and it doesn't seem as plain as this."
In "Breasts" a small-time hood keeps getting distracted from killing an alleged numbers-racket skimmer by the dream-like reappearance of several old girlfriends. He finally does the hit next to the factory, causing the birds to screak and batter their cages. It's the only piece in the book with a surreal edge.
"It was one of the last stories I wrote for the book, a story I'd been wanting to write for a real long time," says Dybek. "I didn't want it to be wholly realistic, and in a sense to complete the design of the book, I decided to write a story that would have a fabulous, otherworldly element to it. And I wanted to do it in a novella, which I felt had enough weight to give a counterpoint to the rest of the book."
Yet the novella is grounded in fact--in an old neighborhood story retold so often it acquired mythic layers. "I wanted the kind of participation of imagination that fiction, and only fiction, offers you," says Dybek. "So I didn't make it a memoir. But there's enough stuff in there so that it could've been a memoir."
Other stories are grounded in different facts about the same places. "For a while after the 3 V's was abandoned it was covered with beautiful murals," he says. "In 'Que Quieres,' that story about my brother, when he's running from the gang he runs by here, and there's that huge mural with the Virgin of Guadalupe. But you can see they sandblasted it--the bricks are clean."
That story, told in a series of flashbacks, is about as autobiographical as Dybek gets in fiction. In it Perry Katzek's brother Mick returns to Chicago to visit his old family home and is confronted by a Mexican gang, which really happened to one of Dybek's brothers. Mick's mem-ories--and Perry's descriptions of him struggling to get his life together--are constantly interrupted by the gang members' insistent "Que quieres?" The question--"What do you want?"--repeats like a jazz motif and keeps bringing the story back to the main theme.
Dybek was born at Saint Anthony Hospital in 1942. His parents were living in a cold-water flat, with a bathroom down the hall, in an apartment building at 1438 W. 18th St.--the setting for "Chopin in Winter." His father had come to the U.S. from Poland as a small boy around 1912, and the family lived in New Jersey until moving to Pilsen in the 1920s. His mother's family had come to America from Poland some years earlier. Her father--the wellspring of many memoirs and stories--had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania and was the lone survivor of a Johnstown mining disaster in the early 1900s.
Dybek's paternal grandmother was also a major influence. As a kid he spent a lot of time at her house at 2039 W. 17th St., which is still standing. He was fascinated by the railroad yards and the grain elevators across the street; the elevators were razed several years ago. In one of his most popular stories, "Pet Milk," the protagonist is sitting at her table drinking coffee when the cream swirling in his cup
triggers memories of a youthful love affair. "She was really powerful for me--that first counterpoint of the real and the fabulous--and her place represented everything for me," says Dybek. "She was my first realization that there was this other America." She barely spoke English, and he barely spoke Polish. Yet he remembers that they could "communicate across language," which taught him that "even in a verbal medium like writing, poems and stories could be about the unsayable."
Around 1950 she rented out her basement apartment to the Rodriguezes, and Dybek, then going to Saint Procopius School, played with their kids. "They were the first Mexican family I met and got to know," he says. "It was real clear to me then how, though the ethnicities were different, the immigration experiences were similar. It was the first note of that neighborhood in transition."
When Dybek was in third grade his father, a foreman at the nearby International Harvester plant, and his mother, a part-time truck dispatcher, moved the family into a bigger apartment a dozen blocks to the southwest. He says he was a "weedy, wild" kid who hated school and often got into trouble for things like cutting classes and cracking wise. But he says the nuns at Saint Roman grade school usually cut him some slack because he knew his catechism and Bible stories and could identify obscure saints.
He ran with all kinds of kids and says they were part of a gang, though not a real gang like the local Two-Twos, the Latin Saints, or the Insane Unknowns. "We were like a huge tribe, which at the time trumped race and ethnicity to some degree--ethnicity for sure," he says. "It didn't mean that there weren't racial and ethnic jokes being made at one another's expense, but nonetheless the gangs were multiethnic."
The kids made up ball games, loitered, hopped freight trains, trespassed on factory grounds, torched junkers, broke into derelict buildings, explored woods and marshes. He collected butterflies, though he didn't tell his friends that. He got into scrapes, though he was too small to win fights.
"One of the things that made my childhood happy was that I realized one of the roles my friends allowed me to have was as an organizer of stuff, of play," he says. "As boys growing up in the hood we would devise all these habits and rituals." Later, when he and his friends went to Saint Rita High School, they got their hands on beaters and could range across the city.
Carlo Rotella writes that if Algren's narrative concerned "industrial urbanism's decline," Dybek's concerns a "postindustrial urbanism that is rooted in the old city and equipped to engage with the new." He also writes that one way Dybek's characters grapple with their changing neighborhood is through the "search for ecstatic experience."
Dybek, who thinks Rotella's book is one of the most astute he's read on city writers, agrees, though he says he doesn't "set out with theses." Instead "you're always after these momentary bursts of pleasure or some kind of revelatory, extraordinary ex-perience that, while you're not gonna sustain it, you'll remember. Until you can manufacture it or luck into it again, it'll serve as a genuine alternative to the grinding-down dull everyday of life." He adds, "What I don't think I could articulate but knew on some level was that the ecstatic had to do with perception. If somebody asked me to say what my stories are about in just one word I'd say 'perception.' The characters are constantly in these changing perceptual states. Some doorway in a story opens up, and the character goes through the doorway--it's the Alice in Wonderland thing. And once through the doorway--whether it's the doorway of a church, a tavern, a movie theater, or even on the street--the perception is changed. And once the perceptual shift occurs, that change in perception calls everything into question."
Dybek cuts through an alleyway, then pulls around in front of his family's old place at 2455 S. Wash-tenaw. It's a dark-brick six-unit apartment building--one of only a few in the neighborhood--and the family lived on the first floor. He says it hasn't changed much, though a chain-link fence now surrounds it.
Just to the north of the building is a makeshift parking area. "Kashka's building used to be right here," says Dybek, describing her as a crazy old Polish woman who lived in decrepit house with her husband. In the backyard they kept chickens and a rooster, which used to wake the boys up every morning. His recollections of what they could overhear from Kashka's house are in "Live From Dreamsville."
Dybek drives across California and cruises around the residential neighborhood just west of the County Jail, where ramshackle little blocks around Whipple and 28th abut weedy industrial lots. A turreted guardhouse looms over an unnamed tavern at the corner of 28th and Sacramento, its dusty windows facing a cyclone fence across the street. "The south side is really different--it's really hardscrabble," he says. "But this stuff looks beautiful to me. I mean, it's funny. I don't know if it's self-defense or what, but you develop an aesthetic that would find an alley beautiful."
Plenty of people clearly still live and work near the jail. "We're going by all these incarcerated lives, and over here are all these fuckin' abandoned factories and prairies trying to grow up, all these truck docks and everything," Dybek says. "It's the juxtaposition. If you do it on the page it adds up like one plus one equals five. You don't have to think it out--you can just feel it out. In fact, if you think it out you ruin it. But incarceration is just the obvious edge of it, because there's so much economic and cultural and racial and ethnic kinds of incarceration going on around us."
This is the main locale of "Hot Ice," which won the 1985 O. Henry Prize. It weaves together the lives of three buddies--two "in the prime of life going nowhere," and one who dies in prison--with a local legend about a girl who drowned in the Douglas Park lagoon and whose father, "crazy with grief," took her half-naked body to the icehouse he owned and froze it in a block of ice.
In the story the icehouse is about to be razed. In reality it still stands, at the southwest corner of 26th and Sacramento, though it's now Laredo Auto Parts. At one point in "Hot Ice" one of the buddies shouts at the jail's inmates, "We're out here free, man! We're smokin' reefer, drinking cold beer while you're in there, you assholes! We're on our way to fuck your wives, man!" When the prisoners start yelling back he and a friend take off running past the icehouse. "This is where they run down the railroad tracks," Dybek says. "We used to come over here and shout at the cons--I mean, that's all true."
Dybek often says, "That's true." Or something close. After "Orchids" appeared in the winter 1999 DoubleTake he said, "I feel a special affection for it because it's mostly true." In the novella Perry and a friend hatch a Kerouac-and-Dexedrine-inspired scheme to finance a road trip to Mexico by stealing orchids from a fictional swamp near the Baha'i Temple. Rotella says it "might be the best single sustained piece of his work."
Dybek says some of his stories--"Blight," "We Didn't"--started as poems, and some of his fiction pieces, such as "Blue Boy," were first memoirs. Where does he draw the line between true and mostly true?
"For me--and I'm not trying to pontificate for every writer--genre is a tool," he says. "Memoir is a genre, short story is a genre, novel is a genre. It seems to me that one of the things that typifies what a genre is has to do with reader expectation. You can either use that expectation or you can confound that expectation. The whole point of a memoir is that the reader approaches it by saying, 'Ah, this is real, this is life,' even though the reader knows that memory is incredibly unreliable. In fiction that's not the reader's expectation." Much of his work, he adds, "has to do with the room that I know the reader would give me without accusing me of breaking the rules of the game the reader thought we were involved in. Reading is so mysterious, and it demands such enormous participation. To my mind, you really have to be careful about the pact you're establishing, because the reader is such a cocreator. I don't want the relationship to be between what I think and the reader. I want the relationship to be between the stories and the reader."
Moreover, he says, what's true and what isn't "can be asked of any writer of place--Eudora Welty, Faulkner. Any writer of place, finally, who doesn't make it up does make it up. It's a funny dichotomy. But it isn't journalism--that it isn't."
Bill Savage doesn't think it's much of an issue. "If it's a badly told memoir that's true, the truth value doesn't add anything to it," he says. "And if it's a well-told fictional story that's got a nugget of the truth in it, the nugget of truth doesn't matter as much as how well the story is told."
Dybek read a lot as a kid, mostly Greek mythology and comic books. His father called him "the dreamer." He didn't think of writing as a vocation and didn't know that he was living in the same city at the same time as Algren, Bellow, and Brooks. As a teen he wanted to be a musician. He got hooked on jazz and blues, took clarinet and saxophone lessons (an experience mined in "Song"), and was part of an informal band that sometimes backed up a polka group at a neighborhood bar. At 16 he got his first job, as a clerk at Seymour's Records on Wabash, "which had one of the greatest collections of jazz, going all the way back to the one-sided 78s." He remembers sneaking into south-side clubs to see John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
He graduated from Saint Rita in 1959 and got a job working in an ice cream factory. Then his father decided to take a job transfer to Memphis, which Dybek saw as an "opportunity to move out and stay behind on my own." He found an apartment near the lake in Rogers Park and started classes at Loyola--making him the first in his family to go to college. To help pay the bills he worked as a credit investigator for a bank and in the advertising department at International Harvester. He'd entered as a premed student, but even though he'd been put in a remedial English class, he soon switched to English literature. He wrote stories and sent them to publishers, "more out of naivete than ambition." They were all rejected.
He got his MA in 1964 and for the next two years was a caseworker for the county's public-aid office. He says he wanted to contribute something to society, but in the end found the bureaucracy too stifling. His experiences at the agency are distilled in the story "Charity."
Next Dybek tried teaching, first at an elementary school in Morton Grove, then at a high school in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he taught mostly disadvantaged kids who were eager to learn. "It was the greatest two years of my life," he says. "It really changed my attitude about education." He also fell in love with the Caribbean, and nearly every year he returns to scuba dive, snorkel, fish, or just hang out.
In 1970 Dybek started a doctoral program in English education at the University of Iowa. "What I wanted to do initially was work in curriculum or open up my own school in a ghetto somewhere," he says. "I wasn't reading Shakespeare. I was reading John Dewey and people like that. I still have a huge regard for Dewey's writing on education as a democratizing force. I don't think that's naive idealism."
After being awarded a teaching and writing fellowship Dybek wound up in the school's master of fine arts program in writing, the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, then overseen by Jack Leggett. He took fiction and poetry courses from people such as Richard Yates, Donald Justice, and John Cheever--the first professional writers he'd ever met. His classmates included T. Coraghessan Boyle, Denis Johnson, and Tracy Kidder, who's still one of his closest friends.
Dybek began to realize how much intensive effort and self-discipline writing demanded. In a profile in the spring 1998 Ploughshares he describes how he found his voice and subject matter. He said he'd read that composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly had scoured the Hungarian countryside in search of folk music to incorporate into their compositions. He bought some of their records, and as soon as he listened to them memories of his family and old neighborhood flooded back. He began reading Kafka and Isaac Babel, then wrote a story titled "The Palatski Man." It was rejected by 16 literary journals before appearing in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1971.
As an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in the late 70s and early 80s, I took one of Dybek's fiction workshops. The classes often met in his living room, in a rambling Victorian just down the hill from the main campus. He and his wife Caren, a longtime high school language teacher, still live in the house, where they raised their two children: Anne, now a spokesperson for the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Nick, who just entered the University of Iowa's writing program.
What I recall most about Dybek's classes--which were generally pretty convivial, partly because of the wine that was drunk--was his urging us to experiment with voice and with narrative that "defeated time." He was more a benevolent coach than a critic. As he told WMU magazine in 1999, "I can remember myself that what I needed...at Iowa was some kind of affirmation from people whose writing I respected and whom I could believe as professionals."
He believes it's possible to teach creative writing. "You can teach the craft of any art, just like you can teach painting, music, dance," he says. "It doesn't mean you're gonna be Margot Fonteyn, but maybe you'll be Margot Fonteyn if you have talent." Yet he says there are different expectations: people know that if they want to be musicians they have to practice daily, but it's harder to get them to understand that learning to write can take as much practice as learning to play a clarinet.
Bonnie Jo Campbell took Dybek's graduate-level fiction workshop in 1997 and has since published a short-story collection and a novel. "A couple things struck me about Stu," she says. "He suggested that anecdotes are good stuff for stories--some of his short shorts are really just anecdotes. Often we ignore anecdotes because we don't think of them as serious fiction. But any story you enjoy telling is a good candidate for building a literary story. Maybe the most important thing I learned was to serve the story. There will always be questions of symbolism and meaning and consistency and believability, and there's the whole matter of style and language. But the most important thing is a good story to start with."
Dybek's fiction recalls time and plays with time. Objects or events trigger flashbacks, which become extended riffs off the main story line. Critics have also noted that many recent stories have been less remembered and more about memory itself--about the process of how we reconstruct the past. "For me, fiction is the most natural medium for writing about the past," he says, adding: "Once I realized that [time] was the character of my medium, I began to realize that the character of my medium was bleeding over not only into the stories I was telling, but also into the way I was telling the stories, so that everything started to have a coherence--the mediums, the stories, the themes, the subjects. It isn't about nostalgia, it isn't about 'I remember this.' It's about the very act of living--that even as you're living in the present you're living in the past and maybe even in the future. You're constantly time traveling. And one element of the ecstatic or the lyrical is that moments expand or shrink, speed up or slow down."
Yet Dybek hints that he could be through with writing about his childhood and young adulthood and his neighborhood, at least for now. He says he wants to go in a different direction, or maybe several directions at once.
He does seem to be reconnecting with his past in other ways. Since 1996 he's spent his Julys in the Czech Republic leading creative-writing workshops as part of the Prague Summer Program, a WMU-run program that brings together dozens of American and eastern European authors and scholars to teach literature, film, and drama. Dybek says it's taken him back to his Slavic roots and to Kafka. He was astonished to see that much of what Kafka described was real. "Everybody who goes to Prague," he says, "has the exact same take, which is, 'Holy fuck! I thought he made all this shit up! He didn't make any of this up.' Here's the winding streets, there's the castle, here's the bridge--I mean, it's all there."
He's also returned to one of his first loves, teaching needy kids. He's hooked up with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation's Writers in Schools program, which sends authors into inner-city high schools to discuss their books and writing lives. Last year he did a three-day workshop at a Washington, D.C., school and is tentatively scheduled to do one in Chicago in January. "I'm so much more interested in that than in my book tour, to tell you the truth," he says. "These kids can use all the enrichment they can get. And the teachers participate, which makes all the difference in the world. If a writer had come to my class in high school it would've been a life-changing experience."
Yet the connection to the source of his childhood memories remains powerful. For years he's talked about renting or buying a place in Chicago, though he's never done anything about it. As he drives through Pilsen, along the streets of his earliest memories, he says, "I love this neighborhood--my whole family comes from here, I wanna move back to the city, and this is the place I'm thinking about."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.