The following interview was conducted as part of the University of Memphis's ongoing River City Writers Series; the conversation took place March 7, 1995, in Memphis. Stuart Dybeck's books include two collections of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (Viking, 1980), and Coast of Chicago (Knopf 1990), as well as a work of poetry, Brass Knuckles (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979). A recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, Dybeck's writing may be found in The New Yorker, and The Best American Short Stories of 1995.
Mike Nickel: I thought we'd start by talking about the Chicago style with which you're often identified. Let's begin with the term "Chicago Writer." I'm curious how you feel about it?
Stuart Dybek: Well, at this point it might seem a little disingenuous of me to say that it was a surprise because the reviews have mentioned it so often, but it really was. When my first book of stories came out, I was living in the Keys, a long way from Chicago. And the way I had written those stories was as individual pieces until I realized that there was an organizational principle in the fact that a lot of them have to do with childhood, and a lot of them were set in Chicago. And so, I organized them around that principle, but it never occurred to me that the Chicago element was what would be picked up. As soon as it was pointed out to me, I saw it, but what was uppermost in my mind at the time was that they were stories about childhood, and that they had strong Eastern European influences.
Adrian Smith: You talk about childhood as a neighborhood itself, calling your first short-story collection Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. What is it about childhood that makes it a neighborhood?
SD: Let me try and answer that question by putting it in a larger context and say that if somebody asked me what I thought my subject was, the answer wouldn't be Chicago, and it probably wouldn't be childhood: it would be perception. I think what I'm always looking for is some door in the story that opens on another world. A doorway like that can be a religious experience; in fact, that's probably the first such doorway I was aware of. When I grew up on the southwest side, the two biggest landmarks on most every corner were a church or a tavern. I would be walking down, let's say 25th street, which would represent ordinary reality. Ordinary reality would be made up by bread trucks delivering bread, people going to work, kids playing on the sidewalk, women hanging wash and so on. But by just stepping through either one of those doorways, the tavern or the church, it seemed to me that you entered a different world. In the tavern you entered a world that moved to a different time. The time it moved to was whatever song was on the jukebox. There was the smell of alcohol. People told stories and behaved in ways that they would never behave on the street. The church was the same thing. By just entering its doors you just seemed to enter the medieval ages. There was the smell of incense, and there were statues of saints and martyrs in grotesquely tortured positions. What I look for as a writer in stories are those doorways in which somebody leaves ordinary reality and enters some kind of extraordinary reality. So, to get back to your question, childhood for me is one of those doorways. To me, childhood seems like a state of extraordinary perception, and to inhabit that state or that neighborhood means that you're perceiving the world in a different way than is defined as ordinary. It's assuming that perception that interests me. It's a lens you can look through, in which the world becomes a different, hopefully fresher, more vivid place.
MN: You mention you have a reluctance to accept the term "Chicago" writer. You feel that's a label of sorts?
SD: No, it isn't a reluctance. It's just a surprise. In fact, I was quite flattered to be included in that kind of company, and I just had never assumed that kind of lineage, that's all. …