Off the Page: Stuart Dybek, John McNally
Thursday, March 25, 2004; 1:00 PM
John: Stuart did a fine job! I was pleased with that. Yeah, I think Chicago does have its own literary aesethetic, but I'm not sure how to define it because I think it varies from author to author. But I think itís like the people in Chicago--I mean, most of the people I knew growing up were working class. I think of Chicago as a working-class city and most of the fiction I think of has that kind of backdrop to it. It seems to be informed by work, by what people do. But beyond that, it's hard for me to really define it. In some ways, when I think of New York fiction I think of it being kind of coy perhaps and self-consciously ironic. When I think of Chicago fiction I think of as gritty, and when humorous, it might be more of a smart-ass humor than coy.
John: I'm not consciously trying to write a Chicago style. But since I grew up here, it's just part of my sensibility. I wasn't able to write about it right after I moved away. It took me about ten years or so. I've lived here one year since 1983, and I find myself writing more and more about Chicago. But I'm not consciously trying to adopt a certain kind of city or urban Chicago style:
Stuart: You could complicate this discussion very quickly. Number 1, I'm not even sure I write about Chicago. I think I re-imagine Chicago, and it surprises me when I get e-mails and letters from people who grew up in the same neighborhood I did and say, you really caught it. Because my first allegiance is to the imagination, and to the way I'm imagining the story. Most writers right that way. We could talk about Chicago writers and group them with urban writers, or writers of place. And you'll see writers writing about Chicago have a lot of common with Eudora Welty writing about Mississippi, or James Joyce writing about Dublin. So these categories always come after the creative work. I wrote an essay for a book called Chicago Stories, and I tried to pick out things that typify Chicago writers, but I wasn't doing that as a writer, I was doing it as a reader. As a reader you draw conc! lusions, and it's a certain kind of thinking that universities are fond of, but it's different from writing. For me, what would typify Chicago writers is an interest in neighborhood, and in immigration, and in ethnicity. This is a city where everyone asks you, Where are you? The answer is never American.
Going back to John's point, I think one of the things that does in fact typify Chicago writers is an interest in sentiment--they write work that asks the reader to feel something. There isn't that ironical detachment. This is one of the few cities in the United States where class is an open consideration in the work. Class is as American something you're absolutely taught not to think about it. You can think about race, gender, ethnicity, but you canít think about class. That's not true in Chicago.
On occasions, a finished story started out as a poem, and usually it's because I can't figure out how to make a poem work. Characters start appearing, and something happens that makes me realize, now I'll never control this poem. I would like to think that when that happens accidentally, that it kind of puts poetry DNA in a story's genes, but it's only by accident that it happens. But I'm all for accident. I saw a story on fashion, the clothes were really weird, big baggy things, but the designer said, the way she designs clothes, she waits to see some kind of accident happen, and if it's interesting, she follows that accident.
Stuart: Unfortunately, I hardly ever write essays, but I have on these, and I have way too much to yak about. David Shields wrote the HANDBOOK OF DROWNING and I wrote an introduction. It's linked stories, and a novel in stories, and it got me thinking about it. John's reservations about reader reaction are well founded. There are these various watchdog critics all over the place, Craig Somebody, who writes a lot for the New York Times, is one. He seems to gravitate toward these collections that have some unity, then gets all POd about the fact they're not novels. It just surprises me. We're in the 21st century, and the 20th century was a century of hybrid form, and to have some ignoring the fact that there are prose poems, and hybrid forms, and not admitting hybrid forms become their own forms, seems odd. It's not like we haven't had Winesburg, Ohio around, and the Dubliners, for a w! hile. They're seminal in contemporary literature. Those are books that I really like a lot, and some of them have been the most important books in my life.
When you write your own version of a book like that, it's got to be in some sense an homage. Almost everything Calvino writes is in that form. His models were Chaucer, Boccaccio. So books like this go way back.
The other thing I grew up writing were Kinda Blue, Sketches of Spain, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe as a prose writer I can put this kind of concept book together. What in invites is an enormous collaboration between the writer and the reader. You're asking the reader to participate, but you're telling the reader there are all sorts of clues here. Just like the painters who do sequences. Does Goya see those sequences beforehand in Guernica? The writer is participating is seeing the sequential qualities, and the reader then participates in seeing the sequential qualities. The way you don't do with The Brothers Karamazov.
I like that looseness enormously, and it goes back to poetry in a way, because that's how they put together a collection, and sometimes they write poems they wouldn't have written, if they hadn't gotten involved in sequence.
John: For the last book I wrote, I think I may return to those characters again. I couldn't see adding anything more that would expand the book in terms of any of what I wanted to accomplish, though I'm not sure I know what I wanted to accomplish. It kept growing as you go along, and you start finding yourself creating things you wouldn't have created by virtue of the way you're putting it together. I wanted short-shorts in between, and have them focus on place, but I didn't have a plan going into it. When I thought the book was done, I though there was a missing piece, and when these two characters first met, and it's the last thing I wrote for the book. Which then worked well for me, in terms of the last story. When they first meet, it's a story in which the kids in fifth grade put together a ! diorama of the future. Ralph, who's failed two grades, puts together a diorama, the city hasn't changed at all. The final chapter then is the future, and we see the city hasn't changed any. It worked out that way. Originally I had it sequential, then it made sense to juxtapose the last chapter.
John: I find it comforting somehow. It's a landscape that I know. When I began writing the other stories for the new book, I didn't have to think so hard about who they were and what their family lives were like. That filtered in as I wrote. They already have their histories, and now with the book they have their arc. So if I wanted to go back and write something in between, I'd have a good sense of their lives. And not have to start from scratch.
John: I don't really begin the stories thinking, Do I know enough about this, because it's so much rooted in character. For me, if I feel comfortable in the voice, it's filtering and processing things through the consciousness of the character. I always think I don't write autobiographically, but when people start dissecting the story, where'd your get this?, it's always things that are autobiographical, and those things come about subconsciously. So I can't really separate writing what I know and writing what I don't know.
Stuart: You're writing what you know so that you can write what you don't know.
But now I have a good teaching load so I can have a daily schedule. Travel disrupts it horribly. The older I get the more I'm set in my ways. I used to be able to write anywhere, and now, if a dog barks three blocks away, it drives me crazy. So things like this, I've been in Chicago for a week promoting the new book, and I haven't written anything, and I feel antsy about that, because there are things I should be working on and things I want to be working on. Bt it's nice to meet people reading your book. For years I published in small magazines and I imagined nobody had ever read anything I'd written, so it' s a pleasant change to meet people who happened to pick up the book.
Stuart: I think everybody's just so much in the same boat, that I don't have an answer.
John: I'm working on screenplays right now, because of a fellowship program I'm currently in. There aren't as many words on a page, so you make a lot of progress. I don't have to worry about whether somebody walking into a room if that's a aesthetically pleasing sentence. I look at fiction as the first love of my art, but I've always loved film, so it's an interesting genre to work in. It's deceptive, in the sense that it looks easier than you think it is.
An anthology is a big puzzle. There may be three or four stories I really like, and they may be very similar in theme or tone, and I end up sending back work I might publish anyway. It ends up becoming this challenge. You're looking at the length of the stories, the tone and the point of view. For the baseball anthology, it was hard to find women writing about baseball. It's fun, until I'm looking to fill the last few slots, because I can't find just what I'm looking for, or the story I want to use is too long.
If you read 700 stories about infidelity, if you write a story about infidelity, you know that about 500 people wrote it in a similar way. I know immediately what not to be drawn toward. It's the same thing with teaching too. You read thousands of pages in student work, and you see common denominators, and if I never taught, I would be drawn toward the same things my students are drawn toward, and I wouldn't realize it's the first thing one is drawn to.
I think you have to be careful underestimating the working class's commitment to art. The house I grew up in had only Reader's Digest. But with people in the working class who do get a relationship to the arts, it's almost religious in its intensity. There's sometimes a fervor to a working-class artist, and I think the working class reader has an extraordinarily intense connection to it, because they haven't grown up with that particular kind of art.
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