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Off the Page: Stuart Dybek, John McNally

With Stuart Dybek and John McNally
Fiction Writers
Thursday, March 25, 2004; 1:00 PM

The characters in the new books by John McNally and Stuart Dybek could easily cross paths.

Hank in McNally's The Book of Ralph and Perry Katzek in Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan are literary cousins, growing up in nearby neighborhoods in the south of Chicago, rubbing elbows with the city's seedier side. They are also linked by their nature: Perry and Hank are sometimes naive observers of the life they see, whose views are sharpened by their authors' visions.

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Dybek and McNally joined Off the Page from Chicago, in a special discussion live from the Associated Writers Program conference. Writers at the conference also asked questions, along with the online audience (you!).

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Chicago, Ill.: Question for both Stuart and John:

In a panel discussion recently, John O'Brien from Dalkey Archive Press said, "There is a kind of Chicago aesthetic. It's an aesthetic that's out in the streets, I don't see it very much in the literature ... nobody ever talks about a Chicago style."

Is there a "Chicago aesthetic" or a "Chicago style? If so, is it reflected in your work?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: Sure. Do writers pay attention to it is maybe another question. Consciously, I 'd have to say no. But I think that any writer of place is just kind of wired to express both the physical landscape and whatever psychological landscape that all places carry with them.

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: When you are writing, are you aware of the Chicago aesthetic? Do you feel a duty to your region, to adhere to that style?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally:

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: Stuart, I know you publish poetry as well as fiction. I'm curious about how you make a decision which genre to write in -- do you start with one, and move to another? Or do you know when you begin with a topic: this needs to be said with characters in narrative, vs. something more lyrical?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: Those kinds of traveling between genre happen for me, but they're almost never conscious decisions. I've never had a story that's become a poem. Ray Carver, who was a friend, used to say he couldn't write fiction without writing poetry, and that's very true for me, if only because for fiction, I loop the poems for fiction. I keep all my verse, mostly they're just collections of images. Very seldom do I jot down a story, and the reason is I try to hide from my story. I'm afraid if I tell them to myself, I've removed the pressure from telling them to others, but also then I'm writing to a template that I don't want. It's just how I'm wired. My friend Tracy Kidder needs to tell his stories repeatedly. I know because we drive to the Keys every year together, and it's a long drive.

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.

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Carole Burns: I suppose every novel is a series of stories, but it's especially true with both your new books. Why are you writing in this way, and what effect do you think it has on the overall story?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: John: Mine came about just accidentally. Three of the stories that appeared in my first book were characters I decided to continue writing about, and I thought I'd write a few more stories for another collection. But as I continued writing more stories about Hank and Ralph, I wanted to do more. Then I began looking at it in terms of a book, and trying to find different ways to structure it. I wanted to show them as adults, but I didn't want to have a series of stories of them as adults, which is why I ended it with a novella. But when it came to marketing it, I had it called fiction. If people wanted to read it as a novel or as a series of stories, it's up to them.

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: How do you know when you're done with a sequence of stories?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: I've never been able to answer that question. For me it's just a gut level. Sometimes it comes in a flash. Sometimes it's got to lay around for a while. If somebody else believes it's done, then you start believing it's done.

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: Louise Erdrich's "Love Medicine" follows the same pattern, where characters satellite out and then circle back into the original narrative. Is that an active, conscious process on your part, or will these characters just refuse to quit talking to you?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: John: For me it’s they won't quit talking. I really like those characters, I like the situations that are created out of the stories, and I don't have any plans right now to write other stories for those characters. But I know something is going to strike me as some point that will be the perfect vehicle that might be an opportunity to go back and do with those characters again.

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LIVE from Chicago: So many authors put a subject away when the book is done. But this notion of characters satelliting out and then reinhabiting a story, remaining interconnected and inspiring new work -- is that true for you as well Stuart?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: A book becomes a design, and maybe at a gut level you feel you've completed the design, the book is over. But it doesn't necessarily mean the stories don't stop coming. Updike does that, with Rabbit, and in fact the first Rabbit book came from a short story.

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.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: It has been said that writers write best when the write what they know. How essential was your knowledge of the culture of Chicago to your writings, and how important is it to have your stories set in Chicago?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: Whether you're writing about Chicago or whatever your subject is, I think the writing what you know stuff, what you have to remember is that the imagination doesn't feast on fact. So sometimes, whether it's library work or life work research. what you have to keep in mind is you're feeding the imagination. What you know is not what you're writing about. You're using what you know to make imaginative leaps.

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: I have a question about the writing life. I just came from a panel on how to make money as a writer. How do you balance writing with all the other things you have to do as a writer: interviews, readings, conferences -- all these things that seem today to be necessary for a writer, that have so little to do with writing.

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: John: As far as work goes, I teach, but in my first tenure-track job after 15 years of teaching, and it's the eighth place I've taught. So the writing life, it's been times it's more difficult than others times, and I've had to work three jobs, adjunct teach and sign up for manpower and do data entry, and try to sneak in writing when I could, sometimes on the job. Those were always the jobs that I looked for, working in a library. I'd wait for everybody to leave for lunch and pull out my stuff and start working.

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.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Can you both talk a little about what you're working on now?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: I don't know if you can even call it working. I sent in the galleys for a book of poems that comes out in November.

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: John McNally: I know you've edited many anthologies, and you teach. Can you talk about how reading new writers' work and being an editor has informed and affected your own work?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: John: I edited four anthologies in about five years, and that consumed my time for reading other things. What's nice about is it did introduce me to a lot of new writers whose work I wasn't familiar with. One of my favorite things is being able to include the work of someone who perhaps has only published two or three stories, and putting them along side writers whom I've always been a fan of. There's something daunting though about editing an anthology. The first was about infidelity, and I read about 800 stories about infidelity. It skews your perception of the world.

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.

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LIVE from Chicago: Regarding Chicago stories and sentiment, and writing from what you've described as a working class perspective, does it ever disturb you that the class that affects your work probably watch more television than read fiction?

Stuart Dybek and John McNally: Stuart: I think that's a question I've thought about. Chicago is a great jazz town, and there's a homegrown music group, and frequently I go to their concerts, and people like Lester Bowie, really great musicians would be there, and it would really be a very African American with the emphasis on African. And yet I'd look out in the audience and most of the people looked like they were Caucasians from the University of Chicago. I mean, I was there too. You had this very political African-based American jazz music, but the kids were all listening to rap. I think that dilemma is a dilemma that travels, it's not just a Chicago working-class dilemma. And the answer is you just go ahead and make your art. The fact that you're putting it into the consciousness is important.

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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Carole Burns: Thanks so much to John, Stuart and our audience -- both real and virtual.

Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

Please join us in two weeks, when we have Elizabeth Graver, author of the book THE HONEY THIEF, talking about her new book, AWAKE. See you then!

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