Here’s an interesting Q&A with writer Stuart Dybek I did back in January for one of my news writing courses. I stumbled across it in my saved files, and thought I would give it a revisit.
Stuart Dybek loves his hometown so much that he sets his stories in Chicago. Dybek, winner of the O.Henry Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, is a distinguished writer in residence at Northwestern University, where he teaches writing workshops. “No matter how many text messages you send or grocery lists you make, you haven’t used the tools a real writer does,” Dybek says. “It’s deceptive, really.”
Whitney Harrod talks with Dybek about his take on story-telling (excerpts)
You use Chicago as a setting in your stories. Could you give a different city the same justice?
I’m essentially a writer of place, so the likelihood is that wherever I grew up I would have written about. But I grew up in Chicago, so it’s hard for me to hypothetically imagine what I would have written about if I grew up in San Francisco. The answer is no, but I’m not sure how many people could answer that question yes.
Are writers over or out of touch with reality?
It varies widely depending on a writer’s sensibility. There are such a wide variety of subjects and some writers look out and some look inward. Some writers straddle the two. Good work can be done from any of those perspectives.
I’ve heard that some of your stories, including “We Didn’t,” make readers feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed.
I don’t ever have a target to embarrass a reader, but I do frequently hope to arrive somewhere in a story that’s not predictable. Sometimes in order to do that means that you’re going to address a certain kind of subject matter that people aren’t used to, or you’re going to try to do it in a non-formulaic kind of way. That particular kind of story is not very explicit. It’s more the perspective of the story than anything in the language that’s specifically explicit. When you’re getting out of a formulaic kind of thinking, then the story becomes sometimes uncomfortable or allusive. You don’t know what’s coming next.
How long does it take you to finish a story?
It really varies. I always try to write when I’m teaching. I’m working on a fabulist story now that I feel is only fitting given that I’m having my students do the same thing. I took a shot at it two years ago and never finished it – maybe 11,000 words. This one’s taking a long time and is very involved. It’s a different kind of straight forward. A story that leans more on memoir than on invention may be written in half the time.
How do you create imagery and details?
Well, it’s in part of a layering process. Very seldom is it done in one setting. You get the basics down then you sit back down and layer it. Finally it’s a photo coming out of developing solution. It reaches a point and you say that’s it. Then you move on to next part of the story.