Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hero Worship: Stuart Dybek

The stack of literary journals I’ve been meaning to get to has grown to an alarming rate, so I finally started cracking open some issues. The Summer 2008 issue of The Missouri Review has an excellent interview with one of my favorite short story writers, Stuart Dybek*. (His story “Pet Milk” never fails to put a melancholy lump in my throat; see below.)

There’s only a tiny snip of the interview on the MR web site, so here’s an excerpt that I hope will inspire you to order the issue (which the web site seems to insist is called the “Spring” issue, even though I see the word “Summer” all over my print edition):

Pearce: Why do you write to music?

Dybek: Music is pretty much what I have in place of conventional religious experience. It opens the censors to the imagination. Given fundamentalist religion’s leaning toward repression, we worry, as we should, about First Amendment censorship, but each of us has his own personal level of censorship going on. For all the lip service paid to the imagination, getting to it isn’t always easy. The imagination can be a very subversive force, and both society and the individual can be wary of that. Music helps me overcome the personal censors. It connects emotion and thought. It’s the only drug I’d think of writing on.

Pearce: If music’s a drug high, it sounds like something of an escape.

Dybek: Nothing wrong with escape if you’re in prison. A lot of my characters are looking to escape the limitations of their lives, so they find “doorways” to step through. Doorways can be drink, drugs, religion, dreams, sex, violence, etc. Music is one. Music changes perception. John Gardner talking about POV has an exercise that asks you to imagine a character looking out a window into a landscape and them imagining how that look out the window changes if the character has just received terrible news. Think of a character looking out a window listening to hip-hop and a character looking out listening to Ravel. I have a story called “The Wake,” in which one of the characters says something like how she’d like to live her life to music because, depending on what’s playing, it changes how one is living.

Here are the opening paragraphs to “Pet Milk”; unfortunately, the New Yorker, where the story first appeared, doesn’t have the entire story online, and the abstract is technically accurate, but ridiculously reductive.

"Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favorite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable — compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, "Do you take cream and sugar?" Pet milk was the cream.

"There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street."

~~From “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek, available in the short story collection, The Coast of Chicago

About Stuart Dybek (from the bio provided by The Missouri Reivew): Stuart Dybek is the author of three books of fiction and two books of poetry. His stories and poems, noted for their intense lyricism, have been reprinted in the Best American series and often deal with the hardships of growing up in the rugged South Side of postwar Chicago. In September 2007, Dybek received the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story, just a day after being awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. He is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University in Chicago.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.