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Stuart Dybek Interview: Obsessive Returns

Here’s an interview with Stuart Dybek . I once had an opportunity to study with him at an MFA program in Western Michigan State.

Q: It seems that the promising young literary talents with the most power and appeal are those with a strong sense of place, as you have with Chicago. Does your strong narrative voice–that elusive thing which all writers seek–derive its strength from setting?

A: That’s a great question. It does, but how it does I’m not exactly sure. It would be easier for me to think about how voice comes out of Flannery O’Connor, or Faulkner, or Anderson, or Joyce, who are good examples of voice coming out of setting. An obvious way in first person narration, but I think also in third person narration as well, is that the actual meter of the writing –the sentence rhythms–are expressing whatever regional quality the content of the story is expressing, and nobody ever did this better than Twain. The word “voice” itself implies oral story-telling, and so we hear the story in the regional voice of the writer. By the regional voice I’m certainly not talking about whether they’re using dialect or not, but just the very way that the cadence of the sentences are telling the story. That’s one aspect. The other aspect, I think, is that setting, in a way, in the kinds of writers I’m talking about, is a disguised obsession. It’s actually a string of obsessions. Usually what we’re calling “setting,” among other things, is a continual return to a set of images that are tremendously resonant for the writer on all kinds of levels: visual, emotional, formal, symbolic, or what have you. And the writer returns in the setting to these images and explores them time and time again. In some writers they might be a swamp, in other writers they might be close, dark urban streets, while in another writer it might be something else. It always seems as if the writer is describing place, and indeed the writer is describing place. But one of John Gardner’s wonderful lines out of The Art of Fiction is that description always brings the writer very closely in touch with his subconscious. That’s exactly what’s going on in the description of place. In order to describe the place, the writer is also returning to obsessive images of place, and those obsessive images are putting the writer in touch with deep levels of himself. The same thing is truly clear of Frost’s poetry, so what first seems like some kind of easy way to categorize writers as being regional or something, if you actually start examining how they build that world in which they’re working, you find that there’s all kinds of lyric and poetic qualities to it, because it’s so based in obsessive returns to imagery.

This interviews and others conducted by James Plath here.

Update: I said I once had an opportunity to study with Stuart Dybek. That is subject to misinterpretation. I never actually studied with him, but I was accepted into his graduate writing workshop and could have gone there (believe me, I would have liked to). I’ve actually studied with enough well-known writers to do some name-dropping; no need to inflate myself any more! Yes, by the way, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Annan about the global AIDS effort; I also had the opportunity to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, if I’m not mistaken.

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