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Birnbaum v.

Stuart Dybek

Our man in Boston gets nostalgic for his Chicago roots in this wonderful conversation with short story master Stuart Dybek about the city of Daley, Bellow’s turf, and the difficulty of writing in a sentimental, nevermind linear fashion.

Chicago writer Stuart Dybek grew up on that city’s South Side in a Polish-American neighborhood called Pilsen or Little Village (also the main setting for his fiction) and attended Loyola University in Chicago and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (some of his classmates were Tracy Kidder, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Denis Johnson). He has published three short story collections, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed With Magellan, and two volumes of poetry, Brass Knuckles and Streets in Their Own Ink. He has been anthologized frequently and regularly appears in magazines such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine and the Paris Review. He has been awarded numerous literary prizes and distinguished citations, including a Nelson Algren Award. Dybek teaches at Western Michigan University when he is not in Chicago.

Dybek is considered a master of short-form fiction, and I Sailed With Magellan, which portrays the Chicago escapades of Perry Katzek in 11 stories (2003), is the final volume in a story trilogy that has been written over a 25-year period and follows the highly regarded The Coast of Chicago (1990), of which Ploughshares editor Don Lee wrote, “This is a book about trying to bridge polarities: the past and future, tradition and assimilation, hopelessness and joy, night and day.” It has been compared to [Ernest] Hemingway’s In Our Time; [Sherwood] Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; and [James] Joyce’s Dubliners.

In the conversation that follows, I’m pleased to note that Chicago is a prominent matter of discussion. It is clear how much Chicago means to Stuart Dybek—I hadn’t realized how much it meant to me.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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Robert Birnbaum: Isn’t today [July 26] the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution?

Stuart Dybek: Ya got me.

RB: Fifty-two years ago, the revolution was launched with a dreadfully inept attack on the Cuban army’s Moncada barracks. Anyway, so you are up in Maine, what’s an ex-Chicago guy doing in Maine? [laughs]
Dybek, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
SD: Visiting my fishing buddy.

RB: What’s Kalamazoo, Mich., like?

SD: [long pause] It’s close to Chicago.

RB: [laughs] Natural, backwoodsy, and pretty?

SD: It has some of that aspect that people associate with Michigan, but you really have to go farther north.

RB: To the Upper Peninsula?

SD: Not that far. I’d say 100 miles farther north and you are in really pretty country. Jim Harrison kind of country.

RB: Speaking of whom, I just busted a gut laughing at his new novellas in The Summer He Didn’t Die. There’s a new Brown Dog story.

SD: He’s one of my favorite guys. In fact, I just guest-edited a TriQuarterly, and I made sure to get a couple of Jim’s poems in there. I love his poetry, too.

RB: I know TriQuarterly from the Charles Newman and Elliott Anderson days.

SD: I go that far back. Sure. And now Susan Hahn.

RB: Where are they now?

SD: I don’t know. Elliott Anderson ended up in Hawaii, which is not a bad place to end up in, but I’m not sure where Newman is.

RB: I read a previous interview you did and it, predictably—it began with the “You can take the guy out of Chicago but you can’t take Chicago out of the guy” idea. You have been in Kalamazoo for quite a while.

SD: I have.

RB: When you are asked where you are from, what do you say, Chicago or Kalamazoo?

SD: [long pause] It depends—if I’m just making polite conversation I tell ‘em I’m in Kalamazoo; if we’re talking literary stuff, I have never written a line in my life that is set in Kalamazoo, Mich.

RB: [laughs]

SD: With one exception. A story that appeared in the Virginia Quarterly last year where a guy is on his way to an affair or a fling and happens to go through Kalamazoo. It isn’t anything against Kalamazoo. It’s that at heart I’m an urban writer and it’s just not an urban place.

RB: So why aren’t you teaching in a more urban—in a big city?

SD: It wasn’t a matter of wanting. It was a matter of where I got a job. Since that, then, I have had numerous job offers. It really has been the proximity to Chicago that’s kept me there.

RB: Here’s the thing—I grew up in Chicago.

SD: Where at?

RB: I’m a North Side guy. Well, as immigrants, my family started on the South Side, on Homan Street.

SD: Sure. Right in my old neighborhood.

RB: Then further north on Brompton Street near Wrigley Field, that’s not called Wrigleyville, it’s east of Halsted. And then up to [West] Rogers Park. So I’m thinking about you in the context of the writers who are basically South Side Chicago guys.

SD: You’re the first guy who has ever noticed that. I brought it up in a few interviews—I’m not sure how important it is—really with the exception of Algren. Now there are young Northside writers, actually.

RB: Is Larry Heinemann a North Side writer?

SD: No.

RB: Joe Epstein is not a young guy and he’s a North Side writer.

SD: I’m thinking of Adam Langer.

RB: Is he still in Chicago? His novel took place in Chicago.

SD: No, but he has a sequel—it picks up the same characters—that’s a West Rogers Park book. I have said that a few times, because of the North/South Side conflict that amuses everybody that lives in that city. I have gotten into some real arguments pointing out that Gwendolyn Brooks and Saul Bellow and—

RB: Is Algren considered a South Side guy or West Side guy?

SD: I think, West Side.

RB: Which would make him a population of one.

SD: Yeah.

RB: I was thinking of your stories, using the unfortunate word “corpus,” in terms of Jon Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which is very much about growing up in the urban environment, and I got a different feeling from the two books. I think you make the claim that there was something less malevolent about the area you refer to variously as Pilsen, or Little Village or El Barrio—it seemed to be less malevolent because everyone was approximately in the same boat. In Fortress

SD: I like that book a lot.

RB: In Lethem’s story, there seemed to be clear, palpable belligerence between ethnicities—

SD: Right.

RB: I don’t get the sense that there is that hostility between groups [except in the one story when the marching band wanders into a black enclave].

SD: It’s in there. The story in which Nick tries to go back to the old neighborhood illustrates you can’t go home again, in terms of getting your butt kicked.

RB: That’s years later.

SD: Yeah, but in a story like “Blight,” that story observes ethnic and racial divides and there is a scene in which the white kids—

RB:—are singing at one end of the tunnel. That doesn’t suggest any imminent violence. It just shows turf protocols.

Memory and recollection can be a non-ordinary experience. Memory is so subjective, to start out with. You can inhabit the world of memory in a way that someone can inhabit the world of dreams or the world of hashish visions, mental illness, religious experience, all those kinds of ecstatic, semi-ecstatic states, and that still fascinates me.SD: One of the things that maybe your question is circling around is that my stories are really not [pauses] particularly violent stories. There might be a kind of off-stage threat, but everybody kind of seems to know where to step and where not to step and as long as they observe those lines—on the other side of the coin, the stories make pretty clear there is a pretty diverse—especially the Spanish-Slavic stuff that is going on in the stories—that diversity is certainly a part of the stories and the notion of immigration is still a living notion. It’s not something that’s generations back anymore. Maybe in a way, the stories are more about the existence of diversity than the conflicts of diversity.

RB: The contrast I felt in your stories and Lethem’s novel suggested something more benign in Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods.

SD: I wrote an essay for an introduction to a book called—it may in fact have been called Chicago Stories.

RB: It was. [It included work by Richard Wright, David Mamet, Maya Angelou, Saul Bellow, and Mike Royko.]

SD: One of the things I tried to articulate in that essay was—it was the somewhat artificial question of, “What is a Chicago writer?” in an Aristotelian way, that is, you look at them and say, “Well, obviously they write about the city. Obviously if you write about the city of Chicago you are going to be a neighborhood writer.” So yeah, Saul Bellow is a Chicago writer but essentially a Hyde Park writer. I write about Pilsen, Little Village. Tony Ardazonni writes about a little Italian neighborhood on the North Side, etc., etc. That would be one aspect. But to get back to what you are talking about, another thing that that essay brought up is that I felt that was a difference between even someone like Algren and say, [Hubert Selby’s] Last Exit to Brooklyn. That here was a much more nihilistic, almost militantly anti-sentimental aspect of that book. Violently anti-sentimental. That book doesn’t want to take the risk of sentiment. Not that it doesn’t; in a few stories, it actually does. But the risk that Chicago writers want to take is [pauses] to have sentiment in a story. And then run the risk of sentimentality, which naturally is going to follow. You don’t want to be sentimental. Every different kind of story comes with its own risk. So if you write an anti-sentimental story, the risk is that it’s not going to have any feeling in it at all. Or that is going to be gratuitously violent in way that is not only anti-sentimental but gratuitous. Clearly, sentiment in Algren exists in a different way than sentiment exists in Bellow, or in Gwendolyn Brooks. When you get a writer like Sandburg, you see where the risk becomes a problem. For all his wonderful political democratic vision, there is a kind of a corny sense to Sandburg. One you could almost satirize—the hog butcher of the world, kind of thing. That’s a kind of wandering answer to your question.

RB: I wanted to locate the weight or maybe the center of this issue: There seems to be something denigratory, diminishing, or condescending about referring to a writer as being “regional.” Except if they are from New York, then it’s OK. Say someone is a southern writer or a Midwestern writer, and it suggests something lesser. That there is an incompleteness.

SD: It can be used that way. [pauses] That’s not my take on it. I am not debating that that word can be used to denigrate or to ghettoize or limit a piece of work. Sometimes I think it’s an accurate term—someone is about local color and very little else. I have heard it applied to Robert Frost, and it’s absurd. Is he a New England writer? Of course he is. Does his enormous universal power come out of the particular? Absolutely. Is Joyce writing about Dublin? Absolutely. Is there one anymore universal?

RB: Calling Frost a New England writer is OK. There is a long tradition of great Americans who place on that list. Having lived on the East Coast for many years, I am tired of the regional chauvinism and nearsightedness. I don’t think it’s an insult, but sometimes it seems to be used as such. As Fox network loves to proffer, “Some people say…”

SD: I’ve heard it. It seems uninformed and unexamined.

RB: Yes. But it seems to have continued so long that I think it’s polluted our water table. Long after—

SD: Right. I am enormously interested in voice. That’s something I look for in a writer and you could pick up any anthology and if you start flipping through the stories that “made the cut,” voices are in the vast majority of those stories so associated with place. Look at Welty or Faulkner—and go writer by writer and you reach a point where it’s hard to divide that sense of voice from place. To me it’s a wholly spurious unexamined argument, but I don’t deny that regionalism can be used as a back-handed compliment and [also] implied insult.

RB: In “Blight” you had one of the ridiculous malapropisms that the first Mayor Daley was given to saying—”We have risen to new platitudes of success.” Was that an actual quote?

SD: Yeah.

RB: I Sailed With Magellan is reportedly the third of a trilogy of story collections, written over a 20-something-year period. When you did the first, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, was that your intention?

SD: No.

RB: Was that a collection written to be a book?

SD: The way it came about was this: I had agreed to speak to some Polish organization or something or other. I hate when people ask you to give your talks titles. I spent all my time coming up with a title and none of my time on the talk. The title I finally came up with was Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. And as soon as I had that title I realized that I could build a collection out of that. Several of the stories had been written and published already. And the next accidental thing was that I began to see that I was fascinated, I had enough realistic stories and enough non-realistic stories or fantastical stories, whatever you want to call them—to create a counterpoint. So those were the two things I had. I had a realistic-non-realistic counterpoint and a title through fooling around with a prefix “-hood,” I was able to parallel “childhood” and “neighborhood.” So I left out a lot of stories—some of which have never been collected in a book—that I had that didn’t fit. And then I got a feeling of what I had and it gave me sense of what I still had to write. For instance, the last story in that book was really written for that book. A story called “The Apprentice.” Having done that, I still was so naive or oblivious to the effect that a book like that would have on a reader, that I was actually really surprised when the reviews came out and it was put in the “Chicago tradition.” Because the writers that I was most thinking about at that time were the writers who had influenced these nonrealistic stories. The “Chicago tradition” is a realistic tradition and so you really couldn’t much be thinking about the Chicago tradition if you are writing a fantastical story. I was reading Kafkaesque kind of writers and since these are the ones I had in mind, [pauses] I was surprised when the reviews came out that absolutely talked only in terms of the Chicago tradition.

RB: Are reviewers readers? [chuckles]

SD: Since they were really kind reviews I’m not going to be critical toward them.

RB: A more generous way of seeing my question has to do with your surprise at how readers reacted. Since I have taken up the sport, I find reading for reviewing not like regular reading.

SD: No. You’re doing it under the gun, for one thing.

RB: When you sit down to write, how do you know what you are going to write?

SD: Sometimes I don’t. In almost every case, whatever it ends up is never what it was begun as. So I have just gotten used to that. Part of the fun of it is, of course, to find out where the clues that you or something in you has given you, are going to lead you. Especially if your work is heavily image oriented, you’re kind of going from image to image and—

RB: [to Rosie, who is breathing heavily] You want to keep it down? [laughs]

SD: You’ll have to put down, “Rosie panting.”

RB: I Sailed With Magellan is called a novel in short stories. Which I take was your intention.

SD: Right.

RB: You’ve never actually written a novel?

SD: Nooo. I’ve never—let’s put it “published a novel.” The one I wrote I didn’t like.

RB: Is it buried somewhere?

SD: A good hunk of it is in I Sailed With Magellan. Lots of those pieces were taken out of a conventionally structured novel that I just never felt right about. One of my problems with linearity, I don’t really—linearity has great strengths and organizing power and tremendous narrative power, but I don’t think life is linear. So I am always looking for a way to make some compromise with the reader where I get to have a non-linear world but the reader gets to have some kind of narrative drive, but linearity inescapably says that there is cause and effect.

RB: Doesn’t memory impose causal links?

SD: For me, memory and recollection can just as well be a non-ordinary experience. Memory is so subjective, to start out with. You can inhabit the world of memory in a way that someone can inhabit the world of dreams or the world of hashish visions, mental illness, religious experience, all those kinds of ecstatic, semi-ecstatic states, and that still fascinates me. And by the way, I am not saying that linearity can’t express those states. Of course it can. So the form of a piece, whether it’s a painting or a piece of writing or piece of music, that kind of essential philosophical bias that the artist has is going to express itself in form, whether it’s fragmentation or experiments with time. They are going to reflect a philosophical point of view, one you might not exactly know you have. That is, you haven’t worked it in its entirety.

RB: I’m not clear. You are spending the school year in Michigan?

SD: I have a one-semester appointment.

RB: Oh, I was trying to get a sense of whether your construct Chicago is from memory and imagination?

SD: Just recently I haven’t [spent a lot of time in Chicago], but I really spend quite an enormous amount of time there.

RB: I just went to my high school reunion.

SD: What high school?

RB: Mather. I am proud to say there were very few [if any] SUVs in the parking lot. My family is still in Chicago, and I was really surprised at the palpable vitality and the heavy boosterism.

SD: That’s really true.

RB: Everybody seems to want to say what a great city Chicago is.

SD: [chuckles] That’s true. They really get behind you as a writer, too. The public library, the Chicago papers.

RB: And they are building new libraries.

SD: Oh, Daley has built more libraries in his tenure as mayor then any other mayor in the United States, and the vast majority have been built in the inner-city neighborhoods.

RB: Those inner-city neighborhoods of today are the gentrified ‘hoods of tomorrow. [laughs]

SD: There’s a lot of urban pioneering going on.

RB: [laughs] I stayed with some friends at 1900 N. Leavitt, in an area called Bucktown.

SD: That’s long been Bucktown. It used to be a really tough neighborhood.

RB: I thought that area was called Wicker Park.

SD: It’s Wicker Park-Bucktown. Bucktown is the neighborhood west of Wicker Park.

RB: People are paying $400,000 for shotgun shacks.

SD: $400,000 is cheap.

RB: And putting more into them.

SD: Yeah. It’s really taken off. That’s Algren’s old stomping ground, Bucktown.

RB: He was my favorite writer [when I first created that category]. It was his books I jumped to from whatever irrelevant books I was forced to read in high school. Where are you in your so-called career?

SD: I like “so-called.”

RB: I was expressing my own discomfort with the word “career.”

SD: No, no, I think I am at the “so-called” level. [both laugh] Uh, I don’t know. How do you assess that?

RB: Visual artists have mid-career retrospectives—I think that’s what they are called.

SD: I feel lucky in that—I don’t know that this helps answer the question—that every book I have published is in print. Which, given the crappy condition of fiction, let alone poetry, is rare. When Magellan came out, everything else came back into print. So I suppose that serves as a retrospective, in the fact that you can still go to bookstores and buy them. Beyond that, I don’t have another answer.

RB: You mentioned that you have a lot of unpublished stories.

SD: In terms of pages, I have three books done. But books aren’t just pages.

[pause while Robert flips tape over]

RB: Still talking to Stuart Dybek [pronounces with a long I in the first syllable]. I would pronounce that Dibik [with short I’s].

SD: You would be right.

RB: Isn’t there a [Yiddish] play called The Dybbuk? [It was written by S. Ansky.—eds.]

SD: I love that play. Lennie—Leonard Bernstein also write a beautiful ballet called The Dybbuk.

RB: Given your dismissal of linearity, I hesitate to ask whether the past work has any clues to work or projects you intend in the future?

SD: There’s all kind of things in it [linearity] that I am still interested in. For instance, I will always be interested in counterpoint, the relationships between the real and the fantastic. I get more and more interested in thinking of trying to write—I don’t even know how to articulate it—a piece of writing that is more about palpability, touch, feel smells, sensual experience than it is about story.

RB: Have you thought about collaboration with other artists? A libretto? Screenplay?

SD: Yeah, I’ve done stuff like that. It’s just that—right now I am supposed to be writing songs for a chamber opera. I don’t know if that is actually going to go anywhere.

RB: Meaning you’ve obliged yourself?

SD: Oh, I said I would.

RB: I think that means you’ve obliged yourself.

SD: I didn’t sign a contract. We cut our fingers and put them together.

RB: The Midwestern way of contracts.

SD: Yeah, the Midwestern way.

RB: As you wrote I Sailed With Magellan, did you reread the previous collections?

SD: No, I never reread. It’s just not interesting. On the other hand, there’s characters back there that I am still going to fool around with. I’d like to bring Joe Ditto back at some point. And I have a few more Uncle Lefty stories that didn’t make that book. But when the stuff is lying in a big pile on your floor in your writing studio, there’s just a great plasticity to it. Even though it looks like you have a book of poems all set in the Caribbean, just waiting for one or two more to finish it, there really isn’t any guarantee that one or two or three of those poems might not be turned into animal stories or a novel that’s being written in which each chapter has to do with a different animal. So until it’s between the covers of a book, it’s still in a state of becoming, not a state of being.

RB: Do those decisions come hard for you?

SD: Where it’s trouble—I was discussing with a friend the notion of too many options, and I am one of those people who likes 25 kinds of olive oil.

RB: Elisabeth Sifton is still your editor?

SD: Yeah, she has long been my editor and I treasure her. She’s an icon.

RB: How does she approach you in helping to make those decisions?

SD: If I want to discuss them, she is always willing to listen. She’s a very—it’s a privilege to work with her. And she is a noninvasive editor. She has—at least in my experience—a very light hand. But if you pose a question, you are going to get one of the most experienced people on the planet giving you an answer. Do you know her?

RB: I know of her.

SD: Did you read her book on her father? You should bring her in. It’s beautiful book.

RB: Now I lost track of where I was going. Oh, I seem to recall that someone suggested you are a magical realist.

SD: It’s not even a term I like very much.

RB: No one seems to—even the—

SD:—so-called magical realists. Exactly right. I don’t know, it caught on. I was writing what was referred to as fantastical stories before that term was—before I read Gabriel García Márquez. I loved that book [One Hundred Years of Solitude] but [Bernard] Malamud and [John] Cheever as Americans—just to grab hold of two of them—were making their own kinds of magical realism before any of that came about. When I was at Iowa, there was a terrific writer from Brazil named João [Ubaldo] Ribeiro—a great guy. [laughs] He found that term ridiculous. If you have ever been to South America, you realize that everything you think is magical and made up about Márquez—he is just really writing about—the American writer that has most influenced those guys is Faulkner. And when we read Faulkner we just think the Snopes indeed do exist and all of the wild grotesques that you get in Faulkner. It’s the exactly the same thing reading a lot of magical realist writers. And that Faulkner reads like a magical realist to a South American.

RB: So you are ensconced in academe part of the year and you spend time in Chicago—how far into the future do you look? Or do you have any interest in changing your life? Radically? Moderately?

SD: Is it a yes or no? I’ll say yes. [laughs]

RB: “Yes comma and…” Am I sounding like Barbara Walters here? [both laugh]

SD: You’re talking in a literary way, right?

RB: I don’t know you well enough to get personal.

SD: [long pause] The thing about looking into the future is that the projects one picks are generally so long term—I mean a reader picks up a book and reads it in two hours to two days. And goes on to the next book, as they should. But for the writer, it can be an investment of four or five years. So a lot of the stuff, as soon as you take your first step into it you can’t help but look into the future. It’s also that the investment of time can be so scary at that same time you are realizing this is going to take a while and still look away from that fact and just create the next sentence.

RB: What would you be like if you lived in New York?

SD: What would I be like if I lived in New York?

RB: If you lived in one of those places Jim Harrison calls a center of ambition?

SD: Living in New York or living in Nebraska, it’s still line by line, sentence by sentence.

RB: I’m thinking that in a capital of publishing there might be greater awareness of what book conversations were going on.

SD: Absolutely.

RB: Who is the celebrity of the moment, and so on. You do seem to avoid that stuff.
Dybek, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
SD: It’s not the aspect [of writing] that interests me. I am fascinated by the craft of it. One of the perks that nobody ever mentioned when I was just getting into it was you make great friendships. And the friends you make, the very profession demands that they read. That they just don’t sit on their ass watching television. So late in life you are still dealing with intellectual athletes. I like that aspect of it. You have interviewed so many of my friends—Charlie Baxter jumps to mind. That part of the socializing is great, and you learn from those people and steal from them and sometimes they critique your work. That fraternity is a nice thing. But that’s really different from that other aspect—who’s hot and who’s not. That stuff interests me not at all.

RB: I talked with Ian McEwan recently and he encapsulated the big changes in publishing—

SD: Some of them are inescapable. Fiction is in a scary position now.

RB: Want to say more about that?

SD: Nobody knows exactly why but it seems like its readership is diminishing to some degree. At least that’s what the book reps tell me. At the same time, you have the frightening demise of the independent bookstore and great publishing houses in the United States are putting up a good fight against the huge corporation mentality, but it’s there. On the other hand, you have all these wonderful independent presses.

RB: I am not sure about the doom and gloom.

SD: It might be a cycle. These things go in cycles.

RB: Well, as far back as I can remember, civilization has been rapidly declining—especially with every innovation. It was a great undergraduate pastime to sit around bemoaning the triumph of the vulgar.

SD: What I am thinking about is the several friends I have who can’t get books published—good books. And the excuse is always, “Fiction isn’t selling.”

RB: That sounds like bullshit. If the level of activity and energy on the internet translates into anything, then you wouldn’t think that. The economy of it is no doubt ridiculous and the way the publishers are trying to do business is silly, but I don’t think that there is a diminishing audience. People may be buying less but I don’t think they reading less. Here’s a minor example: Why would I buy a new hard cover for $22 if I knew that in six months or, these days, less, the book would be remaindered for $5 or so. And why would I buy a soft-cover book for $13 or so if I can get good books at half the price?

SD: They go round and round with this when you listen to the discussions. Publishing has never been on anybody’s pantheon of well-run businesses.

RB: I agree with you. The Soft Skull Press, Unbridled Books, Archipelago, Graywolf, Melville House, Copper Canyon—this is encouraging. David Godine is still publishing.

SD: And Farrar Straus & Giroux has brought back North Point and Graywolf is under the F.S.G. umbrella. [long pause] I think really what we are talking about more is a trend that is troubling, rather than an Armageddon that has already happened.

RB: There are lots of loud alarms going off—why more time spent time on Tom Cruise than Darfur [beyond the pat answer that people shy away from the unpleasant]?

SD: It depends on what slant we are taking—if we are talking about the fact that you can measure how healthy a culture is by the art that that culture produces, then the United States is not yet fifth-century Rome. Despite that, for me, all the horrific things that are going on with our foreign policy. If you are talking about the relationship between the individual writer and the economic realities of a writer’s life, though it varies from writer to writer, I think there are still a lot of avenues for, maybe not making a living, but for getting your work published. So you find a different way to make a living. It depends on the slant.

RB: You don’t think we are going to slip over the edge of the abyss any time soon?

SD: [long pause] Not if we are going to talk about it in the narrow sense of the word [literature]. If I am going to talk about what my feelings are about what is going on in this country—there is a horrific decline starting with the news media.

RB: Apropos of nothing, are you a White Sox fan?

SD: I’m a baseball fan. I grew up a Cubs fan. My war hero uncle, even though I was a South Sider, was a Cubs fan, and he took me to ball games. Right now I go to more Sox games than Cubs. I don’t give a shit. I just want to sit at a nice baseball game.

RB: Do the Sox have day games during the week?

SD: Sometimes. It’s a more interesting team right now.

RB: What have you been reading lately?

SD: I read a ton of poems and especially a lot in translation. I read a lot of young writers, several of which I had the good fortune to have as students—ZZ Packer, Courtney Angela Brkic, Sarah Bynum. They re all terrific writers, and I get enormous pleasure seeing those books come out.

RB: I would guess you are a target for lots of galleys.

SD: Aren’t we all? [both laugh] Does it ever end? Yeah, I just batted out two or three blurbs in the last three days. I have gotten to point where I only blurb student work, former students. And even that will keep you going.

RB: I do pay attention, for no scientific or rational reason, to who endorses a book.

SD: Sometimes something comes over that is so wonderful that you are glad to have that opportunity. There was that Courtroom 302 that just came over the transom during Christmas [written by Steve Bogira], and I just read the first three pages and couldn’t put it down. I loved that book. I called up Alex Kotlowitz. I called up Tracy Kidder. I said, “Did you guys get this book?” Sure enough they had. “Oh yeah, we got it, too.” “Read it, read it!” They all ended up blurbing it. So, yeah, good stuff comes. You can’t possibly keep up, is the problem.

RB: I create these oddly organized staggered piles that move closer to the so-called TBR [to be read] pile.

SD: Yeah, I got the piles. I don’t know how staggered they are.

RB: So you don’t have any urgency to publish?

SD: I was on a book tour for a while. Nothing destroys your urge to publish like doing 100 readings in a year and half.

RB: [laughs]

SD: So I’m trying to get my urgency back. [laughs] I’m working on my urgency.

RB: What was distressing?

SD: What was distressing was seeing the independent—who doesn’t love independent bookstores? People have their lives invested in them, created these things. What happens is that event by event each one is fine; it’s the totality of doing so many. There isn’t ever any time when you say, “That one was horrible. This one sucked.” You’re always seeing friends and so forth and the fact that people would even come out. I remember one night in Chicago it was 10 below zero and the place was just packed. It was so cold when I—I never do more than half an hour, they said, “Go on, go on, we don’t want to go outside.” There are great nights, wonderful nights, but the totality of them, you think, “I’ve become a kind of salesman, a reader instead of”—you don’t get any work done. It’s useless kvetching.

RB: You’re entitled.

SD: Writers kvetch like crazy.

RB: Would the independent bookstore owner be one of the occupations that entail a sense of honor and dignity? There are so few merchants remaining who seem to have a stake in their products.

SD: That’s what’s so great about them—you go out there. Sure, I talk about writers bitching, but next to the situation for painters, where you have this tyrannical world of galleries, the writer is in a far more fortunate position to have bookstores selling things, than a painter is, and visual artists in general. So yeah, it’s a wonderful, valuable relationship.

RB: Let’s not wait a few years until the next thing you write or I think of something else to ask you. Thanks so much.

SD: Thank you, Robert.

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