Interview with Stuart Dybek

Tommy Dean asks Stuart Dybek to discuss the unique properties and variations particular to short form writing. Stuart Dybek’s story “Initiation” is forthcoming in New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018) and was originally published in New Flash Fiction Review’s Issue #4, guest edited by Robert Shapard.

TD: Stuart, I’ve been a fan of your writing for many years. It’s an honor to interview you for New Flash Fiction Review, thank you for taking time for this today!

What is it that’s so supremely satisfying about reading a story written beautifully in such a short amount of words? Please talk freely here about the the nature of short form writing, anything that comes to mind you’d like to share with our readers. We’d love to know your thoughts about short form history, and anything you’d like to discuss about your influences. Additionally, please discuss the origins of your wonderful story “Initiation”.

SD: One measure of the aptness of your first question is that there are so many interconnected ways in which to answer. It begs for an essay—not that there are a shortage of essays on the subject.  And the inescapable irony is the length a response might go to about a form defined in part by brevity.  It brings to mind the various witty versions from Cicero to E.B. White of “excuse the length, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

For me, “flash” remains a catch-all form.  Some of the pieces flying that banner satisfy through brevity, others are more interested in compression.  They are not the same, though the same piece can have both.  Poetry, which is written to be reread, achieves its compression through a variety of techniques.  Certain forms of poetry such as the sonnet seem designed to aid achieving compression, especially in the classic way that the “turn” works between the opening 8 lines and the closing 6.  That’s what’s meant as a strategy.  Haiku has a similar spirit and its own strategies.  I’ve been told that there are books written in Japanese that dwell on the Buddhist nature of time in the famous seventeen syllables by Basho, sometimes translated as: Old pond/frog jump/plop. In both the sonnet and the haiku the poet interacts with a reader who is acquainted with the way the form works and its tradition.  I think that to some degree that may have gone on in the last 50 years in the U.S.  In that span of time there has been an increased interest in the prose poem, the short short, sudden fiction, and all the other names including presently flash for the different versions of short prose. Writers have been building and evolving the tradition for such work. The U.S. had earlier versions of course.

One influence for me were those Hemingway vignettes from In Our Time.  Another influence goes back earlier still to the prose poems by Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and others.  I’d put the piece “Initiation” in the category of the Hemingway vignette in which brevity, clarity, understatement and tone are essential to produce what Poe called an “effect.”  A piece that achieves an effect Poe said will satisfy a reader.  Poe felt that the effect worked well with horror and the grotesque as one sees very clearly in Russell Edson’s wonderful work.  Rimbaud’s work is more about compression.  One does get that sense of compression in what I regard as one of the few sure works of genius done in the short short form, Invisible Cities.   Calvino of course calls it a novel. The book can be reread as one reread’s say The Wasteland or Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  Going back to haiku spirit, I think there is genius in some of the pieces in Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories.  Notice how a number of the high water markers for these short forms are also like sonnets and haikus written in sequences.  One can talk both about the individual piece but also about the interaction, counterpoint, and layering effects of sequence.  For me that is very much the way the lyrical mind works in dreams—bursts of imagery meaningful in themselves but also there for the dreamer—or reader—to connect.  When you ask that I define the form, I think to do so one goes to the best most ambitious work done in the form over its history.  Just because the U.S. tradition of these micro pieces doesn’t go as far back as the literary histories of numerous European literary cultures as well as Asian lit cultures doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken into account.  Whether the Hemingway vignettes or Calvino or Rimbaud there’s genuine daring, freshness, and ambition in all that work, so when someone starts arguing about how the internet is responsible for flash I find that kind of discouraging. If you want to tie it to culture why not to culture that inhabits us and turns us into consumers: the one minute ads we all know only too well how to interpret. Has the person who thinks “flash” is new because there’s a new name on the block read something essential in acquiring a literary context that goes back beyond the time of Steve Jobs, for instance, a book such as Miniature Metropolis by Andreas Huyssen that goes back into the 19th Century and traces the form through modernism and on up to World War II.

I’ll end by returning to my piece “Initiation.”  I wanted it to be able to stand on its own.  As an individual piece one of the things I was after was trying to capture how the incredible speed of violent action has a paralyzing effect but then how that moment along with the feeling that one might have done more at the time goes on and on haunting the mind long after the moment is past—the pathetic outcry of the 1st person narrator uttered only once in the piece, but how many more times in memory?  That piece is also part of a sequence.  I grew up in Chicago and spent a good part of my life riding the el, and one of the things I continue to work on is a sequence of little actual flashes as the train goes through the dark tunnel and stops briefly at lighted stations and then barrels off again into the dark.

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Stuart Dybek is the author of five books of fiction including Ecstatic Cahoots, a book of short fictions and prose poems, and also two collections of poetry. In addition, his latest book, The Start of Something: The Selected Stories of Stuart Dybek, was published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage in 2016. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, Poetry, and Tin House. Awards include a PEN/Malamud Prize, fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

This interview is part of a new, ongoing series of interviews New Flash Fiction Review’s staff is conducting with authors included in New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018)