Stuart Dybek grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Most of his stories are based in this spirited neighborhood of “free-thinkers.” In our discussion, Stuart shares with us his views about the atmosphere of Pilsen, and about Prague where he just returned from his 11th summer of teaching in the Summer Writing Program through Western Michigan University. We also explore flash fiction and its many faces, and the difficulty of writing prose, short or long.

MaryAnne McCollister

VR: Mark Twain wrote: I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. Why is it so difficult to write good short fiction?

SD: I have long been intrigued by the notion of compression in prose, of what defines it, what is its measure, and how is it achieved.  I have "taught" forms classes on the subject at places such as the U. of Iowa Writers Workshop, but the "teaching" was more of a personal investigation into the subject. It isn't a subject that much has been written about.  The best book I know on it is by a Japanese author writing on haiku, called Traces of Dream.  So, that said, I don't know that—keeping it short—I really have any succinct answers.  For starters, despite the lovely Twain quote, I am not sure I’m comfortable with the implication that short is more difficult to write than long.  They each pose different challenges so far as form, invention, etc, and each offers different satisfactions.  For instance, I don't know that the study of character can ever be as effective in a short piece as it can in a sustained longer work.  I think it is simply difficult to write anything “good”—short, long, prose, verse, fiction, nonfiction...

VR: Do you discuss flash fiction with your students? What do you suggest to them regarding the length of a story—and when it's time to end it?

SD: My students are generally pretty interested in flash fiction.  It is fashionable right now.  I  don't actually subscribe to the notion that it is some kind of new genre.  I am distrustful of how fashionable it is, suspicious even though I have long written in the “form”—if that word even applies.  For me it is yet another manifestation/development of the tale, the prose poem—I know people want to do some Aristotelian thing about figuring out what is a prose poem and what is flash fiction.  Personally, I could care less.  What interests me is that they are both about compression in prose, and that nearly automatically opens up the notion of the relationship between the lyrical and the narrative. One might argue that, by making that distinction, one can use the flash fiction “genre” to redefine what story is.  But that idea ignores the way the narrative is expressed in the prose poem (which is supposedly about expanding the definition of what a poem is). The other thing I am interested in is the idea of fragmentation.  In France, rather than flash fiction, one name they have for these little pieces that have been called so many things—short short, vignettes, microfiction, etc.—is fragments.  That, I find far more interesting than calling them flash fiction.  I think the current urge to see flash fiction as a new form and genre onto itself, which then demands that it is defined by superficial notions such as word count, is far less interesting to me than seeing flash fiction as a symptom, a manifestation of an ongoing tradition that has to do with compression in prose, the counterpoint between the lyrical and narrative, fragmentation, and the redefinitions of both story and poetry. One of the things that intrigues me most, and also where I think the best work is done using short form, is in sequencing the fragments. When people talk about flash fiction, that idea of sequence is too often overlooked.  The name flash fiction steers one to thinking about it as a single self-contained piece. It leaves out a genuine masterpiece such as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Stuart Dybek is the author of three short story collections, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed with Magellan. His short work can be seen in places like The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic and The Paris Review. He is the recipient of many literary awards and teaches at Northwestern  University. Dybek is a permanent faculty member of The Prague Summer Writing Program. 

MaryAnne McCollister is Senior Associate Editor for Vestal Review. Her short work and interviews can be found at venues like Pindledyboz, Ink Pot and Web Del Sol

The full text of this interview is available in print issue 34.

Copyright 2009 Vestal Review