Short story writer and poet Stuart Dybek, author, most recently, of the novel-in-stories I Sailed with Magellan, has had a really big week. First he found out that he’d won a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant. Then, days later, he learned he was this year’s recipient of the $30,000 Rae Award for the Short Story. Amidst congratulatory phone calls from far-flung friends and emails from newly interested foreign publishers, Dybek stopped to talk with PW about his sudden windfall.
What a week— Were you surprised? How are you feeling?
It’s been a big surprising week. The pace is so hectic that I haven’t really digested the surprise of it all yet. I was totally surprised. And that a day or two the MacArthur should be followed by an announcement of the Rae Award for the Short Story, an award that I judged many years ago with Jack Miles and Deborah Eisenberg, was even more surprising. We had settled on Grace Paley, and Grace just died this year, which made it even a little more emotional than it would have normally been.
In a book culture that focuses so much on novels and nonfiction, is it especially gratifying to be recognized for a commitment to short stories, which are marginalized by publishers?
If one wants to come to it from the angle that it emphasizes that short stories still have a place in the literary culture, that’s great. It’s a genre that I love. Though, I never felt particularly wedded to it—I’ve always worked in other genres. In fact, I’m working on a childhood memoir, which I hope is as much about humor and comedy as it is about childhood. So I don’t have some deep personal investment in genre, and in fact have always been al little bit leery about it because I’ve so often seen it so often treated as a kind of a religion, with people creating these kinds of totem poles, so that somehow poetry is better than prose and novels are better than stories. To me it’s all a kind of continuum. One hopefully has the freedom to locate themselves along that at different places at different times.
So do you feel like these awards advocate for the short story in a way?
One of the things the MacArthur tries to do is not necessarily pick out marginalized writers—that would certainly be the wrong word—but they do use the award to call attention to art forms and artists that might not be getting the kind of recognition that say somebody who has a big blockbuster novel is going to have. In some sense, that might actually be working in the case of somebody like myself or George Saunders, who have been working in the short story form.
So what do you think you’ll do with the money?
One of the things it enables you to do is say no, that is you just tell yourself, “you have no reason to do this guest lectureship, you have no reason to do all these readings. You’ve got this opportunity and don’t blow it.” I was considering a couple of guest offers that I had—attractive offers—I’ve already called up and said. I just won’t be doing anything like that.
Was your publisher excited?
They were. What the MacArthur award wants to do is attract attention. One of the things that has really surprised me is that it has this kind of international cache. Friends of mine who dropped out and have been living in Bangkok and different places and have been emailing me. I’ve been getting inquiries from foreign publishing presses, from places where my work has not been translated. It’s all the award that’s done that.
This began happening this week?
Yes, just this week. I want to rush to add that no deal has been signed, but there have been several emails from different houses in different countries where my work hasn’t been translated, saying “we’ve been looking at his work, is it available?” In each case they’ve said, “this is a writer we didn’t know, but we saw he won a MacArthur and we started reading him.”
Having won the two awards in one week, is it difficult to take it all in?
It’s just the opposite. One would be an idiot to think that luck didn’t play an enormous part in this, that is that there are so many worthy writers and that you just happened to hit the right panel at the right time. I’ve sat on these panels, I know how it works. The fact that both of them would come back to back like that—it’s humbling, because I know that luck has played a part.