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Master Short Story Writer Picks Fiction Contest Winners

Distinguished Writer in Residence Stuart Dybek chose winners from more than 130 entries

February 22, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- When Stuart Dybek -- Northwestern's first Distinguished Writer in Residence -- agreed to serve as judge for Northwestern Magazine's first short fiction contest, he did so with one stipulation. "It would have to be a blind-judged contest," the celebrated writer told writer Alex Ortolani, a former student of Dybek's and member of the alumni magazine's board of advisors.

And a good thing, too, Dybek says. By sheer coincidence, first place winner Cristina Henríquez and Dybek, only a few months before the contest, had shared a stage at a benefit reading for the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. "I didn't recognize her work when I read it," Dybek said of "The Invitation," Henríquez's winning story.

Since arriving at Northwestern in 2007, Dybek -- a master of the short story whose name often is mentioned in the same breath as Chicago writers Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren and James Farrell -- has taught students in the English department's undergraduate creative writing program. Henríquez earned her bachelor's degree in English with a writing major.

"I loved the idea of an alumni contest that not only would bring Northwestern's literary family back in touch and promote individual good work, but also would call attention to the fine, longstanding writing program we have here," says Dybek.

The winner of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, Dybek has won many literary honors including a PEN/Malamud Prize, a Whiting Writers Award and several O.Henry Prizes. Dybek, who has judged numerous writing contests, is author of "Childhood and Other Neighborhoods," "The Coast of Chicago" and "I Sailed with Magellan."

The second- and third- place winners of the short fiction contest -- which drew more than 130 entries from Northwestern alumni and students around the world -- are Danielle Burhop for her story, "Peppercorn," and Ying Zhu Chin for "When Starbucks Came."

Dybek talked with Wendy Leopold about the contest, its winning entries and what he called the "outstanding" undergraduate major in writing offered by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences' English department. In April, the English major in writing will celebrate its 30th anniversary.

You're known for your finely crafted sentences, your musical prose and your deep sense of place, what was it about Cristina Henríquez's work that spoke to you?

I was looking for an original fresh voice, for vigorous prose. I didn't have a personal aesthetic in mind. I was just looking for a story that would really engage me and keep me engaged. Some of the entries engaged me at the start but didn't sustain that engagement throughout the story. The stories I selected were the stories that never let me go from start to finish.

What does it say that all three winners are women?

I didn't assume that just because there were female characters in a story that they necessarily were written by women. I just concentrated on the stories, but when I thought back to many other contests I'd judged, it just turns out the majority of them were won by women. That said, I don't think it means anything. It's all so happenstance.

Tell me a little about first place winner Cristina Henríquez and her story.

She will be teaching here in the spring. That was a matter of happenstance as well. I think Cristina's a perfect demonstration of how effective the Northwestern writing major has been. She graduated from Northwestern and, on the basis of the fine work she did here, she got into the Iowa Writers Workshop, arguably the most competitive graduate writing program in the country. What I notice about her is that she's one of those incredibly astute writers who stand modestly in the shadow of the art form. They understand the beautiful writing tradition they work in, and you have to coax them to talk about their own work. I suspect that quality makes her a spectacular teacher.

What makes our undergraduate major in writing special?

One could single out the writers who've come out of the culture, but what I think is more important is the culture of literacy that exists on Northwestern's campus. That's important at anytime. But in this age of text messaging and failing newspapers and at a time when it's hard to forecast exactly where the American literary tradition is going, it's very important that you have places of learning investing in keeping the literary tradition alive. Northwestern is one of the schools with an undergraduate program that's taught like a graduate level program. Within the context of the English department and now the School of Continuing Studies, our students are put into tutorial situations with working writers, creating classroom workshop conditions modeled on highly successful graduate programs.

Anything else that sets us apart?

Our program is deeply about the craft of writing in the same way that craft is taught in our art, theatre and dance departments. Our students learn their crafts not only as individuals but also as part of an informed peer group. They're not just learning from their teachers but from their peers. I've taught 30 years and I've found that's a hugely underappreciated method of learning. It's very active here. When you move on and out of Northwestern, you still have all these people to stay in touch with. Before you're publishing or in touch with editors, you'll still have a support group if you choose to have it. Another point I'd like to make is that the English major in writing is highly competitive and can't accept everyone who applies to it. But Northwestern has been very savvy in offering all sorts of other writing classes at other Northwestern schools that are available outside the undergraduate English major in writing. The Center for the Writing Arts, the School of Communication, the School of Continuing Studies and Medill all provide different avenues at Northwestern to come at writing.

What about the quality of the Northwestern students you teach and the writing they do in your classes?

Last year one of my students wrote a piece for my class that later was published in a very good literary magazine. The year before the exact same thing happened. These are undergrads publishing in literary magazines. Going back to the peer group teaching idea, when I prepare course packs for my classes I try to include published stories by Northwestern students. Students coming into the class read these stories and realize that publication is within their capability. Here's someone who two years before managed to write something polished enough to be published while juggling the 1,001 things our students do here.

How do these young students have something to write about?

That's the dilemma of the young writer. Experiential fiction is difficult to write for someone who is 19 or 20. Even if they have the experience, they probably haven't had the time to dispassionately look back on it, the time to detach from it and see the shape of it. The classes I gravitate to teaching are fabulous fiction, fantastic literature and science fiction. Those courses engage my students' imaginations but don't have that same kind of experiential ceiling. In fact, imagination is tremendously alive at 19 and 20. One of the things you want to watch out for is inadvertently snuffing it out.

Did you detect any recurring themes or commonalities that the contest entries shared?

Just the opposite. The stories were wonderfully diverse. There were stories exploring ethnicity, comic stories, what might be called relationship or domestic stories and adventure stories. There have been times when I've judged contests where certain themes seemed to come up in a significant number of the works. In this case, though, I couldn't see any pattern whatsoever.

And the winning stories?

Again, they were as different from one another as you can imagine. One is a comic story located at the odd intersection of Western franchising and a disillusioning love affair. The first place story is a deeply felt triangle story about a mother, daughter and absent father. The second place story took a lot of literary chances and was the most "post-modern" of the three.

How did you ultimately pick the winning story?

What I really liked about the winning story was that each time I read it, it seemed even better. I wasn't getting tired of it. I would put more and more pressure on it and every time I pushed against it, the story pushed back. By then I knew it was a really solid, deeply coherent piece that continued to move me. The emotion always was genuine, never histrionic or melodramatic. It's the difference between genuine sentiment and sentimentality.

Do you expect big things for Cristina Henríquez?

Everyone expects big things of her. She's hugely talented. You can see she's got a deep attachment to Latino culture. A writer needs to be attached to something, whether it's family, place or an idea. There just has to be some deep passion on the part of the writer. I had no idea who wrote it, but when I read her story I could see the author had a story to tell and a need to tell it. When you have that kind of passion and on top of it the technical facility to convey it, that's a promising combination for a writer.

Did you enjoy judging the contest?

I loved it! It was great fun, and I was really curious about the entries I'd get. I just hope it becomes a tradition at Northwestern. It's great for the school because it brings about that sense that just because you've graduated doesn't mean you're still not part of the Northwestern writing endeavor. If it continues, I suspect it will become increasingly popular. People will start writing for it and it can become a wonderful part of Northwestern's literary tradition.

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