Stuart Dybek: author, spearfisher

Stuart Dybek, who grew up in Pilsen and Little Village, is known for his stories of rough-around-the-edges city life, as chronicled in the compilation The...

Stuart Dybek, who grew up in Pilsen and Little Village, is known for his stories of rough-around-the-edges city life, as chronicled in the compilation The Coast of Chicago. But when it comes to free time, he heads to another coast for inspiration: the tropical waters off Florida. He spends much of his time there fishing underwater with a spear gun, a hobby he now has more freedom to pursue, thanks to his recent $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant.”

His fascination with spearfishing dates back to the late ’60s: After a Jacques Cousteau matinee sparked his interest in the sea, Dybek moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands with his wife and daughter to teach school and scuba in the Caribbean. “My first glimpse of tropical water and the colors of a living reef felt exactly the same as falling in love,” he says. “It’s probably the same part of the brain that cocaine ignites.”

During summer vacations, he spearfished and sold the plentiful catch. “It was only later that I began to realize how fragile a reef is and how profoundly antilife this was,” he says. Nowadays, Dybek only spears what he can eat and prefers to “free dive” without scuba gear. “It expands time,” he explains. “For that one minute, you’re so hyperaware of your surroundings, all your worries disappear.”

He’s working on a poetry book based on his Caribbean experiences, tentatively titled Watercolor. For the past few years, he’s been renting a house in Key West with a fellow author for one month each year. They write in the mornings and dive in the afternoons, living off the catch. “We critique like crazy,” he says. “A more savage exercise than spearfishing.”

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