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A Conversation with John Dufresne

A Conversation with John Dufresne

Interview by Nathan Leslie

John Dufresne is an outstanding writer of novels and short stories who has long resided and taught in South Florida (he teaches at the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami). The author of six novels—among them Louisiana Power & Light; Love Warps the Mind a Little (both New York Times Notable Books of the Year); Deep in the Shade of Paradise; Requiem, Mass.; No Regrets, Coyote; and I Don’t Like Where This Is Going—Dufresne also wrote two short story collections: The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad, as well as three chapbooks: Lethe, Cupid, Time and Love; Well Enough Alone; and I Will Eat a Piece of the Roof and You Can Eat the Window.

Personally, I am also a fan of his two books on writing and creativity: The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months. Dufresne offers extensive wisdom for the beginning and advanced writers alike. I have used The Lie That Tells a Truth in my creative writing classes—students find it quite useful.

More recently, Dufresne has been branching out into the world of mystery writing. John was one of the thirteen authors of the mystery novel, Naked Came the Manatee. His short story, “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” was included in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. Another short story, “The Cross-Eyed Bear,” was included in Boston Noir and Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

But that is not all—Dufresne has also written drama and screenplays. His full-length play, Trailerville, was produced at the Blue Heron Theatre in New York in 2005. He also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning short film, The Freezer Jesus. He co-wrote the screenplay for To Live and Die in Dixie with Don Papy.

Of Dufresne’s latest book, I Don’t Like Where This is GoingKirkus Reviews wrote: “Readers who love to rummage cluttered desks, attics, and basements will have a heyday picking through the details in Dufresne’s big box emporium of a novel.”

I was honored that I recently had the opportunity to chat with John Dufresne.

Thank you again for agreeing to chat for a few minutes. John, the last time we chatted (in this capacity) was about ten years ago now. Since that time, you have written Requiem, Mass., among other books. Did you enjoy really immersing yourself in Massachusetts, fictionally speaking? It must have been a kind of fictional homecoming for you.

Well, yes it was. I love going back home imaginatively and revisiting the places that are sacred to me—as places of childhood often are. The primal landscape of childhood that shapes us as it shapes the characters in our stories. “You write from where you are,” William Stafford reminded us. I am who I am because of where I grew up and when I grew up there. Place shapes the writer and it shapes the writer’s characters. There are landscapes of memory and there are landscapes of imagination. And for me, in the case of Worcester (Requiem) Mass, they are the same.

Wiley “Coyote” Melville is another new figure in your oeuvre (No Regrets, Coyote and I Don’t Like Where This is Going). What inspired you to conjure up this wildly imaginative character?

I was asked to write a crime story for a collection called Miami Noir. I hadn’t written crime before and I knew very little about police work, so I gave my central character, Wylie, a job I was more familiar with—a therapist, whose job it is to help people tell their stories so they can make sense of the world. He set up shop and people in trouble came to talk with him. I gave him a connection to the underworld of South Florida through his pal Bay. I thought, What’s the worst crime one could commit?, and decided on infanticide. And so we began.

Speaking of imagination, yours is a fertile powerhouse. You emphasize the idea in your “teaching books” that the imagination needs regular exercise so that it stays sharp. Were you always so imaginative as a child?

I don’t know that I was any more imaginative than any other kid. I did have a couple of serial narratives going when I was seven or eight or so in which I was the central character. They both took place in my neighborhood. In one I was the leader of a band of good guys with white hats and spirited horses. Cowboys on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Mass. The only real horse we ever saw on the Hill was the ragman’s nag, whom we loved to pat. Every night in bed I continued the story from where it ended when I had dozed off the night before. I did this for years. And during the day, I was thinking of what I would now call plot points and creating new characters. The other narrative was similar with me as a sports hero. Whenever I heard sirens I imagined the house the fire trucks were heading for and the people trapped inside the burning house and how they would be saved. Or not.

With The Lie That Tells a Truth you have instructed many thousands (millions?) of aspiring authors—not to mention your teaching proper. How does it feel to be such an influential teacher of the craft of fiction through this terrific book?

Thank you for the kind word. I am simply trying to share with beginning writers some strategies that work for me, believing they can help others. I think learning the process of writing is more than writing any single successful story. I love the act of writing. I consider writing stories a privilege and a gift. To be able to sit in a room and make up worlds and the people who live there—what could be better? I get to think about what’s important every day. I want to help some other people discover the joy of discovery and creation.

I’m sure you have heard from many readers of The Lie That Tells a Truth. Have you received specific memorable feedback about The Lie that Tells a Truth from teachers or students that is worth mentioning? 

I do hear from teachers who use the book and I’ll sometimes get some exercise samples that their students wrote—very gratifying. A poet wrote me recently, told me she finished her poetry collection with the help of my book—and later sent me an autographed copy.

How does your teaching inform your fiction and vice versa?

It only helps. Every reading and every discussion of a story helps me see how stories work or don’t work. Including my own. We’re all apprentices in a craft where no one is a master—I think Hemingway said that. This is the craft so long to learn. I always feel better at the end of class than at the start. I always feel like rushing home (which is actually impossible on Biscayne Boulevard) and getting back at whatever it is I’m writing. To be honest, there are moments when I would rather be learning about my central character’s secrets than reading a story about goblins with swords, but I know I’ll learn something about setting a scene, let’s say, in the goblin story that will be valuable to my students and to me.

Your work has such a rich sense of place. Can you talk a bit about the roots of this interest in your fiction and why this is so important to your work? Sorry, I know this question is as broad as the side of a barn.

Every story has to take place somewhere. The setting of a story colors the people and events in the story and shapes what happens. Place connects characters to a collective and a personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on a map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with a history. We are who we are because of where we grew up and when we grew up there. I like to think that my story could not have taken place anywhere else than where it did. In that sense, place is character, I suppose.

I think of your fiction as very textured. Your characters always have such a rich backstory, for instance. How do you develop this richness in your characters? Why do you think this particular aspect is so important to your work?

I spend a lot of time writing about my characters, all of them, in my notebooks, and only some of the details make it to the page in black and white, but all of them help me to know the characters. I believe that every character in my stories is the central character of his or her own story, and though I can’t write all those stories at once, I do like to suggest what the individuals’ stories are.

Toward the end of Deep in the Shade of Paradise, you have this wonderful squiggly line diagram of plot, providing counterpoint to Freytag, Barth, Burroway. Earlier in this great novel, you write, “There’s always at least two stories, the one you set out to tell and the one you discover along the way; the one you know about, the one you don’t.” Your work seems to embrace the squiggly line, no?

Oh, yes! I begin not knowing where I’ll end up, and not invested in any particular outcome. I have a character, I give him trouble, and I muddle ahead and see what happens. I think writing should be an act of discovery. Wondering what’s going to happen to my darlings today is what brings me to the writing desk. I follow every digression, every accident to see where they lead—some lead to dead ends, but that’s fine with me. This is not an efficient way to write, I know, but it works for me. Of course, I get in trouble this way. I was on page 250 or so in Coyote, and I realized I didn’t know who killed those five people we saw in Chapter 1. I thought, So this is why noir writers make the big bucks—they have to write a novel but they also have to solve a crime. I had to go back and find the culprit and then revise.

I bumped into you at AWP a few years back. The AWP conference is so packed with thousands upon thousands of writers now. However, I worry about the possible dearth of pure readers (who don’t necessarily aspire to write themselves). Do they still exist?  

That’s a great question. I run into writers in my undergrad classes who are eager and determined to write but when I ask them who they read, I find out they read very little. They are intrigued by narrative, but they like their narratives to be visual. The fantasy and sci-fi TV shows and movies are more appealing. I don’t know how we’ll be reading and writing our stories—on our iPhones, computers, Kindles, or in or on whatever other technological miracle is in the offing— but we will be reading and, specifically, reading or watching stories. And someone will have to write them. We need them to make sense of our lives and of our world. Lack of narrative sense leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to damage. We have to tell our stories; we have to see our lives reflected in stories. Our fiction will certainly reflect the social networking, cyber culture we’re living in because that culture is shaping us.

You’ve also recently embraced publishing some shorter works via e-book format (The Cross-Eyed Bear, Iffy). Were you happy with the way they turned out? Do you think more and more authors will take up the mantle of this particular method of distribution?

Any way to get your stories out there is fine with me. There’s a new app for phones called Great Jones Street that has started publishing lots of stories every day. I think it’s wonderful and they have done a few of mine—some previously published, some new.

Are there particular literary magazines (new or old) that you always look forward to reading?

The Paris Review. The New Yorker. The Rumpus. The Florida Review. The Florida Book Review. New York Review of Books.

Do read your reviews these days? I know many authors prefer not to, one way or another.

I do read reviews and I take them to heart. And then I end up being unduly elated or unduly sad.

What is forthcoming from you? Tell us about new Dufresne work on the horizon?

I’m working on two books about writing: one on flash fiction, another an illustrated guide to writing fiction—Evan Wondolowski is doing the illustrated part. And I’ve started a new novel, which will not be a crime novel. Right now I see it as a father-son story.

Discover more about the work of John Dufresne.

strange theater by John Amen

This Has Begun by Soren James

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