John Dufresne

SER 27.1 cover 250 px

by Tom DeMarchi

From The Southeast Review Volume 27.1

John Dufresne grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he wasted his youth playing baseball and going to movies. He attended Worcester State College and spent seven years as a social worker before attending the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. Dufresne is the author of the story collections The Way That Water Enters Stone (1991) and Johnny Too Bad (2006). His novel Louisiana Power & Light (1994) was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. It was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, as was his second novel, Love Warps the Mind a Little (1997). In describing Deep in the Shade of Paradise (2002), Publishers Weekly wrote, “Imagining John Irving, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or Max Shulman (or all of the above at once) on peyote juice only begins to evoke the dimension and energy of the seriocomic fantasies of Dufresne at his freewheeling, frenetic best.” In July 2008, W.W. Norton, Dufresne’s longtime publisher, released his most recent novel, Requiem, Mass. In addition to his works of fiction, he has a book on fiction writing titled The Lie That Tells a Truth. Carl Hiassen chose Dufresne’s story “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles” for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2007.  In April 2008, Grand Valley Productions filmed To Live and Die in Dixie, based on a screenplay Dufresne co-wrote with Donald Papy. Since 1989, he has been teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida, with his wife and son. For more information on John Dufresne, visit http://www.johndufresne.com.


Tom DeMarchi: When did you decide to become a writer, and why writing, as opposed to, say, painting or songwriting or banking?

John Dufresne: I could always write well. Maybe it was the only thing I did well in school. Actually, I was good at geography—loved looking at maps because they immediately engaged my sense of wonder and imagination. If we had an essay exam, I’d get an A. All this means is that I could bullshit, I suppose, could dazzle the nuns with my sometimes empty rhetoric. And I liked writing. So it wasn’t like I decided to be a writer. There was simply nothing else I was any good at, and there was nothing else I wanted to do—other than save the world, and I failed at that. I just didn’t know how you went about being a writer. So I became a social worker. But I loved to read and loved the way I felt when I got lost in a story and decided I wanted to do for other people what my favorite writers did for me—take them out of this world and place them in a more vivid and compelling world. I wrote songs for a band back in Worcester with my friend, Bill Cousins. We got together every Friday night for years and wrote songs. I’d still like to do that with another musician someday. I also like drawing, but I use it to help me see and remember things. Drawing makes you pay attention and look closely and see what’s really there.

TD: Describe your typical writing day.

JD: What I usually do is make the coffee, turn on the computer, check my e-mail and the Worcester, Mass. newspaper—headlines and obits. I spend a while looking through favorite websites—usually about books and politics, and then get writing. So I’m writing by 9:00 or 9:30. If I’m not teaching, I just keep writing until 9:00 or so at night with breaks for lunch and supper and a walk maybe. I may be reading work for class during that time, of course. But basically I spend my whole day reading or writing—pretty nice job. Weekends, too, but not always all day. I like to play tennis on Saturday mornings.

TD: Requiem, Mass., like many of your stories and novels, juggles multiple narratives. Johnny is a writer who decides to write a fictional memoir. Why a memoir instead of a novel? Laf, the narrator of Love Warps the Mind a Little, wrote stories.

JD: Actually Johnny decides, with the encouragement of his girlfriend, Annick, to write a real memoir, not a fictional one. Of course, that is the issue—can memoir be free of fiction? The author is writing the novel; the character is writing a memoir. Johnny, by the way, claims to have written Love Warps the Mind a Little where Laf appeared, and that’s why Laf ended up with Johnny’s dog, Spot. Johnny wanted to write a novel based on his life. Annick said, Just write your life.

TD: Nearly everything in Requiem, Mass. pertains to memory—from the title to the epigraph from Harold Pinter (“The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend to remember”) to the narrator saying “It occurs to me now that my real struggle was not in the past, but is with the past.” How does memory relate to the choices you make when developing characters?

JD: I’m aware that every character has a past, had childhood traumas, has regrets, dreams, and so on. The past is the country we come from, and it has shaped who we are. We’ve survived it somehow. Memory’s primary job is to keep us alive. The last time I walked down this alley, that one-eyed pit bull almost tore me apart—today I’ll follow the boulevard. The first time I asked a girl out, she laughed in my face—I won’t make that mistake again. The past doesn’t exist; we imagine it. That’s what memory is—reproductive imagination. We may imagine it wrong. No doubt we do at least some of the time. And there’s everything we forgot. Who else would we be if we remembered? My characters are frequently living with regret, even though it terrifies them. They refuse to leave the past alone and get on with it. Maybe they think if they can remember the past differently, everything will change.

TD: Your fiction is certainly informed by more than your memory and imagination. There are tons of facts and figures and details that had to have been culled from research and reading. I’ve seen your house—it’s full of books covering every subject imaginable. What’s the last book that you read?

JD:The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays, edited by Michael Hattaway. The last fiction I read was Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days. I reviewed it for the Boston Globe. I’m always reading many books at the same time. Here are six I’m at least halfway into now: Hubert’s Freaks by Gregory Gibson, subtitled The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus. How could I resist? The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson; When Languages Die by K. David Harrison; The Canon by Natalie Angier; A Fractured Mind by Robert Oxnam; Staying Up Much Too Late by Gordon Theisen, subtitled Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche. I love Hopper.

TD: In The Lie That Tells a Truth, you say that your two favorite contemporary writers are Alice Munro and William Trevor. What is it about them that you find so admirable? Have you recently discovered any other contemporary writers that move you in the same way?

JD: That’s a great question. I suppose the sheer energy and beauty of the prose appeals to me. Ford Madox Ford wrote this in a letter to Joseph Conrad: “We used to say that a passage of good style began with a fresh, usual word, and continued with fresh, usual words to the end: there was nothing more to it.” The fresh, usual words. That’s what Munro and Trevor use. Not the esoteric word; not the lexiphanic word (like that one), but the word you’ve heard before but never in quite this way or in this position in the sentence. Hart Day Leavitt put it this way: “It is not unusual words that count but unusual combinations of usual words.” Also, Trevor and Munro confront brutality and violence in a straightforward fashion without sentimentality and without flinching or batting an eye. It’s all about the story with them. They write to do justice to the lives of their characters and do it without mannerism or theatrical cleverness. They both tell very complicated stories that seem effortless. Charles D’Ambrosio, Amy Hempel, Edward P. Jones, and Deborah Eisenberg are a few writers I’ve read lately who make me see the world in a different light.

TD: With Trevor and Munro’s fiction, you say “it’s all about the story.” Your blog focuses a lot on politics. Do you ever consider using your fiction to explore your political views?

JD: Politics is an emotional arena for me. I’m not smart enough to write coherently about politics, nor am I rational enough. The blog lets me rant, I suppose, and that way I keep the partisanship out of my fiction where it doesn’t really belong. Politics does inform all of my work, but not in a party politics kind of way. I’m an unreconstructed Socialist, and I know that’s terribly out of fashion. I think we’re all in this together, and we ought to help each other out, and we’re only as strong as our weakest link and all that. I don’t understand greed, not in the face of the extreme poverty and deprivation we see in the world, and I’m outraged by the violence that capitalism, as practiced in this country, commits every day, by the hypocrisy of it all. Our economy would collapse overnight without illegal immigrants doing the dirty work, but we pretend they’re stealing our wealth and our birthright and make them scapegoats for a failed moral system. See, I’m starting to go tilt already. I’ll stop. But it’s the people being screwed by our economic and political system, people on the margins of society that I’m interested in. I don’t think any of us should ever forget about the people starving to death and imprisoned and bereft of hope because of what our government is doing in our name. I thought I said I was going to stop.

TD: One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writers is “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Are you writing to please just one person? If so, who is it? If not, who’s your ideal audience?

JD:  I write to please myself first of all. But I’m not writing a diary. I want people to read these stories, of course. I sometimes have actual people in mind as readers, but more often my ideal reader is someone who likes what I like. And has read the books that I’ve read.

TD: That reminds me of an assignment you gave me when I was in your fiction workshop in the ’90s. You had each of us write about two books—one we loved, and one we hated. I wrote about Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (which I still love) and V.S. Naipaul’s Guerillas (which I appreciate a lot more now than I did then). What books would you write about for your own assignment?

JD: Sounds like an assignment I’d give, and I do remember you talking about Hamsun. I’d pick that book to write about as well. But maybe I’ll say the book I’d write about that I love is Anna Karenina or a collection of Chekhov stories. Writing about a book you hate is harder because if I’m not enjoying a book, I put it down before the frustration becomes hate. And I like most books. Hating a book might be a judgment on me, not the book. I mean if you don’t like Shakespeare, that’s your fault, not his. His genius is not open for debate. I do remember disliking Great Expectations when I read it long ago. I should give it another shot, I suppose. 

TD: For years now, you’ve been running a Friday night workshop that’s open to anyone who wants to join. Why did you start the group, and how is it run?

JD: I started the group after my first semester at FIU when a few students wanted to keep workshopping stories with me. Friday night seemed like the ideal time—it would have to be a bit of a sacrifice, but it would mean the people coming would be serious. For a few years we met every Friday, but switched to every other. A lot of folks from the group eventually became students in the MFA program. And many have published books. Barbara Parker, Steve Almond come to mind. We’ve been going now for eighteen years.

TD: You say that you don’t believe in writer’s block. Do you never get stuck? What do you do when the writing’s going nowhere? Do you stop, or do you write your way through it?

JD: I used to get stuck when I believed in writer’s block. Now some days the writing doesn’t go so well, but that doesn’t mean you stop. Write something else. Writing is always leading you somewhere, but you’re not always sure where that is. It may be some place you’d rather not go. I’ve learned that in every story or novel there is a point when I lose confidence in my ability to finish the story, and I lose faith in the story itself. But now that I know that happens every time, I’m waiting for it. The only way to get past it is to write your way through the wall. The problems always get solved, and the story gets done. The only story that doesn’t get finished is the one you gave up on. Don’t give up. That’s good advice. Learn to finish. If you don’t learn to finish, you never learn to revise, and if you don’t revise, you’re not writing. James Frey was on this Barnes & Noble online video promo show called “Tagged” or “Studio” I think. Someone e-mailed me the link. On the show he said the dumbest—and I suspect the most disingenuous—thing I’ve ever heard about writing. I haven’t read Frey, so I’m not judging his prose, just his ridiculous posture. He said, “I don’t ever read what I write. I don’t read it while I’m writing it. I don’t read it when I’m done.” Writing, of course, is a recursive process, and it’s impossible to write without reading your sentences.

TD: I keep hearing about the dwindling reading market, how fewer and fewer people are buying books, how TV, the Internet, and video games are replacing literature. Yet more books are being published now than ever before. The Internet opens up countless opportunities for the aspiring writer. Is the reading and writing market disappearing, or is it being redefined as a result of new technologies?

JD: Every time I go to Books & Books, as I did last night—there were two readings and a book group discussion—or to a chain bookstore, the parking lots are full and the places are hopping. All those people aren’t just there to drink the coffee. I don’t know much about new technology. I’ve never played a video game and can’t and don’t want to text-message anyone, can’t work the DVD player. My friend John Bond just bought a Kindle and told me he’s going to download the entire Project Gutenberg catalogue. And this is a guy who has a floor to ceiling library of books in his living room. Me, I want to hold the book in my hand, feel the pages, write in the margins, highlight the text. I don’t think the reading market is dwindling among people of a certain age. I can’t speak for the kids raised on video games and all that. I do have many undergrads in class who play interactive narrative games on the Internet, and they are all very interested in writing and telling stories. The stories are mostly fantasy, but they understand our need for story—that’s never going to go away. And many of those students are well, if not widely, read. The story I keep urging them to write is the story of the young kid obsessed with and defined by World of Warfare or something similar, and when one of them tries it, the results are intriguing and compelling. I love reading about the obsession as much as I resist reading about the knights and dragons and trolls and whatever else inhabits the cyberworld. 

TD: How has the industry changed since you began publishing 20+ years ago?

JD: I don’t much follow the business end of publishing. All I have are observations, which might not be true. When I started publishing books, there were no big chains. Barnes & Noble was a store on Washington Street in Boston. I didn’t know there were other branches. Maybe there weren’t. The success of chains has meant the closing of many independents. Not a good trend in my opinion. Nothing against the chains, but I think we need both. Independent stores hand-sell a book, and if someone there is enthusiastic about your book, they’ll make sure every customer knows about it. The danger with the chains is that the bottom line becomes the only criteria for what’s on the shelves. They are there to maximize profits and may not take the chance on non-blockbuster titles. They wield a lot of power, even to what the book’s cover will look like. It’s happened to me. This chain doesn’t like the cover, but they’ll buy a thousand more if we use this other cover. So use the other cover! Many of the venerable publishing houses were bought by conglomerates. It’s the book business. That doesn’t preclude an interest in art, of course, but art is not a priority. I may be wrong about this, but I think there are fewer writers making bigger bucks, meaning that it’s increasingly more difficult for younger writers to break in. 

TD: I visited a small, independent book store in Montpelier, Vermont, called Bear Pond Books. There’s a huge shelf of signed books and staff recommendations, and the cashiers were talking about Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, Netherland. I don’t want to make it sound as if people who work at chain stores don’t read, but the staff in independent stores seem more personally invested and enthusiastic about books than those I’ve encountered in B&N and Borders, and that’s a huge incentive to avoid the chains. On the other hand, the economy’s in the toilet, and the large chains are better equipped to compete with online sellers because the chains can buy in bulk and offer big discounts, especially on new hardcovers, whereas independents usually charge retail for everything except remainders. How can the independents remain competitive? Can you talk about some of the independents that’ve supported your work over the years?

JD:  They can remain vital by doing all those things you’ve mentioned. By being a part of the community. By sponsoring reading events for readers from children to adults, by promoting reading groups and giving them a place to meet, by supporting local authors. Down here, Books & Books is the big independent, and I’m guessing it does much better than any of its chain competitors. They had 1200 people last week for Barbara Walters and probably sold close to 1200 books. I might wonder why 1200 people showed up for the show, but I also know that because of her, Books & Books can also support people like me. They’ve been great to me over the years, very supportive and encouraging. I always have a place to read. Mitchell Kaplan, the owner, always has all my books in the store. The Book Mark in Atlantic Beach, Florida, is another favorite stop. Two of the best bookstores in the country are in Mississippi: Square Books in Oxford and Lemuria in Jackson. They are both always happy to see me and are so sweet that I feel like a part of their families. They sell a lot of my books. Windows bookshop in Monroe, Louisiana, has also been great. I went to grad school with the owners, and they play an important cultural role in the small town.

TD: How do you envision the future of publishing?

JD: Literary journals will move online—newspapers, too.  Your poem or story will—maybe could is the operative word—reach the world this way and not just the seventy-five subscribers to the Opa-locka Review. It makes sense economically and artistically. People like me will still print it out before we read it, but we’re dinosaurs. Smaller publishing houses will take up the slack when the big houses focus even more than they do on Oprah titles and celebrity and political books, on novels written with the movie industry in mind. Akashic Books, Unbridled Books, university presses—SMU, notably in fiction—these are the models for publishers in the future. Small and select and hands-on. That’s where the great writers are going to be discovered and published. Publishing will change, but we’ll still be reading, and the changes will probably be for the better. And, of course, people will be publishing their own novels and poetry collections online. In some ways this is all very exciting.

TD: Religion, Catholicism specifically, plays a major role in nearly all of your work. Your characters question faith, reject dogma, engage in heated discussions about God’s existence. In Requiem, Mass., Johnny and Sister Casilda’s debate about God’s grand design and free will lands him in deep trouble. Can you talk a little bit about your religious background, where you are today, and why you return to it so often?

JD: Well, I was raised Catholic, and I took religion pretty seriously as a kid. I was an altar boy, went to Catholic schools, attended Mass on Saturdays as well as Sundays, carried a missal in my back pocket for years, made novenas, went to May Devotions, wore a Miraculous Medal, made my nine First Fridays, wanted to be a priest, regularly did the Stations of the Cross, and all that. I went to Irish-Catholic schools and church, so even though I’m French Canadian, I’m Irish Catholic, and this is a particularly dour form of the religion. Not a whole lot of laughs. Fire and brimstone. They believe in the basic depravity of humanity. So culturally, I’m Catholic, even though I no longer believe in God. I suppose religion is fertile ground because it is an activity which insists that there is more to life than the daily grind, than eating, sleeping, acquiring stuff, having fun, falling in love, and all that. It’s a reaching beyond the mundane, and that’s also what art is. I admire any impulse which coaxes us to consider our place in the universe and to look beyond ourselves and to ask impertinent questions. I don’t know why we’re here, of course, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to make money, or to be famous, or to have fun, although all of those achievements might be wonderful in themselves. We’re probably here by accident. Doesn’t that make you wonder? That was some good fortune. So who am I? Why am I? Who are these other people? What are we doing? We’re all in this together. No matter who we are, we’re on a one-way cruise. A cruise to nowhere, some might say. Religion’s a way to deal with the sadness of our lives—that we’re going to die, that everything we love will vanish, that the world will go on quite well without us. Art is another way to do so.  

TD: The last time we spoke, you were working on a new fiction writing guide that focuses on the novel. Are you still working on it? And how does it differ from The Lie That Tells a Truth?

JD: I’ve finished for now and sent it off to Norton, which means I’ll get notes back from my editor and will be back at it again. It’s called Is Life Like This? and it focuses on writing the novel and not the story—so it has a lot more to say about structure and texture and trajectory and stamina. And there’s a plan in there to complete a draft of your novel in six months. Something I have never done, by the way. Maybe I should read the book.

TD: Last year your short story “Based on a True Story” was adapted to film and renamed To Live and Die in Dixie. You collaborated on the screenplay with your friend Donald Papy. What made this story, of all your stories, best suited for film adaptation?

JD: Not sure it was the best suited actually, but it was a suspenseful story, partly courtroom drama. Let me back up. I was around the town in Louisiana where the crime took place that inspired the movie. But I had been away from Louisiana a while when a woman still living there, Frances Parker, approached me with a proposition. She had been following the case since its inception and had voluminous notes on the case, interviews with people involved. She had the transcript, and she was writing a true-crime book about the case. She asked me if I’d want to write it with her. I said no, but I’d try writing a screenplay. I read through a carton of her writing, read the transcript, and while I was writing the screenplay with Don—a lawyer, by the way—I wrote the short story in which I imagined what happened after he got away with both murders. I knew from Fran that he came right here to Hollywood, Florida. The screenplay doesn’t deal with these imagined moments, but with the course of the battle to bring the killer to justice. In the story I was interested in understanding the mind of a serial killer. In the screenplay, we wanted to focus on the plot, and the killer was not the central character.

TD: Why did you decide to collaborate with Donald, and how did collaborating change the dynamic of your writing process? What was it like watching others take your words and turn them into visual drama?

JD: The collaboration was fun. I knew that Don had legal knowledge that I didn’t have, and we had been writing screenplays together for a year or so at the time. The real fun of screenwriting is watching the actors and filmmakers translate your blueprint into a coherent and compelling story. It’s a hoot, really. It’s magic. When a gifted actor says your line and you realize how good it is—better now than when you wrote it—it’s a revelation.

TD: Can you tell us a bit about your own acting experience in the film?

JD: I had, I think, three scenes, a couple of lines in each. I play a creative writing teacher. Type casting. I blew my lines in every scene. And I wrote them. I don’t much like looking at myself on camera, but it was fun to do.

TD: What do you think of the finished product?

JD: I like the movie very much. The actors were better than we could have hoped, and the entire production was inspired and technically remarkable. The direction by Harper Philbin and the cinematography by Jack Anderson were top notch. Jack works in Hollywood. All this with a miniscule budget and a student crew. Just amazing.

TD: Are you currently working on any other screenplays?

JD: I did the script to Louisiana Power & Light and have been talking to the producer Bonnie Timmermann lately about potential casts—she’s been trying to put a deal together for a while now. She’s relentless. I’m also writing a screenplay for Love Warps the Mind a Little. I’ve got another I’m writing with Steve Grossman about a murder in a Hutterite colony. Don and I have a couple of projects going.

TD: Can you give me a sneak preview of your novel-in-progress? And do Johnny, Annick, and Spot make appearances?

JD: It’s too early yet. I’m trying to understand what’s going on enough to be able to pitch it to my editor. I’m using the central character from a story, “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” which was in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. Of course he needs to get in a lot more trouble in the novel. I want to explore themes of betrayal and loss and the alienation that I think is becoming endemic in our culture. Johnny and Company will not appear.   

TD: What don’t you want to write about?

JD: About happy people living in Blissville. Unless it’s about the day their lives fall apart.

TD: What’s the best advice you ever received about being a writer?

JD: I was twenty, and I hitchhiked cross country. On the way back I stopped to visit my Aunt Bea in Englewood, New Jersey. She liked her Manhattans and dressed for dinner. She let her poodle Rook eat with us at the table, and she smoked Kents. In fact, she gave me my first cigarettes when I was seven. It was our little secret. She lived with us in those days between a couple of her marriages. Anyway, she’s also my godmother and wanted to know what the hell I was doing traipsing around the country and worrying my mother to death. We were sitting in the dark in her plush living room, both of us smoking. She asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to be a writer. She said, “If you really wanted to be a writer, you’d be writing,” and I knew immediately she was absolutely correct and understood that I was, until that moment, a poseur. I think I had rationalized this adventure on the road as my attempt to gather material for a novel. You know, Kerouac and all that. Jack was my hero. Aunt Bea made me realize that writers don’t vagabond; writers write.