Interview with John Dufresne

It’s easy to see, in retrospect, that John Dufresne and I were destined to be friends. We teach together in the genial, seven-member creative writing department at Florida International University in Miami. John has been a fixture of the program since 1989, while I just joined the faculty last year.

John and I also live across the street from each other in Dania Beach, the oldest city in Broward County, defined primarily by its mangroves, historic fishing pier, and easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. So John is my neighbor as well as my friend, and every Monday afternoon or Saturday morning, depending on our schedules, we make time to take a six-mile walk together.

On these walks, we pass the mangroves on Southeast Fifth Avenue, replete with white egrets and mottled land crabs. We cut through the parking lot of the King’s Head Pub, home to the best burgers with curry sauce and fish ‘n’ chips in town. The beer garden out back is John’s self-proclaimed watering hole. We cross the drawbridge on Dania Beach Boulevard and keep an eye out for Roger, the blue-gray iguana who lives in a weathered tree stump just below the guard rail. From there, we meander a couple miles down the beach path, bordered by sea oats and cocoplums, and then we cross the A1A to admire the pelicans that perch on wooden pilings there, waiting for fishing boats full of fresh catch to dock along the Intercoastal Waterway.

You might say John is my friend and neighbor and fellow practitioner of the Peripatetic method. We’re not just walking for good health, that is; we’re walking for conversation, camaraderie, and always in pursuit of good stories. John Dufresne loves a good story, to tell and to hear, and it turns out he is a good story as well. As much as I enjoy reading his vibrant and insightful fiction, my greatest joy is hearing him recount his own adventures, live and in person, between swigs of chocolate milk and friendly tangents, as he always stops to say hello to every fellow rambler we pass.

In No Regrets, Coyote, John Dufresne’s newest book, the beach town of Melancholy, Florida bears striking resemblance to the world I know as Dania Beach and to many of the landmarks we pass on our weekly wanderings. I think John writes his characters so well, renders them in such a vivid, three-dimensional way, because of this genuine affection for people. He is fascinated by human beings—who we are, what we do, and why—and this intrinsic curiosity, paired with his affable and generous nature, makes him a person other people want to talk to, listen to, and ultimately entrust with their stories. John is not a biographer or an autobiographer per se, but he captures the essence of real people and real places every time he comes to the page.

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At Florida International University, I have the pleasure of teaching many creative writing students whom you have mentored. They often reference advice you have given them, and one of the catchphrases they attribute to you is: “If you’re doing anything else but trying to tell a story, stop writing.” Did you always know you wanted to tell stories? Was there a particular writer or teacher who inspired you to pursue a life and career as a literary storyteller?

Actually, my first literary heroes were the Romantic poets, so I began to get serious by writing poems. I have notebooks full of them that I cherish but am afraid to look at. I must have known the importance of the endeavor, though I kept it a secret. I have never shown anyone those books, but they trained me to write every day if I could.

No Regrets CoyoteI grew up in a house without many books. The books the nuns made us read in school didn’t interest me. I grew up in a housing project—the kids in those school stories had horses and affectionate dogs and friendly cops in their lives. Robins sang outside their lace-curtained windows. I couldn’t find myself in them. So I read for information. At some point in high school, I read within a few weeks of each other Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was carried away to a more compelling and thrilling world than the one I lived in, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Now I was reading for understanding. I wanted to do to a reader what Salinger did for me.

I learned to love stories by listening to them. There were the fairy tales my father told to me at bedtime. All the standards. I thought my father invented wolves. And later I sat around the kitchen every Sunday afternoon listening to my mother and aunts talk about the people in the neighborhood. Gossip—I loved it. And that turns out to be the writer’s job: to attend to the gossip and spread it as far as you can. At the heart of all good fiction and at the heart of all good gossip is the same thing: trouble. If you think about it, fiction is nothing more than gossip about the people you’ve made up.

You completed your undergraduate degree at Worcester State College in 1970 and a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing at the University of Arkansas in 1984. Many students of writing these days proceed directly from their undergraduate studies into MFA programs or take only a couple years off in between, but you spent more than a decade away from academia. How did those intervening years inform your sense of yourself as a writer? What, ultimately, led you to return to school?

I had begun what I thought might be a career in social work. I was married and deeply involved in the anti-war movement. I thought I’d go about saving the world one person at a time. I worked with kids, teenagers mostly, in neighborhood centers, on the streets, and eventually in a drop-in center. I set up a school program for kids that had been tossed out of public schools. We started a newsletter we called the Freak Press, that we distributed to folks in the neighborhood. When I left the neighborhood center for a job at the Crisis Center, a suicide prevention hotline, and opened that drop-in center, we began publishing the Little Apple, a kind of literary/political journal. I was always writing. I just didn’t know if I was any good.

Drug programs began to turn their attention and money away from prevention and into maintenance. Methadone was cheaper than social workers, I suppose. I lost my job and started painting houses with a friend. The marriage had ended about the same time the career did. We didn’t have a car between us. We carried our ladders on city buses. Crazy. We went out of business in a year or so. Then, I painted for friends who knew what they were doing. And I was not on call like I’d been in social work, so I had time to write more often and did. And then I realized if I was ever going to get better, I should get some advice, and I applied to graduate writing programs, which I didn’t know existed until my friend Mary Fell went off to UMass.

You have been teaching writing now for more than twenty-five years. How has working with students on their manuscripts affected your own writing process? What have you learned as a teacher of writing that you might not have learned with a different kind of day job?

I think I’ve learned to be mindful. I may not have taken the time to try to understand narrative techniques, let’s say, with any rigor, if I did not also have to try to explain those techniques to someone else. Reading is also a creative activity if you’re doing it right. You can learn more from a story that’s left the tracks than from a successful story.

Requiem Mass

What you create when you’re teaching fiction writing is a kind of literary salon, not a social club or a mutual admiration society, not a debating society, not a repair shop, not a fight club or a soap box. It’s a place to have a conversation about a story. A conversation, then, not a series of pronouncements; a conversation that flows, that is give and take. The readers converse; the writer listens and takes notes. Each of us brings to the conversation our own aesthetic principles, our own tastes, our own past experiences, our own expectations, writing and reading histories, and so on. And so this means that there will be disagreements about the work in question. And none of these disagreements needs to be settled. As a writer you can and should expect to hear conflicting responses to your story. Writing a story, you understand, is not done by consensus. But we do learn from each other, and we remind ourselves how important this work we’re doing is.

Rumpus: What would you say has been the most influential book or story in your life as a writer?  Do you go looking for stories, or do they find you?

Dufresne: There are so many books, really. I read a series of books about sports when I was a boy written by Clair Bee, a basketball coach at Long Island University. The Chip Hilton series. Championship BallFourth Down Showdown, and others. They were suspenseful, well-plotted stories that created a world more exciting than the one I was stumbling through. What, after all, is more dramatic than a three-two count, bottom of the ninth, two outs, two runners on, trailing by one? Salinger. Faulkner. Harper Lee. William Trevor. (Ah, to have written Reading Turgenev!) Alice Munro. Alistair Macleod. William Maxwell. But mostly it’s Chekhov.

Something I find particularly distinctive about your fiction is the presence of protagonists who share your name and/or your vocation as a writer. For instance, Lafayette Proulx in Love Warps the Mind a Little is an aspiring fiction writer, and the main character in Requiem, Mass. is a novelist named John who rewrites his novel as a memoir. And there’s also your whole collection of thematically-linked stories called Johnny Too Bad. Should the reader infer there is an autobiographical impulse at work here?

I guess I am inviting that inference, aren’t I? There is that autobiographical impulse and there is a lot of me in those characters you mention. And some of the events in say, Requiem, Mass., really happened as far as I know, although my little sister says they didn’t happen in the way that I remember them. The facts, however, are unimportant in fiction. It’s not the events of my life that I mine, but the emotional experiences I’ve had.

Notably, in the title story of Johnny Too Bad, the protagonist informs us:

When you tell people that you write fiction, they tend to respond in one of three ways. There are those who will stop talking to you because they assume you are going to write about them… Then there are the folks who think that writers write only about themselves and so they assume that writers lead adventurous, troubled, and reckless lives… The third response comes from those who think that fiction writers make everything up.

What is the most unusual response you’ve had to your work as a fiction writer?

I wrote an episode in Requiem, Mass. that really happened. It involved an ex-girlfriend whom I called Crissy Nolan, though that was not her real name. I do have some discretion. I wrote:

I won’t even get into l’affaire Nolan except to say that four years later Crissy sicced her overbearing and dismal husband on me by telling him that she and I had been having a fling for quite some time and that the baby wasn’t his. So Mr. Farley James called me up and told me he’d be over to my house in fifteen minutes with a gun. I told him if I didn’t come out to start the shooting without me. I stayed in the house—and away from the windows—until he stopped his screaming and went away.

The husband’s name was unsubstantially disguised. He had come to my place of work to threaten me, not knowing that the delinquents I was working with were ready to “take care of him” for me. So I was back home to do a reading from the book, back in Requiem, and I was wandering around Tatnuck Bookseller waiting for the reading, when in walked Crissy. She’d taken a ferry early that morning from Martha’s Vineyard and then driven to the Requiem suburbs to confront me. She asked why I wrote that passage. I said, “Why do you ask?” She said, “It never happened.” I said, “I know; it’s fiction.” She said, “You made it up!” I said, “If it didn’t happen, I did.” She said, “What if my husband reads it? He’d kill me.” I said, “Can he read?”

Place is another significant and well-drawn element of your writing—almost a character in itself. At various times in your life, you have been identified as a “Massachusetts writer,” an “Arkansas writer,” a “Louisiana writer,” “a Georgia writer,” and for more than twenty years now, a “Florida writer.”  What kind of influence does the place where you live exert on your writing and how has your work grown and changed as a result of location? And also, how does writing a novel like Requiem, Mass. while living in southern Florida, differ from writing your newest novel, No Regrets, Coyote, which is set here?

Place is character. And all writing is regional. But maybe fiction should not be qualified by place, as in “Southern Fiction,” “Western Fiction,” “Brooklyn Fiction.” The regional tags are often pejorative and dismissive. Don’t think of place-bound stories, in other words, but of stories with a strong sense of place. Faulkner was not only talking about truth as it existed in north Mississippi, but a truth more plain and simple. We all sleep with the corpses of our dead lovers. He knew that. Fiction begins with the senses, and the senses go to work in a place.

Johnny Too BadIt’s easier to write about a place sometimes when you’ve left it, when you can apply your imagination to your memory and let your emotions guide the writing about a place. The landscape of childhood shapes us as it shapes the characters in our stories. You never forget the sacred places of your childhood. Grafton Hill in Worcester was in the ’50s and ’60s as exclusively Catholic and blue-collar as neighborhoods get. Jobs ran to the trades, factories, and public service. There were no dancers or brain surgeons, actors or professors on the Hill. There were no writers, so it was impossible to imagine being one. The exotic vocations were never mentioned. We knew that explorers and chefs and scientists existed because we saw them on TV, but those jobs were for people who were not at all like us. We were styled to survive the neighborhood, and we learned not to set our sights too high.

Coyote is set in a somewhat mythical Everglades County in South Florida. I had great fun being a city planner, naming the streets and situating the businesses. At the same time I was sensitive to the wonderfully provocative and rich cultural and natural environment we live in down here and bringing all of that to the story.

And speaking of the new novel, which was just published, the experience of reading it for me has been as dizzying and exhilarating as a carnival ride. Part of this has to do with the pacing—never a dull moment—and also with the unflagging attention to detail. Here’s a sample passage that I would consider “signature Dufresne”:

The story goes that Cameron had let the two junkie thieves who lived upstairs store their loot in his room in exchange for a nostril’s worth of crank. That night, the thieves had robbed an antique store on Main and had gotten away with a crate of Nazi paraphernalia and a pair of medieval-style war clubs. According to the thief with the ARBEIT MACHT FREI button pinned to his Iron Maiden T-shirt, everything in the room was copacetic as the three of them enjoyed their chicken and Southern Comfort, but then Cameron began talking philosophy or whatever you call it, talking about how time is matter and bullshit like that, talking to them like they were in preschool, and he wouldn’t shut up and said he could feel the effects of the future, and so the thief with the swastika armband and the Simpson’s T-shirt picked up the three-foot war club, the one with the iron bands and the pointed studs, stood behind Cameron, took a batter’s stance, lined up Cameron’s head, winked at Iron Maiden, swung, crushed my brother’s skull, and delivered him to nothingness.

The universe may be tenderly indifferent to our fate, but we shouldn’t be. We are our brother’s keepers. There is right, and there is wrong. There are consequences to our actions or inactions. Disregard can be an act of violence. I may not have been vigilant enough to save my brother from himself. I was hoping I might save the Hallidays from the disinterest and haste of the legal system. 

The first paragraph I’ve quoted here is so fully rendered that it could easily stand alone as a prose poem or work of micro-fiction. But because the whole book reads with this kind of vivid intensity, I have to ask how you sustain such energetic prose for 325 pages. How much of the detail is present in a first draft, and how much is fleshed out in revision?

Thank you for the kind words. I revise like crazy. I start revising before the pen hits the paper. Yes, I write with a fountain pen. And then revise word by word and line by line so that the first draft of a scene is usually the tenth or so draft. So not much of the intensity is there immediately. With each draft, the work gets better, and usually that means tighter. It means getting the precise word, not the approximate word. In revision, your imagination becomes deeply engaged with your material. It’s when you come to know your characters and begin to perceive their motivations and values. In other words, revision is not the end of the creative process, but a new beginning. It’s a chance not just to clean up and edit, but to open up and discover. The energetic prose comes about from all the energy that went into crafting it, I suppose.

The second paragraph gives the reader a sense of Wylie “Coyote” Melville’s worldview. He’s our guide through the novel, and a character the reader very much wants to follow. Is he also a character who gives voice to some of your own musings and queries about the world?

Yes, to our befuddlement and gratitude at being here. Yes, all I have are questions. Not answers. And Wylie is a therapist who asks but does not prescribe. We’re both looking at the world with an assertive sense of wonder. He’s trying to help his clients to shape and tell their stories. I’m trying to shape and tell his story. And maybe I’ll learn a little something about myself. Who am I and who are these other people and what do we think we’re doing?

–reprinted with permission from the author

–from The Rumpus August 22nd, 2013

 

Julie Marie Wade

About Julie Marie Wade

Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of three collections of poetry--Without (Finishing Line Press, 2010), Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013) When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014)--and three collections of lyric nonfiction--Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010; Bywater Books, 2014), Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), and Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013). She teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University.