portrait John Dufresne

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 199 ~ December, 2013

John Dufresne’s most recent novel is No Regrets Coyote (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013). He has written four previous novels, including his first novel, Louisiana Power & Light (1994), as well as Love Warps the Mind a Little, (1997), which were both New York Times notable books. His other novels are Deep in the Shade of Paradise (2002) and Requiem, Mass. (2008).

Dufresne has also written two short story collections, The Way That Water Enters Stone (1991)and Johnny Too Bad (2005). He has also written two books on writing and creativity, The Lie that Tells a Truth: a Guide to Writing Fiction (2004) and Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (2011).

John Dufresne

John Dufresne

Dufresne’s short story, “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” was included in the anthology 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. Dufresne was one of thirteen authors of the mystery novel, Naked Came the Manatee.

Dufresne was a 20102-13 Guggenheim Fellow and teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami. He graduated from Worcester State College in 1970 and the University of Arkansas MFA program in 1984,

Derek Alger: I see you have French Canadian roots..

John Dufresne: Yes, my maternal grandfather came from Quebec. My mother and her siblings grew up speaking French and going to a French school. But when our time came, we were told not to speak French. We were Americans, after all. They sent us to the Irish Catholic school in the neighborhood.

DA: You were raised in Worcester, MA.

JD: Worcester during my childhood was a mill town in disrepair. The mills were closing, the jobs disappearing, the population dwindling. I grew up in a housing project until I was seven and we then moved to Grafton Hill, a working class neighborhood where my parents had grown up. There was a bustling downtown still, before the suburban malls were built, and that’s where my friends and I spent a lot of our time. Going to the movies, loitering in restaurants, standing around corners making up stories about the people who walked by.

DA: Your father was quite an influence.

JD: My father worked for Mass Electric. He started in the ash heap, shoveling coal dust, and ended up a supervisor. Lefty was a spectacular, relentless, and entertaining storyteller. He had a flawless sense of narrative structure and a profound understanding of our flawed human nature. And most importantly, he had a sly, nimble, and infectious sense of humor. He lit up a room when he entered, and he never met a stranger. I could, and I often did, get him talking about his life and his friends just by mentioning a name from his past. He died in August, and to be honest, life hasn’t seemed as joyous and thrilling since his passing.

DA: School was not your favorite place.

JD: I was not a good student. I got good grades, but did not work for them. And I was a dolt at math, still am. I transpose numbers when I read them. In fact, I hated every minute I ever spent in school from first grade through high school. I was there for the sports and the conversation with my friends. I found an excuse not to go whenever I could. I got slapped around frequently by the nuns and later punched around by the brothers at my all-male high school. The only thing I was good at was writing. So I wrote a lot. There were a couple of teachers at the high school who saw something in what I wrote and would get me out of class to talk about books and make lists of books for me to read. Salinger, Lee, Dostoevsky, the Bounty Trilogy. And I was off.

DA: You discovered a good hangout while growing up.

JD: I went to the local Billings Square branch library on Grafton Hill in Worcester. We didn’t have many books at home, and I didn’t like the books we had at school. Other than the geography books. I read first for information. Science books mostly. And sports. I was a ridiculous jock as a kid. All I really wanted to do, and all I really did, was play baseball, basketball, and football. I dreamed of playing for the Sox. I was good, but not very good. And then, as I said, I found out about fiction in high school and decided this is what I want to write—stories that can move people the way that I was transported. I was already writing poetry by then. My first literary heroes were the Romantic Poets. And so I sat in my room and wrote poems in notebooks and told no one what I was doing, Poems about the unrequited love I had not even experienced except in my imagination. I have all these notebooks with me now. I just counted them—nineteen. But I’m afraid to read them and haven’t for thirty years.

DA: Your outlook broadened once you went to college.

JD: I despised school after the first grade.  Every minute of it except when I was reading out loud or writing. I went from a Catholic elementary school with fifty kids in our class, (I have the class picture and just counted) so the poor nuns had their hands full and not a lot of teaching went on, to an all-male Catholic high school. I went there to play baseball and I did when I wasn’t being kept after school for being late, talking, smoking, missing assignments, and so on. I was a horrible student. This was a place where corporal punishment was routine. After being hit enough, I thought I’d at least give them a run for their money. When the four years were over, I was schooled out and had no plans to got to college. My grades were miserable anyway. I assumed I’d eventually work as a painter, paperhanger, which my grandfather did for a living. But when confronted with the choice of job or school, I chose school and went to Worcester State College, and everything changed. No more sports for me. I loved it. Smart and challenging teachers. Students with more on their minds than just grades and parties and sports. The stench of the testosterone hallways of high school was gone. I got involved with the school newspaper, first as a writer and later an editor. Got elected President of the Student Government Association. Acted in the theater company, helped organize the first Ecology Day and a Free University on the campus. Heady times.

DA: What came after college?

JD: I started out as a cab driver after graduation. Then I got work as a social worker at a community center in my neighborhood. I worked with kids, teens and pre-teens, trying to keep them out of bad trouble. I started a school program, a basketball team, worked in the hallways of a local junior high with the kids who were in danger of getting tossed out. And then more of the same kind of work with a suicide prevention program. Did telephone, runaway, and short-term counseling.That job and career ended rather ingloriously when a new director and I didn’t see eye to eye. He had a little narcissistic personality disorder. That’s my side of the story. Had an open marriage, he said, and then tried to sleep with the female staff. Ran a drug program while celebrating the joys of snorting nitrous oxide from Reddi-wip cans. I still have my open letter of resignation. (I know I sound like I’m a hoarder, right?) So then I did work as a painter and paperhanger with a friend until we lost too much money, and then I went to work painting with other friends in the business who actually knew what they were doing. And then as Dante says, midway on life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods. All of this time I had been writing stories, editing a local lit mag, but not knowing if I was really any good. I decided to find out and applied to MFA programs, which I only just learned existed when my friend, the poet, Mary Fell, went off to UMass. I applied to several programs and got a free ride at the University of Arkansas.

DA: How did a non-college guy like you end up there.

JD: I was drawn to Arkansas because of John Clellon Holmes who taught there. I had read his work and was a fan of the beats. I had gone to Kerouac’s funeral in Lowell, even—and saw Holmes there. As it turned out John was retiring and ailing. so I had only one workshop with him, but we stayed in touch after he left and until he died. So there I was in Arkansas studying with Jim Whitehead and Bill Harrison, and the experience changed my life and my writing.  But I was older than most students and needed to get back to the work. So I accelerated my way through the program taking classes through the summers. The first lesson I learned there after my first story was workshopped came from Harrison who told me I wrote like an angel but had no idea what a story was. So tell me, I said, and he did. He told what a plot was. Well, that should be easy, I said. I also got to study with Lewis Nordan, whom I consider one of the giants of contemporary American fiction. You read one of Buddy’s stories, and you’re laughing so hard your sides ache when suddenly you realize you’re crying.

By the time I left Fayetteville, I’d published a half dozen stories and written another dozen. I sent a letter to every agent in the Writers Digest directory who was looking for story collections: three. And one of them wrote back. Richard McDonough, and he’s been the agent for all of my books. Although now I’m with Bill Clegg at WME.

DA: Your debut collection of stories, The Way That Water Enters Stone, proved you write with a truly original fictional voice.

JD: Thanks for that. I try. I like voice-driven stories myself. Maybe that comes from listening to my father tell me those bedtime stories.

When that collection came out from Norton, my editor, Jill Bialosky, called and asked if I had a novel. I said, No I have another collection of stories. There was a pause. She said, Do you have a novel? I said, Yes. In fact, I’m working on one now. And I set out working on one. I took the story “The Fontana Gene” in the collection and expanded it. I had already done so much research on Monroe, Louisiana and on my fictional family that it got me jump-started. I learned how to write a novel by writing Louisiana Power & Light. Took me four years, which turns out to be about average for me. Turns out I like writing novels better than stories and find it easier, in a way. It’s more in keeping with my rambling, discursive brain. Deep in the Shade of Paradise, had origins in a long story as well.

DA: Your first novel, Louisiana Power & Light, was praised for your tragicomic voice, as well as the unforgettable charters you created.

JD: And I was happy about that. Characters are the heart of fiction. My problem is often knowing when to stop delving into the hearts and minds of too many characters. Plot is always what has given me the most trouble. I often let theme guide the writing of the story, even as I tell myself, the reader needs to know she’s going somewhere. So I always overwrite and then show the work to Jill and we start paring it down to size. LP&L was twice as long in manuscript than it was in the book.

DA: Seems your early Catholicism was touched on in the novel, and then what came after in the complicated world of relationships.

JD: I’m a lapsed Catholic, but a Catholic all the same, a Catholic who does not believe in God, but does believe in the saints. I write about what I don’t understand, and I don’t understand why we have to die. It’s an obscenity. I don’t understand love that is not abiding. Well, there’s so much I don’t understand. It strikes me that you don’t have to be smart to write fiction, but you do have to be assertively curious about people and the world. What you don’t know is more important than what you know because it provokes a sense of wonder. I have a lot to write about. My interest is in what some call our spiritual lives, those matters that are more significant than our work and our social lives. The things that keep us up at night. This is what it’s like to be a human being, and this is how it feels.

DA: Tell us a bit about Naked Came the Manatee.

JD: That was a collaborative comic/noir novel developed by Tom Schroder, who was then editing Tropic magazine in the Miami Herald. We each were to write a chapter of the novel based on the chapters before us. I think we had two weeks to finish our chapters once we received the preceding one. Dave Barry wrote the first outrageous chapter and then Las Standiford shaped it into something the ensuing writers could run with. I was on a book tour and asked for a later chapter. My job as I saw it was to situate all of the myriad characters we were dealing with and set up Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen to finish the job. My only real contribution was to place a living Castro in a condo in Miami. The stories were first serialized in the Herald and then published by Ballantine Books.

All of the writers gathered on Linclon Road in South Beach for a gala book launch and signing. I sat beside Elmore Leonard. He was charming and sweet, but I do remember being alarmed that he was smoking and I stifled the urge to give him my anti-smoking lecture. I had been a profligate smoker myself for far too long.

DA: Your most recent novel, No Regrets, Coyote: A Novel, has been praised as a gripping tale of South Florida noir.

JD: I got the chance to write a short story for Miami Noir and jumped at the chance. All you need to do down here is look at the paper in the morning for you material—I think Carl Hiassen has proven that. The stories are out there. The story, “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,”  was selected as a Best American Mystery Story of 2007. And then I wrote one for Boston Noir. That story, “The Cross-Eyed Bear,” was selected as Best American Mystery Stories for 2010. I thought, maybe I can do this. So I gave it a shot with the central character of the Miami Noir story as the protagonist in the novel.

On Christmas Eve in Eden, Florida, Wylie Melville, therapist and forensic consultant, is summoned to a horrific crime scene by his friend, Detective Sergeant Carlos O’Brien. Five members of the Halliday family have been killed by bullets to the head. Wylie’s rare talent is an ability to read a crime scene, consider the evidence seen and unseen, and determine what’s likely to have happened. An intuitionist, Carlos calls him. The police are soon convinced that the deaths were a murder-suicide carried out by a broken and desperate Chafin Halliday. Wylie’s not so sure. Nothing about this execution makes sense.

Wylie begins his own investigation and discovers a web of corruption involving the police union, ponzi-scheming lawyers, county politicians, the Russian mob, Mafia thugs, powerful lobbyists and prominent political fundraisers. When he’s pressured to stop asking questions, Wylie knows he’s onto something and keeps digging with the help of his friend, Bay Lettique, a poker-playing sleight-of-hand artist with links to the Everglades County underworld. When the pressure turns violent, Wylie takes his father, who’s suffering from dementia, and gets as far away from Eden as he can. But Alaska is not far enough. He’s been followed and is being hunted down by one or more of those responsible for the Halliday murders.

No Regrets, Coyote

No Regrets, Coyote

DA: No Regrets, Coyote has been compared to the best of Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane.

JD: Well those are two authors it’s wonderful to be compared with. I’ve read more of Lehane than Leonard and he just gets better and more intense with every book. Dennis was a student of mine. I directed his thesis, so it’s particularly gratifying to be able to share in his success from this distance.

DA: You now teach in the MFA program at Florida International University How long have you been there?

JD: I’ve been teaching here since 1989. Teaching writing helps my writing. I get to think about stories all day every day. The only thing I’d rather be doing is writing stories all day every day. But If you need a day job to support your habit, this is the one to have.

DA: You’ve also published an encouraging book, with valuable advice, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing. How did this come about, what made you decide to write this?

JD: It grew rather organically over the years from my thinking about how to teach writing and storytelling to my students. I read every book I could about creativity and fiction writing and took notes. I wrote lectures for my classes on narrative techniques and the writing process. I studied composition and rhetoric theory. And all of that led to the writing book. And then I wrote another specifically addressing the process of novel writing called Is Life Like This?: a Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months.

DA: I get the impression you have empathy and instinctively know how writers think and feel while struggling to get ideas and story down on paper.

JD: I’m trying in both books to demystify the writing process and to be encouraging and practical. Writing is something you do in solitude. Maybe it’s good to have someone like me there, letting you know that the frustration and anxiety you’re feeling is normal, and it happens to all of us and all you can do is write your way through the difficulties.

DA: What’s on the horizon for you?

JD: Well, I’ll continue teaching. I’m now at work on a web series with a filmmaker friend and another screenwriter. I’m working on two novels, one a sequel to Coyote, the other a more traditional, for me, literary novel. And every week or so I get an idea for a story and I take notes and sometimes finish one or two while I’m taking a break from the novels.