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|Nathan Leslie: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, John. We are thrilled to feature you in the current issue of The Pedestal Magazine. I´d like to start with a question regarding your latest book of stories, Johnny Too Bad, your first book of short stories since The Way that Water Enters Stone. How do you think your own approach to the short story has developed?|
John Dufresne: I think the longer stories in the book are certainly influenced by the novels I´ve been writing. They keep branching off in ways that I didn´t expect. They tend, like the novels, to be discursive and digressive. The digressions are, to paraphrase Laurence Sterne, the sunshine of the stories. Someone has said that the collection seems as much like a novel as a collection, and though I don´t agree, there are characters who reappear in the stories--Spot the dog, and Johnny the writer specifically. The stories depict episodes in their lives. The shorter stories are earlier stories for the most part. The longer pieces are more recent. The story “Died and Gone to Heaven" came out of Johnny´s wanting to write a mystery in the story “Squeeze the Feeling." I wrote it instead. And it´s probably the kind of mystery Johnny would have written. The shorter stories I wrote while writing the novels, as a break really. A chance to say something more quickly. Something intriguing would occur to me that wasn´t appropriate for the novel. I´d put it in a story.
Nathan Leslie: For you how is the process of writing short fiction different than writing a novel? Also, do you feel as if you are naturally drawn to one or the other?
John Dufresne: I´m drawn to both forms as a writer and a reader, but I think I may be a more natural novelist because of my sort of naturally tangential thinking. I like to connect things that don´t seem to be in any way related. See how they resonate. I can get away with more of that in a novel than a story.
Nathan Leslie: On a different note, you teach in the creative writing program at Florida International University. Do you ever find the ideas in your workshops influencing your writing?
John Dufresne: All the time. When I´m reading and responding to stories, I´m letting myself be provoked by the material. I see my reading as a conversation with the story. The story is a stranger I´ve just met, someone I want to know and understand. So I ask questions, make comments, wonder out loud if this or that strategy might have worked better. And some of my remarks lead me to think about stories in general and how they work and how they move us. And those thoughts inform my own work.
Nathan Leslie: You are currently on a book tour. Do you find the process of reading and discussing your work in public energizing or is it a draining experience (or both)? Does the process of reading your own work ever inspire you to new creations?
John Dufresne: I may be one of the only writers who enjoys the book tour. I love meeting people who read and are devoted to literature. And I´m enough of a ham (I teach, after all) to enjoy the performance of a story. Writing is a solitary act. You´re always alone. When you write a beautiful phrase or find the exact verb, no one is there to applaud or pat you on the back. When you write a funny scene, no one laughs. The only way you´ll ever get direct feedback on your work is in a live reading. I´m not sure that the readings inspire new work, but they do make me take a harder look at what I have written. It can be disheartening to see a phrase that clunks there in the middle of a sentence or a line that seems superfluous. I´ve read this a thousand times, and I didn´t catch that mistake. I edit when I read. On the other hand, sometimes when you read aloud, you realize you can write better than you ever thought you could.
Nathan Leslie: I´ve just read The Lie that Tells a Truth and I found it to be frankly inspiring, and at the same time very practical. It is one of the most useful books on the craft of writing I´ve read: I especially love the emphasis on persistence and diligence, the idea that writers need to stop posturing so much and just dive into the innate messiness of the creative process. Do you ever find it difficult to follow your own inspirational advice?
John Dufresne: Yes, writing is a job, and you do your job or you lose it. You show up every day. Simple as that. And yes, I do have trouble on occasion, especially when I´m teaching or I´m on a book tour. But even then I carry my notebook along and take notes for stories, jot down images, lines, and so on. As to your comment on “posturing," writing fiction is not about you, not about the author. It´s about the characters, their world, their troubles. Nobody cares about the author--not if you did it right. If you´re into writing for your ego, get a column in your local newspaper and they´ll even run a little photo of you every day.
Nathan Leslie: John, it seems as though many people ask you about Southern writing, and how you balance writing about the south with your initial roots in Worcester, Massachusetts. You have set novels and stories in New England and in the South. Ultimately how important is place to your work?
John Dufresne: Place is very important and I write in a different mind-set when I write about the South as opposed to New England. Place is about language as much as it's about anything. Community defines language, and language is culture. The place where I grew up and the South have different relationships to language. Worcester was settled by waves of immigrants who learned their English as a second language. This immigrant English focused on the practical, on the necessary, on the transmission of information. It was a written language, the language of the newspaper and of commerce. If my grandparents wanted to read for pleasure, they read French. When they spoke with friends after church, they spoke French. Southerners, on the other hand, at least those I know from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia, whose families often went back generations in a community where English was the only language, relied on the spoken word, a much more intuitive, sympathetic, and capable medium than that available in my hometown. It was layered speech, subtle, playful, and emotional.
The immigrants want sense from their language. Southerners want music. New Englanders want to know “Why?" and want the answer in twenty-five words or less. A Louisianan prefers to tell you “How" in as many words as possible, indulgently, discursively, lyrically, following every tangent, surprising even herself with revelation. The two impulses, one toward efficiency, the other toward seduction, are not mutually exclusive. Asking why is the most important question a fiction writer can ask, the question that gets below the surface of plot and addresses values and motivation. And, of course, how you tell the truth, how you attend to the gestures and detail, fashions the truth and makes all the difference. When I write about the North, I´m guided by the former impulse; about the South, by the latter. And I hear, I hope, the appropriate voice.
So place is very significant. I want to believe that this particular story could not have taken place anywhere but in the place that it exists.
Nathan Leslie: In reviews and interviews you seem to often be tagged as “the John Irving of the South," a writer who focuses on oddball fictional characters. Do you feel this is a fair or useful portrayal? Also, as a writer do you find yourself innately drawn to eccentrics?
John Dufresne: I don´t think of my characters as oddball, certainly not my central characters. I do think they are eccentric at times. I think we all are. Some of our eccentricities, however, remain secrets--but not in a story. And, yes, I do find myself drawn to eccentrics. They are the interesting people, the people marching to a different drummer. The characters in stories are not in the mainstream of society. They are outcasts or they have decided to live on the edges of society. We hear their lonely voices, as Frank O´Connor says, and we recognize them as our own. Comparison to another writer is a handy tool for critics, maybe, and academics, but is not all that useful to a writer.
Nathan Leslie: In reading your work I´m always struck by two motifs--love and family. Love Warps the Mind a Little seems to focus primarily on the difficulties of love (for Laf Proulx), whereas Louisiana Power and Light and Deep in the Shade of Paradise develop so many intriguing family specimens. Are these themes consciously in your mind when you write? If so, are they more unconscious or conscious points of focus?
John Dufresne: Well, troubled love is always on my mind, certainly. Family is a more unconscious concern, I think. I write about what I don´t understand. Love and death--my signature themes, as one critic called them. But now that I think about it, intimate love and nurturing family both keep us alive and hopeful and secure, and so the thought of losing either of them is frightening. In the face of death, in the grief of lost love, our families (however we define that) can offer us solace and strength.
Nathan Leslie: John, do you think your French Canadian background has influenced your writing? If so, how?
John Dufresne: It is this primal landscape that shapes us as it shapes the characters in our stories. "You write from where you are," William Stafford said. I write from being a French Canadian/American who grew up on what had been called French Hill until the Irish and Italians muscled us out. And then it was Grafton Hill. Novelist David Plante, author of novels about growing up French Canadian not far from my home, says: "Franco-American culture is gone, and perhaps the only way to have written about it was to believe it was over even while it was being written about. Les vrais paradis sont les paradis perdus might have been said by Proust about an entirely different world, but it applies--with the difference that the Franco past was never a paradise." Grafton Hill was in the fifties and sixties 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 among the French Canadians on the Hill. The exotic vocations were never mentioned. We knew that explorers and linguists and actors 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. These are the people I write about--or people like them--and they are the people I write for.
Nathan Leslie: I´m also struck by the occasional appearance of the magical in your work, for instance in your story “The Freezer Jesus." Do you think it is important for your work to occasionally transcend realism?
John Dufresne: I just want to tell a story and if something miraculous happens, or seems to happen, in a character´s life, then I write that down and consider how the miracle affects my people. What they think about it, how they feel. I think I work inside the realist tradition; many people think I don´t. It´s realism but reality has changed over the years. I don´t happen to believe in miracles myself, but some of my characters do--and what I think is unimportant. All that matters is the lives of the characters.
Nathan Leslie: Do you agree with the famous idea that Harold Bloom proposes in The Anxiety of Influence that writers are engaged in a battle with literary fathers (or mothers)? Is there a past writer that most frequently haunts you?
John Dufresne: I love Harold Bloom, but I can´t say that I´m haunted by past writers. I´m inspired by them. I don´t have any pretensions about being the next Chekhov or Faulkner. I´m just telling stories about people and the bad things that happen to them. When I read a Chekhov story, I want to rush home and write my own story. I´m inspired by Chekhov. I´m happy to be a part of the world that he was a part of, to be carrying on in that same literary tradition. I suppose if you wrote for your ego and not for the characters in the story, you might feel the anxiety of Faulkner looking over your shoulder. But, look, no one alive is ever going to be the best writer. Shakespeare has won. The race, if there ever was one, is over. In fact, writing should not be a competition. The only thing that matters is the story. Chekhov, Faulkner, Sterne are my teachers, not my opponents.
Nathan Leslie: Of the current crop of contemporary writers whose work have you enjoyed reading of recent?
John Dufresne: I always enjoy Alice Munro and William Trevor. I consider them the best writers going. They can be both sublime and disturbing. And I like Lewis Nordan and Lorrie Moore. Brilliant writers. Since you said writers and not fiction writers, I´ll add the poet B.H. Fairchild to the list. His poems are breathtaking narratives about hardscrabble lives. And let me throw in Campbell McGrath and Denise Duhamel whose works move me, make me think harder.
Nathan Leslie: I´d also like to ask you about your new play Trailerville. You must be excited by the idea of having your work come alive in front of your eyes. Can you describe the genesis behind this play?
John Dufresne: I am thrilled about the play, and I have to thank Wayne Maugans, the director, for making it happen. We had been corresponding for a while when he asked me if I´d ever written a play. I said I hadn´t but would love to try. So I would write and send the script to Wayne, get some notes, and rewrite--we´ve been doing that for about ten years. Wayne got the Blue Heron Theatre interested. They liked the play and put on a couple of staged readings. And here we are. The idea for the play itself began with my attempt to write a sort of reverse Romeo and Juliet. Two elderly people fall in love and their children try to stop them from marrying. Why would they? I wondered. Well, one of them is married already. Good. So why would she be looking elsewhere? Well, her husband has Alzheimer´s. And that discovery changed the story significantly. I took it from there. The story opened up. Identity, memory, grief, loss, and so on.
Nathan Leslie: As a writer of fiction, was the experience of limiting yourself to dialogue challenging?
John Dufresne: Well, I like dialogue and conversation, and I´m at ease writing it, so it wasn´t so difficult. What´s harder is seeing what the characters are doing on stage while they´re talking and not talking. Telling the story visually as well as orally. You´re giving up all that fiction is so good at--the thoughts and the feelings below the surface. Well, you´re not giving it up; you´re finding another way to bring it all to the surface.
Nathan Leslie: What´s next on your radar?
John Dufresne: Well, I´ve started a novel about two kids whose mother is psychotic and whose father has pretty much fled the family. The kids have to pretend that everything´s fine so the Welfare people don´t pull them out and separate them.
Nathan Leslie: Finally, one of my students wanted me to ask you about final words of wisdom you might have for aspiring writers.
John Dufresne: For aspiring writers: write every day. Even if only a few minutes a day. Develop the habit of being a writer, make it a priority in your life. That and read like crazy, read everything. Toss the trash across the room and get on to the story that moves you. Read the classics, read your contemporaries. Read, read, read.