""Fiction is a personal and singular experience. The writer speaks directly to the reader, one reader at a time."
"Every novel is a clock...Every novel is a time machine. And time travels in diverse paces, we know. A decade might pass in a clause...Seconds might last for pages."
"Time tends to be fluid in my work, I think. I bounce around a bit."
"Fiction is not about partisan politics or any other abstraction. It's about people and it has to be honest. "
Interview: John Dufresne
The San Francisco Chronicle describes John Dufresne as "a generous and lyric storyteller." His work demonstrates the humor and humanity of a skilled artist examining how people think and feel and get along in the world.
John is the author of three novels, Louisiana Power and Light, Deep In The Shade of Paradise, and Love Warps The Mind A Little, and two short story collections, The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad. He is a professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University in Miami, and in 2003 published the popular and engaging how-to book, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. In 1998, he collaborated with Carl Hiassen, Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry, and other Florida writers on Naked Came The Manatee, and in 2006, Miami Noir. He has also written an award-winning screenplay, Freezer Jesus, and an off-Broadway production of his play Trailerville was made in 2005. His website features his daily blog, full of humor, news of the weird and religious icons found in puddings and pizzas. He lives with his family in Dania, Florida.
Frequent VerbSap contributor Neil Crabtree caught up with the author shortly after his stint as one of the three judges for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, awarded to Philip Roth for Everyman. The award is the largest peer-judged prize for fiction in the U.S. VerbSap thanks John and Neil for their time and contribution to the magazine.
VerbSap: John, what was the process of judging the PEN/Faulkner Award like? What was the work required and how difficult was it to chose the winner?Dufresne: We read 443 books—a lot to do in five or so months. That's more than two a day. So I always had a book in my hand. I took to walking six miles a day while I read…I woke up with books and read myself to sleep. I found so much of what I was reading was very good. And I was happy to find writers I didn't know about…Tom Drury was one of those. Patrick Ryan—a first novel. And on and on. I would guess that there were forty of those 400 that might have won. PEN/Faulkner's not a contest as much as it's a recognition of the best of the best of that year.
VerbSap: Previous interviewers seem to dwell on “place,” but it seems to me that “time” actually is more central in your work and has a greater influence on structure. Is this the case?
Dufresne: That's an interesting point. Time is always what I resort to when I need to consider the shape of the novel—when will it begin, when will it end. And then I can pace myself. Time tends to be fluid in my work, I think. I bounce around a bit. The new novel—just finished it for now—is a fictional memoir that spends a lot of time in the narrator's childhood, but also takes us five years into the future. Every novel is a clock. Every novel is a calendar. Every novel is a time machine. And time travels in diverse paces, we know. A decade might pass in a clause: “When he got released from prison ten years later.” Seconds might last for pages: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (García Márquez ’s A Hundred Years of Solitude) Hans Castorp’s first day on TheMagic Mountain lasts most of the first hundred pages of the novel. Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine, takes place during the central character’s lunch hour and almost entirely during his ride on an escalator.
VerbSap: What does your to-do list look like? You are one of the busiest people I know, and I'm trying to figure out how you find time to write. What are you working on?Dufresne: I do have a to-do list in my memo pad. I scratch off the tasks I've done. Then I rewrite it for the next day. Sometimes I forget to look at it. That list includes things like "pick up the dry cleaning."…Then I have a bunch of index cards taped to my bookcase with writing assignments on it. Mostly requests for submissions that I'm considering—just have to write something. I'm always working on more than one project. Just finished the novel, as I said. I'll get my editor's notes in a bit and get back at it. In the meantime I'm taking notes for the next novel. And I'm working on a stage play…I'm touching up a screenplay for a movie being made independently this summer. The play and movie I wrote with my friend Don Papy. And I'm in the middle of a book on writing the novel, which I'd like to finish this summer.
VerbSap: New writers get a lot of rejection letters. What can they do to improve the success rate? Is there some magic bullet about theme or character or plot known only to a secret society of AWP [The Association of Writers and Writing Programs] members?
Dufresne: There's no secret. Listen to editors if they give you advice—they are intelligent and generous readers. They are worth paying attention to. There are lots of reasons stories get rejected and only one of those reasons is that the story wasn't strong enough—and that is only one editor's take on it anyway. Learn to revise intelligently and keep revising. Keep those stories circulating. Believe in yourself.
VerbSap: Your blog is a mixture of humor, literary news, and political outrage. What are the highlights of blogging that you enjoy?
Dufresne: Blogging forces me to keep up with the news. I guess it's to keep me from getting completely isolated here at the desk. And it lets me vent. I'm angry and upset at what I see as the horrible leadership in this country—both parties—and by the loss of our liberties and the corruption of the American dream and the joke that justice has become and all that. But I don't want that creeping into my fiction. Fiction is not about partisan politics or any other abstraction. It's about people and it has to be honest. For an example of what can go wrong, read a sentence or two of the execrable Ayn Rand, a woman whose characters are mouthpieces of her vile philosophy, a woman who has a tin ear, who cares nothing for people, only for herself. So I blog and get all that crap off my chest.
VerbSap: Teaching Creative Writing over a 20-year career, has your technique changed? And have the students changed, the overall mindset and approach to literature?
Dufresne : My methods have probably changed. I keep learning new things about technique and process. The way I run the class may not have changed much. I'm enthusiastic about fiction and I try to convey that enthusiasm. I try to teach the process, not the product. It's what you do when the class is over that's important, not the story you write for a grade.
VerbSap: Who do you like to read and why?
Dufresne: I just love reading. I read as much nonfiction as fiction. I like reading about science—especially physics—about human behavior, about neurobiology, about words and language. I haven't read enough history in my life and I intend to. And I don't read many biographies or memoirs, and I probably won't unless it's about Chekhov or some other writer I love. I also like rereading the books I've loved. This can be a problem: I may not love them as much the next time. But I usually do.
VerbSap: Miami is famous for crime fiction. You recently contributed to Miami Noir. Any plans for more work in this genre?
Dufresne: I'm actually thinking about a novel for my Miami Noir character Wylie Melville. I’m in the early note-taking stages.
VerbSap: You've written an off-Broadway play, Trailerville, and taught Screenplay Writing. How different is a writer's task when dealing with drama versus fiction?
Dufresne: Stage and screen writing are much different than fiction writing. They each are ways of telling a story, but using different methods. Only fiction is your own creation—well, you and your editor and your readers. The others are collaborative. You're writing a screenplay to engage the imagination of one person—director or producer maybe. You write a stage play to give the actors something wonderful to do. Actors bring life to the characters. A novel’s strength might be its ability to get into the hearts and minds of the characters. The stage play is a verbal medium, even when the words are barely there anymore, à la Sam Beckett. A movie is visual. Which means the familiar “show don’t tell.” You show by action and reaction. A movie’s time and space are elastic. But in a novel you can, and often do, write long and gripping scenes in which two people sit at a table or in a restaurant or in a car and talk, argue, discuss. You can do this because the conflict, the real story, is what’s going on internally with the characters—there’s the drama and the dynamism. Can’t do that on the screen. (Forget for a moment that that miraculous movie, My Dinner with André, was ever made.) Most first screenplays have too much dialogue and not enough action. If you are going to write a screenplay, you’ll need to use outside events to show inner growth. In screenplays, think of dialogue as telling and action as showing.
Let’s think about a situation in terms of the three genres here. If I’m writing about a husband who is leaving his wife, I will think in terms of scene whether I’m writing a novel a play or a film, but I think differently for each. For fiction I need a point of view immediately. For the theatre, the audience is in the kitchen looking on at what happens. For the movie, the audience looks through the movable eye of the camera. And the manipulation of that eye is the job of the director and cinematographer and is nothing I or you have to worry about. In a way, the latter two forms are more objective than fiction. It’s the matter of the internal drama. Another thing to keep in mind on this point is that fiction is a personal and singular experience. The writer speaks directly to the reader, one reader at a time. Film and theatre are generally collective experiences, are watched by audiences in darkened rooms. And audiences affect the individual experience of the play/film—can affect the performance of the play, in fact. Videos are making the film experience more like the TV experience, which is something else again. Now the distractions of the home compete for your attention with the little screen.
In writing fiction you are trying to engage the narrativity of the reader. The reader constructs the action of the novel with the writer by using his imagination. The reader is part of the creative act. This is why we love fiction so much. It is a participatory activity. Not so with stage or film. They are more passive pursuits. The images are presented, not constructed. Whereas fiction is a dream in the reader’s mind, film and drama are external to the viewer. What the genres share, however, is narrative. And it’s narrative which transports us into another world and allows us to discover what its like to be a human being and how that feels, that let’s us address the important questions we must always be asking ourselves: who do we think we are and what do we think we’re doing.
Photo of John Dufresne courtesy of tktktkt.
Neil Crabtree lives in Miami, FL, with his wife and children, and his motivation, granddaughter Aliyah Marie. He is completing a novel, The Barricades of Heaven. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Neil's last story in VerbSap was After The Storm.
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