JOHN DUFRESNE is the author of the short story collection, The Way That Water Enters Stone, and two novels, Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps The Mind A Little. In January 2002, his latest novel, Deep in The Shade of Paradise, is due from Norton. In addition to teaching at Florida International University, he holds a free workshop that meets every other Friday evening.
Max Ruback is a fiction writer and social worker. He interviewed Lewis Nordan for Carolina Quarterly and Jean Thompson for The Writer. He interviewed John Dufresne for turnrow in September of 2001.
Max Ruback: Let's begin with your early aspirations. When did the idea of writing first strike you? And looking back now, what were your illusions of being a writer?
John Dufresne: First I wrote poems because poems were my first literary love. The poetic impulse is not unlike the impulse to write essays, I think. It's introspective. You want to have your say. Fiction is a looking out at the world, a humble and a social act. I had already loved stories—what others might call gossip-stories of people in the neighborhood and what they were up to—provincials, like me, in trouble.
I think I had no illusions about being a writer. There were no writers on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Massachusetts. Or doctors. In our neighborhood, the only professional men, the only men who wore suits were car salesmen. Our aspirations were limited. Boys could grow up to be priests or cops. Girls, nuns or nurses. Ambition was suspect. The arts did not exist. You could go downtown to a movie—that was it. And I knew nothing about living writers. I suppose when I thought about it, I figured writing was a job, a job you could perform at home and without a boss. That was a big plus. I hated work, having worked since I was ten at paper routes, at mowing grass, at shoveling snow, and in the kitchen at a nursing home. I didn't know if I could be a writer until I was thirty or so.
After I graduated from college, there was a first career as a social worker. I worked with teens on drugs, teens on the run. I ran an alternative high school, a drop-in center, worked a suicide prevention hotline. Things like that. Then the government decided to spend money on treatment rather than prevention. I was out of work. I started a painting company with a friend. All the while I was writing stories but didn't know if I was any good. I decided to got to grad school and find out. A friend of mine, Mary Fell, was at UMass in the MFA program, and she won a national poetry prize and had her book published. So it could be done. I went to Arkansas and studied with John Clellon Holmes, who had been a hero of mine, and Bill Harrison, James Leo Herlihy, and Jim Whitehead. I found out what a story was, and I started writing them as fast as I could. I was learning about plot and backing away from cleverness and showing off. I started getting stories published—I was validated. I met Cindy there. We left Fayetteville together for jobs at Northeast Louisiana University, not The University of Louisiana at Monroe. We stayed there for three years, teaching five classes of comp with thirty-plus students in each class, spending every minute we could writing. It was a wonderful three years, actually. The chair, David Jeffrey, hired writers to teach comp. So we had a little community of writers going: Steve Barthelme, Dev Hathaway, Jack Heflin, Peter Mladinic. Tristan was born.
M.R.: Could you talk about some of those early stories that you said validated you. Did any of these stories appear in your first collection, The Way That Water Enters Stone?
J.D.: The first story that I published outside of local publications was a very experimental story called "Two Students." Published it in a Canadian magazine called Dreamweaver. I even got paid. It's also one of the stories I submitted to Arkansas to get in. It was closer to a prose poem than a story. I found out when I got to town that the story was to be critiqued in our first workshop. Bill Harrison liked to do stories anonymously, so no one knew who the author was. Before the class, I spoke to some of the old hands, and they suspected that Harrison, who hated experimental fiction, was going to trash the story. They felt sorry for whoever wrote it. I confessed. Well, it turns out that people liked it. Steve Yarbrough said he didn't like experimental stories, but for an experiment, this was a good one. Rodney Jones said it was the second best story he'd seen in his years in workshop. Even Harrison thought it was a good try. After class he told me I knew how to write but had no idea what a story was. I asked him to tell me. He explained plot and detail. I went off to George's Majestic Lounge and started in writing a story called "Addie," which would make it to the Intro 14, a journal of the best of the AWP programs. It won the Henfield Foundation/Transatlantic Review award for fiction as well. I was learning from people like Yarbrough and Donald Hays what and who to read. I was moving away from the influence of stylists and gravitating to realistic writers. I wrote "Surveyors" for workshop, and I think that was the only story from those apprenticeship days that made it to the collection. It won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. Another story I wrote that first year, "After the Passing of Beautiful Devereaux," came out in the Greensboro Review eventually. All this meant that other people thought I could write, thought my characters compelling enough to care about. That's what I mean by validation. I wasn't just trying to do it. I was doing it. Now I had the confidence to keep at it. We had a visiting writer come to workshop. Tom Whelen. He had graduated from Arkansas. He looked around at the seventeen of us in workshop and predicted that in ten years only two of us would still be writing. I looked around the seminar table thinking, Who's the other one? At that point I knew I couldn't be stopped. I did figure I'd be publishing in little magazines all my life, but that was okay by me.
M.R.: Your concentration seemed to be on the short story, specifically learning and understanding plot, since you had been writing in a more experimental vain. Who were the writers you were reading and learning from back then?
J.D.: Well, some names that come to mind are Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Raymond Carver, Lee K. Abbott, Lewis Nordan—who was teaching in the program and publishing his early stories in Harper's—Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Frank O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Knut Hamsun, Andre Dubus, Richard Yates. I was also reading Eastern European writers like Ludvik Vakulik, Bruno Schulz, Tadcusz Borowski, Milan Kundera.
M.R.: First, let me ask what do you think makes a good short story? And, secondly, how did your first book, The Way That Water Enters Stone, come to fruition?
J.D.: A good short story casts a spell over you, takes you out of your own world and drops you in the world of the characters. It's an enchantment. It makes you care about the lives of those people, and it compels you to read on. A good story has a visionary quality, a personal voice, a signature gesture. Nothing like it has ever been done before. And no one can ever do it again. It's exciting and offers new insights at each reading. And when it's done the lives of the characters have been changed forever, and so has yours. You'll never see the world in the same way again.
I had a manuscript's worth of stories. I sent three of them to Dick McDonough and said if he liked them, I had more. He liked them, read the rest, and became my agent. He sent the manuscript around and eventually Jill Bialosky at Norton got it. She took it on and worked with me in revising the existing stories and the ones I was writing. I think of Jill as a collaborator, and I know my stories are better than they would have been without her editing.
M.R.: Was one of those collaborated stories "The Fontana Gene," which eventually turned into your first novel, Louisiana Power & Light?
J.D.: Yes, it was. As we were coming down to the wire, Jill thought we needed one more story. We had decided that a couple were not strong enough for the collection. So I had these notes I'd been taking for a few years on Monroe and the hapless Fontanas and a draft of a story, and I decided to work on it. It turned into the longest story in the book, and I had only scratched the surface of the family. I knew about Fontanas for the last 150 years. Way back in the process, when I first worked with Jill she said did I have a novel in the works. I said I had more stories. She said, Do you have a novel? I said I had a draft of something. And I did—about 120 pages of something in my desk drawer. I sent it to my agent, and Dick read it and said, The drawer's a good place for it. So now the book is out and Jill is asking about the novel. I tell her it's coming along, and I decided to tell the full story of the Fontanas. And I did, and it was like six hundred-plus unwieldy pages. We cut that about in half by eliminating much of Peregrine's story—the founding of the Fontanas and so on—the tragedies of the first hundred years. I liked Billy Wayne and Earlene and all, and I wanted to find out more about their lives. Christ, I’m still writing about them. Earlene and her boy turn up in the new novel, Deep in the Shade of Paradise.
M.R.: I do want to get into the new novel, but first I'd like to touch on a few aspects of your writing process. You were raised in Massachusetts, but have spent a good deal of time in the South as well, and it is clear that place is very important to your fiction. Do you ever find yourself thinking about stories differently between these two regions? I mean language and vernacular differ for one, not to mention history.
J.D.: "You write from where you are," William Stafford said. Throughout most of the fifties and sixties, I was confined to and defined by Worcester, Massachusetts, (until recently) the second largest city in New England, the Heart of the Commonwealth, Mudville, where Casey at the Bat struck out, the city that gave the world the liquid fueled rocket, barbed wire, and the birth control pill, that gave literature Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Benchley, S. N. Behrman, Charles Olson.
With character in mind, consider that for months in New England, the sun barely shines. In winter, darkness arrives at 4-4:30. It's too cold to go outside. You've got clogged nasal passages, achy neck and shoulder muscles, and bronchitis from November till April. You're just happy you don't have the flu. And then you get the flu. At best fun is seasonal. But in summer, fun-season, it rains most weekends. You can plan an outdoor activity if you're a fool, but it will be canceled. Optimists are severely punished.
As children, we learned to do without short-term gratification, a fortunate quality for a writer, it turns out. We learned to act spontaneously, to seize the moment. There's the sun, let's get to the beach before it rains again. We were always prepared for the accident of good fortune, another literary benefit. Massachusetts is not the sunshine state. It is generally bleak except for the first two weeks of October, which are indeed glorious if a storm has not already defoliated the maples before we get the chance to celebrate the death of nature.
My neighborhood, Grafton Hill, formerly French 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 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. Our Catholicism was devout, but not reverent, decorous, but not arrogant, a Catholicism you could live with.
All of the stories I heard around our kitchen table were about characters I knew, set in a world I lived in, told in a language I understood, in a voice I recognized and admired. The characters in their stories tended to be the independent ones, eccentric, perhaps quirky, like Uncle George whose life is more a spontaneous fiction than anyone I've ever met. He claimed to be pals with everyone on the Red Sox, and when he drove home from Fort Devens with a Jeep, he told us the Colonel let him use it because they were friends. And we believed him. Until the MPs showed up at the door.
I read the stories they told us to read in school, but I couldn't hear that familiar neighborhood voice on the page. And I couldn't find my neighbors, myself, or anyone like us, like the Berards and the Favereaus and the Desrosiers and the Paquettes in the books, and so books meant nothing to me then. But stories meant everything. And that is why I write about the New England I knew—the ethnic, working class, Catholic enclaves in the run-down mill cities.
But it would be the Southern voice that broke the literary silence for me. When I was finally able to hear a narrative voice as compelling as those in the kitchen, it came with a Southern accent. In the works of Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, I found characters I recognized, the people I now write about, people who have been held out of the mainstream or who have decided to hold out. I found the honesty attractive and familiar. I already knew the world was a mess because I looked around me and saw men, young men, grown pale, soft, and cynical, all up and down Grafton Hill, in the Diamond Cafe, the Cosmopolitan Club, Jack's, Uncle Charlie's Tavern, the AJ, the American Legion, sitting with other men in the dark watching TV, smoking, drinking shots and beers, reminiscing, wondering, some of them, where their dreams had gone. I saw friends, teenagers and already alcoholics and junkies, toothless and conniving. So when Harry Crews says of the South: "If we are obsessed with anything it is with loss, the corruption of the dream. And the dream was the dream of the neighborhood," I know he is speaking as well of Grafton Hill. Small world.
Grace Paley advised young writers to pay attention to the voices you hear in the neighborhood. She said, "If you say what's on your mind in the language that comes from your parents and your street and your friends, you'll probably say something beautiful." Most of us though don't always want to know what's on our minds or we're too busy. Any many of us consider the language of home to be different from the language of literature, politics, commerce. But only when we get back to the language of our people can we begin to tell their stories, keep those stories, let the stories escape when the time is right. And it's this question of language that suggests why I might have been drawn to write about the South. That and Southern literature itself.
Place is about language as much as it's about anything. Writing grows out of place, out of community. Community defines language, and language is culture. The place I grew up in and the South where I have lived for twenty years have very different relationships to language. My neighborhood 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. Forget nuance. If my grandparents wanted to read for pleasure, they read 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, a community where English was the only language and whose educational standards, at least in rural areas, was, let's say, casual, relied on the spoken word, a much more intuitive, sympathetic, emotional, subtle, and capable medium of communication than that available in New England.
The immigrants wanted sense from their language. Southerners wanted music. New Englanders want to know "Why?" in twenty-five words or less. A Monroyan prefers to tell, not ask, 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 definition and efficiency, the other toward seduction and song, are not mutually exclusive. Asking "why?" is the most important question a fiction writer can ask of his stories and his characters. It's 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, shapes the truth and makes all the difference. When I write about the North, though, I am guided by the former impulse, about the South, by the latter. And I hear, I hope, the appropriate voice.
M.R.: I really appreciate that answer, it says so much in the way of storytelling, the varying particulars to those regions especially. So much has been said about the southern writer in terms of using the gothic/misfit character. Is there anything you can say about this, being a New Englander living in the South?
J.D.: There's an appreciation for eccentricity in the South that I didn't find all that prevalent in my part of New England. In Worcester, if someone in your family was acting in a peculiar fashion, well, that was the family's business and no one else's. We had secrets. We whispered and shook our heads. We tsked. In the south, if your uncle lives in a shotgun house with thirty cats in the parlor and a washing machine on the porch, and he writes letters to the News-Star every week complaining about he FBI's wiring his brain, you're kind of proud to know and care about such a distinguished local character. And you talk quite openly about him and why he wears the pink house slippers out to the Safeway. There's a recognition in the South, perhaps, that we aren't perfect, never will be, and fretting about decorum is a waste of everyone's time. Maybe there's too much of the Puritan left in New England. As a writer, I look for the misfit wherever I am. The misfit, by definition, has done something that most people haven't done. That already makes her more interesting than the others. Maybe maverick is a better word. Or non-conformist.
M.R.: You have a new novel coming out, Deep in the Shade of Paradise. I have heard this is a sequel to your first novel, Louisiana Power & Light. Can you tell me something about it? And you had mentioned earlier that you had discarded almost half of the original manuscript of LPL. Did any of it find its way into the new novel?
J.D.: It's not actually a sequel, though people might call it that. Earlene Fontana and her son are important characters in the book, and I suppose, it's at least in part a further examination of the Fontana curse. There are a couple of sections cut from LP&L that appear in Paradise, but only as material in the appendix. It's set in a fictional Louisiana town called Shiver-de-Freeze, a boot-shaped precinct deep in the Louisiana swamp, famous for its healing waters and curious fauna. The Engrams live here, a deaf-mute family with a physical language so private that no one else knows what they're saying. So does Delano Smith who paints the town's spiritual history on the windows of the Black & Lovely Grocery. Grisham Loudermilk's marrying Ariane Thevenot at Paradise, the family's ancestral home, and we're home for the wedding. Grisham's cousin Adlai Birdsong has fallen desperately in love with the bride-to-be, and has just one week to win her hand. Adlai's daddy Royce struggles to salvage what he can of his past from the ravages of Alzheimers. Father Pat McDermott, who has come to preside at the marriage, realizes his own passion for the mother of the bride. Alvin Lee Loudermilk's younger wife falls for the Best Man, and the conjoined twins, Tous-les-Deux, train their eyes on Boudou Fontana, the last of the star-crossed Fontana clan. And we go from there.
M.R.: Does that mean there is going to be more of the Fontana curse to come?
J.D.: Well, I don't have any plans to resurrect any other Fontanas. Maybe in a short story. Maybe some years down the line I'll check in to see what Earlene and Boudou are up to.