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THE MASTER: Creative Writing Tips and an Interview With Guggenheim Fellow, John Dufresne

Updated: Jul 2


Picture of author John Dufresne author of Louisiana Power and Light
Guggenheim Fellow, Novelist, Short Story Writer, & Professor, John Dufresne

Today, we have a  very special interview with Guggenheim Fellow, Author, and Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University, John Dufresne, who also provides us with some excellent creative writing tips.


John, thanks for agreeing to do this—I know you’re a busy guy. It’s not easy being a professor, a writer, founder and leader of your Friday Night writer’s group, teacher at writing conferences, and so on, so I’ll try not to bore you with the same old questions—although there’ll definitely be some in there.


You’re the author of six novels: Louisiana Power & Light, Love Warps the Mind a Little, (both New York Times Notable Books of the Year) Deep in the Shade of Paradise, Requiem, Mass., No Regrets, Coyote, and I Don't Like Where This Is Going, and I hear there’s another on the way. 


You’ve written two short story collections: The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad, as well as three chapbooks: Lethe, Cupid, Time and Love; Well Enough Alone; and I Will Eat a Piece of the Roof and You Can Eat the Window. You have four books on writing and creativity: The Lie That Tells a Truth: a Guide to Writing Fiction, Is Life Like This?: a Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, Storyville!: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction, and FLASH!: Writing the Very Short Story.


You’ve also written a full-length play, Trailerville, which was produced at the Blue Heron Theatre in New York in 2005, the screenplay for the award-winning short film The Freezer Jesus, and co-wrote the screenplay for To Live and Die in Dixie with Don Papy, been an editor for story collections, etcetera. You’ve done more, but I’ll leave it at that, or we’ll be here all day. You were also a 2012-13 Guggenheim Fellow.


Anyway, let’s get right into it.

 

NovelMasterClass:

As a writer whose first novel was published in my mid-forties, when I’d been writing since I was sixteen, sort of made me feel like I was late to the game. You were 46 at the time of publication, if my math is correct, when your first novel, Louisiana Power and Light (1994), which was named one of New York Times' notable books of the year, was published by W.W. Norton & Company. I know you’ve been a writer your entire life, but what did it feel like to have that first novel published at that age? Did it mean anything to you in any way, good or bad?


Dufresne:

Like you I was writing in high school, mostly poetry. I loved the Romantic poets and tried to emulate them. I still have the poems in notebooks but I’m afraid to read them. Writing was one of the only things I could do well. My first book of stories came out in 1991. And when I held it in my hands, I was ecstatic. I was a writer! My editor Jill called and asked if I had a novel. I said I had another book of stories. She said, “So you have a novel?” I said, I had one started and it’s right here in my desk drawer. So I took the last story in the collection, “The Fontana Gene,” and used it as the start of the novel. I had written fifty or so pages on the Fontana family in my notebooks already. So I learned how to write a novel by writing a novel. I borrowed the narrative voice from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and some of the characters were actual friends of mine in Monroe where the story was set. At one early reading from the novel I was introduced by a character, Herb Bryant, on whose porch the story was told. The draft I sent Jill was 600  pages. Who did I think I was? She told me to cut it in half. And I did so by eliminating all of the ancestral Fontanas and concentrating on the present story—Billy Wayne’s. I was thrilled again that I had a novel this time. They pay you to write novels. And I learned that I am more naturally a novelist than a short story writer.

picture of storyville an illustrated guide to writing fiction
STORYVILLE: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne, Illustrated by Evan Wondolowski

NovelMasterClass:

I’m very fond of your novels, in particular Louisiana Power & Light, Love Warps the Mind a Little, (both New York Times Notable Books of the Year) Deep in the Shade of Paradise, and Requiem, Mass., which seem to be your more literary novels, but you’ve also written No Regrets, Coyote, and I Don't Like Where This Is Going, which are classified as South Florida Noir, and which follow the exploits of Wylie “Coyote” Melville, a therapist and forensic consultant. How did these novels come about, and why the switch in genre?


Dufresne:

Jill, my editor (she still is) suggested I write a crime novel like everyone else in South Florida was doing and maybe I could make some real money. So I did. And I enjoyed the challenge plotting a crime story, but I kept the focus on the characters. I read for character, and I write for character. I had fun and I was pleased with No Regrets, Coyote. But the big payday never materialized. By then I loved Wylie and wanted to see what other trouble I could get him into. I wrote I Don’t Like Where This Is Going. My next novel which will be out January 4, 2025, is a return to the literary style that I am more comfortable with.

My editor Jill called and asked if I had a novel. I said I had another book of stories. She said, “So you have a novel?” I said, I had one started and it’s right here in my desk drawer.

NovelMasterClass:

Full disclosure: you were my creative writing teacher at FIU twenty-eight years ago. You wrote recommendation letters for my grad school applications (while I was working in Glacier National Park making phone calls to my mother from a payphone where grizzlies often strolled by, who then called you to get the letters written). You were there for the publication of my first short story, as well as my first novel, which I workshopped with you and others at our annual Taos writers’ group. You’ve been not only an inspiration to me—you’ve been a mentor and friend. There’s a term many of us are familiar with, which is “sending the elevator back down” once you’ve “made” it. Was there someone in your life who was as generous to you as you’ve been to me? If so, who was it and how did that affect what you’ve accomplished over your career?


Dufresne:

Thank you for the kind words and the elevator metaphor. I was fortunate to have had three mentors, three inspirational teachers at the University of Arkansas. I was older than many of the students having had a brief career as a worker in a drug prevention /suicide hotline center. And a briefer career as a house painter. Being older I told Bill Harrison, my first workshop instructor, that whatever he told me to do, I would do. And he began with “You don’t know what a plot is?” So tell me. “You don’t have enough vivid and significant details in your stories.” How many should I have? Like that through my first semester.  Jim Whitehead, poet and fiction writer. We met for Independent Study in his back porch discussing the line from “This Be the Verse” about your mum and dad, how they fuck you up.  He said, “Dufresne, how can you expect to understand Philip Larkin if you haven’t read Schopenhauer?”  And then he called the Dickson Street Bookshop and told them to hold a copy of The World As Will and Representation and sent you off to buy it.  He said, “We’ll talk when you’ve finished reading it.” 


On the poster taped to the ceiling above your heads, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring shimmered with light.  She looked like she was waiting for me, or waiting for me to say something. Bill and Jim had different ideas on how to fix your story. If you were stuck, Harrison said to cut something; Jim said bring in a cousin from Illinois. John Clellon Holmes was the reason I chose to go to Arkansas. He wrote the first beat novel Go. And he was best friends with Jack Kerouac, who had been my literary hero. I went to Kerouac’s funeral and saw John there. John told me in class when I expressed a dislike for Henry James that I would like him when I got older. That didn’t happen. But he also noted that my opinion was not a judgement on James. John had an autographed photo of Billie Holiday in his office. This week I wrote a blurb for Balloon Theater, a posthumous collection by Steve Moncada Street, who was a student with me in Fayetteville. Steve died of cancer in 2012. John left Fayetteville when he got cancer much earlier. Steve wrote a letter to John while John was writing and dying in Connecticut. John wrote back, “I’ll keep a good thought for you.” Around the same time, John wrote to my wife Cindy, telling her  to “Keep all flags flying.”


NovelMasterClass:

You and I have talked about how the interests of your students, in terms of genre and what they write about, have changed over the years. What have you seen occur over the last nearly thirty years of your teaching experience, and do you have an opinion on the trajectory of writing to come (if you think you know where it’s going?).


Dufresne:

Fantasy and sci-fi seem to have captured the imaginations of today’s young writers, especially fantasy. This among the undergrads at least. I asked my class one semester why they preferred fantasy to reality. Here are some answers I got. “I'm in love with imaginary things!” (Everything in a story is imagined! The magic is not swords and sorcery. This is the magic: words into worlds. So I thought.) “I don't like reading about other people’s problems that are like me. They bore me into hysteria.” “I'm already living in reality, why would I want to read about it too? Fantasy is pure imagination.” (What is dull and monotonous about trouble?) And so on.


Students often mention spiritual truths in fantasy, but we have religion if we want easy answers. Fiction is not about answers but questions. Orson Scott Card says of sci-fi that it takes place in an unknowable word. But I would suggest we need to know the physics of that world so not just anything can happen. We need parameters, I think. When we read about children as main characters in realistic fiction those children need to have the problems of adults. They need to be precocious in some way, not necessarily intellectually. Think of Salinger’s children. And I would suggest that the hybrid helper in your fantasy novel needs to have the problems of adults as well, as does the Martian warrior in your sci-fi story. I don’t know the trajectory. I do know we’ll always have stories because that’s the way we make sense of the world.

I don’t know the trajectory (of writing fiction). I do know we’ll always have stories because that’s the way we make sense of the world.

NovelMasterClass:

When I write, I have taken to heart two specific recommendations from you among the innumerable ones you’ve taught me over the years: The muse comes to you once you sit your ass in the chair to write; the muse doesn’t come to you and then you sit down to write, and Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. The first one is easy to understand. The second one, for me, requires a great deal of introspection, vulnerability, self-awareness, and revision, and yet I never quite get the words on the page to match how I imagined them to be in terms of emotional precision, if that makes any sense. What’s the process you go through to get your characters and the story to resonate with the reader so that there’s that impactful experience that leaves them thinking about your book long after they’ve read the last page?


Dufresne:

Begin again. The easy answer is revision. You need to spend time with your characters. All of them. You know that every character is the central character of her own story. You know that every character has fears and dreams, an imagination, memories and has had traumas, has or has had parents or caretakers. You can’t know too much about these people. Every character has regrets. Every character has secrets. Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about. Every character has a history, a formative past. And we’re concerned about the truth of their lives not the facts. And to get at the truth we imagine their journey—to imagine is to fabricate, to lie. Something like that. The first thing that a writer needs in creating a story is tenderness for all his characters. That doesn’t come quickly at least not for me. It takes time, like to make a friend takes time.


When we remember the stories we love, we remember the characters in them. We remember Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Emma Bovary, Ignatius J. Reilly. We don’t read for themes, though we expect to find them. We don’t read for ideas or for style. And don’t forget about plot. Plot is there for your darlings to have something significant to do. You are auditioning characters as you write. Some of them won’t pass the audition and will have to go. Others will walk on stage and electrify you. When you get to know your people well enough you follow them around and write down what they do—as Faulkner said he did with Caddy. And remember the best characters are flawed, just like we are.


NovelMasterClass:

I’m a pantser. But I do outline after the first or second draft, once I know what the story is about. Recently, I’ve started writing scenes separate from the draft I’m working on, meaning I’ll choose a couple characters and imagine a scene between them that I might work into the novel later on. I find the practice to be helpful in terms of developing emotion, depth, etcetera. Before picking up your pen, and then during the writing, do you have a strict process of how you go about writing your fiction? Does it ever change based on what you’re writing?

Every character has secrets. Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about. Every character has a history, a formative past. And we’re concerned about the truth of their lives not the facts.

Dufresne:

I have no strict process when I write except to go slow to allow for accidents, which I follow, and for unexpected characters and themes to emerge. Writing a story is an act of discovery. I don’t want to know what will happen. I want the story to lead me. That’s what brings me to the writing desk in the morning. What have they been doing since I last saw them? I don’t want to make the characters follow a preconceived notion of what I think the plot is. Listen to your story. If I’m writing a novel, what often happens is that I get to around 150 pages and realize I don’ have a plot. And I am in need of resolution. Shit. Better get me one. So I go back and ask myself if I know why my characters are doing what they’re doing. When I can answer positively and can sense what still needs to happen, I’ll do an outline to the end of the story.  Now I can write the obligatory scenes to get us there. That may save me some unnecessary digressions and tangents. But I know that I can revise the outline based on what I encounter along the way.

Photo of My Darling Boy a novel by John Dufresne
MY DARLING BOY, John Dufresne's Upcoming Novel

NovelMasterClass:

The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, the first MFA writing program in the nation, started in 1936. The world of creative writing programs and universities in general have changed immensely even since you first started teaching. These days it’s hard (if not impossible) to earn a living teaching at the college level, in terms of what adjunct faculty are paid, new restrictions on what can be taught, the difficulty of getting tenure, and a plethora of other limitations and hurdles writers and teachers of writing face that maybe didn’t exist previously. What advice would you give to writers who want to follow in your footsteps, career-wise? Is it still possible to do what you’ve done?


Dufresne:

It’s possible but it won’t be easy, and you may need some luck. Teaching creative writing or writing and rhetoric would seem to be the best kind of job to have. But they seem to be getting harder to find, especially at the tenure track. Adjuncts at universities are treated miserably. But I have many former students who are doing just that.  You could try working in the publishing industry as well. Editing, for example. We all need a day job—well most of us. Diversity is a necessity in hiring, of course. Keep that in mind. I’ve done social work—lots of stories in that world but not much time to write. I worked in a plastics factory, figuring that when I got home, I’d have nothing to do but write for a few hours. I was always too tired to do anything but drink beer and sleep. I will say if you want a teaching job, apply for all of them no matter where they are located. The job’s the thing. Some people are fussy. Don’t be.


NovelMasterClass:

Last question. As a fan, what can you tell us about your next novel?


Dufresne:

Well, I just saw it on Amazon today. Pre-ordering, I suppose. And then, suddenly—or so it seemed to Olney–his beloved boy collapsed into a nightmarish life of addiction and misery. How had he allowed this abomination to seize his child? Olney’s shame is profound, his regret, intense and debilitating. So: A father will save his estranged and runaway son from a life of addiction, or he’ll die trying. (By the way the son is named Cully because I love the name.)

 

For the latest news on John Dufresne, check out https://johndufresne.com


To browse and purchase his books, go here

 

Pre-Order John's latest novel, My Darling Boy, here.



Cully Perlman is a novelist, blogger, and Substantive Editor (SE). Reach him at Cully@novelmasterclass.com if you're ready to have your novel edited.

                                                                                                                                                               

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게스트
7월 04일
별점 5점 중 5점을 주었습니다.

Well done!

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게스트
7월 02일
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Great interview. Thanks for the link to the video too.

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게스트
7월 02일

Interesting questions, great answers.

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