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Getting Black on White: The Craft of Writing

An Interview with John Dufresne

by Elaine August

 
 

John Dufresne, author of three novels, now brings us The Lie That Tells A Truth. His prior works include Deep in the Shade of Paradise, Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little. The latter two were named New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Dufresne has been compared to John Irving, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Max Shulman. Perhaps he has a touch of all of them. The native New Englander writes about the South in such a way that it is hard to believe his roots are actually north of the Mason-Dixon line. He also teaches creative writing at Florida International University.

The Lie That Tells A Truth is hot off the presses and is John Dufresne’s latest contribution to the literary world. Only this one is not fiction. In fact, his guide to writing fiction joins some other well-known authors on the shelf for ‘want-to-be-a-writer’ or ‘published’ authors. Any serious writer should add this one to their personal collection of tools. The title alone is a ‘grabber’ and Dufresne offers some well tested exercises, along with words of wisdom from his own pen in addition to truly admired literary geniuses.

John Dufresne’s guide reminded me of the many tools that often need refreshing. I compared it to our journey in life as we climb up a mountain and the mystery that goes along with it. When Dufresne speaks of love that enters our lives, I doubt he is referring to an old Barry White tune backed up by the Love Unlimited Orchestra. The road to successful writing may have us picking up pebbles along the way and turning them over – examining the rough spots along with the beauty of their formation. For the writer’s kindred spirits, it was put well by Faulkner: “… the past is never dead. It is not even past.”

 

John, the opening page sets the tone with Lao Tzu: “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” It seems as though you have re-arrived after three prior successful novels. What inspired The Lie That Tells A Truth? And how did you prepare for this unique writing toolbox?

I spend a good deal of my time reading and writing fiction, trying to figure out what makes a story or novel work or not work. And since I teach fiction writing, I started writing down my thoughts. And one thought led to another. The Lie is meant to be a plain-spoken guide to the process of writing fiction. I think of the reader as being an apprentice in the craft, and I’m presenting the tools they can work with and maybe showing them how to wield those tools.  It’s no secret that I’m also an apprentice–we all are–there are very few masters, and we writers are always learning. And that’s one of the pleasures of writing stories.  

What made this work fresh for you to work with and stand out to address the challenges every writer faces?

You can never know enough about writing, just like you can never know enough about words, about your characters, about the story’s setting, and so on. So the subject is always generating fresh material.  

How did you manage your time along with your demands as a creative writing professor at Florida International University?

Fortunately, my job teaching is all about writing stories. Even though I may not be writing at any given moment, I’m thinking about fiction. In that sense I’m more fortunate than most writers who have to support themselves with day jobs. I spend most of my time either writing or doing schoolwork. There’s no other way to get both jobs done except sitting in the chair. I like doing both jobs, so there’s really no problem.  

You have given ten – absolute must - commandments for writing fiction. Can you share your secret to sitting and staying in the chair?

First Commandment–sit your butt in the chair. I’m not sure there’s a secret to this except loving what you do and wanting to do it so badly you miss it if you’re not in the chair. This means being patient and tenacious and trusting in the writing process.  Nothing good happens in a single draft. Writing a story wasn’t built in a day. You need to get to know your characters before you can care about them. Once you care about them, you won’t have any trouble getting back to the writing desk. You need to make writing a priority in your life if you’re serious about it. You need to sacrifice something. Writing takes time most of all. And you have to want to write as badly as you want to watch TV or go to the movies. You manage to get those done. And you can probably manage all three.  

How have your early careers helped in both your novels and the guide? What drives your narrative?

I learned a lot about people and motivation in the years that I was doing social work. I worked with people in trouble. I wondered how did they get themselves in these desperate straits. And what did they need to do get their lives in order. My other “career” was painting houses. I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I had lots of manual labor jobs, thinking they would free up my time for writing. They just made me tired. I kept writing and knew that was the only way I was getting out of the neighborhood. It was the only thing I was passionate about and the only thing I was pretty good at. What drives my own narrative–my life is what I think you mean by the question–is trying to understand who I am and what I’m doing here. Trying to understand why we’re all here.

You have noted that writing, for the author, leads to discovery. What do readers look for in the travels that unfold before them? Do they sometimes want a different ending than is delivered?

Yes, reading ought to be discovery as well. The reader ought to feel transported to another world when she reads. A more exciting, compelling world than the one she walks around in. And the story ought to feel completely surprising as it unfolds and seem absolutely inevitable when it is finished. The reader ought to feel that it could not have happened in any other way. That doesn’t mean that she prefers that outcome to any other. That is why we have tragedy.  

If you could influence the reading public today – what authors and their work –would you have them read?

Well, I would say–and I do in the book–that you need to read the classics. You need to know how marvelous stories can be. So you read the people they told you to read in school. They told you for a reason. You won’t like everyone you read, and that’s as it should be. When you find someone you love, read more by that author, read everything. Read it twice and try to figure out how the writer did what he did. Some of my favorites are Chekhov, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Shakespeare (it goes without saying), Laurence Sterne, Thomas Mann. And you have to read contemporary fiction as well. My favorites there are Alice Munro and William Trevor, to name the two masters of the short story.  

The duly noted ‘cost’ in attempting to be the next Shakespeare of ‘putting in the time, patience, passion and persistence ‘for the ‘privilege of writing’ takes a huge commitment to come close to succeeding via your formula. But what is the most important ingredient in making fiction work following this commitment?

Well, none of us is going to be Shakespeare. The best we can do is finish a distant second.  Writing is an act of faith. You have to put in the time. Simple. You have to let yourself write badly until you begin to write better. You have to trust in yourself and in the writing process. And that takes time and patience and tenacity. But if you don’t have a passion to write, you will not take the time and the effort.

When considering major story ideas, how do you arrive at a true cornerstone for the tale?

I don’t ever start with ideas, major or otherwise. Ideas are too nebulous a place to begin.  Fiction is about people and only about people. So I usually start with an intriguing character and give that character some trouble, and then I write to see how that character responds to the trouble. And then I give her even more trouble. A character ought to want something intensely. And that character should struggle to get what she wants. And she ought to get it or not–that beginning middle and end are the cornerstone of a story.

John, all of your leading characters are full of energy that draws the reader in. Do you capture that motion from real life?

Yes, I think my characters are inspired and informed by people I see around me. A writer is first of all a “noticer.” Henry James said, “the writer needs to be the kind of person on whom nothing is lost.” I’m always looking and listening. And taking notes.

Does fiction always follow the life/love/death cycle to succeed?

I don’t think good fiction needs to follow any cycle to succeed. It does have to change the life of the characters and of the reader. From that moment on, nothing is ever the same for either of them.  You write about what you don’t understand, what you’re obsessed with. For me that often is love and death.

Can you give us an example of your using humor to temper real life drama?

In Love Warps the Mind a Little, which deals with, among other things, terminal cancer, one of the central characters is a rambunctious dog named Spot. Spot’s role is often to lighten the somber tone. He’ll do something unexpected and endearing and we all get to catch a breath.

How does the scene remain at the heart of the story?

Everything important in a story ought to happen in scene, ought to be shown, not told. And nothing unimportant ought to happen in scene. Every time your central character does something to get what he wants, that ought to be rendered in scene.

Must a character always be ‘flawed’? When do you have too many characters and subplots?

Characters ought to be flawed to be real. We are all flawed, some more than others. We love characters who fail. Because we all fail so often. Unflawed heroes are for action movies or cartoons, not for literature. And yes, you can have too many characters and subplots–if they cause you to lose focus on the central struggle. Characters have to be more than decoration. They need to be vivid and significant. And significant is the keyword.

How does the author know when a days work is done?

Your work is done when you need to go do something else. It’s not the number of words you write or how well those words flow. You do what you can do with the time you have. You often have more time than you think. I always stop knowing what comes next. So that tomorrow I can start right in–there’s no time wasted staring at a blank page.  

You are often a guest speaker at writers conferences and present workshops. What are the most frequently asked questions from writers?

The questions most asked by writers are the simple ones. Do you write with a pen? When do you write?  How did you get an agent? Things like that. They are legitimate questions, I think. These writers are trying to figure out the rituals that have worked for others. They want to understand the writing process and the business of writing–and that is quite important.  

In today’s competitive market for book selling, what do you see as the challenges for an author’s first novel?

A first novel, like any novel, has to move the reader–likely an agent, first–has to be an honest and significant emotional experience. You can’t, or shouldn’t write for a market. The publisher’s job is to worry about markets. Your job is to write for one reader at a time.  

Lastly, what can Dufresne fans look for in your next work?

I have a book of stories coming out next fall with Norton. It’s called Johnny Too Bad. At least that’s the current title.   


John Dufresne Web Site

The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction
by John Dufresne
W. W. Norton & Company, 2003
Hardcover, $25.95 ( 298 pages)