Ambidextrous with language, John Dufresne possesses the best of both worlds. A child of the North, Dufresne lived for many years in Lousiana, and now in Florida, where he learned the love of storytelling that is a hallmark of the South. His writing balances the northern need for economy and effeciency with the southern love of linguistic flair to produce great novels such as Lousiana Power and Light, Love Warps the Mind a Little, and Deep in the Shade of Paradise, fantastic short stories collected in The Way that Water Enters Stone and most recently Johnny Too Bad. Dufresne is also a creative writing teacher and wrote an insightful and educational writing book The Lie that Tells the Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction.
Mr. Dufresne was gracious enough to spend some time talking about fiction, the business of publishing, and his great love of the writing process with Slushpile.
After a series of jobs painting houses, driving a cab, and working in a factory, Dufresne decided to to pursue his love of writing in college. At the time, MFA programs didn’t get quite as much attention as they do now and Dufresne knew little about the process but he “did some research into the programs and applied to about ten of them, thinking whoever takes me, I’ll go.” He ended up at the University of Arkansas where he studied with John Clellon Holmes and Bill Harrison among others.
After some of his stories began to see print, Dufresne gathered them together into a collection and started looking for an agent. “I took maybe a dozen stories and I went through one of those Literary Marketplaces or Writer’s Digest and I looked for the ones that were accepting short stories. And there were three agents in the whole book. I took three stories that were different, that showed I could do different things and sent them off. And Richard McDonough called me.” Dufresne remains with McDonough to this day.
That collection was shopped around to various publishers for almost a year. “It went from one house to another,” Dufresne said. Editor Jill Bialosky was just starting out at W.W. Norton and she took a chance on the collection of short stories, entitled The Way that Water Enters Stone. Dufresne is fully aware of how difficult it has become in recent years to publish a first book of stories. “Jill told me ‘you may be the last guy to get a first book of short stories published.'” And the struggle really hasn’t changed since then. Dufresne pointed out that it took him until just recently to get another story collection published. “It was clear that they were interested in novels. That’s the way it is. You’ve got to be as good as Alice Munro to get away with it. She’s the only one who can just write stories,” he said.
Many authors are critical of their publisher, frustrated by miniscule budgets and printing counts. But Dufresne is thrilled with his longtime publisher W.W. Norton. “Norton, I think is the best publisher in New York because it’s the last independent publisher and it’s owned by the people who work there. They’re loyal and they sign you on as a writer and not as a book. They want to nourish and support your career. They don’t pester me about deadlines, they’re just very supportive people,” he said.
Dufresne is fascinated with the process of writing, of creating literature. In fact, this process appears in many of his works. Some critics cringe when a writer writes a story about writing but Dufresne was undaunted. “I can hear the groans here at my desk when I started it. One of the reasons I write about writers who are writing is because it’s my job. I’m interested in the creative process. What makes it work? How do we take the world and shape it into a story? I know people aren’t going to like it. But I don’t give a shit. Some people don’t like that stuff and that’s all right because other people love it.”
This fascination with the creative process led Dufresne to write a magnificent book on writing fiction entitled The Lie that Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. This book provides in-depth, detailed explanations of how to approach writing. Too many writing books are too basic and too fluffy. The reader learns nothing and isn’t challenged at all. In The Lie that Tells a Truth Dufresne provides concrete examples of how aspiring authors can improve their art. But he also asks poses some harsh truths to many who say they want to be a writer but don’t have the time to write. “You only have to want to write as much as you want to watch TV or go to the movies,” he writes in the book. “You manage to get those done. You can probably manage all three. You pay with your time, your patience, your passion, your persistence.”
Given the strength of this book and Dufresne’s position as a creative writing professor, it’s obvious that he scoffs at the notion that writing fiction can’t be taught. “What you can teach is the craft of writing. You can’t teach the passion, the will, the patience and the tenacity it takes. But you can certainly tell everyone what the techniques are of telling a story. You teach the craft and the art comes later.” Many readers criticize and complain about “workshop fiction” but Dufresne points out that imitation is a valid way of learning. “There are workshop stories and they’re the way we learn to write a story. That’s okay, whoever they’re [the students] emulating now. They’re going to find their models and they’re going to learn to write like that,” but students eventually grow beyond their imitations and find their own voice.
Dufresne sees the writing process as a life’s work, not to be hurried or rushed. When asked if he could offer up one writing tip, only one, to aspiring authors, Dufresne prescribed a life’s pursuit rather than some mechanical detail or plot device. “It’s not the story in question, it’s the process of writing,” he said. “Anyone can get lucky. Am I going to be a writer or someone who wrote a story. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Whatever you write today leads to everything else. It’s a priority in your life. You go to the desk everyday, wherever the desk is, you sit down.”