Writer John Dufresne grew up and went to college in Worcester, Massachusetts. He migrated south, studying in Arkansas and teaching in Louisiana and Georgia. He is the author of a story collection, The Way that Water Enters Stone, and three novels, Louisiana Power & Light, Love Warps The Mind A Little and most recently (Feb. 2002), Deep In The Shade of Paradise, which is a sort-of-sequel to Louisiana Power & Light. It once again takes place in Shiver-de-Freeze and is a multi-layered, digressive narrative that reunites us with the Fontana clan as they gather at Paradise, the ancestral home on the eve a family wedding. Dufresne has created “a tragicomic tale of love run amok in the ruins of memory and the frayed ends of dreams” with an amusing and endearing cast of southern, small-town originals.
John Dufresne teaches writing at Florida International University and lives in Dania Beach, Florida with his family.
Robert Birnbaum: What is Southern writing?
John Dufresne: Well, you’d have to ask whoever calls it Southern writing, what it is. I suppose it’s meant to reflect a particular region. But I’m not even sure what the South is. I’m not sure anybody is. For example, I live in South Florida, and I don’t think anyone in Louisiana thinks I live in the South. No one in Miami thinks they are part of the South. They’re part of the Caribbean. Where does the South start and end? I think all writing is regional. And often the term “Southern writing” or any regional term is used pejoratively. It’s meant to limit you to some kind of place. Which I think is ridiculous because all writing has to take place somewhere. In America there is a great tradition of Southern literature. It was the literature I loved when I was growing up. It’s not why I moved to the South, but it’s why I felt at home there, in a way. My imagination had been there. Certainly it had been in Yoknapatawpha County and so on. So I felt at home and intrigued by the storytelling tradition of the South. So I started writing about it. I write about the North, too.
RB: The notion that it’s a pejorative is clear. Are there references to “Midwestern” writing?
RB: I guess you hear about “Western” writing…
JD: There’s a little bit of that, and that’s recent. It’s like New York and then the rest of the world. In New York, evidently, they write for everybody, but if you are not from New York — I’m generalizing, certainly not all New York writers are like this…If you remember Tom Wolfe’s essay, “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast,” if you are not writing about New York City, the bonfire of the vanities sort of thing… nobody wants to know about people who live in trailer parks. I would rather know about them, but that’s my taste. I still read New York books. Critics or academics, folks who use terms like “Southern literature,” teaching such a course, they rely on categories. And maybe it’s a device that’s a short hand. If I say, “Southern Literature.” You get it, right? Welty, Faulkner…
RB: Is Richard Ford a Southern writer?
JD: I don’t know. That’s a good question. He’s in New Orleans. And Maine and has a house in Montana. I don’t think of him as a Southern writer. I think of him as a writer. I really don’t think of too many people as Southern writers. Somebody like Larry Brown, who writes about that Oxford (Miss.) area is certainly somebody who gets called Southern a lot.
RB: I never thought of it as a pejorative because I accept the notion of a strong storytelling tradition that seems to be unlike other areas.
JD: I think the same thing, and I’ve tried to figure it out. There’s a great story-telling tradition in the South and in Ireland. Especially in short stories. I was thinking that there is a different kind of relationship with the language in the South then in New England. I grew up down the road [Worcester]. My grandparents and most of my friends’ grandparents came from somewhere else. Canada, Italy, somewhere else. They came here. They learned a language. The English language, for them, was information. Buying things at the store, getting this and that. And if they were going to read for enjoyment they would read in French and Italian. In the South, English has been the single language for a long time. The relationship with the language was not for information. They enjoyed the music of the language, telling stories to each other, talking. I think that there was so much poverty in the South that education wasn’t up to snuff all the time and people maybe didn’t read, but they certainly talked to each other.
RB: The oral tradition cut across class lines…
RB: Was there an aristocratic, upper-class storytelling tradition?
JD: They were talked about… even in those Frank Yerby romance novels, there’s a black guy writing about the white folks on the plantation, ripping bodices and what not, off. I don’t know that there was. I think that — this is just from reading — that the Southern gentry looked toward Europe and England and sent their children there if they could.
RB: Tell me how you went from Worcester to Northeast Louisiana?
JD: Actually when I left Worcester, I went to Arkansas, I went to graduate school in Fayetteville, Arkansas. That was my first venture to the South, and it turns out that Fayetteville looks very much like the Berkshires. There are the Boston Mountains up there. So it was the South, but not the Deep South. Most of the folks I studied with, my teachers, were from the South. So while I read all kinds of things, I did read more Southern literature than I had. When I got out, I looked for work, and I found it in Louisiana. I moved to Monroe and taught here. My wife also got a job at the same school. We went down there and taught for a few years. I spent a year in Binghamton, New York and left there as soon as I could. I had one of those non-tenure track jobs and my friends — other writers were starting to leave — I thought I would get another degree, but I couldn’t live on six thousand dollars. So I found another job and moved to Georgia and taught there.
RB: Where in Georgia?
JD: Augusta. So I spent a year teaching and then got the job in Miami. So that’s the whole journey.
RB: How insular is life in Northeast Louisiana? Are you connected to the rest of the world?
JD: I haven’t lived there since the advent of all this computer stuff. When we lived there, there was no bookstore — a town of about 56,000 — I don’t think it’s grown much.
RB: A university town without a bookstore?
JD: No bookstore. There has been a bookstore before I moved there, named Kelly’s. It was a books and cards sort of thing. We used to drive — the English department folks, 5 or 6 of us — used to drive once a month to Jackson, Mississippi to Lemuria books. We’d make a day of it. We’d go over to Eudora Welty’s house and park out front and see if she’d come out. She never did. And then we’d eat somewhere and drive back. That connected us to the literary world. And, of course, New Orleans was the focus of a lot — at least for us. I’m not sure the people in Monroe were thrilled with New Orleans. South Louisiana is Catholic, Cajun, fun-loving, good food, riotous. And Monroe is Baptist belt. Churches on every corner, most of them Baptist. Pretty Protestant, agricultural and very poor. When I was there, unemployment was 26%. As a result we had lots of students who were there on these basic grants — Pell Grants — it was like their job to go there and get some kind of income for the family. They weren’t always ready for college. It was very different, of course, than living up here. Monroe was the mercantile hub of this agricultural area.
RB: Was it difficult to be accepted, were you seen as a Yankee?
JD: Yes, I was. I never felt anybody resented that. It was just there. When I first got there I saw this bumper on a truck that said; “We don’t care how you did it up North.” Evidently Yankees have been inflicting their values on Southerners long enough. I never had any trouble other than they didn’t always understand the accent. But it was always a joke. I felt accepted. Nobody needed to point out that I didn’t grow up there. I found it a great advantage. That’s why I began to write about it. It was a place that was so different from any place that I had lived. I just began to pay attention to it in a way that folks that grew up with it took things for granted. I thought it was fascinating, for example. You’d come to class one day and all the guys weren’t there. I said, “What just happened?” It was the first day of duck hunting season. And that was it, they were gone. And then for the next few weeks they’d come in with camo on, because they’d go right in their truck out to Chenney Beak to shoot something. Every semester I would get two or three compositions about killing your first deer. I was anti-gun, anti-hunting, I didn’t try to inflict it, and I wasn’t there to tell them about it. But I found it fascinating…this whole ritual of passage it seemed like every boy went through. They went out with their dads and grandpaws and shoot the deer and they drenched themselves in the deer’s blood. This is like a sacrament, like a religion. Those are the things I was trying to pay attention to, that I was going to use — I wasn’t conscious of “I’m going to write a Southern novel.” I was just taking notes, listening to people talking to each other, trying to capture the music of the language. Being a Yankee helped me out. One guy, Henry Taylor, a poet, said to me, “I always find it amusing when Yankees try to write about the South.” I don’t think he meant to be unkind. But it was a little sort of hmm…
RB: Why is it an issue any more than a male writer creating a splendid female character or a white writer creating a black character? Isn’t that what the art is?
JD: That’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s imagination. I talk about that in class all the time.
RB: It would be a lack of imagination on the part of reviewers and commentators to take that stance.
JD: I always say Shakespeare didn’t live in Verona. So he can’t write about that? It so happens one of our great writers of the last century, Andre Dubus, was a Louisianan who came to Massachusetts.
RB: Did you write Louisiana Power and Light when you were in Monroe?
JD: I started it there. It took me four years. I was teaching myself how to write a novel. Well, this [Deep in the Shade of Paradise] took four years, so I guess I haven’t learned much. I was in Miami when I finished it. But I had taken so many notes I was there. I named all the characters after street names, to keep me imaginatively back there, in Monroe.
RB: Is it hard to write funny?
JD: It’s hard to write. I don’t think it’s any harder to write funny. I had a friend call me when this came out, a guy from Worcester, and he said, “For a gloomy guy, you’re pretty funny.” I said, “He thinks I’m gloomy. I’m not gloomy.” But I think I used to be gloomy back when I lived up here. Seasonal Affective Disorder or whatever it was. I don’t even set out to be humorous. I am trying to deal with things that I think are important. Important to me because I’m trying to figure it out. It seems that when I’m writing I need to lighten it up, both for me and for the reader at some points. So it’s not somber all the way through, that you get a chance to breathe. I like humor. I’m a great audience for humorists. I love stand-up comics. I was always the kid in class who got sent to the office because I was laughing at what somebody else said. When the characters come on and do something it amuses me. It’s part of the style that I have developed. Not even trying to be funny. This is the voice I have.
RB: Are the digressions and asides also part of your style?
JD: No, this became very digressive and playful. The other books aren’t quite like that. Love Warps the Mind A Little is a pretty straightforward narrative, first person. When you do that, you eliminate lots of stuff. Which is why I went back to the larger voice, where I could fool around and do other things. Listen to more characters and get into their minds. In a way this is more fun, to write a book like this. This time I pushed it further. The author will be a character, the reader will be a character, and the reader’s first love will be a character…
RB: You’ve toured for all three of your novels. Do you sense any change in the way people treat writers?
JD: It’s different at different places and different stores. If you go to a place like Square Books in Oxford [Miss.] which has been promoting literary writers for a long time. They have developed this community of people who read like crazy. You go there and the people who work at the store and who come are very respectful. There were 200 people who showed up. You can also go to Books-A-Million in Gretna, Louisiana, and even the people who work there don’t know who you are. You don’t have them here [in Massachusetts]. They’re all the same. The people there could be working in a 5 & 10, for all they care. It’s just “move the product” around.
RB: I’ve never been able to work up a bad feeling about any bookstore. After all, it’s still about books…
JD: This one though…they don’t seem to know even where to put the books, fiction or non-fiction. The other chains are great. There are more people reading now than there were a number of years ago. You can go to Barnes and Noble, it seems like anytime of the day, wherever you are and it’s mobbed with people. Everyone is different. The one I was in Durham, North Carolina — which is a really good one — they told that every night they have a different reading group. We have an independent in Miami called Books and Books, two stores, one Coral Gables and one in South Beach. Both of them have readings every night. The universities will have readings…and people show up. Miami turns out to be a great book town.
RB: It has this great week-long book festival.
JD: The biggest book festival in the country, or it has been.
RB: How did that happen?
JD: I think it’s at a good time for people to go down there. It’s changing. It turns out in the last few years 75 or 80% of the booths are Spanish books. Of course, Spanish is really the language of the city.
RB: Does that translate to literacy and book sales?
JD: What I had heard was there was no really market for Spanish language books. There aren’t any big Spanish bookstores there. The culture, the Cuban culture, primarily in Miami — they are into radio. Every AM station is Spanish and it’s all talk radio, very politically charged. That’s what ties the community together. I had read about a woman Spanish writer — I can’t remember her name — living in Miami, she had a long career in Spain and retired to Miami somehow and her books weren’t even sold there. She had won the highest literary awards in Spain.
RB: That’s strange. But I noticed a number of American publishers have created Spanish language imprints…
JD: Most of my students are Cuban. But they are writing in English. They want to write in English, They are American and all that kind of stuff. But if they are reading Garcia Marquez, they are reading it in Spanish. And they tell me, “The English doesn’t do it.”
RB: It’s hard to believe that Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude is deficient in some way?
JD: I know, it’s a pretty amazing book.
RB: Did you intend in Deeper Shade of Paradise to mirror in some way Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
JD: Not when I began it. Somewhere in the middle of it when all these people showed up at Paradise and people were trying to get out of love and all this stuff, that’s when it occurred to me. Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tone of that and the fun of it. Then I said I’ll try to do it…and then I abandoned it. But I kept the little play, because I had fun writing it and doing it…
RB: Enjoyment of this novel doesn’t depend on the Shakespearean references?
JD: Well, I hope not. Somebody who has Midsummer Night’s Dream would get the mechanicals of Shiver-de-Freeze and that might add something. It might get a smile. I hope it stands on its own, The fun…
RB: Do you foresee the Fontana family saga continuing?
JD: With these guys. I don’t know. I’m not planning to do it soon. I didn’t plan to do this either. I wrote this other book and then I was wondering about Earleane, who was alive and pregnant at the end of the last book…and I thought, “Let me see what’s going on.” I remembered how fun it was to write that. I could with Boudou the boy, who is 11 now. Maybe when he’s 20 I’ll think about it again. He’d be the one I’d be interested in.
RB: You’ve devoted a lot of time to these people…
JD: I was happy to be finished with the book when I got to the end. It was a struggle to write. To go back there, I would need to find something new that would intrigue me. Something that I didn’t know before that would attract and compel me to write some more about them. I like the place…I’ve been writing stories along the way. I’ll probably write a couple more, and then I will have a collection of stories done. A lot of them I set in Florida. It took me a long time to get a handle on the place. It’s just such a diverse cultural melting pot. Or actually, it’s not a melting pot. Everybody is not melting, if you don’t speak Creole, Spanish or Portuguese, which I don’t. So now I’m down to this little place where I live. I write about the people right around here and reflect on the rest of South Florida. So I’m learning how to write about that. I’m taking notes for the next novel, which will probably be set in Massachusetts. When those are all done, maybe I’ll think about Louisiana again.
RB: You teach writing?
RB: Why are your students taking writing courses?
JD: They want to be writers. They have all made a decision that they want to be writers.
RB: Why do they want to be writers?
JD: I don’t know. I’m guessing here. I think they love reading. And they want to be able to do that. We have a program, two of us do literary fiction and two do thrillers…. James Hall and Les Standiford. We get students who want to write the thriller, commercial books. Dennis Lehane was a student of mine…he was also a really good writer and he writes literary fiction really well, too.
RB: Carl Hiaasen, Lawrence Shames, Charles Willeford was there, John D. MacDonald…Is South Florida the spawning ground for this kind of writing?
JD: Yeah, Dick Francis lives in Pompano Beach. We did that book Naked Came the Manatee… I said I don’t write this stuff, They said it’s okay, just do this chapter, and I did, and it was fun. I got to meet Elmore Leonard and some other interesting people. I guess it’s an easy place to live. You can go down there for the winter and write a mystery or something.
RB: Is there a non-thriller writing literary community there?
JD: Oh sure…there’s a lot of writing going on. I think it’s because of the great bookstore and because of a lot of published writers have shown up. They have this annual SleuthFest. Everyone’s always telling me to do one of those [mystery novels] and make a lot of money. I’m not sure I could do it…it’d be difficult to do something that you don’t have the…
RB: Isn’t writing just writing?
JD: You have to write about what’s important to you or you stop. At least for me. It’s hard and you say, “Who the hell cares who done it? I don’t care.” Then you go on to something else.
RB: They’re really not ‘whodunits’ anymore?
JD: Jim Hall’s got these great villains who get more and more evil every book. Whenever he reads, he reads the most gruesome parts…
RB: You teach both semesters, most of the year, and write the rest of the time?
JD: I write every day. I teach at night, classes start at five and so I write during the day. I write everyday until noon. It’s the best part of the day. I would write the whole day if I could.
RB: It doesn’t sound like it’s difficult for you.
JD: It’s not drudgery at all, but it’s hard to get it right. Some days you think, “I’m a fraud. How did I do that the last time?” It’s really so intriguing to sit there and write everyday. When you are writing novels, you have so much to do, that you never have to worry. You just sit down and just do…I have to write this scene and rewrite that. It’s actually easier to write novels than stories. Stories, you are always trying to take things out.
RB: Why do you write stories?
JD: I like stories. I like them just as well as novels. In some ways, I like reading them better. My favorite writer is Alice Munro, who only writes stories.
RB: Whose favorite writer isn’t she?
JD: She’s unbelievable. And William Trevor, I like his stories better… “The Ballroom of Romance” is astounding. This is what I am trying to do. I get great inspiration from reading. Every time I read something good I want to run home and write. If I’m driving in the car and hear a good song…
RB: Some people have the opposite reaction and get discouraged.
JD: No, it’s like I want to try to do that. I may never do it, that’s all right. I’m not going to be Shakespeare either. I had a student. He was a brilliant student academically. He was really well read and he got into the creative writing program. I noticed after about two years that he was avoiding the writing workshops, had done all the academic stuff and then he disappeared. He wasn’t around taking classes. I ran into him and said, “Remy, where you been?” He said, “Aw, I’m not going to do it. I quit.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I realized I wasn’t going to be Shakespeare.” He didn’t want to come in second or something. I said, “What are you out of your mind?”…He did [quit]. He works for the NFL now.
RB: There is that old saw about “Perfection being the enemy of the good.”
JD: It is. Samuel Beckett said, “All you can do is fail better the next time.” When I teach, I try to teach the process. You have to get over things like that. People have trouble letting go of it, never finishing. In the middle of writing every story or novel, you start to lose confidence in it and you say, I have an idea for a better story, and you start that. Then the unfinished stories pile up and you defeat yourself. I teach that you have to finish no matter what it’s like. The first draft is going to be shit anyway.
RB: And the stories are, as they say, “workshopped”?
JD: I’m not into the confrontational sort of thing. I try to make it painless. I remember how difficult it was. These kids are smart and they are good writers and they show up and expecting to keep succeeding…sometimes it’s not as good as what they’ve written before. Some of them are never going to do it and they are talented but their own defensiveness and attitude gets in the way…a lot of criticism is not always right…I teach, if a little bell doesn’t go off, disregard it. Because it’s only going to get you in trouble, doing something that doesn’t make sense to you. And you’ll know in a workshop that there are particular people who good readers of your material and you rely on those people. If you try to take everyone suggestions when you rewrite a story it would be a mess.
RB: That does speak to writing as art not science…there isn’t one way of reading.
JD: We all bring in our emotional experiences to what we read. You’ll read about love based partly on your experiences.
RB: When you started writing this book you knew that it was novel. Did you have any doubts that you were going to finish a novel?
JD: I knew I would finish it. Whether it would be good, I didn’t know that. I’ve done it enough times that I know even when it gets hard, if you just sit there every day it gets done. The only one that doesn’t get done is the one you quit on. And I wouldn’t quit on it. I might not be happy — which I wasn’t, with the first draft. The first draft which has probably been rewritten itself 10 times. But you get to the end anyway. I’m persistent. I learned, be patient and persistent and try to write knowing that it will get done. I always think I’m going to finish before I do. And it’s okay…
RB: You give yourself that kind of leeway contractually? No deadline?
JB: Yes, and they [the publisher] don’t ask. They are great. I’ve had the same publisher [Norton] and the same editor…
RB: Who’s your editor?
JD: Jill Bialosky. She’s also poet and a novelist. She’s great. We almost collaborate. I’ve come to depend on her because I know she will tell me when I’ve gone too far. I trust her judgment.
RB: That must be a crucial part of your writing
JD: Oh yeah. Most of my friends that write have never been edited in that way. I think, “Oh my god if that happened to me.”
RB: I think Richard Ford has said he would stop writing if Gary Fisketjon stopped editing…
JD: Someday I’ll have to do it on my own. Jill won’t always be my editor. I try not to rely on her and get more disciplined. But it’s been a great relationship and I’ve learned a lot about writing. I think editors are good. I tell my students, “Listen to them.” They go, “No, it’s my story, I don’t want anything changed.”
RB: Everybody needs an editor…
JD: Editors are editors because they are good readers. They are better than we are. And if they [my students] don’t learn that lesson, they’re in trouble, too.