If you think the ingredients for a great story include Southern accents, unlikable likable characters, crime, and surprising yet inevitable twists with generous doses of dark humor, then you probably know John Dufresne’s work. About his fifth novel – No Regrets, Coyote – the New York Times describes John as “an original talent” whose “humor is frightfully dark, yet it’s also dazzling.”
I met John when we taught together for several years at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. The recent Guggenheim Fellow is a master author and teacher. His heart is wide; his imagination, wild; his craft, deft.
I wanted to know what books had shaped this lovable wit. In this Books That Matter feature, we find out. You’ll hear his innate storytelling voice and generous spirit.
Share your responses and questions below.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
John: There were so many. Clutch Hitter by Claire Bee, in the Chip Hilton series for boys. I think it was David Mamet who described drama as two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first, 3-2 count, and your team down by one. That describes Clutch Hitter, a book that illustrated to me, the little jock that I was, how exciting, compelling, and tense a story could be.
And then there was Salinger’s Nine Stories. Seymour did what! I fell in love with Esmé, who was training her young self to be more compassionate and who was extremely interested in squalor. I was sure the book was written just for me. I was on the bus with the rest of the Comanche Club, listening to the Chief tell us his story.
The Sound and the Fury was a stunning accomplishment that took me several careful readings to even begin to understand. So this is what point of view means! Most recently the book that rattled me like this was William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
Without spoiling the experience for anyone, Mary Louise, our central character, feigns madness in order to slip away from her husband and family and in order to hold on to her love for her cousin Robert. I knew Robert and Mary Louise as intimately and cared for them as intensely as I’ve cared for people in my so-called real life. There is a moment in the story, which I won’t divulge, when I had to close the book and catch my breath. It was like I’d been hit in the face with a shovel. Oh my God, I thought. I can’t go on. I went on.
The one book you have most often re-read is what and why?
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann. Read it every winter for years. It’s like a course in Western Intellectual history, but what compelled me were the characters, of course, and Hans’ magnificent and doomed love for Clavdia Chauchat, the woman with the prairie wolf’s eyes.
You will read anything written by whom?
Alice Munro and William Trevor. And, of course, Anton Chekhov.
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper? (What’s your preferred reader?)
I have never read a digital book. My preferred “reader” is the book.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
I don’t know how we’ll be reading and writing our stories—on our iPhones, computers, Kindles, or “in” or “on” whatever other technological miracle is in the offing— but we will be reading and, specifically, reading stories. We need them to make sense of our lives and of our world. Lack of narrative sense leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to damage. We have to tell our stories; we have to see our lives reflected in stories. Our fiction will certainly reflect the social networking, cyber culture we’re living in because that culture is shaping us.
If you had five days off to read books next week, which books would you at last read?
All of Proust. (Well, in a week, Swann’s Way, maybe.)
The little-known book you most relish and champion is what?
Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi. This Hungarian novel, set in 1900, is breathtaking in its simplicity, and it’s heartbreaking, hilarious, and frightening.
The book you are most embarrassed/proud to say you’ve never read is what?
Embarrassed! All of Proust. (see above)
The one thing you hope readers of you novel NO REGRETS COYOTE come away with is what?
A fondness and caring for my central characters.
JOHN DUFRESNE is author of five novels, two short story collections, and two books on creativity and writing. Find out more about John at johndufresne.com.