Pick a Word and Begin
Mystery Writer John Dufresne Returns to Festival
By Haley Wilson
After reading through my questions and answers from this week’s interview with author John Dufresne, I decided to follow the advice (see above) he issues to aspiring writers. My word to begin with is “trouble,” a topic true to the mystery/crime genre Dufresne’s work occupies. Author of several popular novels including Love Warps the Mind a Little and Louisiana Power & Light, Dufresne says his ideas often stem from trouble. “Every story is about trouble. Crime is trouble in spades. I always say that your characters should have the troubles that you would not want your family, friends or loved ones to have. Big trouble. Death of children, divorce, imprisonment, and so on.” Dufresne landed on the subject of murder for his work based on Shakespeare’s success with the topic.
Most of us can admit we are a generation obsessed with crime-based T.V. shows. If I were to write mystery novels, one might find me camped out in front of a flat-screen, binge-watching CSI until my eyes glazed over. Dufresne, on the other hand, admits that while being a writer leaves little time for television or trips to the movie theater, he did have eyes for only one T.V. crime show: The Sopranos. “I thought the writing in it was amazing—as good as any novel I’d read,” Dufresne says. Martin Scorcese’s work added further intrigue about crime-based stories for Dufresne: “I love Scorsese’s crime movies. He’s a genius. They are all about character. I like them all, but my favorite is Mean Streets.” Dufresne adds the Coen Brothers’ Fargo to his list of films that inspired him to craft his own crime narratives.
While television wasn’t primarily Dufresne’s motivation for delving into murder mysteries, reading and writing were. He had handfuls of favorite authors that ignited in him a desire to try his hand at writing stories. “I was always writing and was pretty good at it—all I was really good at, in fact. I enjoyed playing with words and moving toward understanding by writing my thoughts out.”
Slain in the Spirit
Dufresne truly became dedicated to writing in his high school years after reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do—write stories. Now I just had to figure out what a story was. And I’m still trying.” Dufresne’s list of favorite authors also included Chekhov and Shakespeare, but reading William Faulkner was a true turning point for him. “I was slain in the spirit—this is unattainable art, I thought, this is achingly beautiful and sad, and I’m going to try to attain it.”
Dufresne not only spends his days trying to attain spirit-slaying art, but teaching as well. After researching his guides on creative writing such as The Lie that Tells the Truth and Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, I was naturally eager to hear his go-to advice on the writing process. His answer was both blunt and enthusiastic. “Sit your ass in the chair. Writing is a physical activity. It goes on at the desk and nowhere else,” says Dufresne. “Sit, lift the pen, pick a word, any word, and begin. Write every day. Write till your hands cramp. Rub them up and write some more. And read, read, read, until you need glasses.”
Dufresne has clearly followed his own advice. He is currently working on his latest untitled novel, in which readers can expect a return of Dufresne’s heroes, Wylie and Bay, as well as a poker trip to Las Vegas. “One thing leads into another,” Dufresne says. “The focus is on prostitution and human trafficking. People will die. Some will drop from the sky; others will be washed underground. I’m writing it now and having fun.”
Writing with a Southern Charm
Though his latest book features Wylie and Bay, Dufresne is reluctant to choose just one character as his favorite upon my request. “I’m going to avoid choosing one of my heroes so that the others don’t get jealous and say Spot, the dog, who shows up in several stories in Johnny Too Bad. He’s so funny and naughty; I really do love him.”
Johnny Too Bad, like Dufresne’s other books, claims the South as its setting. Since 1984, the author has called Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Florida home at one point or another, although he most often writes of Louisiana and Florida. “I realized I needed to write about my neighborhood first. And that led to writing about the region.”
The characters mentioned above, Wylie and Bay, reside in Dufresne’s town, renamed Melancholy in the book. After growing up in New England, Dufresne was able to see his home in the South with fresh eyes, finding the flora and fauna of the South to be something entirely new and exotic. “Being an outsider means you see with the innocent eye that you need to see things clearly.”
Perhaps Dufresne will see this year’s Festival in Deadwood with fresh eyes, though the mystery writer has attended twice in the past, once at Sioux Falls and once at Deadwood. He especially enjoyed the book fair and the opportunity it provided for authors to meet and greet attendees as well as their fellow writers. “I was so impressed with the folks who showed up for my readings and classes—so full of enthusiasm and with a passion for the book. And the hospitality of the event is without equal. The committee takes good care of its guests but keeps the focus on the attendees where it belongs.”
Like other attendees, I’ll be passing the months leading up to the festival by chipping away at my reading list and dusting off old writing projects. So dig out your favorite crime novels, brush up on your Sopranos plot twists, and prepare to meet with John Dufresne this September, an author who specializes in turning trouble into thrilling page-turners.