An Undertow to Struggle Against: A Conversation with Dustin M. Hoffman

dustin-m-hoffman

Dustin M. Hoffman’s debut short story collection, One Hundred-Knuckled Fist, is filled with the voices of workers and the environments of workplaces: what so often goes unnoticed in fiction, as if how we spend so much of our day must remain invisible in literature. Instead of viewing work as only one small token of characterization, something that might help flesh out a protagonist, Dustin instead takes readers inside the backrooms and into the private conversations between coworkers. He does so with a clarity of voice, a sharp eye for observation, and a precision of language that I first fell in love with as his classmate in the MFA program at Bowling Green State University.

Dustin is one of the most talented and hardworking writers I know, and I’m lucky to have had the chance to talk with him about his writing process and about his collection. Dustin’s fiction appears in Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Witness, Quarterly West, The Threepenny Review, and Indiana Review, among others, and he teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University. Winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize, One Hundred-Knuckled Fist releases from University of Nebraska Press on September 1.

First off, huge congratulations on winning the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. What was your day like when you learned the news, and how did you celebrate?

Thank you, Anne, for doing this interview. It’s an honor to be talking with such a brilliant writer. Everyone should be snagging up your brilliant story collection By Light We Knew Our Names and your forthcoming novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. I always think how lucky I was to get to work with you and other amazing writers at Bowling Green State University.

So Kwame Dawes, a ridiculously amazing writer and the editor-in-chief at Prairie Schooner, called to tell me they were picking my book for the prize, and I tried to act cool but my heart was a glob in my throat. I could barely respond. Eventually, I came clean and told Kwame I was freaking out, and he told me—very sweetly—to calm down, not to freak out. But how could I not? Kwame Dawes himself was calling to tell me he liked my book and was going to publish it!

I ran around the house screaming a bit with my two-year-old daughter and wife. We danced. The two-year-old thought this end-of-the-world celebration of shouting was great fun. But what came next was an odd reaction that stuck with me for a few weeks. I kept waiting for a call or email saying, Oops, we made a mistake. We actually meant to choose another book. That lingering feeling that our best successes might be a mistake is a terrifying one. But now I’ve touched my book. It’s real.

Work is such a central part of these stories, not simply in fleshing out the characters’ backgrounds, but in defining the stories of their lives and their relationships. Since being in workshop with you at Bowling Green, I’ve been insistent on knowing what kind of work a character does to really know their story. In your own words, can you talk a bit about why work is essential to fiction?

I can’t believe a character if I don’t know how they make a living. It’s such a huge part of our identities, but I think that gets lost when we’re thinking about fiction as escapism. It’s easy to be swallowed by the doubt that no one will find a mundane day job interesting. But I find it thrilling and so revealing. What we do for one-third of our waking lives has such a dramatic influence. I often quote Joseph Conrad, who had Marlow say in Heart of Darkness: “I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”

And work is so organically great for fiction. There’s always conflict and motivation on the job—you can’t get much higher stakes than “making a living.” It’s the part of the day where we’re acting. We get home, fall into routines of watching TV or having dinner or fiddling with our phones, chatting with our loved ones. Better writers than me can make those quiet domestic moments thrilling, but I use the handicap of action. An interesting workday is what we talk about when we get home, what we fret about. So why not go right to the source? Plus you get fascinating settings behind the kitchen counter or on the factory floor or in the secret stockroom. There’s always a secret room, and I want to go behind every EMPLOYEES ONLY door. The language is different back there, the tools and artifacts more alien, the tension rawest. It’s a perfect place for story to punch in.

The experience of the work day is so well-drawn throughout this book, and also so varied—from ice-cream truck drivers to oil refinery workers to carpenters to roofers. How did you access so many workplaces on the page? Did it require research?

I worked residential construction for ten years before I started the MFA at Bowling Green. I was mostly a house painter—I can still freehand a straight line with a three-inch flat brush!—but I did a little of everything. Many of the jobs in the collection I’ve tried my hand at or observed closely. For the jobs I don’t know, I did a lot of research. I worry a great deal about getting work details right, about authenticity. For the title story “One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist,” I interviewed a couple rock quarries. It wasn’t even a huge part of the story, to really know the rocks and their names well, but it gave me a sense of what people in this profession value, what a beautiful rock can mean to these guys, and then all sorts of characters and ideas sprang out of a detail that seemed trivial at first glance. I spent a year studying Jamaican patois with the help of a linguistics class and interviewed native Jamaican speakers for “Conch Tongue.” For most of the stories, the language is the most important piece for me, that’s what makes a work story ring true or false. You have to nail the jargon and the shop talk, which can be damn hard to do. It takes careful observation, listening for the poetry and musicality of less-heard voices.

Place also factors in significantly throughout the book—Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Jamaica. Here too, was research required? What role does place play in your fiction?

I’m way too chicken to write about a place I’ve never at least visited. I use settings that are first imagistically striking—south Texas’s yellow-washed barrenness is like another planet compared to the Midwest’s green and weathered farms and red-rusting factories—and through the imagery I always discover a reflective environment for character. Place is important. I’ve always been a big fan of regionalist writers, from Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson through to Stuart Dybek and Bonnie Jo Campbell and Donald Ray Pollock. For me, like with work, place gives you a fresh language. With each set of sights and smells and culture and stuff comes a new way to talk about human experience. For the longest time, I considered the Midwest to be a really flat and boring place, culturally as well as geographically. But when filtered through a keen artist, the setting becomes richly vivid, which, again, is what Dybek, Campbell, and Pollock have done so well with the Midwest.

A few of these stories make use of the collective-first point of view—“One Hundred-Knuckled Fist,” “Can Picking,” “Building Walls,” and “We Ride Back”—and very rarely in any of the book’s stories do the characters work alone. How does a community, or a shared collective, factor into the book, and how did this particular point of view choice feel right for certain stories?

I love the collective point of view. It’s such a haunting narrative style, harkening back to those delightfully creepy Greek choruses. And the “we” is so natural to work stories. When we tell a story about our work day, it often starts in “we.” The workforce, the crew, the camaraderie and competition of this group begs for the collective voice. But then, of course, the collective point of view has this innate tension to it; the reader is waiting for the individual to burst through the faceless, chanting crowd. So it becomes a tension of the identity struggling to emerge and find autonomy, and I love that tension. My work stories often revolve around that conflict of seeking identity and individual recognition—which can be very hard to find in a blue-collar working world. So, the “we” offers communion and unity, but it’s also an undertow to struggle against.

I’d love to hear a bit more about your process with voice too. I was struck by how well you convey so many different speakers across these stories—how coworkers talk to each other on the job, how an ice-cream truck driver refers to kids as “little shits,” how a tour guide speaks to tourists (and how she speaks to herself). As a fiction writer, how do you flesh out such a variety of voices?

As I mentioned before, this is where the research must be the most sensitive—in listening so hard it hurts. As Henry James said, “Be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” This is how I shape a specific voice.

But that’s just the bones of voice. To flesh it out and make it art, it’s all revision. It’s laboring over each sentence until you have a consistency of character. I often in late stages read aloud. I revise painstakingly slow, spending hours with a paragraph, and every sentence in every story gets touched again and again if not completely deleted. Voice, to me, seems all a matter of revision. I draft with a real-life echo in the back of my head, and it’s competing against my own voice. I have to separate wheat from chaff, or maybe merge them, until each character finds their own language. Eventually, when it goes right, which takes forever, the page becomes possessed.

There is a sense across these stories that these jobs are underestimated and overlooked. A line that jumped out at me was in “Strong as Paper Men,” describing an abandoned powerhouse: “Even without the bustle of industry, the powerhouse still had strength, exclaimed to the neighborhood, I made you, even if no one listened.” And another from “Can Picking,” the collective narration talking about discarded cans at a football stadium: “You kicked them down the bleachers when State took the lead in the second quarter … We smoked on the tailgate of Murray’s F-150 and didn’t give a damn about your cheering, except in the hollow pings and pangs that followed.” For you, what worldview holds these stories together? What was the process of including and discarding pieces for this collection?

So these are characters who I don’t think get written about enough: working-class men and women obscured behind the curtain, or EMPLOYEES ONLY door. You must actively seek them out to see them making your food and making your house. Orwell nailed this sense of blindness a long time ago, and that’s why I needed him for the book’s epigraph: “All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are.” In the construction world, there’s a motto that if you do your job right, it will seem like God dropped the house down from the sky and no human hand ever touched it. We fill every nail hole, caulk every miter cut, hide all wires and pipes behind walls, and then cover every wall with a coat of paint so smooth you can’t identify a single brushstroke. We were never there. The skilled craftsmen I worked with will never get to sign their names on their works.

I’ve been circling this theme of invisibility since we were workshopping together on our MFAs, probably a few years before that. It took me writing “Building Walls”—which came a couple years after the MFA—to figure out what I was really going for. That story became a beacon for me, and I realized the collection hinged on each story communicating with that one. The title story was added later, and that one swallowed up the title and scared away stories that were more about coming of age or domestic conflicts. I added “Subdivision Accidents” late, as well. Of course it always needed to be in there, but it felt too weird, too surreal. I had a little breakthrough when I realized I needed the middle of the collection to get that weird, because the working world is weird, the effect of becoming invisible and faceless is weird. So maybe the short answer to the question of this process of selecting stories is one of being less scared to take risks and being more intentional with how the stories juxtapose each other.

“Workmen’s Compensation” plays with form, a list of second-person directives that read as a medical label organized by Indications, Directions, Active Ingredients, Side Effects. How did this story originate, and how does the form best serve the story’s content?

It started as a fun exercise in borrowed form in a craft class with Jaimy Gordon. Very quickly that story demanded sincerity. I stumbled onto the best form for the story’s themes. Exercises often turn into blunders for me, but this one clicked. It probably has a lot to do with Jaimy being an amazing teacher. Anyway, workmen’s compensation was always the big joke around construction sites. It’s the dream come true, to get injured just right so that you get a paid vacation without being too permanently damaged. The joy of discovery was when the form that started out as a clever take on an old joke forced me to explore a character whose whole identity is desperately wrapped up in work. A cure from work can be deadly. The medical label form became the only way to tell this story, and when it comes down to it, I think a form must be completely essential to content.

You teach creative writing and literature at Winthrop University. How does your teaching influence your creative work?

Reading and rereading my favorite stories and then discussing them with a room full of brilliant young writers is constantly thrilling. They often show me a new way to read a work, and that influences that big ol’ knot I’ll always be untangling: how does a story work? Workshopping stories keeps me honest, forcing me to hold myself to the high standards I expect of my students. I’m suffering right along with them. One of my teaching philosophies is that I always want my students to do the harder thing. Maybe they could patch-up a nicely written ending that’s adequately satisfying or hack off a dull paragraph, but I urge them instead to draft a half-dozen more endings until they find the truest ending. They could just touch up coherent language, but I beg for every sentence to be artful and interesting. This is all fine and easy to preach as a teacher, but when it comes to being an artist, I must follow my own advice. No comfortable edits, no easy outs, lots of painful risk-taking. And I must do the same thing. It really sucks sometimes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way for me or my students.

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing a novel that I’ve been drafting and revising for about three years. It’s about three teenaged kids stuck in their tiny Michigan town during the dead of winter. It’s got a love triangle, a frozen river, crashed cars, coked-up farm kids, and suppressed sexual identities. There’s only a little bit about work in it, though the working-class setting and themes smatter their world. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to escape writing about work.

Writing a novel seems much different than story writing, so much harder to keep track of. I’m so bad with directions while driving a car. If you ride around with me, we’re going to get lost. And I’m like that in the novel, often taking wrong turns and losing track of where the hell I’m supposed to be going. I’ll drive off in the wrong direction for an hour doubting myself the whole time but hoping for a miracle that never comes. Novel writing has been very much like that. The difference, perhaps, is that sometimes I actually find something better from wandering aimlessly in the wrong direction.

***

Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins in October 2016. Her first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize and released in September 2014. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics. Originally from St. Louis, she is on faculty in the Creative Writing and Literature Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

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