Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection No Good for Digging and the chapbook Secrets of the Wild, both published by Word West Press. His first collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Masters Review, Wigleaf, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Redivider, and Juked. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com.
Nicholas Rys: How much of this work was inspired by your time building houses in Michigan? Also, can you talk about the time you built houses in Michigan?
Dustin M. Hoffman: In Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, she says that writers’ lives are “colorless to the point of sensory deprivation” and that “a writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience,” which she says probably explains why we’re all writing coming-of-age books about our childhood. I suppose my advantage, as well as the doom of firsthand inspiration, comes from working construction. I keep returning to this world. Some stories form the book are very directly related to the experience, like “A Nesting” and “The Plumber Who Found Treasure” and “No Good for Digging,” which responds to an actual death that happened on one of our sites. I am haunted by this work, and that I survived it, and all it gave me in terms of community and financial support. But I hated it, too, and am so grateful to not be tearing my body up and inhaling paint fumes and caught up in the toxic masculinity choking that world. Really, even if I’m not directly writing about construction, the themes show up, in stories like “The Strongest Man Compound” and “Pitch” and “Life Net,” which all kind of dredge up anxieties about being stuck in a killing occupation and trying to escape.
NR: I noticed you dedicated the book to Wendell Mayo. I was also a student of Wendell’s in Bowling Green State’s MFA program, and feel his loss every day—in the classroom as an instructor, and as a writer. So many of his sayings and phrases pop into my head often. In what ways do you still carry him with you, as an educator and as a writer? Where are his fingerprints or is his influence in this book? In your writing, in general?
DMH: Wendell taught me to trust my weird, which was always a big part of my artistic drive, but I’d been tamping it down, learning to write adequate traditional realism imitative of Ernest Hemingway mixed with Raymond Carver. Wendell was so good at identifying and fostering the thing writers did that was different, those whispers of distinct voice that he had a perfectly pitched ear for. Wendell taught me to embrace design more, to worry less about verisimilitude and worry much more about the art of the thing, the weird and honest thing begging to scream up from beneath the work. I realize this all sounds very abstract, so I’ll say that Wendell helped me find my true voice, and I hope it’s all over this book.
Wendell and I coauthored an essay about story endings that we published with AWP a while back. We had so much fun that we’d talked about coauthoring another one about him being a “story whisperer” in his workshop teaching. I don’t think anyone did that as well as Wendell—that art of carefully listening to a student’s story to find its weird will, to help bring that out. It’s a shame we didn’t get to write the essay. I just loved Wendell so much, and, indeed, he’s the golden standard for teaching. He’s given us all such a high bar to meet as teachers.
NR: I am struck by the brevity and clarity of your writing. The short bursts are great, but don’t seem to fall into too much of the Lutz word play/disintegration if the sentence/demolishing of plot stuff. You still seem, from my suppositions, pretty narrative-focused. Can you talk about that balance?
DMH: I often complain about plot feeling like this chain around my neck that I want to break from so I can just write sentences, just dwell in language and pure sound. But even if I get the most jazzed about sentence play, I’m a story writer. I certainly value narrative when I read. Readers value it. Sadly, it seems a tough sell getting readers to care about your lovely Lutzian sentences without packaging it within plot. I love Gary Lutz, by the way. His essay, “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” is my favorite essay on style.
I often think of Jaimy Gordon when considering this balance. Jaimy was one of my mentors, and, for my money, she’s one of the finest stylists around. Lord of Misrule is a masterpiece. But even Jaimy prioritizes story. She once said in a Q & A that she could never understand why a writer would sacrifice the elements that readers love: tension, plot, suspense. Flash fiction gets no exemption from plot, for me, usually.
NR: Word West has put out another collection of yours. Congratulations. They are, I believe, a brand new press (This is Word West #1, correct?). Can you talk about the press, working with them, and how that process has been for you?
DMH: I’ve loved everything about working with Word West. Yes, my two books, No Good for Digging, this story collection, and Secrets of the Wild, a triptych chapbook of linked stories, are Word West’s first releases. I’m certain they’ll have a long career ahead. David Queen, the founding editor, is just brimming with enthusiasm and heart. Every step of the way, I feel like we’ve been trading love letters over email—both sharing such affinity for literature and making books and reaching readers.
What has been especially unique about Word West has been the collaboration. David had me involved in the book design, and getting to see the creative director Julia Alvarez’s genius in action was a thrill. Even the editing process, at all stages, was collaborative and meaningful. The fiction editor, Joshua Graber, called me up over the summer, and we talked for a long time, him mostly listening to me blab about my intent for each story. Josh was so instrumental in developing the collection. We added in a brand-new story last minute, one that Josh helped me see was missing. Working with Word West has been like being a part of a community, a family, and I feel connected to this press now so deeply.
NR: Does the writing of these stories span some years and were they culled together after the fact, or were they all purposely written to be this collection? What was the process of organizing the stories together and making them a book like?
DMH: The oldest story in the collection is “The Mouth Full of Flying,” which I originally drafted in 2005, I think. It’s completely different now. Others in here are very new. I’m a believer in letting stories speak to you and reveal their relation, something I learned from Wendell. Then, once you have theme and a nucleus story for the others to revolve around, you can start cutting the weak stuff and adding stronger work.
The organization relied on the scaffolding of these weird flash pieces about the body. There are seven of these surreal pieces where a speaker is addressing people living inside his body: a farmer harvesting a thinning scalp, a paleontologist studying bones inside a foot, a nude life model inside a ribcage, a water diviner on a tongue, etc. This series gave a recurring theme about body anxiety, which I struggle with and which is a big part of the working-class world; if your body fails, you’re out of a job, and even if you have health insurance, that won’t preserve your career. So many contractors are self-employed, meaning no retirement, no worker’s compensation, no unemployment. If your body goes, you’re screwed. Anyway, those surreal body stories helped me organize by creating these emotionally thematic punctuation marks. Kind of like the vignettes in In Our Time maybe.
NR: I really love the first epigraph. I feel a sense of sanctity in the act of work in this collection, the perspective of working folks, also. This is important to me; is it important to you? Can you talk about writing characters who are often deemed not literary?
DMH: Honoring labor and recognizing the people who do these jobs is probably the most important goal for me as a writer. [Studs] Terkel’s book Working is a bible for me, and I’d been wanting to use this epigraph that just nails this sense of holy sacrifice that goes into blue-collar labor. I did this work for a decade, and I’ve loved and admired people who have done this work until their bodies failed. Despite all the horrors and cruelties of this world of labor, indeed, there’s so much sanctity in it.
As you say, working-class people are underrepresented in literature, though there are brilliant writers who write about them so well: Carver, Dorothy Allison, Donald Ray Pollock, Orwell, Bonnie Jo Campbell. But, on the whole, working-class characters are often absent, and even if written about, their jobs are absent from the page. That omission, I think, relates to this prejudice we carry around in our heads as writers that fiction is all about escapism, so we can’t write about work. But I’d argue that other peoples’ jobs provide just as much fascinating escapism as a murder-mystery plot or a dragon fantasy world. Hell, I’d rather read a fantasy story about the tanner’s job fitting saddles to dragons than another cliché story about knights on adventure. And I think that’s been a real opportunity for me as an artist, recognizing this gap in literature. I love writing about work, love researching jobs and learning jargon like a new language. Another absence even in working-class literature is writing in more experimental ways about working-class people. These types of characters and worlds often get such a gritty, realist treatment, and we have Carver to thank for that, and the Kmart realists. But now it’s time to embrace the absurdity and surrealism of the modern working world. That’s something George Saunders does that I love, and a tradition I thrill in building from.
NR: I have reread “A Better Trap” several times. I really love that story. It does some of my favorite things pieces of really short fiction do: somehow seeming to zoom in on a single moment, while still leaping between time and space—it is adventurous, despite the parameters of word limit. It’s the kind of short piece that feels like it contains an entire universe. And yet, despite all that, the conceit is remarkably simple: a father protecting his daughter. The speaker sets up mouse traps in his home and catches several mice. It’s something he feels badly about, however. He has a year-old daughter in the home, and his feelings of responsibility and protectiveness towards her outweigh his empathy for the mice. “I understand the cruelty of survival” the father says, relating to the mice, an incredible insight into the speaker, a great, small detail. I know how important it is to get every single word right in a story as short as this. Can you talk about the process of working on this story and stories like this? Do you find yourself starting big, with way more words than end up on the final page, then whittling it down? Or rather, do you begin with a skeleton of the idea/story, and work to fill it in?
DMH: Thanks for such a generous reading of this story.
This one’s a bit different, especially since it’s more nonfiction, based on my first house in Kalamazoo and my first daughter and the mice I had to kill. I wanted to try to capture how parenting, for me at least, transforms a minor inconvenience like a small mouse infestation into something much larger.
As far as process, I knew I wanted this to be flash from the start, so language economy became a huge priority. Still, I always just let myself indulge in a bunch of metaphors and flowery language and sentimentality in early drafts. Revising this was an act of stripping away to the essential. I tend to usually draft like this, going big and putting in everything, and then I cut and cut and cut. With this one, I drafted big and then put it away for about four years. Time proved necessary for revising this one. Writing about protecting your first baby when you’re still a new father—what a mess! I cried constantly, probably while drafting this, just a sentimental smear of a person. Which is a good thing, as far as being a person goes, I think! But probably just not for revising, for being able to prize language.
NR: Are these pieces of flash fiction? Are they short stories? Do you worry about or get hung up on categories like this? I ask because flash often feels (or is discussed as) plotless, word/language-driven, and more surreal than the work you have here, but do these categorizations even matter? Of course, stories vary in length in the collection, but most are very short. Can you talk about this at all?
DMH: I suppose I don’t get so hung up on flash fiction definitions, but I do think it’s so important that a writer recognize that a writer must aim to accomplish different goals in 100 words as opposed to 10,000. I agree that on the shorter side, language has to be perfect. It’s an ultimate act of conciseness to write in these short forms. But, you know, don’t we want that out of our 10,000-word stories too, out of our novels? I never want my time wasted, no matter the length, so here’s where those distinctions break down for me. A five-hundred-page novel damn well better be language-driven, too, right? Otherwise, this reader isn’t going to make it past the first chapter.
I do enjoy working with constraints. There’s a story in the collection, “Pitch,” that’s one unbreaking sentence that goes on for 1,200 words, and that constraint shaped the story completely. To use some labor metaphors: it’s like showing up on the job site and realizing you left the paint roller back at home. What can you accomplish on the job with only a brush? Or what can you do on the job site when you only have one hour? The result will be dictated by the constraint, and I find that fascinating as an artist.
NR: Can you talk about writing such short fiction? I’ve always been drawn to compact narratives: Lydia Davis, Pamela Painter, Lindsay Hunter’s early stories… But you write longer work, too. I wanted to ask about how you know when an idea might be better suited for something shorter, or when you know you have an idea that might be bigger. And I also wanted to ask if you’ve ever felt pressured to turn something shorter into something longer. I also write a lot of short-shorts, but, in grad school, occasionally felt pressured to make the stories longer, which always sort of felt like missing the point. Anyway, do you have any thoughts on this?
DMH: I love the authors you mentioned. I can’t make it through a semester without teaching Lydia Davis, who just exists in a category of fiction writing all by herself.
But, unlike Davis, I’m not a natural flash fiction writer. I’m much more comfortable in the short story form, writing ten- and twenty- and thirty-page stories. I really love the weirdness of stories in the five- to ten-page range. That’s maybe my favorite length, an unruly realm Barthelme occupied so often. I feel as if I must hunt so much harder for an idea that will translate itself into flash form, and those ideas seem rarer finds, glimmering surprises. I’ve found I just can’t force very many ideas into the flash form.
I started writing as a poet, with no real interest in writing prose. And I often tell my students that I see short stories as much closer in form to poems than novels, despite the novel genre’s shared prose DNA. Flash fiction is where this boundary gets even blurrier and more interesting. Maybe my past life as a poet, filtered through my present self as a story writer, is what occasionally leads me to flash pieces. It’s my secret desire to be a poet, to wear their enchanted skulls, even if only for a few hundred words.
Pressure, yeah, I’ve certainly felt that, but not so much in stretching out a story. There’s that novel pressure in our publishing industry—this idea that to be taken seriously or work with an agent or reach a larger readership a novel is required. I’ve written one under this pressure, and I desperately missed writing stories. I’m not so sure that any of the biases I carry about needing to write a novel are even all that true. I wonder if stories are having a bit of a comeback in our reading culture. I hope so. That’s what I want to read, loads and loads of glimmering stories.
NR: Do you turn to other forms of art for inspiration? I’ve talked to other writers who cite music, film, and sculpture as influences on their writing. Was there anything like that for you while you were composing the stories in this collection?
DMH: Oh, hell yeah. Art museum-going is my best writer fuel. Every chance I get I want to be in a gallery. The visual arts stimulate language for me like nothing else. “Father at Shift End” is a direct ekphrastic response to the exquisite painter Tom Stanley’s series of paintings called The Neighborhood. Above my writing desk are prints of surrealist works by Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage. My art brain lives in their dreamscapes, and I hope there are touches of their accessible versions of abstract surrealism in this collection. So long as I’m surrounded by art, buttressed by great masters, I know my writing will be in a better place. Like constant reading, absorbing the other arts works like taking your vitamins, like getting sun. You lose that, and the art mind withers.
NR: What are you reading now? What are you working on, creatively now?
DMH: I just taught Zadie Smith’s new collection Grand Union in one of my graduate classes. It blew me away. I love her take on the story form. I also just reread Seth Fried’s brilliantly funny speculative novel The Municipalists. Carmen Maria Machado’s and Otessa Moshfegh’s work has been knocking me out lately, too.
I’m writing stories right now. I’ve lifted myself from pressures to write a novel, for the time being, so that I can focus on creating in the genre I love most. I’m rounding the corner on a collection about ruined families set against the families we create at work.