John Dufresne, who was previously featured on Sliver of Stone, is the author of two short story collections, The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad, and the novels Louisiana Power & Light, Love Warps the Mind a Little, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year, Deep in the Shade of Paradise, and Requiem, Mass. His books on writing, The Lie That Tells a Truth and Is Life Like This? are used in many university writing programs. He’s the editor of the anthology Blue Christmas. His short stories have twice been named Best American Mystery Stories, in 2007 and 2010. His play Trailerville was produced at the Blue Heron Theater in New York in 2005. His Sliver of Stone story, Escape Velocity, was a 2010 Best of the Net finalist.
John, who teaches creative writing at Florida International University, was interviewed by Fabienne Josaphat about his latest novel, No Regrets, Coyote.
FJ: Who is Wylie in your mind? What made you want to create this character?
JD: Wylie is a guy who tries to take care of people even if he can’t quite take care of himself. He’s a therapist who helps his clients tell their stories so their lives make sense finally. He has the ability to pay attention and to imagine the real lives of people based on their physical aspects and behaviors, their faces and furniture, as he says. He takes care of his dad who suffers from dementia, and his sister who is a morbidly obese hysteric. And he’s a man with a vehement sense of justice.
FJ: I can see Wylie’s character reappearing in other story lines/murders to be solved. Are there future plans for Wylie in the works?
JD: Yes, I am already working on a new novel with Wylie and Bay. (And Django and Patience.) It begins in Las Vegas and moves to the Nevada desert. People go missing out there and are never heard from again. People head to Vegas for a second or third chance. People go to disappear and hide. I want to deal with the themes of randomness and chance and with the subject of human trafficking.
FJ: There’s a choice here of slowing down the plot to focus more on character development. This is unlike other thriller/suspense novels or murder mysteries where the crime and action are always at the forefront. Would you agree with that? Why did you make that choice?
JD: I’m not sure I made a choice. That’s just the way I write. I don’t think of Coyote as any different than any other novel I’ve written except that there is this crime to be solved. So I’m still interested in examining and exploring the human condition. This is what it’s like to be a human being and this is how it feels. Wylie’s relationship with his dad was as important to me as was his solving of the crime. Finding out “who done it” is not enough to keep me reading or writing. I got to page 250 in the draft of the manuscript and had no idea who did it. And I thought, well, this is the difference between what I have written and what I’m trying to write. I do have a crime to solve. I do have to pay more attention to this plot I set in motion. And it’s too late to bring a culprit on stage now. Some one I already knew was responsible for the deaths of five people. I told this story to the poet Christopher Merrill and he told me that he’d spoken to Tony Hillerman about writing crime novels and Hillerman told him that he didn’t know who did it till the penultimate page. That made me feel better. By the way this was great fun to write.
FJ: This is your second crime novel (Louisiana Power and Light being the first?) What was different this time around when writing this?
JD: I’ve never thought of LP&L as a crime novel. I didn’t try to solve anything there. That was the story of a family with a “curse.” Will the last surviving Fontana succumb to the curse or rise above it? That was the first novel I wrote and I wrote it, in part, to learn how to write a novel—how to sustain action and drama and suspense. This time I followed the example of crime writers I admired and had some bodies in the fist chapter and gave Wylie the task of finding out the perpetrators.
FJ: I must ask about the characters. There are many of them, each of them with interesting and funny names, and they each are unique. How did you conjure up all these people? Were they always part of the storyline initially?
JD: The only character around at the start of the novel was Wylie. I knew he lived alone, so I gave him a cat. Gave him my own cat, in fact. All I had to do to write Django was sit a my desk and watch his antics. He needed a buddy, so I found Bay. When you’re writing, a novel one of your jobs is to audition characters. They simply appear and you watch to see how they do. Some pass; some don’t. The characters are out there in the world. They’re at Publix and Home Depot. You just have to keep your eyes open. You see a person who attracts your attention for some reason and then you begin to imagine that person’s life. Where he works, who is there when she gets home. What were his childhood traumas? What are her dreams and aspirations? What is the trouble in his life? And you’re off. Many of the bad guys—the minor characters—were people I read about in newspapers. And once again, I began to imagine their values and motivations. What lead them to commit these crimes? I do think that every character in a novel is the central character in her own novel, and I try to suggest that story, even if only a little bit. As to the names, I think names should be memorable. Like Dickens did. Many of the characters were named for my father’s friends. Bay Lettique was a real childhood friend of my father’s. And I collect names, have long lists of first and surnames in a file.
FJ: I love the relationship between Wylie and his family, and the relationship he has with his patients. I especially like Venise. Which character, in your author’s mind, did you find yourself most attached to when writing this?
JD: Well, I was most attached to Wylie because I was in his head almost all of the time. So I knew him better than I knew anyone else. And I admired his sensibilities and his willingness to help people who were hurt. Really, I liked all of the characters, even the ones who were behaving badly. You have to try to understand why they do what they do, and in so doing you get to know them and maybe knowledge is affection to some degree. I would love to write more about some of them, like Carlos’s wife Inez, who is always off stage, but shares a love of books with Wylie. Not sure I’ll be able to, however.
FJ: Tell us about the research you did for this. This novel seems like a double challenge in terms of research because Wylie’s a psychotherapist who also consults in the field criminology. What were some of the challenges? And what was fun for you to learn in that process?
JD: I did too much research, read too many books about police procedure and forensics, and then I realized I had a first-person narrator—Wylie—who was not a cop and not involved in forensics except in a peripheral way. He wouldn’t know all that police procedure, so I didn’t. I did need to know more than he did, of course—his friend Carlos is a cop and would need to explain some things. Wylie is an amateur sleuth, after all, not a pro. As for his job, I chose therapist for a couple of reasons. Therapists help their clients tell life stories. Not unlike a novelist. And in an earlier life I worked as a counselor in a drug program and I was in therapy myself. I knew something about the job. I’ve read my Freud and my Carl Rogers and my Fritz Perls.
FJ: I can’t help but think of Wylie as similar to you, the author. As Wylie analyzes a crime scene and notices details, he’s replicating what you, the author, does when writing. Did your experience as a writer noticing details influence your developing Wylie’s character?
JD: You got it right. Yes the writing influenced the character of Wylie. Wylie, c’est moi!
FJ: Did you plan all along to write about a specific character? Or did you have a story in mind first, then found yourself attached to the character you developed? This is similar to question number two, so if you’ve already explained it, I’ll merge the two into one answer.
JD: I first wrote about Wylie in a short story called “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles” in Les Standiford’s anthology Miami Noir. The story was selected for Best American Mysteries 2007. When I decided to write a crime novel set in Florida I naturally chose Wylie to tell it. So I knew him already. So the novel began with thinking about Wylie’s personal life, his family, his relationships, and so on. And then I gave him a bigger and more complicated problem then he had in the story.
FJ: I have to ask about the Wylie Coyote reference. It’s fitting. Did you think of other monikers that could also apply as a character name? How did you settle on Wylie?
JD: Here’s how Wylie’s name came to be. As you have suggested, and I have stated, Wylie is me. He thinks like I do. He behaves like I do. He’s as incompetent in the ways of the world as I am. But I didn’t want him having my name. There’s another famous Dufresne I knew about, a chef in New York named Wylie Dufresne. I’ve eaten at his wonderful restaurant, WD-50. So Wylie it was. And a few people, I thought might make the connection. Once I had Wylie, I thought of my favorite cartoon character—the Coyote. Wile E. And then I figured out how to work that into the narrative. For the last name another writer from Massachusetts with a French surname, like mine.
FJ: Now that you’ve written this, what do you feel you’ve learned from Wylie? How has this novel affected you?
JD: Every novel is a struggle. That’s not to say that it’s painful. It’s quite thrilling actually, to give yourself an impossible task and then to do the impossible. But many days are frustrating. I suppose what I re-learned from Wylie was what I learn every time I write a novel—be patient, be tenacious, follow your intuition, follow the mistakes, trust in the process to get you to the end.
FJ: Of course, the final question must be: what are your regrets? Do you think writers can harness inspiration in regret?
JD: Regret eats the soul. So you’d better write about your regrets or they’ll kill you. You could also go to therapy, but that’s not as fun. In the new Wylie novel I’m working on Wylie and Bay’s current girlfriend talk about what keeps them up at night and some of what they’re identifying there are regrets. Mercedes speaks first:
“Being alone. Feeling abandoned. Forgotten. The party’s over and everyone has gone home, and I’m alone, and I don’t even live here.” She thanked the waiter and sipped her drink. “What keeps you up at night, Wylie?”
“Everything. What I haven’t done. What I’ve done. What I have to do. What I’ve done wrong or sloppily or mindlessly. What might have been. What I can’t forget. What I can’t remember. Death. What I’ve lost. What I gave away. What I’ll find.”
John Dufresne is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction. His new novel is No Regrets, Coyote.