Hybrid Interview: Dustin M. Hoffman
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. —CRAFT
By Jesse Motte •
When I read Dustin M. Hoffman’s first collection, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, during undergrad, it felt like I’d been suddenly gut-shot by some invisible, benevolent entity. The shock excited me. I prefer my writing like that: unforgiving and electrically charged. For one, I didn’t know my professor could pack the word “fuck” into a single collection so unflinchingly. For two, Dustin’s lab-experiment language wowed me, page after page. And his characters, with their hard, abrasive voices, their poor decision-making skills, and their inevitable arc trajectories all felt painstakingly accurate. I just assumed he knew how to teach at a high-caliber level, not that his writing would hold high-caliber rounds.
One thing to get straight about Dustin’s fiction is that it’s hard-pressed to deviate from one subject: work. Despite this, his approach to the working world is unceasingly fresh. His characters consistently read as compelling and multidimensional. I assume he examines the topic through some sort of half-microscope, half-kaleidoscope instrument, where tiny rotations or adjustments dramatically transfigure the picture. This effect manifests at every level of his storytelling, and is abundant in his new collection, No Good for Digging. By the time I finished it, I felt like I’d been flattened like a pancake.
The book is an almost orthogonal pivot from the traditional short-story form of One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist. It’s half the pages, twice the story count, and takes the experimental full-throttle. We get microfiction, flash fiction, and traditional short stories, and there’s a veritable squadron of first-person-plural points of views. The characters we meet range from simple drywall finishers, an entire compound of strongmen, a magician’s assistant, a plumber with a long-tailed mermaid goddess, an ill-fated Ouija board inspector, and an eerily alluring deck salesman. In this new collection, Dustin’s gone from lab-dabbling, linguistic science enthusiast to full-blown mad scientist. Take for instance, “Pitch,” a one-sentence story spanning three pages concerning a mysterious deck salesman:
…but raising the subatomic serenity of surrounding air molecules which will imbue the corresponding electrons with a state of perpetual quantum giddiness, like when you were seven and you fell in love with Zander, the next-door neighbor, who promised to marry you and buy you three ponies and four cows and seven sheep because he came from a family that never worried about money like yours did…
And early in the collection, we get “The Magician’s Secret,” a six-page, question and answer, first-person-plural narrative:
There was pure joy, yes, at the miracle, and some of us wept for days, kneeling at the spot where we watched, in theatre aisles, on our home couches or toilets, inside our cars waiting at red lights. Others, however, most of us, the weakest of us, couldn’t handle the majesty and stuffed our ears with grass, sealed our eyes with epoxy, stitched our lips tight with needle and thread.
Or take “The Mouth Full of Flying,” a piece of flash fiction, grounded in the real world, that radiates a kind of synesthesia:
I’m phantom hover. I’m all eardrums. Until two of my fingers materialize—made real by the feel of slipping down a hot, choking throat. I’m gagging a man in the crowd. Below me. Was holding me. Long brown hair soaked in sweat, a beard, brown eyes drowning in surprise. If not for the surprise, I would’ve believed he was Jesus. I yank my fingers from his throat. Sorry, that your larynx was my scaffold, that music was heavy in your mouth. That’s okay, man. I actually hear him over everything, my everything that is eardrums.
And yet, as much absurdism and surrealism as NGFD holds, we never feel completely untethered from what’s real. Dustin isn’t just going to let the reader float away. He knows how to keep us grounded in the midst of a collection that often feels anti-gravitational. And he knows how to smudge that space between realism and surrealism. He’s playing with the reader, working with the reader, pushing the limits of what’s possible for writing. There’s a delicacy and care for his craft that’s reader-inclusive. So we can imagine the compassion that extends to his characters.
When I think about the stories in No Good for Digging, I see them as having their own individual consciousnesses: they spit and hiss, wink from across the room (and they know you’re married), grant you three wishes then turn right around and suck you back into the lamp, force you into awareness, and leave you in strange, half-convoluted emotions. Dustin is packing as much material as he can into something almost anatomically impossible to fit it all into: a new ninety-five page, thirty-one-storied collection.
One more thing. That invisible, benevolent entity that socked me in the stomach after I’d read Dustin’s first collection in undergrad? A hundred-knuckled fist. And this new, frightening sense that’s been following me since I finished No Good for Digging? I guess it’s best if I answer in question form: have you ever been buried alive?
Jesse Motte: So, obviously, you taught me. And I’ve met both of your teachers, Jaimy Gordon, who I know won the National Book Award in 2010, and Wendell Mayo, who you met during your MFA at Bowling Green, and whom you’ve dedicated this book to. I’m sorry to hear that he passed just recently. What kind of effect did they and their writing have on your writing? On your teaching?
Dustin M. Hoffman: Well, you named the two who have had probably the biggest influence on me. I worked with Jaimy during my undergrad and later during my PhD. Jaimy was the one who was really interested in me writing about my construction experience. She also showed me how to write a sentence. Maybe for the first time ever. Once, I came to workshop and Jaimy had made a printout of the worst sentences in my story and we went over with the class why these were terrible sentences. It was mortifying. But maybe the best thing that ever happened to me as a young writer.
So where Jaimy gave me validation and sentences, Wendell gave me my voice. He was so good at identifying what a writer did well so he could help them do it better. Wendell and I were even planning on writing another essay together about him being a kind of story whisperer. You have to listen to the story so carefully that you can actually feel the writer’s intent and their style and then you can step inside that. I think this is what a good workshop teacher does. Wendell even used to rewrite our endings for us and he’d say, “Here! Use this!” And how could you possibly use something he wrote for you? But he’d do it in your voice so perfectly! And Wendell so valued humor and absurdity and surrealism. He loved weird. Both he and Jaimy valued the weird.
JM: I’m glad you mentioned humor, actually. Because as sometimes seemingly hopeless as these characters’ situations appear, terribly funny things happen in NGFD. I’m thinking of “Grandpa Dies” in particular. But I’ve heard you say inside and outside the classroom that you find humor specifically challenging. Is humor part of your experimenting in this collection? Or does humor play various roles in your storytelling?
DMH: Actually, that story is based on my own grandfather who lived his last years in an old folk’s home. My mom would get the call from the home: “Grandpa’s dying this time. You better come out.” And so Mom would go and Grandpa would be fine and it eventually became the joke of “Grandpa’s dying again!” I mean the joke is a pretty sad and miserable one, but my job as a writer in this case is to ask: how do I take this and make scene and character combined with humor?
Most of what I love to read is humor actually. It’s a kind of gateway emotion for me as a reader. My rule is that a writer has to make me laugh first before they make me cry. I’m willing to do and feel so much more for a text after that. So I definitely value humor as a reader. And I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about being a writer is to be a good reader.
But it can be terrifying to write humor because, you know, who knows what’s funny? It’s so subjective. And in a lot of cases humor is going to be based on offending to a degree. I mean, you have to be breaking expectations. And that’s what makes it so scary. You never know when you might push things too far. Is it okay to make a joke in a story about a grandpa dying over and over again and not getting recognition for all the hard work he does? I say yes, of course. It has to be funny. You have to be able to laugh at this stuff. Otherwise what do you do? Survival becomes so difficult.
JM: And a lot of these characters have surrealist or fantastic edges. You’ve bestowed them such once upon a time–type traits but hardly a soul gets what I’d call a “happy ending.” What made the surreal a staple point of this collection? Did your characters emerge out of a fabulist orientation or was the surreal applied later?
DMH: Again, I think if you’re writing a story about working-class characters it’s essential not just to give it this obvious treatment of gritty realism but to transform that into surrealism or absurdism. And, to me, that’s honest. Because it is absurd, showing up to do the same thing over and over again every day for forty years. What an absurd human existence we live.
Also, I think it helps the reader to see this world more clearly. Maybe what’s lost is verisimilitude to a degree but I’m aware of the lines I’m stretching here. I like to do that with the reader. It makes this a collective experience rather than a combative one. So I’m less interested in something like, “Let’s see how long I can suspend the reader’s disbelief.” No, I’m interested in playing together when we enter a piece.
“The Plumber Who Found Treasure” was drafted in a class with Jaimy Gordon, where we were reading One Thousand and One Nights and the prompt was to write an imitation of one of those stories. I don’t remember the exact story, but, essentially, a guy is walking around and everything he sees is treasure. It’s a story about self-delusion. So when I wrote “The Plumber Who Found Treasure,” I did kind of have this magical premise in mind. Yet, even here, there’s a very realistic human experience about how we delude ourselves into seeing treasure that’s really not for us to take. So in that story’s case, I had a fun premise to work with and a setting I knew really well, this new-construction suburbia.
Surrealism is tied to realism. If you get into a character’s interiority and explore their imaginings, their fantasies, the associations they make, the weird voices in their head, then all realism is going to get pretty fucking weird pretty quickly. I’m into that. I want that. I actually find stories that don’t have those elements in them a little less honest. I want the big sprawling messes that emerge out of characters.
JM: Earlier you mentioned this idea of “playing together when entering a piece.” I’m interested in that, this relationship between writer and reader. I’m thinking of “Pitch,” one of my personal favorites in NGFD. Not only does every word count in a collection as compressed as this, but in a one-sentence story like “Pitch,” it’s double jeopardy, both for you as the writer and for your character, whose job depends directly on wording and delivery. And in the classroom, you made it clear: audience matters. Do you think writers are also under pressure to tailor to an audience? Is there some sort of unspoken obligation there? What degree does audience factor into your writing process?
DMH: It’s a great question. I mean, readers matter a lot to me. But I think you can’t worry about the reader in early drafting stages. That can kill your process. Revision is a different story, though. George Saunders calls revision an act of love. I think he’s speaking about the relationship between author and reader, because now you do have to respect them and their experience with the text. So how long can I string a sentence together is the challenge I’ve given myself as a writer with “Pitch.” Also, I’m thinking, how long can I sustain a reader in one sentence and not lose them? And I’m thinking about that at every step of revision. There becomes a tension that’s completely audience driven. That’s a dangerous tightrope to walk but a playground for a writer to work in. A story like that is totally reader-based.
JM: One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, your first collection, is particular to the traditional short-story form. No Good for Digging wants us guessing. We’re immediately hit with a barrage of flash, micro, traditional, and style-focused writing that doesn’t stop until we get to the end. What inspired this approach? Did you mold structure around pre-written stories or did you write some pieces specifically for this collection?
DMH: I’m a big believer in letting individual stories start to reveal a larger book, at least early on in the process. For the most part I’m giving the focus and attention to making that story work individually. Wendell Mayo was an advocate for putting a collection together by learning to see your works as a whole and seeing the connections that exist. Then as you write more stories you start replacing the weaker ones with the stronger new ones.
Although, I will say “The Ouija Board Inspector” was added pretty late. It had been drafted before the collection, but I revised it to specifically fit the collection and added it in final editing stages of the book. Also, there’s this weird series of flash pieces about miniature people living inside a narrator’s body that are strung as a series throughout NGFD. These were not originally created for this book, but I knew they’d someday be connected as a family. But for the most part these stories are working for themselves.
JM: I want to know about these “we” POVs. There’s slightly more than a handful of first-person-plural stories here. NGFD starts off with a “we” POV. And you published a collective POV with CRAFT, “The Whites.” Can you talk about the allure of writing from this kind of group perspective? How does it fit into the thematic scope of NGFD?
DMH: During my undergrad, I really got wowed by these old Greek plays with the chorus, the communal first person. And later, during my PhD, I worked with Thisbe Nissen, who once said in workshop that every writer has to write their “we” story. Every writer does at least one. And I remember sitting in class, thinking, “Man, I wanna write a bunch of those.”
But I think what attracts me to the “we” point of view is that it’s going to be a very reflective point of view. Plus the first-person plural has always felt organic for working-class stories. You get this collective sensibility working with a crew or group. The individual identity starts to get lost too, and you get a natural tension out of it because the “I” always wants to emerge.
Now, while this “I” never emerges from a story like “The Ouija Board Inspector,” there is an individual character that the “we” is kind of against. The inspector character is separated from this “we” and so we get another organic point of tension: the us versus them. And that’s something that, again, speaks to working-class culture, where you get these conflicting ranks in your jobs. Customers versus workers or employees, bosses versus employees, bosses versus customers. But at the same time there’s also the possibility of camaraderie and safety in this group. I like to start with a “we” that is a little more combative but get to a “we” that becomes a family by the end of the piece.
JM: This is a compressed book. Right down to the syntax. I’m interested in the deliberation that went into organizing it. I remember a couple months ago when I got my ARC, you had “No Good for Digging” as the last story in the collection. But the final version has “Bruise Room,” a piece of microfiction, coming in last. What made you change your mind?
DMH: I have to credit Joshua Graber, my editor, for suggesting it initially. NGFD has this cyclical nature of starting and ending with microfiction that honors compression, as you note. But then also “Bruise Room” has a kind of happy ending. I mean, a bruise is a visual form of healing and the color purple is the visual representation of pain that’s moving toward healing. And I’m big on redemption. I don’t want to do it to a degree where I forgive characters or society. But I think we’ve got a kind of writerly duty toward hope and seeing the futility in darkness.
JM: The first story you ever assigned to me was “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. It’s a story a lot of us have read. I bring it up now because it shares this core theme that’s at the heart of NGFD. This idea of visibility. What’s the importance of this theme? Was it a conscious choice on your part or did it naturally end up on the page?
DMH: I’ve joked before that I keep writing the same story over and over again, which is a character at work seeking recognition and validation for the hard work they do. It’s a theme that matters more to me than any other. In construction, the goal is to be as invisible as possible so it seems as if this house has just been dropped down from God in perfect condition and no hand has ever touched it. The only time you know someone’s been there really is if there’s a mistake.
But this overindulgence in finished, perfect products ignores the actual sanctity of labor. People need to see that. I want to help them see the labor. In “Grandpa Dies,” he doesn’t just want to be a grandpa. He doesn’t just want to be the working guy. He wants to be a hero. And he’ll never be that. He’ll die in invisibility to a large extent. Or he’ll be lost behind the walls. Or buried in a plumber’s trench. And there’s such a tragedy in that. So I want to try and recognize the invisibility in that and honor the sacrifice these working people make.
JM: Flash fiction takes up the largest amount of space in No Good for Digging. Flash kind of operates in a different domain at the sentence-level, compared to the long-form. And it’s all too clear that the language throughout this collection is as daring as it is calculated. But that’s got to be some task. What’s your sentence-level writing like? What degree of influence does something like word choice have on the trajectory of an in-progress story?
DMH: I’d say the thing I get most jazzed about as a writer is sentences. I want every sentence I write to be the best sentence I’ve ever written. And I think every writer should be approaching a sentence like that. Is there room for any boring sentences? I say no! And, of course, during my drafting process, it’s the opposite of conciseness. It can become a problematic formula, too, to an extent. Aiming for impossibly good sentences before every period can be overdone absolutely. There has to be some variance before the effect gets flattened, and so often the sentence fails.
But, again, here I’m thinking about the reader! How much I can get away with? How much will they actually enjoy? And where’s this line between effective maximalist prose and purple prose? But every single sentence I’m trying to put that kind of pressure on it. You know I’ve preached verbs constantly. Every sentence is going to be working around that verb, especially as a writer of the working class. Verbs are the doing part of the sentence. I want those puppies to sing.
JM: Let’s go back to the beginning. I’m talking about the very first story in No Good for Digging. It’s this kind of alarming piece of microfiction, “A Nesting.” Essentially, some trim-carpenters finishing a house hear something behind the walls. The characters here are trying hard to ignore it. As readers, we get left with this question: who’s responsible for what’s behind these walls? And I’m wondering in what light do we read these situations? These characters? Sympathetically or more critically? What degree of choice and responsibility do these characters really have here?
DMH: Exploring the answer to those questions I’d say is a great reason to write a whole short story collection. And I would hope that readers move toward feeling sympathy for these characters who are wrapped up in an exploitative labor system, where life—their well-being as much as a trapped bird’s—is valued much less than getting the job done to sell a house. You could tear a hole through the wall to save those birds. But, then again, if you’re an independent contractor where you’re not even necessarily getting paid hourly but by the job then saving the birds means eating your time. Precious time. It certainly affects the capacity to choose mercy.
I’ll say I’ve felt a sense of guilt when I worked during the construction boom just before the recession. That’s when everyone was getting these subprime mortgages and we couldn’t build houses fast enough. I almost left college because the work was so good. But I got out before the recession hit. And all my friends lost their jobs and sold their tools and were left with nothing. One friend told me the subdivisions were just full of foreclosure signs now. I mean, we were building a hundred and fifty houses a year, knocking these things out. Imagine the ghost town that would be left in the wake of this.
And I have to deal with the fact that I helped perpetuate and profit from a horrible, predatory, dark historical mark in the American economy. But, am I to blame? Are these working people to blame? Again, to a degree, sure. But fully? I’ve continued to grapple with this. America’s been trying to answer this too. Is it the banks? The investors? The workers? All I can do as a writer is explore the larger sense of guilt associated with this. I don’t look for answers as a reader, and I can’t offer them as a writer. Instead, what we can do, what I can do, is start to punch through the walls and finally begin exploring what’s buried inside.
DUSTIN M. HOFFMAN is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection No Good for Digging and chapbook Secrets of the Wild were published by Word West Press. He painted houses in Michigan for ten years and now teaches creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, Juked, The Masters Review, Wigleaf, and The Threepenny Review.
JESSE MOTTE graduated from Winthrop University in December 2018 with a degree in English and a Concentration in Creative Writing. He’s published a book review with DIAGRAM and currently reads for CRAFT.