Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

6 Questions for Dustin M. Hoffman

The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is in its final week. Meet our fiction prize winner, Dustin M. Hoffman, from the 2015 Book Prize series. Dustin's gorgeous book of fiction, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, is available now. 

Can you take us through the construction of one of your stories? Where did the idea to write it come from? How do you write a story--what does it look like, how long does it take?

My stories often start out of a specific scrap that haunts me until it becomes a story. It could be something as small as imagining the frustration of a painter having to set nails for the carpenters—the impetus for “Sawdust and Glue.” Or the story I once heard from an old painting buddy about the killing he used to make collecting cans after a football game, which would inspire “Can Picking.” “Everything a Snake Needs” started with a setting from my childhood. In my hometown, we had this tiny brick and mortar pet store that let you tour the basement for $2. This dark, cramped basement contained dozens of glowing snake cages. I hijacked that setting, and soon the commandment that would initiate all the conflict in the story came to me: “Don’t touch the snakes.” From a creepy setting and a snippet of language, the plot and characters started spilling out. I had no idea in drafting that there would be a snake sex scene or snake corpse puppetry.

But what I’ve described so far was my stumbling through first drafts. The story went through dozens of revisions, and it ended up taking about four years of tinkering until the lovely magazine Quarter After Eight published it, and then later it would appear in my collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist. That story especially required a lot of reining in. I’m sure I drafted at least forty pages to shave down to the twelve that exist now. So my process is slow, trudging, and involves a lot of slogging and hacking. But I do delight in revision more than anything else, that moment when a story reveals what it truly needs to be, when it says, OK, time for this character to slip his hand inside the corpse of a snake.

As a reader, who are the writers you return to again and again?

Donald Barthelme and George Saunders are my favorite short story writers, and I get to teach them a lot, so that’s great for me as a writer to get to sit in a room with a bunch of smart young people and absorb their initial wonders at these masters. My favorite novel, the best novel ever written, is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I reread every year or two. Toni Morrison is a constant presence for me, as well. And then there’s Studs Terkel’s book Working that is always near my writing desk, my bible of working voices.

Is there a story in this collection that feels particularly emblematic of the collection's concerns or important to the collection as a whole?

“Building Walls” was a breakthrough story for me. That story drew a stark line for which stories would make it in the collection and which didn’t fit. “Building Walls” captured the voices I want that were authentic to the working world yet lyrical. The title story, too, “One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist” tightens its grip over the collection. These stories concern community borne through violence, pride in one’s work against certain obscurity.

You painted houses for ten years--were you writing as you did this? What did your transition into academia look like?

I was writing fiction for some of that time, for the last two years or so. Before that, I was in a punk band so I was always scratching out angry, cheesy song lyrics on McDonald’s receipts during fifteen-minute lunch breaks.

My transition was beautifully abrupt. I got accepted to the MFA program at Bowling Green State University. I told my painting boss I was out, and I never looked back. I was completely ready to leave the trades, which were taking a toll on my body already. The housing recession would follow just after I left, and so I was lucky to get out.

I threw myself into teaching, into everything I could do: working on a magazine, running a reading series, writing and reading as if I had an angry boss breathing down my neck. So I suppose the transition wasn’t so clean. I carried that blue-collar work ethic anxiety with me, and it’s served me pretty well.

How did you celebrate your book prize win?

I freaked out when Kwame Dawes called me on the phone. He was so kind and sweet and generous. After the call, I cried and danced around with my three-year-old daughter and screamed plenty. Despite spending many years in a hyper masculine world of construction, I have no emotional control. I’m a crier.

What are you working on now?

I’m eagerly awaiting the summer so I can dig back into a novel project that I thought was done, but it’s been whispering in my ear all its faults and needs. Novels are needy. I much prefer the story form, and I’ve been writing new stories. But this novel demanded to be written. It’s set in my hometown of Alma, Michigan during a few days where it’s too cold to even snow. It’s about three restless kids—Hector, Tack, and April—from working-class families who can’t find their way out of violence and drugs and cruelty and ice. Witness Magazine was recently kind enough to publish one of the early chapters, "In This Room I Make Red," which folks can read online.

 


Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Pleiades, Smokelong Quarterly, Juked, Cimarron Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina.