Thursday, September 8, 2016


Earlier this week, I posted my review of Dustin M. Hoffman's One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, one of my favorite reads of the year thus far. I loved it so much I tracked down poor Dustin like the weakest wildebeest on the Serengeti to tell him so. He could not have been nicer or more appreciative, and the more we got to chatting I realized I wanted all of you to get to know him as well. So here are a few insights into the mind that wrote the sixteen fantastic stories in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist.

This is hard cheese right out of the box, but I ask because I'm going to steal your answer. What is your one-sentence elevator speech (it's a short ride) for One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist

Only one sentence!? That’s such a tough one, especially for a story collection when so many strands are at play and…Oh crap, the elevator door is already closing! Here we go: One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist is a story collection about people who work with their hands, people struggling to survive the toughest and weirdest jobs.

Although the stories vary in style, format, voice, and about every way I can think of, they all have tradespeople in common. You worked in the trades for ten years. What was it about that experience that influenced you so profoundly? 

The folks building houses with me had such striking stories, such unique voices, and I spent twelve hours a day working next to them. And I didn’t read about them much—working-class people. So the absence of representation in literature influenced me. But maybe more than that, it was a desire to try and find a greater significance in grueling labor beyond an hourly wage and a house I helped build but would never live in. I wanted some permanent monument for me and the men and women I worked with, folks who rarely have job security and rarely get recognition.

A bit of a chicken and egg question: Did your time in the trades drive you to write about the working class (i.e., did it form your blue collar voice), or did you go into the trades seeking further authenticity for a voice or interest that already existed? If the latter, where did that voice originate?

I got into the trades first. It was how I supported myself for many years and how I managed to pay for a class or two in English or audio production or art history. Once I started seriously writing, I didn’t think that working world would overwhelm my art, but it did. It wouldn’t let go. Still hasn’t. I can’t seem to punch out, and I think I’m okay with that.

Your stories and poems have appeared in a wide variety of publications since 2008 (you can find links to Dustin's other work on this page of his website), and many of those that don't appear in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist are also blue-collar themed. How did you pick which stories were going to be in the collection? 

It was so tough, and this collection started forming back then in 2008. Almost every single story that was originally in the collection got cut and replaced by a better one. Once I wrote “Building Walls” years later I really started to see what the collection needed to be. Then it was a matter of which stories communicated with that story in the most interesting ways. So I had to find the book’s gravitational pull. The stories that reacted to that gravity stayed. But I’ve always been really self-conscious about hitting redundant notes. I wanted variety. I get frustrated when I’m reading a story collection and I start to see the writer’s patterns and themes and by the end there are no surprises left. I wanted every story to harmonize toward a larger purpose, yet still have the ability to jar the reader at least a little bit.

Of those that were left out, which is your favorite, the one it killed you not to include? 

I wrote this weird story about animatronic president repairmen called “Mr. James K. Polk, Please Hold My Windbreaker” that fit this book’s themes perfectly and it made me laugh. Also, I keep thinking now that my flash piece “Silence in Forty-two” would’ve fit nicely. But those stories will find their place, and I’ve been lucky enough to have already published them with great magazines. 

I'm going to ask the worst thing you can ask a parent and see if you will admit to having a favorite child. Is there a particular story in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist that is most personal or meaningful to you? 

I already mentioned “Building Walls,” and that continues to be a story I love. My mentor Jaimy Gordon once described this story as a long prose poem, and I like to think of it that way. This was where I think I really found the song in work voices.

How old were you when you started writing and what is the earliest piece you remember? 

Well, here’s the big cliché: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. The earliest piece I wrote is kind of fabled in my family. It was a novel about my parents’ dog, a wired-hair fox terrier named…Foxy. We weren’t the best at naming pets. The novel was called Ninja Foxy and heavily featured a sidekick named Hammy the Hamster (again, not so great with names) who sported a mini missile launcher strapped to his back.

You have some very interesting voices in your head. How many times did you get sent to the Principal's office for your writing? 

Well, never made it to the principal. But for a few summers I went to this summer writers workshop for little kids. They’d annually publish our work in an anthology, and I never seemed to fail at embarrassing my parents. I once wrote a story about my dad crashing his van into the school. To set the record straight: It’s pure fiction. Dad’s a swell driver!

I do have a vivid memory of being in seventh grade and making a joke in an art class about pubic hair. The teacher pulled me into the hall and lectured me about how that was “locker room talk” and I shouldn’t say that stuff around girls. Most of my friends were girls then. And I was pissed, wondering why only boys should hear crass jokes. I think my anger at that point was formative to me as an artist. In the decade following that encounter, I played punk rock and cussed a bunch and pretended to be a little rebel. And then I started making art that transported what that teacher would’ve called “locker room talk” into the open in all its glory and horror. I think there can be poetry in swearing, art in filth and grit and grime and shit—maybe the most interesting, human art—and it’s not just for guys in locker rooms. That kind of gendered censorship condescends to huge swaths of readers, I think.

You currently teach creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. What is the one lesson/manta/motto you most try to drive home to your students? 

There are two big ones for me: 1) Read voraciously. Everything you can get your hands on. Everything people you respect recommend. Stuff you wouldn’t think you’d like, and stuff that drives you nuts with adoration and obsession. 2) Writing is work, and it’s hard. To get anywhere with this trade of threading words together, it’s a matter of coming at it like a job. I highly recommend a regular schedule for writing. If you only write when you feel like it, when the muse hits, you’ll never get anywhere. I don’t think I believe in muses.

What are you reading right now and what's next in the queue?

I’m always reading a ton of stuff at once. I just finished Donald Ray Pollock’s stunning novel The Heavenly Table. I think it’s his best work yet, and I love all his books. I was doing NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names on audiobook, and I adored it. I’ve been rereading it and teaching it in print. Next in the queue is Anne Valente’s brand new novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down out October 4th, which I know will be amazing. In the meantime, I have some comfort reading: Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday.

If someone wanted to watch a movie or television show that was akin to the worlds you create in One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, where would you point them? 

That’s a fun question. I liked Dirty Jobs, which did a good job of highlighting a lot of previously invisible occupations. And I appreciated how Mike Rowe never talked down to the workers, but met them for who they were, skilled tradesmen taking pride in their tough jobs.

I don't believe in guilty pleasures, but who is the author most outside your reading/writing wheelhouse that you love to read? 

I love reading Studs Terkel’s interviews in Working. But if we’re really talking guilty here, I love baseball history. Most of all statistics. I could look up numbers on for hours. There are such stories in those numbers. So boring and nerdy, right?

I'll pick up whatever you write next regardless of what it is, but tell us a little about a project you're currently working on. 

Thanks so much for saying that, Lauren.

I just finished a novel tentatively called No City, Michigan, which is set in my hometown. It’s kind of a love triangle story between these kids named Tack, Hector, and April. It’s about being dangerously cooped up in a small town in the dead of a Michigan winter. It’s my first real stab at a novel. Though sometimes I think of it as a really long short story that’s still doing all the things I dig about stories: unified effect and all. Maybe the novel let me play with point of view and structure more than I could’ve with a story. That was a lot of fun and really damn frustrating at the same time.

*  *  *

Thanks to Dustin for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully. If what I tell you about One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist doesn't get you to read it, I can't believe this quote won't:

"I think there can be poetry in swearing, art in filth and grit and grime and shit—maybe the most interesting, human art—and it’s not just for guys in locker rooms."

Dustin gets it. And I can't be the only one clamoring for the publication of Ninja Foxy.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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