Between the Lines: Working Invisible

Oct 14, 2016

Dustin M. Hoffman
Credit Carrie Ann Hoffman

He may teach in academia now but for ten years, Dustin M. Hoffman painted houses in Michigan. Hoffman’s story collection, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Prize for his gritty portrayal of painters, carpenters, roofers, firemen, ice-cream truck drivers, the homeless, and the retired. In short, for the invisible 99 percent. 

“We often come to fiction for escapism,” Hoffman says. “We want to see some kind of life that is more interesting than our own, maybe a little more opulent, or something surreal or fantastic. But I think this is a mistake with many new writers. Readers are actually very interested in this world. There can be escapism in the nine- to-five world as well.”

Hoffman tapped into his years working in construction and house- painting to develop the colorful working-class characters in his sixteen stories.

Credit University of Nebraska Press

“It was an interesting time to be working in construction,” Hoffman recalls. “I was doing it right up until 2007, so right up against the housing bubble and the recession. From 2004 to 2006, we couldn’t build houses fast enough. And then, a weird thing happened. Just as I was leaving, those houses went into foreclosure and whole subdivisions would have for sale signs up. And a lot of my friends lost their jobs.”

Hoffman says that experience, “tinged with a sense of guilt as we were building these irresponsible houses,” brought him to the world he wanted to write about. He was fascinated and haunted by the way that line of work burgeoned and then quickly vanished. Hoffman says it brought out vivid aspects of the personalities around him, the bonds between workers, and their intimate conversations. He says they remain invisible to the world because, if they do their work right, they fade into the background. The smooth drywall in a house, the perfect paint job, the expertly shingled roof, are all forgotten when they're done right.

And yet, invisible as that expert touch may be, Hoffman says we are what we do. “That work is completely formative to a character. As a fiction writer, I think what better way to show a character than to show him at work. How could this not be so much of who you are when it is how you survive?”

Hoffman earned his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Phoebe, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, Witness, Quarterly West, The Journal, Gargoyle, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.

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