Dufresne is one of 181 scholars, artists and scientists in the U.S. and Canada selected for the prestigious award.
“It’s quite a thrill to have been given this fellowship and recognition,” Dufresne said. “It feels like a validation of the work I’ve been doing over the years. It’s a surprise and a great feeling. I still consider myself an apprentice. I’m still trying to get better at what I do.”
The fellowship, worth $40,000 and funded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, is granted to candidates that have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.
“I’d like to use the funds to take summer teaching off and focus on a few other projects,” Dufresne said. “My next novel is set out west. I’d like to travel to Nevada and the western U.S. to drive around and get to know the areas where my characters will be in.”
A self-described “rabid Red Sox fan,” Dufresne is a Worcester, MA native. He earned a B.A. in English from Worcester State College in 1970. After graduating, Dufresne worked at a variety of jobs, including as a social worker, drug abuse counselor and freelance writer.
“I never really had a plan laid out,” Dufresne said. “When I graduated, it was a turbulent time with the Vietnam War and racial tensions across the country. I wanted to help disadvantaged people. I came from a poor neighborhood, but I knew I could do something. That’s why I got into social work and counseling. That entire time I was writing. I also painted houses, drove cabs and picked blueberries to support myself. Those are dues you have to pay.”
Realizing he wanted to continue to learn how to write and tell stories, Dufresne pursued graduate school. He earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arkansas in 1984.
After working as an instructor at a few universities, Dufresne joined the FIU family in 1989. He has advised faculty and administered the visiting writers series and currently teaches undergraduate and graduate creative writing in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program, directs theses, and serves as editor of the literary magazine.
“I came here because it was an opportunity to teach in the MFA program,” Dufresne said. “That was in the late 1980s, there were a lot of racial problems and riots in the city. But I came here and was charmed by the city. I asked myself, ‘What are the newspapers talking about?’ I met the faculty and they were great. They took a chance on me and, luckily, I got hired.”
Dufresne earned a Doctor of Literature from his alma mater in Worcester in 1999.
Dufresne’s writing and teaching career span three decades, having published numerous books, stories, plays, monologues and screenplays. His novels Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little were both named New York Times Notable Books of the Year in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Dufresne also wrote two books on the craft of fiction writing, The Lie That Tells a Truth: a Guide to Fiction (2003) and Is Life Like This: a Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (2010). Both of his screenplays, The Freezer Jesus (2001) and To Live and Die in Dixie (2008), have been made and released as movies.
“I became a writer because I was a reader,” Dufresne said. “Novels took me out of my world and into a more interesting and compelling world. I want to tell stories and do for others what other authors have done for me with their works. I use writing as a way to make sense of the world, even if I don’t fully understand what’s going on. It’s a way to celebrate the mysteries of life and the unknown by asking questions, not by finding answers.”
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation was established in 1925 by U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife as a memorial to a son that had died. It offers fellowships to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts.