Robert Duffer’s Man Cave ~ A View From the Keyboard

Robert Duffer is one of those writers who spreads himself around. He is adjunct faculty in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, and is one of the original members of the crew of RUI: Reading Under the Influence, a Chicago literary gathering. His freelance work has been published in many venues, among them The Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago Tribune and others. In this installment of View From the Keyboard, Robert Duffer (or just plain “Duffer,” as everyone calls him) invites us into his writing space.

Duffer: Space is mental. It’s like money: you always want more but you do fine working with what you have.

I write here at the kitchen table before anyone wakes up. Lots of windows and southern exposure. Sunlight, daybreak, openness, makes it easier to write poorly at the start of the day, when nothing is formed or flowing but anything is possible. I try to get an hour in each morning. Then I’m writing all day in my head, the story is there, and it gives me energy at night to put in another hour after everyone’s in bed. But if the writing waits till the end of the day, I’m ready for it to be the end of the day. I can rewrite at night but clocking in for an hour of new material becomes an obligation so I’m impatient to get to it, which gets me justifiable comments like, “Why don’t you stop being a dick and go write?” That’s not my five-year-old saying that. Yet.

He’s pictured here, in the basement office/guestroom, playing “JoJo’s Fish Fun” or some such nonsense, on a Dell PC from 2002, which is all it’s good for. There are two desks and two chairs. I don’t know where the second chair came from. The office, sometimes referred to as the man cave, is the opposite of the kitchen table: clustered, cluttered and cramped. In it are taxes, insurance, kid work, warranties—generally, the burden of owning shit—and an unpublished novel, a couple unfinished novels, notebooks, a box of clips, a fucking Lego that I step on no matter how much I vacuum (not often), and other collisions of the family and writing life. The basement space is where projects are either completed or buried. I write there for three-hour stretches on many Saturday and Sunday mornings. This is why Wife likes the man cave as much as I do.

I’m currently rewriting a novel, “The Affairess”, and writing a play, “The Breadwinners”, and tending to freelance writing and my weekly man-bit “Experiments in Manhood”.

This [excerpt] is from The Affairess. Lyle has decided to stop stalking The Affairess and instead wipes out on his bike while pursuing her husband, Gary, in his car.


The Affairess (an excerpt)

Lyle couldn’t look at him, kept his scarf bunched up over his face. He was embarrassed and ashamed. Had he slowed down instead of racing the car he would’ve found out where they lived, at a distance. Too excitable, Shelly always said, pressing her hands down as if he were a hyper dog. Lyle pressed his hands down and glanced past the man’s knees; his bike light had smashed into a handful of pieces in the curb before the man’s car. He reached up to where it once was on his helmet and felt a deep welt, warmer than the rest of his helmet and scuffed. Wow. Did he hit the curb head first, or maybe he hit the pole? Good thing his head broke his fall or he could’ve gotten seriously hurt. How would he have explained that to Shelly? Going away from the train station, in the opposite direction of their house? A succession of excuses short fired then sputtered on their illogic. He had to get control of himself, had to leave these people alone.

The man shifted to his haunches. Did he do yoga? Lyle didn’t think he could squat like that. He was able to see around him to the license plate–AH 2748, plates expire in November, guard that said U of M and WOLVERINES on bottom. Lyle was being a fool; this was an opportunity he couldn’t have planned.

“I just need a place to clean up,” Lyle said, looking over his knees back to the patch where he slipped, where the car had turned, seeking out a corollary between the car turning and his accident.

“What about your bike?”

“It’ll take me just a minute to true the wheel. I have my gear. But I can’t go to work like this.” Lyle looked into the man’s eyes, which were wet and expectant—pregnant with pity.

The Non-Cave Workspace of Duffer


For more about and by Robert Duffer, check out these sites: and . Thank you, Duffer, for sharing your space and your work. -PMc←

Punch Line = Kiss of Death ~ Gina Frangello on Endings

Gina Frangello takes time away from her many deadlines (including finishing edits on her new novel) to answer Gerard Woodward’s questions about endings–best ones, preferred ones, how to find one, etc. As a companion to her answers here, why not look at her novel My Sister’s Continent, or her short story collection Slut Lullabies?

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, it may be fair to say that the most frequent kiss of death in an otherwise well-written, engaging story was the “punch line ending.”

You know: that story with a resolution that—once you know “what happened,” all is so resolved that you never really need to read the story again. The story wherein every single line and nuance pointed to an Exit sign, and once the Exit has been revealed, those nuances are no longer satisfying because now we know.

These types of stories (and novels) can be awfully exciting to read on the first sitting. There’s a good reason the thriller and mystery markets are so popular. But, with notable exceptions, they rarely hold up to or invite re-readings. They exist on a tightly wound string that tugs the reader along . . . and once we reach the finish line, the string goes once again slack, never to regain its tautness. Those signifiers don’t point to anything anymore, because the question (the only question) has already been answered. Case closed.

I don’t, if it isn’t already apparent, much care for stories like that.

Like all writers and avid readers, my favorite works of fiction are ones I’ve read over and over again. They are stories that yield a different result depending not only on who’s doing the reading, but at what moment of his or her life. They can be counted upon to yield new surprises each time—not in terms of finding out “who dunnit,” but in terms of a new resonance in the way a detail may serve as a dark echo of an earlier detail; in the way a character’s psyche opens itself up in vulnerable ways that may have seemed flinty and cool on the first read. The way that, say, upon first reading Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, the narrator, Daniel’s, Theory of the Other Couple may have seemed either a startling epiphany or a pitiful grasping at straws, and then, rereading the same novel ten years later in a different political climate and at a different stage of life, may seem precisely the inverse, so that both things become simultaneously True.

In my debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, twentysomething Kirby narrates both her own story and that of her identical twin, Kendra, who disappeared some unspecified number of years prior, leaving behind only some journals written during a period of intense instability. If arguably Kendra is an unreliable narrator of her own life, then clearly Kirby’s second-hand narration is more unreliable still. In the end, the stories Kirby chooses to tell about her sister may reveal more about her own desires or demons than they do about Kendra’s—or at least as much. The novel is not without plot twists or surprises, but even in some of those cases, it’s never entirely clear whether a new development is an Absolute Truth, or simply what one of the twins believes happened. While the sisters’ story contains certain immutable facts, much else falls into a gray terrain of “perhaps,” and as such can be interpreted in different ways by different readers.

The way we interpret may, of course, reveal as much about our own desires and demons as they do about the characters’, or even the author’s.

Not all literary fiction must be completely open-ended, clearly. Narratives like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where we end literally with Milkman mid-jump towards what may be his own murder—or Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?” where Connie may be heading out her screen door to be raped, or may be heading out to be murdered as well, or may somehow be unexpectedly saved before meeting her doom—do tend to be more the exception than the rule in literature. Most stories/novels contain some measure of resolution, and that’s fine with me. Unrelenting open-endedness could quickly become almost as formulaic as the “punch line ending” if done to the point of . . . well, formula. The issue is more one of how many ways there are to read a story, and whether the reading is identical to every reader. Does the story offer Truth or truths?

I prefer the latter.

On a closing note: one thing I always remind my students is that every person has his or her own narrative, in which s/he is the star and the one whose actions are “right.” Whether aiming for the perfect ending for a story or whether simply trying to develop characters, a writer can scarcely hold in mind anything more important than the way the story might shift if looked at from another character’s angle. Writing fiction is much more like, say, parenting, than it is like riding a bike or sticking a plug in an outlet or piecing together a puzzle. There is no one right way to do it, but rather a myriad of successful and unsuccessful techniques and approaches that often overlap and intersect, so that a “great” story is not always the same as a “perfect” story just like a great dad may not be a perfect dad. If we struggle towards anything as writers, it is understanding. Sometimes, when I’ve written an open-ended conclusion to a published work, readers ask me what “really happened,” and although I have my own picture in my head, I maintain that my vision—once the story is on the page—is no more or less real or definite than anyone else’s. We are all in this messy, ambiguous and resonant business of fiction, like life, together.

P.S. It’s been such a pleasure to engage in this dialogue with Patty, Vanessa, Gerald and Dennis, and it’s so fitting to end on the note of endings. Thank you, Patty, for including us all in the discussion, and thanks to all my fellow writers for this vibrant exchange.


Gina, thank you for taking part in this conversation. We’ll keep up with your work and ideas about writing on The Nervous Breakdown. And readers, keep checking back for more on the art of endings from Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, and me. -PMc←

“Write Here” ~ A Visit to Lynda Rutledge’s Workspace

Lynda Rutledges forthcoming debut novel Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale will be released in early 2012. She is also author of the Young Adult novel Brave New WandaWith characters quirky and charming, Lynda Rutledge (Stephenson—as those of us in Chicago know her from her time teaching with us at Columbia College) spins tales that are funny, moving, and magical. But don’t just take my word for it…you can find out for yourself when you pick up a copy of one of her books. And to whet your appetite, a little from the author herself:

Lynda: I live outside Austin on the side of a hill in what’s aptly call the Texas hill country.  My office is a little room with French doors two convenient steps from the kitchen. Its big double windows said: “Write Here.”

The view from my keyboard out those windows is the front porch with an honest-to-Gawd porch swing, the 1/2 acre downhill wild area I call a front yard, and the illusion it all creates that I’m all alone in the world with whatever muse that might show up to play with the deer, lizards, tarantulas, and hummingbirds under the sun, sun, sun. Which sounds pretty good until it hits 100 outside, when the two steps to the kitchen and its margarita-making blender comes in mighty handy.  The little dancing figure? It’s a tiny mannequin I contort to mirror how my writing is going. This must have been a good day.

Something you can’t (quite) see: I’m an antsy writer so I have a desktop/laptop set up. I sit; I stand; I do back-flips; I move with the nervous energy. So I have an oversized Mac screen (bottom left) and a wireless keyboard that I hook up to the laptop perched on a pedestal table you see. I can unhook and go when I need to move-move-move.

Something I wrote here? Well, thank you for asking. See the screen? Just in: That’s the first glimpse of the designed title page of my novel coming out April 2012 with Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. It’s about antiques, death, bargains, and God. Of course, it’s the Great American Novel…yeah, okay, maybe not. But you never know what you might find at a garage sale, right? And it begins like this (excerpted):


On the last day of the millennium, after a midnight revelation from God, Faith Bass Darling had a garage sale. Considering she hadn’t spoken to the Almighty in twenty years, and considering she was the richest old lady in town, this was more than a bit surprising. At straight up midnight, though, she’d bolted upright in her four-poster bed, certain she’d heard her name called like soft lightning….

[S]he landed in her bare feet on her hardwood floor with the sound of the gentle thunderbolt still in her ears, and found herself moving through her dark and silent turn-of-the-century mansion, the biggest and oldest in Bass, Texas, gazing at all the antiques in all the rooms of the place where she had lived her entire life….

She continued this until dawn the next morning, whereupon she surprised all her neighbors on Old Waco Road, the tiny old town’s lone strip of mansions built when cotton was king and oil was still gushing, by appearing from behind her big carved doors and hanging a handmade garage sale sign around the neck of her peeling lawn-jockey hitching post. And then—after a last long, strong drag off her first Lucky Strike filter of the day and a flourished stubbing-out of the butt on the lawn jockey’s head—she began dragging the contents of a century of conspicuous consumption onto her long, sloping lawn.

Because she knew what this was about. This was about dying. This was about dying and killing Claude. It was the beginning of times; it was the end of times. And for seventy-year-old Faith Bass Darling, it was about time.

Thanks, Lynda, for inviting us into your space. Looking forward to reading more come April 2012. Meantime, anyone who wants to visit with Lynda a while longer can stroll by her website: And don’t forget, you, too can contribute to View From the Keyboard. Guidelines at right. -PMc←