By Emily Mellentine, Kristen Fuhs Wells Communications Intern
John F. Duffy is a writer and producer of podcasts and documentary films. He studied film at Columbia College Chicago. By the time he graduated, he had fallen in love with literary fiction. For the next twenty years, Duffy found himself carving a very unusual life path that took him from Chicago to Phoenix, Ann Arbor to Austin, eventually landing him outside of Bloomington, Indiana. His debut novel, A Ballroom for Ghost Dancing, which won the 2023 Gold Medal – Independent Publishers Book Award and was a finalist for the 2023 National Indie Excellence Award.
Learn more about Duffy on his website, here.
The novel’s title, A Ballroom for Ghost Dancing, is intriguing. Can you share the inspiration behind this title and how it relates to the story?
DUFFY: The Ghost Dances were ceremonies of the Lakota people in the twilight of their freedom on the plains. The book is set in South Dakota, and the sadness of the Ghost Dances which the participants believed would ultimately lead to a return of their dead loved ones and way of life is a feature of how we as individuals, and even collectively as humans, confront tragedy. The world is our ballroom for such dancing.
The setting of the American heartland plays a significant role in your novel. How did you choose this setting, and how did it impact the story’s tone and atmosphere?
DUFFY: I’ve been a big road tripper my whole life, and I love seeing the America that is rarely highlighted in our popular culture. I took the same journey the characters in the book take so I could feel it and write about it accurately. I wanted a sorrowful tone to the book, and for me, there has always been a sorrow to the Midwest and the plains, especially in the fall when life retreats into the soil and the sky is gray. The sun always feels so far away as it sets. Not to mention the badlands themselves, which are such a wonderful oddity jutting out of the flat land as they do, speaking loudly of what once was and the impermanence of everything.
A Ballroom for Ghost Dancing is your debut novel after years of writing short fiction. What motivated you to transition from short stories to a full-length novel, and what were the challenges and rewards of this transition?
DUFFY: I have always wanted to write novels, and in fact, I wrote one I never published before I started focusing on short fiction. I thought if I had a good portfolio of short fiction it would be easier to attract a literary agent and a publisher. Of course, writing short fiction is also just great practice, and I’m glad I’ve spent so much time doing it. The primary challenge is the reader demands more of a novel. A short story can really ride on a feeling. In a novel, the reader is much more likely to ask, “But, why?” of what characters are doing, and you have to deliver.
The book’s description mentions “hidden tragedies” awaiting the characters. How do these hidden tragedies impact the story, and what message or insight do you hope readers will take away from the novel?
DUFFY: The characters in the novel are trying to understand how to live with loss, and they need to learn that life doesn’t stop and wait for them before dishing out the next set of tragic circumstances. I would hope that readers come away with a calm acceptance that modern life hasn’t eliminated tragedy. That the flip side of living is dying and that this is the order of things despite what we may want instead. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on joy. Quite the opposite.
Your personal journey from film student to a literary fiction author is fascinating. How did your background in film influence your writing style and storytelling approach in this novel?
DUFFY: The short answer would probably be that filmmaking requires “seeing” your story in your head before even beginning the work. However, it allows the storyteller to anchor the viewpoint wherever they want it at any given time. A writer has to convince the reader to see a scene how they want them to, but can never control that entirely, so everything a writer includes has to be incredibly intentional. The cake gets baked in the mind of the reader, so no two people see it the same way. I tried to write this novel in a way that gave readers everything they needed and absolutely nothing more, trusting that they would lock in on my intentions and go the rest of the way on their own, and that their own life experiences would drift into their reading and make it all work.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a novel?
DUFFY: Read a lot. Read the greats and read the not-so-greats so you can tell them apart. Find what you really like stylistically and play with it. Then find good critics that you trust. People who can read what you’re writing and know what you’re driving towards and help you to get there. But always remember that it’s your book.
You’ve moved around a lot — why did you choose to stay in Indiana and how has it affected the way you write or what you write about?
DUFFY: I think I wanted to finally root somewhere, and I’m a midwestern boy at heart. Where we live in Indiana is very affordable while also being very beautiful and we have such a great community of friends. Ironically, I think I have only written one short story set in Indiana. The novel I’m currently working on is set in Arizona (where we spend one month every year) and I think I have a trilogy in me that will all be in the American west. Maybe Indiana is my cozy hideaway where I can safely pull all my inspirations together and make something of them? In the end, I like it here because it’s unassuming. It’s humble.