an interview with Andre Dubus III

I’ve known Andre Dubus III for four years. He taught the first fiction workshop I took as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. When students read their work out loud, Andre would look intently at the carpet, listening. At any moment he might yell, “Stop! What did that feel like?” He wanted us to understand that we were constantly missing opportunities to deepen our writing. 

Andre is the author of three New York Times Bestsellers: two novels, House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days; and a memoir, Townie. His most recent book, Dirty Love, is a collection of four linked stories. 

Andre’s characters are flawed people: adulterers, bullies, addicts. But because he allows them to drive the stories in which they appear, rather than forcing them to live in neat narrative arcs, we can dislike them and still find them compelling. Many hail from the Merrimack Valley, where Andre and I grew up, he in Haverhill, I in Lowell. He is the son of an acclaimed writer, Andre Dubus II, but was raised mostly by his mother.

We met up at the Lowell Brewery, by the Merrimack River. From our table, we could see some of the massive redbrick millyards that birthed our hometowns. Before the interview began in earnest, we swapped predictions about how the Patriots would fare in that night’s game.

– David Moloney

House of Sand and Fog was made into a film. As a writer, what was that process like, seeing your characters on-screen?

Dubus: You know what it was like, man? It was like—how old are your kids? I forget.

My daughter’s five, and my son’s a year and—almost two years.

Dubus: Okay, so you’re gonna find this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Probably your son will be an athletic guy like you, maybe your daughter too. And my novel The Garden of Last Days is getting very close to getting shot, again, and I feel the same way with that. So here’s the deal: my sons Austin and Elias, they’re twenty-three and nineteen. They’re big beasts. Big fucking guys, something like 6’ 2”, 230, you know, fucking deadlifting-500-pounds kinda guys. Size fifteen shoes.

I don’t know who the father is. Not you.

Dubus: Fuck that. Although, my daughter’s my little fucking angry, small-boned fucker. Listen, but when I remember my oldest son, Austin, he began with tee-ball, and B- through C-ball, D-ball, whatever. And then he was a high-school ace. And he was actually, if he had not ripped his labrum playing football—he weighed 270, by the way, as a sophomore—if he hadn’t ripped his shoulder out playing football, he would have been good enough to pitch D1 college. So I’m watching him strike out the first three batters in a game, then they win the game. Some guy passed me. He goes, “Oh, chip off the ol’ block, huh?” I said, “No, I don’t even know how to play.” I never played baseball in my life. I don’t know where he got it.

Well, your dad wouldn’t play catch with you.

Dubus: No! Yeah, it goes right back to that. I missed that. The thing is, man, I think I would’ve been pretty good. Maybe. So my point is, watching my sons kick ass on the ballfield, especially my oldest as a pitcher, it was like watching this big, glossy Hollywood film on-screen. The first time I saw it I had Steven Spielberg’s parents sitting behind me. We were chatting about our kids. And I’m watching this movie, and some of, many of the lines come directly from my novel. Right from my novel. And I had a small role I got to do in it. My point is I’m watching it, and it just felt so much like watching my sons pitch on the mound. I could take credit for making love with their mother and giving them life, but I could take no credit for what I was seeing now. And that’s how I felt about the movie: I could take credit for giving birth to the story, but this is something else. This is… I can’t take credit for the film. And it’s something that’s kind of sweet.

So you were happy with the film?

Dubus: I was. Yeah. I think I like the director’s cut better. It’s forty-three minutes longer and it reads more—it plays more like a drama than a thriller.

Yeah, how do you do a book like that in two hours?

Dubus: Yeah. You know, it’s a good fucking problem to have.

It’s only fitting that we talk about Townie, since we’re in Lowell. You begin the memoir with your sixteen-year-old self going for a run with your father on his birthday, but the narrative jumps back in time after that first chapter, to early childhood, and proceeds chronologically from there. Why did you find that move effective, and how did you arrive at it?

Dubus: Well, actually it was my editor’s suggestion. That running scene was in Chapter 17. In the original structure of the book, I began with a different moment—which I think is still in the memoir—where I’m twenty-two, twenty-three years old, working with the convicted adult felons at the halfway house and the supervisor pulls me aside to say, Hey, man. They like—the inmates like you too much. And he was like, Yeah, you want them to respect you, not like you. That’s when I realized I identified far more with them than I did with my college-educated coworkers. ’Cause I grew up in the same kind of neighborhoods that formed these guys, and I had the same kind of impulses, and, you know, cosmic luck kept me from doing time myself. So I thought that was a good place to begin the book. My thought was, Wouldn’t the reader want to know why this guy identifies with the criminals? And then I went back to my childhood. 

So my editor is the one who pointed out, But no. Thematically, this book is really so much about father and son. And she was right. And I was actually still in denial of that even after I was going into the editing process with the editor. She said, I think therefore, a much more resonant scene the reader can sink his or her teeth into would be the running scene where you’re wearing your sister’s shoes that are two sizes too small, you’ve never run more than two miles, now you’re running eleven miles. And you refuse to quit. Which, you know, is a fast-forward into the self-punishment I would do to my body through years after. I knew she was right. 

Story is a causal sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end, but plot is how we arrange that sequence. And at that point, I was shaping the novel—I was shaping the memoir. I just said novel. I wanted it to read like a novel. And so that’s how. That’s how it came about: an editorial suggestion I agreed with.

Did you find yourself avoiding your father in Townie?

Dubus: Yeah. Oh yeah, man. I remember when it became clear to me. I was writing an essay about my sons in baseball, and two years later I’d written five hundred pages of living with my single mother and the violence and everything else, and forget baseball. But the question that was fueling the essay was, “How come I didn’t play baseball?” ’Cause I like it now in my forties, you know, little-league dad. And as I worked my way deeper into my own past, my own remembered past, and I put the pieces back together, what became very clear to me was my father’s daily absence in our lives became a major presence in the book. Part of me was seeing this very clearly, and I didn’t want it to be there. Don’t forget: I’m the son of a great writer with the same name. I go into a bookstore or library, and if they have our books they’re ancestrally intertwined, you know, like no one knows there are two different guys.

You’re earning your name. It’s him, it’s you…

Dubus: Yeah, it’s me, and it’s all a mess. And it’s understandable, but, you know part of me—and a lot of this is at the subconscious level, or semiconscious level—is, Goddamn, I gotta, I’m stuck with you for life? Even though I’m a grown man with grown kids, and I write about my childhood and you’re gonna dominate that too? The truth is, man—and if you remember nothing about working with me I hope you remember I think that writing is larger than the writer—and the truth is that book was taking me to one of its central truths, which is a boy needs his father. And I think if that book Townie’s about anything, it’s about fathers and sons. So I had to practice what I preach, and I allowed it and let it go.

You just said something that’s kind of my next point, or my next question. The writing is larger than the writer. So you don’t have social media?

Dubus: No.

Right now there’s a big push for writers to have an online presence, a following, is what they tell me. I’m sure I’m gonna get told.

Dubus: You will. And please resist it.

I know. So Elena Ferrante just got outed, her true identity.

Dubus: Really?

Yeah, by an Italian investigative reporter.

Dubus: Please tell me Ferrante’s an Italian woman.

She is. She’s actually a translator. She translates books. But we talk about how the writing is bigger than the writer. With the social media and all this connectedness, are we playing a dangerous game where we’re thinking about the author and the work as one?

Dubus: I think not only is that dangerous to confuse the author with the work. Here’s what I hate about publishers telling their writers that you need to have a social media platform, etc.: excuse me, that’s your fucking job. Your fucking job. Excuse me. That’s a $25 hardcover, and I get $2.50 every book sold. Earn your fucking money. Your job is to make it public. That’s not my job. My job is to write another book. I’m not gonna fucking get up there and fucking hawk my wares like John McCain whoring for votes. I’m not a politician. I’m a fucking writer. Fuck you. I get really upset about it.

Now, if somebody’s already on social media, and they enjoy it, go ahead. Do what you want. I love human beings. My lecture agent and publisher made me get a Facebook page. I said I’ll only do it if I never have to go on it, which I don’t. I wrote a letter, Dear Human Being, I love people. I wanna meet you some day. The only reason I’m allowing this Facebook page is so you know where I’ll be and when I’ll be there. And if you wanna come meet me in person, I’d love to meet you. Thank you for reading my work. Blah, blah, blah, blah. 

My point is, you’re right. It’s a dangerous line to confuse the author with his or her characters or creations, and also, I think there’s real value to—look, I just, look—for me, I’m not interested in… You know, I’ve been given biographies of writers over the years, and I read through the first fifty or so pages and I don’t finish them. ’Cause I don’t care about his marriage, or his alcoholism, or her sexual addiction. I don’t care. I don’t care about John Steinbeck, I care about Tom Joad. I care about the Joad family. I don’t care about the Steinbeck family. I don’t care about fucking Shakespeare, I care about Hamlet. 

And so, look, the irony is I tend to be an outgoing, extroverted, people-loving guy. I have no problem with standing up in front of a crowd and talking. But I do have a problem with—not a problem. Let me just say, I think there’s great value to letting the work speak for itself and shut the fuck up. And I frankly think it’s beneath a writer to hawk his or her wares. 

I frankly—I’m sorry, that’s up to the publisher. Their job is—what does “publisher” mean? It means you’re gonna make my work public. I’m not gonna fucking make my work public. I have enough to do. I’m trying to make a living, I have a wife and kids, (or a husband and kids), I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got car payments, I’ve got tuitions, and I’m trying to create art with words every day. Fuck you. You think I’m gonna go on social media? You go on social media. I think it’s such an abrogation of their responsibilities. Oh, I’m getting angry now.

Speaking of social media, let’s talk about something that’s facing all writers and artists right now, and that’s how to write in a post-truth world. I know “post-truth” was the word of the year this year—Oxford Dictionary—so, as a writer, how do you write in a world…

Dubus: Define “post-truth.”

So it’s basically how Trump ran his campaign—

Dubus: Yeah, fake news and lying.

Yeah, sensationalism, more about feeling than fact. 

Dubus: Well, I have two views. I’m not a journalist. I’ve done a little literary journalism here and there, but I do think the time has never been more urgent for journalists to do their damn jobs, which they haven’t been doing for a long time. They had a lot more to do with selling copies of things and having the viewers than digging. And muckraking, which we need in order to be a democracy. But I’m gonna speak about being a fiction writer and a creative nonfiction writer. 

I frankly think it’s a nearly sacred calling to illuminate the truth, and one of the many things I despise about Trump, the man, and Trump, the growing administration, is this restricting of the definition of what it means to be a human being. In other words, if you’re not white and male and privileged, take a walk. And I know he’s speaking like he’s a populist for the working-class guy; he doesn’t know two shits about working-class people. You know, when 9/11 happened, there was a lot of soul-searching in writers. A lot of writers publicly wrote essays about—wondering—why they’re writing, what’s the point. What’s the point? Well, I didn’t have that feeling, and it’s not because I’ve written about the Middle East in the past. It’s because I think that our time here is short, and if we illuminate the human heart, if we illuminate human experience in a particular, deep way, it can only be good for the rest of us even if what we illuminate is dark and hopeless. The act of creating it is deeply affirming. And so I think it’s important though that in this quote-unquote post-truth age and fake-news age and reality-TV age, etc., that we don’t get too sucked into self-importance and thinking that we have the only truth. I think we just have to do our job, which is to step into the private skin of another human being.

Has your writing—whatever you’re working on now—has it changed course since the election? Did it affect you? Did it affect your fiction at all, the story you’re writing?

Dubus: Well, I’m finishing a big, long, fat novel about a very dark subject. And, you know, one of the occupational hazards of being a novelist or a short story writer is that you take on the spirits you’re trying to inhabit on the page, and it’s hard to leave them behind. You and I both work out; that’s actually my way to, you know, cleanse my mind and my heart from where I went. I can tell you that since the election I’ve been in a dark place the way millions—tens of millions—of us have been because I think we’ve taken a very dark turn as a culture. I don’t think it’s affected the writing so much.

I did just finish writing—I’m revising this novel, so I took a break and wrote a long essay about the creative writing process. And I found myself writing it with even more urgency, this whole notion that we’re supposed to descend into the dream world of the other. And that takes, guess what, compassion and empathy and a lack of judgment, three qualities that are not showing themselves in our future president. So we’re in for a galvanizing time. I have to say, you know, when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, I was thrilled. I’ve been a fan of Dylan since I was fourteen, and if they give it to poets, why not give it to Dylan? And my point is, I think that in dark times—and I think history shows this to be true—great art gets created. So there’s a part of me thinking I can’t wait to hear the music and read the literature and look at the painting and the film that comes out of this time coming up. Although, I am worried.