A Conversation with Andre Dubus, III

By Glenda Ganung


Q: Is there a difference between a ‘writer’ and an ‘author’?

A: Well, you know, “author,” I guess that’s a word that we understand to mean that you publish your writing. I used to hate the word “author” because I thought it was kind of elitist, a little too hoity-toity, not like a worker like the rest of us. But you know, I looked up the word “author,” and now I really like it. Like the Merrill Dictionary said a few years ago, “the author is the originator or the beginner of something.” So when you write down those words and you give those characters in your head a voice, you’ve done something no one else has. You have originated and begun them. And that makes you, makes every writer, as much of an author as anyone else.

Q: What is your creative process?

A: For me the writing process is not one of exposition, but one of discovery where one line really leads to the next, to the next, to the next. It’s really a freefall into the imagination and into the psyche, by the way which all of us possess.  We all possess imaginations. One thing I hear myself telling my own students. Writing is about going to the truth of the matter, and if you’re writing about something that’s too close to home, that’s still too much of a wound and you don’t feel you’re able to go to the truth of the matter, then it’s not an act of cowardice to put it aside and write about something else.  There are thousands of other things to write about.  You know, go back to it ten, twenty years when you’re able to go to the truth of the matter. That’s true about reading, too.

Q: What traits are necessary for a writer to possess?

A: Humility. That’s important. Don’t take yourself that seriously, I really think that’s important. I think that’s absolutely essential for the creative process. There’s a wonderful essay by the poet William Stafford called “A Way of Writing.” What I love about it is he talks about the state the poet or writer must put himself or herself into in order to create. He says it’s a state of openness, or receptivity, then he goes on to kind of break down what he means by receptivity. It’s really two things. He says it’s, one – a willingness to fail, which is huge and not easy to do; and two – a willingness to accept anything no matter what comes, which is, essentially, not an easy thing to do. It’s very important to be humble, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Q: Is it possible to plan the story?

A: I think it’s important to not know where it’s going.  Then the imagination has to show up without our little conscious playing and plotting. You know it not always easy finding where you belong when you’re young, in your twenties. It’s a journey that’s not always a lot of fun in a lot of ways, but it’s rich. I think that this looking to be edgy in the work is just a pose. What writers really need to do is to just stand back and learn to be naked and sincere and see what they find.

Q: With House of Sand and Fog, for example, you seem to have mastered the multiple first-person narrative. Does a novel’s narrative point of view come predetermined?

A: It’s a process of elimination, and trial and error, as any writer knows. With House of Sand and Fog, I knew I had a multiple, at least a two point of view, story going on. It then became three points of view and three voices, so I tried various ways of doing it. I remember I actually tried third-person present-past with Kathy Nicolo, but she only came alive with first person past. That’s when I began to hear her voice myself.  Also, I really wanted, a different sound for the Colonel so you would know immediately when you went to his point of view that it was different or distinct. I was playing around with third-person past, third-person present, first-person past, and only when I did first-person present – which by the way I was resisting because I’d done first person present a little bit in my collection of stories, and I may want to do that again – but only when I went to first-person present did the Colonel come alive and I started to hear his rhythms. And isn’t that weird, because he’s the only character of the three who tells his tale in the present tense, and he’s the only character of the three who doesn’t survive to tell it later. Another thing that I was hoping to happen was, as you know, the first person present tense is very intimate, and immediate, and it draws you in whether you want to be or not. Behrani’s a bit of a stand-offish, proud military man from a culture not our own, and that was another thought that came to me while working on it, that this might invite people in more readily.

Q: How do you stay non-judgmental while writing a controversial character, like the Saudi hijacker in Garden of Last Days?

A: I try to imagine the lives of others as honestly and empathetically as I can. To do that, I really do have to reserve judgment, which is easier to do in some cases than in others. It really was very difficult for me to reserve judgment for the character of Bassam al-Jazani, the young Saudi hijacker.  But he insisted on being in the book. I could just really feel him tugging my sleeve, and I finally had to relent.  But I really had to work at it.  I really had to work at not judging him. I do think that if the writer’s judging the characters, just as in life – if someone’s giving us the once over, and giving us a judgment, prejudging us, you know, pigeon-holing us – we kind of walk away from them, don’t we.  We don’t want to be around these people.  I think characters are the same way. They kind of walk away from the writer if the writer is summarily thinking ‘well, I’ve got you figured out,’ and we’re all far more complex aren’t we?

Q: How does it feel to realize that your characters have minds of their own?

A: It’s a little disturbing. Actually, it can be a lot disturbing. But isn’t that a good feeling when that happens? That’s not a bad thing.

Q: Did you intend House of Sand and Fog and Garden of Last Days as illuminations of our contemporary clash of cultures?

A: It wasn’t intentional; at least I wasn’t aware of that. But, that’s part of the thing that I love about writing. Maybe it is the central thing I love about writing. I’ll quote Grace Paley who I quote all the time. She’s got this great line; she says “We write what we don’t know we know.” I love that. I like what the writer Richard Bausch says, too. He says “If you think that you are thinking when you’re writing, think again.” He says that “We’re much closer to the dream inside of our mind – so dream, dream, dream it through.” And I like that because whenever I’ve tried to say something in my fiction writing, I’ve killed it. The same way a parent wants his child, because he’s big and strong, to be a football player and his child wants to be a dancer instead. You’re going to run into trouble. I’ve learned through the years – and I keep learning it again and again and again – that the writing is smarter than the writer; that the book knows more than the author of the book. It really is a process of surrendering to what you are finding.  That’s not to suggest that it’s just a gush session and you spit out whatever comes and that’s it. We all know that writing is rewriting. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I try not to think about theme at all when I begin. I’ve found when I do it that way I’m working more from the inside out than the outside in, and the book will end up saying something about the clash of cultures, or the American dream, or the immigrant experience, or terrorism, or the objectification of women, etc., but it’s not on purpose by me.

Q: Who or what have been your greatest influences?

A: Back in my twenties when I began I thought I was more influenced by music than literature at the time.  I was listening to a lot of Springsteen, Tom Wait, Emmy Lou Harris, all kinda gritty songwriters that really kind of pumped me up. But you know, and I’ve written about this in a quite a few places, one of the writers I discovered when I was just starting in my early twenties was a writer by the name of Breece D’J Pancake. He’s from the Virginia coal mining area, and sadly, he killed himself when he was 26 or 27, back in the early 80’s, so his is a posthumously published collection. I actually wrote the afterward to the reissue of the paperback. Pancake really helped me back in my early twenties for a number of reasons, mostly by showing me characters; but not the kind of characters that I grew up with. Breece Pancake wrote really, really honestly and sparingly and compassionately about people who lived humble, tough lives. I think I’d been reading a little too much Updike, or writers who seemed to be writing more about upper middle-class people, people I’d really not known much in my life. I think it was a combination of Pancake’s subject matter and his style, which is really poetic and lean, but also richly evocative, that really pumped me up. I can also say, too, that the first book that really took my head off was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I remember when I read that last scene with Rose of Sharon and the train car, I was trembling. It was the first time I felt the power of literature and what it could do. I remember I walked downstairs and told my mother I don’t need to go to college anymore because I don’t need political science, sociology, economics; I just needed to read novels like this.

Q: In our technologically advanced, immediate gratification, “keep it real” society today, do you believe the future of literature is going the way of “reality T.V.?”

A: No. No, I don’t think so, but I have another concern. It’s two-fold.
First, let me say that I travel a lot, I read a lot of works in progress, I’ve judged contests, and I’ve read a lot. I think, first of all, people are churning out some wonderful work. I know that there’s this fear of a big decline in readership, but this past year publishers had a banner year. Even with this bad economy, they sold a record number of books – serious books, fiction and creative non-fiction. What I see that troubles me is there has been a steadily declining problem with attention in both readers and writers. I taught a workshop a few years ago, and the novel in the class was beautifully written. The first six or seven pages was a very languid, lush description of a river valley, and then on page seven we go into the home of the protagonist and a husband slaps a wife. Seven or eight of my ten graduate students insisted that the novel begin with the slap on page seven because it would get the reader more interested and, frankly, they found the first six pages kind of boring. Oh man! [Laughs] To me that really rubs me the wrong way. I mean the novel, especially. I really love the novel as a form. I love how much it can hold, what it can do. God, they should read some Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck, they’re gonna take fifty pages before they get to the ‘slap.’ That’s good for the reader. It’s an important part of what the novel does.  Gardner’s got this great line which I’m going to butcher, but he said that what the writer does is that he “freezes time, so that in 100 years, when the reader reads it, it moves again.”  Isn’t that beautiful? My concern is that we’ve got a real friction going on between the slow, careful fall into language that is literature, and the fast, clipped, supersonic, DSL speed of these hi-tech gadgets that we’re all friggin’ addicted to. I think it’s affected the pacing of writing. What I keep hearing myself say is the job of literature is not to give the reader information; that’s the job of the news. Our job, as writers, is to give the reader an experience. I think that might be a little muddy in the minds of young writers, but it’s not about information. Who cares about information? It’s about the experience.
Second, a lot of young writers are being inspired not by great books they’ve read, but by wonderful movies and T.V. shows, and even video games. What I keep seeing is young writers working way too hard to entertain the reader. The hell with entertaining the reader! Our job is not to entertain a reader. Our job, in my opinion, is to take the reader deeply into some experience, illuminate with truth, put that reader into it as if they’re living it themselves, and what I know is that it is not only deeply entertaining to a reader; it will give them transcendence. I cannot tell you how often I’m writing in the margins “Don’t entertain me,” “This is too cute,” “Don’t try to make me laugh,” or “Do you really think he or she would say that,” “Do you really think he or she would really make love, or do you think it’s time to show a naked breast.” And that, to me, is what’s happening to story. It’s my biggest complaint, my biggest concern. I’m not that worried about it, though, because I think things do have a way of working themselves out.

Q: Do you have a particular teaching style or ideology?

A: I’m honest and constructive.  I have really strong opinions about the teaching of writing. I think all fine arts instruction is really problematic.  Look, I think you have to be very careful in the creative writing room, classroom.  It’s far easier to tear something down than to build it.  It’s important I think it would be immoral for a writing instructor to say something is working when he or she truly believes that it is not…but…there is a way to talk about what’s really working in the story and what is not without being destructive.  Writers are sensitive people.  It’s easy to get our feelings hurt.  It is so easy for someone’s relationship with their own creativity to be damaged, and I think the work must be discussed in such a way that that relationship is not messed with. I work hard on that.

Q: Have you read any good books lately?

A: One of the best new novels I’ve read in about 15 years is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It won the National Book Award last year, so you’ll find it all over the place.  It’s just a beautiful novel.

Q: You have a new book coming out soon. When will it be published and how long have you been working on it?
A: This one came pretty quickly for me. Look, Cagekeeper took six and a half years, Bluesman took two and a half, House of Sand and Fog took four and half years, Garden of Last Days took five and a half.  I’d been trying to write this one the last 25, 27 years as fiction, and I finally came to the realization and the insight that I just can’t write fiction from my life. I cannot have a bad dinner in Chicago, and write about a bad dinner in Chicago. It’s going to turn into a good lunch in Mexico, told from the point of view of the waiter who’s thinking about cutting the throat of the boss. [Laughs] For years I’ve been trying to write this autobiographical novel about being ten years younger than the Viet Nam generation, growing up in the early ‘70’s, Watergate going on, Nixon flying off in his helicopter.  We were all doing drugs, and drinking and having sex too early, and looking like the counter-culture, but even then, it was all over. We’d missed the party. Meanwhile my parents had split up, we were living in poverty, there’s violence, and there’s all sorts of crap to put up with. For years I’ve been trying to write this as a novel, and I just can’t pull it off. And this is a long answer to your question. So, I’m under contract to Norton to finish a collection of personal essays and I was working on an essay about baseball.  You know, I only became a fan of football and baseball when my sons got interested in it. So, the question that fueled the essay was “How did I miss baseball?” “What the hell was I doing instead?” And 519 pages later, there’s my accidental and reluctant memoir. That’s what I’m revising right now for Norton, so watch for it.

Transcript of recorded telephone interview with Andre Dubus III conducted on Friday, January 29, 2010, 3:00 p.m. EST.