ONLINE EXTRA: More from Andre Dubus III
Published: July 31, 2009
|Contributing editor Sarah Anne Johnson interviewed Andre Dubus III for the September 2009 issue of The Writer. Dubus, the son of the late renowned short-story writer Andre Dubus, has himself carved out a solid place in American fiction with titles that include the novel House of Sand and Fog, which became a successful film starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.|
For his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days, Dubus researched and imagined his way into the minds of the 9/11 terrorists—and an American stripper who danced for them.
Following are some additional insights from Dubus.
How did you get started writing and what have you done to develop your craft?
I started writing seriously 27 years ago at the age of 22. I had just earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and was taking a year off from school before heading off to work on a Ph.D. in political thought. I was an idealistic, left-wing kid who hated injustice and wanted to do something about it. In that year off, I worked construction and ended up dating a woman who wrote fiction, something I hadn't read very much of all through college. I began reading her work, and the work of others, and I felt the subtle urge to try and write myself. One night after a long day of carpentry work, I brewed some tea, sat down at my tiny kitchen table, and wrote a scene. It wasn't very good, but when I finished that one writing session and the short story that eventually followed, I felt like me for the first time.
To develop my craft over the years, I've tried to be diligent about getting in five writing sessions per week, whether I've had the time and energy to do them or not. Because there are always good reasons for not writing. After a while, though, those daily sessions at the desk become as integral a part of your life as brushing your teeth or taking a shower; you wouldn't think of not doing them. And I like what the writer Janet Burroway says about this: "Writing isn't hard; not writing is hard."
Also, the writer must read, read, read!
Who are some of the writers who've influenced your work and who are you reading now?
I suspect that artistic impulses are somewhat unconscious, but I do know that I've been as influenced by singer/songwriters as I have other fiction writers, people like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Kris Kristofferson and Lucinda Williams. In my 20s, I read a lot of Breece D'J Pancake, someone I believe helped me try to write more honestly.
I also read poetry every day before writing. Right now I'm reading Poetry180: A Turning Back to Poetry, edited by Billy Collins.
Some writers push through a first draft and then revise, while others get each sentence right before moving on. What is your process like for writing and revising?
My own way of working is probably a combination of the two. I write longhand in pencil but begin each writing session by typing the previous day's work. I do a certain amount of rewriting as I do this, focusing on prose rhythm more than anything else. If a passage doesn't read too well, but I believe it has captured the truth of that moment in the story, I know I can always go back and make it sound better later.
I've found that premature evaluation can stop the flow, can keep you from slapping clay onto the table with which to work, so, unless I feel I'm writing something false, I tend to keep going. (Sometimes, of course, the writer's best sentences are in those passages that feel more "made up" or contrived, than imagined or found, and those are the "darlings" Faulkner encourages us all to murder!)
How does a book come to you—as an image, a voice, or a character?
For me it's usually an image from a situation I may have heard about in passing or read about in the newspaper. From the image comes a scene, and from the scene comes characters who then fuel the story.
House of Sand and Fog narrated the descent of a cast of characters that culminated in a heart-stopping tragedy. You created suspense for the reader while not giving anything away. Did you know where the events in the story were leading? Was it difficult to maintain that suspense?
I did not know where the events in House of Sand and Fog were leading. (And I rarely do.) I just knew I had two diametrically opposed characters, and I was trying hard not to judge either one of them so that they would continue to act apart from me, the writer. I know this kind of talk can sound pretentious and strange, but characters really do begin to take on a life of their own if you let them. How do you let them? By entering the story not with something to say, but instead, with an open-minded urge to find something. Follow, and characters will lead.
You ask if it was difficult to maintain that suspense—a good question and one I haven't been asked before. The truth is, I don't consciously try to maintain suspense and don't even have that word in my head while writing; I do, however, work hard to maintain dramatic tension at all times, something I attempt to pull off by shaving away any moments that feel extraneous to the story, ones I had to write to discover more about the characters but then must summon the will to cut. This is what Ernest Hemingway was talking about with his iceberg metaphor: One-eighth of an iceberg is above the water's surface, seven-eighths are beneath; this, Hemingway said, is what the writer knows and has left out. The result is enhanced dramatic tension.
In The Garden of Last Days, you render the voices of a range of very different characters including a young dancer and her little girl, an angry bouncer, and an elderly woman. How do you inhabit these varied characters?
Let's go back to William Stafford's point about the writer putting himself into a state of receptivity. Ultimately, this character-driven fiction is a sustained act of empathy where the writer asks: "What's it like to be you?" Because we all have an imagination; I believe we all have the capacity to imagine the lives of others. Once you know the concrete, specific and sensual particulars of a character's existence—things you get from the actual writing—then the voice begins to come, too. (Or sometimes it comes as a gift right away!)
In the chapters in The Garden of Last Days that are told from Bassam's point of view, you use words such as kafir, mushrikoon, kufar and abayas. What were some of the considerations when using his native language?
I don't think it's possible to write about someone from another culture without bringing in some of their native language, their food, music, customs, etc. You need to go back to the source of their upbringing, I think, and bring in material that is literally organic to their life experience so far. By taking the time and energy to do this (and hopefully accurately), it should go a long way toward making the reader's relationship with that character more organic, too.
What do you think makes a good ending for a book? What are some of things on your mind as you near the end of a draft?
Well, first let me say I think ending a novel or story well is the hardest part of the whole process, and I'm not so sure I've ever done it myself! I do get impatient, however, with those who seem to want some kind of resounding resolution to all the characters and events in the story, and some kind of "message," too. My own sense is that a story ends well the way a piece of music ends well, where the listener feels that every instrument at least has had a chance for one final note somewhere. The French word denouement actually means, "an unknotting." I think the story's end must at least allow for that.
Ultimately, the decision to end a novel on a particular line is deeply intuitive anyway, and probably comes from a fairly unconscious but hopefully authentic place.
How has your father's literary success impacted you as a writer?
There are many ways of talking about this. I can tell you right off that I'm immensely proud of him and the masterful work he left behind, that I was close to him and miss him very much. I can also tell you that having the same name has been a mixed blessing. As I said earlier in this interview, when I first began writing I felt like me for the first time in my life. For this reason, back in my 20s when I began to publish, I just could not put a fake name to that feeling, even though having a pseudonym would probably have been less confusing to many people who still don't know there are two writers named Andre Dubus. (And two with the name Alexander Dumas, and now three singer-songwriters with the name Hank Williams!)
But I really don't like that Roman numeral three on my name, which looks so aristocratic to me, a guy who grew up in mill towns in a low-income, single-parent family! But now, if it's not there on something I've written, then I feel authorship has been taken from me and given to my father. (Which is not fair to him!) But worse than that, if I'm at some literary event and that three's not attached to my name, then I get all bent out of shape because I feel as if I've just stolen my father's name and his glorious and hard-earned body of work. (So please, for this interview, make sure that three is there, even though I hate it!)
But honestly, all this talk is really more about career and not the work itself. You asked how my father's literary success has had an impact on me as a writer, and my answer is I don't really know. I count him as one of my favorite writers, and in that sense he has probably influenced me in ways all writers influence each other. When I was younger, I would bristle at any suggestion that having my father's name opened doors for me. (My first book went to over 30 publishers before finding a home, my second to 28, my third to 25 …)
I would tell people he had no influence on me whatsoever, but I was full of it; over the years, I've worked with a lot of older people in writing classes, many of whom did not start writing until they were in their 70s or 80s, even those for whom writing fiction had always been a life's dream. Whenever I asked them why they didn't start writing earlier, they would invariable say this: "I had to wait for my parents to die first. They never wanted me to work in the arts and be poor and miserable." This is an understandable parental response, but one I was spared.
Some of my earliest memories of my father are of seeing him go into a room and close the door, and then we kids would have to be quiet because dad was writing, trying to make something beautiful for people he'd never even meet. It wasn't until years later that I understood how much this image freed me as a young man to consider the arts as valid a route to take as medicine, law or business.