Photo credit: John Hauschildt
Describe your latest book.
My new novel, Gone So Long
, begins from the point of view of a dying man in his 60s, a man who — when he was in his 20s — did the worst thing possible to another human being, the mother of his child, and now 40 years have come and gone, and he has not seen this child since she was three, and now she’s 43, and he sets off to see her one more time before he dies.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I believe it was a picture book of The Arabian Nights
, and there was one image I would constantly stare at, a beautiful dark-haired woman whose face and torso sat on the body of a snake.
When did you know you were a writer?
I write about this moment in my memoir, Townie
, but it began the night, when I was 23, when, instead of running to the boxing gym to train for the Golden Gloves competition down in Lowell, Massachusetts, some small voice inside me told me to sit down at my kitchen table in my tiny rented apartment, brew a cup of tea, grab my pencil and notebook, and start writing. I ended up writing from the point of view of a young woman losing her virginity with a boy in the Maine woods in a soft rain. I do not know where this impulse came from, but when I finished writing that scene, I felt more awake and alive than I’d ever felt, and I felt more like me than I ever had. That night was 36 years ago, and I’ve been writing daily since.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I write in a soundproof room I built in the basement of my house, which I also built. The room is five feet wide and eleven feet long, with a six-foot ceiling and one small port window in the outside wall that I cover with a dark blanket. My desk sits in front of a blank wall, and five mornings a week I write there with pencil and paper.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I would say it has to be my hatred of so-called “smart” phones. I hate how they’ve enslaved an entire generation, addicting millions of human beings to seeking distraction after distraction after distraction. I will never own one, nor have I ever sent a text or been on social media of any kind. Mary Oliver
writes: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” But, I fear that our ability to be in the present moment, to pay attention, has been horribly compromised by this technology.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A young man came up to my book-signing table holding six copies of my memoir, Townie
. He said: “You’ve written my friggin’ life. I tell people if they want to know about my life, then read this friggin’ book.” Once again, this tells me that we human beings have far more in common than we tend to think.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I sometimes drink too much.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
The novelist John Yount. And start with his novel Hardcastle
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I own probably over 10,000 books, around 4,000 of which belonged to my late father, the short story master Andre Dubus
. After he died in February 1999, I kept all of his books in boxes in my basement. But a few years ago, his authorized biographer, Olivia Carr Edenfield
, came to my house to go through his entire collection of books, so my two sons and I hauled all 4,000 up to my dining room, where Olivia went through them for over 10 days. Weeks after she left, those books were still sitting in piles around my dining room. I asked my five siblings to come get what they wanted, and after they did this, I thought I’d donate the rest to a library. But every few days, I would go to those stacks of books and their wonderful musty smell, and I’d open them and see that one was a gift from my mother to my father when they were in their twenties, and another was a gift from one of us kids to our father, and another was an inscribed book to my father from someone like E. L. Doctorow
or Elmore Leonard
, and how could I ever donate these? That winter, I built new shelves throughout our living room, and that is where my father’s books (and many of my mother’s, his first ex-wife’s) are now, surrounding my own family with the reading history of the one I came from…
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
When I was 23, I worked as an assistant to a private investigator and bounty hunter, a job that once took me to Mexico in search of a contract killer. I wrote about this experience in my memoir Townie
, but then ended up cutting it because it seemed to take the shape of that narrative somewhere less central to the themes of that particular book. I ended up selling that section as an essay to Vice
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Not really, no, though I was tempted to one time in Key West. I was there blowing my first advance for my first book, a collection of short stories called The Cage Keeper
, published in 1989, and I was treating my mother and youngest sister, Nicole, to a few nights in a luxury hotel. I knew Hemingway
had lived in Key West for years, but as much as I admire most of his life’s work, I found that I just wasn’t interested in seeing where he wrote it or where he drank after a day’s work, etc. For me, the work should and usually does speak for itself.
What scares you the most as a writer?
That I will not have the gifts or talents, the skills or writing tools to bring a book or story to its fullest and truest fruition, that I will fail in that. But I also believe that this fear of artistic (not commercial) failure is nearly universal and fine fuel for getting the work done anyway. But there are also those writers, sadly, who let this common fear paralyze them. The way past that, it seems to me, is to find a way to not care too much about how others view one’s work. One of my favorite lines on facing one’s fears comes from some ancient Chinese wise person: “If the mad dog comes at you, whistle for him.”
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
I really have no idea, though I should tell you that I hate that Roman numeral at the end of my name. I grew up in first-world poverty as the son of a single mother in depressing mill towns, but I fear that when people see the number "III," they imagine that I’ve had a privileged and pampered childhood. But I am the son of a beautiful writer with the same name. When I was in my twenties, I thought hard about changing my name, but when I discovered writing, it carried me to my true life, and I just could not put a fake name to that. I also believe that we’re supposed to play the hands we’re dealt, for the most part. This has nothing to do with what you asked, however! But maybe the title would be The Man Who Hated His Name
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
I have to say that I’ve rarely, if ever, felt proud of anything I’ve written. I’ve felt proud and grateful that I wrote it, that I stepped into the unknown and into my fears and found something, hopefully substantial, with words. But I’ve never felt that kind of pride. That said, I’m a bit partial to the opening sentence of my 1999 novel, House of Sand and Fog
, because with that line, I’d found the voice of Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani, one of the main characters of that book: “The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me Camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran.”
Describe a recurring nightmare.
My house, the house I spent three years building with my own hands, and the home of my wife and three children (and 97-year-old mother-in-law), fills with water. I think this may originate in growing up poor, in having landlords knock on the door for rent my mother did not have, landlords who then threatened to evict us.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I hate when verbs are used as nouns and vice versa! You don’t “access” a file, you get access to it. You don’t impact someone, you have an impact on them. There is no such thing as a “disconnect” in what someone says. That’s what you do when you pull an electric cord out of the wall…
Do you have any phobias?
Only around the health and safety of our three kids. That’s it.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Slowly smoking a good cigar out on my porch under the stars.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Get the power from your right cross from your back foot and pivoting hips. This came from the owner of a boxing gym I joined in Haverhill, Massachusetts, my hometown, in the ’70s when I’d just begun to defend myself and those I loved.
Who do you love?
All of humanity. Every race. All genders. All ethnic types. Everyone. (And, first and foremost, my wife and three children.)
My Top Five Books:
The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
While I now believe this enduring novel to be over-written, its prose a bit dense, it was the first work of literature to reach inside me and do something substantial. I was 17 years old when I first read this. In that last scene with Rose of Sharon and the starving man in that freight car, I was trembling. This deep, wide, and compassionate story of the Joad family carried me to the power of what fiction can do.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
by Breece D’J Pancake
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I read Pancake’s haunting and beautifully wrought stories in my early twenties, and they taught me to start writing about the people and places I knew and cared about.
Any story collection by the great Nobel Prize recipient Alice Munro
No writer juggles time, structure, and character as deftly as she does.
by William Kennedy
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. It was the third book in Kennedy’s Albany cycle, and all three are wonderful, but this one in particular cut deep inside me and still does: Francis Phelan and his thrown-away life, the ghosts in his head, his alcoholism, and broken heart. It is a masterpiece.
Any book by great American writer Elizabeth Strout
I am particularly struck by her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton
. It is a short novel where very little actually happens, but when I reached that last line, I gasped and then I wept. It is one of the most psychically and spiritually naked novels I’ve ever read. It is an utter masterpiece.
÷ ÷ ÷
Andre Dubus III
is the author of Gone So Long
, Dirty Love
, The Garden of Last Days
, House of Sand and Fog
(a #1 New York Times
bestseller, Oprah's Book Club pick, and finalist for the National Book Award), and Townie
, winner of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His writing has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Magazine Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. He lives with his family in Newburyport, Massachusetts.