Finding the story
Andre Dubus III charts an unpredictable course to inspiration
For 25 years Andre Dubus III has been trying to get one story off his chest. "Like so many writers, there is part of the canvas that wants to come from my life," Dubus says during a call to the incredible-sounding house he has been building in the woods outside of Newburyport, Massachusetts, for nearly five years. "I didn't grow up a lost boy in Sudan and I didn't grow up in the ghetto with a 9 mm pointed at my face. I was the son of a great writer of short stories. My mother was a social worker. But it was a poor childhood, as in no money, divorce, a lot of physical violence - just this long story of poverty and moving around and drinking and drugging, all before age 15."
In conversation, Dubus, who nine years ago published the acclaimed novel The House of Sand and Fog, is a kind of natural force. Words and ideas spill from him in a torrent. His anecdotes brim with passion. But there are eddies, too. He pauses to ask his interviewer many questions. He quotes writers who have influenced him. He is friendly, familiar, effusive, self-aware. Each of his assertions is followed by a reflective pause. Sometimes he reverses course. One senses the writer - or writing teacher or carpenter - at work as he shapes his material.
"I've been trying and trying to write this autobiographical novel," he says. "One of the attempts at this was called Lie Down and Make Angels. Terrible, man. It was just so bad. . . . So I think I've decided I'm not one of those fiction writers who can write from my life. It's like calling a dog. Maybe the dog just doesn't want to come. Maybe you're whistling for that dog and instead a rooster walks in. I guess you're writing a rooster story."
One of Dubus' "rooster" stories was the wonderful The House of Sand and Fog. To Dubus' surprise it became a bestseller, an Oprah pick and a movie starring Ben Kingsley. Until its phenomenal success, he had worked as a bartender, a carpenter and an occasional teacher of writing (he now has a permanent appointment teaching writing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell), to support his wife and young family (his children are now 15, 12, and 11). Until then he had never owned a home. With the book's earnings he bought his mother a truck and with his brother and friends, began to build a house.
"I went a little cuckoo. This is just one monster of a house. I built this beautiful in-law apartment for my wife's parents. I built my wife a dance studio - she's a dancer with a dance company. You know? I built a big house and quickly ran out of money. So for the last year the floor's been painted plywood subfloor. I wrote the last part of the new book, The Garden of Last Days, in the future master bathroom on a plywood floor near a hole in the floor where the toilet will go. But I tell you, the whole thing was completely absorbing. It was one of the most beautiful experiences - one of the most beautiful ordeals - I've been through. It's funny, I'm 48 and we moved in three years ago and I realized that this is the first time in 45 years that I didn't have a landlord."
This is just one of the many ways in which Dubus makes a point that he repeats throughout the conversation: "There is a distinction between the writing and the career. As a provider for a family of seven, I'm very grateful for the career that I stumbled into, especially since The House of Sand and Fog. But writing should be looked at like the practice of yoga or praying. It's a daily meditative practice where you learn over the years that if you just do it you'll look back and there will be a story or novella or a novel. That's got to sound disingenuous on one level because I did have a contract for The Garden of Last Days and I needed it financially. But I honestly believe I have to ignore the career and give the writing permission to completely fall apart and be a nine-page essay, a novella or a poem."
Luckily, Dubus' new novel, The Garden of Last Days, did not fall apart and might be another career-making novel. It vividly portrays the lives of an unexpected set of characters who collide - to emotionally wrenching effect - in a Sarasota, Florida, strip club in September 2001.
"The novel began with this image of cash on the bureau," Dubus says. "I didn't know where it came from but it soon became clear that it belonged to one of these women I had read about after the literal and figurative smoke cleared after 9/11. I remember reading a couple of brief references to the terrorists being seen in strip clubs and wondering what that was about. But what captured my curiosity even more is what it would be like to be a stripper and realize that some of the money on your bureau is from one of these guys who went on to kill 3,000 innocent people."
Dubus is a writer who is driven to take risks. "I talk to my students about the 'n' word," Dubus says. "I tell them writing takes a lot of nerve. A lot of nerve. Especially after you are two or three years into writing a novel." In The Garden of Last Days, Dubus exhibits a novelist's steely nerve by making his young stripper, April, the terrorist Bassam and the hapless working stiff AJ - who form the novel's central, desperate triangle - as humans deserving our empathy at least as much as they deserve our condemnation. He does this in part by revealing these characters' elemental loneliness.
"Loneliness is a common theme in the books I've written. I don't want to over-psychologize, because I think the roots of a writer's characters are mysterious; their origins go beyond a writer's experience and tap into something universal. But, you know, I was a new kid in school about 12 or 13 times growing up. I did eventually find my place and my friends. But who knows? That little boy could be working out a lot of demons in these stories."
Could be, too, that Dubus' compelling new novel will have the same astonishing reception as did The House of Sand and Fog. If so, then one must surely wonder: what new edifice will Dubus build in his woods and how long will we wait until the next "rooster" wanders into his yard?
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.