Andre Dubus III is the author of a collection of short fiction, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, and the novels Bluesman, House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days, a New York Times bestseller. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, his novel House of Sand and Fog was also a National Book Award finalist, and adapted into an Academy Award nominated feature film. His new memoir, Townie, chronicles his early life growing up in Massachusetts mill towns after his parent’s divorce, navigating a post-Vietnam world full of sex, drugs, and the violent lifestyle that he almost became a part of until he was saved by writing.
I met Mr. Dubus this spring during his reading tour, and he was kind enough to answer some questions about his new book, his writing habits, and his future projects.
The Rumpus: You’ve been exploring Violence as a theme since the stories that became your first collection, The Cage Keeper. You’ve written three novels since those first stories, all of which seem to have acts of violence or the fear of violence at the core of each book. With Townie being your first major work of non-fiction, did you approach the theme of Violence and the gravity of such a subject any differently?
Andre Dubus III: First, I have to say that when I’m working on a piece of writing–fiction or non-fiction–I try to stay as unconscious as I possibly can about theme. My experience over the years has shown me, again and again, that the writing is larger than the writer that it is an act of deep mining that the writer must prepare to fall into. Whenever I’ve done that, the themes that come always feel to me more organic and true. What I’m saying is this: I’ve never explored violence on purpose; instead, it just keeps coming up in one-way or another. With Townie (a memoir I consider accidental because it rose up from an essay-in-progress about my two sons and baseball), my approach to the exploration of violence was much more personal than ever before. As a young victim of bullying and then, later, a vindictive perpetrator of violence myself, I’ve known both sides of this experience, and I tried very hard in the writing here to be as absolutely honest as I possibly could, to not romanticize myself or my past actions or cowardly inactions in any way. I try to do this in fiction, too, but with the memoir form I felt even more driven, almost on an ethical level, to capture absolutely everything I possibly could of what I know about this all-too-common and deeply disturbing human act- physically hurting another.
Rumpus: Much of the tension in Townie arises from the narrator, you, first as a boy, and then a young man, trying to interpret acts of everyday violence around him (bullies, schoolyard fights, lover’s quarrels, etc.) without that necessary buffer of a father figure around to translate these things. I’m wondering how hard it was to find such a levelheaded voice for your narrator, a voice that never really dives too far into self-pity and anger throughout the book?
Dubus: Thank you for that. I was hoping for a “level-headed voice” free of self-pity and anger. The fact is it took almost thirty-years to find it. I’m 51 and began writing fiction at age 21. Off and on throughout my writing years, I’ve been trying to write so much of what’s in Townie as fiction. I probably spent a total of seven writing years trying to make a novel out of all this: growing up ten years younger than the Vietnam generation – the drugs, precocious sex, the drinking, no fathers around, poverty, Nixon flying off in his helicopter, etc., mindless violence. But, it just never came together for me. Early on, the fiction failed because I was still angry at my parents for not having done a better job raising us, and I felt sorry for the boy I’d been; the result was dishonest writing, work that was trying to make far too many points. Then, a few months after turning in the final draft of my novel, The Garden of Last Days, I began to write a personal essay about baseball, about how I was into my 40’s before I came to this sport I now love, and this happened through my two sons and their love and knowledge for the game. I thought the essay might be 20 pages or so, a brief look at fathers and sons and baseball and America. But 500 pages later, and I’d written Townie, this completely accidental memoir about what I was doing instead of playing sports, which was living in a string of depressed mill towns along the Merrimack River in the early 70’s with our overwhelmed single mother, etc.
I had finally gotten far enough away from those years, age-wise, that I could write about it honestly and fairly, I think, without trying to skewer anyone or to make myself look better than I actually was. In short, the voice of the narrator could not have come until I, the narrator, became a husband and father myself. Lastly, I wanted Townie to read like a novel, which I think helped me find the voice of the younger, and for a while anyway, innocent me.
Rumpus: At your reading in Austin, you mentioned that you needed a certain distance from your character’s lives, that writing anything too personal never seemed to work out for you, and yet Townie is your most personal book yet. Was it ever more of a struggle to get inside that young version of yourself, rather than a character like Kathy Nicolo in House of Sand and Fog?
Dubus: Because some of these moments I describe happened 30-40 years ago, I had achieved enough emotional distance that I found it no more difficult to write from the point-of-view of the younger me than it is to become a character, from scratch, in fiction. And in some ways it was even easier, though that doesn’t feel like the right word here. See, because I was writing non-fiction, I was off the hook in having to come up with the events of a story. Instead, I could just concentrate on trying to capture what it was like, what it was truly like (at least in a deeply subjective sense), to be in those remembered events.
Rumpus: Growing up in a rural, college town in Virginia, the word Townie always felt like such a derogatory and ugly word to me. Becoming a townie was one of my greatest fears growing up (a fear I realize now, was a little misguided). Midway through the book you leave Massachusetts to attend school in Austin, Texas, only to come back to the area where you grew up a few years later and have lived for most of your adult life. Can you talk a little about the nature of the title? Was calling your memoir Townie a way of re-appropriating the word for you?
Dubus: Well, I have to pass this one on to my wonderful editor at W.W. Norton, Alane Salierno Mason. She came up with the title because my original one was turning off too many people at Norton. (I think the one area writers should be prepared to make artistic compromises are titles; the publisher is saddled with having to sell our books, and I think we should help them get it into readers’ hands as much as we possibly can, without selling out, of course.) The original title was River, Fist, and Bone. As you know, Part II of the book is given that name. But when Alane recommended “townie” as a title, it immediately resonated for me as right, and probably for the reason you raise in your question. I did not know I was a “townie” until some rich girls at my father’s school called me that. At that moment, I felt ashamed of the poor, uncultured, and violent boy I was, but also proud, the way people seem to innately be of their own stations in life, whether those stations have any status or not.
Rumpus: Late in the memoir, you publish your first story, “Forky”, in Playboy. Your father’s initial reaction to the story is to call you up and say, “You’re a writer, man.” The ultimate compliment, it seems. Even before that moment, there is a scene when he comes by your apartment to go running and calls up to you while you’re writing, joking about Random House calling you. The publication of your first book of stories is hardly mentioned, and I was curious about your father’s reaction to your first book? Did he read the manuscript for The Cage Keeper before you mailed it off?
Dubus: He did not read the manuscript. I’ve always been a very private writer, and I never talk about what I’m working on to anyone. I never share work-in-progress, even with my wife of 22 years, until I have a finished draft. I have this belief that when we’re working on something we’re pregnant with that story the way a woman is pregnant. Our job is to get blood and nutrients to that life growing inside us, which we do as writers just by showing up every day, whether we feel like showing up or not. To share a work-in-progress feels to me like slitting open the belly to see how things are coming along. This isn’t good for the baby, the story, or its mother, the writer. But when I finally had a collection done (The Cage Keeper and Other Stories), I’d been working on those for six and half years, and my father had read them all, either once they’d been published in a quarterly or magazine, or because I gave him a manuscript copy. I would always show him and about three others my first drafts. I never trusted whatever he had to say, though, because he was too complimentary and generous. When the book came out, my old man praised it more than it deserved!
Rumpus: This past year Chad Harbach’s essay, “MFA vs. NYC” caused a stir in regard to the way writers come to being, earn a living, and find a way to exist. You don’t have an MFA and you don’t live in New York City. You worked as a bartender, carpenter, etc. for many years while you were starting out as a writer. Do you think there is still a place for “outsiders”, for writers working outside the usual academic/publishing avenues? Do you think you gained what some people call a “writer’s education” working those kind of jobs?
Dubus: I think there has always been a place for “outsiders”, those who are not MFA grads or New York City writers, as Harbach defines them. And you’re right, I don’t really fall into either camp. (Even though now the bulk of my income comes from my NYC publisher and occasionally Hollywood, and I also teach creative writing to undergraduates at a state university (with my B.A. in sociology!). I think Harbach’s right on with some of what he describes as an “MFA writer” vs. a “NYC writer”, but I also believe his essential way of thinking about writers actually writing is largely wrong; he pre-supposes that writers constantly have one eye on the marketplace – be it NYC or the university English Department – and that this, in turn, shapes what kind of books we produce, be they MFA short stories or NYC novels. It’s my belief, however, that most writers do not work that way at all, that most writers are inherently “outsiders” by nature, whether they live with a publicist in Brooklyn or in a brick house on the Iowa City campus, whether they work as bartenders or tenured writing professors. Why? Because the actual daily act of writing, that free-fall into the subconscious, that reckless swim through the imagination, demands a certain level of ego-surrender that leaves all those worldly concerns (writerly reputation, money, tenure, etc.) behind. I’m sure there are quite a few writers out there (MFA and NYC), who do not do this, who do have one eye on the mirror while writing, but I don’t read them, and I don’t believe they’re as nearly universal as Harbach maintains.
I suppose I believe I did gain a “writer’s education” working all the odd jobs I did, but I tend to resist the notion of this kind of education in the first place; just being alive on the planet is the only “education” a writer needs.
Rumpus: Townie explores the idea of discipline in regards to boxing and weightlifting, the idea that you can transform yourself into something else completely with enough work. Do you find the same transformative power in writing?
Dubus: This is a wonderfully original question. I think that, perhaps, the transformative power of writing may happen more for the reader than the writer, and more for the work itself rather than the writer who created the work. But I may be wrong about this. I don’t recall if any writing I’ve done has changed me, but I can think of books I’ve read that have. That said, I do feel, if I’ve gone deeply enough into the world my imagination and psyche have given me, that something in me has shifted somewhat. Transformed, no. Shifted, yes. But I can also say this: like most writers, I rarely feel like writing when I make myself get to that desk each day. But showing up, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, has, over the years made me a writer, something I would never have been without that discipline. (After a while though, just a few years probably, daily writing is less discipline and more self-care, like you wouldn’t think of not brushing your teeth on a regular basis.)
Rumpus: You talked briefly about your workout regimen in an interview with The New Yorker. Do you have a writing regimen or schedule you try to adhere to? Do you have a goal of how much to accomplish any given day, week, or month? How much has it changed since you began writing?
Dubus: My only writing regimen is that I make myself show up five days a week, whether I feel like it or not. I write in the mornings for 2-3 hours, then I workout to clear my head. I’ve never counted words or pages, and my only goal has been to show up at the desk and sit there till something comes. Miraculously, something usually does. I have my publisher’s deadlines now, but I don’t take them quite as seriously as my publisher may think I should. When the book is done, it’s done. This way of doing it hasn’t changed much over the years.
Rumpus: A couple years ago you mentioned you were finishing up a collection of novellas. Any word on its status? Any other new fiction projects on the horizon?
Dubus: The book I’m working on is that collection of novellas. Two have already been published in Glimmer Train Quarterly, one of them ten years ago. I’m also working on an original screenplay based on an essay I wrote about an escaped convict, a man back in prison. I think the fiction I’m doing now may be novella-length, but I can’t be sure. Just because I’d like a novella to be coming out of me right now, to round out a book, doesn’t mean that’s what’s coming. Like I said: the writing is larger than the writer.