The Beatrice Interview

Andre Dubus III

"What I'm working on now, I can't think about anyone liking."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Andre Dubus III's father is recognized as one of the best short story writers in twentieth-century America, and while other writers in the same situation might feel as if they were living under a shadow, the younger Dubus says that he's never felt the need to compare his writing to his dad's. "My father had a very different vision than I do, and we could go on about the dozens of ways that's so," he says, "but my larger point is that it's dangerous to approach the creative act from a competitive spirit. That's why I find awards so problematic. Writing shouldn't be competitive. If anything is the enemy of the creative process, it's self-consciousness, anything that takes you out of the act of creating so that you're watching yourself create." He smiles, then adds, "And if I did try to compete against him, I wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell."

Dubus has spent much of the last two years sharpening his focus on the creative act, learning to push aside those outside influences that lead to self-consciousness. In 1999, his novel House of Sand and Fog was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. As it happens, the ceremony that year included a special award to Oprah Winfrey for her work in promoting books and reading. I don't know for sure that that's when she found out about the book, but a year later, she chose it for her book club, elevating Dubus to a whole new level of public recognition.

RH: So are you a total rock star now?

AD: Heh. That's funny. Yeah, I guess so! (laughs) I went from readings with ten to fifteen people to one reading where about five hundred people showed up. I was stunned. They moved the reading from a room in the library to an auditorium. It doesn't happen every time, but the crowds have definitely grown. It's a strange experience. It's a good strange, though. I'll take it.

RH: How did you find out?

AD: I was cooking lasagna, my kids were playing out in the backyard, my wife was upstairs upholstering some covers for extra money, and there's a message on my machine from a woman with a Chicago accent named Alice, saying, "Will you give me a call, please? I represent a fairly large book group." So I call, and she just nursed me along. For five minutes, she wouldn't tell me who she was. Finally, she tells me that Oprah's picked my book for her club; usually, Oprah calls the authors herself, but apparently she'd tried to call me and couldn't get through. So my first instinct is, "You've got to be shitting me." And Alice says, "No, I'm not shitting ya."

The book had done really well in paperback before she called. It had been on the BookSense independent bestseller list for about ten months, had sold roughly 140,000 copies, so I was in hog heaven, because my first two books only sold about 10,000 combined. The eight printing for House of Sand and Fog was another 30,000 copies, and they were pretty ecstatic about that. The ninth printing, after Oprah called, was 850,000, and then they printed another 400,000 on top of that. So there's about 1.7 million copies in print... It's mindboggling. You know how it is, a literary novel's considered a success if it sells fifteen or twenty thousand copies...

It's very gratifying as a writer that so many people will be reading my book. It's a strange, bountiful, beautiful feeling...kinda scary, too. The provider part of me, the husband with three kids, is happy as hell about the monetary aspects, but the writer part of me is a little nervous. It started a little before the Oprah development, but definitely after that happened, the writer part of me went into a little room, pulled the shades, and shut the door, and just ignored all of it. That noise and attention is gratifying, and I'm grateful for it, but it can also be distracting to the creative process. It can even be the death of creativity if you let it. It can encourage self-consciousness. What I'm working on now, I can't think about anyone liking. I can't think about Oprah liking it...anyone. I just have to try to be true to the work.

RH: You said you were already starting to feel that even before Oprah called. Was that because, compared to your first novel, Bluesman, the sales for House of Sand and Fog...

AD: ...blew it out of the water? Completely. I think it was when I got the National Book Award nomination. That's when I went inside the little room and shut the door and said, "OK, that's very nice. What a wonderful suprise, I'm shocked, now get back to work." And get back to work without trying to beat that book! It's very important not to try to beat your last book, to try to write something better or just as good. You should just try to write whatever the next thing is. It might not even be remotely like the last one.

RH: You don't want to try to write somebody else's idea of what an "Andre Dubus" book is.

AD: Mmm-hmm. And now there are expectations. There's an upside and a downside to everything. Publishers are interested now in what I'm doing, and they're willing to pay for it, and again, the provider in me is happy and grateful, but the writer is just trying to ignore it. I think I am ignoring it.

I'm glad this happened twenty years into my writing career. After a certain time, if you spend every day writing, you let go of your ambitions to write a book, or write a particular story, and you've paid so much attention to the craft that you end up surrendering to the craft a little more. It sounds silly, but it's almost besides the point that you've written a book. You've tried to be in the scene, in the sentences, in the work, and then one day you look back and think, "Maybe that's a complete piece."

RH: Growing up, of course, your father's work showed you how arduous the writer's path was going to be.

AD: That helped me, too. As you know, my old man, master writer that he was, was ignored until fairly late in his career... Not ignored, exactly, but he did have a small publisher. The upside is that they kept all of his books in print, and they still are. When he eventually went to Knopf, he got more attention for his work, but I saw him labor thirty years without any major financial recompense or attention. Which is good...I don't think artists should expect that at all. They should expect to be working two jobs their whole life: one to make money to live, to provide, and then the creative work.

RH: You ended up taking a fairly circuitous path to your writing career.

AD: It looks like it, but I started writing when I was 21, right out of college, and I've been doing it every day since. All those other jobs, bounty hunter, private investigator, bartender, carpenter...I mainly chose those jobs because they were night jobs and gave me mornings free to write. They sound adventurous, but I took them mainly because it was night work. Strange night work sometimes, like spending all night in your car watching somebody's doorway.

RH: And they were jobs that you could put away at the end of your shift, that didn't interfere with your time when you needed to do the writing.

AD: The best job for that was bartending. It was ideal for about ten years; I was in New York and worked in seven places before I found a good place. By the time I finished, I was working just three nights a week--Thursday, Friday, and Saturday--and made enough to survive, with seven mornings off a week. It was wonderful.

The problem was that I got restaurant burnout. I wanted my Friday night, my Saturday night. Perfectly nice people would come into the restaurant with an expectant smile on their faces, waiting for their night of recreation, and I wanted to strangle them. "What, am I here to serve you? Was I born to serve you? What about my Friday night, huh?" That's when I knew it was time to quit.

RH: When you wrote Bluesman, how did you end up writing about 1967 from the perspective of a character a full decade older than you were when you lived through that summer?

AD: So much of what I end up finishing is really the phoenix emerging from the ashes of something that never came to fruition, and Bluesman actually came from a story I wanted to write about a homeless family in New York City. I needed a history for them, and I looked at my Rand McNally map. The Connecticut River spills into New York Harbor, and I followed it back to western Massachusetts, which I knew, because my mother had lived there for years. I started to describe the river and the woods, and before I knew it, there was a man playing blues guitar, and a boy without a mother. I had no idea where they came from, but I went with it, and eventually figured out that Leo, the boy, and Allie, his girlfriend, would become the parents in that homeless family. So I figured, okay, I can go back to the contemporary story now, but every time I went there, it wouldn't come. It was like the contemporary story was a mountain I was trying to climb, and the summer of '67 was a hole I'd fallen into and now I couldn't get out of it. Every time I turned around, something else was happening to Leo then. The Vietnam War was in the background, he's about to turn 18, he's got a boss who's a Communist, he's discovering sexuality, he's found his dead mother's journals...

But here's the thing: I had just abandoned a two-year attempt to write a semi- autobiographical novel based on my teenage years in the '70s. It was a bad book, and I mean that sincerely. I was just too angry at my childhood, and I made the common writer's mistake of putting too many factual things in there, and it just sank like a stone. So when I began what turned into Bluesman, I wanted to write from the point of view of a forty-year-old, and when the teenage Leo became the protagonist, I resisted because I'd been writing from a teenage perspective all those years and I just wanted a break. I resisted it for weeks, and then finally I started practicing what I preach in my writing classes, which is that we have to let the writing show us. And there it was.

RH: And even before you'd finished that novel, you had found the two ideas that would form the backbone of House of Sand and Fog, right?

AD: That happens to me a lot with the novel form, that it's a combination of ideas. One's the sperm, the other's the egg, and they're very disparate ideas that you wouldn't think would come together. In this case, I'd read about a woman who was evicted from her house for failure to pay taxes she said she didn't owe, and they'd already repossessed and sold the house before they realized their mistake. (And since the book came out, I've gotten about six newspaper clippings about the same thing happening all over the country. One woman in upstate New York lost her house over $75. It's madness, bureaucratic madness.)

For years, I've wanted to write about an Iranian man I knew, the father of a college friend in the '70s. He was very powerful there, and when he came to America, he ended up working in a convenience store. One image in particular stayed with me: he was in an elevator, I was helping him bring in some groceries late at night, after he'd worked a 16-hour day, and he looked at me and said, "I never thought my life would come to this. I used to work with kings and queens and prime ministers, and now I serve candy and cigarettes to people who don't even know who I was. I never thought this would happen to me." And I looked at him, and I felt compassion for him, but without even being aware of it, the writer part of me was just struck by that trauma, and it never left.

But the way those two ideas came together is that I reread that original article after I finished Bluesman, and I read it again, and I saw that the name of the man who bought the house was Middle Eastern, and I thought, "What if the man I knew had bought that house...?" (smiles) And four years later, there's your book!

RH: Are you still writing short stories?

AD: I just finished what I thought was three novellas, and my editor liked two of them, but she thought the third one might be a novel. I think she's right; I don't think she's saying that just because novels are easier to sell. So there may be more to that story. Or there might not be, and it might just end up in that collection of novellas. But I really love short stories. And I love what Faulkner said, about how when a writer first starts out, he tries to write poems, and when he can't do that, he tries his hand at short stories, and when that doesn't work, he ends up writing novels.

I look at the short stories in my first book, and I was really teaching myself to write in the six or seven years I spent writing those stories. They're really a history of my writing apprenticeship, from the first story to the seventh. I noticed with each story, I'd choose...not more challenging subjects, but subjects that required more canvas. The stories got longer, more complicated. I was like a runner, building myself up from a five-mile run to a marathon. I don't think any of the stories are plainly bad, but...when I look back at those stories, written when I was in my twenties, I was another guy back then. I see a lot of heart and passion in those stories. I'm actually reediting them a little since Vintage will be reissuing The Cage Keeper (the collection that marked his fiction debut) in the fall. The stories aren't bad, but some of the sentences I wrote then are. So I'm fixing it a bit and I'll add an author's note, apologizing...well, not apologizing, but you can definitely tell that I've learned more about writing since then.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Robert Morgan | Complete Interview Index | A. Manette Ansay

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