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Interview: Andre Dubus III, 2010 Fall

In Capital Letters (ICL): What innate qualities and/or personal experiences do you believe make you the writer that you are today?   

First of all, when you say “the writer I am today,” I think that you always want to be more than the writer that you’re perceived to be. Here’s the thing – I began writing about a year out of college when I was twenty-two. It was almost a cosmic accident when I wrote my first story, and while it wasn’t very good, it was very sincere and the truth is that I felt more like “Andre” than I’d ever felt before. And I’ve kept writing just to keep that feeling. Whenever I’ve gone without writing two or three days at the most I feel far away from my center almost on a spiritual level and I have to get to the desk. It’s almost a happy accident that books and a writing career have emerged from that compulsion.

 But, to answer your question more precisely, I believe that it’s a combination of things - these qualities that we as writers, we as human beings possess. Faulkner was asked late in his life what’s the main thing a writer needs in order to create like he did and he said: “It ain’t talent!” He used to think it was but discovered that it’s curiosity that is necessary. His exact words were: “Insight, to wonder, to mull and to muse why it is that Man does what he does.” Every writer I know is deeply curious about people, human situations and how people get through them or don’t get through them. In conjunction with that you’d need some powers of empathy. However, the irony is that the more I become someone else in my writing the more I find myself.

Now, with reference to personal experiences - I lived in poverty with my single mother and three siblings and we moved two or three times a year. I lived in some tough neighborhoods and got beat up a lot and at fifteen I began to fight back. The truth is, I became a very violent young man; pounding on the big bully. I eventually became a boxer and I was traveling a very dangerous road and if I hadn’t discovered writing at age twenty-two I think I would have headed toward prison or an early grave, like a few of my friends did. Writing changed all that for me. If you’re trying to write character driven fiction like I do, that daily act of trying to understand someone else’s experience, made it hard for me to punch people in the face in real life anymore. There is a great line from Hemingway that says that the “job of the writer is not to judge but to seek to understand.” Not every writer is going to agree with Hemingway on that one but I do especially.

ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?  

 My favorite part is the doing of it. I really enjoy the hard sweet labor of writing. Even the day when the writing doesn’t seem to go well, when it feels like you’re chipping concrete, even those days spent just staring at the page are better than those when I don’t get to the desk at all. I know this seems obvious but there are a lot of people out there who want to write but when they sit down to it they don’t really love the process. I adore the daily doing of it. I find it’s deeply challenging and I think it’s one of the hardest, most challenging labors a person can do in his or her adult life. It might be difficult to run a country but I don’t think it’s more difficult than writing a book.

My least favorite part is when the book is done and it goes out into the world and you have to sit there and pretend that you’re not hoping that it’s well received. Reading reviews, even when they’re wonderful reviews, I still find almost unbearable. Here’s why: it’s as if you’ve taken a scalpel, cut open your entrails, taken them out, shined a big bright light on them and you’re asking people if they like them? So, there’s this incredible, vulnerable feeling and I understand that if there’s any one central enemy to human creativity it’s self-consciousness. We need to be sincere and I mean sincerity in the manner Nadine Gordimer meant and that is never having an idea of oneself. If you’re not completely involved in a self-less way in the act you won’t be doing it as deeply as you can. The moment when the book is about to be received puts me in a state of looking at myself in some mirror which is antithetical to the creative process where one has to let go of oneself. I had dinner last night with the writer Russell Banks and he shared the wonderful idea of: “no mind.” He has to go to a place of “no mind” when writing. There’s a sense of selflessness, of ego-lessness which is very hard to accomplish when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror to see how the New York Times liked your book or not. I will end by saying that it’s a good damn problem to have but it’s still my least favorite part.

ICL: Your work has been featured in The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999, and the The Best of Hope Magazine. How does religion factor in your novels?

A lot and not at all. It certainly factored into my latest novel “The Garden of Last Days” because one of the main characters was an extremist Muslim terrorist so I had to grapple with radical interpretations of Islam in that one. I was pleasantly surprised that an essay I had written had been included in the Best Spiritual Writing because I certainly wasn’t trying to do spiritual writing. I was trying to write as honestly as I possibly could about the birth of my daughter, our second child, and what that meant to me as a young man. So, I was humbled and pleased that it was chosen as some kind of spiritual writing but I never had the word “spiritual” in my head. I have this belief see, that Tolstoy was completely right when he said “art is transferring feeling from one heart to another” and there’s only one thing that does that, it’s simple but it’s not easy, and that is Truth. So our job is to simply paint that Truth and I think that when you do, other human beings, most of whom you’ll never meet, might get touched by something you’ve written because it touches something Universal in their own shared experience.

I’m actually not a religious man although I’m full of contradictions because I pray every damn day for my kids because there’s no way you can be a parent without praying for your kids. But I find that I don’t believe in a Creator yet I believe in the Divine, in spirits and soul, angels and mysteries but I have a real hard time believing in some great overseer up there in charge of it all. But I do believe in the mysteries and as a writer of fiction I try to step as nakedly and honestly into those mysteries everyday as I can.

ICL: In a recent interview you said: “I try not to say anything in fiction, I try to find something." How does this philosophy influence your character development? Do you consciously create them or do they find you?

Hopefully. When writing there is an element of thinking and dreaming at the same time. Richard Bausch once said “that if you think you’re thinking when you’re writing, think again.” You’re closer to the dreaming side of your mind so dream, dream it through. After you’ve written a beginning, middle and an ending you begin looking at it in a much colder, analytical light.

Hopefully, all the characters came to me and I didn’t contrive them. I have this theory, and it took me ten or fifteen years of teaching writing classes before I started to put it this simply, that there’s a difference between making something up on the one hand and imagining it on the other. For example, when we want to write about a certain person we sort of cobble a number of paragraphs together and it might actually turn out to be very well written but that “built in, shock-proof, bull-shit detector” that Hemingway talks about goes off and we just don’t buy that any of it is rooted in any actual truth. While we’re putting together what we want to write about something happens in the periphery of our vision and though what we want to write about is say, a bank robber, what interests us more is the old lady in the car outside the bank. Tough! What the writing says is “well look buddy, you’re not in charge, I’m the one in charge.” The writing is smarter than the writer and the writing is guiding you to that old lady in the car and I would submit to you time and time again that when my writing has gone well I surrendered to that impulse and that little intuitive signal to go with the old lady in the car even though I personally don’t want to write about her. And I think that this is what Flaubert was saying when he said, “the writer doesn’t choose his subject; the subject chooses the writer.”

My characters come to me in that way but I work really hard trying to find them by asking questions of them and I found, and it’s really kind of cool that, as in life, if you pre-judge someone they tend not to want to be around you, and characters are the same. If they feel belittled by you, as if you’d want them to represent a certain type, they’re not going to come full flesh; they’re going to walk away. If you go into it with a real empty, open heart, curiosity and with no agenda - they’ll show up.

ICL: House of Sand and Fog is now an Academy-Award nominated motion picture. How much of a role did you have in the movie's production?

I had a small role. The writer- director Vadim Perelman and I really hit it off. That book had over a hundred calls from the film world in about a year and a half and I said no to everybody because they always wanted to change the ending and make it happier and this guy didn’t. He and I had a good working relationship and he would send me drafts of the script, even the shooting script and he even asked me to write a one-page soliloquy from sixty pages of a character’s description. Basically, that was my only role and I think a lot of fiction writers should really let the filmmaker have his or her free artistic expression. It was fun when I did get to go on the film junket with the director and the actors to a bunch of cities supporting the movie.

ICL: If you weren’t writing what would you be doing?

I really feel that if I hadn’t started writing I would not have outgrown my rage. But I’ll tell you this - I’ve always loved human beings, working out and taking care of my body while helping others do the same. So I think I might have become a family doctor in some small town. At least that’s my hope.

Stephanie Grant