An Afternoon with Andre Dubus III
He’s one of the country’s most notable and well-respected writers. Since his novel “House of Sand and Fog,” a National Book Award finalist, was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in November 2000, and particularly since the 2003 film version of the book, starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, was nominated for three Academy Awards, Andre Dubus III has also been something of a household name.
In the years since “House of Sand and Fog” was published, Dubus, a Merrimack Valley who lives in Newbury with his wife and three children, has penned three other literary gems. “The Garden of Last Days,” a 2008 New York Times best-seller, is an unsettling, fictionalized account of the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. “Townie: A Memoir,” the courageous retelling of Dubus’ troubled childhood in 1970s Haverhill, was published in 2011. His latest work, “Dirty Love,” a collection of loosely connected novellas that explore the extremes people often go to in order to find love, was released in October.
On a snowy afternoon this past February, ( Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in the may/June 2014 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine ) Dubus invited me to his house to talk about his writing, his affection for the Merrimack Valley, and the best way to make a margarita.
You grew up in the Merrimack Valley. Many of the people who live here wouldn’t necessarily find the region to be the rich source of creative inspiration that you see. Can you tell me about that?
I didn’t write directly about the Merrimack Valley until my fifth book, “Townie.” I tried to write about a fictionalized version of Haverhill called “Shoe City” for about 28 years and failed every time. Finally I was able to access it through nonfiction, and I’m so glad I did because I’ve been trying to express what it was like to grow up on this river for 30 years. I grew up in Haverhill in the ’70s, when it was still very down-and-out and the river was polluted. To me, [the river] is a metaphor for my life. Our lives were tough then. As the river has gotten better, so have I. Ironically, it was only by writing about the Merrimack Valley in a nonfiction sense that enabled me to fictionalize it in my new book, “Dirty Love.”
You haven’t published a short story collection since “The Cage Keeper” in 1989. How did “Dirty Love” come about?
About 99 percent of everything I’ve published werephoenixes that rose from the ashes of what failed. There are four stories in that book. The first oneI publishedwas “The Bartender,” in 1999, which was a failed attempt at a novel. “Marla” came out of a character that was originally in “The Bartender.”I wrote, “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” while I was on the road promoting “Townie.” When I sent the three to my editor she said,“I think we need one more.”So the fourth one, “Dirty Love,” I wrote straight in the last year.
“Townie” is one of my favorite books of all time — not just by you, but by anyone. When I read it, it struck me that the book is really a window into a very intimate part of you not normally accessible to the public. Why did you decide to write it?
I never set out to write a memoir. I was writing an essay about my sons playing baseball, and I began to explore why it was that I wasn’t playing baseball when I was their age. It’s not that I forgot; I just chose not to remember. For years, I’ve been trying to capture what it was like growing up in a depressed mill town, Vietnam limping to a finish, overwhelmed single mothers, first-world poverty. At the time, I was turning 50. I wanted my kids to know their father better, where I came from. Plus, there’s something about art that brings us closer to each other. We have a lot of universal experiences. So I’m really OK with being naked out there.
The characters in your stories all seem to be down on their luck in some way, struggling to improve themselves. Why do you think that is?
Growing up, I was always the new kid in school. I never felt part of the “in” group. And the truth is that even those of us who have been successful in life often feel as if we’re winging it. I’ve never felt I was above anybody. I don’t really write about “marginal characters.” They’re just guys like me. If we’re honest, most of us are getting through our daily lives by winging it. And if we’re lucky enough to keep a relationship together and a roof over our heads and the fridge full, we’re doing all right.
What about more movies? I’ve heard rumors that some of your other books are going to be made into films?
Well, you know what they say about Hollywood: It’s the only place where you can die of encouragement. My novel “Bluesman,” which came out in 1993, has been optioned about 15 times, but now it’s been optioned by a British company called [Cascade Media Group] and the script is being written. “The Garden of Last Days” was supposed to have been made into a film recently, but the director and star, James Franco, pulled out days before they were supposed to start shooting. But it’s been optioned by [Scottish actor] Gerard Butler, and they’re actively interviewing new directors. “Townie” still gets nibbled at. I also have a screenplay that I’ve written. So I’ve got a lot of irons in the Hollywood fires.
You are a professor at UMass Lowell. Tell me about teaching.
I’m a full-time, tenured professor in the English department. I’ve taught at a lot of places, Emerson and Harvard and Tufts, and liked them all, but I love UMass Lowell. Maybe because I’m from the Merrimack Valley. A lot of these kids take six classes and work full-time jobs. I speak their same language.
Do you do anything creative other than writing?
I draw and play harmonica, and I was an actor for about 15 years. In my 20s, I was supposed to play Valerie Bertinelli’s blind brother in an NBC miniseries. It was garbage. My agent wanted to put me in all these soap operas, but I only wanted to do serious film and theater. I finally realized that I was more of a writer than an actor.
If you couldn’t write anymore, what would your ideal job be?
I’ve always thought it would be cool to be a family doctor. I’ve always worked out and been fascinated by the human body, and I love people. Or a chef. I’m the one who cooks in the family — for the past 26 years. I’m the one who buys all the food. I make a pretty good steak au poivre with a bearnaise sauce. Even better are my margaritas. I feel like making some right now.
Is there anything else you want MVM readers to know about you?
I love living in this neck of the woods. I love your magazine because it covers this area. For years, because I had a scrappy childhood, I associated the whole area with pain, but I’m so glad that I came back home. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.