Monday, February 27, 2012

Author Q&A - Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III is a National Book Award finalist and author of the novels House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days. His writing has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Magazine Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Townie (W.W. Norton, 2011, now in paperback) is his very frank and moving memoir of growing up in a neighborhood and culture of violence, being bullied and turning to violence himself, his complicated relationship with his father, and his own journey to becoming a writer. I was delighted to read and review Townie, and am truly honored to welcome him today to Books, Personally.

Townie is a very powerful and emotional memoir to read, as I imagine it was to write. At one point you describe being too close to your (fiction) writing. When did you first realize you wanted to tell your story in a non-fictional way? As a writer, how did your experience writing memoir differ from the experience of writing fiction?

A lot of what's in my "accidental memoir", I've tried to write as a novel three separate times over nearly thirty years: growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam war; living with a single mother in poverty; having sex way too young (13), and the drugs, the alcohol, the violence and very few men around, especially my father. But every time I tried to capture all this as fiction, it was just too close to my literal life experience, which then somehow choked the life out of the fiction. I think I knew so much about what I was writing about that I was not allowing any real level of discovery to happen, which for me is what descending into the dream world of fiction is all about: not telling a story I already know, but trying to find one I don't know.

A few months after finishing my novel The Garden of Last Days, I began to write a personal essay about my sons and baseball. (At the time, I had a contract with my publisher for a collection of essays.) My sons (Austin, 19, and Elias, 14) are baseball and football players, and since they started playing baseball as little boys I've gotten into this sport for the first time. So the question fueling the essay was this: how did I miss baseball as a kid, this sport I now love but knew nothing about until my forties? Five-hundred pages and two years later, I'd written Townie, which showed me what I was doing instead of playing organized youth sports.
Writing it felt surprisingly more similar to writing fiction than I would've thought. I had to stay loyal to the facts, but now that I was free not to have to come up with the story itself, I could focus instead on trying to capture what it was like, as experientially as I could, to live that story. As a writer who attempts to make character-driven fiction, this is what I do in novels all the time.

You write very openly and frankly about your parents, your siblings, friendships, and your own participation in violence. How did you decide what to include or exclude from Townie? What kinds of choices did you have to make? In retrospect, was there anything you wished you hadn’t written, or something you wish you had? How have family and friends responded?

I was surprised by how defined the narrative arc of my own story was as a boy, and I have a hunch many of us have a more defined shape to our story than we may know. I was a small, bullied "new kid" who snapped and became a dangerous young man who ultimately found creative writing which put me on a more constructive and peaceful path. (It sounds horribly reductive to describe it that way!) But, once I saw that shape, it was easier to make choices about what to leave out, which was anything that strayed too far from that arc, like the time I searched for, as an assistant bounty hunter, a killer in Mexico, the rich girlfriend I had for three years in my twenties, the acting I did early on along with my writing, etc. A memoir, I've learned is not an autobiography; it's not a complete life story but, instead, a focused section of one.

The most difficult part of all this was having to write about my family. How do you do that without violating their privacy or disrespecting them in public or misrepresenting them? After all, our human memory is seen through an entirely subjective emotional lens. In the first drafts, I left much of my home life out, concentrating on my experience out in the street. But what a horribly false book that would've been! Because I did not grow up in a bubble somewhere. The truth is, those rented houses my mother could never really afford, were largely depressed places that helped to color my relationship with myself and the world: my younger brother was suicidal and sexually abused; my older sister was gang-raped and selling drugs; my younger sister was isolating herself to a nearly pathological degree; my mother was exhausted and overwhelmed and barely holding on; I was learning how to hurt people, and my father just wasn't around much.

There's really nothing I wish I'd put into the book that I didn't, but I do regret that some reviewers have been hard on my father. I don't feel he "abandoned" us. (That would be driving away and never looking back and never sending money.) I believe my father did the best he knew how to do at the time, given the complex forces that shaped him - growing up in 1940's-1950's French/Irish Catholic southern Louisiana, joining the Marines, then the 60's doing what it did to him and his marriage, etc - all of which helped to shape his artistic vision of the world. Could he have done better as a dad? Yes, but so can the rest of us, I believe, myself included!

Much of Townie is about the experience of being bullied, trying to fight back, and even seeking out violence. You describe violence as puncturing membranes: “you have to move through two barriers… one inside you and one around him” - and contrast that experience with other times in life we humans connect with each other in ways that are that truly exposed, raw, or vulnerable. Looking back, what do you think you were seeking in those moments you chose to break through that membrane?

I was trying to find me.

You describe an incredibly poignant confrontation on a train, a situation that could have turned very violent, but didn’t. Not only did this seem like a watershed moment for you, it seemed like it also reached something inside of the man you confronted. How do you think that moment changed him? If you could, what would you say to other young men out in the world who are maybe going through something similar? What should we (parents, schools, communities, etc.) be saying or doing to help them?

On the night train from Holyhead to London, I was confronting the kind if young man full of rage I'd been just a few years earlier. But I was done with fighting. It was time to change, and I knew it. When I let that young man threaten me and rage at me verbally, which meant not caring whether I appeared to be backing down, I was then able to draw him out, to appeal to his sense of masculinity I could see - no matter how tough he looked - was as fragile as mine had once been. I believe the reason he went back into the train car and began apologizing to people he may very well have just terrorized was because he had felt seen by me, an older man. This gave him the sense he was actually alive and worthy of respect, that he wasn't a nothing and a nobody, two things I'd felt about myself for years. What would I say to young men like that? Seek out older men who care. If your own father isn't around, or isn't seeing you, go find a new father. And what should the rest of us be doing for young men in dire straits? Stop fearing them (within limits, if they're armed), and instead, look into their eyes and see the young children they once were and in many ways still are and then go from there.

It sounded like music was important in your home growing up, especially jazz – if you could make a soundtrack or playlist to go with Townie, what would be on it?

Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, The J Geils Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Dylan, Robin Trower, Edgar Winter, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, old Elton John, Golden Ear Ring, and Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon".....

Townie ends with some very moving scenes – you and your brother hand-crafting a coffin for your father, digging his grave. These beautiful moments give a sense of closure to the narrative arc of the memoir; did writing Townie give you a personal sense of closure as well?

Yes, it did. In a way writing novels never have for me before. The word "to remember" means to put back together again. (The opposite is "dismember".) Of course I knew what had happened to me as a boy and a young man, but writing this memoir allowed me to integrate all that into who I am now, I think. My hope, though, is that any readers of this book will be taken back to their past, too, no matter how different it may have been from mine.

Can you tell us a little bit about your professional and family life now, and perhaps about any new projects in the works?

I've been happily married to the same woman for nearly 23 years. Her name's Fontaine, and she's a modern dancer who runs a dance company and owns a dance studio. Our three miracles are Austin, 19, Ariadne, 16, and Elias, 14. The absolute best years of my life have been these as a husband and father.

I teach writing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a place I love for many reasons, one of which is that most of the students in my classrooms come from the same kind of families in the same kind of neighborhoods on that Merrimack River I grew up on. I'm close to finishing a collection of linked novellas about men and women trying and failing and trying again to love well. I'm also working on an original screenplay, and I'm gearing up to co-write the screenplay for Townie, the film.

Many thanks to the author for his time and for his thoughtful and forthright answers to my questions, and to W.W. Norton & Company for arranging this interview.


  1. You never cease to amaze me!

    1. ha! thanks - all credit to the author for his candid, fascinating and generous answers.

  2. AMAZING! I am filled with awe and envy that you scored this interview, and glee and joy at the marvelous conversation you two had. So good -- loved this one. Brava!

    1. thanks so much Audra, all credit to the author and his incredibly thoughtful & inspiring answers, and amazing book.


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