Andre Dubus III Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Andre Dubus III. Andre is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Townie, and author of the #1 New York Times bestselling novel, House of Sand and Fog, the basis for an Academy Award–nominated film. His other works include a collection of short fiction, The Cage Keeper, and Other Stories, and the novels Bluesman and The Garden of Last Days, which has been adapted for film and is currently in development with James Franco as director and star. Andre has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Pushcart Prize. He has also served as a panelist for the National Book Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of The Cage Keeper, and Other Stories, narrated by Andre Dubus III, on July 15, 2013. Welcome Andre. Thanks for joining us today in Blackstone’s studio.
ANDRE DUBUS III: Well, thank you Malcolm. It’s nice to be here.
MH: Now you’re here recording The Cage Keeper, and Other Stories, which you wrote early in your career.
AD: Yeah, some of those—I read a story the other day that I realized I’d written thirty years ago.
MH: You took the question right out of my mouth. What is it like revisiting something, particularly when you’re narrating it now, that you wrote so long ago?
AD: It’s been a rich experience. In some ways it’s been depressing because (laughs) I don’t know if my writing’s gotten that much better in twenty-five, thirty years. In other ways, it’s been interesting because I see that I’m still captivated by some of the same themes. I’ve seen them grow in other ways in novels I’ve written and maybe what I’m writing now. So it’s been very eye-opening to say the least.
MH: It’s a marvelous collection of stories. What really struck me was the way you come into a story through such intense detail. I’m thinking in terms of The Cage Keeper and reading the set-up of that in terms of the correctional facility where the main character is working. What sort of research did you do to get into that?
AD: Well, what it was—and I think this is true about just about every story in that book—they came right from my own experiences in my twenties. I was working in a halfway house for convicted adult felons out of Canon City Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison in Colorado. I worked in that house for about six, eight months, with fifty-seven inmates, some of whom had done terrible things, and really that was the research I did. I lived that job. And I really felt compelled. I think I wrote about that job for maybe six or seven straight years after having left it. I’ve always been fascinated by people who get into trouble. I think it’s because I’ve always gotten into trouble, and I think that most of us get into trouble. There’s that great Tom Waits line: “There is no devil; there’s just God when he’s drunk.”
MH: I remember reading in your biography you’ve done a lot of different jobs along the way to basically help fund your habit of writing.
AD: Yeah, right.
MH: And until things really kicked off for you, I guess probably with The House of Sand and Fog—
AD: Yeah, that was what did it.
MH: I understand that a lot of different jobs—PI I think for a while, among other things, bartender—
AD: Well, I was sort of an assistant to a private investigator, but what this guy was even more than a PI was a bounty hunter. I actually went looking for a killer in Mexico with this guy and I’m so glad we never found him because he was a really scary guy we were looking for. I was twenty-three, and, you know, you’re stupid when you’re twenty-three. But you’re right. I did a lot of jobs. I did that. I worked as a carpenter and a bartender and a halfway house counselor and an office cleaner. On and on. You’re right. Mainly because they were night jobs and I like to write in the morning.
MH: So when you’re gathering all this tremendous life experience, are you collecting characters as you go?
AD: I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously collected a character. I really don’t. I’ll see something or somebody who really gets my interest and I’ll write a note. But not for the most part. Well, let me take that back. I think I do that more consciously now than I did in my twenties and early thirties. I think then I was just trying to pay the rent and eat. Then I found that these people that I would meet in my travels and in my jobs would show up in the dream world later on the page. For example, in House of Sand and Fog there’s a character who’s a deputy sheriff. Twelve years earlier, I was at an International House of Pancakes in Boulder, across from a U.S. marshal with my bounty hunter boss, while the marshal was talking about a raid he did with the FBI. I remember thinking, “This guy doesn’t look like a marshal. He looks like a teacher or something.” He had this crooked mustache and these long fingers and kind of feminine good looks. And he showed up fifteen years later in a novel. That’s where he came from. He was that U.S. marshal at that IHOP.
MH: When the stories appear to you, what’s the germ of a story for you? Is it from something you read or from some line that you overhear or that suddenly appears to you?
AD: Yeah, all of the above. It’s usually not a line, interestingly, for me. It’s usually a situation I’ve heard about. A man leaves a woman and then something happens. We hear these all day long. But what’s interesting—is it’s usually a situation and then the sliver of a character. If I have those two, and then I put them in a physical space, a real place, this alchemy happens that creates a story on its own. It’s really a lot of fun. But you can’t choose what you’re interested in. It’s really interesting. For years I’ve tried to write about, I’ll get a sexy idea for a story because of something I overheard or read in a newspaper. And I would want to write about that, but just because the writer wants to write about it doesn’t mean that’s what comes. It’s taken me years to learn that.
MH: A natural segue here goes into The Garden of Last Days, how you came into that. We know it’s about post-9/11, sprang out of that, and yet you took a very unique way into that story. Could you talk about that?
AD: Yeah, well, you know, there’s a wonderful line from Flannery O’Connor. She said, “There’s a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.” I’ve learned just to stare at my notebook with my pencil in my hand when I’m beginning something and I just wait for an image or situation and then I start to describe it. Anyway, I kept seeing a wad of cash on a bedroom bureau. I didn’t know why. I began to describe it, and it was clear then. “Okay, this is someone’s tips.” Then it became clear, “Well this isn’t like a restaurant worker’s or a bartender’s tips. This is a stripper’s tips.” And I know nothing about the strip world. So that was weird. And then there were palm trees out the window, and I live in Massachusetts. “Oh, I’m in Florida.” Then I discover what I’m writing about. It came from those newspaper clippings where we read about these hijackers having been seen in strip clubs. I couldn’t get my mind around that. How could you be so extremist in your interpretation of Islam to do this mass genocide and suicide, but then go to fallen places like strip clubs? But I was more curious about what would it be like to have been a women who has danced naked for of one of these men, and after the smoke has cleared from that horrific day, to have some of his blood money in your bank account. Back to your other question—so that one question of what’s it like to be in the situation as this character? That question can fuel an eight-hundred-page novel, and that is what started that really long novel.
MH: Yes. In terms of going back again, revisiting this material that you wrote some time ago and now coming at it from the point of view of narrating it for an audiobook. What’s that experience been like?
AD: It’s really sort of bittersweet, and more sweet than bitter. The bitter part is there’s this great line from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail better.” I’ve never been satisfied with anything I’ve ever written, so the bitter part is I see that a lot of it was beginning work. But the sweet part is I feel sort of fatherly toward the young man I was when I wrote it. I mean, I was in my twenties when I wrote that, and I’m in my fifties now. It’s a strange thing to say, but I can feel sort of the ghost of the young man I was in every word choice, in every decision I made to cut that word and add that word, and the direction I allowed the stories to go in or not. So it’s actually been a very poignant, for me, experience on many levels. Many levels.
MH: Cage Keeper itself has a violent activity in it—and I’m thinking of the subsequent story in the series The Ugly Duckling Girl also centers around some violent acts as well. I’ve noticed that you’ve talked in other contexts about how writing saved you from a life of violence. Can you talk about that?
MH: Because it’s obvious you’re aware of this and it comes out in your books.
AD: Yeah. Violence isn’t abstract for me, and sadly it isn’t abstract for a lot of people. I grew up with a single mom, lived in some first-world poverty, got beat up a lot, and when I was fifteen I snapped. I was tired of being bullied and I began to change my life. Began to work out, began to box. Discovered I had not only athletic ability but boxing talent and I began to go—and I hated cruelty, I hated violence—So I would go to a party or a bar, and if somebody hit his girlfriend, I’d put him in the hospital. If somebody, some big guy lorded over someone smaller, I’d try to put him in the hospital. I’m not a big tough guy, but I was crazy with self-hatred. I so hated the coward and little kid I’d been that I really didn’t care if I died. I absolutely did not. So years later, quick tangent here, Garden of Last Days, one of the main characters is a composite of one of the Saudi hijackers, and before I wrote from his point of view I thought, “Well, I’ll never be able to be this guy. I have nothing in common with this guy.” Except I did. At one point in my life, I actually embraced death. I embraced it. There was nobody I wouldn’t fight. What I knew though as a young man was, “I’m going to get killed doing this because there are meaner guys out there everywhere. Or I’m going to really hurt someone and go to jail.” So I started to box to control my violence, and one night, instead of going to the gym to train, something made me sit down. To this day, Malcolm, I don’t know what it was but it makes me believe in the divine somehow. Something made me sit down, get a piece of paper and a pencil, and write a scene. Almost immediately, I felt this tension leave me. I was finding another way to express myself than with my fists and my feet. There’s a great line from Hemingway from a letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins. He said, “You know, Max, the writer’s job is not to judge, but to seek to understand.” And I found very quickly that I could not try to enter the private skin of another human being in my imaginable world in the morning and then that night punch someone in the face so easily. I immediately stopped seeing the world as good guys and bad guys. Immediately. I think I always saw the world as grey but writing brought me directly to that belief. So yeah, violence—That’s another thing while reading The Cage Keeper now with Blackstone. I’m seeing so much violence in those stories, and that’s because that’s what I knew. I really did know that. I was in so many fights I don’t remember them all. To this day I’ll sometimes remember one at three in the morning. I thought every male was in that many fights, but apparently that’s not the case.
MH: So you had that seminal moment where you made a conscious shift into coming into a literary life. I know your dad was a distinguished writer as well, and his life from what little I’ve read of it is no picnic. How has it been in terms of coming to terms with his legacy, how you fit in with that as well?
AD: Well, look, I’m very proud of my father and what he accomplished on the earth in his sixty-two years. He left behind ten beautiful books and mainly short stories. It was complicated in the first ten or twenty years of my writing/publishing life because you get a lot of, “Does your father help you with your writing? Does he make a call?” And in fact, my first three books went to over a hundred publishers in several years. I think it was actually harder to get published. And I don’t blame people. It’s like, “I’ve got my Ernest Hemingway. Who the hell is Ernest Hemingway III, man? Go get your own life.” I understand that completely, but the truth is I never wanted to be a writer. It was never—I just love writing. I love sentences, I love scenes, I love words, I love literature. Back to that earlier story, writing actually saved my life. The writer Thomas Williams, beautiful novelist, was asked, “Mr. Williams, why do you write?” He said, “Oh, that’s easy. I write so I don’t die before I’m dead.”
AD: So for me that’s the level. That’s why I write. I’m grateful to have a career. I’m grateful to have made money for my family, but I don’t write to be an author. I write because I die a little bit each day that I don’t get in a session. And I don’t know why that is. It’s a mystery to me. So the father-son stuff is really small in comparison to my daily life and what it all means. But ultimately I’m very proud of my father and what he created. We all get something we gotta put up with and being the Hank Jr. of American lit could be worse. (laughter)
MH: House of Sand and Fog was the book that really kind of opened things way up for you on a commercial level if nothing else, and certainly was hugely successful. National Book Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, went to Oprah, and stuff like that. Were you surprised at that response?
MH: I mean, what made that book strike such a chord with readers?
AD: I’m still coming to grips with what it is. It’s still selling well twelve years later. I don’t know, but yeah, I was really surprised. First of all it went to twenty-four publishers before it found a home. And I’m so glad it found the home it did because I found my editor there at Norton Publishers. And it’s a very dark book. It ends tragically for everyone. And the irony is, again this whole notion of the dream world. When I wrote that novel, which took me four years to write, these were the happiest years of my life. I mean the happiest years of my life have been being a husband and a father. When I started that book my wife was pregnant with our first child. When I finished we had three kids. And I love being a dad, man. I love changing diapers. Everything’s just been great about being a father, and I write this really dark book. I don’t know why it really hit a nerve, but I do think that maybe it has to do with what they’re fighting over—the two main characters in conflict—which was a home. I think it might have to do with that more than anything. That what they were fighting for was their little piece of, to quote a Springsteen song, their little piece of dirty ground. And I think with so, so many of us, that’s really what we fight for daily: is to have our own little piece of dirty ground. I didn’t think this consciously when I wrote it but looking back now I think that might be it. More than the immigrant experience, more than the east/west stuff, I think it was maybe over a house and a home.
MH: I’m going to use your reference to Springsteen to jump into something else. Who are some of the writers or anyone who’s had a really profound influence on you? That tends to resonate.
AD: It’s funny you say Springsteen because it’s Springsteen. It’s—
MH: How did I know?
AD: Well, early on in my writing, what really got me going was Dylan. I was a thirteen-year-old kid with fifteen Dylan albums. And why I loved Dylan? Not his voice so much as his language. The man can write. I was drawn to any musician who wrote well. So Springsteen came next for me. Tom Waits is way up there for me. Lucinda Williams. So I think in my first decade of writing, it was more music. It was more literary songwriters than anybody who made me want to write fiction. And then I read a collection of stories by Breece D’J Pancake. Are you familiar with his stuff?
AD: You gotta read Breece D’J Pancake. He killed himself at age twenty-six. He was from the Kentucky, no Virginia Hollows coal mining country, and he wrote so beautifully about these people. It was really Breece D’J Pancake and rock and roll musicians and Dylan.
MH: You’ve got three kids. Any one of them interested in writing?
AD: All three show, I do not exaggerate, real writing ability. My oldest son Austin, he may be showing more prose writing ability. My daughter Ariadne, who’s almost eighteen, shows real poetry writing. My youngest son’s a rock and roll drummer and his papers are college level. So they all are literary kids. Who knows man? I mean, as you know, there are like six or seven of us in my larger clan who write and publish, so I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of my kids.
MH: As they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
AD: Yeah, huh?
MH: So you’ve got a new book. Dirty Love is set to be released on October 7, 2013. Can you give us a little preview?
AD: Well, I’m just kind of coming to grips with what the hell I’ve wrought in Dirty Love. I think having written Townie—and I’m kind of having this insight right out loud in front of you—I think by writing directly about the violence I experienced as a kid and a young man, it may have freed me to move to other areas of exploration in my fiction. Dirty Love doesn’t have any violence in it at all. It’s really my first relationship book. It’s really just about men and women trying to love each other well, screwing up, and trying again. From many points of view, from an eighteen-year-old girl to a eighty-one-year-old great uncle she lives with, and people in their thirties and fifties. There’s a story about people my age in their fifties whose marriage goes belly up after twenty-five years. So I’m exploring, and I’m actually exploring a lot of what haunts me. My wife and I are the last marriage standing in our group of friends after twenty-five years, and I’m kind of haunted by why that is. Why do some unions last and others don’t? Almost seems like luck of the draw.
MH: Thanks for joining us today, best of luck with the new book coming out.
AD: Thank you.
MH: We’ll all look forward to the audiobook release of The Cage Keeper, and Other Stories. Thanks again, Andre.
AD: Thank you, Malcolm.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Andre Dubus III. You can find The Cage Keeper, and Other Stories, Townie, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in May 2013.
Disclaimer: This video and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Cage Keeper, and Other Stories
Passion and betrayal, violent desperation, ambivalent love that hinges on hatred, and the quest for acceptance by those who stand on the edge of society—these are the hard-hitting themes of a stunningly crafted first collection of stories by the bestselling author of House of Sand and Fog.
In the title story, a vigilant young man working in a
halfway house finds himself unable to defend against the rage of one of the
inmates. In “White Trees, Hammer Moon,” a man soon to leave home for prison
finds himself as unprepared for a family camping trip in the mountains of New
Hampshire as he has been for most things in his life. And in “Forky,”
an ex-con is haunted by the punishment he receives just as he is being released
into the world.
With an incisive ability to inhabit the lives of his characters, Dubus travels deep into the heart of the elusive American dream.