Andre Dubus III is an American writer of fiction and memoir. His 1999 novel House of Sand and Fog lounged for 20 weeks on The New York Times’s Bestseller List in 2000 and 2001 and became a feature film in 2003. His 2008, based-on-real-events novel The Garden of Last Days explores the final days of one of the 9/11 terrorists, who chose to spend them indulging in the sins of the West. His 2012 memoir Townie is a profound meditation on the nature of violence. Born in 1959, Dubus obtained his bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Texas. Before succeeding as a writer, he worked odd jobs as a carpenter, bounty hunter, and bartender.
Question: How did you come to write “The House of Sand and Fog”?
Andre Dubus III: It began with a newspaper article of a woman who was evicted from her house for failure to pay back taxes she said she didn't owe. The house was repossessed. They evicted her, sold it off and then discovered they had the wrong house. This happens a lot. It was a computer snafu. Yet, the man who bought it in a fair and square legal auction was under no legal pressure to buy it back, or to sell it back, and he wasn't sure he wanted to in this real article. And I saw that the man's name was Arabic and it wasn't Persian, but earlier in my life I'd known a Persian man who was a colonel in the Shah's air force who found himself in the United States working 16 hour days in menial jobs. He was working at a gas station for the first eight hours and then in a shoe factory. And he said to me once, you know, that he used to work with kings and queens and presidents and vice-presidents of entire countries by himself and now he serves candy and cigarettes to kids who "don't even know who I am," he said. And I never forgot it. And so when I saw that Middle Eastern name in that newspaper article about that woman's house, I began to wonder well, what if my colonel bought that house and that began the book. You see, I mean, the whole fuel for writing fiction is curiosity. It's not what I know, but what I don't know. And that's what actually drives-- it doesn't drive me-- it actually pulls me into story writing.
Questions: Did you realize immediately that you would write about this story?
Andre Dubus III: No, you know what? It was actually, it was the first writing class I'd ever taught, I didn't even have a writing degree and I was trying to get 22 18-year-olds started and I said, "Hey, look in the newspaper, there's some good stuff in here." And I pointed to that story and read it aloud, and said, "One of you guys should write about this." But no one took me upon it, thank God, because I cut it out and I did it.
Questions: What do you hope readers take as the central theme?
Andre Dubus III: I try not to think too much in the first draft of writing a novel. I try to do what the writer Richard Bausch encouraged. Richard Bausch had a great line, he said that if you think that you are thinking when you're writing, think again. You're much closer to the dreaming side of your brain. So I try to dream it through and I try to write as truly as I possibly can. And I found over the years that if you just do that, you'll end up saying something that you didn't know you were trying to say or that the novel or the story was trying to say. One of the things that I came away with from writing House of Sand and Fog is that it's so easy to misbehave in this world. You know. It's so-- when we're up against it, it's really hard to do the right thing. I really think maybe the saints among us are the ones who are suffering in some way financially, health-wise, whatever, and yet they're still loving people. I think a lot of us tend to be, when we're up against it, not as loving as we could be. In fact, I think we misbehave quite a bit. Another thing that I think is in that novel House of Sand and Fog is this notion that it's awfully easy to assume we know the other, when we don't. And I think that assumption, that pre-judging, leads to all sorts of conflict.
Questions: How was the process of turning the book into a movie?
Andre Dubus III: Well, that novel, House of Sand and Fog, got a lot of calls from the film world. My agent got over 140 calls in a year and a half and every now and then he would forward to me somebody he thought might have a shot at making the movie and anyway, all those conversations ended the same way. They would say some nice things about the drama, blah, blah, blah, and then they would say but, we have to soften the ending, and they almost always used that verb. And I said, "What do you mean, 'soften,' the ending?" "Well, you know, it's a downer." I said, "Yeah, it's a tragedy. They're downers." And I would politely hang up and then one day I got a call from this Ukrainian man Vadim Perlman who hadn't made a feature film but he had some backing and my agent had a feeling about him. We had a really good talk and towards the end of it, he said, you know, some big Hollywood person may give you a lot of money and make your book into a film, but this-- and these are the exact words, "But they're going to take your baby, they're going to chain it to the radiator and they're going to rape and kill it." and I said, "Well, what are you going to do?" He said, "I’m not going to hurt your baby, you wrote a dark book, I'm going to make a dark film, it will be in art houses and no one's going to go see it." I said, "You're my man." I gave him the option that day. So he kept me in the loop more than fiction writers are normally kept in the loop, and I'm ultimately very pleased with what he did. I think it's very loyal to the feeling of the book. I was particularly pleased to see that he was really respectful of the Iranian family. As you know, this has been changing in the last 10 or 15 years, but Middle Eastern people tend to be put in two or three types and he didn't do that, which was gratifying to me to see.
Recorded on: 6/11/08