Becoming a Writer
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: Did you always want to be a writer?
Andre Dubus III: No. no. You know, I was one of these kids who secretly liked getting assigned papers to write, you know. I didn't tell my buddies that I was looking forward to writing that essay on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, but I was. You know. And I had teachers encourage me and suggest that I might want to think about writing, but honestly, it was, it was almost like this psychic math I did, I said, well, no, there's already a writer in my family and his name's André Dubus and that's my name, so I must be something else. It wasn't even a shadow thing. It was just, I must be something else. Anyway, to compress the story I ended up getting a degree in sociology and political science and I was really, as a young guy in my 20s, I was heading towards politics and you know, fighting for social justice and social change. That's where I was going. And then I started to date a woman who was writing fiction and frankly, she had a crush on a fiction writer and I was really jealous, and she'd come home from writing class talking about Joe this, Joe that, her face was all flushed and it was obviously how much she loved Joe, and I hated Joe. So one day I'm sitting in her dorm room and she's gone and there on her bed is a story by Joe. So I pick up the story, and I hadn't read fiction in like six years-- I was reading social theory-- I pick up the story and I read it, and it's a gorgeous short story. Just about a young kid, from the point of view of a teenager, he's mopping the floor at three in the morning in a diner and two middle-aged prostitutes come in and the owner treats them disrespectfully, that's all. In the last moment as he's moping the floor, "That's not right. That's just not right." And I had a crush on Joe by the time I was done. But more importantly I felt inspired and I didn't realize that. Shortly thereafter I sat down one day and began writing what turned into my first short story, which is abysmal, really badly done, but very sincere, and I was hooked. I wouldn't call myself a writer for 10 or 15 years after that, even after I published my first book. But here's the thing, man, when I finished writing that story I felt more like me than I'd ever felt like in my life. And I do think that's a real gift to find early on. And I knew whatever I was going to do with my adult life, I still didn't know, but I knew I had to keep doing this to be me, whoever the hell I am. But I knew I had to keep writing scenes and writing about people and writing dialogue; it just felt so good. And I was quite surprised to find that inside me.
Question: What was the impulse for your content?
Andre Dubus III: Well, you know, the very first scene I wrote, I don't know why, but it was from the point of view of a young woman losing her virginity on the hood of Buick in the rain in the Maine woods. I mean, it was bad. But once I began writing-- the first story, well, the second story I ever wrote-- I ended up working in a halfway house in Colorado for convicted adult felons from the Canyon City Penitentiary. So I'm working with these inmates, some of whom have killed people, raped people, stolen from people, done some pretty terrible things, and I'm watching these grown men-- so they have weekend furloughs if they're behaving, and they can go out on dates, even though we check them for drugs and alcohol, and I remember watching these hardened criminals, really, comb their hair three different ways, change their shirt three times. You know. And they were like 16-year-old boys all over again, but they're these hardened 40-year-olds who have been in the pen for 15 years. In my very first story I was trying to capture what it might be like to be on a date with a woman for the first time in seven years after being in the joint. And that was my first published story. And I wrote about that job for about six more years and that became my first book, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. Even then, I tend to gravitate or get pulled towards people who are in some kind of real trouble, and I try to go in as open as I can. William Stafford, the poet, has a great essay in which he says that the poet must put himself or herself in a state of receptivity where you're just allowing this thing to move through you. So the subject actually came from working with inmates, the first book.
Recorded on: 6/11/08
The son of a well-known short story writer, Andre Dubus never thought he would follow in the footsteps of his father.