New writers shy away from conflict, says author Andre Dubus, while the masters embrace it. And having kids helps.
Question: What are your favorite books to teach?
Andre Dubus III: There are a few. You know one that I just really love, and I don't think people talk about it enough, is Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises. It's a gorgeous book. You know, my God. I think it's just so beautifully written and so honest and so emotionally naked and in some ways it's one of his best books and it's one of his very first. You know, a lot of-- it's interesting, a lot of young writers I've noticed have a hard time with conflict, they bring in a lot of guns and action and you know, over the top conflict, which is understandable, that's out in the world. But I try to tell them that trouble is right there, you know, a quarter inch beneath the surface of everybody. So what I love about that novel is the main character is young, his penis has been blown off but he still has his testicles and all of his feelings, all of his sexual drive and he's in love with the most beautiful woman in Paris and she's screwing all of his friends. What more do you have to work with? Isn't it-- I'm going to go re-read it. And it has one of the best last lines in literature, I think, remember the last line? She says, "Oh, Jake, we could have had such a fine time." And his line is, "Yes, isn't it pretty to think so." Oh. Oh.
Question: Does a good story need trouble?
Andre Dubus III: I think so. I don't think you need a lot of trouble. I think some of my earlier writing has got a little too much trouble in it. Although I was writing from the point of view of people who committed violent crimes and what not. I think that if you try to write character-driven fiction, which I try to do, you know, if you have a three dimensional human being and you put him or her in a real landscape, and you let him or her engage with the people in their lives, trouble's going to be there. But yeah, you don't have a story without it. I know in writing classes we use the word conflict, but I think that's overdone. Because I think kids take it too literally and think they need something really major. No. Trouble. You know, here's trouble. You're on a date and you think your breath is bad. That's all you need. You know, you're in a job interview and you have to go to the bathroom. That's the only-- your full bladder is enough trouble in that scene. You can scrub the whole interview.
Question: Is it more difficult to write now that you have kids?
Andre Dubus III: No. Listen, man, there is nothing, nothing better, in my opinion, than having kids. And you know, I'm not a guy who thought about having kids when I didn't have kids. But now that I've had them, I just feel as if my life began after I became a father, really in a lot of ways, in a bigger spiritual way. But, yeah, there's less time, but my answer is you don't care. So what? Guess what? They're going to be-- you know, you're going to be driving them to games and dance concerts and school and back for a short little window and then you're going to wonder where they went. And I'm convinced, you know, if I live to be an old man, you never know what you have, I'm going to look back at these years with my kids as the best years of my life no matter what happens. So, yeah, sometimes it means less time at the desk, but so what? What they give you back is a thousand times greater than what you lose, in my opinion. And also, I'll say this, I think the act of being a mother or father has only got to deepen your writing about people. Because you really hit this-- well, you love harder and you fear loss more.
Recorded on: 6/11/08