Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Andre Dubus III

In books, fiction, memoir, nonfiction, writing on March 21, 2011 at 10:11 am

Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Andre Dubus III, author of the memoir Townie (WW Norton & Company, 2011), and the recent novels The House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days. Over the years, while also writing, Dubus has worked as a bartender, office cleaner, halfway house counselor, assistant to a private investigator/bounty hunter, self-employed carpenter and college writing teacher. Townie chronicles his dangerous affair with physical violence. At the end of the interview Dubus stated proudly, “I have not punched anyone in 23 years, by the way. I’m on the peaceful path.”

Quick Facts on Andre Dubus III

  • Andre Dubus III website
  • Home: Massachusetts, north of Boston
  • Top reads: The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Ironweed by William Kennedy, Nick Flynn, Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizio, Edward Hirsch, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, Carolyn Forché, Ron Rash
  • Current reads: I just finished Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and now I’m reading his poetry book Blind Huber.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on this original screenplay based on an essay I wrote about a man in prison. It’s a long, complicated story. I can’t talk too much about it because then I won’t write it. I don’t know if I even know how to write a screenplay, and that’s kind of why I’m writing it—because I’m afraid of it. I’ve learned over the years that the more frightened I am, the better my work. There’s a great line from the ancient Chinese: “If the mad dog comes at you, whistle for him.”

I’m also working on a collection of novellas. I always tell my writing students, don’t work on two pieces of fiction at once. It’s like marriage and a girlfriend—I don’t recommend it because just when the relationship with one gets tough, you move over to the sexy one over here. Well, maybe that’s right when you’re in the danger zone you need to be in for it to go to the next level or stage of development. I don’t normally ever work on more than one thing at time, but because it’s two completely different forms it’s like having a wife and a workout partner, or a wife and a drinking partner, but not two lovers.

What do you hope readers will take away from Townie?

One of my editorial demons was I hope this isn’t just about Andre and his existence, because I’m just one life. My hope is that if I’ve written this honestly and fairly enough, it will bring the reader back to his or her own life, whether they share anything in common with my childhood or not. Tolstoy has that beautiful line, “Art is transferring feeling from one heart to another.” That’s my hope.

The writer Tim O’Brien once wrote to me in one of his novels the inscription, “Andre, I hope this reaches inside.” To me, that’s all I want. Ever. I want the work to go into the reader and do something.

“I want the work to go

into the reader and do something.”

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I try not to think of a readership or marketplace, but I do think of that ideal or mythic reader. It’s a man or woman who is sensitive, open to the book penetrating them in some way. The ideal reader will give me at least 50 pages before tossing the book aside. It’s someone who has been around the block, who has lived some life that might make them more open or tolerant to what I’m exploring in my book.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I prefer in the morning, going from the dream world to the dream world. I had never had a writing space before, because we were always poor and living in little places. But, I got fortunate and built a big house in the woods. And you know what, I forgot to build a writing room. So, I went down to the basement and built a soundproof little cave. It’s five feet wide, eleven feet long, with a six-foot ceiling, and has a tiny window that’s just big enough to get out of if I have to. I cover it with a blanket. There’s nothing on the pine tongue and groove walls, and there’s a blank Sheetrock wall in front of my desk. I just stare at that wall. I wear headphones so I can’t hear anything.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

Nothing. I wear these headphones from my construction days, the ones that are for ear protection. Well, I do have music in one way. I write with a Ticonderoga #2 pencil, which I sharpen with a u-knife from my carpentry days. I’ll write longhand, and the next day I begin by typing up what I wrote the previous day. I listen to music then. It’s really just data processing so I won’t have to spend a year or two doing it. The House of Sand and Fog filled 22 notebooks, after three years of writing. It took a whole year just to type those up. Now I spend each day rewriting and revising a little bit, and I think my writing is getting better because of it. Sometimes I pick music that fits thematically with what I’m working on. For Townie, I listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and sometimes Miles Davis.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I’ll steal it from Thomas Williams, who said, “I write so that I don’t die before I’m dead.” I feel more like myself when I write than when I don’t.

“I feel more like myself when

I write than when I don’t.”

For the philosophy, I truly believe that writing is larger than the writer. It’s not an act of exposition, or showing off the writer’s smarts. Flannery O’Connor said, “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare. Writing is waiting.” I love that. I try to approach the act of writing in a humble state, as in I’m humbling myself to the writing and I’m opening myself up. That’s why I never outline; that’s more of a willful approach. I trust the writing to take me someplace that I can’t foresee when I begin writing.

How do you balance content with form? Working on a memoir there must have been so many memories that flooded back to you.

Yes. I quote Ron Carlson a lot in writing classes: “Details are the instruments by which we steer.” A lot of beginning writers think that details are the garnish on the plate, but they’re the meat and potatoes. Right now, we’re having this conversation in a closed room with fluorescent light. That changes the human experience we’re having. If this were done in natural light or firelight, that might change what I say or what you ask. In writing this memoir, I relied on sensory details to bring me back into the memories. That brought me deeper into my own life and I discovered a narrative arc. Once I discovered the arc, it was easier to cut pieces that didn’t fit the story.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

I’ll give you three, and you have to use them together.

Sarah Orne Jewett: “Write what you know.”
E L Doctorow: “How do you know what you know?”
Grace Paley: “We write what we don’t know we know.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

1.     Get it in your head that the world’s never going to notice, and then, don’t care. Do it because if you can’t do it you’re never going to be authentically you in this lifetime.

2.     Don’t outline your stories. Trust the imagination to take you where it needs to go. Step into it bravely.

“Trust the imagination to take

you where it needs to go.”

3.     I have this one enemy to creativity and it’s self-consciousness. If you have one eye on yourself while you’re doing something, you’re not fully doing it. Don’t worry about the goddamn marketplace or readership. Don’t ever think about that, because it’s going to keep you from being centered in your own creative self, which you actually have to lose to be able to make the thing you’re making.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Ernest Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” When you start out in a place of truth, chances are you’re going to write something that’s more deeply and truly imagined than not.

What do you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

People always ask me, why is your work so dark when you seem like such an upbeat guy? I think good stories are full of trouble. We all want uneventful, tragic-free lives, but that’s not a good story.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

“I just try to be in the moment.”

I’m an in-the-moment guy. I never have a prepared question or answer. I just try to be in the moment. I actually say prayers about that. I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the divine, in mysteries, and the unseen. I actually make a prayer to all those forces, before I teach a class or give a talk, to help me be present in the moment.

What I really want is for people to ask the questions they want an answer for, the most sincere questions they have. I want them not to be afraid to ask me anything, because they won’t make me uncomfortable. Frankly, I’m an open book, especially now.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Being honest. I think there’s a profound difference in this creative writing thing between making something up and really imagining it. The hardest thing? To constantly imagine and not make up.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Here’s a perfect day for me: I write all morning, and then I go to the gym and clear my head. I come home and find a recipe for dinner. I go shopping for that recipe, and then I come home and cook dinner for two and a half hours while sipping something. I feed my family, and we play cards or hang out together. Later, I make love with my wife, and then I read a good book. And I fall asleep, then get up and do it again.

What’s your favorite thing to cook?

I like to try things I’ve never made before. But, I really like the chicken cacciatore I make, and my recipe for Greek beef stew.

About Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III is the author of the memoir Townie, the short fiction collection The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, and the novels Bluesman, House of Sand and Fog, and The Garden of Last Days. His work has been included in The Best American Essays 1994, The Best Spiritual Writing 1999, and The Best of Hope Magazine. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for fiction, The Pushcart Prize, and was a Finalist for the Rome Prize Fellowship from the Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives with his family north of Boston, Massachusetts.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Andre Dubus III.” Words With Writers (March 21, 2011),

Townie by Andre Dubus III

Townie by Andre Dubus III (WW Norton & Company, 2011).

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