This summer, Andre Dubus III, the award-winning and bestselling author of such books as the novel The House of Sand and Fog and his memoir Townie, will be coming to Amherst to discuss his forthcoming book, Dirty Love, his literary success, and from where he draws his inspiration. We phoned Andre while he was out on a speaking tour and recording the audio edition of one of his early books:
GBSP: What role did literature play in your childhood?
I am the son of a great writer of the same name and grew up in a house with lots of books on the shelves. My family was of a social class of the educated working poor and once my parents divorced, we went from poor to poorer. We moved around a lot and as the new kid, I was bullied, got beat up a lot. You would think I might have taken refuge in books, but I didn’t. I took to the street and became a fighter, I became a crusader against violence through fighting. I was on a road that was going to kill me, but then, later, it did become the books on the shelves that saved me.
GBSP: Your family is a literary one, but did any one person outside your family stand out as specifically fostering a love of books?
Honestly, I was one of those kids who fell through the cracks in some pretty bad public schools where the teachers tried their best but the reality of both the students’ and teachers’ lives was just too tough. This was a depressed mill town. But, I did have an English teacher freshman year in high school, who would assign us a lot of stories to read and then to write about what we read. I secretly loved these assignments, but as a boy in this particular neighborhood, I would hide this. I would do the work late at night. This teacher encouraged me, made long, nice comments about what I wrote, but I buried it. It never occurred to me that maybe this is something I’m good at. I put it aside and, instead, I became like the Billy Jack character portrayed in the movies.
GBSP: Did you have a favorite book as a teenager?
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinback. I remember getting to that last image of the Rose of Sharon in the freight car and I was trembling. I was in my unheated room in the attic, it was cold, but I wasn’t trembling from the cold but from the power of the novel. I went downstairs to my mom. I said, I’m quitting college. Everything I need to know is in this book. I just need to read novels like this one. I quit a year later and pumped gas for six months.
GBSP: You describe being a secret writer, but was there any time in your youth or as a young man when you thought you might want to be a writer?
No. It was never the plan and I’m still surprised that I am one. I write about it in Townie. If my father hadn’t been a great writer maybe I would have considered it. It wasn’t that I was afraid of stepping into “a great shadow”; it’s just that there were other things – like my brother getting beat up and my wanting to protect him – that sent me on a violent path. So a boxer is the guy I wanted to be, and I worked to change my body. I trained for the Golden Gloves. But then one night, instead of going to train, something made me sit down and write a scene. It wasn’t very good, but I felt so alive and so awake–and it was drug free. The truth is I just loved sentences and words and I loved scenes and dialogue. I was just shy of 22. And from then on I wrote five, six days a week. And still do. Now, with all the speaking I am doing, and recording my audio book, and a big movie deal that’s in the works, I haven’t written in about three weeks and I feel blue.
GBSP: If you could give one piece of advice to young writers, what would it be?
Don’t outline your stories. I truly believe that the writing is larger than the writer, that it’s an act of humility, that you have to let go of the self to find what is in you. It’s more dreaming than thinking. In the first drafts, trust you’re imagination. The horse knows the way. It’s simple but not easy.