October 16, 2014 / 9:09 AM / 4 years ago

Novelist Dubus now looks homeward after gritty memoir

NEWBURY Mass. (Reuters) - Andre Dubus III put his faded hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the map of modern literature with his gritty memoir, “Townie.”

Author Andres Dubus III is pictured in Newbury, Massachusetts July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Randall Mikkelsen

But Dubus’ native New England did not find a setting in his fiction until he published a collection of novellas, “Dirty Love,” which depicts small-city and shore-town residents in messy quests for human relationships.

Dubus’ novels include “House of Sand and Fog,” which was made into an Oscar-nominated movie. He is also the son of writer Andre Dubus II, whose troubled family life was a major element of “Townie.”

He spoke to Reuters in a house he built by hand about the role of landscape in his writing, his aversion to the wired life, and the characters that define his work.

Q: How has setting stories closer to home influenced your work?

A: It felt good to try to capture people from this region. I grew up along the Merrimack River in these abandoned mill towns. It was only when writing “Townie” that I wrote directly about this place for the first time, and that kind of freed me up to fictionalize it.

A place has rhythms, a flow like a river. There is a depth of authority a writer has when writing about a place they know well. The same is true when your write about the kinds of people that you know well. But when it comes to place, I think you can write your way to the bottom of your knowledge. Exploring never ends when it comes to character.

I think about my father’s work. (John) Updike called him “the bard of Merrimack Valley,” and I remember thinking, no, he’s not. He sets his stories here, but he doesn’t write about people here. My old man’s voice was (his native) Louisiana.

Q: Are any real people from “Townie” depicted fictionally in “Dirty Love”?

A: No. In many ways ‘Dirty Love’ is a departure in tone. All of my fiction before ‘Dirty Love’ has some physical violence in it. Then I write directly about the physical violence in my youth (in “Townie”), and the first book I write afterwards has no physical violence in it.

Q: How has the Internet affected the writer’s role?

A: I have such mixed feelings. I think it’s improved the quality of my writing to be able to deepen it so quickly with research.

I really like the populist nature of the Internet. But I find it really depressing how many of us stare at screens in our hands. It’s like you walk into a room and everybody’s stoned.

Q: You don’t have a smart phone?

A: I’m never going to have one. The only computer I have is in my basement where I write. I think we need to reclaim our solitude and the voices in our heads.

Q: A protagonist, Robert, in “Dirty Love” vividly recalled his farm upbringing. Does that come from your experience?

A: I didn’t know jack about dairy farms and I don’t even drink milk. I had to do research.

I went into Robert and he delivered that piece of news. I believe that these characters are real and they have one history. What you’re penetrating is deeply mysterious, which is the writer’s imagination.

Q: How do you avoid media character stereotypes.

A: I do protect myself from a lot of this. I’m really kind of tuned out. I want to be disconnected from the noise so I can be connected to something deeper.

But as a novelist who writes fiction set in contemporary America, I can’t put my head in the ground. (In) “Dirty Love,” I had to ask my daughter, “Show me Facebook.” And then I asked her to show me how to text.

Q: In “Dirty Love’s” opening piece, where did that line come from, “his heart kicking like a hanged man’s feet”?

A: I did not want to have a shopworn phrase. I tried to just be deeply him, looking at the video of his wife cheating on him, and then the image came to me from his emotional moment.

Q: The characters in “Dirty Love” come to terms with the messiness of their relationships. Is that a universal human condition?

A: I don’t care for stories that have neat endings. I like ‘em to end more musically, where whatever note has been played in that symphony has an echo in the end.

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Andre Grenon

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