Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Interview with Andre Dubus III
Bibliophiliac: How did you come to write a memoir after publishing four works of fiction?.
Andre Dubus III: I think of Townie as an "accidental" memoir; I was working on a personal essay about baseball and my sons, Austin, 19, and Elias, 14. I got into baseball for the first time in my life in my early 40's when my boys were little and began to play ball. I fell in love with the game, and began to wonder why I never played it as a kid. I thought I might write a brief essay fueled by that question. The mythic story in American culture is that the father throws a ball to his son, and it all starts there, but for me it began with my sons throwing the ball back to me. A few hundred pages later, I realized I wasn't writing an essay anymore, but a book-length meditation on my past that had much more to do with living in First-World poverty with my single mother and brother and two sisters, the violencse, and everything else....
B: Townie begins with physical movement--running. How has physcial activity been important in shaping you as a person?
ADIII: It's probably been more significant than I even know. Ever since that afternoon 38 years ago when my brother was beaten up by a grown man and my mother was called a whore, I've had a disciplined--and sometimes too disciplined--relationship with my body. As you know from having read the book, I changed my body from soft, small and sedentary to hard and a bit bigger (I never got big the way I'd wanted to as a teenager and young man) and active. Ever since then, I've worked out hard 4-6 times a week, lifting weights, running, stretching, and in my twenties, boxing. The only workouts I've missed have been when I've been too sick to do it, and when our three kids were born and I didn't want to be away from them, even for an hour or two, those first days of their lives. For years, my being strong and in-shape was tied directly to how safe I felt in the world; if I wasn't in top condition, I felt literally vulnerable to attack. But that hasn't been the case for the past twenty years; now, it's how I maintain my mental health more than anything else. If I'm too up, it brings me down. If I'm too down, it brings me up. And it's a really good way to clear my head after a morning of writing.
B: I admire the way you handle time in Townie--it is so fluid; within a single scene you will seamlessly flash forward or back in time. How did you arrive at this rather than a more chronological presentation of events?
ADIII: Thank you for these kind and encouraging words! I found myself writing Townie the way I would a novel, which is this: I try to find the story first, with all its causal linearity, and then I allow myself to plot it or shape it in a way that feels organic and forward-moving.
B: So many scenes in Townie just ache with father-loss. I'm thinking of the scene where you awkwardly toss a ball with your father for the first and only time, or when you attend a baseball game for the first time. How difficult was it to achieve the right balance in presenting this sense of loss without demonizing your father? It seems to me that you paint a very compassionate and loving portrait in the end.
ADIII: I am so grateful to you for saying this about the end, because the last thing I want to do with this book is to hurt my father, who's not even here to defend himself. First, I was surprised my father showed up as much as he did in Townie. I had semi-consciously assumed that, because he hadn't lived with us when we were teenagers, that I wouldn't have to write about him much at all. But the deeper I got into the memory of my boyhood, the more his absence in our daily lives became a central presence in the book. But to get to your question about trying to strike that balance: if there is a balance (and I hope there is!), then it's only because I wrote this book after enough time had passed, 30-40 years, so that I was no longer hurt or angry so much as inspired just to paint it, to just get it all down.
B: I thought your metaphor about fighting was fascinating--the idea that you are violently penetrating two membranes, your own and another person's. Do you think that as a writer you are achieving a non-violent crossing of the same two membranes--yours and the reader's? This time in a compassionate way?
ADIII: What a great question! The answer is yes, I think there is a non-violent crossing of the same "membranes", maybe in the same way we do in any other kind of intimacy between two people. I think of the pioneer family therapist, Virginia Satir, and her definition of intimacy: "Intimacy is my own ability to share with you my truth and your ability to reciprocate." Not to get too New Age here, but I do believe, whether he or she is writing from the point-of-view of a literary character or the remembered life of the writer, that the writer has to be naked on the page, to be in a state of openness and non-judgement. And while the reader does not meet the writer personally, maybe the book goes deeper into the reader if he or she is also able to get into that state I describe above.
B: Obviously, fighting is a huge focus throughout your memoir. I found the fight scenes painful to read, and it seemed as the book went on the violence, and the need for violence, escalated. At the same time, you were getting praise, and even father-approval, for this violence. Do you consider this impulse to be thoroughly tamed now?
ADIII: I haven't been in a fist-fight in 25 years, but honestly, it's one day at a time for me; I hate violence and know it only causes more violence, but that fighter I became will always be with me (and when I write "fighter", I mean the young man who learned how to psychologically break that membrane). I try to stay out of places where physical violence is more likely, like certain barrooms of my youth, but I'm also aware that whenever I'm around a confrontation of any kind that I slip into a kind of pre-fight readiness, even though I have every intention of defusing any tension instead of adding to it.
B: At one point in your memoir you are reflecting on your father's religious faith. You say "It was good he had something like that. Maybe people needed something like that. Men in particular." What do people need--faith, or a higher power? And why men in particular?
ADIII: I guess I mean faith, because I have a real hard time believing in any sort of god or higher power, though I do believe in the divine, in mysteries, in higher forces it may be difficult for us to perceive on a daily basis. With faith, which I struggle with all the time, there is a surrender of will that seems spiritually healthy to me. And I guess I wrote "men in particular" because I was beginning to sense how my will, or desire to control a situation (like that armed act of almost revenge the night before), could use a little more surrender, an act I think most men believe makes them vulnerable and therefore weak.
B: In this passage in Townie you discover yourself as a writer: "....writing--even writing badly--had peeled away those layers, and I knew then that if I wanted to stay this awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing....I didn't want to be a writer. I just knew I have to write." I love that distinction between "being a writer" and needing to write. Have your views on "being a writer" changed at all now that you are a published, successful writer?
ADIII: No, they really haven't. Even though I'm very fortunate to say that my family's financial well-being is tied directly to my daily writing, I honestly don't think very much about the career part of being a writer. I write every morning in a nearly sound-proof room I built in the basement of our house, and I go there for the same reasons I always have, which is to go more deeply into whatever it is that's coming out of me there.
B: Is the title of your memoir an allusion to your father's short story "Townies", or is that just a coincidence?
ADIII: Coincidence. In fact, I haven't read that short story of my dad's in years. I will now!
B: A couple of reading questions.
1. Do you have an author or book that serves as a sort of literary touchstone for you?
2. And what is your favorite literary classic?
1. Breece D.J. Pancake's post-humously published collection of stories. I write about this in Townie, how reading Pancake got me to write more honestly and closer to the ground.
2. The Grapes of Wrath, primarily because it was the first work of literature that really made me feel something deeply, and what it made me feel more than anything was compassion.
B: One of the technically impressive things about Townie is your ability to build a sense of place, or build a representative scene, out of a accretion of vivid details. Have you always been a person who notices details, or is that a skill you developed after you became a writer.
ADIII: Thank you. I think it's a skill that has come from the daily act of writing itself. The wonderful conetmporary writer Ron Carlson says this: "Details are for the writer only; they are the instruments by which we steer." I've found that if I don't know certain things about a scene - the light, the sounds, the smells - then I'm not as fully in the moment as I need to be. The more sensory details I find, the truer the direction of the narrative.
B: Your memoir builds toward a moment of redemption-and the redemption involves hard physical activity, which seems to be a theme in your life. Did writing Townie figure as part of your process of coming to terms with the relationship you had with your father?
ADIII: Writing Townie did help me come to terms with my relationship with my father, but that wasn't a plan or intention on my part. Instead, it became a postive result of my going back to my youth with words and a genuine curiosity about what the hell happened there. (Of course, I know what happened, but if you look at the word remember, it means the opposite of dismember; it means to put back together again. I think our memories are incredibly important for this reason.)
B: Is there anything I forgot to ask that you would like to say?
ADIII: No, these have been sensitive and astute questions, and I thank you for reading Townie with such obvious depth. I wish you well!
Thanks to Rachel Salzman at W.W. Norton, for setting up this interview, and to Andre Dubus III for his patient and generous responses.
For my review of Townie go here (or just scroll down).