The House That Andre Built

Recent fame has not changed author Andre Dubus III's dedication to the craft of writing.

Andre Dubus III has labored long and hard at the craft of writing. The son of the late Andre Dubus, considered one of the great masters of the short story, he has been writing for 20 years. His diligence paid off when his novel, The House of Sand and Fog, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. The novel, which tells the story of three people from different cultures and the house that draws them, tragically, together, thrust Dubus, age 41, into celebrityhood. Dubus, however, has not let his recent stardom turn his head. A popular lecturer in the English department, he was already an accomplished author of a collection of short stories, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, and another novel, Bluesman (just re-released), when Oprah came calling. For his writing, Dubus has earned many awards, including a Pushcart Prize and the 1985 National Magazine Award for Fiction. He was also a finalist for the 1994 Prix de Rome and the 1999 National Book Award for fiction. Editor Michele Gouveia sat down with Dubus in the English department lounge to talk about Oprah, the craft of writing, and the beauty of a simple notebook and pencil.

Let's get the big question out of the way: what impact has Oprah had on your life?

Nothing but good. First, the readership has grown expeditiously and that's a huge hit for any writer. You work on a book for four years and it's a blessing to have anybody read it and a real privilege but to have over a million people read it is a real kick. A million and a half. That's a big thing.
   And financially it's a huge windfall because I've never had any money growing up, never been around it. I've never lived in a house owned by anyone except the landlord, even growing up and at my age. Now, with this windfall, my wife and three children and I are getting ready to build a house--I'm a carpenter and I'm going to build it. The irony is a story about a woman who loses a house has actually bought me a house that isn't built yet. So that's a big thing.

Has your new found fame affected your work?

The heightened visibility can be a creative challenge. I actually talked to Oprah about this. I have to forget all of what's happened while I work on other projects. That's the task of the creative writer-- to simply be one with the characters in a piece and to forget market, readership, really just be true to what is happening with the story. That can be hard to do if you have a bright light shining at your back while you're writing, which is a hazard that this type of success can bring.

Have people stopped you on the street?

I got stopped on the street in Livonia, Louisiana in a diner. I was going to my grandmother's funeral and this pregnant woman, in Livonia, Louisiana, down in bayou country, saw me on the show and wanted to talk to me about it. A man stopped me at an airport in Atlanta and said he saw me on the show and wanted to talk about the book. It's remarkable how many people watch that show. It's shown in 100 countries. This book is being published in about ten countries. When I got the Australian paperback edition and it had the Oprah Book Club sticker on the front I asked my publishers, why is this on here, and they said, "Oprah's seen in 100 countries."

On the show, you sat with Oprah and members of her book club and listened to them "discuss" your book. What is it like to sit with people and listen to them critique/discuss about something you've written?

Again, the feeling is one of gratitude. There are a lot of people who hate this book and hate me for having written it frankly. And there are people who feel the opposite. Whatever the feeling is, I'm gratified that something in the writing is working on some level. It seems to me that the book is reaching in deeply with people, whether it's nice for them or not and that's very gratifying.
   Once again, I feel privileged; I don't deserve the honor of things being heated up like this. Even George, I really liked George. [George was one of Oprah's Book Club members who had become so upset half way through the book that he put it down and didn't pick it up again for three months. He was very vocal on the show about his anger with some parts of the book]. He hated these people. He had to put it down. I loved him. I thought, what a wonderful compliment, really. The characters were so alive he couldn't stand being around them. It was like a surreal fever dream: there I was, sitting next to Oprah Winfrey, in a very comfortable chair, listening to these very articulate, passionate people talk for two hours--I talked ten minutes during the whole two hours. At one point, I said, like I was teaching class, excuse me for interrupting but Peggy it seems like you're saying, and Oprah, your point seems to be… And they kept battling.
   Oprah was great. When she had a question--the few times that they actually asked me something--she'd turn to me and ask me something about the creative process, something I always like talking about.
   The answer is I felt humbled by it, honored, privileged, grateful, and even when they hate it, I'm grateful that something's working.

Among the characters in the book, you write in the voice of a woman and the voice of an older, Iranian man. When you're writing in the voice of a character who is a different gender from you, a different ethnicity than you, what do you do to know you're getting it right? How do you know that it sounds true?

There's the absolute terror of it all. I never knew if I was ever getting it right. So that's terrifying. What I do know is that I tend to work this way all the time. I work very intuitively, and it doesn't always work, but I've learned to trust my gut over the years. It's the same gut that the reader has too and if for some reason a sentence keeps working for me on many levels then it probably works and if the passage only half works, it doesn't work at all. It's got to work completely or not at all.
   I do do a certain amount of research. For instance my wife read it and she said, "By the way, we don't call it rouge anymore. It's called blush." I didn't know--I don't wear make-up. So that's the kind of fact finding you have to go on. I did very little research on the Persian character: I probably did more research on the deputy sheriff character--on his job and what his life would be like. It's very intuitive; I try to find the sound. I work for weeks, sometimes months, until I find what sounds like a voice and it might not even be true to any real human being will ever be but it sounds true to that creation and then I trust it. If I screw it up, well, then I try again.

You teach both creative writing and freshman English here at Tufts. What aspects of the craft of writing can you teach and what do you have to let the writer work out for him or her?

I view the act of writing as a real mystery. We can talk about the tools of writing, we can demystify the tools of writing-- it's not mysterious how these things are done technically. What's mysterious is that they are done at all. We can talk about sperm and egg and conception and biology all night long---we've got that figured out--but it's still a mystery that we're on earth and that there are human beings. The miracle of life is a mystery. I approach the teaching of writing in that way.
   The big thing I teach kids is the difference between imagining something and making something up. Any smart, hardworking person can contrive and manufacture and put together a compelling, pretty good story, and I think that that kind of person gets a lot of good work out in Hollywood and gets rich. Not to denigrate that person. But it's a different process from writing fiction or poetry. I think where you're trying to find the story, and you're going to the part of your psyche and your subconscious that is largely asleep and dormant and you have to find all that through finding the right words. So what I work hard at is distinguishing between imagining and making things up and then arming my students, which really means just pointing them to their own tool chest. With those tools they are going to find the right words, the true words that will take them more deeply into their imaginations, individually, and bring up what's there. If you do that, you're going to guarantee you'll get original work and honest work. It's just a harder way to write, psychically, and it's emotionally distressing to work that way. I tell my students not to write outlines, to trust in the characters and the situations to take them someplace because it almost always does.

The art of writing is for the most part a solitary act. Teaching is the opposite. What aspects of teaching do you enjoy?

I love that it's not solitary (laughs). I, like a lot of writers that I've met over the years, love being alone. I love being alone. I'm never lonely alone. I love solitude; I require it. I don't get much of it and that's ok. I have three kids and sometimes I have to go off and be alone. What I love about teaching is that I love people, I really do. I think a lot of writers do and that's why we're drawn to write about people. I can't believe I get paid money to sit around a room with other people working sincerely, trying to make art. I actually get paid to do that. I think it's a good deal. I love that it's social and I love that it's more collaborative and that I get to be with people. But at the same time I think that too much teaching, too much writing, can be too much as well. For instance, now I'm probably in a position where I could actually write fulltime but I'm not going to do that. I think I would get a little weird if I wrote eight hours a day--that would be just a little too much of my black hole. I think it's healthy to put in your few hours a day and go out and be a human being for the rest of the day. Talk to people, use your manners, mingle.

Is there anything in particular about Tufts that is different from teaching anywhere else.

I'm not just saying this because you're writing for Tufts Magazine but I really love teaching here. First of all, the students are wonderful. In my experience, most students are wonderful--they're sincere. They want to grow up. Someone wants to grow up, I find him or her very poignant and moving, and I'm honored to try and help. I only teach in the English Department, but I've always felt valued here. I've always felt there's a sense of community in the building, there's a sense of community on campus, and I feel the value of the place. As an adjunct faculty member I've hopped around. I've taught at all sorts of prestigious universities and have really felt like a cog in the machine at other places, and I've never felt like that here. I think the people in charge work hard to make this happen and it's helped me and made me perform better.

You've said that you wrote The House of Sand and Fog sitting in your car, in a local cemetery. Describe your writing process.

Pad, paper and pencil. I prefer pencil. Flesh blood word paper. I just got my first computer this summer. My whole life, I've never had one. I just touched a mouse for the first time in September.
   I like Mead composition notebooks. I don't like little rings that get in the way. Right now I'm writing a forward to a book, a tribute to my father's work, and it's all in pencil and the reason I write a lot in pencil is that it's a mess and it feels like sketching. It feels more, frankly, creatively free.
   The few times I've actually written on a computer was when I had a Panasonic word processor. It looks better on the screen, and you print it out and it can fool you into thinking it's done--it looks so damn polished and has a nice little font. But I like how messy it is and how awkward it is and there's stuff crossed out and there's an arrow pointing to a page that's circled. These are the tools and the process is again one of discovery. I never know what I'm doing and when I do know what I'm doing, the story starts to die because I'm starting to try the stuff out loud.
   I've been the sole provider of my family and it's not hard, I'm not complaining. We all have complex lives--we all wear a lot of hats--and so I think I've averaged, for years, 90 minutes to two hours a day. Can't get anymore than that. But I'll tell you what, you get an hour, two hours a day, five, six days a week, it adds up over the weeks, and months and years. So it took me three years [to write The House of Sand and Fog]. I had 22 notebooks, and I wrote largely in the car. It took me a year to type and revise it. So it took four years and another six months of heavy editing. I also have a really good editor.

Who are your favorite writers and whom are you reading now?

I'm reading Charles Baxter's latest novel, The Feast of Love. It's a finalist for a National Book Award. I read a review of the novel and it sounded striking and bold and fresh, and I wanted to check it out. I'm enjoying it. I try and read a lot of contemporary stuff because I think that so much good writing is happening now. I don't know if it's because of writing workshops or not, but I think it's a real renaissance. I just discovered a guy I love, and I'm late in discovering him, he's pretty well known, Larry Brown, the writer from Mississippi. I love how sensual his work is and all the types of people he writes about. I just finished reading this wonderful, first novel that's unbelievable because she's so good, Amy and Isabel by Elizabeth Stout. Gorgeous novel.
   I also read a lot of poetry. I'm a closet poet. You know what Faulkner said? He said, when you start writing, first you try the poem and you fail at that. Then, you try to write short stories and you can't do that either. So, you end up writing novels. A great poem is the highest form. I love all of them. I love reading poetry. I especially love contemporary poetry, which is so distilled and sensuous. I love that distilled essence you get. That really inspires me.
   Tim O'Brien is my favorite contemporary writer. I also love the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. Amazing, no one does with time and space what she does.
   I'm really trying to catch up. I was not an English major; I have a degree in sociology and political science, and I read very little fiction as a young person. I'm catching up. I haven't read War and Peace. I haven't read Anna Karenina I'm embarrassed to say. I should at least read War and Peace. But I read Tolstoy's The Cossacks and loved that. I try to read widely, and I read impulsively, and like most people, I get to it at bedtime. I read three pages and fall asleep and then have to reread the last page the next night then maybe I get to ten pages. I really think writers should read a lot. Forget what writers have to do, I think I should. When I'm feeling kind of weak and stupid and wrong and bad and talentless, which is a normal feeling, it really inspires me; I really get pumped up. When you're reading something really good you get into a heightened state. It's really great.

You have three kids. If, one day in the future, one of them was to come to you and say, "Dad, I want to be a writer," what would you say? What advice would you give?

I love you. I'm so sorry. (laughs). I would definitely hug that child, kiss that child. I used to be so impatient; I never understood, "oh, the life of a writer is so hard." What's so hard about it? You get to be creative. I think that's a huge blessing. To have a creative outlet. A way of expressing yourself.
   I didn't want to be a writer because my father was a writer. I started writing completely by a fluke, and then I couldn't stop writing because I felt like myself and that's a great gift. The whole thing about the success of this book--critically and commercially--is wonderful, is very encouraging. But it's also, strangely, beside the point. I don't write for reception, and I actually counsel my students not to either. I don't think we should even write for ourselves. Ultimately, artistically, we should write for the characters in the story, to honor them in the way we would a newborn baby.
   Secondarily, you are writing for yourself in that you're writing because if you don't write you're not yourself. Who cares if anyone likes it or hates it, if it makes any money--ultimately who gives a hoot? Because you have to ask yourself, did I write today? Yes. Was it any good? Probably not. I don't know, but I'm more alive for trying.
   So, if one of my kids came to me, on a day-to-day basis, the father who knows they're going to have to work a bunch of shitty jobs and sacrifice to write something somebody may never even pay attention to would be worried. But the part, rather, the whole human being who wants to nurture their soul, I'd be thrilled, because I'd know they'd have a soulful life. It might not be materially good or even acceptable to others but they're going to have a rich, material life no matter what. I would ultimately celebrate it. Then I'd call my agent and see if I can help.






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