Andre Dubus III is the author of “House of Sand and Fog,” the basis of an acclaimed film starring Ben Kingsley.
Andre Dubus III is the author of “House of Sand and Fog,” the basis of an acclaimed film starring Ben Kingsley. His 2008 novel, “The Garden of Last Days,” a speculative story about the chance meeting between strip club workers and the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers, was recently released in paperback.
Dubus is also an award-winning short story writer and essayist. A resident of Newbury, he is a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He is appearing at the Maynard Public library to read from and sign copies of “The Garden of Last Days.”Q. Your new book, ‘The Garden of Last Days,’ is about an intersection between people on the margins, but of two different cultures. Where did your idea come from?
A. It’s so often that with all my writing, it is usually an image that starts the whole thing… I kept seeing a wad of cash on a bedroom bureau. It wasn’t my cash, or my wife or my wife’s bureau. I started reaching for the right word, within the first few minutes or hour or half hour, it became clear these were tips — not a restaurant worker, but a stripper’s tips. It felt like it was in Florida.
Then there were those weird stories we read — that some of these guys [the hijackers] had been seen in strip clubs, and that some had even tried to hire a call girl in Boston.
Q. Your characters are not always wholly sympathetic – Bassam, the hijacker in ‘The Garden of Last Days,’ being a case in point. How does one keep a character like this engaging?
A. People talk about unsympathetic characters and I am constantly surprised. I think I live and die creatively by something [Ernest] Hemingway said: The job of the writer is not to judge, but to seek to understand. I prefer to read stories where you feel as if, the writer is not trying to lampoon people, or use characters to say something about a certain class of people.Q. What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
A. I first went online to research the clubs the hijackers might have been seen in. But we have three kids, and porn sites start coming up, so this was a problem. I decided that I should just fly down there. I took my brother and friend for three days, four or five of the clubs where these guys were. I interviewed strippers.Q. Okay, what was the most difficult part?
A. I was two years into the writing of this book, from eight points of view. I found myself resisting the point of view of the [hijacker.] Then, I realized he couldn’t be withheld. He had to have the microphone, too. I did more research on this than on anything I had written before. I started by reading the Koran [from which alleged terrorists sometimes cite passages referring to war in self-defense.] I read a history of Saudi Arabia. I interviewed scholars. I think it’s fairly clear the majority of Muslims do not support terrorism or violence. There is a character in the book, a father, who is a mouthpiece for the majority of Islam.Q. Have there been any reactions from victims’ families?
A. I have not heard from any family members. That was the second biggest reason why I was resisting doing this book. The whole time I was writing from this point of view…I constantly thought about the families of the real victims. I had a sense of guilt, but I stand by it, because that is the writer’s job.
Q. Did the Sept. 11 attacks effect how Middle Eastern characters are received?
A. I don’t think so. [His book, ‘House of Sand And Fog,’ depicts the struggle between an exiled Iranian colonel and a drug-addicted woman over who is the rightful owner of a beachside house.] I traveled quite a bit for that book. Most people sympathized with the Iranian character and his family over the addict.
Q. You’re also an accomplished writer of short fiction. What are your thoughts about the future of short fiction?
A. I don’t think the bell is tolling. The short story can’t tolerate flaws very well, and in a great short story, every word has to be the right word. I think there are some wonderful short stories being written with every generation.Q. What effect is technology having on fiction?
A. I taught at Emerson. I was teaching a novel workshop, using a story in which the first six pages was a description of the landscape and the town and the season. On page 7, when the husband slaps the wife. Nine of the 10 students thought the action started with the slap. This isn’t MTV! This isn’t cutting and splicing of images. Do I have concerns? Yes and no. I also see a handful of book loving students…They all have their gadgets, but they all read. All three of my kids are huge readers. I am just a bit of a Luddite. I hate computers. I hate cell phones.
Q. Does technology make it harder for a story to have the ring of truth? For example, in a Hitchcock film, when a person who was trapped – as in ‘Rear Window’ – he couldn’t just text someone for help.
A. Technology makes it harder for me. There is a scene in “House of Sand And Fog” where [a deputy sheriff] starts taking [the colonel’s] family hostage. There is a scene where the colonel’s son gets locked in the bedroom. My editor said to me, ‘Doesn’t he have a computer in there?’ It didn’t occur to me there was a computer in his bedroom. Lately, though, I really have been thinking of the dramatic possibilities of these gadgets.What is your favorite book genre?(online polls) Q. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
A. I actually am working on a memoir…my parents divorced when I was 9 or 10 years old. Like a lot of kids of divorced parents, we were really poor. We lived in some tough welfare neighborhoods in the Merrimack valley, my mom and four kids. We moved a lot for cheaper rents. We saw our dad [the distinguished writer, Andre Dubus, who died in 1999] on Sundays, there wasn’t a lot of contact, so [writing] wasn’t in my consciousness. I liked to read. It wasn’t until I got out of college that I began to date a woman who was in one of my father’s fiction writing classes, and I got inspired – it was a missing piece. I felt more alive…that is why I write five or six days a week.
Q. You are included in the ‘Best Spiritual Writing of 1999.’ Explain what role you think spirituality plays in your writing.
A. My father was a devout Catholic. But when my parents divorced, I didn’t pray until I had kids, in my 30s. I describe myself as a nonbeliever, but once the kids come into it, you have got to pray for something larger to look over them.
Video courtesy of W.W. Norton.
Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England’s Northwest Unit. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.