Hope, Choice and Loss: an Interview with Andre Dubus III

Someone once told me that you can tell a lot about readers by the way they prioritize three elements of a book: plot, characters, and style. I’ve since tested this theory out on customers and colleagues, with impressive results. Figuring out which are most important to you tells me not only which books you’ll like, but which you won’t. For me, it’s always been characters first and foremost, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been caught, hook, line and sinker, by the work of Andre Dubus III. Coming from a talented lineage (not only is his father Andre Dubus, but his cousin is James Lee Burke), it’s no surprise that Dubus III is as good as he is. With a keen eye for humanity’s follies and triumphs, Dubus explores the many dimensions of circumstance and choice in his novels. House of Sand and Fog, first a National Book Award Finalist and later a movie, brought him into the limelight; Garden of Last Days showcases his writing, introduces the reader to unforgettable characters, and is one of the best novels on the September 11 tragedy that I’ve read. Dubus’ reading at TKE on June 16 is one you won’t want to miss.- Jenn Northington

JENN NORTHINGTON: Garden of Last Days takes place in the days leading up to 9/11, but revolves around a child going missing. For me, this small tragedy offset the greater impending horror in a strange way–at the moment I felt the greatest sense of relief in the novel the towers came down, leaving me emotionally torn. Was this juxtaposition a conscious decision on your part?

ANDRE DUBUS III: The juxtaposition you astutely refer to was more semi-conscious for me than conscious; the deeper and deeper I got into the writing of The Garden of Last Days, the more aware I became that I was attempting to create a container for a wide range of psyches and the small and large events, positive and negative, that evoke them. I’m glad to hear you were emotionally torn. My own sense of the world is that very little is absolute or black and white or easily understood. I suppose in all my writing I’m trying to cast the reader into this spiritually ambivalent dream world, which hopefully mirrors more honestly the complex reality we find ourselves in.

JN: One of the characters that you follow in Garden of Last Days is Bassam, a terrorist involved in the September 11 attacks. Throughout the novel he struggles with his personal stereotypes of Americans, especially American women, though never with his conviction that he is doing the right thing. What was it like looking at American culture from his viewpoint?

AD: Looking at American culture and its people from the point of view of a young man bent on mass murder was edifying and frightening and humbling; before trying to write from his POV, I did research for months. I read over 30 books on Islam and Saudi Arabia and on the rise of extremist interpretations of Islam; I read the Koran from cover to cover twice; I interviewed an Arab scholar and a Palestinian who’d lived in Saudi Arabia as a child, on and on. This was all what the great Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro would call “starter dough” for the bread I would attempt to bake later on, which was the character of Bassam al-Jizani. Through his eyes, which as far as I’m concerned were blinded through a paranoid and hateful process of indoctrination, I began to see how fallen from God we could certainly appear. Though appearances are just that, aren’t they?

JN: 9/11 is still a very tender topic for Americans, and looking at it through the eyes of a participating terrorist is a daring and controversial choice. What made you choose to tell part of the story from Bassam’s viewpoint, and what kind of feedback have you gotten?

AD: I initially wanted nothing to do with writing from the POV of one of these young men. In fact, when I started writing this, I thought it was going to be a short story told from the perspective of a woman who had danced naked for one of them. What would that be like after the smoke has cleared from that terrible day? To know you’ve danced for one of them and still have his money in your possession? But a few weeks into the actual writing, it became clear to me that this was a novel I was writing, one that wanted to be told from many points-of-view, including Bassam’s.

But for months I resisted letting him in. Why? Because I wasn’t sure I could withhold my judgment of him, which is absolutely necessary, I think, if your aim is to capture people as they truly are. But this resistance began to feel like a poison that was hurting, and maybe even killing, the novel. So that’s when I surrendered and put down my pencil and began those months of research I mentioned above.

The reaction I’ve gotten has been mixed. Some people tell me they now understand these killers for the first time. Others say they couldn’t bear to read Bassam’s POV because they did not want him humanized in any way. And I’m sure there are other reactions I haven’t heard, both positive and negative!

But I do stand by my decision to let him in. I’ve learned over the years that the writing is smarter and far larger than the writer and his or her own desires for it. Blaise Pascal said: “Anything written to please the author is worthless.”

JN: The novel tackles many stereotypes: a stripper/mom, a semi-illiterate bouncer, a wife-beating husband, his abused wife, a terrorist, a sheltered suburban widow. During a discussion of the book with a customer, she pointed out that all of them were, in the end, victims. This could also be said of the characters in House of Sand and Fog, as well as those in your short stories. Which begs the question, are they victims of their circumstances, of their own bad decisions, or some combination thereof?

AD: Well, I don’t see them as victims, but that doesn’t mean I’m right! And if I were to see them that way, I lean more toward what you’re saying, which is that we’re as much a victim of our own circumstances as we are our own bad decisions. But I also believe that where we come from and how we were loved or not loved and what we were taught and not taught mold us into making or not making the moves that can either save us or destroy us. And as far as good and bad decisions go, I like what Tom Waits writes in one of his songs: “There is no devil, just God when he’s drunk.” This may sound like blasphemy to some ears, but it resonates with me because I think we all get out of bed every day with hopes for the best day we can make it, so how did we end up in here on the porch step feeling such remorse for hurting the one we love most?

JN: Are you working on any new projects that you can tell us about?

AD: Off and on for the past 25 years, I’ve been trying to write a novel based on a bleak chunk of my youth in the early ‘70s. I’ve finally discovered that I’m not the kind of writer who can make fiction directly from the circumstances of my own life, so now I find myself deep at work on an accidental memoir. I hope to finish it this summer.

JN: Thank you so much for your time; we’re looking forward to your reading in June here at the store.

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One Response to Hope, Choice and Loss: an Interview with Andre Dubus III

  1. […] also: i interviewed him once about Garden of Last Days. […]

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