Andre Dubus III is the author of five novels, including the New York Times bestseller House of Sand and Fog, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and was adapted into the Academy-Award nominated film. His other books include a short story collection, a book of novellas, and the bestselling memoir Townie. His new novel, Gone So Long, was recently published by Norton. He will appear at Hugo House on March 19, in conversation with novelist Jennifer Haigh. They sat down recently for a chat.
Your last three books are a novel, a story collection, and a memoir. Which of those forms are you most comfortable in?
They’re all really hard. I prefer the three- to five-year, deep-diving difficulty of the novel. I actually like the fact that it takes a long time. What I hate most is that weird moment between finishing something and starting again, those horrible empty-nest, self-hatred months.
Unlike quite a few male novelists I could name, you write good women. Why is that?
I really like women. I think it’s having been raised the son of a single mother. That was a pivotal experience, seeing her drag four kids from one cheap shitty apartment to the next, one job to the next, one boyfriend to the next, trying to survive without drinking too much or hitting us or calling us names. My life has always been among men, in the sense that I grew up blue-collar and boxed and fought and built houses and worked as a bartender and a bounty hunter. Writing saved me from a life of violence, which was where I was headed. I was always sensitive, but I had to hide it in order to function in the neighborhoods I was in. I did all that so-called masculine shit but my heart has always been with women.
So here’s the obligatory question everyone asks you. You are the son of a beloved and highly influential writer, and you have the same name. What was it like to publish your first book?
Awful. When I discovered writing, I had sort of forgotten my father was a writer. Most kids don’t really care what their parents do. But the world, for fifteen or twenty years, made it very clear who my father was.
I got very mean rejection letters. One famous writer, whose name I have repressed, flat-out told me, you’ll never write like your father. I published my first story in Playboy magazine and people just assumed it was because my father made a call. He didn’t. Honestly, I think more doors shut than opened because of my name. My first story collection went to 39 publishers over six years. My second book went to 29 publishers over three years, House of Sand and Fog went to 24 publishers.
To be honest, I fucking hate that “III” at the end of my name. Every time I publish a book I become aware of it again, because I see it all the time. I never use it otherwise. In my regular life I’m just Andre.
After my first novel, which came out 1993, I did a reading in Boston and not one question was about the book. Not one. They were all about my dad. As I was driving home I remember thinking, I’ve got to get out of this, and I passed a highway sign for Stoneham, Mass., and another for Lawrence, and I thought, that’s going to be my new name, Stoneham Fucking Lawrence.
But I couldn’t do it. It felt false and wrong. In the end, you play the hand you’re dealt. I’m not saying that if you’re born with a harelip, you shouldn’t get surgery, but I do think Americans work too hard to minimize suffering at all costs, and we miss out on opportunities to learn and grow.
Did you just compare your name to having a harelip?
Yeah, I guess I did. My dad put the best part of himself into his work and I’m very proud of what he did with his time on the planet. But you’ll notice that my sons have their own goddamn names.
There are certain novelists whose books taught me how to write. Who are yours? Put another way, whose novels do you read more than once?
The first that comes to mind is E.L. Doctorow—Ragtime, The March, Billy Bathgate. Of course, I write nothing like Doctorow. Who does? I don’t have his vision or sophistication or nimble command of craft. But there is a quality of compassion and a curiosity about the total world that I love in his work. I’m a huge fan of Jim Harrison’s novellas, for similar reasons. And I’ve reread a lot of Ian McEwan’s novels—On Chesil Beach, Atonement. I just read Enduring Love for the first time. It’s a terrible title but a beautiful book. I’m also a big Hemingway fan, the short stories especially. And The Sun Also Rises, his first and best novel. And I loved Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison, the soul and the honesty and the gritty stripped-down poetry of it. I hate most postmodern literature, which I find self-indulgent. I love work that seem to be informed by a deep compassion for other human beings and an authentic curiosity about their lives. That’s what I aspire to write.
Jennifer Haigh is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. Her most recent novel, Heat and Light, received a 2017 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was named a Best Book of 2016 by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and Slate. Her previous books have won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, the Massachusetts Book Award, and the PEN New England Award in fiction, and have been published in eighteen languages. Her short stories have been published widely, in The Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Storiesanthology, and many other places. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow.