On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
Award-winning author Andre Dubus III is best known for his novel, “House of Sand and Fog.” His latest book is a collection of loosely-connected novellas set in a coastal New England town, much like the one Dubus grew up in. The characters in these stories are all damaged: A middle-aged man discovers his wife’s affair and struggles with anger and helplessness. A lonely, overweight young woman searches for love and pays a price for finding it. A philandering bartender tries to live up to his family responsibilities. And in the title story, a teenage girl is betrayed by technology and people she thought were her friends.
- Andre Dubus III author of the memoir "Townie," the novels "House of Sand and Fog" and "The Garden of Last Days" and a collection of short stories.
Excerpted from “Dirty Love” by Andre Dubus III. Copyright © 2013 by Andre Dubus III. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A new book by "House of Sand and Fog" author Andre Dubus is set in a coastal New England town north of Boston. It's a collection of novellas featuring characters seeking love and often falling short. A marriage broken by an affair, a philandering bartender, and an overweight young woman who agonizes over love. In the title story, a teenage girl is betrayed by her friends online and finds refuge at the home of her widowed great uncle. The book is titled "Dirty Love."
MS. DIANE REHMAndre Dubus joins me. You are welcome, as always, to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome back to you, Andre.
MR. ANDRE DUBUS IIIThank you for having me, Diane. It's great to see you.
REHMMy pleasure. You know the other day because I knew you were coming on, I went back to watch "House of Sand and Fog" again. It is such a heart-moving movie, and I found the same thing true of the stories in this new book of novellas titled "Dirty Love." First, tell me about the title.
DUBUS IIIWell, the title comes from Devon, the 18-year-old character in "Dirty Love," who has an insight onto -- about the love of family, and she says that love is -- that the love of family is dirty with love that can sometimes turn to -- easily turn to hate, and -- or dirty with love that can sometimes easily turn to hate, and so I just found myself writing that phrase down. Somebody told me, by the way, it's also a Frank Zappa song, but I didn't know that.
REHMDirty love, yes, indeed.
DUBUS IIII had no idea.
REHMYou had no idea about that.
DUBUS IIINo. I just thought it was Devon.
REHMBut you know these -- these people who inhabit your stories are in their own way each tragic figures.
DUBUS IIISee, I don't see them that way.
DUBUS IIIHow do you see them at tragic?
REHMWell, I mean, the guy who in the first story finds out his wife is having an affair.
REHMAnd has her followed and then filmed by a detective having sex with another man in a car, and watches that film again and again. He's driving himself crazy.
DUBUS IIIYeah. I mean, I guess I'm just -- I'm looking at the word tragic -- I don't know if they're tragic so much as -- but by the way, you're the reader. I give you total license to interpret it any way you want and I really mean that sincerely. I just see them as troubled and, frankly, I have this belief, I don't know what it's about, but I think that if you scratch the surface of any human being across the country, across the world, any moment of any day, even right this moment, everybody's in some kind of trouble. It's normal.
DUBUS IIIIt's just part of human existence. I think in America we freak out about that. I think we've been sold a bill of goods and we think we're supposed to be happy all the time, and especially if we're successful, we're supposed to be happy.
REHMIt's in the Constitution.
DUBUS IIIYeah. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
DUBUS IIIAnd I think that's done a disservice, because I think the older cultures know, the ones that we all come from, unless you're Native American, that -- excuse me -- life is hard, life is beautiful, life is joyous, life is tragic, life is that all at once every day. And I think if we just accept that we're a symphony and we're not his one-note band of a smiley face, we can accept the fact that, you know, there are challenges that we're supposed to face and supposed to overcome, like for instance the fact that a man's wife of 25 years has strayed.
DUBUS IIIYou know, one of the things I found interesting about writing that story is, you know, I began, you know, kind of empathizing with him. I'm a man, I'm a husband, I'm a father, and imagining if my wife had strayed, and then I -- the deeper I go into him, it looks like it's not so easy, that maybe he wasn't the best mate in the world either, and, you know, we're not black and white, are we?
REHMSo you understand the full range of your characters and their personalities and the lives they inhabit?
DUBUS IIIYeah. I mean, that's my goal, man. I mean, that's what I love, Diane, about writing character-driven fiction. I just -- I am infinitely, infinitely interested in human beings, and most writers I know are. I don't find anything or anyone more interesting than men, women, and kids across the world. And yeah, so the deeper I went into him, I found that his work life, I think for a lot of us, it affects how we are when we're at home.
REHMTell us about Mark Welch.
DUBUS IIIYeah. Well, he's a project manager in a corporation. It's a pretty high-level job with a lot of responsibility, and he learned early on that he was most successful at this job when he allowed himself to be a bit of a real manager, a tyrant. Not one who looked at men and women as people who strive normally, but one who looked at men and women as people who need a whip snapped at them. So he became very good at controlling people's behavior and manipulating people's behavior. He began to be very successful, and he began -- really, honestly, that's how he was with his wife.
REHMDoing the same kind of managing and controlling at home.
DUBUS IIIControl -- yeah. Managing her, controlling her, molding her. And his wife drifted, and why wouldn't she, you know? The love she was getting was not pleasant. So she found someone who was not that way. You know, I try not to -- we've talked about this. I try not to ever inject a philosophy or belief into a story, but boy they certainly can reflect what you believe, right? And I've never believed in this notion of the other woman or the other man when it comes to infidelity.
DUBUS IIIIt not, you know, we shouldn't be messing around with people wives and husbands and partners, but, you know, it's not -- that's not what caused the problem. That was just a symptom of something going on in the marriage that's not good. What I really enjoyed on a creative level, trying to follow as honestly as I could Mark Welch's journey into maybe perhaps a realization that his wife's not the total bad guy here.
REHMAnd what about his wife?
DUBUS IIIYeah. You know, what about his wife? She only -- I purposefully don't go to her point of her because I ...
REHMI know you don't.
DUBUS III...because I want to experience her through him. To me, it felt it had more dramatic power for us to just stay him, and to see her through him as he begins to shift his own view of himself. And towards the end, you know, at the beginning of the story, as you know, she looks unattractive and, you know, like she's murdering him. And towards the end it looks like, well, maybe he's been murdering her.
REHMTell me how you use these four stories connecting.
DUBUS IIIWell, I have to be quite honest. I didn't know they were connected until my editor pointed them out. She said, do you know they all take place in the same town? I said, no, I didn't.
REHMYou didn't know that?
DUBUS IIINo. I actually -- no. I really didn't.
REHMYou just started writing.
DUBUS IIII was not really aware. And then she said, and two characters work in the same bank, and two other characters work in the same restaurant. I said, wow, you're right. So, you know, it sounds ridiculous really I'm imagining, but, you know, this whole joy of writing for me is -- and terror, but it's a descent into the dream world, you know? And we have a dream world, every single one of us, readers, writers, people who don't read or write. And that descent happens in two ways.
DUBUS IIIYou must be authentically curious about the people and places you're writing about and the situations and you've got to find the language that takes you down there. I mean, that -- and that, by the way, can be taught. You can be taught the right kind of language. That's where writing schools can actually be very helpful. But you can't teach someone to be curious about something. And anyway, how these are linked is, I found myself, you know, it was writing my memoir "Townie," I had never really placed any fiction in the area where I grew up.
DUBUS IIIYou know, my father, the great short story writer, placed a lot of stories in that area, but ironically, he was from south Louisiana. But that's, you know, I am from north of Boston. I'm from these mills towns on that Merrimack River, and those beach towns, but I'd never set fiction there. And I'm not sure why, but something weird happened, Diane. When I wrote "Townie," by writing directly about that area in non-fiction, it somehow allowed myself to now fictionalize it, and this is the first book since that's experience.
REHMAndre Dubus, III. His new book of novellas is titled "Dirty Love." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com. You said earlier that venturing into fiction writing for you is both glorious and has some terror. Talk about the terror.
DUBUS IIIOh, well, you know, back to what I was saying earlier, you know, if you do scratch the surface of people, there's always -- someone's always -- we're always in some kind of trouble. Again, may it be just the floss is stuck between your teeth and you need to get it out, but we usually all have more than that. So when you descend into these people with authentic curiosity, and I've learned over the years the difference between authentic curiosity and semi-authentic curiosity, you'll find things that actually come from your life.
DUBUS IIIYou tend to find, you know, Young said that everything in a dream is you. That squirrel is you, the old man who kicked the squirrel is you.
DUBUS IIIRight? And the same is true of the fiction. So I am the cheating wife, I am the jealous husband, I am the recovering alcoholic 81-year-old war veteran in "Dirty Love," etc. And so -- so the terror really is, Diane, you feel emotionally -- when I'm writing well, when I feel as if I'm writing well, which is once every 23 writing sessions, and I do not exaggerate, I do not exaggerate, this is how I feel after a writing session. I feel nasty, inappropriate, naked, insensitive, ignorant, and wrong, and raw.
DUBUS IIIAnd so, when I feel those things, I then feel, well, maybe I'm actually writing at a deep level because -- and I'm getting to your answer, the terror is that. The terror is finding you.
REHMAndrew Dubus, III. His new book of novellas titled "Dirty Love." We're going to open the phones shortly. 800-433-8850. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. You know, Andre Debus III from his bestselling novel "House of Sand and Fog," as well as the movie that followed that book. Now he's come out with a series of novellas all of which are in his new book, "Dirty Love." And, Andre, I'd love for you to read for us from your novella, "Marla."
DUBUS IIIThank you. "The week before Christmas, Dennis invited her to fly to Cleveland to spend the holidays with one of his brothers and his family. He asked her this before work as they were walking to their cars in the clear driveway, Dennis paid a man to plow. The air was cold in Marla's lungs and her breath was a thin cloud in front of her. What do you say, Marl? She opened her car door and glanced over at him standing at his Nissan, his tie loosely knotted beneath his overcoat, his beard glistening in the harsh sunlight.
DUBUS IIII don't think so. I need to visit my parents. It's been a year. He nodded and looked only mildly disappointed, as if he were imagining the good times ahead of him anyway. 'Well, think about it.' He backed out of the driveway first and at the end of the street waved in his rearview mirror at her before he turned left and she turned right. And she didn't want to think about it. How could she be the woman he was going to bring home to his family?
DUBUS IIIAll the smiles and gifts and polite passings of gravy would feel like one big lie, which is what she was beginning to feel like. A liar. Somehow she was becoming the kind of woman she didn't like. Someone who felt one way but smiled it off in a mask of cheerfulness. The kind of woman who got very good at small talk. As she drove past all the identical ranch houses of their neighborhood, Marla's face still felt swollen from her cold.
DUBUS IIIIf it weren't for the Christmas rush, everybody in the world waiting in line to get their money, she'd call in sick and go back to bed. But again, it'd be his bed. Her comforter was on it, but that wasn't enough. She missed her old apartment. She missed the bathroom that only had her things in it. She missed Edna curling up with her on the sofa in her living room with her framed prince on the wall and no illustrations of perfect parallel lines.
DUBUS IIINo dustless bookshelves full of paperback spy novels. No pressure to keep things clean and just where they belong at all times. And not this lingering feeling that her life was really no better than it had been before when she was alone. An earlier unhappiness that now seemed preferable to this one."
REHMIt's fascinating because Marla, despite her early attraction to Dennis, this man she meets and thinks she falls in love with. She finds out that he too is a controller, but his controlling behavior is with cleanliness.
REHMEverything has got to be spotless. There cannot be a speck of dust anywhere. He comes home from a long day's work and takes out the...
DUBUS IIIDuster and the vacuum cleaner.
REHMOh, my gosh.
DUBUS IIIAnd as soon as he's done making love, he heads to the shower. You know, oh, my god, I felt for her, too.
REHMYou did. You really must have.
DUBUS IIIWell, I did. You know, it's interesting what you find, you know, so I'm writing and, you know, I try to have no plan. So she meets this man, you know, she's one of these women who has fallen through the cracks and I've men and women -- you'd be surprised at our day and age will still can get into their late 20s, early 30s or beyond without having had a sexual life. But she was 25 and still had not had a man, and so this happens and she becomes a couple a part of a couple for the first time.
DUBUS IIIShe's now a part of, you know, Marla and Dennis. And, you know, frankly, walking into that, writing my way into it, I'm thinking, well, hey, this might be good let's see how it goes. And it just, you know, it goes the way it goes, you know.
REHMYou mean to tell me, honestly, Andre, you never outline? You never...
REHM...plan. You never know where you are going? That's fabulous.
DUBUS IIIYeah. It's, you know, a lot of writers work that way. It's more like jazz, it's less like classical, more like jazz.
DUBUS IIIYeah, you just play the sax, man. You just see where those notes go. And where my notes go are damn depressing, I guess. But it doesn't depress me when I play the damn sax.
REHMSo you're having fun while you are doing it even though what may come out is somewhat saddening.
DUBUS IIIYeah, you know, Hemmingway described writing -- he said when it's going well, he said that -- he described it as a sweet labor. The sweet labor of it. I do love reaching for that true word, which will lead to the next true word, which will descend more deeply into a character and his or her situation. And in this case with Marla, I was really, you know, saddened but not -- you know what it is?
DUBUS IIIIt's that moment in a book when, you know, you're reading a book where something happens and you think, oh, no. And the next feeling is, of course. Right? Just like in life. They...
REHMHappens for you, the writer.
DUBUS IIIYeah. Just like in life. You go, Harry, Marylou? His male boss? You go, no. Of course.
DUBUS IIIAnd that's a great feeling where you know that you've found something true where you -- and you and I have talked about this before. I think it's the difference between when you're writing fiction between imagining something and making it up. The problem, the challenge it seems to me with outlining is you can think out a very plausible story. But as far as I'm concerned, that's not making one up, it's contriving one.
DUBUS IIIAnd it may be very plausible and actually entertaining and you could even sell it to the movies. But that doesn't mean it's true. It doesn't mean -- I think the deeper level is where you have to go. I cannot tell you how many times, Diane, I've wanted to write about A but on the way to writing about A B came instead. In fact Marla came, Marla is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of a novel that failed.
DUBUS IIIA novel where I wanted to write from a certain kind of predator, not a sexual, violent predator, another kind of weird guy. And she was -- I was writing from his point of view for six weeks. And then I zero in on his first victim and I just -- my imagination gave me a pretty and heavy woman working alone in a bank. I could feel how solitary she was. And I went into her point of view just to get to know her before I zapped her with my predator.
DUBUS IIIAnd she was 10 times more alive in one paragraph than this guy was from whose point of view I'd been writing for six weeks. And that's what I mean about the difference between imagining versus making it up. And I didn't even didn't really want to write about Marla. But I think the author, what the author wants is the last thing. Who cares what the author wants? Blaise Pascal, anything written to please the author is worthless.
DUBUS IIIYou've got to go with what has life to it. And that's deeply mysterious. So I just -- no, so I don't outline and I dream it through and it scares the hell out of me.
REHMTell me about your family life.
DUBUS IIIOh, my god.
REHMYour current family life.
DUBUS IIII am such a blessed man. I mean, knock on wood. Well I've been, you know, in a monogamous -- I'm not, look., I'm not patting myself on the back but look it's been a very old-fashioned marriage for me, 25 years to the same woman and we seem to be very strong. We've got three kids. They're 20-year-old Austin and 18-year-old Arianny (sp?) and 16-year-old Elias.
DUBUS IIIAriane. I love that name.
DUBUS IIIYeah, she's beautiful in every way. And, you know, we live in this house I built with, you know, my brother and my 92-year-old mother-in-law lives in an apartment with us. And we've got a dog and, you know, my truck starts up every morning. I mean, it's a good darn life. So that my life is not remotely like my characters.
REHMYou're happy to say.
DUBUS IIII'm happy say, yeah. And I say guiltily.
REHMNow, when did you know you were going to be a writer?
DUBUS IIIWell, you know, I write about this in "Townie," my memoir. You know, it was that first writing session. And I won't recount the whole story, but basically I was on a very violent road. As a way to control myself, I was a boxer. One night instead of going off to the boxing gym to train something that makes me frankly to believe in the divine made me sit down and grab a piece of paper and a pencil and I wrote a scene. And when I finished writing that scene, I just felt like Andre for the first time in my life.
DUBUS IIII just -- and I was almost 22 years old. And I didn't know that I hadn't been Andre. And I've been writing five, six days a week ever since that night just for that feeling and it's been a wonderful happy accident that I've got a publishing career out of the deal. But that was never the goal. And you know what? It's still not the goal. It's how I make my living and, you know, I have contracts and deadlines and commitments and it's all good problems to have.
DUBUS IIIBut the reason I -- the reason I write is not to -- I'm not trying to write a book honestly. I just need to go inside Marla, Mark, whomever. I find it infinitely fascinating, invigorating, and joyous to try to enter the private skin of another human being.
REHMHas your wife had her own career as well?
DUBUS IIIYeah, a beautiful career. She is a dancer/choreographer and she's the artistic director of a wonderful modern company called Exit Dance Theater. She's still performing at age 51, and she owns a dance studio in our town. And, yeah, she's a career woman.
REHMHow do your two careers blend?
DUBUS IIILike warm mud, Diane. They blend beautifully actually. You know, the thing is -- I just feel really fortunate to say this. We had this really strong bond before our kids. You know, every parent out there knows, man, once you make kids with another human being, whether that marriage lasts or not you've got this really -- you've got this bond that will die with you. But before that, you know, both of us from a very early age felt the urge.
DUBUS IIIWe got out of bed with one goal and that was to make something -- try to make something beautiful before we went to bed that night. And in her case, it was, you know, a dance, a painting. She's also a really good visual artist. In my case, it was a scene, a story. And that bond is as strong as it ever was. Now it is even more resonant because we have the bond of having had three children pass through us.
REHMIs there any religious weight in either of your backgrounds?
DUBUS IIIOh, God, there is in hers. Well there is in mine. You know, my father is a devout Catholic. But my parents divorced when I was about age 10, the Catholicism went with him. And I don't mourn that. I actually am not a religiously devoted person. My wife is though. She's a Greek Orthodox Christian. Very private about it. She sings in the church choir with her mother.
DUBUS IIIShe teaches Sunday school. She goes to church and, you know, honestly, I'm glad she took the kids to church, although I don't go along. I think it's important that kids get something.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." As you connect these four stories to each other and you say you didn't realize you were doing it. When you finally realized when your editor, your publisher told you that, what did you think?
DUBUS IIII thought, God bless writing. I just, again, I love the dissent into the mystery. There's a wonderful line from Tim O'Brien, the great American writer. He said, you know, that writers tend to be the kind of people who want to enter the mystery of things. But it's not just the mystery of a human character and his or her situation. But so often, a novel, a story, a novella will show its own form to you.
DUBUS IIIAgain, this notion, Diane, that if you're writing openly, honestly, nakedly, deeply enough, which is frightening, the writing becomes larger than the writer. So when I discovered that, I said of course, this is how it always is. I've written -- I've written the first paragraph of a novel that 500-pages later I could see in that first paragraph or page or seeds that came to bloom, 500 pages and four years of my writing life later, it's really so remarkable.
DUBUS IIIYou know, I say I don't have a religious faith but I sure believe in the divine, I believe in mysteries, I believe in an unseen world among us. I believe in a spirit life. And I frankly think a lot of its very benevolent. I have a hard time believing in evil as a polar absolute. I really - I love that Tom Waits line, you know, from I think it's "Heartattack and Vine," his song. There ain't no devil, that's just God when he's drunk.
DUBUS IIINow that's blasphemy to some ears but I think it really reflects human beings. I've never met a bad baby. I think we're full of light and then we screw it up. You know, and then we got to find our way back. If you look at the word pervert, it actually means to turn away from. Ain't that interesting? So what are we turning away from? Oh, I think we're turning away from our light. I don't know how we got onto this.
DUBUS IIII don't think about all this when I write, but it makes me believe there are so many mysteries afoot and it's really quite beautiful and exciting.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. First to Karen in Birmingham, AL. You're on the air.
KARENGood morning, Diane.
KARENI love your show. Thank you for all that you do.
KARENAnd I wanted to speak to the author. I have a question. First of all, I was so excited about your new book. When I heard novella, I must admit, I said, no, no. I want one story. So my question to you is, how did you come to decide to write four stories in this one? I'll take my question off the air.
DUBUS IIIWell, thank you. Nice to meet you on the phone, by the way. Well, again, I didn't -- again, it was this notion of letting the writing dictate to me its truest form. Two of those novellas, the bartender and Marla came from the same novel that failed. They're the characters I found along the way. And the latter two, including the longest, the title one, which 155 pages long, those came out of wherever my preoccupations were right about when I was finishing my memoir, "Townie."
DUBUS IIIAnd, you know, don't let the -- don't let that not one story thing chase you off because the truth is it kind of reads like one story.
DUBUS IIII mean, you have characters -- the same characters throughout all four stories. And I actually -- because I love novels, I think it's my favorite form. It's the one I do more often. I think it reads far more like a novel than a collection. So don't give up on me, Karen.
REHMBut do you think you did separate them this way because, as you said, characters appear in each other's stories?
DUBUS IIIYeah. You know why, I also love the novella and short story form. I love how you can boil a situation down to their essence, especially the short story form, you know, that my father is a master of and of course Alice Munro who just won the Nobel Prize. I've never been happier about a Prize in my life than that one for somebody.
DUBUS IIIBut, you know, no, it felt like the only forum -- it'd be like taking, I don't know, seeing a man in a truck and putting him in a Porsche. No, that's his truck. He's got to be in that truck. I -- what I love about the 50, 75, 150-page form is you're forced to really boil down to its essence the dramatic dance that the characters are in. And, you know, one of the things I -- look, I'm never proud of anything I've written.
DUBUS IIIHonestly, there's the feeling of -- there's always a feeling of shame and doubt, but it's normal. But that there -- one thing I do -- I am glad that happened in this book is there's no real physical violence, which is the first time in my writing life that that's happened. So it's -- to me it's a much more recognizable painting of how most of us lived.
REHMAnd Andre Dubus III. And when we come back, we're going to talk more about that shame and doubt because I know many people are going to be interested in hearing you sort of spell that out. Short break here. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Andre Dubus III is with me. You know, during the break, Andre, you and I were talking about the fact that your wife, as you said, is Greek Orthodox. What are you?
DUBUS IIIWhat am I?
REHMWhat is your background?
DUBUS IIIWell, it turns out I'm one-quarter French and three-quarters Irish there, Diane, which I didn't know 'til me 30s, which explains a lot of me life.
REHMYou didn't know until...
DUBUS IIINo, I'm so ignorant. I somehow...well, look, all my family's from South Louisiana and we grew up, you know, north of Boston. And so I didn't really know my relatives. And it was in my 30s that someone told me that my father's mother was full Irish. And her last name was Burke. I just thought it was French. I don't know why I thought it was B-O-U-R-Q-U-E not B-U-R-K-E. So it turns out I'm three-quarters Irish, about a quarter French, maybe a splash of Scotts in there. And that explains a lot of myself to myself.
REHMHow did you get along with your father?
DUBUS IIIWe got along in a really fun way, you know. I write about this in "Townie." He was a beautiful writer. He was kind of impossible and crazy and inappropriate and beautiful and generous and bizarre and brilliant. But he was -- you know, he was more of a drinking buddy to me than a -- he didn't -- he wasn't a father the way that I take joy in being a father, which is, you know, being able to teach and nurture and lead and instruct. He did that at times but he was -- really where we spent the most time together was in my 20s and his 40s. And we just -- we tend to run together, drink today and have a good time. But it was like hanging out with a fun uncle.
REHMHow old were you when you got married?
DUBUS IIII was 29 when I got married.
REHMSo you were at the end of those drinking-buddy days.
DUBUS IIIYeah, yeah. Yep, exactly.
REHMOkay. Now I want to -- before we open the phones I want to hear you spell out that notion of shame and doubt as far as your work is concerned.
DUBUS IIIWell, you know, I don't think I'm alone in this but I do know some writers who -- a very good writer friend of mine who's a great guy was saying he's -- was talking about his book and saying, you know, it's a good book. It's really actually a really great book and he's looking forward to being able to read it. And I don't think that's arrogant or anything -- I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But it's so foreign to my feeling after finishing a book.
DUBUS IIIThe feeling I have is, well, shame and there's a vague feeling of -- how to describe it -- let's talk about the Irish man Samuel Beckett. A great line, ever tried, ever failed, never mind, try again, failed better. You know, there's another beautiful line, this from Martha Graham, the great choreographer, from a letter to her friend Agnes de Mille. This is her -- this is Graham's language. No artist is pleased. There's no satisfaction at any time. Just a curious dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.
DUBUS IIIThat blessed unrest is all I feel, you know. I think I must be proud of "Dirty Love" or I wouldn't let it go . But there's always this lingering feeling that, god you better do better than this, boy. And -- but that said, I rewrite a hundred times. All I know is that whenever I finish a book --I especially feel it with Dirty Love -- I, Andre, can't do any better at this. A better writer might've written a better book but I can't. And so you let it go in the world and there's a feeling of, well hope you like it. And give me -- trust me to write another one too. But, no, I do think this is worth reading but it's just a feeling I don't think I'll ever shake.
REHMI wonder if that also comes with it -- brings with it a sense of modesty about what you do or, or do you -- is there somewhere one kernel, inside of you, or pride?
DUBUS IIIWell, you know what it is? I love the word modesty so let's go back to what we were saying earlier about the writing being larger than the writer. It's humility. And I mean it in a pure way. The truth is, I think it takes a strong ego to surrender to the writing the way I'm saying we probably should, or that's been helpful for me anyway. And so there's a surrender that happens, so it's essentially a humble act. And so the reason I can't take too much credit if people really love it and I shouldn't take too much blame if they hate it, as I just let it pass through me. And I worked really hard on what passed through me on making it truly itself.
DUBUS IIISo it's a strange disembodied feeling that, look, you know what? It's like having children. I was lying in bed at 3:00 in the morning about five months ago and it just occurred to me that my kids, two of whom are now in college now, that our kids are not our kids. What do I mean by that? I mean, I don't own them.
DUBUS IIII mean, they just passed through me.
DUBUS IIII mean, I was just their -- we were just their guardians? How is this...
REHMNo. It's more than that. You're infusing them with your ideas, your thoughts, your beliefs. But they are their own.
DUBUS IIIYes. And that's how I feel about these characters, these stories in "Dirty Love." They are their own. My job, it was to help them be as fully themselves as I possibly could and then to let go.
REHMI like that. Let's go back to the phones. And now, let's see, to Erin in Baltimore, Md. You're on the air.
ERINHi. I wanted to make a little note, not segue, when he was talking earlier about the retentive character that was obsessed with cleanliness there. There's wonderful English drama and I believe it's called "Dirty Rotten Love, which if you guys haven't seen, it's about people who have germaphobia and obsessiveness and the very human aspects of all of that.
ERINAnd the other thing is, "House of Sand and Fog" has been very influential to me because I read that book. I've always been one to take an interest in buildings. I'm a contractor myself.
DUBUS IIIOh, cool.
ERINAnd anyway, after reading that it was like recognizing that everything that we do is connected to what came before and what comes after it and who we affect. So now when I look at buildings, especially things that are up for tax auction at a very low price, I immediately say there's a story here. There's somebody who is losing this through some form of disenfranchisement or tragedy or something, whereas if something is of course at a big price, it's a different story. It's been out there for a long time and probably all of that is moot at this point.
ERINBut it really affects -- it takes -- it removes the idea that we simply can go out and do business without being aware that business is never just business.
ERINThere's always a human side to the whole thing.
ERINAnd then one final thing, it sounds like you have this mischievous muse that takes you down your own kind of rabbit hole and then you begin to discern the adventure that you're on. And I really look forward to reading this book.
DUBUS IIIOh, Erin, thank you. And I think it's really cool you're a contractor because I just love contractors. You know, I was a carpenter for 20 years and, you know, as soon as I'm done with this tour I'm going to go roof the shed I just built.
REHMYou know, she's not just a contractor. She's a contractor with heart.
DUBUS IIIYes. And I want to talk about what she said. I love what you said because it seems to me that -- isn't that what art is supposed to do, enlarge us? I think that's what literature does. I think it does it for me as a reader. Literature is supposed to make us larger. Well, no, let me pull back. I don't think it's supposed to make us larger. It's supposed to open up the largeness that's already inside of us. We all tend to get pretty small, especially when we're trying to survive and chase money. Tolstoy, Erin, has a great line. He said art is transferring feeling from one heart to another.
REHMYou've memorized a great deal.
DUBUS IIINot on purpose, you know. They just stay. When they're helpful, when they help me they're like tattoos on my soul.
REHMIt stays with you. That's great. All right. Another call from Diane in Highland Village, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
DIANEThanks and good morning. I just wanted to let the author know I really enjoyed "Townie."
DUBUS IIIOh, thank you.
DIANEAnd -- but what I was wondering is how you were able to remember in such detail all the episodes that you chronicled in the book.
DUBUS IIILet me get to that, Diane, because that's a really great question. It has to do with sensual detail. The truth is my memory is good about quotes for example. But if I saw a movie tonight it'd be a new movie by summer or next summer. So how can I remember my life? Well, I remember slivers. I think we all remember slivers. If you look at the word to remember it means to put back together again. The opposite is dismember. So how do you put it back together again? You have to get sensual.
DUBUS IIISo, for example, I remember a scene where I'm trying to describe my brother and me just sitting on the stoop in front of our lousy little house my mother was renting in this dangerous neighborhood. And I remember the smell of the dried urine on the sidewalk from the drunks. So I wrote that down. I remember the sweet smell of the lead paint on the clapboards. I wrote that down. And, Diane, as soon as I recorded those two auditory details, my -- a panel opened in my memory and I remember seeing one of those afternoons, yeah, Cody Perkins and those guys were chasing -- started to chase us down the street. And then that led to all sorts of other things, other panels opening.
DUBUS IIIIf you go to a therapist, I've read, they'll lie you down and they ask you very particular questions, like where was he? What was she wearing? Where were you? Was it snowing out?
DUBUS IIIAnd it's the same thing. It's to get you to open those panels in your memory. So I use language and believe it or not, Diane, curiosity. Well, what do you mean? How could you be curious? It's your life. Well, I know what happened but what the hell happened, right? There's a difference between facts and truth. I know that on this day my father dot, dot, dot but what was it like? And that's where the sensual detail comes in and then the panels in your memory open. And it's really quite remarkable.
REHMDoes that help,. Diane?
DIANEYes, it does. I really appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
DUBUS IIIThank you.
REHMThanks for calling. So when your mother and father split, you went with...
DUBUS III...my mother.
DUBUS IIIRight. The way it happens a lot. And she was poor.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." She was poor.
DUBUS IIIYou know what? One of the things I learned writing "Townie" was, I'm a member of a social class we don't talk a lot about in this country, which is we remember of the educated working poor. So, you know, she -- well, when my father and mother split she was 27 years old. She had no friends because they all dumped him for her, which happens in these divorces. It's crazy. Her family's 2,000 miles away.
DUBUS IIIAnd she has no job and no education and so she worked her way through school, got a degree in social services.
REHMAnd what happened to you kids in the meantime?
DUBUS IIIWe were, you know, latchkey kids, feral kids running around the neighborhood like too many millions of kids. And...
REHMAnd could've gotten into big trouble.
DUBUS IIIAnd we did. But remarkably we survived it all and we seem to be -- the truth is, I think we learned things from that experience that has helped us as adults.
REHMYou started boxing as a way to sort of prove yourself?
DUBUS IIINo, defend myself. It was a scary neighborhood. I was a small kid. And I began to lift weights and box to defend myself and my siblings. And I got surprisingly good at it. And I had a lot of rage in me that was -- you know, it's interesting, this whole notion of writing being larger than the writer. When I wrote Townie I had assumed, oh, I was a pretty good fighter because I had the bullied-kids rage. And then I learned how to channel it through techniques I learned in the boxing gym.
DUBUS IIINo. After writing the story I realized, no, it was also that I couldn't keep my sister from being gang raped or my brother from being suicidal or sexually abused, on and on. The list was on and on. And all of that I was putting into my fists as a young man. And frankly, writing got me off that path. Writing totally opened a new way of expression to me and I haven't been in a fight in, you know, 27 years.
REHMDid you win fights?
DUBUS IIII won far more than you would think. I'm not a big, tough, strong guy. I was just crazy with self hatred. You know, my novel "The Garden of Last Days came out in 2008. And one of the main characters is based on one of the 9/11 Saudi hijackers. And before I wrote from his point of view I read the Koran twice, I read 33 books. I read for six months before I even tried to become an Islamic extremist. And once I stepped into his skin I thought, ah, I'll never be able to pull this guy off. I have nothing in common with these guys. I don't even believe in god.
DUBUS IIIExcept here's something I shared deeply with these guys. At one point in my life I physically embraced death. I was so full of self hatred, I would rather be dead in a casket than look in the mirror and see a coward. I once beat up a man who weight about 290 pounds when I weighed 158. He had hit his woman -- he had backhanded his wife in a bar and I...
DUBUS III...I lost it. And ended -- but the self hatred overruled self preservation. So I have a real tender place in my heart for people who go down a dark violent road. I do not have a tender place in my heart for people -- for men who hit women or larger men who hit smaller people. But, you know, my god, I just -- I think my life has helped me not judge anyone. I find it really hard to judge behavior. I think we're all -- we have such a tangled direction -- a tangled path to where we end up that we have to look at it.
REHMSo had you met your wife before you began to slow down on this desire to hit people?
DUBUS IIIYeah, I did. I met her right at the end of it all. I had gotten into a few more scrapes. And again, I mean, the last fight I was in was -- a man was -- he had his wife by the hair and was punching her in the face with his fist on the sidewalk. And running toward him my -- you know, I just told myself, just break them up. Just get him off her. Don't be more violent. But this is where my weakness comes in. I put my hands on his muscular shoulders and I just felt his power and I just -- I needed to punish him and I did. And I have no pride in that but, you know...
REHMThe question becomes, why this young woman who became your wife took you on in the face of all that.
DUBUS IIIWell, because she saw a sensitive, nice guy underneath it all. Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I wasn't violent on a daily basis. At that point it was maybe once every six months there'd be an incident and I would always be in it. What I learned about fighting was that I would be pulled towards it. And instead of running away from it I would run towards it. And -- but I could only do it if I could morally defend the violence. I could never -- I hated cruelty, I hated bullies, I hated anyone larger lording over anyone smaller.
DUBUS IIIBut, you know -- and I tried to write about this in "Townie" -- it was more about exercising the small boy inside me who was afraid.
REHMWell, Andre Dubus, I am delighted you put that talent into writing because you do write beautifully.
DUBUS IIIOh, thank you. Thank you so much.
REHMAnd thank you for "Dirty Love," your new book of novellas. Thank you for "House of Sand and Fog." And thank you for being here.
DUBUS IIIThank you, Diane, very much.
REHMAnd thanks all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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