Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III House of Sand and Fog coverAndre Dubus III has worked as a private investigator, corrections counselor and bounty hunter — and various other jobs. As an actor, he has appeared in numerous stage plays and three independent films. He is also a general contractor and carpenter. Andre also teaches writing at Tufts University and Emerson College in the Boston area and is the author of one story collection, The Cage Keeper: And Other Stories, and two novels, Bluesman and most recently, House of Sand and Fog (which was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award). Dubus has garnered other distinctions, including a Pushcart Prize and a 1985 National Magazine Award for Fiction. He has also been published in Best American Essays 1994, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and numerous literary reviews. Andre Dubus III is the son of the acclaimed and recently deceased writer Andre Dubus. He lives in Newburyport, MA, with his wife and three children.

Robert Birnbaum: Why would you want to become a writer?

Andre Dubus III: Um. [You mean] because of the daddy thing? Well, it was not a conscious choice. I did not want to be a writer. Matter of fact, I resisted it up until my 20s. In school…in public school nobody knew who my father was. And I didn’t know who my father was. Like most kids, I didn’t know what my father did. And I didn’t care. And in my late teens I read his first novel, The Lieutenant. I was about 15 or 16, and I remember putting it down thinking, “That was really good. My dad does something really interesting.” I felt no desire to do it myself. The thing that I was best at in school were reading and writing subjects. Teachers would encourage me to do more.

The first school I went to was Bradford College, where my father taught…There was the first time I got a real dose of adulation about my dad. And attention towards me about it. The questions were, “Why don’t you write? You write really well.” I said, “No, I’m not doing what my father does.” Of course, I didn’t know I felt that way until I said it out loud. I always felt sorry for those guys, you’d see those trucks ‘Ralph & Sons.’ So to answer your question, I never wanted to be one. That’s the last thing I wanted to be. No friggin’ way.

I went to the University of Texas at Austin ultimately, and studied sociology and political science and economics and all that. I was a Marxist. I was heading to Wisconsin to get my Ph.D. in Marxist social science. And then I was going to go to law school, and I was heading toward some sort of human service. I was bullied as a kid. I went to fourteen different schools before I got out of high school. I began to fight back in my teens. I had a lot of rage. And when I got more educated about the history of the world, I could see that it’s nothing but the history of bullying other people. It’s more than that, but that’s a lot of what it is. I got hip to American imperialism and I wanted to fight it. That’s what I thought I was doing when I left college. It was a very rational decision. (I know this is a long-winded answer.)

I went back home to the East to live for a year — I just wanted to do something physical — because I was too good in school. I had a 3.8 average and I thought I should get out of the books a little bit. I wanted to work in a factory instead. I hired on a construction job with my younger brother in Salem. I lived in Lynn, I was doing boxing there, at the Lynn boys club. I was reading social theory at night (Max Weber). I started to date this girl from Bradford, who was taking one of my father’s fiction writing classes. And she had a crush on this writer, in her class. I was jealous. She’d come back flushed. I said, “You know what writers are like? They drink a lot. They jump each other’s wives. He’s probably an asshole.” I was just jealous and insecure. And then I was at my father’s house and happened to see this guy’s manuscript (in my father’s office). I picked it up. And I read this four-page story. And it was beautiful (he’s a good friend of mine now). I was inspired. This weird thing. First, she had a crush on him, and then I had a crush on him. It was really beautiful. I felt this wonderful sense of…

I hadn’t been reading fiction in years, I wasn’t an English major. In my off time I was reading social theory. And I was inspired. Artistically inspired. I was 21 and a combination of inspiration and a lowly combination of wanting to impress my girlfriend or to show her I could be sensitive, too. That weird mix. So I started to write a story. Spent three months on it. Had never taken a writing class. Never thought of writing. When I put it down and finished the story — a little story about my grandmother and grandfather in Louisiana where I lived for a while — it was a bad story. It was a first story in every way. But I really felt hooked. And for the first time I felt like myself. I was 21 years old, and for the first time I felt like me. It was a really a rare major life event. I put down the pencil, went for a drive in my beat-up Toyota around the back roads of Boxford. And everything looked crystal clear and pristine. And I was all confused because it seemed like I should be writing more. I wasn’t confused about the daddy thing; that never bothered me. It was a surprise to me.

So I went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Stayed four days and quit. I really liked it there. It’s like the beautiful woman you meet and talk to for five minutes and never see her again. You think, maybe I should’ve called. Talked a little longer. So that’s a long-winded answer. I was reading masterpiece short stories in my hotel and talking to demographers and other sociologists at parties at night. I thought, “These are nice people, but I don’t want to be a sociologist. What am I doing going into debt studying this? I just want to know more stuff. That’s all.” So I quit.

RB: How did you end up at Austin?

AD: The honest answer is that I was involved with an Iranian girl. This is 20 years ago. I was obsessed with her, and we were in a deep and tumultuous relationship, and I couldn’t break up with her, and so in my 19-year-old romanticism I applied to five universities, all state colleges, west of the Mississippi. And [Texas] was one of the five. I took a train trip and visited all five campuses, and when I got off at the Austin train station I saw a billboard of Mexican food, Lone Star beer and underneath it was a cactus. And there was a pretty senorita on the billboard. It would have beat a bottle of Lone Star. I didn’t have to see anything more. So I said, “That’s where I’m going. This is where I’m going.”

RB: In 1977, you must have been a pioneer in discovering the charms of Austin, Texas. Were there many Easterners there?

AD: Yeah. It wasn’t hip yet. It wasn’t a hip place to be. It was a great place. I love Austin…I haven’t been back since. It’s a beautiful place, and I loved my time there. It was rich culturally…Let me finish about the father thing. It only became an issue for me when I began to publish. Then I got this real father-shadow-son stuff. It was very distracting and a real pain in the ass in my 20s. It’s a lot less of a pain now because I don’t give a shit. I don’t care.

RB: You don’t strike me as someone who would use ‘III’ in their name.

AD: I don’t. I don’t even like it. I could have changed my name. I could have dropped ‘Andre’ or dropped ‘Dubus.’ Initialized. The reason I couldn’t goes back to why I kept writing. I felt like me for the first time. I think that’s what Joseph Campbell was talking about when he said that’s what people are looking for, to feel the rapture of life, they don’t do that until they do that thing that leaves them feeling more like themselves. So I couldn’t put an inauthentic name on it. Although I do feel like Andre III is a little inauthentic because that “III” is just something — it’s there, that’s my name, but I’ve never used it. I don’t like it. It sounds aristocratic and I didn’t grow up with any money. But that’s it, too bad, there are worse hands to get dealt. I just hope people will get past it. I’m not past it when people keep hitting me over the head with it. It’s understandable, and I guess I’ll have to talk about this my whole life. So, I’ve sort of surrendered to that.

RB: Your “career path” has taken some interesting turns, but you appear to have taken on the writer’s life wholeheartedly. You teach at Emerson and Tufts…

AD: You mean I’m completely in a literary world. Yeah, I am. I didn’t go to any graduate writing program. I hadn’t taken any writing classes. Right after I sold my first book in the late ’80s, I thought it was time I got some schooling. So I went to Vermont’s Low Residency Program for a year. It wasn’t a good year for them, and it wasn’t a good year for me, and I didn’t get a lot out of it. But what I did get was bombarded — because in the writing world my father is known and he’s respected, as he should be, he’s one of my favorite writers, and I revere his work completely. People would bombard me with this stuff. It was like being Elvis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Jr., Hank Williams, Jr. How did I become a crown prince of this king? Who wants this? Let me out of here. But what could I do? Stop writing? I may as well just kill myself. Change my name? I may as well just kill myself. So screw ’em all, I’m going to keep doing it. But I had to leave. It was too much. I’m surprised that I’m in the whole scene now. But I’m glad I’m there, it feels dangerous, to me, to hide from it and run away from it. In politics the whole idea is to shine a light on the skeleton in your closet. Let’s just shine a light on it and talk about it…

RB: Do you think that you can teach people to write?

AD: No. Yes and no. I got into it because I was doing construction and the same friend (ironically) whose story I had seen years earlier and inspired me was teaching at Emerson. He did this all on his own. I wasn’t complaining about not having enough writing time. He deduced that if I was working twelve hours a day doing construction, I wasn’t writing enough. He gave the head of the department at Emerson my book and said, “You ought to hire this guy.” So they called me and offered me a job. So I went. I’d never been in a writing class, and I hadn’t taught one. So I didn’t know where to go. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, my life has been lived largely in this spontaneous ad-libbed way. Very improvisational. So here I am, a writing teacher, and I don’t know what I’m talking about.

I have seen that the writing classroom, the writing workshop can be far more dangerous…destructive than helpful. The way to make it good and the way I can keep doing it without feeling like a cynic…a good writing teacher is simply a good guide. Our job is not to make your stories the way we want them. Our job isn’t to fix your stories or write them the way we write them. Our job is to point out what feels true and authentic in the work and what feels forced and contrived. Let you, the writer, go back from the workshop — a successful workshop has more questions than answers — and you should leave with a deeper sense of what you’re doing well and a deeper sense of what you can work harder on. And then go back to work. In that sense, I’ve seen great improvement. I work hard on making it a very controlled environment. So people can’t write the stories for the writer. You can’t trash a writer. You have to be honest. Every semester I get writers who are much more gifted than I am. And more gifted than others. And you can see they have this natural ability. I’ve seen over the years that doesn’t make a whit of difference. You need something else. One thing I think a person needs — you’ve got to be a real worker bee. Marge Piercy says, “Work is its own cure. You have to like it more than being loved.” If you’ve got that, forget the talent.

RB: What about the seemingly 20th-century phenomenon of ‘writer’s block’?

AD: What’s also going on…it’s just a theory. I think capitalism has done a weird thing to it as well. [In] The Gift by Lewis B. Hyde, basically the whole premise is that the artistic thing is a gift. From whoever. To the person who writes, essentially a gift to the culture. All these are gifts to us. And we do a weird thing to the alchemy of gift when we price it. My own theory about writer’s block is that it’s a real episode of self-consciousness. You’re more watching yourself writing than you are writing. You’re watching yourself writing, you’ve got the voice of the critics in your head, you’ve got the publisher’s deadline, you’ve got the advance you have or haven’t gotten in your head. All this is working against you. We’ve become these little factories. In the same way we talk about performance anxiety — about sexual relations. What a weird way to talk about making love! What a completely perverted way to talk about making love! But in this very visual surface culture it make sense that you start to watch yourself as you are making love to your wife. What the hell is that? It’s the opposite of being in the moment, in the Zen sense. So my own two cents on that is that now that’s also part of the mix…is that now these writers are these little factories, these little businesses.

RB: And there is also ‘wannabeism.’ So many people want to be a certain thing. Though they don’t want to work for it. But they want the perks and the lifestyle. And to be part of the camp. It would seem that there is something attractive about being a writer. Although if you ask many writers, they’ll tell you it’s misery.

AD: Another thing that writing programs can do if honest and well done and constructive — and frankly if they’re loving. By loving I don’t mean soft — I mean tell the truth constructively. You can guide the writer who wants to be a writer more than write to that understanding.

RB: Thirty years ago, how many writing programs were there?

AD: Very few. It’s a huge industry now. It began at Harvard. I forget the professors’ names, but it was 1912 or so. They were looking for a more innovative way to teach literature. So they said, “Why don’t we just have them write their own and see how hard it is?” That was the first creative writing class, and it metamorphosed. When my father went to the University of Iowa [Writer’s] workshop in the ’60s it was one of six or eight. Now there are 200. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think it’s a good development. It smells like a racket to me.

RB: It seems to have paralleled the development of the MBA programs. It seems like they are factories. Add to that the economics of publishing are not hopeful for most writers…

AD: Admissions people ought to say, “It’s not a degree that’s gonna get you a job. You’re gonna be in debt, and you’re gonna have to still be waiting tables to pay this off. All it can give you, if you’re lucky enough to get the right teachers, is that you can compress the apprenticeship period and learn more, faster. That’s it.”

RB: And maybe you can get a teaching job.

AD: Maybe. But you probably won’t. Another thing that these things do give is a community. A lot of people don’t grow up with a writer in the family as I did. And it’s nice to know one or two or three people you like that you can share your work with and talk to at three in the morning about how hard it’s going. That’s a valuable thing to get.

RB: Don’t writing programs work against that? Isn’t there a lot of competition and jealousy?

AD: Yeah, it’s a real dark side of it. It really is. I tell my students I am not remotely interested in their careers. Or their academic lives. I’m not. I wish them all well.

RB: Students asking you where they should look for a job or how to groom themselves for a position…

AD: I wouldn’t know how to tell them. I don’t have any connections. I might know a few people who might know a few people who can talk to some other people and maybe you could get an interview with somebody for a job at the University of Maine or something.

I try to dissuade anybody from looking at this as a way to be a writer. It’s an insincere approach to this art form. I assume — and I tell this to my students — that they are here because they want to try and create art. Something beautiful in and of itself, that lives on its own. That will affect someone that will never love them. And let’s try and work and find what those tools are. Good luck. I hope wonderful things happen. But you may as well get into the lesson now that the real prize is just doing it. Everything else is gravy. Even then it’s not such gravy. Now you get reviewed. Anyone can say whatever they want. It’s not all good. They have this idea, I probably had it, too, that when you have this hard-covered book all a sudden you’ve arrived. No, now you just have another level of difficulty. Which is the nature of mature living. It’s the nature of adulthood. Reach this, and now bigger obstacles. Now I can climb a bigger mountain. Well, good here’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen, right in front of me. You climb that. There’s another mountain. And this one’s got lightning at the top and lava. And there’s a big hole…

RB: Everybody expects plateaus and sanctuaries in life.

AD: It is not like that. That expectation leads to marital failures and poor parenting choices. I’m not above any of it. I do it, too. But I do think we’re better off not doing it. I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but the more I hear about it the more I like it. This whole notion of being present in the moment, accepting what is, sounds very healthy and sounds like the way to go.

RB: You dated an Iranian woman around the time of the revolution. Did you know much about Iran?

AD: Not until I met her. I hadn’t heard of Iran. Like most teenage Americans, I was ignorant of all geography. She said she was from Persia. She explained it all to me. We were in a relationship for three or four years. In so far as you can have a relationship with a Persian girl who is loyal to her Shiite Muslim heritage. Which she was. Very interesting to go from late ’60s-early ’70s free love to dating a Muslim.

RB: She had been recently expatriated?

AD: Yeah. Her father was a retired Iranian colonel in the Shah’s air force. And that’s where I learned about the Shah. I learned about how corrupt the regime was. I learned more after I left that relationship and studied more about the CIA involvement in all sorts of cultures. And just how terrible the Shah was. How terrible the CIA was. And the fact that my friend was actually a part of that culture was interesting.

RB: And twenty years later this shows up in House of Sand and Fog. Complicated experience, the life of the Iranian exile…

AD: It’s much more a thing of face and pride. Much more about pride than comfort. For Americans it would be more about, “Hey, where’s the cash?” We like all that status stuff, but not as much as the Iranians.

RB: You explored the complexity of this Iranian exile family’s life. No one else has done that in American literature…

AD: I didn’t think of that before. I was relieved that an Iranian reviewer in San Francisco actually gave it a thumbs-up. She had some problems with my Farsi. Which is understandable. I tried to get right but some of my colloquialisms were mixed up. I’ll have to fix that for the paperback.

RB: How long did it take you to write this book?

AD: Four years. And this is having three children, working at, usually three campuses. And having a carpentry job. So on a good day, I get two hours in. I try to get no less than 90 minutes a day. I wrote most of this book longhand, in pencil, in my car. ‘Cause we live in a small half-house — with little kids it gets pretty loud. I didn’t have an office. I wrote most of it in my car in a graveyard near my house. It was very quiet. All year long. Crank up the heat in the winter. Bug spray in the summer. It took me three years to write the story and another year to type up 22 notebooks. And another six months of extensive revision after it was acquired by Norton.

RB: Extensive, meaning?

AD: “Murdering my darlings.” Like Faulkner. Cutting a lot that I liked. I tend to overwrite and then shave. My whole way of writing — nothing new or original — I try not to outline or think ahead, I try to let the characters go where they’re going to go. And I see where they go. And sometimes I write down a bunch of dead-end roads to find what it is.

RB: Were there always just three voices?

AD: Yeah. Actually I thought it was going to be two voices. Then Lester came in and completely surprised me. Him coming into the story was a complete surprise. I had no idea this guy was ever going to show up. Usually I can’t trace the genesis or origin of the stories. But in this one I could see some of the things that were knocking around in my subconscious for a few years. When I worked as a private investigator in Colorado, I worked for the U.S. Marshal who looked like the Lester I hopefully described in the book. A kind of lean, dark, masculine, yet something strong about him. He had a crooked mustache and he always looked sad. And he carried a big-assed gun. I could never get that out of my head. He showed up ten years later in this.

RB: Are you happy with this book?

AD: Yeah. I’m never completely happy. I’m always a little haunted by everything that I write. There’s always that feeling of ‘just give me one more year.’ But this one, I know it’s the most accomplished I’ve done. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’ve never worked harder. I found a new stamina for working and revision. I’ve always tried to revise and never take the short route in work. Whereas before I felt I could run eight or 10 miles, now I feel like pushed the 18 or 20 mile range. So I feel it’s a solid book and it’s the first time I’m looking forward to people reading it. Before I wouldn’t go out of my way to say I have a book…I’m really curious about what people think.

RB: The fate of the protagonist’s son, was that a given from the inception of this story?

AD: Nope. I can tell you that that was the hardest part of writing this. Sustaining the two voices. And trying to stay out of it. I was open to them never meeting. I did not want to contrive the action. So I just waited to see what happened. When things begin to escalate with her [Kathy’s] addiction. Which surprised me, too. I believed when she said she didn’t have an alcohol problem. And she starts to go over the edge and then Lester gets involved and things are escalating. I started to have a bad feeling. All along the way, I was completely open to — certainly there’s going to be a moment for some sanity, and there will be some moments for reconciliation, some moments for some talk. Some moments to work this thing out.

Frankly, I have a blessed life — I’m blessed with three healthy children, thank god. I have a really solid marriage. I have a creative outlet, and I make enough money to feed us. What the hell else more do I want? I don’t want to write a tragedy. I didn’t want to. But I also didn’t want to steer it. I think it’s important to allow it to be what it’s going to be. So to answer your question. No, I did not know it was coming, and if I did I don’t know if I could have written it, because I must have had to kill a part of myself to write that. Truman Capote says, “A writer should write as cool and detached as a surgeon.” I must have just have just anesthetized myself to stay in the scene and write it clearly. It only was after a year when I read the galleys that I allowed myself to feel the grief. In looking at it there’s a sense of guilt. Like, “C’mon man couldn’t you have done something nicer for these people?” Our job as writers is to try and find the particular truth of this particular experience. I think what happens happened. I have to let it say what it says…Not to say that we are all just conduits. We do have a lot of selectivity…little microchoices. But in order for it to go somewhere deep we have turn it over more to our intuition or gut.

RB: When you start out with the character Kathy, you don’t see her as a terminal loser with nothing going for her?

AD: No. I did see her as being on the down side of things. In a bad lull. I got the idea for that part of the story from a newspaper clipping about a woman who was kicked out of her house for failure to pay back taxes that she didn’t owe. She was an older woman. I actually brought this clipping to my first writing class at Emerson in 1990 to show these 18-year-olds that here’s a good place to get story ideas, these news briefs. Because you don’t know anything. Imagination has to fill in the details. Man shoots 15 dogs. Drinks 15 Pepsis. What’s that about? So I showed this clip about a woman being evicted and said someone should write about it. Well nobody did. I put it away, and I never forgot it. So I picked it up, and it never quite came together. Then I saw a clipping that the man who bought the house was named Mohammed. So that was sperm and egg. Something started to multiply and divide. I started to write about Kathy from the point of view of an older woman, but she very quickly metamorphosed into a younger woman who had these problems. Again, it was very subconscious, and it went back to an idea I had years ago. No, I wasn’t aware she was such a loser until I got deeper into her point of view. I didn’t know how unreliable she was, what a loose cannon she was. I always thought it was the colonel who was the loose cannon…

RB: He turns out to be the most sympathetic character.

AD: He was for me.

RB: Not only because of the plot. He showed civility and humanity and decency.

AD: That was a challenge, too. Because I did and do judge that whole scene [the Shah’s reign] as corrupt and awful. And what we did with our covert money to support oil profits for a few. It’s an old story with us. For a handful of white men we sacrificed thousands. So one of the challenges was not to prejudge this guy as a bad guy or I’d never get into his skin. Characters won’t let us in if we do that. Hemingway had a great thing to say about that. He said, “The job is not to judge but to seek to understand.” And it was easier for me because I knew a man like the colonel.

RB: Did many Iranians separate themselves from the Savak (the Shah’s secret police) the way the Germans separated themselves from the SS?

AD: Yeah. I love the analogy to the Third Reich. It got to be this, well that’s them, and this is me, and I’m not them. Well. But you are. You’re in the culture. You stand up, and your family gets shot. So it’s understandable, the lack of courage.

RB: The colonel as an outsider provides interesting commentary on American social values and behavior.

AD: The funny thing is — what I love about writing is — I didn’t have a notebook and put it in his mouth. I was him driving home, looking at the houses, looking at the TV lights. Thinking about Americans. And, of course Persians don’t sit in front of the TV for dinner. They sit and they talk. For three hours. I think it’s a real sickness to have those TVs on our dinner tables. It kills community, it kills families. It does more damage than we say. Of course, my opinions probably come through but they were him [the colonel] I was pleased to see it.

RB: Any interest in House of Sand and Fog as a movie?

AD: Yeah, there’s been some real preliminary interest. I actually had a producer call a month before it came out. Yeah, there’s some interest.

RB: Is that pro forma nowadays?

AD: This went out as a manuscript to some studio. And I thought, “Well that’s weird.” I have a friend who never sold her book, but sold the picture manuscript to Costa Gravas for big bucks. So she sort of won and lost. It seems pretty dangerous and weird.

RB: Do you read?

AD: I don’t read as much as I would like right now. That’s got to do with a busy life and three little kids. I’m not complaining — I’m blessed and I’m rich for it. It is the big missing chunk in my creative life. I probably read, if I’m lucky, a book a month. I liked to read about two a week. I read thousands of manuscript pages, and that feeds me. Somebody said, “The writer who doesn’t read, flourishes on the vine.” I realized after I finished the book that reading Richard Price‘s Clockers gave me the idea to do this novel with two voices.

RB: Boston is a community thick with fiction writers. Do you hang out and/or know a lot of writers around town?

AD: No. I’m kind of out of the scene, really. I not really a Boston boy. A lot of the established writers I’ve met through my father. They’re friends of his and have become friends of mine. And I meet people at Emerson where I teach. But, the writers I know are usually in my classes. Lot of my friends are in performing arts. My wife’s a dancer and choreographer, so a lot of them are actors and dancers, newspaper reporters, carpenters. I do a lot of carpentry work. So a lot of my friends are plumbers and electricians. It’s an amazingly rich community. In Newburyport, they had a fundraiser for the library. They invited all the published writers…30 showed up. I had no idea. Just in that 20-mile radius.

RB: How much do you think about the business?

AD: This can sound disingenuous with a book coming out and national tour, which is a new thing for me, and I’m enjoying it. I do think it’s important to not think about that when you’re writing. It’s wonderful to publish, and it’s very gratifying to hold that book. But I do think you really just have to concentrate on the work. And it can be very distracting, harmful to creativity to get wrapped up in thinking about sales and marketing. I know writers who abandon promising and exciting projects because they made the prejudgment that they would never sell. I think that’s like having a child and thinking, “I’ll never get so-and-so in to this school; we’re just going to move.” How do you know that’s going to happen in 20 years? You have to be in the moment. Write your damn book, and if you sell it, great. But it is a tough time.

RB: What do you intend to do for your tour audiences?

AD: Read from the book. Answer questions. I find it so hard to read from novels. I’d really rather read a short essay or a short story. I want to give ’em a whole experience. If the novel is a face, then I just give them a little piece of the nose. Hope that you can like the face…

RB: Given the explosion of author touring in the past few years, why hasn’t anyone tried to do something more than the predictable short reading followed by the Q & A?

AD: You mean like take off our clothes and dance? I’ve also acted consistently, on stage and small films throughout the last 20 years. I started doing both at the same time. It was very confusing in my 20s, I didn’t know if I was supposed to be an actor or a writer. It’s an American thing to think you have to make a decision. “What are you?” I do think there’s this pressure…When it comes to this reading thing, I try not to perform for a reason. It seems to me that this is a weird thing to do. Have these readings. Really, the experience is the book. We’re not performers. Some writers are also gifted speakers…and if they can do it wonderfully, good. It’s a weird thing to do. When I go to a reading I’m not really there to hear someone read something which is better when I read to myself anyway — usually most written work is better to read to yourself quietly than to hear read aloud. I’m really there to ask some questions. I try to keep my readings to 15 minutes and then talk for 30. Talk about writing, talk about the life. I’d like to get more time to talk…I try not to perform, I try not to be the monkey and the organ player…what gives me concern is that I want people to forget I wrote the book. It’s one of my fears about being Andre the Third, is that people get so interested in that story, or so wrapped up in what’s it like to have the same name and to be the son of the master writer, that they won’t read the book. So I want to disappear. I almost want to have anonymous on that book. Pynchon and these guys who don’t ever do interviews, who disappear–I think they’re on to something. You can be a little too elusive. I simply want people to forget who wrote the book and to practically forget they’re reading a book. Because I worked hard for them to get lost in the book. I do worry that my showing up will be a distraction.

RB: What do you see for the future in your life of writing? Is it possible that you might do something else?

AD: It’s possible. That’s a healthy way to look at it. I think we get caught up at looking at ourselves as writers. We lock ourselves into that noun and then stop growing in other ways. I can’t imagine not writing because I just don’t feel like myself when I don’t. I also do some acting. When I’m not acting I feel fine. I can go years. I can’t go three or four days without writing and not feel a little askew. There’s some weird thing that happens when you get some commercial success or worldly recognition. A friend said, “What you’ve been working for all these years has finally happened.” A very American response. My first thought was, “Have I been working for this?” And I thought, “Well, no.” This is nice, I won’t say no to it. But I have been working on trying to write better. That’s it. I’ve been working on trying to write better stuff. If this is one of the by products of that. Great. But I’ve really been working on improving my use of abstract language. On not being so literal. On allowing different kinds of characters to come in. Been working on the thing. So when you say what do you see for the future, I hope that writing is part of it. I try not to think about writing more books. Right now there’s this pressure… I’m working on weird length 50-page stories that are coming out of me. They take a year each. They’re kind of hard to publish.

RB: You have no commitment to a particular form: novel, short story, essay, novella?

AD: I really don’t. I’ve published two novels, but I’ve probably written five. They’re what I like to read most, even though I come from a short-story-writing family. I get more turned on by a big, fat book. I really like getting lost in a big, fat novel. Someone once said to me that you try and write what you like. I don’t know if my natural palette or canvas is the novel, but I hope that when I start something it will be a novel. Not because they’re easier to sell, but because I like novels… I try to stay focused on career. My wife is a creative artist. We want to do a play together. We want to write it and act in it. I know that if I don’t do these things — and it feels like writing is a daily part of it — I won’t be myself. I hope that all that’s in the future, because to imagine without it is to imagine me no longer living. It’s that serious for me. It’s that essential a part of who I feel I am. When the world starts knocking; tours, interviews, book publication, it’s always a little disorienting and confusing. Frankly, Rocky II is about that. Budd Schulberg wrote about it. I forget the title. But the whole premise is that in America success is failure and failure is success. How when you get that golden wand it will really do a number on your creativity, your muse, your spirit. And it can be very disorienting; unless you are fully grounded in some other ways, it can really throw you. I try not to think of the outside world too much. Which goes back to your first question, why even try being a writer. I do it for the doing. It’s like a yoga practice. And every few years if I’m lucky there’ll be a book. And it does feel like a piece of good fortune because it does feel like a completion of the act. If you’re gonna be in your garage working on your songs, why not open the doors one day and play it for someone?

Copyright 2000 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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