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Interrogation: Andre Dubus III
Blood & Whiskey interview with the author of Such Kindness
Okay, I lied… Last month I announced that I’d be creating more of these author “Interrogations” like the one I recently did with Megan Abbott…
I intended to start putting these posts behind a subscription paywall. Maybe I will at some point, but for now I’m keeping them free. How can I deny you the chance to hear Andre Dubus III talk eloquently and passionately about writing, about money and poverty, about the value of work, the vast capacity of the novel, his love of a good pilsner and his faith in other human beings?
The author of House of Sand and Fog and the brilliant memoir, Townie, Dubus’s latest book, Such Kindness (which I reviewed last month) is a beautiful and heartbreaking story about a man who, through a few bad breaks, lost everything he once cherished — his job, his health, his wife, son, home… Tom Lowe is a broken man, living in subsidized house (“the 8”), recovering from his addiction to oxycontin (“O river”), and struggling to find a reason to get up each day. The beauty of Tom’s story is seeing him move ever so slowly toward a renewed faith in others, and then in himself. I spoke with Dubus by Zoom. Check out our conversation below — in video, audio, and a sampling of transcript (i.e. “What I love about the novel form, I just love how much it can hold. It can hold an afternoon. It can hold cities and centuries and generations…”)
But first… These interviews and other occasional off-cycle posts will begin to appear in a new “Interrogations” section on the homepage of my Blood & Whiskey newsletter. If you’re able to support my writing here, subscriptions are 5 bucks a month (one latte!) or $50 a year. If you can’t afford a subscription right now, email me and I’ll waive the fee. If you can? Thank you, thank you!
(Just a sampling…)
Andre: So, Blood and Whiskey? Is that from a Tom Waits lyric?
Neal: That’s exactly what it’s from. That’s pretty good.
Andre: I’m a Tom Waits fan.
Neal: Loved the book. Really intense read and a transformative reading experience. I didn’t know what I was going to think of Tom Lowe when I started to get to know him in the early pages of the book and … It’s a slow burn, watching Tom slowly become something a little bit better than who he is when we meet him on the first pages. So I thought I’d just start out … I’m a big fan of opening lines and the first words of your book are, “A good Samaritan drives us through softly falling snow under street lights that have come on early.” Just curious if you can remember what stage you wrote that at in the process and what do you feel it says about the story to come?”
Andre: I sure can … That line actually was probably on page 150 for a long time. It was deep into it because the way I began the. Or was in real time. He’s driving Trina to sell her plasma for rent when his car gets towed. And I really just followed him through all sorts of horrible things happening in his already tough life. And it was frankly too much to drag the reader through.
Andre: So you know, I love these two definitions or distinctions between story and plot by the writer Janet Berwick. And I use it all the time in my classes, you know, ‘cause you can talk all night long about what story and plot means, especially plot. I read a lot of elegant definitions over the years, but what she says is story is essentially a causal sequence of events, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And I love that. And I think it’s all about causality. This happened and this happened and this happened. And of course it can be internal. It can be all internal things that happen which caused you to make a phone call, but... Plot, she would argue, and I agree with her, is how you arrange that causal sequence of events. And of course, that arrangement comes in after you’ve sort of dreamed your story through, and then you look at it with the sharp eye, you read it like a reader, and then you make choices.
So that’s a long-winded way of answering your question — that first line was probably the, you know, thousandth line but it seemed a better… Ted Kooser’s got a great line — I’m pretty sure it’s the poet Ted Kooser — who said the beginning of a book is the hand you offer the reader.
Neal: Inviting them in.
Andre: I’d never written a novel from one point of view and I wanted to see if I could do that. What I love about the novel form, I just love how much it can hold. It can hold an afternoon. It can hold cities and centuries, and you know generations. But I’d read a few novels recently before writing this one that were in one point of view and I thought, I’d like to try that. One human, one situation, see it through for a few hundred pages and see if you can maintain it.
Neal: It’s a small space and a small world that Tom inhabits. But, little by little, a lot happens in that small space … There’s this quality of the book that feels very close and at times uncomfortable and at times I didn’t want to be with Tom. I wanted him to just fucking snap out of it and get his shit together and that just doesn’t happen in life. But one of the things that comes through is, you know, faith in other people, one of the characters says, “Sometimes I lose faith in people, but meeting you helped me today.” And little by little you see people having faith and Tom and Tom having faith in himself, right? And so do you have faith in other people, where do you fall on this?
Andre: I do. You know one of my great sadnesses of the last 15 or 20 years is everyone’s staring at a phone in their hands. And it really breaks my heart. As someone who’s taught college-age kids for over 30 years I’ve seen their generational joy plummet. And it’s not climate change and mass shootings, which are serious and horrible and bad enough. It’s staring at that screen for hours a day and mostly staring at bullshit. And I don’t blame them. They’ve gotten addicted by these little shits in Silicon Valley who did it. That’s why I don’t have an iPhone. That’s why I’ve never sent a text, it’s why I’ve never been on social media, it’s why I have a flip phone. I’m never going there. My point, though, to answer your question, is… one of my favorite moments from a Mary Oliver poem: Pay attention, be astonished. Tell about it. … How can you be astonished if you’re not paying attention?
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And it's a battered old suitcase
To a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal
No prima donna, the perfume is on
An old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey…
-Tom Waits, “Tom Traubert’s Blues”
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