Andre Dubus III on his father’s life and works
Andre Dubus III is the author of several books, including the New York Times’ bestsellers House of Sand and Fog, The Garden of Last Days and his memoir, Townie. His most recent book, Gone So Long, was published this month. Mr. Dubus has been a finalist for the National Book Award and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Magazine Award for Fiction. He is also a 2012 recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. He teaches full-time at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Fontaine, and their three children.
The following interview was done via email, with technical help from Joshua Bodwell, and has been lightly edited for content. Mr. Dubus was interviewed in response to the re-launch of his father's fiction in a three-volume set of “Collected Short Stories and Novellas” by David R. Godine. Edited by Joshua Bodwell, the new volumes include introductions by Ann Beattie, Richard Russo and Tobias Wolff.
Franklin Freeman: The first book by your father I read was Voices From the Moon, and I remember thinking, “Who is this guy?” Particularly because he wrote about spiritual themes as if they were a natural part of life—I’m thinking of the boy in that book who wants to be a priest. Do you remember anything about the writing of that novella, and did your father ever have problems being published because he wrote about people that had spiritual, particularly Catholic, lives?
Andre Dubus III is the author of House of Sand and Fog and a memoir, Townie. A complete collection of his father’s short stories has just been published.
Andre Dubus III: I don’t remember much about the actual writing of Voices From the Moon because my father rarely talked about anything he was working on while he was working on it. Instead, he seemed to prefer to keep that daily creative act private, as private as his own Christian faith, though I do have a vivid memory of him showing me the cover of the new book the day he received it in the mail from his publisher, Godine.
This would have been some time in the early ’80s when I was in my 20s and my dad was in his 40s. It was a sunny spring afternoon on the campus of Bradford College, the small liberal arts college where he taught for 20 years. [Editor's note: Bradford College closed in 2000.] For some reason, I was on campus that day, maybe to meet him for a beer. We were both standing outside the bookstore with its manager, the poet Mike Hutcheson, and my father was in his trademark jeans and leather vest, and he wore brown leather boots he would buy from a man in Montreal. His beard was trimmed neatly as always, his thinning hair combed back, and he was holding out to me and Mike the new book cover. It was a lovely image of apples spilled out of a brown paper bag lying on its side, the background an earthy brown. Beneath the title, Voices From The Moon, were the words “a novel.” I was surprised because my father only wrote short fiction. I asked him about this, and he said, “It’s a novella, son, but publishers have to sell books.”
If my father had a hard time getting his work published due to its largely Christian lens, I don’t know about it.
For years, whenever my father would finish writing a short story (and throughout his 40s, he wrote about three a year), he’d make Xerox copies for his friends and us kids and inscribe them to each of us. He had not yet done that with this new, long one, and so I had no idea what it was about. But standing there under the sun holding his new book cover, he looked to me like a man who suspected he may have just written something very much worth reading, that he may have succeeded on this one and not failed. As you probably know, until my father was crippled in a car accident in 1986, he began each day by walking to the nearby Catholic church for its 7 a.m. Mass. He did this, or tried to, seven days a week. That was how he prepared for his daily writing.
If my father had a hard time getting his work published due to its largely Christian lens, I don’t know about it. Because he wrote so well and deeply about the human condition, his editorial rejections were few and far between, as far as I know. His biggest publishing challenge had more to do with his being a writer of short stories as opposed to the more commercial form, the novel.
FF: Another aspect of your father’s work I admire is that he presents people making messes of their lives, often because of adultery, but I never get the glib feeling from his work that I sometimes get when reading about adultery in Roth or Updike, that boys-will-be-boys attitude. Did your father ever talk about Roth or Updike’s works and what in general did he think of the fiction of his time?
My father was never glib about the pain that cheating on a marriage can cause.
AD: I agree with you about this; my father was never glib about the pain that cheating on a marriage can cause. I do know, however, that he admired John Updike’s work very much and described him once to me, in my profound and youthful ignorance, as “a major figure.” I don’t recall my father ever speaking specifically about Philip Roth, though there were quite a few Roth novels in my father’s (and mother’s) library. As far as the fiction of his time goes, I know he respected a lot of the work of Norman Mailer and E. L. Doctorow, who was a family friend and the editor of my father’s first book and only novel, The Lieutenant.
Like most writers, my father read widely (he left us children over 2,000 books), and he was also a big fan of well-written mystery novels, particularly by his old friend, James Crumley, and his gifted first cousin, James Lee Burke. He also devoured the books of the French mystery writer, Georges Simenon. But my father’s most passionate reading, it seems to me, was of other contemporary short story writers, particularly John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and his favorite from his time, Gina Berriault. Not long before my father’s death in 1999, I walked into his house to find him crying in his wheelchair. He was holding a letter, and it was from Gina Berriault, who’d written to him about how deeply she admired his work.
FF: Your father was a devout Catholic. How did he live his faith day to day? Did he read the Bible, religious books, say the rosary?
AD: Because I did not live with my father after the age of 10, I can only answer this question from that kind of distance. I do believe, however, that for years my father kept a copy of the New Testament beside his bed that he read from, though I’m pretty certain he read far more of the fiction stacked there. As I said above, until my father was run over and then spent the last 12 and a half years of his life in a wheelchair, he tried to attend Mass seven mornings a week. After he was crippled, he would have various lay people come by his house to administer Communion. I know, too, that my father said the rosary daily, something I don’t know how to do and know little about.
FF: Auberon Waugh totally rejected his father’s Catholicism because of his father’s cruelties to his family. I’m wondering how the interaction of your father’s life and faith affected the faith and religious lives of you and your family. Do you consider yourself Catholic, go to Mass, pray? (I don’t mean to imply your father was as cruel as Waugh sometimes was, just that, being a father myself, children don’t always follow the faith of their fathers.)
AD: I do not consider myself a Catholic, though that was the church in which I was baptized. When our father lived with us before the divorce, he and our mother would take us to church on Sundays, a tradition he tried to maintain after the divorce. But the rituals of the church never quite spoke to any of us four kids, and when we became teenagers we began to balk at going (and not being able to sleep late on Sundays!), and our father eventually relented. (Our mother’s faith was far weaker than our dad’s, so she was fine with that, too. She also had serious problems with the church’s stance on divorce and birth control, etc.)
I am not an atheist, nor do I believe that anyone’s listening either, but still, I pray.
Like many people, I have a complicated relationship with the church and organized religion, in general. When I consider all the innocent blood shed over the ages in the name of God, be it through a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim vision, it turns my stomach. I see immense hypocrisy, and then of course there is the widespread crime of pedophile priests shielded by bishops and popes to protect the church’s name, and my heart goes cold for all of it. That said, while I personally do not believe in a god or some all-knowing, all-powerful entity who knows and cares about me, I do believe in the divine. I believe there is something invisible and maybe even benevolent in and around us at all times all our lives long. I do not believe in absolute good or absolute evil. Until my wife and I had our first child 25 years ago, I do not believe I had prayed even once. Though I have been doing it daily for years for our now three children. I am not an atheist, nor do I believe that anyone’s listening either, but still, I pray.
So, no, I have not followed my father’s faith. I go to Mass only once a year and that’s for his annual memorial Mass arranged each year by one of our father’s old friends. My wife, however, is a quietly devout Christian, Greek Orthodox, and I’ve seen over the years how her faith has sustained her. I saw it do the same for my father, too, and I wish I had that, but I do not.
FF: Did your father have a favorite spiritual writer? Miguel de Unamuno? Leo Tolstoy?
AD: If my father had a favorite “spiritual writer,” I don’t know who that would be, though I have a hunch he would reject the phrase entirely. His favorite writer of all time was Anton Chekhov, his artistic mentor, an artist whose work was substantial and true enough, one could certainly call it “spiritual.”
FF: Did he ever talk with you about God? What do you remember most vividly him saying about God or the church?
My father’s daily habit of attending [Mass] had far more to do with the sacramental rituals he found there than the church itself.
AD: I have no memory whatsoever of my father ever talking to me, or any of his kids, about God. Maybe he did, but I remember nothing. As far as the church goes, his daily habit of attending [Mass] had far more to do with the sacramental rituals he found there than the church itself. All his life, my father refused to put any money is the offerings basket. He did not believe that God, or Jesus, had any interest in their followers investing in buildings and electric bills. And I heard him, more than once, say that real priests should be living on beans and rice, as the poor do, if they’re lucky enough to get that.
FF: In one your father’s essays, he mentions a book by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. How interested was he in Buddhism and other religions?
AD: I do not believe my father had an abiding interest in religions other than his own, though I do know that he admired the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhist thought, in general. I may be mistaken about this, but I have a vague memory of someone giving my dad a copy of one of Nhat Hanh’s books to help my father cope with being confined to a wheelchair. I believe Nhat Hanh’s voicing the Buddhist concept of acceptance, among other things, was helpful to my father then.
FF: I have heard, from Josh Bodwell, that Richard Russo felt angry at your father while reading Townie and realized it was because of his own “dad” issues. I felt the same—in fact, I did not read past the part where your father walks away from your family because of my own “dad” issues. It was too painful. But Josh says you always say, I’ve forgiven my father, so you should do the same. Why and how should we forgive our fathers? And how can we be better ones?
AD: I’m no authority on forgiveness, but I do believe that my father, who was very young when he became a husband and a father, in his early 20s, did the best that he knew how to do at the time, which, of course, is not the same as doing the best he could do. This is true for all of us, though, isn’t it? And that’s where the potential for growth comes in. None of us are exempt from screwing up. I believe strongly, and I have a hunch my father would agree with me on this, that in his 62 years on the planet, my father put the very best part of himself into his writing. Everything else, including his wife and children, came after that. A close second I would add. But after that.
This way of being led to a masterful body of work, led to the kind of art that can change lives, art that will continue to live on for years and years. But there were costs to this. To him. To us, his six children (and ex-wives). On some level, I think my father knew he wouldn’t have a very long life, and he needed to get to that desk. Well, I’m grateful that he did just that.