After dazzling critics and readers alike with the novels The Garden of Last Days and House of Sand and Fog, the last thing one might expect from author Andre Dubus III is a memoir about his adolescence and rise to maturity in New England. Dubus uses his talents to describe his initiation into the culture of violence in Massachusetts’ mill towns and his complex, challenging relationship with his father, the famed short-story writer Andre Dubus.
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What is Townie about, and what story does it tell?
I’d say this book is about a lot of things—what happens to families after a divorce, the deep challenges of trying to raise children in the midst of poverty, the father/son relationship and how divorced fathers get left out of their sons’ growing masculine identities—but I think the heart of this book is an exploration of the roots of physical violence, the experience of it as both a victim and a perpetrator and how the human creative impulse, which seems to me inherently empathic, can lead to peace.
You’re well known for your novels but this is a very personal story. How did you come to write a memoir?
I came to write Townie almost by accident. I was working on an essay about baseball, but I knew very little about it and, in fact, had watched only two games by the age of 40. So the question became this: how did I miss baseball as a kid? What was I doing instead? Over 500 pages later, I could see clearly what I’d been doing: living in poverty with my three siblings and single mother in a string of rented houses in Massachusetts mill towns, getting bullied then learning how to fight till that’s all I seemed to do anymore, then discovering creative writing which changed everything.
The sequences about your fights are gripping, but observant, too. What are some of the challenges in writing about physical violence?
Writing about physical violence is challenging in the same way writing about sex is challenging; you have to walk this fine line between being too explicit and too idealistic. If you write too explicitly, the reader is just watching a physical action, like it’s pornography. If the writing is working too hard to show the beauty or ugliness of the act, then the reader gets a romantic treatment of the subject, which strikes me as dishonest. So, because I, like a lot of people, know first hand what being in a physical fight feels like, I worked hard in this book to simply capture that on every level I possibly could—its physical choreography, its emotional and spiritual dimensions while engaged in the act, etc., and I tried to do all this without moral judgment, though that certainly shows itself later on.
Writing memoir and writing fiction are often described as being very different experiences. What was your experience in crafting memories into a narrative?
What surprised me most about writing memoir as opposed to fiction is that it feels very much like writing a novel, even though what you’ve written is rooted in your memory of actual events. For the memoirist, the story is already there, so now he or she can simply work on capturing what it was like, what it was really like, which, of course, is entirely subjective and leads to all sorts of small and large decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out.
Much of the book is about your father’s absence and his influence on your life. How important is that facet to Townie?
My father’s absence from my life as a kid shows up as a central experience here, something that actually surprised me. One of the things I love about writing is what it can teach the writer. I had thought for years that my rage as a young fighter came from having been bullied, but that was only part of it. There was also the grief of the abandoned child. And there was the chaos that was our domestic life, and more. Nothing is simple about people, it seems.
How much influence did your father have on your development as a writer?
We lived in small rented houses with thin walls, so every day when our father sat down to write, we four kids would have to go outside and play or be quiet. For years I thought that everyone’s dad did that, closed themselves off in a room to write stories. Later, when I was in my 20s and finding myself on the artistic road, I realized that I viewed that road as just as legitimate a direction to take as law, medicine or anything else. It was that memory of my father going to that room daily that did this for me, and that’s his essential influence.