To a certain extent, Harry Winslow, one of the key characters in Indiscretion, Charles Dubow’s debut novel, lives something close to his author’s dream. Harry, a National Book Award winning author, and his wife Maddy summer in the Hamptons, engaging in the boozy, lively existence of wealthy artists. There’s something pleasantly old-fashioned—the word Gatsby-esque comes to mind—about Harry and Maddy’s sun-soaked life of cocktail parties and boating expeditions.
But the rarefied world isn’t a fantasy for Dubow—in fact, that’s where the author grew up. “I was lucky,” Dubow confesses. “My parents had this house out in the East Hamptons and knew a bunch of artists, pretty well-known people.”
Not only did Dubow grow up in the luxurious world where his first novel is set, but he also travelled the world, trying out different professions. Shepherd in New Zealand, painter in London, congressional aide in Washington, D.C.—Dubow seems to have done it all, and it shows in the depth and quality of his writing.
Maybe the only stop not in Dubow’s history is an MFA program. His skill as a writer comes from a life spent working, travelling, and trying (and often failing) to write fiction. Dubow admits his earlier work just wasn’t good enough. “I’d written a couple unpublished novels,” Dubow says. “I was trying to do it and I got frustrated.” Eventually, as he reached his 30s, his life called for more security and he settled as a freelance journalist in New York. “I was married. I needed benefits.”
So in 1997, David Churbuck and Christopher Buckley (Thank You for Smoking) enlisted Dubow as an editor at the newly launched Forbes website. Initially, Dubow thought this job would give him time to keep writing fiction.
He was wrong. The unfinished and unpolished novels stayed in the proverbial desk drawer. Instead of penning the great American novel, Dubow served as Executive Editor of Forbes lifestyle coverage for nine years and became a trusted writer on the extravagant world of high-end cars, goods, and vacations. Dubow’s style, sometimes derided as “wealth porn,” helped set the mold for luxury writing and has since been imitated by other publications.
Churbuck, a longtime media and marketing executive, says Dubow is a natural fit for writing both lifestyle pieces and novels. “He’s lived it,” Churbuck says. “He’s the only person I know who’s gone grouse hunting in Scotland and knows the bartender at the Ritz in Paris.”
Having an all-consuming “day job” at an age when some novelists are peaking gave Dubow a break from writing that he didn’t even know he needed. It helped, Dubow says, “to get away from it for a long time, but still to have that itch, as opposed to keeping on doing it, getting frustrated, running into brick walls.”
After leaving Forbes for Business Week, Dubow decided to focus on the novel that became Indiscretion. The characters had occurred to him years earlier, and Dubow says he “had a couple pages of synopsis that I carried around for a long time.” Between his job and his family, there wasn’t any time left for his fiction.
Finally, as he hit his 40s, Dubow realized he kept thinking about these characters and he needed to write the book. “I was feeling a little gun-shy,” Dubow says. “Then I said, ‘I’ve got to make the time.’” He started waking up at 5 a.m. every morning and writing until 7 a.m., when he had to wake up his children and head to work.
The novel was worth the wait. Dubow’s cosmopolitan life, not to mention his years polishing sentences for the web, create a world that’s believable and a story that, despite its centering on the rich, is compelling to readers of all backgrounds.
Indiscretion begins when Claire, a young woman from New York City, finds herself face-to-face with Harry, a writer whose work she admires. Over the course of a summer, Claire works her way closer and closer to Harry, Maddy, and Walter, Maddy’s oldest friend, who also narrates the novel. It’s no spoiler, then, to say the reader can feel a crisis brewing as Claire falls for Harry. The ripple effects of their relationship drive the novel and throw everyone’s lives into upheaval.
Choosing Walter to narrate Indiscretion is a bold move that pays off. Walter feels a grave responsibility to be faithful to the truth. “Why am I the narrator of this story?” Walter asks towards the beginning of the novel. “I am because it is the story of my life—and of the people I love most…I had no choice other than to try to make sense of [this story]. But making sense of anything is never easy, particularly this story.”
From the start, the reader senses that Walter’s tone is too nostalgic and wistful for Indiscretion to have a happy ending. “You want to telegraph [the ending] a little bit,” Dubow says. “But you know I think it’s good to have a couple twists. Give [readers] a reason to read the whole thing, right?”
Yet it took Dubow years to show his manuscript in progress to many people. Even some of his closest friends and colleagues didn’t know about the book.
“I didn’t tell anybody [about the book],” Dubow says. “Partly out of superstition and partly because is there anything more pathetic than a middle-aged guy saying he was working on a book on the side? It sounds so lame and I just kept my mouth shut.”
After a couple years, Dubow felt ready to ask Sharyn Rosenblum, a friend who also happens to be Senior Director of Media Relations at Harper Collins, for feedback on the manuscript.
“I knew him for a few years before I knew he was a writer,” Rosenblum says. Having a friend ask you to read his or her novel is, of course, one of the publishing world’s occupational hazards. After all, what if the book isn’t very good? “It’s really tricky when a friend tells you they’ve written anything,” Rosenblum says. “I was nervous.”
Until she read the book. Soon, Rosenblum showed the manuscript to Henry Ferris, William Morrow’s VP and Executive Editor, and Dubow’s literary life began in earnest.
Dubow knows he’s getting a late start on the novelist’s life. “Look,” he says. “I’m 49, almost 50, I’m trying to make up for lost time.” Now that Indiscretion has been published, Dubow has devoted his unbelievable discipline and seemingly inexhaustible drive into writing full time. “I have another book that I wrote in almost a month in August. I finished the first draft of my second book, and had something else I wanted to start on, that’s a 300 page book, so I wrote that. Now, I’m working on a lot of short stories.” Dubow’s too superstitious to share the topic of his future books. “It is not Indiscretion 2. Nor will it be about zombies” is all he’ll share.
Dubow understands his journey to publication was unlikely and circuitous, and he hopes it serves as an inspiration to other writers. “There’s a lot of people out there in the world,” Dubow says. “Whether they’re a writer, they want to make wine, open a restaurant, they have a lot of dreams they want to attain.…Maybe it’s not too late, maybe you can still surprise yourself and make things happen. Just because you’ve been told ‘no’ a lot of times doesn’t mean you can give up if you still believe in yourself.”
Dubow pauses, as if regretting sounding emotional.
“It sounds hokey,” he says. “But that’s what I did.”
This time next year, considering the rapidly accumulating rave reviews (including a rare star from Kirkus), Dubow may share even more than a rarefied life with the award-laden Harry Winslow—Dubow may just earn himself some real-life literary awards.
Richard Z. Santos is working on his first novel. He's a member of NBCC and PEN; his work has appeared in Nimrod, The Rumpus, The San Antonio Express News, and many other publications.