Andre Dubus III: How “The Fighter” Became The Writer

Andre Dubus III has written a Dickensian memoir in a Mark Wahlberg sort of setting. Townie is the tale of a bullied little boy (eldest son of a Louisiana family in a broken-down Massachusetts mill town) becoming, first, a one-punch knockout street fighter, and later a National Book Award finalist for The House of Sand and Fog. Strangely, beautifully, painfully along the way, he finds himself coming into the same demanding vocation — writing — that had drawn his famous father away from a severely neglected family.

The story unfolds in the 1970s along the Merrimack River, just downstream from the scene of Wahlberg’s almost-Oscar movie, “The Fighter.” We’re in the same rough bars with the same wacko clans, hearing the same bad Boston accents — his friend Cleary says he’s always “hawny in the mawning.” As in Dickens, we are confronting social squalor in the home of the great imperial nation and wondering where the glory went — or where it is hiding in the town, even now.

There’s a lot of wondrously authentic energy in Andre Dubus’s voice, on the page and in our conversation. I remarked to him: Townie reads like David Copperfield, with heaps of crystal meth, junk TV, Fritos and Vietnam thrown in. He’s speaking here about his own memory of metamorphosis, as the crysalis of the thug breaks and the artist starts to spread his wings:

It’s something that was semi-conscious, this thought of the membrane in my life, and then became more clarified as I began to describe it in this book. … One thing that I realized, I would see people that weren’t experienced fighters, and they would do this shoving match thing: “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Experienced fighters don’t do any foreplay; once they know it’s a fight situation they pound you in the face as hard as they can. … Once you learn how do it, that psychological hymen in you is always broken. You can always do it. Once you break through it you’ll know how to do it and you’ll keep doing it. And that’s the barrier; once you learn to cross that you can fight.

But to the writing: I had a very interesting, strange experience when I first began to write. It felt so familiar, and I couldn’t quite place what it was. But it was another kind of membrane, where I was allowing myself to seep into the being, into the private skin of another, an imaginary other. I had to somehow disappear to become them, in the same way as a fighter. I had to let my fear of my safety disappear and my sense of myself disappear.

Andre Dubus III in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 1, 2011.

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  • Tom Driscoll

    Great interview Chris! Mr. Dubus is one of the most intriguing people to have come on your show.

  • Andre Dubus III’s interpretation of art as balm resonate with Andre Malraux’s insight: “The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.”
    Les Noyers de l’Altenburg

    Dubus starts in the territory of “Look Back in Anger” (John Osborne) and “The Hidden Injuries of Class” (Richard Sennett) but manages to “tread the grapes of wrath into the wine of life.”

  • M. Gosaca

    Thank you for another fascinating interview. Dubus eloquently tells us that the child in him would punch the wife beater in the face, but that the man in him wants to talk to the wife beater since he now understands that violence only creates more violence and there is a problem with male agression in this country … and yet earlier in the interview he very aggressively advocates violence against Quadaffi, “guns first, art later” or something like that. I found this contradiction startling.

  • chris

    My bad, dear M. Gosaca. I heard M. Dubus say about Libya: “poetry later, guns now.” And thought, too late: “isn’t that what we always do — ‘because we can,’ and because our foreign policy always tends to deal off those three emotions he cited, “aggression, aggression, aggression.” And of course they come quickly to ruin and tears. So maybe the question for all of us is: when does a personal transformation lead to political understanding? Thanks for the comments.

  • nother

    Something tells me that if I ran into Mr. Dubus in a bar in Haverhill, in the first two minutes he would work into the conversation that he had been (which is code for: “is”) a tough guy. I can see it now, I would then ante up my own tough guy anecdotes, but alas I’d still be in his hood and would defer to his alpha male. So we’d shoot back our Buds with dignity and be clever with our sarcasm. Only days later when I stopped swearing would I wonder why so many men need to regress to relax. Often the fight is with ourselves, wrestlling with the legacy of our parents or even our looks, good or bad.

    The cynic in me says this writer wants to be the Mark Wahlberg of letters – it pays the bills to be a sensitive and settled “fighter,” you make the aristocrats feel safe and cool, and in return you feel safe and cool because your hanging around aristocrats and you can kick their ass. Smart to the tough guys and tough to the smart guys. Smart and tough to women. I like the math.

    But I have not read this writers work YET and my rash and harsh judgment stems from the frustration I feel at the overwrought Irish-esq white guy tough guy stuff around Boston that’s starting to make me puke. It’s a dangerous identity that is too easily slipped on in lieu of serenity. The whole thing was a good TV movie of the week from 1988 but we need to move on.

    With that said, Mr. Dubus intrigues me with the notion that a man can be a reporter from the front lines of macho. I’ve never really been the alpha male but I’ve played in the same circus rink with those dudes and I’ve witnessed that confident desperation that drives the play, I’ve just never had the balls or clarity to report on it.

    Bottom line though is I like his line about realizing it was time to stop “being seen, and to start seeing.” Amen.

    • Denise Simard

      nother said: “The cynic in me says this writer wants to be the Mark Wahlberg of letters – it pays the bills to be a sensitive and settled “fighter,” you make the aristocrats feel safe and cool, and in return you feel safe and cool because your hanging around aristocrats and you can kick their ass”

      Read the rest of his work. He’s the real thing. And you know what makes me love him more? That if you’ve read his other books, and then you read the memoir, you realize that this kid who grew up with a world view that went as far a Hampton Beach has written–believably– as an Iranian patriarch, a single mother, a widow, etc. That’s not a poseur, that’s someone with talent.

      As far as the Irish-esque Boston thing, I for one, appreciate seeing it in literature and film. I grew up in a working class city 5 mins from Boston. The people I grew up with weren’t like the Minots or Updikes of the North Shore, the Schlessingers of Cambridge; the artsy and educated liberal people the rest of the world imagines populates the Boston area.

      They were carpenters and plasterers and a helluva lot like Andre Dubus.

  • Although the author sounds intelligent and interesting, I won’t read his book, because I am done with memoirs. Memoirs are everywhere, and as a novelist, committed to the truths of fiction, I resent the popularity of “reality.” If this book had been a novel–a reimagination of life rather than self-promotion of the writer–then I would have been happy to pick it up. But a book that claims to tell “the truth” … that kind of book I just don’t trust.

  • Potter

    The excerpt Dubus read brought to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist- sort of– the feeling about being Catholic mixed with the reality of tough family and street life. But this is Boston. The conversation continues about wanting to punch people in the face and then coming back in this conversation to wonderful personal aphorisms and mainstay literary quotes about keeping from it , or making it art. He is not the first angry man to channel the anger into art to save himself and then even to turn it into love. But we are talking about men and fighting here aren’t we? even though Dubus has a lot of sympathy for his mother’s burden. Women find other ways to work out the anger- not through punches. Maybe by arguing better, but ultimately through caring and of course by turning to art too.. even if it’s a dish. For many, myself, this works better where religion fails.

    I like the contradiction in what he said on the one hand about us needing to go to Libya to get rid of that guy ( kick ass?)- the only way, it’s clear, that Qaddafi is going to go. Then on the other hand, Dubus says that he wants nothing to do with violence because it breeds more violence. I know the feeling.

    I also love his search for, insistance on, sincerity–which is, as Dubus says, not having an idea about oneself.

    He’s probably an excellent, interesting teacher.

  • Emily Corwith

    I think it would be fun to go out on a date with this guy!

  • Many favorite parts to this interview, including one I liked so much I transcribed it:

    William Stafford the poet said, “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” He described receptivity as 1) a willingness to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and 2) a willingness to fail. If you do that, and you combine that with concrete, sensual, specific detail, active verbs and lean mean language, which can be taught, it always leads to characters in trouble. It’s just where it goes. Because guess what? We’re all in trouble. At all times, and that’s normal. It’s nothing to bitch and moan about. In America we bitch and moan, because we’re supposed to be happy. That’s why we’re sick. We’re not supposed to be happy, we’re supposed to be joyous—which includes grief, by the way. That’s my soap box. I’m off it.

    Also three other keeper quotes about writing…

    The job of the writer is not to judge but to seek to understand.

    That Grace Paley line, We write what we don’t know we know.

    I love that Ian Foster line, how do I know what I think until I say it?

    [to which I would add, or write it]

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