Dirty Love— a collection of novellas– focuses on what draws people toward one another and what pulls people apart in the name of love. What happens when fear, ego, power, desire and raw feelings influence our decisions? Beautifully written, evocative, emotionally wrought with layered characters and impossible situations. Love isn’t always what one expects it to be. Love can be emotional or physical. Love can be a bit of both. The writing never hides anything but peels away ugliness like a sunburn sloughs away one’s skin. There’s a wonderful sense of place and setting. Dark, gritty hideouts described with intricate detail. These characters and stories remains with you after the last page.
I recently spoke with Andre Dubus III by phone during a stop on his current book tour.
Amy Steele: Garden of Last Days is one of my favorite 9/11 novels, one of the best novels I’ve read. I loved it so much. And it’s being adapted into a film?
Andre Dubus III: Well James Franco pulled out of directing it but it’s still optioned by Gerard Butler’s production company. I think it’s still going to get made. I really appreciate you saying that because I don’t think enough people talk about it and I think it’s a better novel than anything I’ve ever written.
Amy Steele: Did you do a lot of research for (the novel)?
Andre Dubus III: Oh yeah I did a ton of research for it. I actually had to start writing just to read. I read the Koran twice. I read about the history of Saudi Arabia and Islam. I think some people see those three numbers 9/ 11 and they walk away. That might be changing now. People are more willing to step into an artistic exploration of that subject. All you can do is let it go.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the latest idea for Dirty Love?
Andre Dubus III: The honest answer is I’m not sure. There’s a difference between making something up and imagining it. “The Bartender” and “Marla” came from longer stories that didn’t work. I realized they came from the same town. I realized I was writing deeply from an emotional center. I see a lot of marriages crash and burn around me and my wife. I’ve always been curious about how hard it is to love well and be loved.
Amy Steele: I saw comments on Goodreads that people think Dirty Love is depressing and some people consider the characters unlikeable. I’ve discussed reading and writing unlikeable characters in a writing group. How do you feel about writing unlikeable characters?
Andre Dubus III: I’m so glad you asked. Are we writing fucking sitcoms here? I’ll refute the whole notion of antagonist and protagonist. There’s not good guy and bad guy. To me they’re not cartoons. I rarely give a thought that characters have to be likeable. What am I here to fucking amuse you? I think the writer’s job is to paint the gray because no life is clearly defined. We are all living this dance and it is clearly fraught with making choices. Lots of my choices are bad and that’s normal. None of us are attractive at all times. What is attractive to me is authenticity. You know what a turn on is? Truth. You know what a turn off is? Perfume and smiling through fear.
Amy Steele: I like this quote from “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed:” “Other women, women like Anna Harrison, seemed to smile on reflex, as if this were something they were taught to do as young girls—be nice, be pretty, nice is pretty—and so you never knew if a woman was genuinely please with something you’d said or done, or not. But Laura only smiled when she felt like it, her eyes turning down at the corners, so it was gift to them all when she did, a gift to Frank Harrison Jr. too, who must have charmed her into doing that at the gym, the place he drove his Audi coupe to every Monday, Wednesday and Friday . . .”
Andre Dubus III: I hope there’s not harsh judgment from me in that passage. I have empathy for mainly women who are taught to do that especially in the South.
Amy Steele: How does writing affect your teaching and teaching affect your writing?
Andre Dubus III: I really like teaching at UMass Lowell because they are the type of kids I grew up with in Merrimack Valley. I really speak their language and I’m moved by the experience. I know I learn a lot from the students in my class and I’m not just saying that to sound like some generous teacher. Teaching well draws from the same well that writing draws from: the reserves of compassion and ability to listen and concentrate on another. So I have to have fine line between teaching and writing. I try not to ever think of career. I just try to go to the dream world every day.
Amy Steele: Back to Dirty Love again, one part up at Hampton Beach you got that so well. I can talk this way because I’m the snob. Hampton Beach is kinda scummy.
Andre Dubus III: Hampton compared to Salisbury is Paris to Detroit.
Amy Steele: There was a moment where she said that she felt he thought he was too good for her.
Andre Dubus III: He admits to himself that maybe his wife drifted away from him for some decent reasons.
Amy Steele: I can’t stand the term slut-shaming. [we discuss it a bit]
Andre Dubus III: It’s offensive. Your larger point is language is important and word choice is important. You can talk about promiscuity without saying slut.
Amy Steele: What do you think are the qualities of good writing?
Andre Dubus III: I can isolate what I find to be negative qualities. I’m not a fan of a lot of post-modern work that I think is self-indulgent, wordy and showing the vocabulary of the writer and the hip world-weariness of the writer. That kinda work leaves me cold. As a reader– generosity of the writer, humility where it’s about the subject and where it’s character-driven in a service of what’s trying to be captured. I read poetry every day. I love the boiled down essence of poetry. I look for poetry in prose. In a way that evocative.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about writing?
Andre Dubus III: I like trying to be other people. I really do. Eudora Welty has a lovely preface to her collected stories. She says the creative that she holds most high is trying to enter into another human being. People fascinate the hell out of me. I never get tired of watching people, listening to people. The best part is not getting up in front of people but meeting people. I like trying to find the right word that captures the thing I’m trying to describe. It’s very pleasurable when you feel like you’ve done it and very frustrating when you feel like you haven’t. It inspires you to work harder and that’s why I do it five or six days a week.