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Novelist Dubus now looks homeward after gritty memoir

NEWBURY Mass. (Reuters) - Andre Dubus III put his faded hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the map of modern literature with his gritty memoir, “Townie.”
/ Source: Reuters

NEWBURY Mass. (Reuters) - Andre Dubus III put his faded hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the map of modern literature with his gritty memoir, “Townie.”

But Dubus' native New England did not find a setting in his fiction until he published a collection of novellas, “Dirty Love,” which depicts small-city and shore-town residents in messy quests for human relationships.

Dubus’ novels include “House of Sand and Fog,” which was made into an Oscar-nominated movie. He is also the son of writer Andre Dubus II, whose troubled family life was a major element of "Townie."

He spoke to Reuters in a house he built by hand about the role of landscape in his writing, his aversion to the wired life, and the characters that define his work.

Q: How has setting stories closer to home influenced your work?

A: It felt good to try to capture people from this region. I grew up along the Merrimack River in these abandoned mill towns. It was only when writing “Townie” that I wrote directly about this place for the first time, and that kind of freed me up to fictionalize it.

A place has rhythms, a flow like a river. There is a depth of authority a writer has when writing about a place they know well. The same is true when your write about the kinds of people that you know well. But when it comes to place, I think you can write your way to the bottom of your knowledge. Exploring never ends when it comes to character.

I think about my father's work. (John) Updike called him “the bard of Merrimack Valley,” and I remember thinking, no, he's not. He sets his stories here, but he doesn't write about people here. My old man’s voice was (his native) Louisiana.

Q: Are any real people from “Townie” depicted fictionally in “Dirty Love”?

A: No. In many ways 'Dirty Love' is a departure in tone. All of my fiction before 'Dirty Love' has some physical violence in it. Then I write directly about the physical violence in my youth (in “Townie”), and the first book I write afterwards has no physical violence in it.

Q: How has the Internet affected the writer's role?

A: I have such mixed feelings. I think it’s improved the quality of my writing to be able to deepen it so quickly with research.

I really like the populist nature of the Internet. But I find it really depressing how many of us stare at screens in our hands. It’s like you walk into a room and everybody’s stoned.

Q: You don’t have a smart phone?

A: I'm never going to have one. The only computer I have is in my basement where I write. I think we need to reclaim our solitude and the voices in our heads.

Q: A protagonist, Robert, in "Dirty Love" vividly recalled his farm upbringing. Does that come from your experience?

A: I didn't know jack about dairy farms and I don’t even drink milk. I had to do research.

I went into Robert and he delivered that piece of news. I believe that these characters are real and they have one history. What you’re penetrating is deeply mysterious, which is the writer’s imagination.

Q: How do you avoid media character stereotypes.

A: I do protect myself from a lot of this. I’m really kind of tuned out. I want to be disconnected from the noise so I can be connected to something deeper.

But as a novelist who writes fiction set in contemporary America, I can’t put my head in the ground. (In) "Dirty Love," I had to ask my daughter, “Show me Facebook.” And then I asked her to show me how to text.

Q: In “Dirty Love’s” opening piece, where did that line come from, “his heart kicking like a hanged man's feet"?

A: I did not want to have a shopworn phrase. I tried to just be deeply him, looking at the video of his wife cheating on him, and then the image came to me from his emotional moment.

Q: The characters in “Dirty Love” come to terms with the messiness of their relationships. Is that a universal human condition?

A: I don’t care for stories that have neat endings. I like ‘em to end more musically, where whatever note has been played in that symphony has an echo in the end.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Andre Grenon)