Best-selling novelist Andre Dubus III says he never intended to write a 9/11 novel but instead set out to craft a short story about a stripper.
Despite that, Dubus' new book "The Garden of Last Days" became an epic novel featuring a 9/11 hijacker seeking comfort at a grungy Florida strip club just four days before he would make his dark mark on history in the September 11 attacks.
"This may sound kind of crazy but I honestly was not trying to write about 9/11," Dubus, best known for his 1999 novel "House of Sand and Fog," told Reuters in an interview.
"But I had an image in my head which I was curious about; I kept seeing cash on a bedroom bureau."
As he wrote, Dubus realized that image came from reading that some of the 9/11 hijackers spent time in a Florida strip club just days before the attacks.
"I was fascinated about that," he said. "What would it be like to be a woman who had danced for these guys? What's it like to have some of their blood money in your possession?"
Still, for more than two years as the story developed he resisted allowing the hijacker become a major player in his book before eventually relenting when the story demanded it.
So he stopped writing for four months to research Islam, al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks before returning to writing the book and fleshing out the character he named Bassam.
What started as a short story became a 535-page novel that took 5-1/2 years to write and was published on Monday by W.W. Norton. Now Dubus worries that some Americans may not be ready for a sympathetic portrayal of a 9/11 hijacker.
"That was my biggest concern when I turned this book in," he said. "Who the hell wants to read about this character?"
Early reviews were good. "His book doesn't ask you to see the terrorists as brave or cowardly; it forces you to see them simply as men, as human. Ballsy move," Esquire wrote. The Boston Globe called it "storytelling of the finest kind."
Dubus weaves the stories of several people over the course of one foreboding night just before 9/11 — a stripper who takes her child to work, the anxious hijacker, a drunk patron tossed out of the club for touching a dancer and the landlady who was to baby-sit but fell ill.
Bartender to bounty hunterThe son of the late short-fiction writer Andre Dubus, the Massachusetts resident never expected to earn a living writing and his career has taken many unexpected turns.
Over the years the 48 year old took a series of part-time jobs to pay the bills as he wrote: bartender, actor, counselor to criminals, private investigator, bounty hunter.
He also dropped out of an academic doctoral program after just a few days and trained to be a boxer.
"It all sounds so wrong but the truth is there is some truth to all of it," he said.
"I was slogging away for ... years," he said. "I never expected to make any money writing and to this day I am shocked that someone can make a living dreaming a tale that people want to read. It's quite a blessing that I never saw coming and I still quite frankly don't believe it."
Everything changed for him when talk show host Oprah Winfrey chose "House of Sand and Fog" as her book club pick in late 2000. It sold more than 2 million copies and was made into a hit movie.
Next up for Dubus is a series of writing projects — a book-length essay on masculinity and violence, and completing some novellas before knuckling down on a new novel next year.
After tackling 9/11, what's the topic of his next novel?
"I have no idea, and if I did, I wouldn't tell you," said Dubus, noting that no matter now many years it takes him to write a book he never utters a word about it to anyone, not even his wife.