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Andre Dubus III Weaves Hints of His Past onto the Pages of New Read

Andre Dubus III through the window of The Tap in Haverhill Photo by Mike Springer/Eagle-Tribune
Novelist Andre Dubus III, seen talking with a reporter at The Tap in downtown Haverhill, says he always begins his books with "a human situation with some kind of human trouble in it: divorce, sickness, whatever."

11/01/2018
Eagle-Tribune
By Will Broaddus

The novels of Andre Dubus III can be hard to put down. 

Readers become hooked on their characters, and feel invested in the outcome as suspense builds to a climax.   

But in writing his new work, “Gone So Long,” Dubus had nearly the opposite experience from his readers, when he found it extremely hard to get started.

“I wanted nothing to do with this story,” Dubus said. 

“Gone So Long,” published by W.W. Norton, is Dubus’ seventh book and the first novel he has written in a decade. His second novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” was made into a successful film in 2003, and he feels confident that “The Garden of Last Days” from 2008 will also find its way to the screen.

Dubus published a collection of novellas, “Dirty Love,” in 2013, and that was preceded by “Townie” in 2011, a memoir about growing up in “scrappy circumstances” in Haverhill. That has also been a subject of Hollywood interest, some of it recent.

“‘Townie’ just got optioned by John Pollono. He wrote ‘Stronger’ with Jake Gyllenhaal, based on the kid, Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs at the Boston Marathon,” Dubus said.

Unsettling start

His reluctance to write “Gone So Long” was due to its origins in a chance encounter with a man he found to be likable, who told him he had served 15 years in prison.

“So I said, ‘What did you do time for?’ He said, ‘Oh, I killed my wife,’ and I just had to keep a straight face,” Dubus, 59, recalls.

The man said he stabbed his wife because he became “crazy” when he believed she was going to leave and take their children.

“Oh, so you have kids,” Dubus said he asked the man. “He said, ‘Yeah, but they don’t want to see me,’ and I couldn’t get that sense inside of my head.

“I mean, his voice was in my head for three years: ‘yeah, but they don’t want to see me.’”

The man’s apparent obliviousness to the impact of what he had done was humanly unacceptable to Dubus. But as a writer, he couldn’t help but be fascinated by the situation it created.

“I began to practice what I preach in my classes, which is the writing is larger than the writer: you have to follow the writing,” said Dubus, who has taught creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for 12 years, 

“So when I stepped into it, I was surprised at how easy it was — not easy, but I didn’t have as much resistance to becoming him imaginatively as I thought I would.”

He also felt that “bumper sticker Christianity” required that he hate the sin and not the sinner, “which is easier said than done.”

It was especially difficult for Dubus in this case because, as readers of “Townie” will know, he used to start fights with men who mistreated their wives or girlfriends.

“I used to hunt men down, I mean, in this very bar,” he said, while sitting in The Tap on Washington Street in Haverhill. 

Dubus’ rage came from a childhood in which he and his siblings were raised in poverty in Haverhill by his mother, without much help from his estranged writer father. Andre Dubus, who died in 1999 and whose works have been reissued this year, lived in Bradford and taught at the former Bradford College. 

The family descended into disarray until the son became enraged one day, after the epithet “townie” was hurled at his mother, and he taught himself to fight back. Taking charge of his life also involved exacting revenge on abusers.  

“I still to this day have a special place of hatred in my heart for men who use their physical power to abuse women and children, whether it’s physically or sexually,” he said. 

Familiar threads 

Dubus, who now lives in Newbury, eventually came to an understanding with his father, as he describes in “Townie.” There is a similar theme of attempted reconciliation at the heart of “Gone So Long,” although the figures involved are a father and daughter. 

Daniel Ahearn, the character who eventually grew out of Dubus’ chance meeting with a murderer, is living in a trailer at Salisbury Beach when readers first meet him. 

Daniel worked at the beach as a barker for a carnival ride called The Himalaya, before committing the crime that sent him to prison. He now makes a living caning chairs.

Dubus remembers The Himalaya well from the 1970s, right down to the red and white uniforms the workers wore. Other details from his past surfaced in Daniel’s life, including living in a trailer, which in Dubus’ case was located on Plum Island. 

That was in the mid-1980s, when he was working as the head bartender at what was 10 Center Street in Newburyport, and wrote every day.

“So present day, sick, 64-year-old or 63-year-old Daniel was not difficult to try to become, no more than any creative writing,” Dubus said.

The plot is set in motion when Daniel writes a letter to his daughter, Susan, whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant.

But we first meet Susan in the novel’s opening pages, which we realize later are the beginning of a memoir she is trying to write, recalling an attempt she once made to find her father.

Susan, like Dubus, teaches creative writing, and the progress she makes in her memoir, recalling the past, is another important element in the novel’s action. 

Susan sees this work as an intrusion, when she would rather be working on a work of fiction, but she can’t resist the process of self-exploration, which mirrors Dubus’ feelings while writing his memoir.

“I remember having the same ambivalence Susan does in this book,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it ether when I wrote mine. I don’t know if I was totally conscious that I gave her my same feeling about memoir, but I did.”

As much as Dubus struggled with learning to think and feel like Daniel, writing about his daughter was even harder, and not because she was a woman.

“I think what it was is that I was worried that I was going to simply paint her as the victim of trauma, and then sort of connect the dots psychologically, and not allow her to be a full-fledged human being beyond her childhood experience,” Dubus said. 

He said that became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Susan was reduced to her psychological profile, until Dubus let her tell her own story through her memoir.

“I finally let go of the wheel, really let her take over with her own writing, and now I feel pretty satisfied with the Susan the reader is going to get, which I do think — she’s more gray and believable,” Dubus said. “But it was really tough.”

Tour stops

Andre Dubus III is on tour with “Gone So Long.” Here are some of his area appearances:
  • Nov. 9: National Collegiate Honors Council Annual Conference, Sheraton Boston Hotel
  • Nov. 15: "In Conversation with Oprah Winfrey," University of Massachusetts at Lowell Chancellor's Speaker Series, 7 p.m., Tsongas Center, 300 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Lowell; tickets $125-$250, students $50; tsongascenter.com.
  • Dec. 6: Concord Book Shop, 8 p.m., Concord, Mass.; concordbookshop.com
  • Dec. 12: UMass Lowell Innovation Hub Cultural Speaker Series: A Night with Andre Dubus III, 6 to 8 p.m., UMass Lowell iHub, Harbor Place, 2 Merrimack St., Haverhill; free; uml.edu/Innovation-Hub/Facilities/Haverhill.aspx