For 'Such Kindness' novelist Andre Dubus III, chronic pain is a fact of life
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. An accident that causes a severe injury and disability changes a life in an instant, and the chronic pain can last for the rest of your life. So how do you carry on? That's the central question in the new novel by my guest, Andre Dubus III. The main character, Tom, is a builder who falls off a roof, breaking his pelvis and hips. Those bones are held together by pins. And long after the fall, the fires around the pins are still raging. He's on disability, living in Section 8 subsidized housing, thinking he doesn't belong here. He doesn't belong with these people. The psychic pain, spiritual void and the anger and bitterness are constants.
Dubus had personal experiences he could draw from for the novel. His father, the writer Andre Dubus, had his life changed while trying to do a good deed helping two people on the side of the road who had collided with an overturned motorcycle in the passing lane. While helping them, he was hit by a car going over 55 miles an hour. One leg was amputated and the other was virtually paralyzed. He never walked again. Andre Dubus III grew up poor because his parents separated long before his father's accident, leaving his mother sometimes unable to pay the rent or buy enough food to feed herself and four children, in spite of the child support payments. Andre Dubus III learned what it was like to have money after his novel "House Of Sand And Fog" became an Oprah Book Club selection, a bestseller and was adapted into a film. He has a forthcoming collection of essays called "Ghost Dogs: On Killers And Kin." His new novel is called "Such Kindness."
Andre Dubus, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a very short reading from early in your book on Page 15.
ANDRE DUBUS III: OK. (Reading) I have spent many hours contemplating pain. Its constant presence seems like such a dark joke, really, like the school bully who sits on your chest and spits in your face years after both of you have moved on. My pelvis and hips were fractured years ago. Do they have to keep spitting in my face?
GROSS: I was wondering if you were thinking of your father and his accident when you decided to write a book about a horrible injury that leads to disability and chronic pain?
DUBUS: No, it's interesting. I wasn't consciously thinking about my dad, Terry, but, of course, these things are in my psyche deeply. I've had a lot of back injuries, like a lot of people over the years. I've been laid up for a week or two at a time with that kind of pain that, you know, makes it hard to even go to the bathroom and get - you know, get out of bed to go to the bathroom. I think I was drawing more on my own bouts of severe pain. And then, of course, the question was, what about people who are never free of it? How do you get through a day and a week? But I think you're right. I hadn't thought of it consciously, but how could that not be part of my psyche? I watched my dad in pain for at least two straight years. He was in really hard, daily pain after that accident.
GROSS: So your injuries were caused by being a carpenter 'cause you're a carpenter...
GROSS: ...And you draw on that for the book, too.
DUBUS: Yeah, it's - it first started at 19, weight training. You know, I write about all that in my memoir, "Townie," about how I transformed myself from a small, sedentary, scared, bullied kid into somebody with some muscles and some fighting skills. And I worked out four, five, six hours a day. It was - I was insanely possessed to change my life, and I hurt myself badly. I wore a brace for a year and - a back brace. And then, yeah, over the years, I would reinjure it mainly doing carpentry work, you're right. And I just hurt it again last year and was laid up for a couple of weeks. I got some reading and writing done, but it hurt like hell.
GROSS: There are so many descriptions of the pain in the book. Because the pain is constant, you're constantly, as a reader, reminded of that.
DUBUS: Yeah, I worried about that (laughter).
GROSS: No, but you had to come up with a lot of different descriptions. So what was the process like of coming up with different descriptions to describe the same pain in his hips?
DUBUS: Well, I love this line by the writer Paul Engle. He said that writing is rewriting what you've already rewritten. I...
GROSS: (Laughter) It's just endless.
DUBUS: Isn't that great? It's frigging endless. I began with a horrible metaphor of rats gnashing at his pelvis and his hip bones. And, I mean, I think the first few drafts, even the ones I was working on with my editor at Norton, were with the rat in the pelvis. And it was turning everybody off, and I thought it was effective. But then it became too loud. It was, like, too loud of an instrument in the band. And I revised it and said, well, that's not accurate. I was just really doing something over-the-top there. And then I remembered my own pain, and it felt more like a fire. It felt more like a flame. And so then, you know - so again, it's about revising to - hopefully to greater truth, if you can. And so, yeah, so then the flames came in. But every time, I - you know, I was worried about the reader. Oh, Jesus, they - I'm asking the reader to sit through a lot for the first part of this book. Not just the physical pain, but of course the poverty and the depression and the despair. And so it was - I'm just taking a gamble that they'll hold on the way Tom holds on.
GROSS: You know, your memoir, "Townie," starts with you jogging with your father before his accident.
GROSS: And at this point in your story in the memoir, your parents are separated. You're living with your mother, but your father visits usually once a week. And on this...
GROSS: ...Visit, you're going jogging with him, but you don't have good sneakers, so you borrow your older sister's sneakers. But they're really too small. And you run two 5 1/2-mile laps with your father. Your feet are, like, swollen and bleeding and they really hurt. And so I thought it was interesting that that memoir starts with pain, too - with physical pain.
DUBUS: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, that - and the memoir begins with that because that's when I really began - you know, I had run only once in my life. I was 8 years old when my dad lived with us and I ran two miles with him. And now it's eight years later, I'm 16, I'm lifting weights. I'm not in aerobic shape. Yeah, and I'm wearing these shoes two sizes too small, and I'm in agony just walking to the trail. Yeah, so we end up running 11 miles, and I was hobbling the last few. But, you know, it opens the book because there's something about me and my relationship to physical pain that's probably not healthy. But I - it felt as if I was purging the small, weak, sedentary, cowardly boy I'd been with physical agony. And it's something that I still do. Forty, 50 years later, I - there's still a part of me that does workouts long and hard to purge and to cleanse and to forge. And - but that's not Tom Lowe's pain. His is different.
GROSS: Tom, your character, turns to the Hermann Hesse novel "Siddhartha," which is, like, a Buddhist-oriented novel. Your father, after his injury and his chronic pain - he kept reading the New Testament. And you said you don't believe in God, but you do believe in the divine. So what's the distinction there, and has your belief in the divine, however you define it, helped you get through difficult periods?
DUBUS: Boy, that's a great question. You know, I teach my dad's short stories at University of Massachusetts Lowell, where I've been for years. And I just so love teaching his work. But one of the things that I see now, especially as a guy who got to be older than he ever got, is that his art would not exist without his Catholic faith - his Christian faith more than Catholic faith. It suffuses his whole vision of the world.
And I think when I look at my work, I see that there is no faith. There is no religious belief. None of that happened for me. I've never believed that there's a God who knows my name and loves me - to this day, do not believe that. I do believe, however, that there is something quite beautiful and mysterious and, yes, divine in and around all human beings at all times. And maybe it's just love, you know? And I think about that. I think it's the Buddhist tradition - namaste. The divine in me bows to the divine in you. That really speaks to me. I find that every human being who crosses my path exudes something really beautiful. And I do believe in that.
GROSS: Has it been hard for you to find language, everyday language to describe your belief in the divine, but not in God? Like Tom, your main character, for instance, he says he's talking to a God he doesn't believe in. He uses the word blessing, and he says, another holy word that I don't believe in but do. So he's struggling with the language.
DUBUS: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, I am too. It's hard to find the language. I don't know. It's going to sound romanticized, but I - you've got to come down to love. It's love, you know? And I am not - I do not look at the world with rose-colored lenses. I walk around with one psychic fist up waiting for bad behavior and trying to find a way to deal with it without plummeting into the violence I used to know so well. But I think the beginning of my walk down that road, Terry, to all of this came from two places. One is the birth of our three children, Austin, Ariadne and Elias. And the second is daily creative writing, the practice of creative writing.
You know, I discovered a couple years into my writing life that I had been a fundamentalist, meaning I had been looking at the world in black and white - no undertones, no overtones. A man punches a woman in the face. Kill him. He's a bad man. Execute him. That was how I felt for years. I still, of course, despise male violence against women and kids. But I've learned - and this sounds like bumper sticker Christianity. I'm no Christian. I do not have a religious faith, although I respect those who do. But, you know, hate the sin, not the sinner, you know?
My most recent novel before "Such Kindness" is called "Gone So Long." And it's from the point of view of a man who murdered his wife. I wanted nothing to do with trying to write that story, but it really felt like it was coming to me through my subconscious as a test. Well, let's see how far you can go with this, buddy, with this whole love one another thing. What about when you do the worst thing possible to someone you're supposed to love for life? You create a baby out of this love, and now she wants nothing to do with you.
So it's not easy, right? It's gray. It's amorphous. It's difficult. It's nuanced. But I think the way that I've learned to step through the world with no belief in a higher power who knows my name or cares about me is, well, I think I care about others. And I think when people feel cared for, they care back.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're joining us, my guest is Andre Dubus III, author of the new novel "Such Kindness." And you may know him for his novel "House Of Sand And Fog," which was adapted into a film. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Andre Dubus. His new novel is called "Such Kindness."
Let's get to you and being bullied and then becoming a fighter.
GROSS: When you were growing up poor after your father left when you were 10, you went to so many different schools, in part because you had to move all the time because of the rent.
GROSS: And so you'd go to a new school and you'd be bullied. And you didn't want to fight, so you hid. You spent a lot of time just kind of like hiding and trying to become invisible. But you were still beaten up. Your brother was beaten up, your younger brother. And then you started lifting weights, working out and eventually boxing. What was the turning point for you where you decided, I'm not going to hide anymore, I'm going to transform myself physically?
DUBUS: Well, it was a pretty traumatic turning point. I was 14. My brother was 13. You know, if you know violence well - and sadly, too many do - you tend to have three reactions. You either fight like hell, you run like hell or you freeze. And, Terry, I was always the kid who froze because I was still trying to rationalize. Why is he being mean to me? Why is he punching me in the face? I wasn't mean to him. And then one day, everything changed. My brother - it's a long story I'll compress.
But a grown man came home on leave from the Army, 20 years old, military policeman, to beat up my little 13-year-old brother because he heard things were going on with his sister, who was also 12 or 13, he didn't like. He comes home. Word's out this guy is going to kill my brother. And then he's walking up the street. My brother is getting out of the car. His teacher's dropping him off from school. My brother's in the eighth grade. I'm standing there. I see this guy and his posse coming up the street. I said, Jeb, run inside. Run inside. And he didn't.
And this guy beat up my brother mercilessly in front of me. And I froze. I froze. And I said, come on, man. He said, quiet. You're next. And I froze. And, you know, I just wanted to be over with and hoping he didn't kill my brother. The teacher's screaming. And it was an unusual day, Terry, because my mother, who worked 12 to 14 hours a day down in Boston, was home sick with the flu. And she comes out in her nightgown, picks a stick up off the ground and starts to swing it at him. And he calls her a name I won't repeat. And here is her oldest son standing there doing nothing because I'm terrified. I'm frozen.
Eventually, it's all over. My mother and the teacher are tending to my brother inside. And I don't know if I stood outside of my house for five minutes or an hour, but my self-hatred could not get any hotter. The self-loathing would never get worse. I went into my house, looked at my 13-, 14-year-old baby face - I had hair down to my waist 'cause it was the '70s. And I told my face, you will never not fight again because I don't care about you anymore. I don't care if you die. I don't care if you get shot or stabbed. You will never not fight back. And then I began to do push-ups and sit-ups, began to lift weights. I joined a boxing gym and, much to my surprise, not only had athletic ability but boxing talent.
And I became a fighter for eight, 10 years. I'd go to a house party. I would go places where I knew I would find bad behavior. I especially was looking for some - about to swear - some men who's going to backhand his wife or his girlfriend. And I'd put him in the hospital, or I'd try to. I was beaten up a few times but not nearly as much as I should have been. I was not a tough guy. I was an insane guy. And I got social rewards. The local cops loved me because I was going after guys they wanted to but couldn't...
DUBUS: ...Without losing their - oh, yeah, they loved me. They couldn't without losing their badges. They'd go, oh, yeah. And, you know, women started to notice me. But that wasn't the point, as much as I enjoyed that part of it. It really was trying to exorcise that physical coward inside me. And it made me a very dangerous guy for a long time. And what - so what changed it, what got me off that is I said, OK, I'm not afraid to fight anymore. I'm afraid not to fight. So I've got to stop this 'cause I'm going to get killed. You know, the word intuition - if you look at the Latin root, it means to watch over or to guard. And I knew not only might I get killed doing this by a much tougher guy, but worse than that, maybe I'm going to kill somebody. I, who hate violence and who hate cruelty - I'm actually - I might kill someone. And so I began to box as a way to just channel all that. And I stopped going places where it was easy to get in a fight. And that's when I discovered creative writing.
GROSS: Well, let's get to the creative writing in a minute. But you write in your memoir, with physical violence, there was always the wreckage after - not just the bruises and lacerations, the chipped teeth or fractured bones. There was a hangover of the spirit. Would you describe the hangover of the spirit after you beat somebody up?
DUBUS: Oh, yeah. You know, three guys pulled over my best friend and his wife and pulled a knife on my best friend and threatened to, you know, assault their - you know, his fiancée at the time. And we found him. And I beat all three of them. And I was kicking a man in the head with steel-toed boots. And if my - you know, I was 22, 23 years old. And if my girlfriend had not pulled me away, I probably would have murdered him. And the next day, I felt as if my soul had been dragged through toxic sewage. I felt as if - and it's not all - it wasn't all that. I had blood on my pant cuff. Part of me was still amazed that I'd gone from being a victim to a victimizer of victimizers. But the sensitive, sweet kid inside me who I thought was there all along was mortified at who I was becoming. I was becoming the disease I thought I was fighting, and it was bad.
GROSS: At some point, you realized you were beating people up for yourself.
GROSS: Yes, you were trying to protect people, but you were doing it for yourself.
DUBUS: Yep. Yep.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
DUBUS: Well, I - you know, one of my last fights, I was in my late 20s. I had just sold my first book. It was 1989. I took my sister - my younger sister and my mom to Key West and blew my advance in a weekend. It was fun. And a woman was being assaulted in the airport by a couple of guys. And I put them - I put one of them in the hospital. And I'm on the plane, and I got all sorts of, you know, guys pat me on the back. The sheriff let me go. Everyone's treating me like my heroes in the '70s, Chuck Bronson and Clint Eastwood. And I'm sitting down next to a young woman who's reading "Cultural Literacy," and we're talking about Harold Bloom. And I noticed...
DUBUS: But, Terry, while we're talking about Harold Bloom, I look and - you know, I've done carpentry all my life. And my - you know, when you paint a ceiling over your head with a roller, you look, and you've got all these little spots of paint on your forearms. They were - I did, but it was all blood. And I went into the bathroom, and I - to wash the blood off my arms. And I looked into my face again, this mirror again, and said, you have to stop doing this because you did not have to go after those guys. All you had to do was walk that woman to her gate, tell her that they're not going to hurt her on your watch, and you could have gone to your gate. But you did it because you wanted to exact revenge. You did it because you wanted to keep showing yourself what a fighter you are. And it was bulls***. It was narcissism. I was doing it to keep feeding that part of me that needed to be fed. I didn't do it for her. I could have just walked her to her gate. And that's when I began to change.
GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Andre Dubus. His new novel is called "Such Kindness." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "EGG RADIO")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Andre Dubus III, author of the new novel "Such Kindness." His earlier books include the bestselling novel "House Of Sand And Fog" and bestselling memoir "Townie." His father, Andre Dubus, was also a writer. Andre Dubus III grew up poor and was bullied. He eventually decided to stop hiding from bullies, built up his body and became a fighter. When we left off, he was describing how he started looking for fights, fights he could justify by saying it was to defend someone against a bully or an attacker. One of his last fights was in his late 20s when he saw a woman being assaulted and he put one of the guys in the hospital. He was treated like a hero but realized he'd gone too far and that demonstrating his skill as a great defender was a form of narcissism.
I want to ask you about two incidents involving your older sister, Suzanne, and your reaction to these incidents. She was gang raped in a car. And then another experience was her husband beat her up badly. It - what? - perforated one of her eardrums. And you were talking to your father about it. And you were talking about what you wanted to do to her husband. And he was saying, we should get a pro to do something. So he was thinking of calling someone...
GROSS: ...To break her husband's knees.
DUBUS: No, it's worse than that. No, we were looking for a hit man.
GROSS: Oh, were you?
GROSS: But I think you say knees in the memoir (laughter).
DUBUS: No. Well, it gets to that. We actually called somebody, you know, a bar guy in San Francisco who knew some street people, found out it was $1,500 to have the man killed, 500 to have every bone in his body broken. And so the old man hung up the phone. And we looked at each other. I said, Dad, F that. No, let's just go there and do it ourselves. And...
GROSS: Do what - beat him up or kill him?
DUBUS: I was open to both possibilities. Let's just start by hurting him. And if he dies, well, then he dies. And I felt no remorse about that. I felt total conviction. That's my sister. You need to die. And, God, all these years later, I still feel that emotion. It's not good. I don't believe in vengeance. I do believe that violence causes more violence.
But my father - instead of that, you know, then we - you know, I went home. He went to bed. You know, we thought about - the next day, he wrote a beautiful short story called "Leslie In California," maybe two pages. And it's a poem of a story, but it captures the morning after, you know, from the point of view of a woman whose husband has beat her up the night before. And it's just - she's just on the cusp of knowing she's going to leave. It's a beautiful story.
He gave it to me to read, and I read it. And I was so angry at him. I said, how does this help her that you wrote a work of art based on her situation? Like, what the hell good is writing anyway? Let's go kill him. And, you know, to my sister's great credit, her power, she left him very quickly after that. I never saw him again. To this day, I hope I don't see him again because I am worried about my reaction even 40 years later.
GROSS: Your sister is now the CEO of a domestic violence crisis center...
DUBUS: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...And the subject of a book.
DUBUS: That's right.
GROSS: And so when she was on our show after that book was published, she was talking about how her husband, the husband you were referring to, kept insisting, you know, after she left him, I need to see you. I need to see you and talk with you. And she said on our show, but my brothers were around me then. I wasn't isolated anymore. It was easy for me to say to him, I'll see you, but you have to come to my father's house. And I'll talk to you. And my dad and my brothers are going to be in the other room. And it was during that time where I could say, no, this isn't going to happen. This isn't going to go anywhere. He tried one more time later, but I was done. So it was your presence and your father's presence that helped her not only leave her husband, but say, we're done. I've got muscle.
DUBUS: Yeah, she had muscles. She had someone behind her. You know, and now, though, you know, in my seventh decade of life, I think how patriarchal it can be to hover over a woman as the protector and sort of rob her of her agency. But, you know, screw that because at some times, you just need to be right there behind her. Like, you know what? She's not alone, buddy. I'm right here, and I've got a bat in my hands.
DUBUS: You know, one of the incidents that continued to propel me into deeper street violence as a kid was when she was raped at knifepoint by two men in Boston, who were never caught. And - but the feeling was just immense helpless - frustration that I wasn't there. And it still haunts me. It'll always haunt me.
GROSS: You're lucky, though, because had they discovered who raped her, you might have tried to kill them. And...
DUBUS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And you're lucky because you didn't try to kill her husband, your sister's husband. I mean, did you ever think about what your life would be like if you did break all his bones or murder him?
DUBUS: Well, yeah. You know, I was so fortunate to teach a creative writing class with Tobias Wolff, who's an old friend, at San Quentin a few years ago to 34 lifers, 34 men who will never get out, who've maybe done horrible things. Certainly, they've all killed people. And before I - we started talking about writing, I stood up and said, I just want you guys to know I could have been here. I don't judge you. I'm not here to judge what you did. That's your business. I can tell you that I came this close many times to doing life in prison myself. And I'm not here standing above you. I'm here to talk to you in brotherhood about creative writing and going deeper into the human spirit with words.
But as I said that - it's true. And, you know, I've done some research for projects in prisons. I've met a lot of inmates in prisons. I've also done some creative writing teaching in county jails. And I never feel apart from them. I always identify with all of them. I said, man, I was one more kick in the head from being where you are. So anyway, I walk through my life, Terry, with such gratitude day and night.
GROSS: I just want to repeat something that you just said - that you think of writing as going deeper into the human spirit through words.
GROSS: That's a pretty great description.
DUBUS: Well, thank you. You know, I am so grateful that I found writing, you know? It was rocky for the first 10 or 20 years. Being the great writer's son with the same name, it was a pain in the a**. But I am so grateful to where writing has taken me. And, you know, the writing of fiction, for me, is just a daily act of sustained empathy where you're asking, what's it like to be you? What's it like to be in your situation? And there's no way you can begin to enter into the spirit of this sacred being called a character without authentic curiosity. You know, Rumi has this wonderful line. He says, sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. And so I - you know, I've been writing all my adult life, which is a long time now. And every morning, I have to strip away my ego. I have to let go of what I want to say and how I want to say it. I have to empty myself and step into whoever is on the page. And it's wonderfully humbling.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Dubus. His new novel is called "Such Kindness." We're also talking about his 2011 memoir, which is called "Townie." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Andre Dubus. His new novel is called "Such Kindness." He's also the author of an earlier memoir called "Townie."
When you became a writer, did it bring you closer to your father when you started being a writer and wanted to think of yourself as a writer?
DUBUS: I think it did. I think there were a few things that brought us closer. One was when I became a father, a husband. It's interesting. He had a hard time staying married. He had a few families. But he really respected the roles of a father and a husband, and he saw that I was working hard at those roles. But it was late. I kick myself, Terry, because I didn't ask him any writing questions. I was - you know, I lied my way onto construction site when I was right out of college and said I was a carpenter. I didn't even know how to read a tape. I don't know how long I thought that charade would last. So I've always been a do-it-yourself, teach-myself kind of guy. So I didn't go to my dad enough.
I remember I called him once (laughter) when I was about in my 30s. I had read a line of dialogue, and, you know, the line was, I didn't do nothing, comma, I don't know nothing. And I wrote - I called the old man and said, can you put a comma between two complete sentences? He said, well, yes, son. It's called a comma splice. And I said, ah, you English majors. I didn't know that. And - but he died young, and - you know, 62. And I wished I'd spent more time talking to him about writing. But I think knowing that we were both down the same road, it did bring us closer. It certainly did. And now I have that experience with my two grown sons, Austin and Elias, who are both very serious writers. It's really such a joy.
GROSS: It's really hard, I would imagine, to write about family if the family member is alive or to write about a close friend if the close friend is alive and to do it through memoir or essay and not fiction...
GROSS: ...Because there's no deniability in memoir or essay. You can't say, it's not you. It's just this character. I just made it up.
GROSS: But your father told you, don't be like me and wait until your father is dead to write about him. You can write about your parents while they're alive. Did you take that advice?
DUBUS: (Laughter) No, I waited till he died but not purposely. I did write a story - one of the first short stories I ever wrote, probably the most autobiographically based piece of fiction I ever wrote. It's called "Wolves In The Marsh," and it was about - I captured the moment my father drove away from our rented house in the New Hampshire woods, my mother crying inside the house like she's being stabbed, we four kids walking our father to his packed car, him driving away. And this image is in "Townie" because it's from my memory and from my life - and my little brother Jeb, who was 7 or 8 then, chasing my father, throwing rocks at the car, yelling, you bum. You bum. And we're all crying. And I wrote a short story about that, and I left out the, you bum; you bum, because at that point, I'd forgotten it. And my father reads the story, and he calls me up and says, hey. When I said you could write about me before we're dead, I didn't mean right away.
DUBUS: And he said, and, by the way, Jeb was running - was throwing rocks and calling me a bum. You didn't put that in; did you? I said, oh, man, I forgot about that. But I put it in "Townie." I don't know if I could have written "Townie," my memoir, if my father had been alive, and I'll tell you why. And this didn't occur to me till years after even publishing that book. And that is this. For years, you know, my mother would say to my father, oh, I wish we could have done more for the kids when they were growing up. And my father would get defensive.
And I want to make it very clear we lived - we were a member of the educated working poor. You know, my father was making $7,000 a year as a full-time faculty member in the '60s. When he retired from this college in the late '80s, he was only making 20,000 a year. My mom never made more than 12,000 a year. They had four kids. We just didn't have much. But he was very defensive about that. You know, he would give his child support. It would be most of his check. He lived on very little. But it wasn't enough across the river where we lived. And so he would get defensive.
And over the years, I would see this and think, OK, my dad and I are close now. We're buddies. He's too sensitive and too smart. I got to tell him, come on, man. You got to - I got to let you know it was hard over there in those neighborhoods. It was hard on the other side of that river in that town. And you're too beautiful of an artist to be blind to this. And that - just as I was getting up my nerve to have that talk with him, he got run over and I didn't want to lay it on him. And then about 12 years later, now he's, you know, accustomed - I mean, he's living the life of a man in a wheelchair. The physical pain is gone. I said, OK, man, I'm going to sit down with him. I'm going to tell him now. And then he died. And I think this - in many ways, that memoir is a conversation with my father we never had.
GROSS: Do you feel lucky at all that you never got to have it, or do you feel deprived?
DUBUS: Well, I feel two things, Terry. I feel deprived because I think we would have been closer with that talk. But I am grateful I got "Townie" out of my system. I found a way to write about violence and poverty and fatherlessness that - I didn't know how much I needed to put that down on paper. And the whole time I'm writing it, I'm thinking, this is too personal. I'm not going to publish this, but, man, do I need to write it. And I just kept seeing the faces of my three children. And I'm thinking, you know, they'll know me better. They'll know their family better. And I wrote it. I want to speak for a moment, though - you said that it must be very hard to write about someone in a memoir who's alive. I got to share with you the fantastic advice from my friend Richard Russo, the novelist. And this is before he wrote his own memoir, "Elsewhere." I said, I'm just so tortured. I know I'm supposed to write more about these guys. My editor had read the first draft, and she said, well, the street violence is interesting, but didn't you live with people?
DUBUS: I said, yeah, but I don't want to - I mean, come on. It's one thing to shine a light on my own privacy. I mean, how do I write about them? She said, but isn't that part of your story, too? And so that night, I saw Rick at a party, and I told him what she said. And he gave me the most helpful advice, and I have to share it because I think it's really helpful to people who are writing essays or memoirs about their lives. He said, if it were me, I'd ask myself, am I trying to hurt anybody with this? Am I trying to settle any scores? If the answer is yes, I wouldn't write it, or I'd write it, but I wouldn't publish it. If the answer is no, I'd go ahead and write it.
And, you know, when I wrote that memoir, I was turning 50. All my anger at my parents had dissipated over the years with therapy and time. And I just wanted to - I knew I just - I wasn't mad at anybody. I didn't want to hurt anybody. I just wanted to capture, as well as I possibly could, what was it like to be a small, sensitive child living in a mill town in the '70s, Nixon flying off in his helicopter, Vietnam limping to a finish, no fathers around, too much sex and drugs and violence, you know? And I wrote it.
GROSS: Do you ever feel guilty in spite of that, in spite of the fact that your father has been dead for years? - because I don't know. With myself, when I say something negative about my parents...
DUBUS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...Who I deeply loved, I feel this, like, tinge of, like, guilt for saying it. And I feel like somehow they know I've said it. And I don't really literally believe that. I don't, like, believe in an afterlife, but I somehow imagine them hearing it and being really upset.
DUBUS: Oh, I'm so with you. No, I don't have guilt. I have bottomless, black remorse, Terry.
DUBUS: No, I wake up at 3 in the morning - not so much now 'cause "Townie" came out in 2011. But especially in the first five or six years, I would get all these letters and - you know, from all sorts of people, a lot of whom who grew up poor and with single moms and - you know? And a lot - and everybody hated the old man. And I just felt so terrible about that. I did not set out to make him look bad. And so I would feel horrible, and I would talk to my dead father in my sleep, say, come on, man. You know I love you and I respect you, but damn it, you have to admit you weren't there. You know, as I was writing that memoir - and I think I draw on this in such kindness in Tom Lowe's character, having grown up fatherless, too, in scarcity - but is when I was writing that, Terry - and this is what I love about writing. I think the writing is always larger than the writer if you are free falling into your psyche with words and curiosity and a truth-seeking intent.
And what I found was my father's daily absence in my remembered life on the page became a predominant presence in the book. And writing it taught me that I was far more fatherless than I'd ever accepted. And so I couldn't fudge that. It had to be part of the story, even though I did not want it in there. Blaise Pascal says famously and harshly but beautifully, you know, anything written to please the author is worthless. And I think he's right. It's not about pleasing the author. It's about pleasing the truth. And so, yes, horrible remorse - I still talk to him. You know, in preparation for our talk, I was reading the opening pages of both books, "Such Kindness" and then "Townie." And then I read that section of my father and I running together, and I began to cry, began to weep. And, you know, that's just the life of being in a family; isn't it?
GROSS: What made you cry?
DUBUS: Oh, when I - when the younger me gets to the top of the hill, the first lap and with my feet in agony 'cause I'm wearing my sister's too-small shoes. And, of course, I don't want to tell my father I don't have shoes 'cause he'll get mad at my mother for not spending his money well. It just wasn't enough. And then I remember the two of us running side by side. I was 15. He was 38, 39. And - you know, and I've run side by side with my big, strapping, six-foot-two, 220-pound sons. And I just felt the - I felt the torches of generations passed down. But I particularly felt how close my father and I were in that moment. And, oh, it's killing me now. You know, I just...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
DUBUS: You know, he's been dead almost 25 years, and I'm older than he ever got to be. But, you know, we're all like the skins of an onion; aren't we? You know, I'm 63, but that 15-year-old boy is sitting right here talking to you, too. And there's a part of him I think is still alive. And it's not just his work or his grandkids or his kids. I think something goes on, but I still don't believe in God (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Dubus. His new novel is called "Such Kindness." We're also talking about his 2011 memoir, which is called "Townie." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Andre Dubus. His new novel is called "Such Kindness."
You've written about and spoken about how joyful it was to become a father and the ways in which that's, like, opened your heart. Did you know you wanted to be a father?
DUBUS: No. And this is where I think men tend to be so clueless. And maybe it's not a fair generalization. No. I had no - I never - not once did I think of being a father. I didn't even want to get married. And, you know, like a lot of kids of divorce and, you know, poverty thrown into it, I just associated marriage with broken-hearted poor kids, which is what I and my siblings were. I wanted nothing to do with it. And then I meet my future wife, Fontaine. I watched this woman dancing so gorgeously on stage with such power. I meet her a few months later. We get married a few - well, then I proposed to her. And then I was in black, horrible agony of fear, terror all the way. And she had to pull me aside two or three times, say, honey, I am not your mother. You're not my father, your father. We're going to be fine.
And we have been wonderfully together for 35 years. But when she when to me early in our marriage to say that she wanted to have a baby, I freaked out, Terry. At the time, I was working construction. I was, you know, writing late at night, early in the morning for just a few minutes at a time. And I felt that it was going to slip away, that I wasn't going to live the life of an artist, and that I was going to be some guy with some tools and a truck, maybe like my character Tom Lowe in "Such Kindness." And I wasn't going to live my true life.
And then she got pregnant. And when she told me, for half a breath, I was feeling, oh, man. And then it went away within a second. And I've written about being a dad. But I have to say, I just feel that my heart went into a gear, my soul went into a gear that it would never go into without being given the gift of these three kids. And I'm pretty sure adoptive parents feel the same. You know, there's something about being given a child to raise and love and nurture and send out in the world. Oh, I mean, it's the best part of my life. It'll never stop being the best part of my life, even when it gets hard at times, when they're in pain or they're in doubt or they struggle in some ways. I just can't - I can't imagine - I felt - Terry, what I'm trying to say is it feels like my true life began when I became a father 30 years ago, and everything else was a warm-up.
GROSS: Was it hard sending them out into the world or them just, like...
GROSS: You didn't, like, send them out. They probably decided to go.
DUBUS: No, they had to flee. Look. I am not a helicopter parent. I am a stealth helicopter parent.
DUBUS: I have a stealth helicopter. When my daughter Ariadne, who's, by the way, getting a Ph.D. in feminist philosophy, and she's almost 28 years old - when she first walked home for the first time as a 13-year-old with her best friend, not, you know, maybe a half-mile from school, I trailed her in the minivan, thinking she didn't know I was doing it. Of course, she knew it. You know, it was really hard for me to let them go. But especially it was particularly hard for me to let my daughter go. And that's just all that we've been talking about, about my fear of how women and girls get treated. And, you know, I was - and I wrote an essay about this, but I was so conscious.
Our first child, Austin, was, you know, a boy. And then we get Ariadne. And I was just so consciously aware of what a different life she will have as a female human being, how just due to her anatomy, she will be more prey than her brothers. And it's just a tragic truth that must be rectified. But, yeah, it was hard as hell to let them go but, then again, you know, joyous and beautiful because they're all thriving - and, again, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.
GROSS: Well, on the note of gratitude, let's end it there. It's such a pleasure to talk with you, Andre. I really appreciate you coming back to the show. Thank you.
DUBUS: Thank you.
GROSS: Andre Dubus' new novel is called "Such Kindness." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with actor Richard E. Grant or comic Leon Morgan, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. I'd also recommend subscribing to our free newsletter, a treat that will arrive in your inbox every Saturday morning. You can subscribe at whyy.org/freshair.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
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