As Andre Dubus III says in our conversation below, he did not set out to write a memoir. He was writing what he conceived of as an essay that, as it grew, became a book and is now the recently published Townie: A Memoir.
In the chat that follows, Dubus (House of Sand and Fog) makes clear the accidental nature of what might also be called an autobiographical essay, which covers a relatively short part of his life—growing up in economically ravaged Merrimac Valley towns, being raised by a single mother, enduring various rites of passage with his three siblings—all this while he made sense in some fashion of his relationship with his famous writer father, Andre Dubus.
In this our second conversation (the first was conducted in 2000), Andre covers the waterfront from the travails and joys of writing to becoming a baseball fan, to the satisfactions of mentoring working-class college kids. As many of the book’s notices have offered, Townie is a riveting portrayal by a skilled narrator. Andre Dubus III shows he is no less a conversationalist.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s been 10 years. Are you drinking from the fountain of youth?
Andre Dubus III: [feigns an Irish accent] It’s all cosmetic.
RB: [both laugh] You have good cosmetics. Is Townie called a memoir?
AD: Yeah, it’s a memoir. Completely accidental.
RB: You are a young man—why write a memoir now?
AD: Well, I am glad you put it that way because I didn’t—when I hear a description like that, I think of my mother-in-law who lives with us, a beautiful lady. She’s 89. She was on the phone with someone and she said, “Well, he has written his autobiography.” Not my autobiography—that’s like a life story. Who cares about me? It’s a memoir, and my take on the memoir is that you can write 10 memoirs about a life. Twenty. You can write about having been a father. You can write about being a carpenter. Being married and divorced five times. Whatever your experience is. In this case, it’s really focused on one little part of my life—from age 9 to 29.
RB: Your father died when you were 29?
AD: Thirty-nine. That shoots ahead in time. The bulk of it was that small time. You know, I haven’t even read that many memoirs. I haven’t read any of the big famous ones—Angela’s Ashes or The Last Castle. And I wasn’t planning on writing one at all. I had finished my novel The Garden of Last Days and I was working on a collection of personal essays to deliver to WW Norton because I have written and published essays over the years and I love the personal essay as a form. And I was working on one and what was fueling it was really this image from my life. My brother and I are building my house. We are in our early 40s—about the time I saw you last. I have a couple of kids doing labor for me and they are talking baseball. And my brother, my younger brother by 14 months, he is chain smoking and says, “So what, they have an American League and a National League?”
AD: I said, “Yeah what’s that about? I don’t know either.” That was right before my own kids, my two boys who are now teenagers, got deeply involved in baseball. You know as a father yourself, whatever your kids get into, you get into. And I started to get into baseball through my sons. Not the other way around, which is mythic in America: your grandfather teaches your father, and your father teaches you, how to throw and catch. At least mythically, that’s the story. So that’s what fueled the essay, the question of, “How’d I miss baseball? How did it come from my sons and not the other way around?” As I began to write myself into that question, within a couple months I had 100 pages and began to realize that, “Hmm, I am not writing an essay, this is something else.” So I found that what I was writing was what I was doing instead.
RB: If counted correctly in the book, you had been to two baseball games.
AD: At that point. I have been to a lot since. I’m a fan. I probably watch 80 per year on TV and try to get to Fenway [Park] whenever I can with my kids.
RB: And your kids are still playing baseball?
AD: My oldest is an 18-year-old starting pitcher for his high school at Governor’s Academy in Byfield. He’s an ace—a 6’2”, 220-pound Greek god. Size 15 shoes.
Here’s the thing, man. I haven’t said this out loud yet about this book. I felt a way that I had never felt while writing before, which was that this book had to get written whether I wanted it to or not.RB: My boy is going in that direction, 13 and he is 5’9’’ and 190 lbs—he’s a catcher.
AD: I love it.
RB: When he started Little League I told him he should be a catcher—at that position, you are in on every play. That’s the only advice he has ever followed [laughs]. He’s turned out to be very good.
AD: That’s such a valuable position—if you can catch, you’re in. My youngest son is a second baseman and a wonderful athlete. My oldest also plays football.
RB: So you go to kids’ games—seen much bad adult behavior?
AD: Here’s the thing—my kids got into it and very soon it was clear that my oldest boy Austin was going to be doing this all the way through his childhood. So as soon as he got into the games where they had adult coaches, I volunteered to be assistant coach because I didn’t want any son of a bitch drill instructor over my kid. So here I was, assistant coach in the Little League—we’re playing and I’d yell out “Hey, run! “ Some kid would say, “Coach, you can’t run! Stop!” It was hilarious—I didn’t know how to play baseball. But I am a fan now.
RB: Anyway, you got into it 100 pages—were you confident that it would be published?
AD: I didn’t even let myself think of it as a book. It felt so personal. I was just turning 50 as I was writing it and actually I gave myself permission not to write a book at all. This was just, “I have to write this.” Here’s the thing, man. I haven’t said this out loud yet about this book. I felt a way that I had never felt while writing before, which was that this book had to get written whether I wanted it to or not. It was insistent upon itself and the only way I could write it as honestly as I could write it was if I told myself I was not going to publish it. So I didn’t think about it. I thought about my kids. I thought, “They are going to know more about their old man and their family.”
RB: How much did you think about your father as you were writing this? Not about the content but what he would have thought about the writing of a memoir?
AD: Throughout most of the first draft I tried to leave him and my mother and my siblings out of it. I was really haunted by what was quickly happening—I read a line by someone that said, “If you are going to write a memoir, you should be able to sue yourself for libel.”
AD: I really liked that. If I am going to shine a light on anyone, it’s going to be me. So I semi-consciously was trying not to write about my family because I didn’t want to violate their privacy, especially that of a man who is not here to defend himself. And that first draft was abysmally dishonest because I didn’t grow up in a vacuum—
RB: Dishonest by omission?
AD: By omission. So I had to allow in more of what was really the experience in a total way. And that’s when I began to answer your question about my father. What surprised me—you know he didn’t live with us—was that he showed up at all. I thought, well, I didn’t live with him. He’s not going to be in the story at all. I’ll write about my mother, my siblings, the neighborhood I was in. But his absence became a big presence in the book. Again, what I love about writing, and I have talked about this before, is what it teaches the writer. Ultimately, it also takes the reader, too.
RB: I recently talked to novelist Joseph O’Connor. The epigraph of his new novel—or is it epigram?
AD: I get those two confused.
RB: Yeah. By Sylvia Plath, something about how absence becomes a presence. [It’s epigraph. “You will be aware of an absence, presently / Growing beside you, like a tree” from “For a Fatherless Son”—ed.]
AD: That’s exactly what happened. I love that Grace Paley line, “We write what we don’t know we know.” What was becoming clearer to me as I was writing this was that I was more fatherless than I admitted to myself. I saw him once a week. He was a divorced father in the ‘70s. It wasn’t split custody. We didn’t sleep at his house. He didn’t just drive off—I saw him every Sunday, he took us out to eat, we spent a little time [together], and he dropped us off. But there was no contact during the week. No phone calls. He really was not part of our lives. And that surprised me when I wrote this.
I always feel haunted by what I have written. In that I feel a better writer would have done a better job. A lot of writers feel that way. You are never satisfied.RB: You had an impression that he was more present?
RB: You reveal a lot of stuff about Jeb and the others. Did you ask them for permission?
AD: I did. I did. And I—
RB: Did you let them read it before publication? Did they want to?
AD: Well see, Nicole, my youngest sister, says she will never read it. I believe her. She says those years were so bleak that she doesn’t want to go back. Which is interesting because she is a psychologist and sociologist. My brother hasn’t read it but he is going to. My older sister Susan read it and gave me full permission to write anything I wanted. She was a little concerned about the teenage drug dealing. But she has always been very open about the sexual assault. I was most worried about my brother—for obvious reasons from the revelations in the book. So in that first draft where I left everybody out, I kept telling myself, “No one is going to see this, so write it straight.” And when I brought in the sexual abuse and the suicide attempts, I really felt I had to stay there to be—I learned so much.
Let me back up a second and I’ll get to talking about my brother. I had thought that my rage when I ultimately became a fighter was just the rage of a bullied kid who was beaten up and who snapped. This book taught me that it was so much more than that. And all that darkness that I pushed outward, my brother pulled inward. I really became homicidal and he really became suicidal. Because of that insight, I felt compelled to at least keep the four or five pages of his life that I wrote in there. So I called him to set up a meeting—to take him out to dinner or lunch and have a beer to tell him I felt really compelled. I wasn’t going to ask him for permission. At first I was and then I realized no—a friend helped me with this, insisting that “this was your story, too”—and so that’s how I looked at it. Here’s what my brother said—my brother is so generous about this. We ended up only talking on the phone, which was uncomfortable. I explained what I was leaving in the book, and that I didn’t want him to be sucker-punched when it came out. And there was this silence for about five seconds. He said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to step on anybody’s feet.”
RB: Is he still playing guitar?
AD: No, no.
RB: Is he a carpenter? What does he do?
AD: Here’s what happened. He fell out of a building in his 20s and landed on his neck on an empty bathtub in the yard.
AD: He worked the rest of the day in pain. Went home and stayed out of work. Broke his neck but didn’t know it. He didn’t have insurance; he took aspirin for a few days and went back to work. The body healed up around it. Twenty years later he is working on my house and he’s got these weird symptoms. He can’t pick up his hammer. We think he has some horrible neurological condition. Anyway, long story short, we discovered he broke his neck 25 years earlier and it’s all impinging on his spinal cord. He ended up having surgery and he really can’t be doing any physical work. So, he is trying to do full-time what he has been doing part-time all these years—which is home design, building design.
RB: So no music.
AD: His hands can’t do it.
RB: He’s on his second marriage?
AD: He was never married the first time. They had a baby but no marriage.
RB: This one went kaput also?
RB: It’s not easy. He lives near you.
AD: They all do—they live in Amesbury and I live in Newbury. We are all within a 9-mile radius. We go on vacations together.
RB: And your mother is still alive?
AD: Yeah. She was the other one I was worried about reading this.
RB: Your mother sounds wonderful.
AD: She is great.
RB: Does she write?
AD: Peggy wrote—my father’s third wife. She [my mother] was a social worker, and now she is retired and a Montessori School teacher at 74 years old. She’s hot shit.
RB: As you said, writing this memoir was accidental and there were all these issues you wouldn’t normally have had—can look you forward and think about what the writing of the book will mean, say, in six months? Is there a completion to this project?
AD: Good question. Psychically—(pauses). That’s a good question.
RB: Might you want to change it?
AD: I have to say—we’ve talked about this before—I always feel haunted by what I have written. In that I feel a better writer would have done a better job. A lot of writers feel that way. You are never satisfied. I always feel like, “Here’s the book. Oh well.”
AD: With this one I still feel that way but I—
RB: How could you say a better writer could write your own story better?
AD: Yeah, because it’s my little tale. I can answer that question this way. This is a brand new experience for me—memoir writing is interesting. I have learned a lot, on many levels. Another kind of writer would have a harder time with it than I am going to have because I tend to be an open book kind of guy. I really am. I am the kind of guy who says, “So how much do you make? This is how much I make. How’s your prostate?” My boundaries are kind of open anyway—sometimes to a fault—and so in that regard I think I can do alright. That said, I am leery about going out into the world. Not so much for me. I know for a fact that someone in my town—an older guy who used to respect me—doesn’t much anymore. And it’s because he hates violence. Well, so do I, and hopefully that’s in the book. The thing that I feel the most reticent about is, again, the flashlight I have shone on my own family. I still wish I could have written it without writing about them.
I tried to write all this stuff way too soon. Turning 50 and looking at my own increasing middle age and my growing kids and my aging marriage and all this stuff, it came perfectly.RB: Not this story.
AD: Any story—we grow up in families.
RB: I am called to write three- or four-sentence biographies or profiles of myself. It is amusing to me that on any given day they can be totally different from each other, drawing from the same pool of facts. That’s one of the reasons I asked why you wrote this now—could you have written this 10 years ago?
AD: I could not have. And five years, 10 years from now, would it be different? It would. Let me answer that in two ways. I do not exaggerate—for 25 or 28 years of writing, I have tried to write a lot of this material as fiction three times. And every time, the novel in progress or the completed manuscript has failed miserably. The main reason being that I was too involved emotionally in the tale and didn’t allow it to roam free. I say that because to answer your question more honestly and directly in some ways, I don’t think a lot of this material would change. There is a lot that I have wanted to explore and get off my chest at the same time. I am 10 years younger than the Vietnam generation and 10 years older than Generation X. I am in one of these demographics that tends to fall through the cracks. And for years I wanted to write about being the little brother or sister of the Vietnam generation. Having hair down to my waist, taking acid at 13, losing my virginity at 13. Living with a single mother in poverty, with violence and Nixon flying off in his helicopter, no daddy in the house and all this stuff. It just never came as fiction. So much of what I wrote in Townie is really etched so clearly in my psyche that in many ways I think I would keep writing that story the same way. But no, there is another thing that has to be said. I love this about writing and I am terrified. The stars have to align in a certain way. I love what Flaubert said, “The writer doesn’t choose his subject, the subject chooses the writer.” What also chooses the writer is the time the subject is going to come to him. I tried to write all this stuff way too soon. Turning 50 and looking at my own increasing middle age and my growing kids and my aging marriage [laughs] and all this stuff, it came perfectly. My father had been dead for a few years. I couldn’t have written it at any other time.
RB: Didn’t you tell me at the time we met last that you were trying to bury your father on your property? And it was illegal or something like that?
AD: Just neighbors complained. We could have probably done it. I’m glad we didn’t—we ended up having to sell the damn property.
RB: [laughs] Right!
AD: And there he would be. But it’s a great question about perspective. There is a great line from Flannery O’Connor, “A writer’s beliefs are not what she sees, but the light by which she sees.” It’s the same when you pick up a novel that you are not ready to read. I read Absalom, Absalom way too early.
RB: Exactly my beef about how literature is or was taught. Shoving Henry James at a 15-year-old usually doesn’t work.
AD: You are going to turn that kid off of reading.
RB: Actually, I have not read Moby Dick yet.
AD: I haven’t—there are a few I am not going to admit I haven’t read. One of my favorite writers these days is Ian McEwan.
RB: He just won the  Jerusalem Prize and gave an eloquent and lucid speech about the Israeli-Palestine morass.
AD: Good for him. That took courage.
RB: The Israelis award him $100,000 and then he pisses them off.
AD: Sure, cash the check first [both laugh].
RB: I haven’t read On Cheshil Beach—
AD: Oh, I loved it. And Saturday.
RB: I found the opening scene of Enduring Love harrowing, riveting, and unforgettable.
AD: I’m going to go get that—I want to read all of his books. Did I answer your question?
RB: Sure. It does speak to the impermanence of our judgments. It’s not a bad thing, but we want to have a firm fix on things.
AD: You are raising an issue I have just begun to think about. There is something about having written my little memoir Townie that locks all that experience into a form that sort of reduces that part of my life a little too much.
AD: I don’t think that can be avoided. You can’t put every damn relationship in the story. Every meal you had. In other ways you are leaving some stuff out. There is a selective choosing of detail. In some ways it captures the truth more truly than it can be captured. In other ways you are leaving some stuff out. Again, I think a lot about this whole notion of the facts versus the truth. Now I am reading more of them, now that I have written one. I am reading a really great one, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City.
RB: Oh yeah, by Nick Flynn.
RB: What a bizarre story.
AD: Bizarre, but the way it’s structured is so gorgeous. I am reading this and thinking—you know, again, the art of it has to do with memory. Back to your earlier question—that is what would change. My memory of those years might be quite different in five years. I know they were different 20 years ago because I was still too angry. I don’t think I was seeing as clearly.
RB: I have come to believe we don’t forget anything. There are times I experience a recollection of something so vividly but I wouldn’t think of it in the normal course of events.
AD: I think you are absolutely right. I just read or saw recently on one of these TV news shows that there are a handful of people who have a condition where they remember every second of every day. My hunch is we all do. We only use 10% of our brains. What’s going on in the other 90%?
RB: I think I scanned a novel recently where the protagonist had that condition.
AD: It would be a tough character to write. That’s a long book [laughs].
RB: Have you looked past this book—you were writing essays when you were seized by this project—are you going back to the essays?
AD: No. You know what, I published some. The truth is I just—writing Townie I [now] don’t feel like writing about myself at all. I am actually writing an original screenplay, which I have never done, and I don’t know of I can do it. It kind of came from the cosmos.
RB: Did you have anything to do with the making of The House of Sand and Fog?
AD: No. I was offered the chance to write it. I didn’t want to because I was working on something else. I got to write a soliloquy for one of the characters. It was three pages long and it began with “It’s not her fault…” and it goes on—a monologue. They put it in the movie, except they cut it down.
RB: Of course,
AD: Now it is “It’s just.” That’s it. And I didn’t get paid for it. I was involved more than authors normally are—I got to read the working and shooting scripts.
RB: Speaking of films, did you see Winter’s Bone?
AD: Yeah, and now I want to read the novel. It’s gorgeous. It’s great that it got all this attention. The child in the lead was wonderful
I have taught at Harvard and Tufts, and I enjoyed all those experiences, but I love these UMass kids. RB: Jennifer Lawrence.
AD: Yeah and her uncle—
RB: John Hawkes—he actually has done a fair bit of TV comedy. I think he was a character on [HBO’s] Deadwood. He’s quite a chameleon. I was talking about the movie with Scott Spencer. He marveled that they even made the trees ugly [both laugh].
AD: He’s smart and a good man. What’s the name of the latest novel?
RB: The Man in The Woods.
AD: I’m hearing great things about it.
RB: Indeed. So, do you get tired of writing? Do you take breaks from it?
AD: I really never do. I am also slow and I don’t write all day. When I am revising something I can go eight, 10 hours. When I am writing from scratch—I don’t write more than two or three hours. I just have to say even a Tuesday of writing badly or mediocrely is much a better day for me than a day when I don’t write. I take the weekend off. I make myself walk away. And that feels good. The last few weeks it’s been very hard to write with all this stuff and my teaching load and other things.
RB: You’re teaching at UMass-Lowell.
RB: I imagine those students are not of Ivy League, upper-class families.
AD: No, they are my kind of kids.
RB: Working class kids?
AD: They come from where I grew up. So here is your average Lowell kid—it’s a wide range. You’ll have a kid who clearly could be at Princeton in a graduate level course in the same room with a kid who you have to bring up to a high school reading level. It is a really interesting mix.
RB: How do they get into school—a kid who can barely read?
AD: Well, it’s not that bad. There are a lot of challenges with grammar and punctuation.
RB: Does Lowell have to accept anyone with a minimal grade point average? What are the admission standards?
AD: I don’t know what they are, but can tell you that I have taught at Harvard and Tufts, and I enjoyed all those experiences, but I love these UMass kids. First, they are the kind of kids I grew up with in the Merrimac Valley. Here’s the average Lowell student—he or she is taking six classes and working a 40-hour-a-week job. And they are the first in their family to go to school. They are all in terrible physical condition—they don’t get enough rest. They don’t get any exercise. They drink too much on the weekends. They have a lot of tattoos. They swear too much in class. And they are sincere, brilliant, hardworking young people. I love them.
RB: A lot of pressure on them, right?
AD: Yeah, they have to be doing something with their lives and this is their chance.
RB: What is a college education going get them today?
AD: That’s exactly right. Things have changed.
RB: Wouldn’t they be better off going to trade school?
AD: I agree, and there are a lot of studies to support that.
RB: My kid, I hope he wants to become a Merchant Marine. If he wants to learn things, he will learn.
AD: I agree. That’s the hallmark of a successful educational experience. Where the person leaves that experience with more ability to learn on his or her own, and a desire to do so.
RB: That’s right.
AD: Where you didn’t get it squashed. I am not a believer in college as job training anyway. Which is easier said than done when you are spending 200 grand on a B.A.
RB: Are you teaching literature or writing?
AD: Just creative writing. Non-fiction and fiction. Every now and then I will teach a literature class. It’s so much fun, and I assign books I haven’t read so I get to read them.
RB: Do you make pilgrimages to Jack Kerouac’s grave?
RB: Is Kerouac paid attention to today?
AD: Huge. More than you would realize. There is a Lowell literary festival called the Kerouac Literary Festival. And UMass English Department is hiring a Beat scholar.
Nothing breaks my heart more than people doing good things. I never shed a tear—we all expect tragedy. When somebody does something sweet and loving I just fall apart.RB: Who is it?
AD: Todd Tietchen, a really bright guy. He’s still a big deal. I don’t know if it’s a romanticization of the Beat movement. Kerouac is not one of my favorite writers. He was an undisciplined, gifted guy.
RB: I feel the same way about Allen Ginsburg. He was a greater standard-bearer than poet.
AD: A figure.
RB: There are passages of Howl that are very, very powerful. He had some moments.
AD: I read that last year. There are some good ones in that movement—Gary Snyder is a real poet, I think. [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti has some great stuff. [William] Burroughs makes me want to jump out a window.
AD: Head first. Another standard-bearer. But I do love teaching, and it’s always that balance. I had to read more manuscripts when I was teaching graduate school. A friend of mine said, “Yeah man, you have to careful you aren’t teaching too many workshops. You get the midwife syndrome.” I say, “What’s the midwife syndrome?” “You’re helping everybody else have their baby and you are not having your baby.” You don’t want to do that. Then you get resentful and bitchy.
RB: Where are you going on your book tour? Who wants to talk to you? The usual array of independent bookshops—since now the others are going out of business?
AD: Mainly independent bookshops—which are my preference. East Coast—
RB: Iowa City?
AD: Not this time, I’ve been there recently. West Coast, and then Mississippi and Texas.
RB: What about Madison, Wisc.?
AD: Nope, I should.
RB: I was looking at Facebook and people were buying pizza for the demonstrators—from Ian’s Pizza Parlor.
AD: I’m going to send them some. Isn’t outrageous what they are doing. This is fascism. Its un-American.
RB: Right, what is a union without bargaining rights?
AD: It’s a dog without teeth or claws. It’s nothing.
RB: I wonder about the great conversion of working people to the notion that Ronald Reagan and the GOP are the working man’s friend. Apparently it came about because they really liked Ronald Reagan. And they didn’t pay attention to what was being done.
AD: He’d tell an anecdote and they’d love it, and meanwhile he was stabbing them in the back. I am just stunned at how he has been elevated. He was a criminal. He turned his back on his roots. He was a working class Irish kid, and he turned his back on everybody. Wow—don’t get me started on that asshole.
RB: There is a new documentary on Reagan from HBO which explains his, uh, mystique.
AD: Yeah, I want to see that.
RB: Looking at American politics today is painful.
AD: It has been for many years, for me. I agree.
RB: I wonder who of our fellow citizens is paying attention to the wholesale perversion of social and economic justice?
AD: I hope someone is.
RB: Well, they are not reading books and your books—you know what they are doing? They are going to the mall. Or they are working three jobs.
AD: And they are tired and putting on a vapid TV show. We are in a paradigmatic shift right now. Things are really changing. We are getting deeper into a service economy. The digital world has changed everything. Money is so devalued. I have a friend (he is actually in this book), he and his wife are making $150,000 combined. They live in a modest house and they still can’t make ends meet.
RB: I remember 20 years back, a cover story in New York magazine: “How to be Broke in Manhattan on $125,000 a Year.” What?
AD: Well, the more you have the more you spend. It’s like time: the more you have the more you waste. That’s a whole other thing—where is journalism going? Where are the balls? How come no one is doing what journalism is supposed to do?
RB: Matt Taibbi is. Joe Bageant is. [Sadly, Joe Bageant went to his greater glory on March 27, 2011—RB].
AD: Yeah, there are some.
RB: Tom Englehardt’s web site—do you know that site?
RB: That’s a good one. Have you heard of a writer named Rebecca Solnit?
RB: Wonderfully original. She is frequently on TomDispatch. Her most recent book was A Paradise built in Hell, which argues that after major disasters—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Galveston’s hurricane, 9/11, Katrina in New Orleans—communities come together and people help each other.
AD: Apart from the government.
AD: Nothing breaks my heart more than people doing good things. I never shed a tear—we all expect tragedy. When somebody does something sweet and loving I just fall apart.
RB: Solnit wrote about post-earthquake Haiti and was very angry that survivors were characterized as looters, asking what they were supposed to do without basic goods and services. What would you do?
AD: It’s called surviving. You have to eat. Along those lines is what’s going on in Libya. The first few days the whole infrastructure in the east took off—and everyone started to pitch in and take care of the garbage. I hope Gadhafi has the fate of Mussolini when they get their hands on him—God forgive me.
RB: It sounds like he is in it to the end.
AD: He’s not. At the last minute he’ll get on a yacht or plane.
RB: So, you are teaching. Writing a movie. Still writing [laughs].
AD: Still writing—I’m working on a collection of novellas.
RB: What is a novella?
AD: I am still trying to figure that out [laughs].
RB: Jim Harrison writes novellas.
AD: I love Jim Harrison—he’s one of my favorite writers in America, period.
RB: His “Brown Dog” novellas are a riot.
AD: Ever heard his poetry?
RB: Yes, it wonderful.
AD: I love his poetry as much, if not more.
RB: His most recent poetry collection was In Search of Small Gods.
AD: I’m reading it now. You quote it on your weblog, “Death steals everything except our stories.”
RB: Harrison and Tom McGuane have been writing each other for years, and I would expect it’s a correspondence that will one day be made public—probably not in my lifetime. Maybe the last of the literary letters.
AD: Have you read the collection of poems—it’s really a correspondence between Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison?
RB: No, wasn’t that published in a newspaper when Kooser was poet laureate?
AD: I own it.
RB: What’s it called?
AD: I’ll email you when I get home tonight. It’s not letters—they would just send each other poems when Kooser was fighting cancer.
RB: Kooser is from Nebraska. Harrison seems to have a fondness for that area and setting stories there.
AD: Harrison is also a good friend of Jack Nicholson. In one of his food columns he tells of Harrison making dinner for friends and Nicholson stops by, takes Harrison aside, and says, “Jim, we’re in L.A., out here overeating is not an attribute or a virtue.”
RB: I think his health made him slow down, or be more careful. When do you get back from the book tour?
AD: Four or five weeks.
RB: I know you were active in PEN but it strikes me that living where you grew up has been a sensible choice.
AD: I don’t lead a writerly life. I really don’t.
RB: Can you imagine it?
AD: I can. But it’s much more fun for me. I hang out with the people I grew up with—carpenters and roofers and dancers and actors, housepainters. I like writers. I do. I only have two or three writer friends. That’s not true. I have more than that now.
RB: Do you correspond with anyone in a way that might blossom into a readable exchange?
AD: The problem is I don’t take the time to write a goddamn letter anymore. I do goddamn emails. I do take time to write a good email. It’s a crime—the Internet is horrible.
RB: I try to approach emails as letters—proper punctuation and spelling and grammar.
AD: I do, too—no short hand. I write, “Dear…”
RB: No “btw.”
AD: None of that shit. I use punctuation. Full sentences. And when I get good ones I print them out. And keep them, the way I would if it were a letter.
RB: I actually addressed an envelope this morning.
AD: Wasn’t that a nice feeling?
RB: [laughs] Yeah.
AD: I just read that a friend of mine’s father died. I wanted to shoot him an email—it’s a lot easier, but you can’t send someone a condolence in email. It’s just wrong.
RB: Yeah. I like getting special issue stamps at the Post office—I need to find more things to put them on. By the way, at my local post office they thank me for my business. Let me see if we can bring an arc to this chat. You have given up on the essay idea but are putting together some novellas despite being up in the air about what a novella is.
AD: A long short story or—
RB: A short novel.
AD: I have heard varying opinions. Basically it’s a story that’s 75 to 125 pages. That’s it.
RB: Richard Ford edited a volume for Granta of long short stories. He mighty have touched on the notion of what that is in the introduction to that volume.
AD: The truth is for they are probably not novellas—they are 50 pages long published in Glimmertrain and if I get one more you will have a nice slim volume you can read after dinner.
RB: The ladies at Glimmertrain are very sweet.
AD: Linda and Susan—they’re great.
RB: They have a feature called Silenced Voices that focuses on writers and journalists who are being put at risk by their governments.
AD: PEN does that also.
RB: PEN seems to be more active locally.
AD: That’s Richard Hoffman’s leadership. He is bringing it back to more of an activist organization, which is what it is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be about protecting freedom of expression.
RB: I hope we don’t wait 10 years to talk again. When do you think the novellas may be published?
AD: I hope to finish by Christmas. Heh—I feel like a liar.
AD: They’ll be done when they are done. I have to finish the screenplay first and I am deeply in to it. And I don’t know how to write a screenplay, so it will probably take all year to do that.
RB: How are you going to do it—read somebody else’s?
AD: Yeah, I read a few. I won’t read a how-to book. It’s based on an essay I wrote for a magazine about a real guy—it’s a very fascinating story. That’s why I am writing it, even though I don’t like screenplays. I’m not even big on movies. I like movies but I don’t love them. I love books. I am kind of working in enemy territory. It’s a new challenge. I am enjoying the challenge. The problem with a screenplay is—with prose I need that sensory detail to find out what the character is feeling. With screenplays and plays it’s just white space. You are really writing more from the outside in than inside out. I am hoping that I have done enough research about this guy that I can still write inside.
RB: Why write it as a screenplay?
AD: I was asked to—this guy is in prison. I was asked by him and his lawyers. One reason I am doing it—it’s another trait of mine—I was a carpenter, a bartender, I write books. It would be nice to know how to write movies now and then. The tuition years are upon us.
RB: I guess movie money is good money and the movie doesn’t even have to get made. Well, good luck. And thanks.
AD: Oh man, thanks.