When Andre Dubus III began writing about his bleak childhood, he realized he had to reveal his family's secrets.
It had never been the intention of novelist Andre Dubus III to write a memoir. A few years ago, though, he began work on an essay about growing up ignorant of baseball, "and I just kept going," he said. The result, eventually, was "Townie," a book both beautiful and brutal, which tells the story of his hardscrabble upbringing in a dying Massachusetts mill town.
After his parents divorced, the family grew destitute. His mother was exhausted, and his father, writer Andre Dubus, simply wasn't around much -- as divorced dads weren't in those years, his son hastens to note.
Young Andre was small and wore glasses, which made him a target of bullies, until he started lifting weights and learning to box. After that, he still got into fights, but now he was winning -- and discovering a brutal, dangerous side to himself.
Dubus is perhaps best known for his novel "House of Sand and Fog," a perennial favorite of book clubs and a finalist for a National Book Award. "Townie," now out in paperback, also captivated readers, landing on the New York Times bestseller list and being named one of the 10 best books of 2011 by Esquire magazine.
He'll read Thursday at Micawber's Books in St. Paul. In a recent phone interview, he talked about the nature of memoir and how writing saved him from a life of violence.
Q "Townie" is beautiful, but violent. Was it tough to go back and immerse yourself in that part of your life?
A There's a great line from Truman Capote, "The writer must write as cool and detached as a surgeon." Enough years, and decades, in fact, have passed since those fights so that I was able to really just work on the craft part of it. But here's the weird thing -- I think it's kind of triggered a little post traumatic stress disorder symptoms in me. Like, I'll be closing my eyes at the gym to do like a warmup exercise, and I'll have to open them because I'll feel like someone's sneaking up on me.
Maybe 10 years ago I was sitting in a restaurant with my wife, and something was weird, and I realized, "Oh, I have my back to the whole restaurant." It was the first time since my fighting years I'd sat without my back to the wall to see who was coming in. And I realized after writing "Townie" I was sitting with my back to the wall again. So it kind of rustled up some emotional sediment that hasn't quite settled.
Q Your sister was gang-raped, your brother tried to kill himself. Was it difficult to tell these things?
A The hardest part was writing about my family. I had a conversation with the novelist Richard Russo, who's a buddy of mine. I told him I was tortured about writing about my family, and he said, "Look, if this were me, I'd ask myself, 'Am I trying to hurt anybody with this book? Am I trying to skewer anybody?' If the honest answer is no, I'm just trying to capture as honestly as I can what it was like for me, then I'd do it." It was such good advice.
And then when I was done I let my siblings read it, and my mom. I don't think I was going to give them veto power, but I didn't want them to be sucker-punched. And thank God they all received it really well. But my younger sister refuses to read the book. She says, "It was a sucky childhood and I don't want to go back to it." And I don't blame her.
Q That opening scene -- where you ran 11 miles with your dad while wearing your sister's shoes because you didn't have any -- portrays your father as completely out of touch with the way you were living.
A My dad was a good man but he was oblivious. I think there's a part of him that did not want to know just how it was for us because he wasn't prepared to change it. He put the best part of himself into his writing, and then his teaching, and then he kind of relaxed with his family.
Q The way you describe the need to fight coming over you -- it's scary, like a drug. Does this still happen?
A All the time. Well, not all the time, but it's still there. Not to get mythical or romantic about this -- if I tried to do anything in that book, I tried not to romanticize violence. But -- I think of a gunslinger. I think of "Shane." I think of that scene where he's turned his back on gunslinging. He's trying to leave the gun behind, and he keeps it in that hope chest at the foot of his bed.
Years later, when I saw "Shane" again, I so identified with it. The gun is in the chest, but you can always take it out.
Q It's an amazing scene in "Townie," when you suddenly sit down and start writing when you've never written before. How do you explain this?
A In college, I always really liked reading and writing. I just never thought it was where I was going to go in my life. But I still think that scene is very mysterious. Something made me believe in the divine or in mysteries, something larger than us. Something that was wiser than I was told me to sit my ass in that chair and put some words on the page instead of go to the gym and punch someone in the face.
Q Do you think your children will miss something by not being forced to find their way, the way you were?
A It's so ironic you're saying that, because it's been a fear of mine. Yeah. [At church] one day I read the bulletin and they had a prayer by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "God, I keep remembering to thank you for the roses, but I keep forgetting to thank you for the thorns."
I've learned so much more from what was hard about my life than what was ever not hard. It taught me discipline. I learned you can change your life for the better. And that has done nothing but good things for my life.
My kids live in a big, beautiful house; they've got a very stable life; they go to a private high school; we have two late-model cars that start right up; there's always enough food in the fridge. And sometimes I wonder if I'm doing a disservice by not tossing them a few thorns.
And then I told this to an old lady friend of mine, and she said, "Don't be silly. You want them to go into the world loved, nurtured; you want them to think of family and home as a safe place to be, because the world's going to do what the world does, and you'd rather have them go out full and not broken." And I think that's great advice.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.