I miss far more great stuff than I pay attention to, as does everyone—that’s just the breaks, given the sizeable amount of good stuff in existence and the limits of attention—but sometimes things work out. For instance: friends told me Andre Dubus III’s Townie was fantastic last year when it came out, and I thought, yeah, I should read that—but I didn’t. But now it’s just come out in paperback, and I got to it, and hot damn: put down or finish up what you’re reading and get to this.
Here’s the thing: Townies is lots of things—it casts a wide net. If you’re interested in an unsentimental yet deeply felt portrayal of what childhood is really like, especially the realities of bullying, you should get this book. If you’re interested in kids growing up in the northeast, without money, with divorced parents, or with a dad who was a legendarily great writer, you should get this book. If you’re interested in manhood, and the difficulties of how that aspect develops (or doesn’t) in folks in the US, get the book. Weirdly, though, the best reason to get this book is just this: it’s beautifully, beautifully written. I interviewed Dubus (pronounced, by the by, like ‘abuse’ but with a D), and though we talked about process, and though you can read his thoughts and comments on the issue below, what you need to know is that all the sentences in Townie feel cared for, feel worked over and presented in service to the reader. I can’t emphasize enough how big a deal this is. If you write, you know how hard it is to get just *one* sentence to feel and resonate in real/true ways; to craft a book with a decent percentage of such sentences is an astonishment, and to get a book with so many sentences like that, all of them singing so well, is borderline unbelievable. You’ll likely become a better person for reading Townies, but, even if not, you’ll certainly be happier to be alive, having consumed some serious art.
The following interview’s been compressed and edited, and I’ll last add that talking with Dubus is a hell of a good time. If you’re lucky enough to bump into him, buy the guy a beer and get chatting. Final note: because of the compression and clean up here, Dubus doesn’t necessarily come across as the hugely fun talker that he actually is. All the following was said with laughter and great good feeling—even when trawling thicker stuff, Dubus sounded hugely kind and generous.
WC: Let’s try this at the start: since Townie‘s release last year, it seems like 1) there’s been a dramatic increase in the sort of cultural chatter having to do with bullying and violence—topics the book’s deeply steeped in—but also 2) the NYTimes has started a regular column, named Townie. How much do you feel the book has been a part of some national conversation? Or if that’s too egotistical and grand: what’ve been some of the surprises about how the book’s been received? What’s been the biggest surprise?
ADIII: I have to say: I avoid anything having to do with me. I find it completely unhelpful. I don’t Google myself, don’t read reviews, I try not to see any reaction. I guess I have this deep-seated feeling, a philosophy that if there’s any enemy to art, it’s self-consciousness. Artists can’t have one eye in the mirror. We need to let go of our reflection as much as we can.
But there’s also—there’s two sides. There’s authors vs. writers. You’re an author when the book comes out and it’s reviewed and people pay attention to it, and you’re a writer when you’re doing the work. And that’s where I put 95% of my energy—showing up with my pencil and my notebook, writing.
But I’m not in a bubble.
I fucking loved that Mellencamp line—he did an interview recently where he said the internet is worst invention since the atom bomb, and I just thought: fucking AMEN.
I am aware that people are reading the book, and that it made it onto the NYTimes bestseller list. I’m susprised that anyone pays attention to anything I write. It’s hugely gratifying, and it’s a privelige. The truth is, I’ve gotten so many letters and emails, and the biggest surprise is—the consistent thing has been that people, in email or just coming up to me, they say This is my life, thank you for writing my life. I think childhood’s hard and scary for lots of people, and there’s violence, and there’s poverty, and there’s divorce. I don’t think for a second my story’s unique.
But too much past all of that—I can’t go too deeply. I try not to. The writing is the job.
WC: Have you read Donald Ray Pollock?
ADIII: I’m really, really looking forward to—I’ve had his stuff on the pile for awhile now, I’ve got the galleys of his books, and I’m excited to get into it soon.
WC: I ask just because I’m—what’s awesome about Townies is that the writing’s this strong, true, felt thing—Pollock writes sentences like that, too—this shit gets often called ‘muscular’ in reviews. But I also really, really like nerdy, postmodern stuff—I get sustenance from that stuff. But what’s weird is that I get, in fact, lots of similar things that I got from Townies—this sense of connectedness, of being in the experience with another consciousness that cares, that’s aware. Do you like that sort of writing at all?
ADIII: I think we’re talking about craft here, and, honestly, a lot of the postmodern stuff seems self-indulgent. Postmodernism makes it cool to be a smart guy with glasses. And it seems like they often end up writing these big 900 page books, and they’re almost all white guys. That shit just doesn’t work for me. I think a lot of it comes off as self-aware, and of trying to seem smart. You know Hemingway’s line? “Writing’s easy till you think of the reader.” I think a lot of that postmodern stuff is just about, Look at me, look at all this intersting shit. And I just—I don’t want to look at the writer, I want to forget I’m reading a book. As a reader, I want to—it’s that John Gardner line. Gardner says the job of the writer is to cast the reader in a fictional dream.
But have you read Tim O’Brien’s essay called “The Magic Show”? In it, he says “Writers tend to be the kind of people who want to enter the mystery of things.” But I think this is true of the reader, too. Readers don’t go into books to escape, they go to books to get deeper into things. And Tim O’Brien, shit, his “In the Lake of the Woods” has got all this weird postmodern stuff in it—he directly addresses the reader and tells the reader, you know, this stuff that came up about the wife a little bit ago, that’s not gonna resolve neatly. So I think—I think some of the postmodern stuff can be done well, if it’s in service to something else.
(ed note: the way ADIII is talking about tricks in fiction, though he’s not experimental like Wallace + co, is shockingly similar to how Wallace talked about fiction, just for what it’s worth.)
I’m a sociology/political-science guy, and I’m pretty ignorant of this discourse. I cut my teeth in social services, and working in bars and restaurants, and I ended up hearing about all this from the backdoor. What I love about art in general—painting, music, film, what have you—is like what Janet Burroway says: “When we go to the book, we’re saying Give Me Me.” Speaking the truth to empathize with another human being. I want to go so deeply and honestly into whatever the fuck is in front of me that the reader can’t help but go there too—so that that Give Me Me is going to happen.
WC: Which all makes total sense, but then there’s still this thing, and maybe this gets even deeper and more impossibly into craft stuff, but how the hell do you know when you’re there? I’m not asking as some young writer, asking for lessons—I mean for real, when you’re sitting down and doing this stuff. How do you know when you’re doing it? Does that make no sense?
ADIII: No, that’s good. You know Tolstoy’s definition of art?
WC: I’m sure I’ve heard it, but I don’t know it.
ADIII: Tolstoy’s definition of art is that Art is transferring feeling from one heart to another. Isn’t that great? Nothing’s better than that. You know, why is Adele so popular? I watched the Grammys last night on my flight, and Adele is so popular because she’s got soul, because she’s transferring feeling. She’s loved for a reason.
But as far as knowing—you know that line, I don’t remember who said it, but it’s something like No writing’s ever done, it’s just abandoned. You know who said that?
WC: I’ve heard that. I feel like it’s Didion. (ed note: not even close. Oscar Wilde.)
ADIII: And then there’s the Martha Graham line: “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissastifaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” Honestly, I never fucking know if it’s there or not. I don’t know. It’s all intuitive at this point, I just rely on my built-in shockproof bullshit detector, what Hemingway talked about. What I’m most interested in is cooperating with the truth of the piece and the moment.
The thing is, writers aren’t special. We’re not. I trust the internal truth meter, the shockproof bullshit detector. I know when it’s not there, and I’ll—I write alone, with a pencil in notebooks, and when I’m going over stuff, I’ll start blushing when I haven’t done it well, and that’s the best measure. When my face doesn’t heat up with shame, I’m doing something right, that’s what stays.
Pascal said that anything written to please the author is worthless, which is why postmodern stuff leaves me so cold—I think lots of those guys are ultimately better at talking—at nonfiction—than they are at dreaming, which is what fiction is, good fiction. Good fiction is dreaming, and I think writers are the last people who get to have what we want to happen happen. Writing’s got to be larger than the writer. It’s an act of humility, to show up to this thing. We know about the sperm and the egg, and we know about death—we know how we become alive, but the mustery of being alive? We’ll never know. The best we can do is demystify the tools of writing—how to do certain things, how to shape characters or create dialogue, whatever—but we can’t demystify the mysteries behind that. Why do stories feed our souls? We all know how we got here, but we don’t know why we’re here. I feel as if a sentence is working for me when it’s got nothing to do with my desire for it. When it’s heading someplace I may not even want it to go, except I always want it to go more deeply into it.
WC: It’s intersting that you talk about all this stuff this way, with this recognition of not just mystery, but the necessity of the mystery. And it’s striking in that—in other interviews—you’ve talked about how Townies became a book—you’d started by writing an essay about baseball. How much of that backing-into-it, being-surprised-by-it aspect of writing’s necessary from you? Or was that just the case for Townies?
ADIII: No, that’s true of all my stuff—they’ve all been Phoenixes that rise from the ashes other stuff that failed.
I’m working on a new book—a collection of novellas—but the first two I published years ago, in ’99 and 2005, both, as I wrote them, heading to be what I’d hoped to be a novel. I wanted to do something about a type of predator, a guy I’ve read about in the newspapers that I wanted to explore. I don’t want to go too much into this, just because I still hope he’ll show up, and there’s one more novella to write for the book. But on the way to wanting him to show up, in these novellas, real characters turned up, and I had to follow them—they felt more real. The process of backing into Townie is something that always happens.
Richard Bausch says if you think you’re thinking when you’re writing, think again.
Even in the revision process—which is like the cigarette after the sex—you’re still cooperating with the dream, you’re still working in the intuitive level.
(ed note: there’s a digression and question about Hemingway, and this apocryphal story I can no longer find evidence anywhere of, about Hemingway having once punched Plimpton for asking a question about birds, though on further examining it seems like I was imagining the punch part, but not the question itself. It was an overly jumbly way of asking about how aware ADIII is about what gets into his work—the actual things that happen and turn up—if he’s aware of repeated motifs or ideas, whatever).
ADIII: I don’t outline or plot—I don’t arrange anything. I think about it later, and work to get it right, but you have to write the story first. I was doing a reading and this woman stood up and said I’m a psychiatrist—are you saying you just dream your way through your fiction? So readers are just interpreting dreams? Hell yes: writers are dreaming.
When I was writing Townie, when I realized this wasn’t a baseball essay anymore, that I was writing this MEMOIR (ed note: he pronounced it mee-moir, with some disdain, though not in a way that was critical necessarily of other folks writing memoirs)—I read an interview with Mailer—this may have been right when he died, it must’ve been—and someone asked him: why haven’t you written a memoir? And Mailer said I don’t think writers should write memoirs. He said: I think a writer’s childhood is like a big piece of quartz, and for the rest of his life he’s shining a light through that quartz. He didn’t want to look too closely and risk not having something to refract the light afterward.
I read this and though: oh shit. But I was so grateful I’d found a way into this early 70′s, single mother, drugs and violence things—stuff I’d been trying, we’re talking 6 or 7 years of me working in different ways to get at some of these ideas through fiction—I thought, If this is my last book, who gives a shit. It’s worth it.
Because here’s the thing about that Mailer line: what about these other quartzes? What about being a husband and a father, which are the best parts of my life? When I look back at my own fiction, I see a lot of what I dealt with directly in Townie. I’ve never believed in the idea that there are good or bad people—I just don’t buy the distinction. There’s a line by Waits, in a song on Heart Attack and Vine, he says: There is no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk. What I’m saying is: in my GREs, I scored a 96% in the analytical section. I’m good at critical thinking and all that, and I enjoy taking apart art and essays, I just really don’t do it with my own stuff. I don’t want to.
There’s this great William Stafford essay, this small essay—it’s a short essay, not a small essay—called “The Way of Writing,” and he says “A poet must put himself into a state of openness or receptivity. You know you are receiving the poem when 1) you are willing to accept anything that comes, whatever it is, and 2) you’re willing to fail.” I have all this stuff today—I’m an athiest who prays my ass off—but I’m going to teach some today, and do a reading, I’m doing all this stuff, and I don’t want to fail. But that’s what we have to do in writing—we have to risk that.
And then I think: if we allow ourselves that openness, that receptivity, we’re gonna tap into something more universal. Because there’s only one thing: if art is Tolstoy’s definition, there’s only one thing that can transfer from one heart to another like that: the truth. You capture the small truth, you’ll capture the big truth. Because the thing about the truth is it’s visceral—you know when you’re in the presence of truth, in whatever way, in whatever form. My wife’s a dancer, we’ve been together for 23 years, and I’m amazed when I can watch her do something and it makes me feel something. I’m amazed at how that stuff, even if we don’t have a language for it, can be transmitted.