Skip to main content

A Deeply Satisfying Experiment.

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new CD "The Mountain" (E-Squared) by Steve Earle which pays tribute to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.

04:59

Contributor

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on May 4, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 4, 1999: Interview with Andre Dubus, III; Review of Steve Earle's album "The Mountain."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Author Andre Dubus III Reflects on His Work and Father
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Andre Dubus III has been described as a remarkable and distinctive writer who is the son of a remarkable and distinctive writer. Andre Dubus III had a new novel published earlier this year. Sadly, the publication coincided with the sudden death of his father, Andre Dubus, of a heart attack at the age of 62.

As you may know, Dubus Senior was an award-winning writer who had lost one leg and lost all use of the other in a freak car accident in 1986. We invited Andre Dubus III to talk with us about his new novel and to share some memories of his father.

Let's start with the new novel, which is called "House of Sand and Fog." It's about two people from two cultures who have claim to the same house, a house which is about all they possess. Kathy is a house cleaner and recovering drug addict who inherited her father's house, it's taken away from her by the county for not paying back taxes that she was mistakenly charged.

By the time the error is corrected, Kathy has been evicted and her home has been sold to an Iranian, a former colonel in the Shah's Army. For him, the home represents his chance for regaining the dignity he feels he and his family have lost as struggling immigrants. The colonel is ashamed to be working on a highway clean-up crew and at a convenience store.

This passage from the new novel will give you a sense of he sees America. The colonel is sitting on a bench watching people pass by.

ANDRE DUBUS III, AUTHOR, "HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG": "I hear the speech of Orientals, Greeks, Germans and French; but the majority are the more large, more fed, pink-in-the-face Americans who carry their shopping bags, eating ice cream cones or drinking sweet sodas from cups as they walk past. Their small loud children leading them.

I sit and I regard these cows, these radishes, and I again think to myself, these people do not deserve what they have. When I first came to these United States I expected to see more of the caliber of men I met in my business dealings in Tehran. The disciplined gentlemen of the American military; the usually fit and well-dressed executives of the defense industry, their wives who were perfect hostesses in our most lavish homes.

And of course the films and television programs imported from here showed to us only successful people. They were all attractive to the eye; they dressed in the latest fashion; they drove new automobiles and were forever behaving like ladies and gentlemen even when sinning against their God.

But I was quite mistaken, and this became to me clear in only one week of driving my family up and down this West Coast. Yes, there is more wealth here than in anywhere in the world; every market has all items well-stocked at all times. And there is Beverly Hills and more places like it, but so many of the people live in homes not much more colorful than airbase housing.

Futhermore, those late nights I have driven back to the Pouldar (ph) apartment in Berkley after working I have seen in the windows of the pale blue glow of at least one television in every home. And I am told that many family meals are eaten in front of that screen as well.

And perhaps this explains the face of Americans, the eyes that never appear satisfied, at peace with their work or the day God has given them. These people have the eyes of very small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment or sweet taste in the mouth.

And it is no longer to me a surprise that it is the recent immigrants who excel in this land: the Orientals, the Greeks, and, yes, the Persians. We know a rich opportunity when we see it."

GROSS: I'm wondering how you came up with the way that the colonel sees Americans.

DUBUS: Well, Terry, I guess I can answer that most honestly by talking a little bit about my writing process. For me it's really -- I think, the whole reason I do it is because I don't know what I'm doing. And I feel -- my imagination is pulled to a situation or to a sliver of an image or to a character, and I really write it to find out.

And so, I based the colonel's situation on a man I knew. He was the father of a friend of mine from college, and he was a colonel in the Shah's Air Force and his life did fall part after leaving that corrupt regime. And I had an image in my head, I was visiting him and I saw him working two jobs and disguising what he was doing -- hiding that, really, from people in the building where he lived.

And I was, you know, struck by it. And it never left, for 15 years that image of his sort of sour faced body in the elevator with groceries at the end of a 16-hour day -- stuck with me and I've never been able to let go of it.

GROSS: Well, when you said that you watched him disguise what he was doing; the character in your book does a lot of manual labor, but he dresses in a very expensive fine suit to leave the house so people will think he's got a fine job. And then changes in a hotel or in a rest room along the way to work and puts on his working clothes.

DUBUS: Yeah, I lifted that right from life. But it should be said that the man who I based this on is not remotely like that, and I discovered a whole new character. But, yeah, the writer Alice Munro calls those sorts of moments "starter dough."

LAUGHTER

We then bake -- we put all these other ingredients in there and see what comes out.

GROSS: Well, you know, the colonel in the passage that you just read sees Americans as cows who just take for granted the good things that they have, and, you know, live kind of slothful lives and don't appreciate the important values. And I wonder what, if anything, you share with his point of view.

DUBUS: Well, I don't share that view. I -- well, let me be -- is that the honest to say? I once -- and this is a wit answer -- I once read something by Alexander Solzhenitsyn that never left my mind about how the Western -- we Westerners are lacking in the kind of character that those who've lived under communism and totalitarian regime are spared. They're spared this lack of character.

That basically our lives are so easy we've really been infantilized, if that's a word, we've been made children and we're lacking the sort of, I guess, character that people in tougher situations have. You know, there's a really wonderful essay I teach in my writing classes from the writer Flannery O'Connor called "The Nature in the Name of Fiction."

And in it she says so many brilliant things in this essay, but one of the things she said is that our beliefs are not what we see -- talking about we writers -- but the light by which we see. So that's a real mysterious terrain, and I don't know where it all leads for me.

But I do believe that there might be something of my own view in there, although it's a lot harsher and more severe and more -- and really clearer for the colonel than for me.

GROSS: What inspired the idea of two people who have claim to the same place, the same house, who both desperately need it?

DUBUS: Well, you know, I know a lot of writers share this little technique I have; I get a lot of good story ideas from newspapers. Especially the -- you know, your local or national news briefs where they just have a really scant little paragraph that presents the situation but gives you no detail. So your imagination really gets hungry for the detail.

And my first writing class I ever taught was in 1990 at Emerson College and I had never taken a writing class and didn't know to teach one, so I said well, I'll get them started the way I started. So I brought in a newspaper and pointed to some news sections, and one of them was about a woman in Oakland who had her house evicted for failure to pay back taxes she did not owe.

And when they admitted their mistake -- the county who had evicted her - they already sold it. And now the man who bought it legally didn't have to give it back. That was actually in the newspaper clipping, and I told my students one of you guys should write about this. This is pretty interesting.

And nobody did, but it never left my imagination either. So after finishing my second book three years later I -- that's what -- I started to write myself into that. But it didn't come together, Terry, until -- I had been trying to write about the colonel's situation for years too and I thought well maybe it will just be a poem about a guy in an elevator. I mean, maybe it will be a short essay. I don't know what it will be. It doesn't seem to want to be fiction.

But then I actually noticed in the newspaper clipping that I had kept that the man who bought the house had a Middle Eastern name. And while I think it was probably Arabic and not Iranian it did get me, you know, the writer light bulb went off and I thought what if my colonel bought that house? And then it just took off.

And, you know, four years later it was time.

GROSS: The point of view in your novel keeps shifting between the colonel and Kathy, and so you're writing in each of their first person voices. And this requires you writing in the character of two people who are very different from you, and you're doing this at a time when some people get very angry if they think a writer is presuming that he or she is capable of understanding someone who is of a different race or ethnic group or gender.

DUBUS: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'm wondering...

DUBUS: ... I'm so glad you're bringing this up.

GROSS: ... I'm wondering if you feel that this is a loaded time to be writing in the voices of an Iranian colonel and a woman.

DUBUS: Especially when I'm a white guy?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Right.

DUBUS: I think, yes.

GROSS: That's the way it usually goes. That white guys aren't allowed to do this. Yeah.

DUBUS: I know, and I completely -- I think I understand the intent behind the anger behind all of this. And while I completely am with that anger, and we're looking at thousands of years of patriarchy and imperialism and genocide -- that's what's actually caused this anger, and I'm no small audience.

I mean, I listen to that and share in that rage actually. But the fact is, I think culturally we're deeply misled when we begin to go after writers who are doing this. The fact of the matter is it is our job. It's not just an interesting thing to do, it's the very job description of the writer is to imagine the lives of others.

And I think the writer Rosellen Brown really put this all to rest of me - she articulated it really well I think. She said that you know, when the writer puts him or herself in the shoes of the other, you know, for instance a white male writing from the point of view of a dark skinned man or a woman, etc. That far from -- this is not an act of colonialism.

Actually, because it's an act of empathy it's inherently an act of friendship. Now the danger of course is that the writer can fall flat on his or her face and get it completely wrong. I think that's where the risk should lie. I mean, we should be able to take that risk and we should, you know, often times we fail. But nothing risked, nothing gained.

I truly believe that the imagination is huge, and if I get on my little high horse for a second, I do think that we live in a time that's suspicious of the imagination. I mean, I think that's why TV talk shows are so big, and I think that's why memoir is so big and I think that's that's why true life crime shows are so big.

I don't know what's going on, but somehow we don't trust the imaginative work as much as we did even 20 years ago when I was in college.

GROSS: You teach, do you find that to be true with students also?

DUBUS: Mmm-hmm. I do. Especially younger ones, those 18, 19, 20 years old who, you know, are wonderful young people. There's all sorts of hope for the future from my little vantage point in classrooms every semester. But I do think that we have been shaped by that tube in all of our homes. And I think that did come out in the Iranian's point of view.

But that television I think has done a number on us in ways that I can't even put my figure on yet. But there is this impatience with -- I'm seeing with 19 year olds who I teach to get to the heart of it, to get to it, to get to it, to get to it.

And "it" isn't necessarily an imaginal textural experience so much as give me the facts, give me the numbers, give me the bottom-line, give me the "it." And it's kind of a drive-thru -- drive-by way of looking at it.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: The express line.

DUBUS: Yeah. You know -- you know, they're products of this time, and they're wonderful young people. But it is different from just when I was in school in the late '70s. I feel a real difference.

GROSS: My guest is writer Andre Dubus III. His new novel is called "House of Sand and Fog." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is Andre Dubus III, and his new novel is called "House of Sand and Fog."

In understanding the lives of your characters does it help that you've done a lot of different things so far in the course of your life? You've held, for instance, a lot of different jobs; from house cleaning to bounty hunter.

DUBUS: Weird, huh?

LAUGHTER

Yeah, that bounty hunter thing was a one-weekend job. Throughout my 20s I roamed. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I got a degree in general -- liberal arts and then just fled. And just roamed the country. I began to write early on and I had a hunch that was part of what I was going to be doing, but I was also interested in acting.

And I just felt this vague sort of passionate need to experience. And I don't think I kept a job more than six months, which is why I did so many things in the course of about eight or nine years.

But, yeah, to answer your question I think it's absolutely helped. I did go to Mexico to look for a killer, you know, for some law enforcement agencies. But, you know, I was 22 and I think just chasing adventure.

But, again, if I can quote Flannery O'Connor, whose work I really admire, and this essay I teach all the time. She says that the job of the writer is not to be immersed in experience but to contemplate it, to reflect upon it. And I think that's right on.

That the imagination really -- you don't have to leave your backyard to write great things, and so -- but it doesn't hurt. The short answer is it never hurts.

LAUGHTER

It's good work if you can get it, but you don't -- I guess I get nervous when 19, 20 -- 30 year old writers think they have to go to the barroom and, you know, get stabbed to have something to write about. No, you don't. No, you don't.

GROSS: Well, that said, tell me something about that weekend you were a bounty hunter.

DUBUS: Well, I was working with a private investigator, we were working corrections together. I was his assistant and I was running the show sometimes. And we went off on these trips. He was a very interesting guy. He was really a healer, and he would heal people he worked on.

So he would turn them into authorities and then do counseling on them and heal them. It was a really fascinating situation. But we were tracking down -- I have to stay really vague about this out of safety for myself and my family -- but we were tracking down a guy who was very dangerous.

And I had a fake name, a pseudonym, and we went to a lot of gay bars in Mexico looking for him. And I was 22 years old and naive, and I got a real eye-opening experience about that subculture. And I spent a lot of time going to gay bars - I'm trying not to feel self-conscious -- I thought I was a young white male, but I was getting so much big manly male attention it confused me.

Well, what is about me that -- people do that. So, for me it was less frightening in terms of guns and knives and killings, which was all a foot. It was more frightening about all the homosexual stuff, you know, I was 22 and repressed. So it was an interesting experience.

And actually very moving, because I saw poverty like I'd never seen, you know, I grew up in, you know, some fairly depressed areas in the Northeast - mill towns - and, you know, I thought I grew up in some tough -- well, you know, neighborhoods. And really they don't even come close to the poverty of "Third World" places, and that really affected me.

I saw some really devastating families -- devastated families, actually.

GROSS: My guest is Andre Dubus III, his new novel is called "House of Sand and Fog."

I was very sorry to hear about the death of your father recently. Had he been sick, or was this just an out of the blue thing?

DUBUS: No. No. It was just one of those terrible sudden deaths. He -- as you know, because you've interviewed him over the years, he was in a wheelchair the last 12 1/2 years of his life, and that's not easy on anybody. But, you know, that notwithstanding he was in pretty good physical shape.

You know, my brother and his partner had built a really long straight ramp from his house, just in the last few months, and my father did sprints on it in his wheelchair. In the summer he swam laps in his pool. He shadowboxed and lifted weights.

I mean, he took relatively good care of himself. So, you know, he was 62 and we didn't -- no, it was a shock. He got in the shower and had a heart attack and died.

GROSS: I understand that in his papers he'd asked that you build his coffin, and one of the many things you do is you're a carpenter.

DUBUS: Mmm.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you found that out?

DUBUS: Well, it was not in his will at all. It actually came as -- my brother and I were busting his chops over, frankly, the last story he'd ever written called "Sisters," which is coming out I think in "Book" magazine soon. It's a Western, and in the Western the hero builds a coffin for a man and digs the grave and does it all in about three and a half hours.

And my father was a master writer, but he never worked with his hands and my brother and I have always done this kind of work. And boy, we really gave him grief for that because they ain't no way you can build a box that can hold a 200 pound man in three hours, let alone with hand tools. And then dig a hole around trees with roots.

So we really gave him, you know, a lot of heat for that and were having fun doing it out on his deck this past summer. And he said, "well, when you build my coffin you can take all the time you want. And I want it to be straight pine." And then we got into the discussion here. And he said I want to be buried on my land.

And so that was just, you know, this past summer from busting his chops. And so I was on this book tour for this novel when I heard in San Francisco, and all I wanted to do was get back and hug my children and then go find my brother and build the coffin. And we did.

We gathered at the lumber store, my brother Jeb and me, and we designed it, you know, through tears. And it was just such a stark experience. And then bought the wood; spent about an hour picking it out in the lumberyard where we'd been for years on jobs.

Went to a shop and from about five at night until nine in the morning we built my dad's coffin out of pine. And -- and it was a beautiful night though. I have to say, you know, we'd be -- it would be like on a job. You know, we'd say, come on what kind of a router is that. What kind of a, you know, a (unintelligible) is that. Give me your router let me show you how to do it.

And then there'd be this masculine sparring and then we'd be hugging each other and crying and then we'd be ripping a piece of wood on a table saw and laughing and crying. And then there'd be these long moments of stillness and quiet.

Over the course of the night his friends would come by. You know, his longtime agent and friend Philip Spitzer and his brother Michel came with some family and they just came and were there and took some pieces of wood with them when they left. And one of my father's priests came by until three in the morning and helped us sand.

And some friends came at dawn with beer and sandwiches. We took a break. And when it was finally done I lay in the coffin and had them shut it so I could feel what it was like. And I was also honestly testing to see if the lid was the right height and there was enough curve to it.

And then we dug the grave because we ended up buying plot of land a half-mile from my dad's house and the farmer who we bought from said that she hired her hands to dig it by shovel, she didn't have a back hoe. And when we heard that we said, well, no, we'll be happy to dig it. If anybody's going to be digging this grave by hand it will be his sons.

And so my brother Jeb and I and our good friend Bill Cantwell (ph), who's like a third son to my father, we dug the grave. And the funny thing is it took eight hours. So building the coffin with power tools took two men about 12 hours and digging the grave with three men took eight hours.

So the veracity of that detail was off in that story.

GROSS: So you were right to criticize your father.

DUBUS: Yeah. He needed to redo that one.

GROSS: Did he, by the way, redo it?

DUBUS: No, he didn't. He said, no, well, there was sand near those roots and he happened to have the tools.

LAUGHTER

He exercised, you know, he was so far along in the craft -- he was such a master -- he said, hey, screw it. This is called poetic license. I don't know if he said that, but that's essentially what he did. He just put down the big staff and said poetic license, move on.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Andre Dubus III. His new novel is called, "House of Sand and Fog." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with writer Andre Dubus III. He has a new novel called "House of Sand and Fog." The publication of his novel earlier this year coincided with the sudden death of his father, the award-winning writer Andre Dubus, of a heart attack at the age of 62.

As many of our listeners know, your father lost his legs in a road accident back in 1986. He was helping people who had been hit by a car when he was hit by another oncoming car. I'm wondering how the accident affected your relationship with him.

DUBUS: Well, I think, you know, I'm the second oldest of his six children. I have an older sister Suzanne (ph), and then me, and then my brother Jeb, my sister Nicole and then my two sisters Cadence (ph) and Madeline (ph) from our father's third marriage. And I think I can speak for all of them because we've all talked about this when I say that we all got closer.

It's very hard to see anyone in your family suffer, and so that was hard. But not - it was a lot harder for him. So I think the short answer, and I think hopefully the most honest answer, is we got closer in those 13 years. Mainly because he was very focused on family in that last decade.

Family and writing, I think, for a number of reasons. One, his writing had gotten to the point where he was making a living from it and didn't have to have another job. And he was raising his two young daughters, who are still just 16 and 12.

And, no, that's not completely true. What happened though, I think, and my father has written about this and talked about it, is something spiritual. He shifted into a higher spiritual gear, which I don't think just anybody would do suffering a crippling. And consequently he was a very present and focused father.

And I'm just so grateful for all the times we've had in these last almost 13 years. I mean, he really should have been killed in 1986. He was run over at 58 miles an hour. He was standing on the road, and got hit at 58 miles an hour. There's a quarter bent in half in his front pocket.

So I personally just feel so grateful he was around another 12 1/2 years. I want him around another 20, I am not ready for him to be gone, and I miss him terribly. But we had some really really wonderful talks and family times in the last 12 1/2 years.

GROSS: When he lost the ability to walk did you have to figure out how much responsibility you were going to try to take for helping him get through -- especially get through those transitional periods when he was learning how to be a different person?

DUBUS: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, I think the whole family -- I guess every family has to go to through that sort of balancing act, who's going to take over here, who's going to take over there. And you know, all families slip into their little pathologies.

GROSS: Yeah, really.

DUBUS: The one who always does it does it. The one who never does -- I'm not saying that happened in my family, but all that came to fruition. I'm grateful, too, that this happened at a time in my life where I wasn't nearly as busy.

My wife and I are blessed with three young children now and I work all sorts of jobs and write daily. And it would be a lot harder now to tend to him now. But when he was hurt I was in my mid '20s, I was single, and, you know, we all took turns kind of helping out.

My dad and I used to lift weights together for years and run together -- actually on his birthday every year we would run this 11-mile course near his house. He was a real athletic guy. And, you know, after a year of being sedentary and 11 operations and losing his leg his body had atrophied terribly, so he was really weak.

And for the first few years I went over three times a week and set him up on the weight bench and set him with some weights and put him through a program. And it was really a wonderful experience. I mean, it sounds self-absorbed to say that, but it was -- you know, frankly, it just feels good when you can do something for somebody who you might at first judge as helpless.

He wasn't helpless. He was severely compromised. Of course, he would hate that euphemism. He would say, hey bull, man. I was crippled.

GROSS: Right. Right.

DUBUS: You know.

GROSS: I remember him saying that.

DUBUS: Well, I'm the one -- he was always very polite about protecting my identity, but I heard him say on some interview, it might have been with you, Terry, or it might have been in print that one of his family members was trying to talk him into a positive state of mind.

LAUGHTER

And, you know, and had told him, you know, dad maybe -- you know, that thing they're calling them now, physically challenged. That was me. Boy, he let me have it.

LAUGHTER

He said, "no, man, you're physically challenged. You just ran up the stairs, you're breathing hard. Me, I'm crippled."

GROSS: I remember him saying that.

DUBUS: Oh, I crept out of that room. Oh, he's right. He's right. Oh, shoot.

LAUGHTER

I should have known. I'm a writer. I should hate euphemisms just as much.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: After your father's accident he went through a long and famous bout of writer's block. And I figure you were at that time an aspiring writer or an already published writer. And I'm wondering as a writer what it was like for you to watch him struggle with wanting to write and not being able to write for such a long period of time.

DUBUS: Well, I'm glad you asked because I think there's been a public misperception. But he really did not stop writing. He was writing and the fiction was not coming. He was writing nonfiction all along, and he actually I think what writing well. What stopped though was fiction.

And it was my sister Nicole, who's a therapist and a teacher and writer out in California, who told him, you know, maybe you should not even put that out of your imagination and just start writing about what's in front of you; which is being crippled and write about that.

The fiction took a hiatus, and I was there the day in his house when he finished a story called "The Curse," which was later published in "Playboy" magazine. It's a really strong story. And I was there the day he finished writing it long hand, and he was weeping in his room.

And my little sister Cadence who was about five at the time ran in and he held her, and she was worried because he was crying and thought his leg might hurt because he spent all day with the leg propped up. He was in a lot of physical pain. And he cried, and just said, "no I've got it back. I've got it back. Go tell Peggy -- his wife - I've got it back."

So to answer your question I don't know if I was looking at him - I was too personally involved as his son to even think about writing. I just saw my father getting his work back, and I really didn't think about my own struggles with the craft much. I don't think. I don't remember thinking much about writing and getting hurt.

Because I did not see him -- you know, honestly, what it was his days were full, and nights were full, of trying to get through the physical pain and learn to get his mobility back. And everything fell to the wayside including writing. So I think I thought about it very little as well.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. You know, once when you were asked about the difference between your father's writing and your writing you said that you think one of the reasons why your father's work is more affirming is that even with characters who don't have God, their story is told from the point of view of a writer who does believe in God.

Whereas you described yourself as one of those lost souls who's still groping.

DUBUS: That's me, groping in the dark. Yeah, honestly though things have changed since I've become a father. My wife Fontaine (ph) is a performer. We have three children -- six, three, and two - Boy, girl and boy. And, you know, as all those listeners who are parents know it's just one of those transforming things.

I -- oh, God, I just -- from the birth of my first child, Austin, I felt the presence of God in ways that I never quite did before. You know, I wasn't schooled in a religion. My father went to Christian Brother school in Louisiana, and Catholicism was a big part of his town and his family and his culture.

And it wasn't where I grew up and in the time I grew up. And, you know, it does go back to that Flannery quote about, you know, the beliefs are not what we see but the light by which we see. And I think my father's beliefs really shine through even the darkest of his character situations, and I think my -- I guess what I'm saying is mine are starting to change.

I don't apologized for my previous -- for my evolving view. The fact is I do seem to be haunted by how wrong things can go. And I used to feel apologetic in my 20s, Terry, about -- and ashamed really -- of just howling out in the dark and painting the darkness.

But, you know, Flaubert said too that the last person to choose his or her subject is the writer. The writer doesn't even choose. I mean, you've just got to write what comes. But yes, there has been a real difference in our work, and I think anyone who reads both of us -- if we didn't have the same names I don't think anyone would ever put us in the same camp or even think of us at the same time.

GROSS: My guest is writer Andre Dubus III. His new novel is called "House of Sand and Fog." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is writer Andre Dubus III. His new novel is called "House of Sand and Fog." His father, the writer Andre Dubus, died of a heart attack earlier this year.

Your father had been a Marine, and from what I recall of one of our interviews that was really important to him and seemed to be an inspiration to him during his period of recovery.

DUBUS: Mmm. That's true.

GROSS: Especially early on, and I don't think that's an experience you had. And I'm wondering if you think that that was a fundamental difference as well, if there's anything that you wished you'd had of that Marine experience.

DUBUS: Yeah, I mean, I remember being 19 at the University of Texas and seeing boys in dress blues and wanting to jump in and do it because I was a real athletic kid and wanted to be tested in that way. At the same time I was getting a political consciousness and knew that Marines were being used, frankly, for corporate gain.

You know, nothing against the Marines it wasn't their fault. So I was politicized and couldn't just leap in like that. But the fact is -- well, I have -- this is not an issue for me with me and -- the difference between my father and I in our experience.

He used to always say that my Marines was my bar fighting, and I have to put that in context because, boy, I can sound like a real blowhard talking about bar fighting and reactionary. But I do think that men in this culture, especially in working-class neighborhoods, have to fight like dogs often.

And I grew up in that area, and at 15 or 16 began to fight back after night fighting back for years, and fought for a long time. And it became a real problem, I mean, to the point where -- I mean, I was never a bully and I never started fights with anyone who didn't deserve to have a fight started.

Usually I'd kind of walk into someone who was beating up his girlfriend and punch him. And it was a weird self-destructive eight or nine years. But I had my own demons with masculinity. I know that my father has written about this and talked about those at length, that he joined the Marines because he didn't feel masculine enough. And he felt he had to prove something to his father. Who I never had the pleasure of knowing.

And, you know, I think it was very soon after his own father's death that my father quit the Marines. But see, the one thing the old man did for me is never left me feeling that I wasn't a man already. I judge myself as being needing some strengthening and I need to be more of a man.

But I guess the long answer is I do think -- what you seem to be asking, Terry, was it a rite of passage for me. Is that right?

GROSS: Sure. Yeah. And I guess, I'm also wondering what the transition was between not fighting back and fighting back.

DUBUS: A terrible event. I, you know, just like a lot of kids I was a new kid in town for years. I think I went to about 14 schools before I got out of high school, and, you know, as did my brother and sisters. And that's a hard life for kid.

And a lot of the neighborhoods were tough neighborhoods. And so for years I just hibernated and hid inside my house, and my brother was beaten up very badly by a military policeman in the street with a whole bunch of people watching one day, and I didn't do anything about it.

And something just -- I was 15 years old -- and my self-hatred got to such a level I couldn't endure it any longer. I would really rather be stabbed or shot then not fight again, and something really snapped and I went on a rampage for about 10 years.

By rampaging, that's not the right word, I began to lift weights and take care of myself and stopped eating Twinkies and drinking Coke. And I didn't -- I stopped doing drugs, which I was in a lot of in the early '70s as a young teen, and cleaned up my act.

And really started working on my body, and then worked on self-defense and was surprised that I actually had boxing ability. And then I sort of set out to exercise that part of my life. And I put myself in situations, usually bar rooms, where there were always an opportunity to prove whether or not I had what I was hoping I had, which is the ability to fight when I was afraid.

And -- which is, I think, at the core of us all the time, I think. We're always afraid. I was always afraid. And so, you know, I would wait until some guy hit his wife or pushed a little guy down or was just being inappropriate. Then I would step in and say something like, you know, hi, can I have a glass of milk. Something to get him to insult me. And then I would go at it.

It's terrible. I mean, but this is 15 years ago, and I haven't -- it's something I had to do early in my life. And in direct answer to your question about the Marines, I think it was my -- I had to build a little rite of passage. Not little, it was very significant for me and very frightening. And I had to design one on my own.

And the problem is once you learn to break that membrane -- that sort of psychic membrane between your fist and somebody's face it's sort of something you have in a toolbox, which is a dangerous thing to have. And it's important to learn, you know, to love actively without using that.

GROSS: When your father was alive did you show each other your writing before it was published?

DUBUS: Yes, we did. Absolutely.

GROSS: Were you honest with each other? You know, it's hard sometimes when you're really close to someone and they give you their work if there's something that you don't think works. It could be hard to be honest because...

DUBUS: ... yeah, it really is hard to be honest. I -- well, you know, honestly there's very little my father gave me of his that I could say anything but wow, dad.

GROSS: Right.

DUBUS: Pretty great.

LAUGHTER

Can I go hide now and curl up in a ball somewhere?

LAUGHTER

You know, I mean, honestly, out of the 80, 90 -- I have to count now how many stories he wrote and published. I think it was close to 100 in his lifetime -- in his career. There was one little story I didn't like and I told him right off.

And he wrote it on the plane on the way down to a reading, and it read like it to me. And it got up into one of his books, and I said, dad, that one just doesn't work. And -- but he always told me as well.

But after a while I didn't trust him because he was so effusive about my word, he believed in it so much more than I ever believed in my own that I thought -- oh, and also, when I became a father, you know, come on I want to show people my son's poop.

LAUGHTER

You know, look how -- look how cute that little spit is at the corner of his lip. When I became a father I really stopped believing him. Although, you know, it's probably unfair to him but I thought, come on he loves me. He's not going to tell me this is a contrived piece of crap I have to write over.

You know, but we did. We showed each other after -- over the years I've been defensive because people have assumed with the same name and having my father as a writer that he helped me. Well, no, I -- he didn't. He helped me afterwards.

If I had a draft done I'd show it to him and show it to my wife and a couple of friends of mind whose opinion I respected, but -- my agent. But it was always after the fact. And more so from - I've always been a fairly private independent little guy. And, you know, a Virgo.

I never showed him until I was done.

GROSS: I think one of the real dilemmas writers have, even fiction writers, is that if they are basing a character on someone who they know and who they're close to and that person recognizes themselves in the story; that even if that person is transformed a lot in the fiction that person can still be offended if they feel that they've been mischaracterized or described in a negative way.

And I figured since your father was a writer you might have been very sensitive to that because there might have been characters in stories who were loosely modeled on you, and you might have been sensitive about that yourself. I don't know.

DUBUS: Yeah, well, that's a good question. I was. And I do think it's an obstacle and challenge of so many writers, that we -- and, you know, back to the point about imagination being somehow under siege right now in late 20th-century America is -- in my opinion -- is I think -- I see that with writers with whom I work who will stop cold in their tracks a perfectly wonderful story because they're afraid of how their dead mother will read it over their shoulder. And that's a completely understandable fear.

But I do think the art has to be -- has to go past that, and that the truth has to be illuminated in whatever way. And also, as you said, they are from somewhere. This is no longer your mother. This is no longer your father. You know, you based all those physical features on your living daughter, but because now it is in a work of literature and not life it is no longer her. This alchemy occurs.

My father did a very generous thing when I first began writing and publishing when I was 22. I sold my first story and he called me, I was in Colorado at the time, and it was just so generous and so loving. And he said, listen, you know, you're going to be a writer whether you think you are or not.

And frankly, for two more years I wasn't calling myself that, and I didn't think that's where I was going. And he said, just don't do what I did. Don't wait until we're dead before you write about us. He said feel free to do it now.

And I thought that was a really brave and generous kind thing to say. And I took him up on it. About a year later I wrote a story about -- based on the day when my father left my family in divorce and there was a scene there with the girl based on my little sister. And in the scene she cries a little bit -- I think I had it phrased, "she cried a little bit too."

And my father, after reading the manuscript said, "well, she cried a lot actually. And when I said to feel free to write about it I didn't mean to take me up on it right now."

LAUGHTER

But, you know, yeah. It happens.

GROSS: Was he truly sorry that you'd done it?

DUBUS: No. He was -- it just brought up -- it was painful for him and painful for me. And -- but no, he just put it in its place and gave me a hug and said it was a good story and send it out.

He was very generous and very supportive. And I have to say, you know, I'm not alone in this -- I'm not saying this just because I'm his son. I do think he's one of the greatest writers in the English language of the short story, and his work is going to last a long long time.

And I never once heard him ever say an arrogant word about his own work. All the private moments -- 39 years of private moments with him, never once ever heard him say anything arrogant or cocky about his own abilities or his own work.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

DUBUS: Well, thank you. I appreciate you having me on.

GROSS: Andre Dubus III is the author of the new novel, "House of Sand and Fog."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Andre Dubus III
High: Writer Andre Dubus III. He is the son of the celebrated writer Andre Dubus, who died earlier this year. He's the author of the new novel, "House of Sand and Fog." Dubus is the author of two previous books and he teaches writing at Tufts University and Emerson College.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Andre Dubus III

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Author Andre Dubus III Reflects on His Work and Father

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 04, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Review of "The Mountain" by Steve Earle
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Steve Earle is best known as a rough voiced singer-songwriter who works mostly in rock-and-roll forms with occasional forays into country. His latest release, called "The Mountain," is a departure. It's a collaboration with the bluegrass group the Del McCoury Band, and pays homage to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says the CD is an often deeply satisfying experiment.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN STEVE EARLE PERFORMING)

Since you left me baby
I've been true to you
I don't run around with every debutante
The way I used to do

Starting over new
(Unintelligible)

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: The first time I played "The Mountain" I just listened to it straight through without looking at the credits or the liner notes. I thought boy, Steve Earle's really dug up some nice obscure bluegrass tunes. I've never heard any of these.

Then I picked up the CD booklet and saw that he'd written every song on the collection. Well, this was pretty darned impressive. Listen to a song like "Harlan Man," it thumps with the bedrock authenticity of a bluegrass tune from the '40s or '50s.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN STEVE EARLE PERFORMING "HARLAN MAN")

I'm a harlan man
(Unintelligible)
Because I didn't know how (unintelligible)
I'm a ramblin' man

It's the only life that I've ever known
Because I'm a harlan man
It's a (unintelligible)

TUCKER: The music Steve Earle has written for "The Mountain" holds up as more than just a stunt, a CD long salute to the bluegrass music that was virtually invented by fiddler and bandleader Bill Monroe. For one thing, Earle has altered the texture of bluegrass here.

If you listen to a lot of contemporary bluegrass music, including the Del McCoury Band's own CDs, it's most often very tightly controlled precise music with crisp fiddle breaks and meticulously impeccable mandolin parts that lock into each other like the careful weave of the suits the performers wear onstage.

What Earle has done is rough up the music a little, get it to sound a little more ragged and funky. More, dare I say it, rock and rolly (ph).

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN STEVE EARLE PERFORMING)

Worked the graveyard shift
To stay up all night long
Wake up some day
(Unintelligible)

Said if he don't
Treat you baby right
Said if you don't
Treat you baby right

Come see me
Some lonely night
When the sun goes down
And the moon is gone

Is when I come around
Won't you think I work
On the graveyard shift
Stay up all night long

Wake up some day
Find a good gal gone

TUCKER: That song, as I hear it, is as much influenced by Bob Dylan as it is by Bill Monroe, which is what I think distinguishes this collection from most bluegrass releases. Earle has also written himself a beautiful duet with Iris Dement called "I'm Still in Love with You."

It's fascinating to hear this CD in the context of Steve Earle's career, he put out a couple of excellent singer-songwriter albums a decade ago then went through years of trouble off and on with drugs and alcohol.

In the past few years he's had the ex-addicts addiction to work, putting out good music on his own label called E-Squared and pulling off a project like this.

This is another sense in which I'll bet the discipline of bluegrass appealed to Earle. It kept him on the straight and narrow even as he was taking bluegrass down some winding crooked roads.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is Critic at Large for "Entertainment Weekly."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Rock critic reviews the new CD "The Mountain" by Steve Earle, which pays tribute to bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Steve Earle; Ken Tucker

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Review of "The Mountain" by Steve Earle
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue