On October 2, Andre Dubus III came to New York City to celebrate the release of Gone So Long, his first novel in a decade. Cagibi editors had the pleasure of a conversation with him in the cozy, fire lit lobby of the Maritime Hotel. We spoke about Gone So Long, and the significance of places and spaces, fatherhood, blind rage, the pleasures of building a house, and more.
His new novel Gone So Long opens with a description of Daniel Ahearn, as written by his middle-aged daughter Susan, a writer struggling to find her true story and a woman struggling to find stability in her life. The description is part of Susan’s new writing project, which brings her into her traumatic past even as her present threatens her with further upheaval. Cathartic, affirming, and steeped in the empathy and precise observations of character for which Dubus is celebrated, Gone So Long explores how the wounds of the past afflict the people we become, and probes the limits of recovery and absolution.
Dubus grew up in small Massachusetts towns on the Merrimack River, after his family moved among places such as California, Washington, and Iowa; his father was in the military, a writer, and teacher. With the release of Gone So Long, Andre Dubus III is the author of seven books, including three New York Times best sellers. His novel House of Sand and Fog was a number one New York Times best seller, a fiction finalist for the National Book Award, and an Oprah’s Book Club Selection; it was adapted into an Academy-Award nominated motion picture starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. His other books include the memoir Townie, the novella collection Dirty Love, the novel The Garden of Last Days, and others. He lives with his family north of Boston.
Cagibi: Let’s start with this word, cagibi. It’s a French word. It’s a space that can be used for different things. It can be a space under the staircase used for a closet, or you can turn that space into a writing spot if you put a little desk. Or, it can be a shed where you put your tools. Or a place in the attic where you store stuff.
Andre Dubus III: So it can be a container for whatever you need to contain.
Cagibi: Yes, it can be used to store old stuff you don’t really need all the time but you may eventually.
Dubus: I love this word. I love cagibis in life.
Cagibi: We are a journal of prose and poetry, and also a literary space offering retreats to writers. We’re drawn to stories where place matters. And we appreciate that your work is so grounded in place.
Dubus: It is, isn’t it?
Dubus: I was born in Southern California, where my dad was a Marine at Camp Pendleton. We went from Camp Pendleton where my brother and I were born, to Whidbey Island, Washington State, where my little sister was born. Then my father’s father died, after my dad was in the Marines for five and a half years. And then he went to the Iowa Writers Workshop. So some of my earliest memories are of Iowa City, where my father was a grad student. And then he got a teaching job after he got that degree. In 1966 or ‘67, we moved to New Hampshire. So when I was about eight we moved to New England.
I think this is the twenty-fifth place where I’m living. And I think I went to twelve schools before I got out of high school. Like a lot of kids.
Cagibi: And, is it accurate to say that you were raised by a single mom with four kids in Massachusetts in small towns on the Merrimack River, without means to travel as a family for the sake of experiencing new places, or to do much of anything excerpt survive poverty?
Dubus: We were poor. We were first world poor—I mean, I always have to make that distinction. But look, I grew up with a mother. My father, he never made any money and he gave us probably half his income and he never had any money either. But I did grow up watching a woman have to choose between paying the electric bill or getting groceries. Or paying the heat bill but not have enough gas in the car to go to work. Or paying the rent, and then the electricity is in danger of being turned off, and the phone. I grew up watching that and it really shaped me. So yeah, we were first world poor. And writing Townie helped me get clarity; we were also a member of a social class I don’t think we talk about much. We were a member of the educated working poor. Because my father was a beautiful writer and he was a college teacher but he was making seven thousand dollars a year when he began teaching. And he left that job in ‘86 and he capped out at twenty thousand a year. And so he never had money. My mother never made more than twelve thousand a year. And there were four kids.
Cagibi: When was it in life that you began to be interested in experiencing new places?
Dubus: I’m sure, when I look back, that there are moments of joy. But I don’t remember a lot of those and neither do my siblings because there’s a lot of strife. Tobias Wolff in his wonderful This Boy’s Life has the line, “Memory has its own story.” For me, space… I had two relationships with space. One was fleeing, and one was sanctuary. I would try to stay away from the areas where I was going to get beat up, and I would flee to areas where I felt safe. Look, cagibis—I’ve been trying to create them my whole life. It began—this is in Townie—my brother and I, we come home, and there’d be drug dealers in the house because my sister’s into drugs and my mother’s gone fourteen hours a day working. There are no other adults in our lives. And the house would be overrun. Even the house wasn’t a haven. And so we built a treehouse from stolen lumber in the backyard, and that was really a sanctuary.
Cagibi: That’s a great cagibi. A kids’ cagibi.
Dubus: That was to create a space, right. And by the way, my brother Jeb and I were always looking for havens, little hideaways. We’d dig caves in the side of sand dunes and curl up inside them. We were always looking to build our own little places. When I look at space, I think that’s an honest answer. It was one of evasion and one of sanctuary. I was fleeing and I was fleeing to. And all my life I’ve been looking for a safe place. And let me say, I never wanted a house, I never wanted a home, I just wanted a space. When I was in my early twenties and training as a boxer and thinking I was going to go off to get a PhD in Marxist social science and work in construction, my little apartment had no furniture. What I had in my bedroom was a yoga mat, which I slept on with a sleeping bag, and my pillow was really a pillowcase with two work boots in it, and I had nothing on the walls. And so I lived really in a monk-like way.
Cagibis—I’ve been trying to create them my whole life.
And it’s interesting, you just gave me an insight into my entire life. I have always, it’s always been when danger, find a safe little place. And the key word here is small. Like right now, I have this home that I built with my brother. Once again we built a space together. This, though, is the home that my wife and kids live in. The home we raised our kids in, and they’re grown now. So when it comes to fiction… I’m always, as a reader, I’m drawn to fiction that has a strong sense of place. Look, this very conversation would be different if we were having it at a picnic table under the Texas sun. We’d be having a totally different human moment. One thing I teach my students, or try to, is if the heart of character-driven fiction is character, then the lungs are place. And your characters literally cannot breathe if you don’t put them in a real place. So, for me, and I’m speaking as a writer now, I can’t proceed until I know where they are. I can’t proceed until I know the weather. Is it raining out? Is it winter? What time of day is it? Is she hungry? It’s really my way into the dream world.
Cagibi: Into memory.
Dubus: Into memory! And if you look up the word ‘remember’ which is a word I love because the opposite of remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put the pieces back together again. But I will say one more thing about space. I was just showing my writing space to a buddy over the weekend. When I built this house, I wanted every kid, all three kids to have a bedroom. I wanted, you know, my wife to have a dance studio on the fourth floor. I wanted her parents to have an apartment on the bottom floor. It’s a big house. We took three years to build it. And I forgot to put in a place to write. There’s no room to write. I forgot. Now, I want to say though for years I wrote in my parked car, and again, the smaller the space the better for me.
Cagibi: You would write in your parked car?
Dubus: Yeah, so when the kids were little we lived in a little apartment. It was really cramped, they were little kids, and I’m not going to tell my kids to be quiet so daddy can write. I couldn’t afford an office. So one day I’m driving to go teach a class or do carpentry—I did both those for years—and the radio was broken and I realized, Boy this car is really quiet. I could write in the car… So I pulled over and I started to write. I write longhand pencil. Then I started to write in a graveyard not far from my house, next to the grave of Hylas T. Wheeler who died in 1866 at age 33. And I wrote the entire novel House of Sand and Fog in that graveyard. My point though, I mean, winter, spring, summer, fall in the car. You know, it’s full of student manuscripts and sawdust and tools. And I wrote twenty minutes a day, twice a day. That’s all I could do. I was the sole provider. But that space became sacred for me. I’d get into that car and I just couldn’t wait to pull up.
Cagibi: In our Cagibi Express interview, we have a question related to that, along the lines of, Have you ever had to hide somewhere to write and how long did you stay there?
Dubus: Well, let me tell you, now I have literally a hidden chamber where I write. So, after three years in the house and out of money, we couldn’t finish the house. But, big deal, it’s a brand new fun house. And we have this master bathroom which you know I didn’t finish till last year, thirteen years later. So I set up a desk over the hole in the floor where the toilet was going to go, and I wrote my entire novel there, The Garden of Last Days, in this unfinished plywood future bathroom which became like a storage closet. And I really enjoyed that space, but then we started to really use it for a closet. So I had to move out of there. So, down in the basement, the way my brother designed the house you have these quarter floors and half floors and it’s really cool. So that meant that down in the basement there was like a fifteen foot ceiling, up to like a half floor or something. I cleared whatever was in there and I built these shelves, and then I built across and I framed, and I built my writing room. And then I built stairs which are really more like a ship’s ladder. It’s not to code. If the building inspector ever saw this room he’d make me tear it out. So in order to get to my space you have to go down into the basement, into the furnace room, up a flight of wooden stairs that are illegal, past some shelves holding a bunch of stuff, and into this room, which is five feet wide, eleven feet long, with a six foot ceiling and a little port window I cover with a black blanket. And a wooden desk in front of a blank wall, and it’s soundproof. And I lock it.
Cagibi: You cover the window?
Dubus: One tiny window in the back behind me which I cover with a black blanket. In the summertime, though, I open it because it gets hot in there. But there’s no air conditioning, there’s no heat. So I kind of suffer in there. It’s all naked plywood, and that’s my space, man. I’ve written three books there. I need dark. I need dark, blank silence. I even put headphones over my ears. I hear my heartbeat. I hear my breath. And there’s just nothing. I write with pencils and paper. But it’s become very important to me. And I’ve trained myself, like most writers, to write everywhere. I can write on a plane or in an airport. But that’s where I go.
I need dark. I need dark, blank silence. I even put headphones over my ears. I hear my heartbeat. I hear my breath.
Cagibi: Gone So Long is set mainly in Massachusetts and Florida. What you said earlier about fleeing and sanctuary, it makes me think of in the beginning of Gone So Long when Susan feels threatened by what is referred to as the enemy within her, she flees to her grandmother’s. So it’s similar to this idea of fleeing to a space.
Dubus: And there’s also Daniel’s trailer and how he encloses his space with this fence he hired a guy to build. And he’s got the shed. He’s really sort of echoing his prison enclosure container. I lived in a trailer on the beach for about a year and a half when I first moved back to Massachusetts. I lived in New York with my girlfriend before I met my wife for a year and a half and I hated living here. I love that it exists but I’m not a city boy. I need my sanctuary, man. If I lived here I’d stay in. I’m not agoraphobic and I love people, and I love the chaos and the noise. But I can’t live in such a place.
Cagibi: Also about the settings of Massachusetts and Florida in Gone So Long, did your own upbringing, with extended family in Louisiana while you were raised elsewhere, influence your choice of these settings of north and south?
Dubus: I think it’s subconscious. I think it’s more from the dream world. I was born in Southern California so if I’d stayed there I’d be a surfer boy, skateboarder, who knows, right? I end up in New England where everybody talks like this [mimics accent] and they’re tough and rough and sound stupid when they’re not. And every time I go down to Louisiana I feel such a kinship to my people. I feel I get so into it. My accent. I start to talk like this [mimics accent], like my cousins. And I’ve always felt this total geographical split that I don’t belong anywhere. That’s changed over the last twenty years. I’ve gotten to be much more committed to New England. But to answer your question, I’m always pulled back to the south. I mean, in a lot of my writing, there have been trips south.
Cagibi: When you were growing up, did the south hold a big fascination for you?
Dubus: No, you know what held a fascination for me was family. Family. I mean, we had this little nuclear family that split up, and there were no aunts or uncles to help out. No grandparents to help out. No cousins to help out. When I was first dating my future wife, Fontaine—she’s full Greek, she’s a dancer—she would show me photo albums from her life and there’s one outdoor picture of like eighty or a hundred people on a lawn, and I said, “Is that a wedding?’ [Fontaine said,] “No, Sunday dinner.”
Sunday dinner? If we ever had that, which we never did, it’d be five depressed people at a table. So for me the pull was, I’ve got family down there. Cousins, like thirteen of them. And they grew up. So my dad has there still living two older sisters and one sister had eight kids and the other sister had five. And those thirteen cousins, who were our first cousins, lived two streets away from each other in Baton Rouge, and they were best friends. The kids all played together. And so we come down—it’s actually kind of poignant—my mother couldn’t afford to fly us down, and she never had a car that could drive that far. And so she found a repo company that repossessed cars. And we take a bus into Boston, we four kids and her. We go to some sketchy little yard, we get into a repossessed Trans-Am or van, and drive to New Orleans. But it’s usually a new car, because it’s repossessed for lack of payments, had air conditioning, and we go to New Orleans. We drop it off in some sketchy repo yard. We take a bus from New Orleans up to where her parents lived in central Louisiana. And so for me the real pull was getting to see my grandfather, my grandmother, cousins.
Cagibi: Gone So Long is your first novel in a decade. These characters have done dark and terrible things to themselves and others. What was it like to live with these characters for such a long period of time?
Dubus: I didn’t sit with them for the whole ten years because also since my novel The Garden of Last Days there was the memoir Townie and the collection Dirty Love. So I’ve been writing all the way through. I did spend five years with the characters in Gone So Long. It took three years to get the first drafts done and then another two years of arduous revision, terrifyingly arduous revision. But to answer your question, I do wish I wrote different kinds of stories sometimes, because they take a toll. This one really took a toll on me. And I have to say, I’m a bit of a one-note writing teacher in that my whole philosophy of this thing is that there’s not a right or wrong way to do it.
The writing is larger than the writer. For me the writing is larger, and it always seems to go better not when I set out to say something but when I set out to find something. What I’ve learned to trust over the years is what I’m curious about, what pulls me. In the same way, you can’t choose what you’re curious about. Over the years I’ve come to really trust what pulls me even if I don’t want to be pulled by it. It always goes better if I just allow it to take me.
Cagibi: How did you become curious about the story in Gone So Long?
Dubus: So this story began because I was working on a screenplay based on an inmate in the prison system in Massachusetts. And this came from a commission piece I did for Boston Magazine where they asked me to write up an essay about an inmate, so I wrote it though I don’t normally do that kind of stuff. But I enjoyed it and he was a really interesting character. He totally changed his life in prison. He became a really good man. So much so that the warden, and the man who put him away, testified he should be released. It’s a good story. So in researching that project I interviewed inmates who knew him. He ended up escaping for twenty years where he did nothing but good works. And then he was caught and sent back and he’s never going to get out. I interviewed one of the guys he did time with. In Chicago I interviewed him. I bought him lunch and he was a nice, kind of quiet, unassuming man in his sixties. Very gentle. And as I was paying the bill, I said, “Hey, I hate to ask, but what did you do to do time?” [The man replied,] “Oh I killed my wife.” And I just, you know, you read Townie, I used to hunt guys like that. I have a particular rage for male violence against women and kids. So I just took a breath. [I asked him,] “You have kids?” [He said,] “Oh yeah. They don’t want to see me.” And that sentence echoed in my head for like three years. Oh they don’t want to see me—I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wanted nothing to do with this. I am not going to enter this experience. I am not going to be this guy. And he wouldn’t let go. And so strangely, writing this novel, writing from his point of view, wasn’t the hard part. The hardest one to write, the hardest character to embrace, was his daughter.
Over the years I’ve come to really trust what pulls me even if I don’t want to be pulled by it.
Cagibi: Why so?
Dubus: Part of what I think was difficult about being her is, I did not want to give her a one-note treatment. We live in a time where our culture is full of self-help books and psychology. I tell my students, if you’re doing research for a story… For example, in The Garden of Last Days there was a stripper. And I don’t know that world; I’m not a strip club guy. So I interviewed a stripper, and I asked her just basic questions, like, “If you’re naked the whole shift, where do you put your money?” [She said,] “Oh there’s lockers out back.” [I asked,] “Oh, lockers, okay.” And, “There’s a house mom, so what’s a house mom?” And so on. But I never asked her, when I’m getting all this great stuff to work with, I didn’t ask her, “Well how does it feel to spread your naked legs for some drunk guys coming here from Ohio?” Because I wanted to discover that myself. And so what I’m getting at is I’ve always been suspicious of psychology. I’ve always advised students not to go read up on the psychological traits of, for example, the child of incest in your story. Just imagine it. Put yourself there, because otherwise you’ll be checking off a menu item list of psychological traits, and you’ll be writing from the outside in, and you’re going to have a cardboard character.
I think that ultimately one of the hardest things was trying to resist, Oh, if she witnessed this as a child, it’s made her this way. I also resist the notion that just because you’re the child of an alcoholic you have certain traits. We’re just so much more mysterious and deep and complex than that as people. And yet after writing this story, I come to the conclusion and yet there are some traumatic events that totally shape you, and you can’t ever deny. Events that tilt your life ship three degrees that direction forever. And one of them may be watching your mother murdered by your father.
Cagibi: Writing is also important to the characters in Gone So Long. Daniel struggles to write a letter to his daughter Susan, and in that letter, he writes and sees himself as Danny, his younger self. Susan is a writer, but she also struggles as she tries to write her story in different ways.
Dubus: Yeah. First person, third, and then she tries other voices.
Cagibi: So for these characters, writing is important as a way to make sense of what has happened.
Dubus: I’m wondering if I would have written this novel that way if I had not written Townie first. If I had not had my own experience with having written directly about my life or a chunk of my life. But about Susan, in the first year of writing it—which maybe makes it more like six years because I cut a whole year’s worth of work—Susan was an actress.
Cagibi: Oh, she was an actress instead of a writer.
Dubus: And I just didn’t buy it. I just didn’t buy that she was an actress. I said to myself, this is such bullshit. This is just you wanting to write about it, because I did a lot of acting. This is you just wanting to write about an actor.
One thing I say in writing classes is I think there’s a difference between making it up and imagining it. And any smart hardworking creative person can cobble together a plausible story, but does it really ring true? Is that really what happened, is that really what she’s feeling and thinking, etc. And so, after a year, I had a hundred and twenty pages. I cut it down to nine. I said, no, the whole story is right here in Florida, with her husband and her, and she’s writing, and you just don’t want to write about a writer. So then I had the same ambivalence toward her writing about her life that she did. And it began to feel true: I did believe that she hated memoirs, and I don’t. She wanted nothing to do with that bullshit, but that was the only thing that was coming. I felt as the writer myself, as like the third writer in the room with Danny and Susan, I felt that I didn’t know if she wrote well or not. And she doesn’t know. And so I was kind of finding it with her. So when she would hop from first person to third person, or vice versa, or drop to past or present tense, the editor in me was saying I’ve gotta stay clear for the reader. But forget the reader. Susan’s not thinking about the reader. Let’s just let her be a little sloppy. But then it started to feel really raw and honest to me.
Cagibi: You’ve dedicated the book to your daughter, Ariadne.
Dubus: We’re very close, and she’s twenty-three now, and getting a degree in feminist philosophy, a graduate degree. She’s kickass. She works out six days a week, and she’s a brawler, like I used to be. I mean, she beats up men who get in her face. So she’s just one of my favorite people. I think, I don’t know… I was about to say, I don’t know if I could’ve written Daniel without having a daughter myself. Maybe we can. When I wrote House of Sand and Fog, the Colonel was a father and husband, and I didn’t have kids when I started that character. So I do believe in the power of imagination. I dedicated this book to her because every time I was in Daniel’s point of view I could just feel the agony of having missed it all. Having missed my daughter’s entire life, and I’m dying. I could feel it as a weeping, grieving center in me. You know that moment he’s pulling up towards the end of the book, he sees her car, and he flashes to seeing her at three years old, when he last saw her, and he thinks, I would’ve taught her to drive. I mean, these moments were just heart-wrenching to me. I didn’t feel it. I feel emotion now. I didn’t feel it then. Capote’s got that great line: the writer must write as cool and detached as a surgeon. And I do try to write as cool and detached as a surgeon. But I do feel it after. I dedicated it to her because I felt so much the loss of how he lost his fatherhood to a daughter.
Cagibi: I want to ask about blind rage. I see a pattern of blind rage in your stories. In Gone So Long, Daniel thinks a lot about what blind rage has done to his life, and how inevitable it is for him. Can you talk a little about this?
Dubus: One of my favorite lines from Willa Cather is, she says a writer is at her best only when writing within the character and range of her deepest sympathies. Isn’t that great? It’s next to useless as writing advice because it’s only really after the fact that you can sense where you’ve written close to your wheelhouse. Some pieces of writing seem to come closer from your own center than others. And I have to say, this one felt like it—the whole story, which disturbs me to some degree—felt like it came from my center more, and I’m not quite sure what that’s all about. I will say about Daniel: I have had a short fuse ever since I allowed my anger to lead me to self-defense. You’ve read Townie—it’s very common, you’re in a fight or flee response, your body is flooded with adrenaline, and a lot of people understandably confuse that feeling with terror. Oh, if I’m this terrified, it must mean I’m going to get killed, so I better just freeze. That’s what happened to me. But once I became a physical fighter and I began to channel that adrenaline, it was just great energy that saved the day. So I’m no stranger to sudden rage myself. The last fight I was in, which was in Townie, was a man beating up his wife with his fists, and I beat him up, when I was 28. Now, that’s a long time ago now. My point though is, I just see it, I see people lose it, and I know just what that feels like. So I’m intimate with it. It’s in my wheelhouse. With Daniel though, what I’ve never had is that weird controlling of a wife or girlfriend. And so that became a toxic mix, and it actually was one of those artistically pleasurable discoveries even though it was disturbing when I discovered he was jealous. I said, Oh, this is interesting. And that became the way in. But you’re right, he’s never introspective about his rages. He takes on a comic book character about it, the Reactor. But I have to say, I was redoing one of my audio books. It wasn’t this one. It might’ve been Dirty Love. I was narrating it, and when you narrate one of your own books, you’re reading it like a reader, and sometimes it’s been a while since you published it. And I began to have an insight, while narrating, into some of the themes over my entire writing life. And I think—certainly I discovered this in Townie—that there’s a difference between reacting to something and responding to it.
Cagibi: What’s your next project?
Dubus: I’ve been trying to discipline myself not to rush into one too soon. In the past I’ve done that a lot, because I love writing daily. I just love the act of writing. I just love words. I’ve been working on a collection of essays and working on some personal essays. One just came out in Narrative Magazine yesterday, a real long one called “If I Owned a Gun.” The reason I bring it up is you’re asking about Louisiana, and there’s a whole section of Louisiana at the beginning. So I’ve been working on this collection of essays, and I thought actually it was ready to go, but my editor convinced me it’s not, so that’s fine. So I always work on essays. I’ve been doing it fairly consistently over 30 years. There’ll be an area of human experience I just want to talk about directly, like gun ownership. Or, right now I’m writing one about these things [smart phones] which I think have killed our lives and enslaved us. I think it’s a horrible thing that’s happened to people. And no one will read it, and if they do they might read it on their phone.
But I just so love writing novels. I love the three- to five-year descent into the dream world of a novel. There’s a situation that really has my interest now and I’ve been doing some preliminary research. I hope to start this novel in the next two weeks.
Cagibi: You’ve worked so much with your hands as a carpenter, and you’ve built a house. Is there something you tell your students about writing, that it’s like carpentry or building a house?
Dubus: I do. Well, I quote Sean O’Casey. He said, when I went from being a mason to a full-time writer, I went from one form of manual labor to another. I say to my students, this is a big mysterious thing what we do. There’s no right way to do it; there’s no wrong way. It’s a mystery that a certain kind of writing will show up for her but not for you. It’s a mystery that story feeds people across the world, whether they read or not. We need something at an interior level, something deeply interior in us is fed by story, and we need it. Whether it’s sitting on the stoop having a cigarette after work talking to your co-worker, or Netflix, or a great novel. We need story. And, that’s a mystery.
And then so what I find myself saying is look, the real danger of fine art instruction is we run the risk of demystifying the mysterious thing too much. But what should be demystified are the tools that are available to us to get into this mysterious thing called the human imagination, which every kid gets by the way. And in that sense I actually have the metaphor of the toolbox: you need a block plane, a saw, a hammer. So you’ve written your story in the first person present tense, have you tried a third person past? Because this feels a little too intense and immediate. We look at structure, point of view, or psychic distance. Or there’s not enough real time dialogue, there’s too much narrative summary. And all of these are wonderfully demystifying tools but still we’re reaching for them in service to something deeply mysterious. And so I say this is the joy of making things. This is craft. This is craft in service of art, ideally, if we’re fortunate enough to do that.
Cagibi: Also about working with your hands, in Gone So Long the caning work that Daniel does, he’s doing it to make money for Susan. So the work is connected to fatherhood, about providing for family.
Dubus: Well, back to this notion of container, from where we began. Thinking back to when Daniel was a young man, a young father, before everything went south horribly. His manual labor as a painter, a self-employed painter, and having his own little truck and his own little business—it was all in service of building a nest, a container, a place, a space for his love for his wife and daughter. In building my house… I wish the experience on everyone—not everyone gets a chance to build their house—but I think I think everyone should build a shelter, at least a shack, then get in it. Because building it just felt wonderfully primal. And writing from the point of view of Daniel as a young man, I drew on all of my own wishes as a young father and husband to create a nest, a container, a space where my loved ones would be safe. In this story, who makes it dangerous? He does! And too many people do. They pollute their own damn nest. They work so hard to have this place, and then they— There’s a great line from that band Florence and the Machine. It’s a song that’s pretty big on the radio now. The chorus is, I didn’t build it to wreck it. And she kind of shrieks it. That line really goes deep into me. None of us build any of that to wreck it—but we do, don’t we? Sometimes, somehow. Freud talked about it. He said in all of us there’s eros and thanatos. Right, there’s life force and death instinct.
Cagibi: We’ve heard that you read poetry a lot.
Dubus: Every day. Every day.
Cagibi: Is there poetry you recommend, something you’d love to share?
Dubus: One of my favorite poets working today is Matthew Dickman out of Portland, Oregon. Isn’t he great? I read his book Mayakovsky’s Revolver to my students all the time. But I also just started reading his first book which I somehow missed, All-American Poem, which is incredible. And I just read his latest Wonderland. So Matthew Dickman.
A collection of poems that I turn to often is Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. In fact, I took from one of her poems for the epigraph of Gone So Long, from “Prayer.” And so the reason I read poetry is, for me, it’s just my way into the dream world every day. Just two or three poems. As I’ve gotten older it’s sometimes five or six poems.
Cagibi: In the beginning of Gone So Long, Daniel is very moved by a letter he has in his desk, in his cagibi. He is haunted by this letter. The past is so immensely important, and this letter is from his past, back when things went horribly south as you expressed it. Do you have objects in your cagibi that are nostalgic in ways?
Dubus: Sure, don’t we all? A friend of mine who is a poet brought me a bottle of water from the Oracle of Delphi in Athens. And that’s been on my desk for like twenty-seven years and it—now I’m getting a little nervous [laughs]—it was totally full of water and now there’s just a little bit left. I’m wondering what’s going to happen when it dries up? I think he’ll have to go back to Greece. There is that. There are two stones that my wife painted our initials on that she gave me twenty-five years ago. I’ve got a pencil holder that my cousin made for me and drilled two holes in it for my pencils. I have a Bowie knife hanging on the back wall that my sister and I gave to my father, because he liked knives, a year before he died, and then I took it back. I have a trilobite from a friend of mine, a man who’s the healer Christophe in Townie. So he gave me a trilobite like thirty-five years ago. That’s on my desk. So I’ve got I’ve got these totems all over the place.
Cagibi: Do these totems, do they help you reflect on the stories or do they inspire stories?
Dubus: I think they inspire stories. I feel them. I don’t consciously stare at them and remember how they came to be, but I feel their resonance the way you do like music playing in another room. You know you can just feel it. And again the joy for me of this whole thing is excavating the story. There’s a line I love from some ancient Chinese poet: we poets knock upon the silence for an answering music. And for me that’s what it’s about. So those objects help me. They help me get to silence more than anything else. I don’t know how.
Cagibi would like to thank Rachel Salzman, Director of Publicity at W. W. Norton & Company, for this opportunity to meet with Andre Dubus III during his busy book tour schedule.
Gone So Long was published by W. W. Norton & Company on October 2, 2018.