First Person

Last brawl

In his upcoming memoir, Townie, author Andre Dubus III, 51, recounts trading fists for words.

By Robert G. Pushkar
January 23, 2011

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What inspired you to switch genres from fiction to memoir?

Writing is almost always accidental for me. I begin with one thing and it becomes something else. I went to work on an essay about baseball.

Was it difficult to write so honestly?

The biggest difficulty was writing about the people in my family, baring their souls in some way. I tried to write about them only where their experiences intersected with mine. There’s a responsibility there.

Growing up in the mill towns of Massachusetts, you used violence to cope with life. Was it purely defensive, or was there ego involved?

There’s a narcissistic element. I could not bear being a weakling, and that encouraged me to do things that were dangerous and destructive.

How did writing become redemptive for you?

I was on a very dangerous road that writing frankly saved me from. Writing felt like a calling. It was a trance-like state. After the first short story, I felt more like me than I had ever felt in my life.

In the book, you compare finding inspiration to “a curtain lifted.” What do you mean?

I would go to the desk with nothing to say. I would just find myself being pulled to words and sentences. By staring at the page, I found that imagination would show up, so the curtain would lift. Before I knew it, I was in a story.

Do you derive pleasure from the tactile sense of writing?

That’s why I write in longhand in pencil in lined notebooks. I sharpen my pencil with a carpenter’s utility knife. I’ll type the previous day’s writing into the laptop, revising while I’m transferring.

When your author-father died, you and your brother, Jeb, built his coffin and dug his grave. Were you trying to bring closure to an at-times strained relationship?

It did bring us to a closing place that was quite deep and beautiful. Building the coffin felt holy and spiritually symphonic. By getting into the nitty-gritty, it helped us get through the loss in a better way. I’m glad we did it. We buried him on opening day of the Red Sox [in 1999]. He had gone to 30 opening games in his life.

Andre Dubus
  • January 23, 2011 cover
  • Condo wars