Andre Dubus III is the author of the novels Bluesman (1993) and House of Sand and Fog (1999). His new novel, The Garden of Last Days, follows several troubled characters in the days before September 11 – including one of the Saudi Arabian hijackers, an exotic dancer and her young daughter – whose authentically detailed but starkly different lives intersect. Here he talks to Catherine Tung about the differences between books and films, how he wrote and researched The Garden of Last Days and what he’s currently working on.

 

CT: Your last novel, House of Sand and Fog, was made into a film. How does the way stories are told in film compare to the way stories are told in words?

AD: I can tell you this: the film, as you know, is an imagistic art form while fiction is linguistic. I believe the filmmaker is hamstrung, therefore, in a way the writer is not. It’s harder to tell an honest human story with moving pictures than it is with language, which more readily pierces the psyche of the reader in a way film cannot. I prefer working with words.

The characters The Garden of Last Days seem to have two sides to them: a public persona, and then a private store of memories, hopes and fears. Was this a theme that you set out to explore in this book, or did the characters surprise you with their dualities?

I’ve never set out to explore a theme in anything I’ve ever written or attempted to write. For me, that’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out. Time and time again, I see that theme comes on its own if we just try and tell a story honestly, deeply and nakedly with no plans or hopes for it whatsoever. The duality you describe is one of those things I discovered along the way. It’s this invigorating act of discovery that keeps me writing in the first place.

The Garden of Last Days constantly shifts perspectives, from an elderly landlady to a young dancer to a three year old girl to an angry bouncer. What was it like to write in so many different voices?

It was very challenging and therefore pleasurable to write from the point of view of some many disparate characters. I’ve said this before, but I do feel that writing character-driven fiction is a sustained act of empathy where you’re constantly asking what it’s like to be somebody else. Everybody gets an imagination at birth, and I truly believe that deep down, we all have an intimate knowledge of the other. Writing is just one of the ways we can get there.

As you prepared to write about the events of September 11, how much of your process involved empirical research, and how much did you rely on your own experience of that day?

Both probably. We’re people first and writers second, though I did do more research than I ever had before to try and understand the complex history of Islamic extremism.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?

I write five days a week and have since I began writing in my early twenties, so I’m always working on something, though I have to say I don’t know if I’ve ever been ‘excited’ about anything I’ve worked on. The emotions for me are part hope, part dread, part anxiety that what I’m working on is shit, part hope again that I’m wrong and should just keep going no matter how I feel about it. What I’m saying is this: writing is work, and I learned a long time ago not to trust how I feel about what I’m working on. If I’m writing well, I tend to feel a bit naked, stupid, slightly inappropriate, nasty and wrong. That said, I’m working on a collection of personal essays I’m contracted to deliver to W. W. Norton soon. The ‘essay’ I’m working on now, however, is over 200 pages long!

 

Photograph © The Writers House

Erin McMillan | Interview
Dreams of Reason