Andre Dubus III has never felt comfortable mining his own life for his fiction. • "Truman Capote could have a bad cocktail at a party and get a short story out of it," Dubus says. "I'd have to write about the waiter in the corner who's planning to rob a bank."
So he has written novels about such characters as an Iranian military officer in exile in the United States (House of Sand and Fog, a finalist for the National Book Award) and a young stripper and a 9/11 hijacker (The Garden of Last Days) — none of whom bear much resemblance to the 52-year-old who grew up tough in decaying Massachusetts towns, the son of a celebrated author who became a celebrated author himself.
That story is told, though, in his latest book, Townie, a compelling memoir that he calls "a complete accident."
Dubus will talk about Townie, the writer's craft and other subjects in St. Petersburg on Saturday as the keynote speaker for Eckerd College's eighth annual Writers in Paradise conference. Dubus joins the ranks of such previous keynote speakers as Richard Russo, Richard Price and Stephen King. His talk will kick off a week of evening readings, open to the public, by conference faculty and guests.
Talking by phone from his home in Massachusetts, Dubus says Dennis Lehane, co-founder and co-director of the conference, is "a buddy."
"He asked me to come down, and I like Dennis and Ann Hood (who is also on the faculty) dearly. I really like these short-term, intensive teaching gigs. . . . I just like the psychic ambience, all the seriousness and intent to create something beautiful before we die.
"And it's Florida in the winter — what's not to like about that?"
Dubus says Townie came about while he was working on a collection of personal essays. "I set out to write an essay about baseball and my sons. I didn't become a sports fan until my forties, when my sons started playing T-ball.
"So I was writing this when I was almost 50, but as a sports fan I was like 10 years old. I love the Red Sox, I hate the Yankees. The question fueling the essay was, how did I miss out on mythic baseball as a kid?"
The answer, or at least the short version, was a childhood fractured by divorce and poverty, during which Dubus had only a distant relationship with his father. The baseball piece morphed into a memoir about that part of his life. "Within about 100 pages, I thought, I don't think I'm writing a personal essay any more," he says.
Townie focuses on Dubus' teen years, after his father left the family. The elder Dubus was an accomplished short story writer whose work was praised by such peers as John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut. He divorced his wife when his oldest son was 11, leaving her to struggle with raising four children. In Townie, the son writes with ruthless clarity about growing up in a household where there was often too little money, food and clothing, always too little supervision, a loving but frazzled mother and a mostly absent father.
Dubus did not step into his father's career footsteps early. He paints a bleak portrait of his teen years, shadowed by drugs and unpredictable violence. Young Andre, tired of bullying, turns himself into a street brawler and then a boxer, finding both the discipline to develop himself physically and a streak of rage that drives him emotionally. It's only as a young adult that he discovers a love for both reading and writing — and becomes reconciled with his father before the older man's death in 1999.
"Am I still at my fighting weight? Why, yes I am," Dubus says with a laugh. "Just kidding. I haven't punched anybody in 25 years."
He says he had long wanted to write about the material covered in Townie, the story of the generation between the '60s youth movement and Gen X. "For six or seven straight writing years I'd been trying to write about it. But after my third failure I figured out I'm not one of those writers who can write about his own life" in fiction.
The accidental memoir, he discovered, allowed him to do so. "I could just write about Andre."
To tell his personal story, he also had to write about his family, and much of that story is grim: sexual assaults on two of his siblings, his brother's suicide attempt.
His siblings, now all successful professionals, and his mother have reacted "beautifully, generously" to the book, he says. He talked about it with them in advance — "I didn't give them veto power, but I didn't want to blindside them" — and was gratified that their "emotional memories" jibed with his. His brother, now an artist and designer, told him, "I would never want to step on anyone's tube of paint."
Dubus says, "I'm glad I wrote it as I was turning 50. I had enough distance to look at it coolly.
"I'm not mad at my father, I'm not mad at my mother. I'm not even mad at myself anymore."
His novel House of Sand and Fog was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 2003, and Townie has attracted Hollywood's attention as well. "It looks like I'll be co-writing the screenplay," he says, and he is working on an original screenplay as well. "A friend of mine told me, 'You know, Andre, Hollywood is the only place someone can die of encouragement."
Dubus says he's also about to start another novel and just completed a collection of short stories: "I'm nowhere in sight, thank God."
That puts him back in his comfort zone. "The art is bigger than the artist. The writing is bigger than the writer. I don't care what Steinbeck had for lunch; I care about the Joads."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.