I sat down with Andre Dubus III at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC to discuss his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days. He is an engaging, energetic young man who seems to be thoroughly enjoying his current book tour. There is nothing canned about his answers. He enthusiastically answered each question as if each was offered for the first time. These words on the page do not capture the sense of joy in his craft. We were joined by Michael Fain, who was driving Dubus to his two readings in the Research Triangle area that day.
John M. Formy-Duval: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about your new novel. Will you talk about why you came to write this new novel?
Andre Dubus III: The Garden of Last Days really began the way a lot of fiction begins for me. I just had the sliver of an image in my head. In this case I kept seeing - I don't know why - cash on a bedroom bureau. So I started writing myself into this image and pretty soon it became clear it was a woman's bureau, and then it became clear that they were tips, and they were the tips of a stripper. And, then I knew where I got the image, that it came from those strange little articles we were all reading after that terrible day on 9/11, about some of these guys having been seen in strip clubs in Florida in the days before the attacks. I couldn't get my mind around that but I was even more curious as to what it might be like to have been a woman who's shown herself to one of these men, who's exposed herself or given herself for money to one of these men. Then after the smoke has cleared, what would it be like to have his blood money in her possession. So, that's what began it.
JMF: And you expanded it. It started as a short story, didn't it?
AD: Yes, it did. It began as a short story and I think it began to grow because when I did the research on the strip club scene and actually went down to Florida to some of those places, I found it…(We were interrupted by a cell phone.) If I have these gaps, it's just sleep deprivation, air in my head.
JMF: Well, let me interrupt my question with another question. I used to teach: five classes, six classes a day, same subject. And, I got to the point, "Have I said this?"
JMF: You're on a 60-day tour, roughly. Are you getting to the point, "Have I said this to this group?"
AD: Yeah. Oh. Absolutely.
AD: You know, one of the things I love about writing is that if you go in deeply enough and hopefully honestly enough into the material, which means into your own imagination, it takes on a life of its own. So, I began to write from the point of view of this young woman, imagining that she is going to meet one of these young Saudis before the attacks. I assumed that it would be just brushing the shoulder of it. I didn't even know if he was going to hire her for a private dance. I just found so much in the strip world to work with. It just kept growing and growing. I have to say that very soon it became clear to me that this was going to be a novel. And, I would say two years or so into it I started to get these intuitive pulls from the character of the young Saudi, Bassam al-Jizani, for him to get the microphone, for him to have a point of view. Other characters had their own point of view sections, and I resisted giving him that space. I think I did primarily because I was not sure I could withhold the judgment necessary to really fully empathetically try to become him. But then the novel started to feel like it was getting sick and going off to die, and then I knew I had to let him in. But I knew very little about that world so I stopped writing and I did research for four straight months and I read all sorts of stuff and came back, and the first day I went back I could feel him right there at my shoulder. The novel was off and running again.
JMF: Have you gotten any feedback? Bassam is not an unsympathetic character. He is very conflicted in some ways about what he is doing. If we take Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" and we believe his way, he is very straightforward, very positive. Have you gotten any negative vibes from folks about that?
AD: Well, if they are out there, I haven't read them yet. There is a conservative web blogger, a bookseller who is accusing me of sympathizing with these guys, which is really insulting. I have to say I think there is a profound difference between empathy and sympathy. I don't sympathize with what these guys did for a microsecond. But, I had to completely empathize with one of them to become him. But you are right. As I did I found complications. I found conflicts within him that maybe we wouldn't assume to be there. He is still definitely committed to doing what they came here to do, their terrible deed, but what we have to remember is that these are other human beings after all. They had their own twisted reasons, but these were young men, these were real people. Yeah.