For a writer known primarily for fiction, Andre Dubus III began in a seemingly unorthodox manner last night, by reading from a piece of non-fiction that he wrote for Boston Magazine. Speaking to a full house in the Wakefield-Lynnfield United Methodist Church, the author of House of Sand and Fog was in Wakefield to deliver the final talk of the 2005 Sweetser Lecture Series.

In addition to House of Sand and Fog, which was made into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, Dubus has written another novel, The Bluesman, as well as a short story collection entitled The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. His work has also been included in The Best American Essays of 1994, The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999, and Best of Hope Magazine. He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, the National Magazine Award for fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Dubus read from a substantial portion of his Boston Magazine article about the experiences of a soldier in Iraq. The young woman from South Weymouth had just returned home from the war scarred and bruised physically and emotionally. Dubus held the audience riveted by his retelling of the soldier’s harrowing experiences and the disturbing images and events that she witnessed. Dubus said that she told him her story over several meetings of a couple of hours each.

Dubus also used the Boston Magazine piece as a way to talk about the differences between journalism and fiction writing. Dubus insisted that he enjoys his occasional forays into journalism.

“I find it at once more difficult than writing fiction, which I’m doing five or six days a week,” Dubus confessed, “but also easier than writing fiction.” Dubus said that part of the difficulty he has as a journalist is limiting himself to reporting only the facts. It’s much different, he explained, with fiction.

“You have absolutely nothing at all in front of you but a blank page and in my case, a pencil,” Dubus explained. “That’s both more terrifying and more satisfying than telling a story that’s already laid out for you.”

Dubus set about debunking several myths about writers. He grew up in a literary family, the son of the late writer Andre Dubus. By and large, according to Dubus, writers have little in common with their lofty images. “Most writers don’t have a clue as to what they’re doing,” Dubus asserted. “Having been raised in a writer family, I’ve met more than I have a right to admit.” Dubus argued that the shy, introspective and polite writer is nothing but a myth. “They’re a bunch of loud drunken guys who kiss other men’s’ wives,” Dubus quipped.

Dubus suggested that most writers are not as disciplined and methodical as the reader might imagine. He related the famous story about William Faulkner, who one day happened to see a child’s pair of muddy underwear hanging from a tree and eventually turned it into his literary masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury.

Dubus compared the development of a piece of fiction to the gestation period of a baby.

“I really believe that, whether you’re a male or female writer, you are pregnant with this story when you write, the same way a woman is pregnant with a baby,” Dubus maintained. The author argued that with proper care and nurturing, “Chances are you’ll have a healthy baby after nine months.” Taking the writing/pregnancy analogy a step further, Dubus said, “I also think it’s dangerous halfway through the pregnancy to shine some bright light and start talking about it too soon.”

Dubus insisted that what a writer needs even more than talent is curiosity. Having taught creative writing classes over the years, Dubus said that he’s found that the writers who produce aren’t necessarily the most talented. “They’re the ones who just can’t shut their brains off,” Dubus insisted. “It’s the curiosity that pulls you, and it’s what you don’t know that pulls you,” Dubus said of fiction writers, “and it’s the truth that you’re trying to find while making the whole thing up.”

Dubus noted that the process isn’t always easy and it isn’t always quick. “House of Sand and Fog took me four years,” the writer pointed out. “When I started, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and when I finished we had three kids.”

[This story originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]


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