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First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III is the author of seven books, including “Gone So Long” and “House of Sand and Fog.”

Where do you come up with your best ideas? 
The Local News section of the newspaper. My novel “House of Sand and Fog” came from a one-paragraph story about a woman whose house was repossessed for failure to pay a business tax. There’d been a bureaucratic error, and she never did owe that tax. But the man who’d bought the house in auction was under no legal pressure to sell it back. It was simply up to his personal code of ethics if he’d do the right thing or not. I found myself drawn to that situation, and this is where my best ideas seem to come from: any human predicament that sparks my curiosity and won’t go away.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve received?
My and my wife’s three miraculous children.

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given?
 It seems to me that the receiver of that gift would be in a better position to answer this, but I will say that I believe enduring happiness in life comes from serving others in some authentic and selfless way.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Getting off the path of violence I was on as a young man. Learning to respond instead of react.

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do?
Run for office and fight those who wield power over the powerless, those who spew racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic toxins that only divide us and make us small. That, or be a family doctor, actor, or musician.

What is the most useful mistake you’ve made? 
All the writing I’ve done that the world will never see, the false starts and the plain bad. Gail Godwin has this great line: “The writer must clear her throat before she sings.”

What’s the strangest experience you’ve had?
Back in the mid-’80s, I wrote a story based on an inmate I knew when I worked in a halfway house for convicted felons in Colorado. In my story, an inmate takes a staff member hostage at knifepoint, making him drive north through the mountains to Wyoming. On my Rand McNally map, I found the route they could take through back roads, and wrote it just that way. Months before it was published, I got a newspaper clipping in the mail from one of my former co-workers in the halfway house. The man I had modeled my inmate character after escaped from the halfway house, kidnapped one of the staff, made him drive them north along the very roads I had picked out of my map — and got shot at the same place the inmate was shot in my story. All of this I had written months before it actually happened.

What opportunity do you regret passing up?
Often, when I’m watching a boxing match on TV, I wish I had competed as a boxer for just a few fights. I had some raw ability at that sport, but stopped doing it after getting a bad beating to my head just before I was set to fight in a Golden Gloves competition in Lowell, Massachusetts. Watching those TV bouts, I stand in my living room and start throwing hooks and right crosses into the air, my wife waiting patiently for me to return to the couch.

How do you relax?
I have a hard time relaxing. I can’t take naps. That said, these days my wife and I do like to curl up together at night and watch serial dramas on Netflix. That, and read, of course.

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
Paris. I just love that city.

What is your most indelible childhood memory?
The day my father left us when I was 10 years old.

What’s the most valuable thing you learned in school?
1) Be curious about the world. Never stop asking it hard questions. 2) Go meet and talk to people and maybe even fall in love with people from other cultures and other parts of the world.

When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck?
I step away from the desk for a few days and do something really physical, like build a deck for someone or work out harder at the gym or go for long runs. And I read really good writing written by a writer whose work I will never equal.

What is your proudest moment? 
Building my family’s home with my own hands.

What would you like to experience before you die?  
To live just one day on this lovely, fallen planet of ours when not one human being is harmed by another in any way whatsoever.

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Photo by John Hauschildt

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