Here’s a good book for you: “Townie,” by Andre Dubus III.
Jill: The way that writing seemed to teach you empathy, very directly, was impressive.
Dubus: I’m going to be on the road, and I’m going to have a three-minute interview on some morning TV show. The broadcaster probably won’t have time to read the book. They really want you to just pitch the book. They’ll ask, “What’s it about?” And I’ll end up saying, “I was bullied; I became a fighter, then I became a writer and writing saved my life.”
It sounds so reductive and horridly simplistic, like a TV movie of the week, when I describe it that way. I have disdain for that, but it’s the truth. [Laughter]
I love that line from Hemingway, “The job of the writer is not to judge, but to seek to understand.” We know he didn’t mean that writers aren’t judgmental in life. We can all be judgmental pricks like everybody else, and he certainly had his moments as a man. My father also wrote a beautiful essay about this in his own way, and I think what Hemingway was saying is that when you’re at the desk, the writing asks you to be larger than you may normally be. To be more patient, more merciful, more tolerant, a more disciplined listener, less judgmental, more compassionate.
What’s always drawn me to fiction as a reader is character-driven fiction — not the plot-driven stuff. I don’t like really wordy fiction. I’m not a metafiction fan. I don’t like a bunch of words just for the writer to show off the words. I really like them to be doing something around character and story.
I very quickly found that I couldn’t become my characters without just emptying myself of myself. And very, very soon after I began to write, I really couldn’t imagine punching someone in the face.I very quickly found that I couldn’t become my characters without just emptying myself of myself. And very, very soon after I began to write, I really couldn’t imagine punching someone in the face. You know that scene in the book with Donny C., when he was trying to stick the knife in his neck? I talked to him, and I realized, I would have fought this guy before. He’s obviously a bad-ass punk with a knife, but I’m going to talk him down.
It was writing. It was a combination of the daily practice of emptying myself of myself to receive these characters, combined with my spiritual distaste for the hangover that violence gives you.
One of the things that was confusing, and hopefully I was clear about this in the book, is that I had such mixed feelings. The little boy in me was so pleased at how tough I’d gotten, that I had the courage to step into any situation.
I didn’t go into any great detail about this, because it was really hard to write about without sounding like a blowhard. But in the fight with those Merrimack college kids… There were 11 of them, and I took on all 11 of them before my buddy showed up beside me. We kicked 11 guys out of the campus.
The little boy in me was so thrilled I’d become this kind of guy. The man in me was increasingly concerned. So, it was a combination of this spiritual distaste for violence, which I’d always hated and still do, with the daily practice of writing, that put me on a track that I haven’t gotten off of since.
I’m so full of shit in so many ways, you know. I always say I don’t believe in God, and I really don’t think I believe in a creator. I have a real hard time with that view that seems to me kind of childlike and simplistic. But I do believe in the divine, and I do believe in grace and mystery and spirits, probably, and maybe even angels. I don’t believe in the devil. I love Tom Waits’s line from “Heartattack and Vine”: “There is no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.”