HANSON — He used to hang sheet rock, working alone, and did roofing in the midst of winter, but while author Andre Dubus III, a native of Haverhill, was grateful for the work and income, it left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Every kid gets an imagination,” he said during a Sunday, Feb. 23 visit to the Hanson Public Library to discuss his latest book, “Gone So Long.”
Dubus, author of the New York Times No. 1 best seller and National Book Award finalist, “The House of Sand of Fog,” as well as “Townie,” which won and Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, “Dirty Love” and “The Garden of Last Days,” spoke of imagination, the writing process and story editing.
“For me, it’s character, character, character, and then story, story, story, and last is plot,” he said of his process. “[Once] you’ve written a story, you get smarter about what it’s about.”
He described his program as an opportunity to talk a little bit, read from his book much less, and have a conversation about the human imagination.
“There are four institutions, without which democracy will die. One: A free press. Two: Public Schools. Three: An independently-owned bookstore — don’t buy my book on Amazon — and four: the public library,” Dubus said.
One of four kids growing up in Haverhill, imagination was an outlet for Dubus. His brother taught himself guitar by listening to the recordings of Spanish classical virtuoso Andrés Segovia, and by drawing and painting.
“I remember having the sentence in my head, ‘Oh, he has an imagination, we’re just normal,’” Dubus said. “Every child gets an imagination.”
From his experience as a professor at UMass, Lowell, however, he has come to believe no one person’s imagination is any better than anybody else’s. The difference for creative people is the tools they use to bring out their imagination.
Truth has to be present in the art, but he argued it is possible for an artist to portray someone else’s truth.
“The deeper you go into your imagination … there is no ‘other,’” Dubus said. “We are one.”
Noting that as a white male he is a member of the most privileged group of people on the planet, but he argued that does not mean his imagination is only white and male.
As Faulkner once put it, Dubus said, curiosity is key to developing character and story.
“Your story will walk away, I have found over the years, if I’m not curious about it,” he said, describing his work on a novel about a conman who kills lonely women, only to follow his curiosity about a woman he had seen in Miami some 30 years before. She had been waiting in her car at a bank drive-through window, “a large, pretty, very solitary-looking” young woman.
She became the muse for the conman’s first victim, and beside her the conman character seemed false. He ended up with a 50-page story about a woman looking for love.
“There’s a difference between making it up and imagining,” he said. “We’re either drawn to something or not. … I think it’s almost a sacred trust, that whatever visits your psyche — you’re supposed to write about it. You’re not always ready to, that’s a whole different thing.”
He said “Gone So Long” is material he had resisted the most, including a character based on a former prison inmate he found a likeable person he was interviewing for a screenplay, only to find out that the man had been convicted of killing his wife.
“I detest violence against women,” he said. “I hate injustice. I hate cruelty.”
Because of those feelings, he wanted to get away from the man as fast as he could. Yet Dubus could not deny he still liked him and could not erase the fact that he had enjoyed talking with the man. On the way out of the restaurant where they talked, Dubus asked if the man had any kids.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, but they don’t want to see me,’” Dubus recalled. “And that is the sentence that stayed in my head for, like, three year.”
He kept seeing him in his imagination before he finally included the character suggested by the man in his book.