I would argue that Andre Dubus is one of the best short story writers of all time. If you haven’t read his work, pick up a copy of Selected Stories. “Killings” was the first story I ever read by Dubus and is still one of my favorites to this day.
Andre Dubus was born in 1936 and had a Catholic upbringing in the Louisiana bayou. His dad was an avid reader. He went to college at McNeese State University and got his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 60s.
In 1986, when he stopped on the side of the road to help a young woman and her brother, another car veered toward them and he managed to get the woman out of the way before being hit by the car. One leg had to be amputated and he lost use of the other leg, confining him to a wheel chair for the remainder of his life. It took him years to start writing again. In 1987, a group of writer friends including Ann Beatie, John Irving, Stephen King, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Yates gave a series of readings in order to raise money for Andre. A friend said he called himself a cripple and the rest of them bipeds, “picking the words with a writer’s precision.”
Andre led a free workshop at his house for 12 years until he died. Richard Ravin said, “I forgot how famous he was, forgot the wall of translations in German and Dutch and Japanese, forgot the MacArthur Genius Award and the Rea Award and the short list for the National Book Critics, forgot the messages on his answering machine from Tobias Wolff or postcards from Kurt Vonnegut or Anne Beattie. Andre treated us as equals, and when it was his turn to read — he brought to the workshop every essay and story that went into his last two books — Andre’s hands were just as shaky as the rest of ours; he was so anxious one of the last times out, he convinced a woman in the group to do the reading in his place.” Even famous, successful writers have insecurities!
When he became a writer:
Dubus decided to become a writer two days after graduation from high school. His father said, “I’m going to see your teachers, find out what you’re good for.” Andre’s teachers said he was good at writing, to which Andre replied, “Big deal.”
His dad said,” It’s a good living.” Andre said his heart jumped and he started writing.
In an interview, Andre said, “I wasn’t born with enormous talent; I had a long apprenticeship.”
What he wrote about:
Richard Ravin said about Andre’s work: “He had a special concern for the poor and the forgotten…His characters were the wounded and the weak and the stubborn…Sinners all, like Andre – there were three ex-wives, don’t forget – characters hammered out on the page, every one of them demanding our compassion and respect. A character’s flaws never need defending or explaining, Andre said. They’re just human, that’s all.”
Dubus gestated on ideas for months, sometimes years. He’d write an idea in a notebook. He said, “I gestate, and when I am blessed, I am working on one story while another one is growing in me. I begin to see characters’ souls, sometimes their faces. I give them bodies and names. That is all I need, for most of my ideas are situations, and many of them are questions: What if?”
He’d begin writing a story once the first two scenes came to him.
“Filling a page with words means nothing of itself. We have to make those words into human beings, while writing the story; and if we do it well enough, that reader will remember these fictional people, as if they actually walked the earth, and entered, however briefly, the reader’s life.”
Andre never planned his stories. The one time he did that, he said the story died long before the final period was on the page. He believed in giving his characters control, even if it meant his characters breaking his heart. “I usually wrote five or six drafts; generally the first draft was terrible and several only showed me what the story was not.” For a novella, he wrote 400 pages just to get the final 60 pages. Then he found a new way of working.
In 1980, while writing his story “Anna” he changed the way he wrote from “horizontally” to “vertically.” He described it like this: “Not to leave a word until I have the right one. Not to hurry. Not to leave a sentence until I know just how everybody feels. Before, I would write five to seven drafts a story – the first to find what it was about, that was a given. Then I’d find it beginning on page thirteen or something, start over, and just keep doing that. When a story’s done I throw away the drafts.” Before he tried to move forward, but writing vertically meant going as deeply as he could.
“Endings come or they don’t, and they don’t change much. If the ending doesn’t come then the trouble is in the beginning, the first third. I think once you’ve finished writing two-thirds you can’t hold it back. You can feel it like a change in the wind.”
Beginning story post-crisis:
An interviewer mentioned that Dubus’ stories typically begin post-crisis, after a main event. Andre said, “I like that approach. I think I picked it up from Hemingway and John O’Hara. You know What happened, you get down to Why and Who. And what’s left after. Like ‘The Curse’: have a man the morning after he was with somebody getting raped. That can get you there a lot more quickly than the morning of the day she was raped. ‘She ate a pear…’ Then you’ve got to get her up to the goddamn rape.”
Andre wrote immediately after breakfast, going on a walk, and saying a prayer to God to help him write. He read the manuscript he was working on from the beginning before he started writing. Andre wrote longhand, not on a computer, listened to opera or jazz, went on a walk first, originally tried to write five pages a day until he switched tactics.
When asked what writing was like for him, Dubus said, “Time stops. I have no idea how much I’ve written or for how long.”
At the end of the day, he stopped working mid-sentence and mid-scene so he had somewhere to start the following day, like Hemingway.
When Dubus completed a story and felt that it was complete, he’d record himself reading it. While it played back, he’d listen and make changes, especially with dialogue.
He liked to stick to one story until it was finished unless it died. He said writing vertically, he wrote three stories a year, in a good year.
When asked where his characters come from Dubus replied, “Make them up. Like you’re a little boy, you just make them up.”
Chekhov, Gordimer, Yates, Gina Berriault, Toby Wolff, Mark Costello, Alice Munro, Susan Dodd, Jim Harrison, Edna O’Brian, McGuane, Styron, Cheever, Katherine Anne Porter.
He read A Dull Story by Chekhov at Iowa. “Chekhov was twenty-nine when he wrote it. That’s incredible! They should have shot him for what he knew at twenty-nine!”
How to take what you learned about Andre Dubus and apply it to your own writing:
1) Get a group of people together and workshop anonymous stories. The writer can’t speak. Talk as if the writer isn’t there.
2) For Revision: try recording yourself reading the story and then listen to it. Most of us have phones or computers that have the ability to record.
3) For ideas: Andre used to go on walks before he wrote. “I used to walk, fast and happily, for five miles, for conditioning and peace of soul and clearing of clutter from my mind.” He said a lot of his ideas came to him during his walks.
4) Ask yourself, “What if?”