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Author Andre Dubus III to share lessons of a creative life, read at New England College

  • Andre Dubus III

    Andre Dubus III

  • This book cover image released by W. W. Norton shows "Dirty Love," by Andre Dubus III. (AP Photo/W. W. Norton)

    This book cover image released by W. W. Norton shows "Dirty Love," by Andre Dubus III. (AP Photo/W. W. Norton)

  • Andre Dubus III
  • This book cover image released by W. W. Norton shows "Dirty Love," by Andre Dubus III. (AP Photo/W. W. Norton)

Thirty-plus years ago, if Andre Dubus III hadn’t picked up a notebook and pencil in his kitchen and started writing about a young man and woman, half drunk on warm beer while parked in a Pontiac in the woods, he might have won the Golden Gloves championship three weeks later. Or, like many of the kids he grew up with in the scrappy mill towns of northern Massachusetts, he might have ended up in prison. Or dead.

Instead, Dubus is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the National Magazine Award for fiction and the Academy of Arts and Letters Award in literature for 2012. He has taught writing at Harvard, Tufts, Emerson College and currently at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Among his half-dozen books, the best known is House of Sand and Fog, the National Book Award nominee, Oprah’s Book Club pick, and basis for the Academy Award-nominated film. On Wednesday, Dubus will appear at New England College’s Simon Center to read from his latest work, Dirty Love, which Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles called “a fantastic collection of novellas.” The 7:15 p.m. event is free and open to the public.

Ever since that day in his kitchen more than three decades ago, when Dubus felt compelled to reimagine the world around him, he has spent part of five or six days a week writing.

“I feel so wonderfully challenged by writing. I don’t feel like myself if I don’t write,” Dubus, 54, said by phone.

A couple of weeks ago Dubus was at a publishers’ conference in San Diego. Despite the sun, the beach and the welcome escape from this New England winter, he still found himself pulling the shades in his hotel room to make a cave in which to write.

Dubus calls himself “a worker bee,” noting that the biggest thing he learned from his scrappy youth was that one could “actually change your own life by working hard.”

Dubus’s daily ritual involves taking his youngest son to school, saying goodbye to his wife as she heads out to her Newburyport dance studio, brewing himself a pot of French roast, then heading to the basement to read a few poems (“maybe five or six if I’m procrastinating”) before settling down for several hours of writing. After that, he heads to the gym to work out. But not to box.

In his 2011 memoir, Townie, Dubus talks about his years-long involvement in street and bar fights, often coming to the defense of others. He finally stopped when he realized that self-defense had evolved into self-heroics, and that sometimes he could better solve problems with words, not all of them written.

As a teenager, Dubus was drawn to the boxing ring as a way to learn how to defend himself (and anyone else who needed it) around the bigger, tougher kids in the neighborhood. By pumping iron, he went from a scrawny kid to someone most others knew not to mess with. When he was first noticed by a boxing coach, “it was like a drop of water for a dry sponge,” he said.

Dubus’s need for attention came from a lack of it from his parents. His father, the noted short story writer of the same name, left the family when Dubus was 9. While his mother worked and moved the family from one substandard rental to another, the four children spent most of their time on their own. On Sunday afternoons, their father would take them to lunch or a movie, but his life as a professor at nearby Bradford College remained a world apart and largely unknown.

Over the years, father and son grew closer, eventually becoming good friends. Dubus senior died 15 years ago, just after the release but before the acclaim his son received for House of Sand and Fog.

While Dubus comes from a family of writers (in addition to his father, mystery writer James Lee Burke is a cousin), there is no doubt his ability to “hone in . . . quickly and efficiently on a character’s inner life,” as one reviewer noted, comes from the depth and breadth of personal experience.

Charles, writing about Dirty Love for the Post, said: “One of Dubus’s great talents is his ability to shift our allegiances, to inspire our affection for obnoxious men, turn us against them and then finally bring us back with enlarged sympathies.”

Similarly, in House of Sand and Fog, Dubus wrote knowingly and compassionately about an Iranian family and an alcoholic young woman, both contesting the ownership of a California bungalow seized by the county and put up for auction. The Iranian insight came from getting to know such a family when Dubus fell in love with an Iranian woman in college. The alcoholic young woman was an amalgamation of friends and neighbors Dubus knew growing up.

Dubus’s empathy for women is particularly notable in Dirty Love. He credits some of this understanding to his two sisters, both of whom work with women and families in distress.

“I love women,” he said. “I don’t know how you can not write about half of the population . . . the more interesting half.”

But Dubus says he doesn’t plan his work around any particular or knowable source.

“Maybe I think about where it came from after the fact,” he said.

An example of this is the story of Maria, a 29-year-old single woman in one of the stories in Dirty Love. Dubus said the character evolved from a visit to his sister years ago when she worked at a bank in Florida.

“I passed a woman who was overweight but pretty. I took her in for about 30 seconds,” he said.

Dubus’s talk at N.E.C. next week will be preceded by a day of working with students. In addition to helping them develop writing skills, the author plans to pass along some of his hard-earned life lessons.

“It’s not hard for me to remember those years,” he said. “I just want to tell them, ‘Don’t believe people who say these are the best years of your life. These may be the worst years of your life. Hold on. Life gets better with age.’ ”

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