A commanding presence, Andre enthusiastically took the podium and after confirming my Wikipedia tidbit about his stint as a bounty hunter he proceeded to read three sections from his new novel, each focusing on one of three protagonists. The opening excerpt certainly caught everyone’s attention (even the staff over yonder): a skillful conjuring of a lap dance given by stripper April to the wealthy jihadist Bassam al-Jizani (this little entertainment netted Spring (her stage name) an obscene sum – see “wad of cash”, below).
During Q&A, the author of The House of Sand and Fog spoke extensively of the craft of writing. His own philosophy closely parallels that of Flannery O’Connor whom he quoted: “to make actual the mystery of our position on earth.” Andre also made an interesting distinction between “making up stories” (what half of Hollywood does) and truly “imagining” them: he believes that the fiction writer deals not in black and white, but rather in an elusive “gray” which is where humanity lay. Exploring this gray area means listening to your characters, “allowing them to take the microphone” and make their case. Such willingness to “commiserate intuitively” hopefully attunes readers to examine their own prejudices and develop an understanding of the characters’ humanity (in all its forms).
Interestingly, Andre envisioned the 535 pp The Garden of Last Days as a short story, the germ of which was a simple image: a wad of cash on a bureau…a woman’s bureau…a woman who works at a strip club...blood money…and so on. It reminded me of Anne Lammott’s advice to writers in Bird by Bird: don’t be overwhelmed by the need for some Big Idea, but instead begin with some compelling image that’s been stuck in your head and start asking questions.
Andre mentioned his research in preparation for the novel, citing The Looming Tower, The Far Enemy, and The Devil’s Game as excellent sources (he also took a four month hiatus to read the Koran). These admissions inevitably lead to a slew of interesting questions, a lively back-and-forth about the state of world affairs. (At one point, Andre, impressed by one attendee’s persistence finally asked “What’s your name?” It turns out the gentleman was the spouse of Angela Mann - one of the Kid Specialists in Kepler’s Youth Department.)
Andre kindly obliged when one audience member asked if the author would speak a bit about his father, the renowned short story writer Andre Dubus (Dancing after Hours). Andre III spoke fondly and frankly about Andre “II”: a French/Irish Louisiana boy who grew into a “wild” guy with a certain swagger. Flirtatious (even with Andre’s own ex-girlfriends - “before my current wife, let’s be clear”), the senior Andre was also an extremely sensitive man, his keenly empathic perspective further deepening after an accident which left him wheelchair bound. Andre summed up his father’s life-changing experience by quoting Leon Bloy: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence”. He also referred the audience to his dad’s non-fiction collection Meditations from a Movable Chair.
Post-event, the polite Andre invited me to join him and some family and friends for libations next door at the BBC. Quite the family man, Andre, carpenter and true believer in sweat equity, spoke of building his own house in the wooded Newbury, MA; home not only to his immediate family (“with each cedar shingle I nailed around my daughter’s circular window, I felt as though I was tucking her in bed”) but to his in-laws as well* (“you can learn so much from older people”). Andre also reminisced about family re-unions on his property, himself turning up one year in a gorilla suit. What can I say; Andre is a man with a lust for life! - and a great source for memorable quotes!