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Andre Dubus III finds inspiration in poetry, not surroundings

Andre Dubus III writes his novels out in longhand in pencil. His writing room is a small space in the basement. Photos By Juliette Lynch for The Boston Globe
Dubre looked through a composition notebook containing his writing from his latest book. Juliette Lynch for The Boston Globe

Anyone who wants to know how Andre Dubus III became a writer should pick up his acclaimed 2011 memoir, “Townie,” a riveting account of how he punched his way through a hardscrabble childhood on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border to become the author of novels like “The Garden of Last Days” and “The House of Sand and Fog.” His latest novel, “Dirty Love,” is slated to be released Monday. He talked to us recently about place, poetry, and pencils.

LAY OF THE LAND: I need to have spent some time in a place, smelled it, seen the vegetation, the architecture, the brand names of the shops [to write about it]. But [even] if it’s do-able for me to revisit a place, I make a conscious decision not to because I trust the imagination’s memory to put it together. I think you can get too literal. I want the literal and the factual and the real to anchor the fictional dream, but I don’t want to be too loyal to the facts of the place and get bogged down with that.

FINER POINTS: I’ve always written longhand in pencil. The only thing that’s changed is I’ve found a really good pencil. I used to be a Ticonderoga #2 guy because that’s what I had in my carpentry apron if I wasn’t using a carpenter’s pencil, and then for a while, I’m embarrassed to say, I went to mechanical pencils. I was getting frustrated because I would sharpen my Ticonderoga with a utility knife, and sometimes it was just too damn slow to sharpen that. Then a friend of mine who’s a film director turned me on to the Blackwing 602. What I like is that it sharpens to a really fine point, and it’s got a great feel to it that I just can’t describe. It’s like when you taste a really good wine or a cognac: You know it’s good stuff.


ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: [I write in] a jail cell, but it doesn’t feel like a jail cell. It’s five feet wide, eleven feet long, six-foot ceiling — it’s a soundproof room in the basement. My little ship came in with my third book, “House of Sand and Fog,” and now I could build this house . . . [but] I forgot to put in a writing room. I wanted a bedroom for every kid, a dance studio for my wife’s company, an apartment for my in-laws, [but] I’ve never had a writing room — most writers don’t — and I just forgot. But honestly, I could write in a janitor’s closet.


Dubre showed off his Blackwing pencil. Juliette Lynch for The Boston Globe

MORNING BECOMES HIM: My habits have changed very little. I always prefer to write in the morning, if possible. There was a wrong notion floating around for a while that I had all these strange jobs — like bounty hunter and private investigator and house cleaner and bartender — and then I started writing. I was [already] writing, and those were jobs that tended to happen at night, and I prefer to write in the morning.

WELL VERSED: In the last decade, I’ve become a real reader of poetry. I probably own 300 or 400 volumes. Oftentimes, it’s customary that an independent bookshop will let you have a book when you do a reading, and I always get a new poetry volume from someone I haven’t heard of. I read poetry before I start writing, and it takes me down to a good place. If I’m procrastinating, I’ll read six of them, but usually I read about two. I’m not a scholar of poetry, and I don’t write it, but it seems to me that the poetry of today is so prose-like and imagistic that it boils down to some truthful essence. It inspires me and holds the bar up high.


Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.