For someone whose work often tackles impossible questions of morality and justice, Andre Dubus III is a happy man. In the apartment below his wood-shingled home, he kisses his mother-in-law goodbye with a smile. For the duration of our interview, every word he says about his family is accompanied by pride and love.
That love of family is one of the only threads that connects the author with the central character of his fifth novel, Gone So Long (Norton, Oct.), which dives into an unspeakable act of violence, its perpetrator, and its victims. Forty years after killing his wife, Linda, in front of their then-three-year-old daughter, Susan, Daniel Ahern wants to see Susan one more time. On the opposite end of the East Coast, Susan struggles to make sense of her life spent fighting lasting and meaningful connection. And Linda’s mother, Lois, grapples with the futility of her fear, love, and rage. Set in a Massachusetts beach town and an antique shop in swampy Central Florida, Gone So Long is a study in things that can’t be taken back.
On Salisbury Beach, Mass.’s boardwalk, Dubus and I began by talking about where this challenging novel started. “The creative fuel I’ve always found most helpful is curiosity,” he says. “I’ve learned over the years to trust what I’m curious about. And oftentimes, it’s not even something you want to be curious about. You just get something in you that you can’t get out.”
While working on a different project, Dubus stumbled on what would become this novel’s central question: “What if you’ve done the worst thing possible to another human being, you’ve had a child or children with that person, you still love your children with all your heart, but you have no relationship with them because of what you did?”
Dubus first rejected the idea, but in its finished form, Gone So Long humanizes its central perpetrator, in part because the question wouldn’t leave Dubus alone. “What is so beautiful about creative writing is that the writing is larger than the writer,” he says. “We writers have a sacred duty to these characters who are tugging at our sleeve.” But Dubus also holds his work to a trying standard: “Gone So Long really put to the test what I believe is the central task of the creative writer, at least for the character-driven realist fiction I tend to write: you must let go of all judgement.”
This isn’t the first time Dubus has taken on such a challenge. A decade ago, in The Garden of Last Days—the follow-up to his acclaimed House of Sand and Fog—he faced another demanding point-of-view character. He describes that novel’s protagonist, Bassam, as “a composite of the 9/11 attackers.” The preparation was exhaustive: Dubus read the Koran twice, histories of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Warren Commission report, and dozens of other books.
“Within minutes of starting to write from the point of view of one of these young hijackers, he began to talk to me very deeply, very quickly,” Dubus says. “I didn’t know what it was like to be one of these brainwashed killers, but I too at one point in my life embraced my own death.”
Dubus’s memoir, Townie, chronicles this period of his life. “I was a bullied kid, and I snapped and became a vigilante,” he says. “I hated violence. I hated men who hit women.” A deep sense of justice wasn’t the only impetus: “I’d had so much self-hatred as a cowardly kid that I would rather have a violent death than see a coward in the mirror any longer.”
Dubus began writing Gone So Long very much where the first chapter begins: “I began to see this older man, caning a chair, in a small yard, with a trailer behind him,” he says. From there, Dubus wrote into Daniel’s past, to the Salisbury Beach boardwalk and the love that begins Daniel’s brightest and darkest moments. “What surprised me was his jealousy,” Dubus says.
This intuitive process defies any writing adages about emphasizing action. Dubus admits to “railing against that advice.” For him, writing is “thrilling, terrifying,” like “stepping out into the unknown.”
The familiarity of the novel’s setting to Dubus may have been unintended, but it is far from purposeless. Our visit to Salisbury Beach falls on one of summer’s hottest days, and it’s not hard to imagine its former glory. The roller coaster and Ferris wheel may be gone, but there’s still pizza and ice cream and an arcade, and plenty of families enjoying the last few weekdays before the school year begins. Even from Dubus’s air-conditioned truck, the salt and character of the setting are palpable. “I got into a few fights on this beach,” he says. “Was arrested on this beach and put in the same jail cell as Danny.”
The struggle to inhabit Danny’s mind paled to the challenge of portraying his daughter. “Susan was the hardest character in the book for me,” he says. “Lois’s cranky yet lovable qualities, her pain, her rage—she let me into all of it.”
Not so with beautiful, conflicted Susan. Dubus first wrote her as harder, tougher than she appears in the book. “I was denying what I was really seeing—that she’d been battling anxiety and depression her whole life,” he says. “And I didn’t allow it in, because I didn’t want it all to trace back to the trauma of her youth.”
Dubus tells his writing students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell to “be suspicious of psychology,” and that we’re all far more complex than the things we’ve survived. “Except, the novel brought me to realize, that there are some things so large that they permanently steer your own life’s ship in a certain direction it wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”
Nevertheless, Susan is far more than a one-note character. Dubus says he’d never written from the point of view of a strikingly beautiful woman before. He adds, “My mother was that kind of woman, and I saw how it shaped her life and how it changed her dynamics with men and women. How it sexualized her, how it objectified her.”
Trauma, appearances, and depression have clouded so much of Susan’s awareness that she peels back layers midnovel, returning to memories long stifled as she writes her memoir. Dubus notes that writing the book within a book was both weird and enjoyable. “When I began to write what she was writing, I didn’t know if she was a really good writer, but I knew she was an honest writer,” he says. “And I knew that writing meant a lot to her.” Much of Dubus’s work is written in the third person, but he says he found that “there was a wonderful ease with the first person.”
Dubus’s careful depiction of this emotionally loaded narrative is clear in the text. During our conversation, he spoke with the deepest
love and respect about the women in his life—his wife, sisters, daughter, mother, and mother-in-law. Like many of his authorial choices, his decision to give women the reins for two-thirds of the book was intuitive, necessary. “If I’m going to humanize the killer of a woman, then I’d better give microphones to two people who lost her,” he says.
For all that Dubus’s work says about the human condition, our cultures, and our faults, he sets out to write about people, not social issues. “Writing leads you to your preoccupations,” he says. “When I look back at what I’ve written over the years, I see a real preoccupation with bad behavior. I tend to be haunted by how wrong things can go. But I think people are born wanting to be loved and respected and to have a joyous existence.”
The five-year journey from drafting Gone So Long through editing was excruciating, Dubus says. “I feel like I’ve gone on a long journey abroad and I’ve caught a virus I’ll never quite shake and it’s permanently weakened me. But I’m still glad I did it.”
Victoria Sandbrook Flynn writes speculative fiction and reviews books for Publishers Weekly.