Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dubus argues with himself about 9/11 novel

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 9, 2009)

It's pretty easy to interview Andre Dubus III. The 49-year-old author of "House of Sand and Fog" (1999) -- who lived in Iowa City as a child when his father attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop -- tends to disagree with his own answers on a fairly regular basis.

For example, when I asked him about the research he did for his latest novel, "The Garden of Last Days," Dubus stated pretty clearly that his months spent reading the Koran, studying Islam and interviewing Middle Eastern natives resulted in a work of "straight fiction" -- on the order of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" ("Although I'm not comparing myself with Steinbeck," he said) -- rather than anything that might be shelved under "creative non-fiction."

But Dubus then went on to describe what he called "a moral imperative" to be as true-to-life as possible when pulling from the historical record to tell his fictionalized story of one cell of 9/11 hijackers in the days leading up to the attack. He was particularly struck with how some of the future hijackers attended strip clubs before the attack, and he tried to understand how they could rationalize participating in what they would consider such unclean acts right before they willingly martyred themselves.

"None of the autobiographical details are from the headlines," Dubus said. "But I try to be very accurate in recounting the movements of these guys once they got to the U.S."

Dubus then cited a distinction he learned from filmmaker Mike Nichols in describing how the question reporters ask ("What's happening?") is very different from the question storytellers ask ("What's it really like?"). When he tried to answer the storyteller's question, Dubus started thinking about the money the would-be hijackers would have paid to the strippers. He then imagined how that wad of cash might spawn its own story. And before he knew it, his planned short story turned into a lengthy novel that he had to pare down to 500-plus pages.

But then, suddenly, Dubus interrupted himself to say his previous answer was full of crap.

"It was the first time I've ever written any fiction where I knew where one character would end up," he said. "I was locked into this terrible historical root. ... The parameters were set, but the way they went about doing it wasn't decided on. ... If anything, I felt freer to delve into the character."

The result is the tale of Saudi-born Bassam al-Jizani, the soon-to-be hijacker who tries to get Spring, a stripper at a Florida club, to reveal her real name (April) and explain why she does what she does. The novel goes further to tell the story of how April had brought her preschool daughter to club that same night after her babysitter was hospitalized unexpectedly -- a poor decision that leads to a series of poor decisions from other characters.

Since Dubus had no more questions to ask himself, I then got to ask if readers would benefit from reading, say, the 9/11 commission report alongside the novel.

"I'm writing for anyone along the continuum," Dubus said. "From someone who was on the 9/11 commission to people whose only knowledge about this comes from what they've seen on TV."

I was going to offer a follow-up question, but then -- you guessed it -- Dubus interrupted himself to say his previous answer was "disingenuous."

"I didn't want to write about 9/11," he said. "I don't think this book is about 9/11. It's a big historical event that is part of the narrative in the story. But it's just one of the eight or nine narratives. ... I was just trying to create some sort of container that would hold all sorts of psyches and points of view comfortably."

Dubus said he was worried less about what the critics would say about the novel than what the families of 9/11 victims might experience when reading his attempts to, in Ernest Hemingway's words, "understand" rather than "judge" his characters.

"I kept thinking about the victims' families," he said. "The real human beings who lost real loved ones in the real events that I was re-imagining. ... When writing, I don't ever try to wing it. I try to capture the experience as truly as I can. ... After all, if you can't get the little facts right, then how can you capture the deeper human experience?"

I can't evaluate how well Dubus captures the "deeper human experience" of his interweaving narratives and characters. But I can attest to his ability to keep multiple stories and voices operating simultaneously -- whether in his own head or on the page.

I also can say that, despite its length, "The Garden of Last Days" manages to live up to the blurb from Stephen King prominently printed on the cover: "So good, so damn compulsively readable, that I can hardly believe it."

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

No comments:

Post a Comment