Andre Dubus III grew up in the kind of neighborhoods where “if you were a boy who read, you hid that.”
The secret reader would eventually become a celebrated author, whose novel “House of Sand and Fog” merited Oprah’s Book Club and the New York Times Best Sellers list.
But before he achieved that success, rather than let the local thugs suspect his scholarly leanings, he built a reputation as a fighter, and a champion of the underdog.
“I was a bullied kid; I probably went to 14 schools before I got out of high school. I was physically small and afraid,” he said in a telephone interview with the Times Leader. “About 14 or 15, I snapped. I started to lift weights and box so I would be able to defend myself. I was on a bit of a rampage for about 10 years, looking for anyone who was hurting anyone else. I had such a rage.
“Sadly, I know violence intimately. It’s not an ‘exercise in creativity’ with me,” said Dubus, who describes himself as “a former fighter who refuses to fight.”
Despite his insistence that “I don’t set out to write about violence. I really don’t,” Dubus, who will be the keynote speaker this weekend during Wilkes University’s fourth annual Pennsylvania Writers Conference, has introduced readers to many gritty characters, from terrorist to stripper to recovering addict.
His latest novel, “Gone So Long,” which will be released in October, tells of a father who wants to reunite with his daughter, decades after killing her mother.
“This character knocked on my psyche,” he said. “What if you’ve done the worst possible thing to another human being? Then you have to live with it for the rest of your life.
“I tend to be haunted, just as a person, by how wrongly things can go.”
Sometimes of course, things go right, as when a woman called and told Dubus she was connected to a book club interested in “House of Sand and Fog.”
“I was cooking, drinking cheap wine,” he recalled. “My wife was upstairs sewing slipcovers for extra cash.”
At first Dubus thought the woman, who was on Oprah’s staff, was talking about a small book club with a handful of people meeting in a private home. He was amazed that she was talking about an audience of 1 million.
“I’ll forever be grateful to Oprah,” said Dubus, whose “House of Sand and Fog” also was a finalist for the National Book Award.
“But my wife asked me what I want from my art — she’s an artist too, a beautiful dancer and choreographer — and I said it’s not fame and fortune. You know what it is? I just don’t want to be ignored or dismissed.”
Talk to Dubus long enough and you’ll hear him citing other authors, from Paul Engle’s admonition about the need for revisions, that “writing is rewriting what you’ve rewritten,” to D.H. Lawrence’s idea that writing is merely a conduit for “the wind that blows through me.”
He’s inspired by Jean Rhys’ opinion that “if culture is an ocean there are major rivers that flow into that ocean, like Mozart. There are also little streams that contribute, like the rest of us.”
“That is friggin’ stunning,” he said. “That captures what so many of us who work alone in the dark want. It doesn’t have to be a big splash (and) everyone is invited to this party.”
Dubus said he is looking forward to discussing writing at the Writers Conference, when he will speak at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Wilkes University’s Dorothy Dickson Darte Center for the Performing Arts. The cost to attend the address is $15. To attend the entire, two-day conference, admission costs $150. To register for the conference, see wilkes.edu/pwc.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.