Author deepens roots in Merrimack Valley

08/01/2007
By Used with permission from the Boston Globe. By J. Matthias Dow, Globe Correspondent

Andre Dubus III has found a way to remain true to his family and to his Merrimack Valley background: This spring, the best-selling author settled deeper in the Bay State by working on a new home and becoming the Jack Kerouac writer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

The teaching position - as well as the success of his latest novel - has given the onetime bounty hunter, bartender, and corrections officer a new sense of stability.

''It's been a completely gratifying experience,'' said Dubus, 41. ''I'm a Merrimack Valley boy, I grew up in Haverhill, so it's nice to be back up the river in Lowell.'' The writer, who has family living north and northwest of Boston, is building a farmhouse on 2 acres in Newburyport.

Earlier this month, he was chosen for a Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction. His latest novel, ''House of Sand and Fog,'' has sold more than 1 million copies and was an Oprah's Book Club pick. His recent success, he said, has brought contentment to him, his wife, Fontaine, and three children, Austin, 8, Ariadne, 5, and Elias, 4.

While it means more money, success brings with it a ''shadow side,'' Dubus said. ''How do I not fall prey to trying to do it again, to looking at myself as a factory?''

Writing keeps him humble, said Dubus. His sister, Suzanne Dubus, executive director of the Woman's Crisis Center in Newburyport, agreed. ''He's really grounded as an artist, a father, and a husband. Sincere. Humble. But I don't think he had any idea what type of train Oprah drives.''

Dubus said his novel was doing really well before Oprah called, ''but it was like doing well on a diesel engine, then it did well on a rocket-fueled engine.''

Dubus, son of author Andre Dubus II, has weathered a deluge of success in the wake of his father's death. ''There has been a lot of success and death, success and death. It's been very strange.''

His father's fame, Dubus said, overshadowed the courage of his mother, Pat Dubus, former director of a battered women's program in Salem. ''She raised us in poverty. Four teenagers in tough neighborhoods with no money.''

Even though Dubus said his vision has been influenced by experiences in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, his father's profession, and his mother's enduring compassion, he believes artistic influences are a mystery. Dubus said he enjoys writing that shows compassion for the human condition, and emphasized Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath,'' as well as the broken-hearted idealism in Bob Dylan's and Bruce Springsteen's work. ''Deep down,'' he said, ''all novelists secretly want to be singer-songwriters.''

Dubus relates to the working-class struggle of the North Shore, specifically ''mill-town Massachusetts.'' Once a fervent left-wing radical, he describes himself now as an idealist who tries not to take himself too seriously - and he even pokes fun at his new materialism.

''I got a new truck and I'm very happy about it,'' he said. ''V-8. Four-wheel drive.''

His recent success has shielded him from the grind of his varied past day jobs, which also included stints as a carpenter, actor, and construction worker. ''I feel that construction comes the closest to writing because it's just hard manual labor,'' he said. ''You don't feel like going to work, but you go anyway.''

During the summer, he hopes to take time off to build his home and spend more time with his children. ''All the joys in my life pale in comparison to having children,'' he said. ''I just want to huddle with them, play with them. Because they are only young once.''