Andre Dubus III vs. Richard Dawkins
I've long loved Oregon -- for a period of years, I would travel to Klamath Falls and sit in a cabin and work on Eleanor for ten- or twelve-day stretches, which sort of made the state my creative home away from home -- but I'm still learning to love Portland.
One thing that makes it a little easier is Powell's Books, and not because it's a great place to find good books (it is) or signed books (that, too) or rare editions (yes as well), but because Powell's relentlessly schedules readings with authors who interest me. Felicia and I moved to Oregon about a year ago, and in that time I've had the opportunity to see Hugh Howey, Joe Hill, John Scalzi and Kim Stanley Robinson. (I passed up a chance to see Neil Gaiman, though that would have been a terrific experience, I think, and I forgot about Jonathan Lethem's appearance until an hour after it was over, to my awful dismay.) These have been extremely fun and insightful events. I listened to Joe Hill talk about growing up in a writer's home (you might know his parents -- Stephen and Tabitha King?), with a typewriter in the foyer on which each member of his family would type their addition to an ongoing story ("the more deviant the better," Hill said). Scalzi read from his experimental, serialized novel. Robinson talked about wanting to give up writing, and then how learning to write outdoors saved him from quitting. And Hugh Howey invited his audience out for dinner and drinks afterward, and the fun conversations there directly led to my writing Greatfall .
Powell's invites all sorts of writers to read and speak and sign. This month alone they have had knitter extraordinaire Clara Parkes, tech philosopher Clive Thompson, crime writer George Pelecanos, Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz, historian Simon Winchester -- the list is wonderfully long and diverse.
But this week, for the first time, Powell's put me in a bit of a bind. There are two locations that host these events -- the "city of books" in downtown Portland, and the more traditional box-store branch in Beaverton -- and occasionally there are events at each one on the same night.
Last night that was the case, and I badly wanted to go to both of them. Richard Dawkins would appear at in Beaverton to read from his memoir An Appetite for Wonder , and Andre Dubus III would appear in Portland, reading from his new collection of stories, Dirty Love . It was extremely difficult to decide which event to attend.
But I decided on Dubus's reading. I've seen plenty of videos of Dawkins talking about his views, but while I've read most of Dubus's books, I've never heard him read from or talk about them. And I'm glad this is the choice I made, because last night's event was probably the best I've been to.
Dubus began by reading a scene from the title story of his book, "Dirty Love". It was a wildly entertaining scene, unsurprisingly well-written, but also rather explicit. Dubus read loudly and excitedly, unconcerned about the shoppers browsing around at the periphery of the event, about a teen girl's discovery of her father's affair and dirty magazines, and her own premature sexual encounters. The scene was textured and real and just fantastic. Dubus has always occupied a small group of East Coast writers who tell stories that get under my skin -- Richard Russo is another, John Irving from time to time, sometimes even Stephen King are also part of that group.
Afterward, Dubus entertained questions, but very few of them, because he talked excitedly about the process of writing and often went on tangents -- fascinating ones -- about growing up the son of a great writer, or as a troublemaker in Boston. Several of his answers simply excited me and made me want to start writing, right then, right there. When asked about writing characters as textured as his, he talked about the writer's obligation to openness and imagination -- specifically about "making things up" versus "imagining them occurring". It was a simple concept, but it resonated deeply.
As an example, he described a scene that he wrote in The House of Sand and Fog . The protagonist is a woman who has lost her house. She's sleeping in her car on the street right in front of the house, and the new owners have moved in. One morning the woman wakes up in the car -- and Dubus talked here about employing at least three of the five senses for every scene: Does she have to pee? Is there a funky taste in her mouth? What does she smell? Is she cold? What does she hear? -- and that last question was answered by the sound of roofers building a deck on her house. She's appalled and horrified and leaps out of the car and dashes across the lawn, and this is where Dubus explores another question: What's the scene? There are carpenters on the roof. What are they doing? Sawing into the roof? Building a deck? Did they have to get the shingles out of the way first? Sure. Where does all of that shit go? Well, they throw it down onto the lawn, of course. And that's where the black paper pierced with roofing tacks and nails comes from. The woman steps on it -- and Dubus explained that this wasn't his intention, he didn't write the scene expecting that she would hurt herself, but that's where the imagined story took him. And because of that small moment, a police officer was introduced into the story, which meant a gun came into the story, which meant that a tragic third act suddenly presented itself.
I'm well aware that I'm rambling a bit.
Dubus also talked about being unrelentingly curious about one's characters. What's the last thing they ate? What music do they hear right now? Does their father show an interest in them? He spoke at length about going slowly, and letting the character teach you about themselves.
Again: none of this is groundbreaking new advice. But it worked its way into my head a bit. Dubus is a writing teacher -- or maybe was a writing teacher? -- and he had a natural, easy, instructive way of talking about the art of writing stories. Of course, he also railed against Amazon and technology for a bit, but hey, nobody's perfect.
All in all, it was a particularly marvelous night, and I'm happy with the choice that I made. If Portland keeps this up, maybe it'll make me fall for it yet.