By Daniel Ford
As fascinated as Sean Tuohy and I have been with some of our guests’ biographies, I think author Charles Dubow’s might claim top prize. He’s been a roustabout, a lumberjack, a sheepherder in New Zealand (!), and a Congressional aide. Dubow also had time to help found Forbes.com and become an editor at Businessweek.com.
After all that, why not start writing thrilling fiction?!
Dubow recently answered my questions on how he developed his craft, his straightforward writing process, and the inspiration for his latest novel, Girl in the Moonlight.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Charles Dubow: I decided I wanted to try to be a writer when I was in college. After my sophomore year at Wesleyan I took a year off to think about what direction I wanted to take in life. Until that period my ambition was to be a painter but I began to have doubts about my abilities in specific and the direction of the art world itself in general. But I still felt the need to create and gradually began to think about writing. I had never done any creative writing before then but the idea began to appeal to me more and more. I started work on a novel that I proceeded to write over the next few years. It was rejected but it was the beginning of a process that has shaped my life ever since.
In my thirties and forties I had all but given up on the idea of becoming a writer, though. Instead I became a journalist and then an editor at various business publications. In that way I was able to still work with words even if it wasn’t in the way I had originally hoped. In my late forties, however, I decided I had to give writing a novel one last shot. I had an idea that I had been mulling over for years and forced myself to find the time to write. That novel turned out to be Indiscretion. Now I am writing constantly, trying to make up for lost time. I don’t mind having had to wait this long. I am just grateful that I have been given the chance at all.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
CD: I was a wide and voracious reader from a young age. I would certainly point to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but also the Russians, specifically Tolstoy and Turgenev.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline? Did your process change at all between your first novel, Indiscretion, and Girl in the Moonlight?
CD: My writing process is straightforward and has been the same for both my novels: I wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m. and write for several hours. Then I take my daughter to school. When I was writing Indiscretion I would then go to the office. Now, however, I am writing full-time so I am able to come back and work until noon. I spend the afternoon revising and, later in the day, exercise. At 7:00 p.m. most evenings I hear the tinkle of the ice in the martini shaker calling my name.
I don’t listen to music when I work—I can’t. I find it far too distracting, especially if it’s something really good. If I put on Verdi’s Nabucco or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, I am just gone. I also don’t do much by way of outlining. I have a cheat sheet of sorts with some basic plot points and character sketches that gives me a good idea of where I want to go but which also allows me a certain amount of flexibility.
DF: How did the idea for Girl in the Moonlight originate?
CD: After I finished Indiscretion I began working on my next manuscript. However, when my agent read it he told me that it wasn’t a suitable second novel because it was very different in context from my first. Readers, he explained, demand—and deserve—a certain amount of consistency from their authors (at least when it comes to second novels) and so I would better off if I returned to some of the themes and settings that I had used in Indiscretion.
So I began to think of the most interesting people I knew and how I could turn them into characters that would work in a novel. I knew I wanted to include the Hamptons and other equally snazzy places because that’s what I did in my first novel. I knew I wanted to have some spicy love scenes because ditto. I knew I wanted to discuss the struggle of becoming an artist because it is a subject near to my heart. And, most important, I wanted the story to have a moral, one which concerned the need to find purpose in one’s life, even if in the most unexpected ways.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your six main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
CD: The characters are all composites, some more or less. The only exceptions are those of Paolo and Esther, who are based almost exactly on two wonderful people I had the great good fortune to have known very well and loved very much growing up. As far as how much of myself I put into the characters, I would say that, as should be expected, since I made them up I have put a fair bit of myself into them one way or another because their strengths and weaknesses reflect my own, whether I am aware of them or not.
DF: Your novel explores the themes of “love, passion, and obsession” with a story that spans decades and various locales. Did the structure of the book spring from the themes, or was it the other way around?
CD: I can’t really say whether it was either. Quite simply, the book required the form it took because that’s how I chose to tell it. As I mentioned above, I have never taken a creative writing program so am, in that sense, entirely self-taught. As a result, I am maybe less attuned to the formal structures or language of novel-writing that one might learn in an academic setting.
DF: Now that you have two novels under your belt, what’s next?
CD: I have just completed my third manuscript. I am also working on a side-project, which is a detective novel.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
CD: I would offer three pieces of advice:
- Have fun with what you write because if you don’t, neither will your readers.
- Writing is the best part of being an author. But be prepared for how much work is involved in promoting and selling your book long after the editing process is completed.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
CD: The tip of my left index finger was cut off by a hydraulic wood-splitter when I was 17 years old.