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Interview: May 13, 2015

Charles Dubow is the author of the acclaimed novel INDISCRETION, a founding editor of, and was an editor at His latest book, GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT, is about Wylie Rose, whose all-consuming love for beautiful, elusive Cesca will forever change his life. In this interview, Dubow talks to The Book Report Network’s Alexis Burling about art and literature --- two of the arts that have been vital to his life and his identity. He also addresses the issue of being a man writing about a difficult woman, and why he hopes his readers will accept Cesca, despite her flaws. And no conversation about the arts would be complete without a list of favorite artists and authors, which Dubow graciously provides.

The Book Report Network: At the beginning and end of GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT, you write so eloquently about readying an old family house for sale. Nostalgia, longing, regret and relief are all tied together somehow in the prose. Do you have a childhood home or a favorite place that you’ve had to move on from? Did you tap into that experience when writing these scenes?

Charles Dubow: My parents bought a house very similar to Wylie’s on Georgica Pond in East Hampton when I was very young, and it was for all intents and purposes my home for most of my life. By home, I mean the place I always came back to, not necessarily where I always lived. It was a beautiful, century-old shingle house that my parents had bought from the artist Buffie Johnson, even though they could barely afford it at the time. I spent nearly every summer of my life there, and most Thanksgivings. After my parents divorced in the early 1980s, my father kept the house, and it was sold after he died in 1999. It was very sad to lose it, but I am grateful for the time I was able to spend there. Sadder still is that the people who bought it, despite promises to the contrary, tore it down and built a huge McMansion in its place that they then tried to sell for a whopping amount of money. At the risk of sounding unkind, I derive a certain amount of satisfaction knowing that they still haven’t been able to sell it.

TBRN: You reference Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Are you a fan of his work? How did this concept shape the book?

CD: I am a fan of Borges. He’s a wonderful writer, but he did not influence my book --- at least not in any conscious way.

TBRN: If you could pair each main character --- Cesca, Wylie, Aurelio, Cosmo and Kate --- with a painting, what would each be and why? (Feel free to choose other characters as well!)

CD: With Cesca, I would have to choose two paintings: Goya’s Naked Maja and Manet’s Olympia. Those were the two paintings I had in my head when I wrote the book. There is an element of sensuality in the former and frankness in the latter, which I think sums up much of Cesca’s personality and the impact she has on people.

With Aurelio, again I would have to choose several paintings --- or at least painters: The aching beauty and softness of Picasso’s Rose Period and the bravery of Leon Golub. I can’t think of paintings that would go with the other characters.

TBRN: Cesca is like a sea nymph --- at once beautiful and illusive, captivating and dangerous. Is she based on a real person, or is she a figure from your imagination?

CD: Cesca is a composite of several women I have known with varying degrees of intimacy in my life, who I then fused together to create her character. Invariably, they were all women whom I admired greatly but also proved to be elusive. Her life is a complete fabrication.

TBRN: For much of the novel, Cesca is extraordinarily selfish. She does what she wants, when she wants to, no matter who gets hurt. The dreaded unlikable character! But toward the end, Cesca evolves. Not only does she become a humanitarian, she also matures emotionally, especially when dealing with Wylie. Why this turnaround in her character? Were you afraid of making her too unlikable?

CD: The funny thing is that I see Cesca in a positive light. While some might think her selfish --- and to be sure she can be --- she is also beautiful, sensitive, insecure and always searching for something better. I think she is remarkably and wonderfully human. After all, who among us hasn’t hurt people or taken those who love us for granted? But most of us eventually mature, become chastised by the pain we have caused and learn from our mistakes. However, in Cesca’s case, it took her a little longer than some, but that is because her wealth and beauty cocooned her from having to do so earlier. By the end of the book, she has not only put her fecklessness behind her but has become, in my opinion at least, quite a noble character.

As far as worrying about her being unlikable, that was never a concern of mine. Literature is full of characters who travel from dark to light, from immaturity to wisdom. The greater the sinner, the more rewarding the salvation. I have met many people like Cesca who only got halfway, who repented or regretted their past mistakes and tried to atone for them but usually wound up falling short. The world is full of people who are incapable of grace because their resolution isn’t sincere. Granted, Cesca might be perceived as an extreme example, but at the end of the book, her actions are admirable and her determination sincere.

TBRN: Early on in the novel, Wylie thinks to himself, “It is impossible to tell the heart what it should want.” What does that statement mean to you, and how has it shaped your life. Your career?

CD: Falling in love has no logic to it. Too often, people who are wholly unsuited to each other end up together. I can certainly think of any number of women in my life whom I loved but shouldn’t have. In that sense, I think it shaped my life because it gave me a number of experiences that caused me emotional pain but ultimately made me the wiser.

TBRN: In a way, you wrote a novel about a man chasing a fantasy. How do you think your female readers might react to Wylie’s obsession with Cesca? Cesca’s treatment of Wylie? Do you think men will read this novel differently, or is the reader’s gender not a factor in how the story should be perceived?

CD: As a man writing literary fiction in this day and age, it would be madness not to take into consideration how female readers might react. I tried to create a strong, brave and, yes, tragic heroine, who must come to terms with the expectations that both she and her family have placed on her. She is desperate to define herself on her own terms, to be taken seriously as a person, but instead most people only react to her looks. She wants to be an artist, but she does not have the talent, and that inner knowledge eats at her. That awareness is particularly hard for her because she is surrounded by so much talent --- especially in the presence of her father and two brothers. Unlike her younger sister Carmen, who leads a focused life and rejects a life in the arts to become a doctor, Cesca is tortured by her inadequacy, not understanding why someone who has been born with so much would still lack the one thing she craves most.

That is how I hope readers perceive Cesca --- she is not a fantasy or even a cautionary tale. I see her as being a fully realized but tremendously sad person who is trying to make sense of her life and who, like so many of us, finds herself easily lost.

TBRN: Much of GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT takes place in New York City, during a time when starving artists could actually afford to live there, when being an artist was romantic and gritty, and when SoHo and Chelsea and the Village were filled with culture and sex shops and artists’ lofts rather than austere millionaire high-rises and department stores that can be found inside any mall in America. What do you make of the New York City of today? Is there hope for artists and culture independent of corporate sponsorships?

CD: I am aware of a number of young --- and not so young --- and hungry artists who live in New York City these days. The crucial distinction between the art world of my youth --- and before --- and the current day is that most of the struggling ones can’t afford to live in Manhattan. The Greenwich Villages and SoHos are, as you rightly point out, priced beyond the reach of most people, let alone artists. The slack is, of course, being picked up by the outer boroughs, where there are thriving art scenes.

As to your question about there being hope for artists and culture independent of corporate sponsorships, I would answer in the affirmative. The arts will always exist. The question is not so much one of geography or real estate, however, but of culture. As Aurelio points out in the novel, the art world these days has become increasingly commercial --- a trend that has been building steadily since the 1950s --- and, as a result, the sense of community and cooperation that had defined the New York art scene in the middle of the 20th century has all but disappeared.

TBRN: GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT contains many themes, one of which is the influence of art on life (and reflection of life in art). Many of your characters move through the world as visual artists rather than writers. As an author who writes about art and someone who has dabbled quite a bit in painting, how did those perspectives play off each other when writing the book? Is working with paints and charcoal that much different from wielding words?

CD: When I was young, I was blessed --- although that may not be the right word --- with a talent for drawing. I was the kid who did drawings for my friends, and everyone always was full of admiration. I wasn’t an especially gifted athlete, and so I developed much of my early identity as someone who was a painter. Moreover, I loved painting. I loved the tactile sense, the ability to create something beautiful, the smell of linseed oil, the early sketching out of ideas, the realization that maybe, just maybe, a canvas was finished. It was intoxicating and addictive. It was all I wanted to do. I ignored my school work, my friends. There was nothing better than being alone in the studio listening to Mozart or Bach with my paints and brushes.

Not only had I been fortunate to have had a summer house in East Hampton, but also my parents, although they were not artists, knew a lot of painters and writers. In those days the Hamptons were full of lovely old farmhouses that were relatively cheap and a wonderful community of artists thrived out there. It gave me a chance to see artists, real artists, up front and in the flesh. Like the character of Wylie in the book, I once even got to meet Bill de Kooning.

In college I took a year off, during which time I took classes at the Art Students League and spent a lot of time going to galleries in the burgeoning East Village art scene of the early 1980s. It was a scene that I couldn’t relate to, however. There was a degree of cynicism that I couldn’t relate to. Feeling out of sync with the zeitgeist, I turned away from painting. But I still felt a need to express myself, to create. That’s when I started writing. At first I felt like a fraud because I had never done any creative writing before. But I stayed with it.

I’d like to think that my early visual training has informed my writing. That maybe I think about writing in a slightly different way. I don’t really know because it’s how my mind works, and I have no idea how other people do it. What I do know is that in this novel I tried to bring some of my experiences to those of my character and have them --- particularly Wylie --- wrestle with the same things I did.

As far as the difference between working with paints as opposed to words, I would say there are a great deal of similarities. The creative process is for the most part a solitary one; the painter and the writer have to work very hard and spend a lot of time alone. This can be hard on them as well as on their families. There is a degree of selfishness involved --- as well as insecurity. There is a constant doubt that feeds on creative people: Is my work good enough? People may have liked my last painting/book/play/movie/album, etc., but will they like my new one? Am I just kidding myself?      

So there is a need for continual affirmation that applies to both. There is also a shared sense of private joy that comes from writing a sentence that pleases your ear or painting something that pleases your eye. I think that’s the main reason why we do it in the first place: because when it goes well, there is nothing better, and you crave that feeling, and it makes you keep going until you get it again.

TBRN: More on that line of thinking, do you have a favorite painter or an artistic movement that you’re particularly passionate about? If so, what moves you about the work? How about your tastes in literature or nonfiction? Do the works of art share similar qualities?

CD: Those are tough questions and difficult to answer. I have no favorite painter or movement, but I would say that my tastes run to figurative work. To me, the human body is the most incredible subject available. So, in no particular order, I would have to include in my personal pantheon Velazquez, Caravaggio, Raphael, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Dyke, Ingres, Holbein and Degas. I am sure I am leaving out many names, but these are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

My taste in painting very clearly translates to my taste in literature --- particularly my own. To my right as I type are my bookshelves, those closest to me are the writers I love best and always want near me. From the top: Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salter, le Carré, George MacDonald Fraser, Waugh, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, the Brontës, Conrad, Dickens, Wharton, Balzac, Greene, and, in nonfiction, A.J. Liebling. I am also a fan of the Greek tragedians, especially Aeschylus and Sophocles.

These are all authors whose work centers on the actions of their characters, essentially figurists. It is also a relatively old-fashioned list, and most of the authors on it are dead; but I think these authors, and painters, speak to a tradition that had defined and informed our culture for more than a century (in some cases considerably more), and yet in many ways they are just as fresh and relevant today as when they were first written or painted.

TBRN: Before becoming a novelist, you were a founding editor of and an editor at How did that experience as an editor shape your work as a writer of fiction? 

CD: The advantage of working as a journalist for me was two-fold in terms of how it shaped my fiction: First, it taught me how to write anywhere and anytime. It is very easy to procrastinate as a writer, of course, so having the ability to buckle down and work is quite helpful. Second, being a journalist gave me a sense of what people want to read. Online especially, it is easy to track what resonates and what doesn’t. It is important to think of the reader and what they want. You are writing for an audience and you want to reach --- and connect with --- as many readers as possible.

TBRN: I read somewhere that you’re working on a novel inspired by your grandfather. Is that true? What other projects are you currently working on?

CD: I did write a novel about my grandfather, but it’s not ready for publication yet. I am currently working on a novel about painters in fascist Italy.