Charles Dubow shares the inspiration behind his debut novel, Indiscretion, which explores one couple’s seemingly perfect lives and the turmoil that they encounter one summer when it all unravels.
What inspired the book?
I first had the idea for the book back in 1997. My family has a house in East Hampton and I was spending a lot of time there with my wife. This was shortly after our marriage and before our first child was born. We would have friends out on the weekends, play croquet, go fishing, canoe to the beach. I thought of the characters of Harry and Maddy first. How these two lucky people led this charmed life, and thought there was a basis for a story there but didn’t know what yet. I did know there had to conflict of some kind. It took me a long time to think about what that conflict should be.
What got you interested in infidelity?
Well, I am not really interested in infidelity per se. I think I am much more interested in fidelity. I looked at my own life, as well as those of my friends, and saw plenty of marriages fail. Why? Where did they go wrong? And how could you keep a marriage together? Getting married is easy. It’s staying married that’s a real challenge. Fortunately for me, I have a wonderful wife who makes being married a real joy.
What do you think it is about that subject that makes people curious?
My hunch is that everyone likes a good scandal—as well as a cautionary tale. No one likes to think of themselves as an adulterer—or a cuckold—but a lot of good men and women have found themselves compromising their ideals and giving into temptation. It’s like why people skydive or drive too fast: we like to feel we are pushing ourselves to the edge without actually going over.
Did you know from the start how the book was going to end?
Yes and no. I knew that certain things would have to happen and certain relationships would be shattered. It wasn’t until I was actually writing the ending that I saw the only way to do it that made sense to me.
Which character do you most relate to?
It’s funny. I didn’t realize this until after I had finished writing but one day in the shower I had an epiphany that Walter and Harry are actually both me, but different sides of me. Harry is my ego and Walter my id, to put it in Freudian terms. Harry is creative but also unconventional, charming but also child-like. Walter is all buttoned-down WASP repression and reticence, but with a clear sense of duty and a loyalty to old-fashioned ways of thinking and behavior. That pretty much sums me up too: someone who has always had a wild, creative side but who also felt comfortable within the trappings of propriety.
How did you choose Walter for the role of narrator?
I needed an outsider to chronicle the drama between Harry, Maddy and Claire. To have any one of them in that role would have given the book too much of a Rashomon-like quality.
Having Maddy explained through Walt’s eyes kept her on a pedestal and at somewhat of a distance. Was that deliberate?
Yes. No one is as seemingly perfect as Maddy. I wanted to highlight the differences between her and Claire. If you were to look at them in terms of painting, Maddy is like a Raphael Madonna, and Claire is like a Degas dancer. But Walter is biased. He wants to keep Maddy on her pedestal. Of course, towards the end we become aware of her weaknesses—as well as her strengths. But Walter also had Harry on a pedestal too—at least for a long time. It was vital for Walter to do so. He needs them to be better than they are. What’s the point in worshipping flawed gods? In the end they were just as human as he is.
Every other character seems to have their flaws brought out into the open, which makes them feel more real. How deliberate was that?
It was quite deliberate. And even Maddy’s flaws come out eventually. I wanted the characters to be real. I am not interested in creating quirky or magical characters. I wanted them to be totally grounded in reality.
Who is your favourite character?
I would have to say Madeleine. She has incredible decency and reserves of strength. She knows that she is not perfect but other people want her so much to be that she has been cast in that role. She’s really just trying to hold it together most of the time.
Were any of them based on real people?
There is only character who is based on a real person. It’s a minor role but he’s one of my favorite people and I hope he feels flattered.
You avoid weighing in on who you think is really responsible for the tragedy in this book. Did you always intend to leave the question of blame and responsibility open?
Yes. We inhabit an artificially Manichean world. Under our legal system, for example, one is guilty or not. There are no allowances for the spaces in between. But the gradations of guilt or innocence are much more subtle and nuanced. Harry isn’t entirely innocent but nor is he 100% guilty. The same for Claire. And Maddy, while clearly the injured party, isn’t entirely without blame. Rarely is life—or love—so black and white, and I wanted to capture that same ambiguity. It is something we all wrestle with.
There has been some comparison to The Great Gatsby. Was the book on your radar, writing this?
Honestly, though readers may find this hard to believe, Gatsby was not on my mind while I was writing the book. Of course, like many American writers, I have read Gatsby many times and cannot help but be influenced by it. Fitzgerald is a genius. The fact that I wrote about a certain class of people on Long Island only made the comparison more stark. But I simply wrote about what I knew.
How long did it take you to write and when did you write?
As I mentioned above, I first had the idea for the book in 1997 but I just sat on it for years. Occasionally, I’d look over my notes and dream. I lacked both the time and the confidence to commit to it. When I was in my twenties I had tried to write a novel and actually completed one but it never sold. I put away these ambitions for years while I worked, got married, started a family and took out a mortgage. Then four years ago I had a health scare that kept me in the hospital for a week, and when I came out I realized that I wasn’t getting any younger and that if I wanted to write this I shouldn’t keep on putting it off. Once I decided to write I knew that I had to come back to the story of Harry and Maddy. It took me about three years to write. I woke up every morning at 5 a.m. and wrote until 7 a.m., when I had to get my kids up and get them ready for school and me ready for work. I also worked on weekends and over holidays. It took a long time but I love working early in the morning. It’s when my brain is clearest. My wife and kids were very understanding, though. It might sound corny but I could never have done it without their support and love.
What are you working on now?
I have already finished a first draft of my next novel, which I will be submitting in a month or so. I have also been writing short stories, which has been a lot of fun. I have ideas for a number of new books as well. I can’t wait to get started on them. I feel like I am making up for lost time!
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