In 2003, flush from the success of his best-selling novel House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III launched two projects in a single week. An amateur carpenter, he started building a new house near Newbury, Mass. He also began writing a short story about 9/11. Five years later, the house is a 6,000-square-foot behemoth with a dance studio for his wife, Fontaine, and an apartment for his in-laws. ”I didn’t mean to build such a big house, but I did!” Dubus announces cheerfully by phone, as he noisily prepares dinner for his three kids. And the short story? It grew into his new 535-page novel, The Garden of Last Days.
Garden focuses on a sultry night at a south Florida club when a stripper and single mom named April dances for a terrorist named Bassam just days before 9/11. ”What had been lingering in my consciousness was an image of cash on a bureau,” says Dubus, 48. ”It became clear that this was tip money, and it came from reading about those hijackers visiting strip clubs. I was curious, what was it like to dance naked for these guys and then have this blood money after the smoke cleared?”
A self-described ”well-behaved married man,” Dubus knew nothing about strippers and decided to visit the very clubs the hijackers frequented. Remarkably, Fontaine approved. ”I found it really comical. It’s not every day your husband says, ‘I have to do some research and go to strip clubs in Florida,”’ she recalls. ”But I know how loyal he is.” The clubs where Osama bin Laden’s foot soldiers spent their final nights were, according to Dubus, ”sleazy as hell.” But getting inside the psyche of an exotic dancer was a cinch compared with figuring out Bassam’s motivations. ”I didn’t want to suspend judgment and become him,” says Dubus. ”I was as angry as anyone else. I had to stop writing for four straight months and read everything I could get my hands on. And then when I sat down to write again, Bassam was there from the first sentence.” Dubus’ next project doesn’t require grueling research (or the blessing of his understanding wife): He’s writing a memoir about his sexually precocious, drug-fueled 1970s adolescence.