Real State

Andre Dubus III Built His Dream Home With a Boiler Room Office

The cedar-shingled house that Andre Dubus III built for his family in the seaside town of Newbury, Mass., has four levels that sprawl across 6,000 square feet, with plenty of rooms that could have made a nice writer’s office. But Mr. Dubus plies his trade down in the mechanical room, near the exercise equipment and the boiler, in a lofted space that he built himself out of plywood.

Reached by a staircase nearly as steep as a ship’s ladder, the room is no wider than an outstretched arm and not much longer, with low ceilings that amplify the feeling of being inside a tunnel. There is a window, but Mr. Dubus has covered it with a blanket to block out the daylight. It serves only as an escape hatch in case of emergency.

Writing longhand with a pencil and paper, he has produced five books in this cramped space. He refers to it variously as “my writing cave,” “my dream portal” and “the engine house.”

“It’s not to code,” Mr. Dubus, 64, said one morning last month with a big, hearty laugh. “Actually, it’s a totally illegal dwelling. Just so you know.”

The rest of the house is inviting and comfortable. Earlier, Mr. Dubus had been sitting on the sofa with his feet kicked up in the high-ceilinged living room, which is lined with books that belonged to his late father, the acclaimed short story writer Andre Dubus, and dominated by a large stone fireplace.

But Mr. Dubus’s preference for working in a hardscrabble version of an artist’s garret somehow makes sense. After all, his best-selling 1999 novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” a tragedy set against the backdrop of real estate aspirations, was written in short bursts over the span of four years while he sat in his parked car beside a graveyard. (It was a quiet space away from his child-filled house.)



Occupation: Writer

On building instead of buying: “We start doing the due diligence to buy a house,” Mr. Dubus said. “They were just too expensive around here. I had money, but I didn’t want to spend every penny and then have a mortgage, which I wasn’t sure I could pay. I said, ‘I’m a carpenter; maybe I can build one.’ We ended up buying these two acres. We had to cut down 90 trees.”


In his powerful 2011 memoir, “Townie,” Mr. Dubus detailed his years growing up with three siblings and a single mother in a series of Massachusetts mill towns. The family was poor and lived in one rental property after another. Mr. Dubus’s parents were divorced; his father taught at a nearby college but, in those years, was a limited presence in his son’s life.

Bullied as a teen, Mr. Dubus channeled his anger into weight lifting and, for several years after that, getting in fist fights — something at which he excelled and took a shameful pleasure.

By contrast, Mr. Dubus’s adulthood has mostly been a corrective to his traumatic youth — “a peaceful, bountiful, loving life,” he said. He is the father of three grown children, a husband, a writing professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the author of eight books.

Yet, as he made clear during an interview — and in a book of essays, “Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin,” published last week — the “poor-people thinking” that he absorbed in childhood — essentially that nice things are always beyond your reach — wasn’t easily shaken off.

It was only with the success of “House of Sand and Fog,” his third book — an Oprah’s Book Club pick made into a Hollywood movie — that Mr. Dubus finally had more than $500 in the bank. At the time, he and his wife, Fontaine, were renting a “cheap little dark half house” in nearby Newburyport with their young children.

For years, the couple had cobbled together a living as starving artists — she, as a modern dancer who gave lessons and upholstered furniture; he, as a self-employed carpenter, adjunct professor and aspiring writer.

“There was a hole in the bathroom floor that dripped right down to the kitchen wall underneath,” Mr. Dubus recalled of their apartment. “My poor wife was so depressed. But I grew up in places like this; it was nothing new to me.”

With his windfall, Mr. Dubus wanted only to buy the time to write and read all day. He didn’t consider moving to a nicer rental, let alone buying a house. “A house? That’s for rich people,” he said, laughing at his attitude then.

Still, he could see how much Ms. Dubus wanted a house, and he didn’t want to replicate the experience he had growing up with his own children. So when she found two acres for sale in a wooded area that was once a farm, they bought the land and embarked on the odyssey of building this, their first home. That was in 2002.

Having worked in the building trades with his younger brother, Jeb, Mr. Dubus decided the pair would oversee the construction themselves, with the help of a hired crew. Framing took place during a brutally frigid New England winter. Mr. Dubus was instructed to cover the concrete foundation with hay to keep it from getting too cold. That’s when he had an epiphany of sorts.

“As I’m breaking up these hay bales on this miraculous two acres that we own and spreading them over the concrete, I could feel just how important it was to me to have a home,” he said. “Didn’t know it until that moment.”

Indeed, as he writes in his new book, in an essay called “Shelter,” aside from when his children were born, he had “never been happier than when I was building for us this house.”

As Mr. Dubus gave a tour, talking animatedly while gripping a large tumbler of coffee, he still appeared house proud more than two decades later.

Jeb, a talented carpenter, designed the house. Mr. Dubus’s instructions to his brother illustrate just how much his family’s past shaped the design. This was not to be a mere house, but a big ship to carry and shelter his whole family and their dreams. (And with its many porches and decks, the house does resemble an ocean liner.)

“We’d always lived in these tiny little apartments,” Mr. Dubus said. “You get a robust group of friends — what happens? It would be 30 people in this little kitchen. I said, ‘Buddy, I don’t want any walls. I want it wide open, so when I’m cooking for my friends we can all hang out.’”

He also wanted each of his children to have a bedroom: “They were sharing a room before. My brother and I always shared a room growing up. And my sisters did.”

The fourth floor would be a dance studio for Ms. Dubus. The ground floor became an in-law apartment. Mr. Dubus writes movingly in “Ghost Dogs” of his relationship with his in-laws, George and Mary Dollas, who lived in the two-bedroom suite until they died. Last year, Mr. Dubus’s mother, Patricia, moved in.

“She’s down there, 85 years old, right now, as we speak,” he said. “All my life, my mother was either going to pay the rent on time or eat. She was either going to put gas in the car to get to work or we’re going to have groceries. None of them at once. It gives me great joy to have her in a new house.”

The home has become a gathering place not just for family, but for friends — “the party house,” he calls it. At Thanksgiving or Greek Easter (Ms. Dubus is Greek), everyone gathers in the open kitchen or around the massive pine dining table that Mr. Dubus built to seat 24 people.

But despite the home’s sprawling size and the extensive wish list that accompanied it, Mr. Dubus forgot one thing: a writing room for himself. So he ended up down in the boiler room.

Lately, his back has been bothering him, a consequence of years of zealously working out, as well as the writer’s life. He can no longer sit in his cave and work. Instead, he stands at a cluttered workbench beside the steep staircase — writing perched over a ledge.

Upstairs, there could be 20 people in the house. But down here, in his dream portal, Mr. Dubus can’t hear them. “This is it, baby,” he said. “I can only hear my heartbeat and my breath.”

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