The following interview with Charles D’Ambrosio took place on October 2, 2007, in Birmingham, AL.
D’Ambrosio is the author of two books of short stories—The Dead Fish Museum and The Point—as well as Orphans, a collection of essays. The Point was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, while Orphans, his most recent collection was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In October of last year, D’Ambrosio was awarded the Whiting Writers’ Award.
Instead of giving you a more long-winded exegesis of his work, I’ll simply give you a paragraph of his prose. The following is taken from the essay “Whaling,” which appears in Orphans:
Back inland my tent’s a bright illumined bubble such as good witches might live in. Next to the Constitution and Baseball and the Roadside Billboard (loneliness in space) and the All-night Diner (loneliness in time) I’d have to say the Coleman Lantern probably occupies fifth place on my list of great American contributions to civilization. No other lantern will do. The whisper and hiss and cranky dyspeptic sputter of a Coleman is as distinct and holy a music as the rev of a Harley. I like the celestial quality of the light, Venusian and green, the rounded simplicity of the mantle, the paint job, of course, and the way one sounds when swung by the bail. I’ve hauled the extra pounds of a Coleman up into the mountains when it might have been more commonsensical to sit in the dark or scratch in my journal by candlelight or bag words altogether and mindlessly stare at the stars. And while I enjoy solitude I like as much the convivial feeling of encampment in crowded parks where families chatter and rehash fables and legends of the comical father while Coleman lanterns light up and start the shadows of all the lovely mothers jitterbugging against the walls of the trailers as they stow away the hot dog buns.
Barrett Hathcock: These days, the vast majority of writers also teach, and because they’re in teaching as a profession they tend to move around a lot. I think it’s interesting how people have to move away from where they’re from and how the writing refracts that. You grew up in Seattle and now live in Portland, and I was wondering how has that return to the West Coast affected your writing. It seems like some of your stuff is so specifically tied to the West Coast, but then some stories, like “Screenwriter”—it takes place in Manhattan . . .
Charles D’Ambrosio: But it’s always in the back of my mind. I mean, if I set a story in Manhattan, I’m dipping into that palette and putting rain there, the rain I know is the rain in Seattle.
I’ve moved around some. I’ve lived in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and Iowa. Montana. I’ve bopped around a little bit but always for my own purposes, whatever they were. I like being in the Northwest. I like being close to family. I like being close to the people I know. It’s partly just personal. I have an American life, so that means I have a very broken continuity—a fragile relation to my own history. And so the Northwest represents the best chance I have of having a deep relation to place.
On some level, Seattle’s my wound. I want to be near it. I don’t know what it is, but I find it kind of important and exciting and vivid in a way I don’t find other places. I mean, I love other parts of the country. It’s strange being down here because the narrative about the South and the narrative I’ve constructed about my life in America are very different narratives. It’s Western. It’s got a bit of Ellis Island and the Italian immigrant side. That kind of thing. But very different than down here.
Place matters a lot to me as a writer and as a person. I feel like once I cross the Mississippi going west, I kind of know where I am. I lived in New York and Los Angeles, and I have to say that I understand Los Angeles better. I felt more at home. I understand getting in a car and driving two miles for a quart of milk, you know? And Manhattan was very interesting, but it was just too different for me. A place I like to visit but would not want to live.
It’s interesting thinking about the South because I don’t know anything about it really outside of books, Southern literature. Seattle’s sense of place is tenuous because it doesn’t have the same deep history, and I imagine the sense of place in the South could almost be oppressive because of its thickness and the reality of the history. Thomas McGuane has this quote—”Out West you need a shovel to find history.” It’s just nowhere available.
BH: So this is kind of a dork’s question, and the only reason I’m asking is because of “Drummond and Son,” which has so much great writing about typewriters. But: Do you actually use a typewriter?
CD: I do. I mean, I use the computer too. I wouldn’t want anyone to have the impression that I’m like anti, but I do. I’ve got tons of typewriters at home nobody wants. The main one I use now is an Olivetti—just like the story, an Olivetti Lettera 32. And actually I got the idea for that story after I’d been to my typewriter repair shop in Seattle getting that one cleaned. I got home and wrote a single-spaced page of notes for a story that I didn’t write for another three or four years. But the typewriters I have are kind of a ’50s and ’60s, very usable, portable, manual. They’re not collector’s items so I get them for nothing. The Olivetti I got in Republic, WA, for $1.99. Pristine. I don’t know why they decided it was $1.99 but they did. And they’re very usable.
BH: How does that affect the actual composing?
CD: You know, to me it’s the switching around. I also use a pencil and paper, and a pencil specifically, not a pen. I like the scratchiness of a pencil and the sort of delible quality. It’s not indelible. It’s not being put down for all time. And rather than turn around and erase, I just scratch stuff out. Its lack of permanence actually feels freeing. I do that a lot for dialogue. I like to arrange things with pencil on a sheet of paper, something off in the right-hand corner and then down on the bottom—so you have a [spatial] change.
The same is true with a typewriter. I feel like with a computer you get into that left-to-write down into the void, that bottomless void, too easily, and I feel sometimes you think you’re writing but you just fall into word-processing tricks. But with the typewriter, I just roll a clean sheet in and you’ve got to start writing sentences. They’re not there on the page and you get into a rhythm and throw things down, and you don’t backspace and delete. If you make mistakes or don’t like the sentence, you have to start writing it again. So I like the work of it.
I think of all those things as kind of layering into a story. A lot of the times if I get stuck, I turn to the typewriter, too. I do compose some on the computer, but if I get stuck, I’ll just kind of turn my back on that and just type and throw out things and not worry about misspellings and all that stuff that the computer tracks for you, which is annoying and distracting at the same time.
BH: You’ve written two collections of short stories and a collection of essays, so my perception of you before I met you was, That’s what he does. He’s a Short Story Guy. But you are now working on a novel and have worked on one previously. I’m curious if the progression or transition between stories and a novel has been deliberate or simply more circumstantial.
CD: What happened is that I started writing something I realized wasn’t a short story. Really, I think among the many mistakes I’ve made over my life, one of them was caring so much about the short story. I mean, really, until I went to an MFA program, I didn’t care about the short story. I had no prior interest in it. But then you’re in a program and the very format of the program is sort of biased in favor of the short story and against the novel or longer things. And you know, I think I might have lost sight a bit of my primary interests. I’m not primarily interested in the short story as a form. I never was. But I think I got steered in that direction and maybe that was one of the bad consequences for me coming from an MFA program.
One of the things I’ve done this time around in writing a novel is that I am treating it like I treat short stories. With a short story, I’ll work on it, change it, let it evolve. But I never feel like there’s some truth, some ideal form of that story that I have to be true to. It evolves. It evolves quite a bit. And if I pick it up a week or two weeks or a year down the road and start writing, I let it change in search of the story.
And I think with the first novel I kind of froze up and got kind of architectural like there’s some pre-existing form I had to measure up to or find. Now I’m treating it more like a story and letting it change.
BH: Do you think the stories in The Dead Fish Museum are at their ideal form now that they’ve been published and collected? Or is this just the point where they’re like fish and they’re caught?
CD: This is how they are, but some of the ones that I’ve rewritten and rewritten and rewritten off and on over the years, I know that if I had another whack at them, I’d probably start writing and change them again.
With the short story, no matter how many drafts, I believe, man, once you write that first sentence you are in the business of trying to shut it down. That’s how—and even though I write fairly long stories—I’m always thinking, How am I going to get all this in? I start thinking that right away. It’s like a dense ball of gas that just explodes but it’s right there in that first sentence to first paragraph. If it isn’t in that, then there’s no story as far as I’m concerned.
Maybe it’s partly because in a short story you feel the whole thing inside you at once. I think a novel you look out, you have kind of a broad feeling. The internal mapping of the story or how you progress from little point to little point is unknown to me as I’m working.
BH: If you’re thinking about how you’re going to shut it down when you begin it, does that mean you know what the ending is?
CD: No, no. In fact, I don’t like to know what the ending is. Very often you have a provisional ending. You have an idea of a temporary ending. You just kind of erect this idea because you think you’re going in some direction. It usually changes. In fact I sort of have this thing where, if I, at a certain point in the writing of it, if I see the ending, then by definition that’s not the ending. It gets eliminated as a possibility. It’s too conscious and I’ll start steering toward it and it’s too arranged. If I can see it that easily then it’s not subtle enough. It’s not even worthy of being an ending. I have to be a little bit surprised by where it goes.
BH: That’s interesting—a lot of your endings in The Dead Fish Museum initially frustrated me because of their open, unresolved quality.
CD: It’s one of the questions I pose to myself. There are times in certain stories I was purposely doing that and I wondered to myself if that was the way to go. Some of the endings are really open-ended and all the tightness is in the first two-thirds, and then there’s this last couple of pages that are very, very unresolved. I don’t know. Well, life doesn’t resolve itself, but stories are different. But I was right in that place between how little can I do this, how open-ended can I be?
Am I doing something that’s right within the story or am I abandoning the story’s need? There are two endings to every story. There’s the one that’s the story, the tidy, and you could push it toward a morality, but then there’s the need to resolve it aesthetically. My question is: I don’t care about resolving the tidy moral life of a story, but did I end it aesthetically?
BH: I was curious about the amount of restraint in the stories. There’s no formal self-consciousness, and the prose doesn’t reach for extravagance, though that’s not to say that the prose isn’t beautiful in places.
CD: You know, I would never do that in a short story. For instance in my essays, in my book of essays, a lot of the writing in there is slightly show-offy, and people have asked me, Why don’t you write your stories like your essays? And the essays, they’re obviously me in a way, and I’m just stepping out, but in a short story it would just seem undignified.
In the stories, at a certain point only the story matters and everything serves it, and I find myself in the latter stages just subservient to what’s there. Like in “Drummond and Son,” at one point in looking over and editing that story it referred to the boys having to put down their dog or give it to the pound, and I had given the dog a name and the dog’s name was Pookie, and it was a little bit of a jokey name and I just kept reading it and thinking, You know what? I’ve got to pull that name out. Because it’s a little joke I was having with myself in the moment of composition. I was going to give it a silly name, and I didn’t want any of that story to seem clever or self-conscious. But just a little thing like that. Would a reader ever know? Maybe not. Probably not. It’s just a story. But I still pulled that name out. I knew it was slightly self-conscious. You start serving the story. That’s all that matters.
Flannery O’Connor says somewhere in Mystery and Manners that you kind of have to absent yourself in order to see more clearly the thing that needs to be seen—the writer does.
In the short stories—if I can make a very lumpy contrast—in the short stories I feel like the lives of the people have a kind of prior desperation and a prior need and my longing is for the story and their lives to somehow come together, even if not finally or forever, to face something; and it felt like a lot of the time with the essays I was wading into situations where there was an assumption of finality of understanding, and I felt like I could wade into any understood moment and tear it apart and make it fall apart. So in the short stories, I have such a deep drive to have things come together, and in the essays I have an equally strong desire to make things fall apart, whether it’s political understandings or moral understandings that seem readymade and seem too pat or too easy, even by good-thinking people, you know. I like taking on public issues.
The accent in the essay might be: This is how I figure out what I’m thinking. In a story: this is how I feel out what I’m feeling. Just slightly different emphasis.
BH: I read that your wife is in a band and plays drums, and so I was curious about music and its relation to stories. I think it was in the 2004 Best American Short Stories, the one that Lorrie Moore edited and that includes “Screenwriter.” She has this bit in her intro where she says that short stories are similar to songs; they have the same sort of interests in compression and carrying emotion, and I was just wondering if—being married to a musician— you see any relation between songs and stories or music and stories.
CD: Yeah, you know, I’m so musically illiterate. I can’t hold a tune. I can barely sing “Happy Birthday.” But I always loved music. Short stories are like a song certainly in the writing. I work a long time to get the sound right, and I feel a lot of time until I get that sound right—it’s the sentence by sentence sound—that I can’t go forward in the story, that actually the sound contains a good part of the narrative, and it won’t unlock until I find the note. And also I think short stories, like songs, have an associated feel. That’s me now speaking as a reader. There are certain stories that I can just turn to even though I’ve read them a dozen times; I want to have that feeling, like you’d turn on some oldies song or some song you’d listen to in college.
For short stories, the experience is different. A friend of mine pointed this out to me. Tom Grimes, a writer and teacher who runs a program down in Texas. He said, I went into class and asked everybody: Who are your favorite characters in literature? And of course people say Nick Caraway or whatever . . . I don’t know. And then he says, What’s common there? Everybody’s like quiet. And he says, None of them are from short stories. Name a character from a short story—no one can. You never can. I mean there are some. Johnny Hake, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” John Cheever. There are a couple that you can name, but you don’t remember them. And that’s not what’s important. And it’s partly the music that’s important, it’s maybe the narrative, but it’s not the character. Lorrie Moore’s a great example in “The People Like That Are the Only People Here”—they don’t have names. You don’t need them for the short story to come alive. We participate, we sync into it in a different way. Just like a great song, you almost don’t need the lyrics.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. He teaches in the Core Curriculum at Samford University. Read his essay on the Brad Vice plagiarism incident and his review of The Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick.
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