July 2006

Pauls Toutonghi


An Interview with Charles D'Ambrosio

I spoke with Charles D’Ambrosio via telephone. I was sitting on a bench outside of Atlas Café in Brooklyn, New York; he was somewhere in the untamed wilderness of Iowa City, Iowa, where he is currently a visiting faculty member in fiction.

D’Ambrosio graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1991. His book of stories, The Point, was published in 1995 by Little Brown.

His new collection of stories, The Dead Fish Museum, was released by Knopf in April.

You graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What’s it like to go back there to teach?

A little strange, in part because I have a lot of respect for the place and for the students who take such a tremendous risk, leaving their normal settled lives and staking it all on writing sentences – and in part because I don’t feel like I have much to say about fiction outside of the fiction that I write.

Since the context of this interview is an online litblog – I was wondering what your opinion was of this emerging part of book culture.

It seems that the field is growing tremendously. A couple of years ago, I went on a mission to sort of look into the possibilities of online literary reviews, of online literary communities. I was astounded by their diversity and breadth. It’s a good thing. The dominant culture –newspapers, television—has totally abandoned book culture but I feel like the conversation has to go on. For some of us, a good many of us, it’s absolutely necessary. And so the world of blogs seems a bit like a black market economy. You know, the official economy is a little inefficient, perhaps, and this secondary economy is emerging as an alternative to the mainstream.

I guess in some ways it’s not all that dismaying. Growing up in Seattle, I didn’t really think of literary culture as something that was centered in New York or that required any kind of official sanction whatsoever. I bought my books used for a quarter or fifty cents and then for a dollar I could get the most amazing peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a coffee shop called the Last Exit. Throw in coffee, and for around two dollars you had everything you needed. Maybe a friend or my little brother would show up and we’d talk. I’ve always thought of books and literature that way, a few isolated people who cross paths and discuss work they care passionately about. So, the Internet mirrors that, in a way.

For example, I was just in Ft. Collins, and I met Traver Kauffman out there who has followed my work for quite some time – and who operates a well-respected litblog, Rake’s Progress. I’d never met him face to face, but I knew a lot about his work because of the egalitarian access offered by the internet.

I’d like to talk a bit about your new collection, The Dead Fish Museum. I am biased – I have to admit – I think it is a beautiful book. The stories are funny and sad and carefully-written. But one story stood out from the rest. “The High Divide,” is the first one in the collection. Am I wrong in thinking it varies from the others? It doesn’t use quotation marks, first of all…

I do think that it’s different. And I think that I put it at the beginning of the collection because it might have been jarring or bizarre switch of gears anywhere else and also because I felt the final image pointed the way into the rest of the book.

“The High Divide” is probably the oldest story in there. It evolved slowly over the space of many years. I worked on it off and on for ten years, taking it out, fooling with it, putting it away. Originally I didn’t use quotation marks. All the dialogue was reported by the narrator, in big blocks of prose. Then I broke the dialogue out and put quotes around it but it sounded wrong –because it was written to sound like a kid’s memory of what he heard, not actual dialogue. At the point the NY’er took the story,I had some dialogue in quotes, and some in its original place. My editor suggested we break out all the dialogue, as you would in a normal story, but drop all the quotes to keep the sense of it as something remembered by a kid.

Ten years?

Ten years. One of the first things that I had was the image at the end.

Which I love. I think it’s so powerful. You hear the echoes of their voices off of the canyon walls, and it seems like there are thousands of them out there – because in fact, there are. In the broader world – thousands of people with marriages failing like the protagonist’s, thousands of lonely children looking for a way forward. It was a beautiful image.

Well, thank you.

Like I said, that was there from the get go.

I always knew that the story was a little bit about the failure to communicate, about people talking and not understanding each other. In that respect, its funny that I spent so much time futzing over the problem of quotes. In a way, the story is about how language fails, but it isn’t easy finding the right images for failure.

Speaking of which – how does your relationship with The New Yorker influence your writing? Does it enter your mind while you’re working?

No, The New Yorker never enters my mind while I’m working. I love The New Yorker. I love publishing with them. Their audience is large, it’s excellent, and then the editors are remarkable. We work our asses off and I think the story always improves in the process.

I’ve always loved the editing process. And not just with that particular magazine. Michael Ray, for instance, at Zoetrope. He is a tremendously gifted editor.

I’d like to talk about the story “Screenwriter,” which is written from within a mental institution. The prose is gorgeous, in places, and really reminded me of poetry. But, again, it’s a bit of a departure from the prose in the rest of the collection. Why is this?

If you have enough departures, then what’s the standard, the baseline? I work pretty hard to find a particular sound for each story. In “Screenwriter,” part of the initial trajectory is that the voice is a bit over the top -- I wanted to overcome people’s skepticism about the narrator by going overboard. And then I struggled with that, too. I found that when I finished the first draft, the narrator’s voice was too dominating. I had to dial it back a little bit, actually, in order to find the space –a kind of generosity, I suppose -- that would let anybody else into the drama.

The language is quite florid, there. Have you written much poetry?

I’ve never written a lick of poetry in my life. Maybe short stories lend themselves to being a language event – more so than a novel, but still – no poetry.

Or maybe in my short stories I express a frustrated poetic ambition that I could never admit to myself.

And finally, what are your hopes for The Dead Fish Museum?

Well, I hope people buy it and read it, and then, more than anything, I hope that the readers’ experience lasts beyond the last page, that the work resonates and stays with them.  I hope they feel it’s good enough to tell someone else about, to bring up in conversation. That would be nice.