Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
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Interview – D'Ambrosio


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Charles D’Ambrosio Interview

William H. Coles
Charles D’Ambrosio

Charles D'Ambrosio grew up in Seattle, Washington, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He attended Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers Workshop. He has published two collections of short stories, The Point (1995) and The Dead Fish Museum (2005). His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He received the Whiting Writers' Award and is a Rasmuson Fellow.


July 19, 2008

 

I am sitting at table just outside the gymnasium at Reed College with Charles D’Ambrosio. It is evening.

Charlie has just completed a week of teaching at the Tin House Festival after returning from two weeks of teaching at the Warren Wilson MFA program in Ashville, NC. In a few weeks he will leave for Iowa City to teach as visiting faculty in the Iowa Workshop.

WHC

Thank you (Charlie) very much for agreeing to talk to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com. I very much appreciate your time.

CD’A

My pleasure.

WHC

I'd like to start with a basic question. What do you feel are the elements of a story for a student of writing to learn? What are the fundamentals that a story must have?

CD’A

They’re elements of a story that are the ingredients of a story . . . so there are the small parts. I think when you’re starting out it’s best to get those small pieces in practice.   For instance, how dialog works, particularly on a functional level. Description, and writing setting. Write good solid sentences of prose.   I would say character, action, conflict, but none of those can happen unless you can construct scene.  So scene is the kind of element.   It would involve all of those other things, but scene is the element that pressurizes them.

WHC

What are the elements of a scene? Does every scene have a beginning, middle, and end?

CD’A

Let’s say that within the traditional model every story’s going to have a beginning, middle, and end.   You can monkey around with that, jazz around with it—beginning in the middle and refuse an ending, but if we’re looking at that kind of traditional situation—beginning, middle and end, a scene is not going to work quite the same way.  It can’t end . .  certainly it can’t have an ending the way that a story has an ending, because it’s got to come to some sort of close; it has shape, but it can’t close down, because the story can’t end.  Not only that, but it wants to add energy to the story.   It has to transfer. So there is going to be an internal shape that ends the scene but takes you into the next one, or takes you further into the story.

WHC

But there is action in every scene, isn’t there?

CD’A

Well, scene is, I suppose, it’s a . . . yes, because it happens right in front of you.   Generally, you’re going to be in the present of the story, although it can be set in the past, I suppose . . .

WHC

But you can have narrative description?

CD’A

Right.  But it’s generally going to have . . . let me talk about scene in opposition to summary.   Summary is a way to move general time, to cover lots of information to fill in background.  Scene is where time is; time shows up in its detailed form. Time slows down. We’re not covering “Then for the next five years, she’d wandered the globe, blah blah blah, then she took you into this hotel and her ex-husband showed up and something happened. That’s time in its detailed form. A scene, in general, is going to contain that.

WHC

Is it essential for a writer to have an idea as to what they’re going to be writing about and how the story is going to be structured?

CD’A

I don’t think it is.  Everybody’s going to discover their own process.  Some will work off an outline.   I don’t know many short story writers that do that.   But if that’s your process, then why not?   Katherine M. Porter said in an interview “I never start a story without knowing the ending.”  I do not like to know the ending.   I like to remain uncertain for as long as I possibly can.  That said, when I start a story I have a general feel.  I can feel the whole thing.   I’ll take little notes on the side but I don’t elaborate too much because I want a little of that tension of knowing where I’m going and being surprised, being in the dark.

WHC

But you do have an idea?

CD’A

General idea.   But you know, they’re really not ideas in the conceptual sense, more like I might have an image—I can see it floating out there on the horizon; I don’t know what it means but I’m going there.  But what will actually happen?  I don’t know.

WHC

Let me come at it from a different angle.  Why do good readers of literary fiction read stories and what do you do as an author do that makes them happy?

CD’A

Why do literary readers read short stories?

WHC

Some people will read anything—the phone book.   But why do readers come for a story?   What brings them back to stories, and what brings them back to the same story over and over?

CD’A

Yeah. You know to me it’s a . . . I know why I read some stories over and over . . . to me it’s some mix of the harmony, I hear music of the creation; the stories I’ve read over and over again . . . I can feel the whole thing . . . the whole thing in any one of the sentences, you know, I love that aspect of the short story; it’s almost like reading a poem.   I think some people read short stories to get a glimpse of other lives.

WHC

Is it ever to experience an emotion created by the action itself . . . and the reader involvement in the story that creates and emotion?

CD’A

What’s the question?

WHC

I’m still trying to work on why readers read.  What do we do, as beginning authors, to create some emotion for a reader.  People get emotional after a story, don’t they?

CD’A

I think so.   I do.  I do. The emotions are all over the place.   From dark to sad emotion to humor.  The funny stuff.   Humor.  That’s the easiest one to register—not the easiest one to write, the easiest to register.   The laugh is pretty much involuntary.   I like funny stories.  I like funny writers.   Everybody has a different idea of funny, but . . .

WHC

Most of the humor deflects off something serious, doesn’t it?

CD’A

I would say so.  Lorrie Moore, for example, is a very funny writer, but there is a quotient of sadness sewn through . . . the sadness and the humor come out of the same place.   And that’s really what I love about her work, the mixture of those things.

WHC

A story is not just an idea, not just an event, not just an emotion that an author has had that is significant and that he or she wants carried to the page.  But still, aren’t these the sources, these experiences, that generate stories?

CD’A

Ahhh, yeah . . .

WHC

There seems to be a danger when, as a writer, you take these sources for stories, these experiences, and then set them into descriptive narrative because you’ve lived them.   A lack of distance from the story and a lack of action.   How do you teach the action of a story, make it live?

CD’A

You know, I don’t know that you teach that thing. That’s the art of it. That’s a little dependent on the individual student too. And, uh, it’s the elusive thing that threads through what you can teach, whether you’re teaching about scene or dialog.  Whatever that drive is.   But partly what you’re talking about, because I know exactly what your talking about because of my own maturation, my ability to write sentences.  That was there from the beginning.  I could always write good sentences.   I could always assemble them into paragraphs.  But what I had a hard time doing was generating story logic as opposed to reality logic.  I could kind of follow the plotting [in] the reality of a situation but not heighten it.   A lot of that is art . . . increased skill with dialog and scene but also understand the efficiency, so as you compress things, the moments carry more tone, weight, and more energy, I guess.

WHC

And you’re getting more specific and you’re slowing down a little . . .

CD’A

And you’re following the logic that is necessary to the art.

WHC

And the reality you’re bringing to the story.

CD’A

Yes.

WHC

How does a beginning writer keep away from the static?  How do you get momentum in the writing?

CD’A

Again, I don’t know that it can be named, but it’s like developing an unrelenting drive that will not allow that static.  But if you read twenty pages, they’re not all going to be static.   You know there are going to be some things . . . I think of a story as a field of energy, for instance, and there are some high points and there are some low points.  The high points [is where] the writing turns on, the sentences get better . . . that’s what you keep.  The low points, you got to go back and rewrite until they rise . . . they begin to have that energy.

WHC

And all that has passage of time.

CD’A

Yeah.

WHC

You’ve got to start someplace, you’ve got to end someplace.

CD’A

Yeah.   You go back at it.  You’re unrelenting in your drive for that and develop a feel for it.   But it does happen over time.  That’s another thing, you know.

WHC

In actual time, but also with the writer’s time invested in creating the story.

CD’A

Yes.   It’s not . . . you can’t ask the time to cough up the whole story at once.

WHC

Okay.  I’m going to ask a question that probably does not have an answer.  But it’s one of those things that no one can get a grasp on, but everybody refers to it with familiarity.  And when they do refer to it, they assume everyone is talking about the same thing.   You’re particularly good at this—that’s voice.  And something about tone.  What is voice, and how do we learn to create it as beginning writers?  How do we go back and look for right and wrong in the voice we create?   What are we looking for?

CD’A

You know to me in this sense, voice is the musicality, the musical side of the sentences, and it’s partly about having an ear.  If you can do dialog, chances are you can probably do voice, and you can bring a voice to a third person narration, and certainly to a first person narration, but it’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content . . . uhhh . . . you know . . . you develop a musical idea, for example a long sentence, open vowel sound, or how to make things happen quickly, or the ear for developing ironies are inside peoples mistaken ways of speaking, those kind of things facet onto those things. You know when someone is a bully, you don’t have to say someone’s a bully, you make the sound of a bully.

WHC

Part of this is syntax.  And there is a lyrical aspect too.  But isn’t there content?

CD’A

Content is important.   Single gestures, it should be seamless . . . content and voice.  But if I was going to lead with one, I’d go with the sound. And expect the content to come along with it.

WHC

So is it reasonable to say that an isolated bit of dialog in a story should be able to be identified with a character without attribution?

CD’A

Yes, very definitely.  But it’s the same type of thing.  I mean if you have somebody who’s angry, you know, their dialog should sound angry, it’s not just to say “I’m angry with you,” . . . people should sound angry.  People say mean things they don’t mean, and you don’t have to say that it’s angry, and I think you should be able to write in a voice, for instance, an angry person, and create the sound of anger—the feel of anger—right on the page.

WHC

Recently you said in class that you didn’t think theme was important until later . . .

CD’A

I don’t.

WHC

. . . but theme is important to meaning, too . . . ?

CD’A

Theme is important for reading. . . on the reading end of it.   But I don’t think it is that important for writing—at the outset.  I think there is a tendency to get thematic, when you’re thinking about theme–these things line up with these things.  Really, what you’re trying to do is capture something much more energetic and much more elusive than the themes, you know, themes are what happens when the story cools down.  Write at first [to be] hot and follow more elemental aspect of the story before you organize themes.

WHC

You’ve stated that you exhaust the usual of a story and then you come to language, which I assume is more lyrical and narrative.   When you come to language, doesn’t that bring you more to theme?

CD’A

You know, I think theme might help guide you at the tail end of writing.  You might decide on some prime, or primitive, level that things belong or don’t belong based on thematic decisions.  The whole idea of exhaustions was coming out of Flannery O’Connor who says, you know, that a story’s meaning does not begin until the adequate has been exhausted. That’s when a story begins.

WHC

And that deals with your thoughts on language too.

CD’A

Yes, yes.  You know, I mean, we’re sitting here being civilized and that’s not where the story begins.  I have bad manners.  I’m exhausted.

WHC

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.  (laughing)

CD’A

And things are going to break down [after the adequate is exhausted].

WHC

I heard an interesting lecture today on research of facts for stories.   However, isn’t it also important for a writer to research their own attitudes about morality, the meaning of life—who are we, why are we here?   Is this self-learning research a legitimate discovery for writing stories–that is, the consideration of these basic questions?

CD’A

Oh, yeah.  They can’t help but feed.  Our thoughts and experiences just like anything else, our religious interests, or passions, or spirituality . . . those are experiences.  You know, writing resists abstractions, so you can’t stick a philosophical work in the middle but you might have a philosophical interest, or you might have a character who is philosophical.

WHC

But it’s not an essay.

CD’A

But on the other hand, fiction, particularly the short story, is a very flexible form so you can have a story in the form of a philosophical essay if you gesture toward the form.

WHC

What is the role of truth in literary fiction?  I mean not reality truth, although there must be some borders established for reality truth. What is the role of story truth?   How is truth important to credibility?

CD’A

The only truth is the art.  You know. It’s cold, it’s harsh.   To me the reality of fiction is richness, complexity.

WHC

Then the right/wrong issues are not important.   Even on the character level?

CD’A

No. There is nothing inherently right or wrong.   To me the sad truth of fiction is a rock is just as important as your mother dying of cancer.  In fact, I’d go even farther in that if you can’t write about the rock, you’re not going to be able to write about the mother dying of cancer . . .

WHC

Because . . .

CD’A

Because, as a creative act, they are equal.   I completely believe that. Y ou have to care about both equally. I  mean they both matter.   Don’t choose.  That’s kind of my sense of the morality.  I think most people would say it’s an amorality, or lack of it.  You want that kind of clarity.  And all people do . . . the good and the bad.  That’s the only way to get down into that complexity where you see—as I read in that Vivian Gornick essay—the loneliness of the monster, and the cunningness of the innocent, where you see the complexity inside the conflicted nature of the individuals.

WHC

You were on a panel recently about conflict. To expand, how do beginning authors relate to conflicts?  Beginners often reach for swords and pistols to find the conflict.   But then, maybe characters can be in conflict with something more abstract.   How do you identify the energies that come from conflicts?

CD’A

You know, there are so many different ways.   Part of it is vision.  You see conflict all the time.  Those oppositions exist within the world.  I don’t think it’s a matter of generating them with guns. [Look for] sadness inside a happy moment, or our ability to experience pleasure because we’ve understood pain.  Those are conflicts.  But on a visionary level.  We see things that way.  We see how things are connected so that we see one person’s success may be intimately tied to someone else’s missed opportunity or failure and the writer is not making choices.  The successful person is not more valuable than the failed person.  And the writer appreciates both.  And those are set in proximity.   And there are so many ways to get it.   You don’t have to start the guns going, you know.   I mean, what’s Hamlet’s problem when the ghost shows up?   As you know.  What’s the deal?  We’re haunted by ghosts.   You can’t put your ghost away.  There’s a conflict.  All that stuff.

WHC

That’s so expansive for the beginning writer.  We have the opportunity to look for conflict everywhere on all levels– all energy levels, and intellectual levels too.

CD’A

Yeah, right.

WHC

Well, this has been terrific.

CD’A

Pleasure for me.

WHC

A great opportunity and value for the website (www.storyinliteraryfiction.com).

CD’A

Glad to be part of it.

WHC

Thanks again.



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2 Responses to “Interview – D'Ambrosio”

  1. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right. Apologies to you for the frustrations and to Mr. D'Ambrosio. As the site has grown in content and visitor traffic, the need for professional proofreading has become acute, and is being sought. WHC

  2. Phil Says:

    It's a bit tough to imagine that I'm reading a serious literary interview when it is so littered with trivial spelling errors. Do you have an editor? How many times can you type "and" instead of "an" and not notice? Out of respect for the writer you interviewed and the readers who come here to get a glimpse of him, please proofread this thing again.

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