D’Ambrosio

19 July, 2008

By William H. Coles

Charles D’Ambrosio

Charles D’Ambrosio grew up in Seattle 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 (Little Brown, 1995) and The Dead Fish Museum (The Dead Fish Museum, 2007). His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He received the Whiting Award and is a Rasmuson Fellow.

William H. Coles

I’d like to start with a basic question. What do you feel are the most important story elements a student of writing must learn?

Charles D’Ambrosio

First there are the small parts. For instance how dialogue works, particularly on a functional level. Description, and writing setting. Good, solid sentences of prose. I would say character, action, conflict, but none of those can happen unless you can construct scene. Scene is the element that pressurizes the rest.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

Let’s say that in the traditional model every story’s going to have a beginning, middle, and end. You can monkey around with that, jazz around with it, maybe begin in the middle and refuse an ending. But if we’re looking at that kind of traditional situation with 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.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

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.

William H. Coles

But you can have narrative description?

Charles D’Ambrosio

Right. But 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.

William H. Coles

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?

Charles D’Ambrosio

I don’t think so. Everybody’s going to discover their own process. Some will work from an outline. I don’t know many short story writers who 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.” For me, 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 not knowing where I’m going, being surprised, being in the dark.

William H. Coles

But you do have an idea?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

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 to make them happy?

Charles D’Ambrosio

Why do literary readers read short stories?

William H. Coles

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?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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 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.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

What’s the question?

William H. Coles

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?

Charles D’Ambrosio

I think so. I do. The emotions are all over the place. From dark to sad to humor. The funny stuff. Humor is 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, though.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

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. That’s what I love about her work, the mixture of those things.

William H. Coles

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?

Charles D’Ambrosio

To me there seems to be a danger when as a writer you take these sources, these experiences, and 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, how to make it live? 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 it’s the elusive thing that threads through what you can teach, whether you’re teaching about scene or dialogue. Whatever that drive is. But I know exactly what you’re 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 I had a hard time 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 dialogue and scene but also understanding the efficiency, so that as you compress things, the moments carry more tone, weight, and energy.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

And the reality you’re bringing to the story.

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

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. I think of a story as a field of energy, for instance, and there are some high points and some low points. The high points are where the writing turns on, the sentences get better. That’s what you keep. The low points, you go back and rewrite until they rise, they begin to have that energy.

William H. Coles

And all that has passage of time. You’ve got to start someplace; you’ve got to end someplace.

Charles D’Ambrosio

Yes. 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.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

Yes. You can’t ask the time to cough up the whole story at once.

William H. Coles

Okay. I’m going to ask a question that probably does not have an answer. It’s one of those things that no one can get a firm 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 voices we create?

Charles D’Ambrosio

To me voice is the musical side of the sentences, so it’s partly about having an ear. If you can do dialogue, chances are you can probably do voice. 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 nuance as important as any of the content. You develop a musical idea, for example a long sentence, an open vowel sound, or how to make things happen quickly, or the ear for developing ironies inside people’s mistaken ways of speaking. When someone is a bully, you don’t have to say so; you make the sound of a bully.

William H. Coles

Part of this is syntax. And there is a lyrical aspect, too. But what about content?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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 then expect the content to come along with it.

William H. Coles

Is it reasonable to say that an isolated bit of dialogue in a story should be identifiable with a character without attribution?

Charles D’Ambrosio

Yes, very definitely. But it’s the same type of thing. If you have somebody who’s angry, you know, their dialogue should sound angry. They shouldn’t just say, “I’m angry with you.” They 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.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

I don’t.

William H. Coles

But theme is important to meaning?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

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?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

And that connects to your thoughts on language, too.

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. [laughing]

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

I heard an interesting lecture today on researching facts for stories. But isn’t it also important for a writer to research their own attitudes about morality, the meaning of life, who we are, why we’re here? Is such self-learning legitimate research for writing stories?

Charles D’Ambrosio

Oh, sure. Our thoughts and experiences can’t help but feed in. 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 a character who is philosophical.

William H. Coles

But it’s not an essay.

Charles D’Ambrosio

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.

William H. Coles

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?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

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

William H. Coles

Why?

Charles D’Ambrosio

Because creatively they are equal. I completely believe that. You have to care about both equally. Don’t choose. That’s 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 individual.

William H. Coles

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 characters can be in conflict with something more abstract. How do you identify the energies that come from conflicts?

Charles D’Ambrosio

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 how things are connected such that 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. There are so many ways to get at it. You don’t have to start with the guns. I mean, what’s Hamlet’s problem when the ghost shows up? What’s the deal? We’re haunted by ghosts. You can’t put your ghost away. There’s a conflict. All that stuff.

William H. Coles

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

Charles D’Ambrosio

Yes, right.

William H. Coles

Well, this has been terrific. A great opportunity and value for the website www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

Charles D’Ambrosio

Pleasure for me. Glad to be part of it.



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2 thoughts on “D’Ambrosio

  • Phil

    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.

    • admin

      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