An Interview with Charles D’Ambrosio

Corey Campbell

Charles D’Ambrosio was kind to humor me when I asked to interview him at the Tin House Conference this summer. He humored me through a lunch early on and, the last day, a follow-up conversation that extended a couple of hours because I kept making up questions to keep him talking (because he was generous and willing).

D’Ambrosio is, of course, the Seattle-born author of the essay collections Loitering (his latest, from Tin House Books) and Orphans, and the acclaimed short story collections The Point and The Dead Fish Museum. A Whiting Award recipient and contributor to The New Yorker, he teaches in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I approached him initially as a fiction writer — his story “The Point” basically catalyzed my interest — but the essays erased some distance, made me feel like I actually knew him, which is an awkward mindset to have about someone you’ve never met. He’s been kind to open that door for me a bit. He’s also adept at tempering incredible pain with humor, or with an honesty that allows for humor, both in his writing and in person. I found myself laughing throughout our talk.

Most of the conversation below takes place at a corner table under a tree on the main lawn at Reed College. Kids yell and someone in a nearby building practices the piano. A squawking bird insinuates himself throughout.

Corey Campbell: Thank you for talking with me. Given your recent success with Loitering, I’ll start with a nonfiction question. Phillip Lopate has written that the essay “feasts on doubt,” and you’ve also talked about this sense of not-knowing pervading the essay form, possibly being the point of the essay. Lopate wrote, “Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side.” Does that ring true for you also?

Charles D’Ambrosio: Of course it rings true, and what a feast it is! In purely practical terms I can’t imagine a good personal essay that isn’t driven by doubt — or any of doubt’s kissing cousins, like curiosity, mystery, confusion, ignorance, skepticism, hesitance, a certain amount of honest irresolution. Those are the qualities that make the personal essay personal — and such good company. It’s not a form for know-it-alls. I read a lot of things passing themselves off as essays (mildly queasy discussions about some social issue, delivered in first-person) but most of them seem to be suffocating under the expository habits we all pick up in second grade, doing book reports. — [Bird squawking] — You know, where the good grade and the gold star depends on burying your ignorance — by playing the expert and fooling the teacher into thinking you know what you’re talking about. I never hear the essay in those things, the truly honest note. Anyway, some form of not-knowing is crucial to the art, I’d say — but what do I know?

CC: Can I ask about your upbringing? Of course, you’re very candid in your essays about your brother’s suicide and monstrous father. How did your upbringing contribute to your sense of doubt? I’m curious about where your ideas of doubt and uncertainty came from.

CD: There was a lot of shakiness [laughs]. Is that what you’re asking? I joke about it but it was painful then and it remains painful today and my best guess is that it will be painful tomorrow too. We paid a high price for the grim and unremitting shittyness chez D’Ambrosio, but sure, my sense of doubt and skepticism might be traced back to an — [bird squawking] — autobiographical source. At this point it would be ridiculous — [bird squawking] — to deny that. It was a nightmare, day-in and day-out. But a lot of people get a bad shake and are tormented by doubt and they don’t write essays. They don’t even get out of bed. Sometimes I’m one of them, but it’s kind of reductive to ascribe everything to a fucked-up family life, when all the effort of any writer is about the transformation of material, of inert and meaningless facts, into something that answers to the art. To me, that answering, that’s where the action is, that’s how you take arms against a sea of troubles.

Plus, I believe our ordinary and ongoing human doubts bind us to one another. They’re a positive, in other words. Questions create community and I believe they call out our deepest sympathies. I mean, if life doesn’t brutalize you beyond recovery, you’ll note the fallen all around you. You’ll recognize them. You’ll see that those suffering others, they are you. The eye and the ear tune in. That’s what compassion is, right? I was raised Catholic, I am Catholic, so naturally I think that.

CC: Does that give you solid ground?

CD: It gives me the solid ground this way: it provides a forum for my doubts. Religion is treated in the popular imagination as a stony set of convictions, but that’s never been my understanding or my lived experience, even as kid. For me the church was full of mystery and wonder and as such provided a home for human uncertainty, for all the profound questions, the unanswerable questions, the ongoing questions. Instead of doubt as an affliction, this thing that had singled me out for special abuse, attacking and isolating me, I felt it was central to the human enterprise, and that I was inside a very old conversation.

CC: It’s a way forward.

CD: It inclined me to think about the meaning of things. Otherwise, I would just be a criminal.

CC: In your story “The Point” — I wondered about the black hole that opens up. The young man decides that we all, at some point, have a black hole, a despair, opening within us, a heartbreak that never heals. Was that part of a life philosophy you had in a way, or did that just come through the writing? That part struck me (and essentially made me want to meet you). I should tell you, too: I taught a fiction workshop in an Arizona prison and gave the students “The Point.” Some said it caused such a visceral reaction they had to put it aside for a few days. You really got to them.

CD: Wow.

CC: One guy looked up The Point, actually found it on a map.

CD: It is based on a real place, Sandy Point, on Whidbey Island. The black hole — I should say that my brand of Catholicism is very existential.

CC: We’ll open with that.

CD: The black hole. It’s funny how that kind of stuff works. All through childhood most of my closest friends came from families where it was all boys, and I was particularly drawn to my friends’ older brothers. I was the oldest in my family, surrounded by girls, and while I love my sisters immensely, as a kid they didn’t offer much of an outlet for violence. I had to go outside the family for that kind of craziness. Also, I probably wanted an older brother because I needed a buffer between me and my dad. I was always looking, thinking there’s gotta be something that’s kind of like a dad, like a leader but not a dad, some guy who guides and protects and is interesting and doesn’t treat you like shit every second of the day. My friend Pat Corr had an older brother, Casey, who I worshiped from afar and studied. If he read a book, I’d read it — “Prufrock,” Portrait of the Artist, a weighty tome on Chinese history. If he listened to Disraeli Gears or Bitches Brew, I’d listen to it. And it wasn’t just books or records. I’d copy his attitudes too. Casey had this old black lab, Eb — short for Ebenezer — that he really loved, and I decided that I would love my dog the same way. The black hole — so I remember Casey talking once — I was young, probably twelve or thirteen — about meeting up with someone and Casey said, “Oh man, it was like having a conversation in a black hole.” I didn’t even know what a black hole was, but it didn’t matter, I immediately thought, “That is such a good analogy, such a great way to describe a boring conversation.” Even though I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about, I got it. And I always remembered it. So when I was writing “The Point,” there it was, “Okay, black hole …” The whole story is a conversation in a black hole. I improvised this kid recasting a metaphysical idea as a black hole, in terms of something he didn’t really understand, and in a weird roundabout way the germ for the idea had this streak of autobiography. It was lifted out of life. I’ve never mentioned any of this to Casey — too shy. He probably doesn’t know it, but he changed my life. He wrote and he read. And so naturally, that way in the world seemed pretty cool to me.

CC: It’s interesting that it has that kind of background as opposed to that gut feeling of horrible sadness.

CD: Horrible sadness is shapeless. You need a black hole or a white elephant or a green light or something. I like that the origin of my black hole is humble, I like that it happened simply. Technically, I suppose I wanted to capture some of the very real bleakness of being a kid, but of course you can’t just have a kid crying out in despair, like some kind of Job Jr., “Oh God, life is bleak!” Kids don’t say that. So you needed the analogy. You needed him trying to make up an explanation out of something he barely knew anything about.

CC: I’m curious about your choice of reading your essay “Documents” [to the Tin House conference attendees] the other night. “Documents,” of course, is a triptych essay that includes a letter from your schizophrenic brother, portions of your youngest brother’s suicide note, and writing from your father that is quite painful. [Bird squawks.] You said you’d never read that aloud in its entirety, and it seemed to be a very emotional experience here. Why now? What were you thinking about?

CD: I feel like I should have something smart and insightful to say but truth is everything I think is boringly practical. I chose that essay because it’s short, a three thousand word ditty, and I wanted to read something in its entirety. And I wanted to take a risk — readings can be so boring. [Bird squawks.] Also, I wanted to sell some books [laughs].

CC: You did. There was a long line out there.

CD: When I was out promoting the book, I started every reading with an excerpt from that essay, a letter from my brother Mike.

CC: It’s so sweet.

CD: It’s tremendously sweet. And I’ve got three hundred of those letters, all like that, like prayers. One of the things about having a mentally ill sibling is that they kind of just drop out of the human conversation. No one asks, no one brings them up. And they don’t have any of the markers of a normal life, so the culture doesn’t speak on their behalf. They don’t buy new cars or houses or televisions, they don’t get promotions, they don’t have kids who graduate from high school — they aren’t involved in that whole negotiation.

CC: Where does he live?

CD: He lives in a halfway house. In Seattle. So my brother just falls out of the conversation, and even though no one is embarrassed by him, the silence has the character of a shame, of an embarrassment. The thing you don’t talk about, the thing you don’t bring up. So I just decided to put his voice out there, front and center. My brother is one of those nutjobs we all pass on the street, and here’s a letter he wrote, and it’s beautiful and humane. It’s not bad, it’s not bad for any kind of person, crazy or not. [Bird squawking.] I like reading the letter because the words aren’t mine, I like giving voice to his thoughts, the saintly beauty of his mind. But before the reading, while I was going over the essay and practicing, it was difficult. There was this moment in my room when I thought, I don’t know —

CC: Have courage?

CD: It wasn’t so much have courage as like, even if you fall apart, that will be interesting [laughs]. That’s a show. It will be okay. [Both laugh.] I mean, you take that risk and it’s like racing cars. One of the risks is that you might crash. And people really like that. I mean, I would if I was at a race.

CC [laughs]: You want people to crash?

CD: I don’t want anyone to die, but yeah, I’d like to see a crash. Car crashes are exciting — don’t kid yourself. Otherwise, what’s a car race, it’s going around and around and around, it’s driving in circles. What’s the point? So I thought, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? Maybe it will be a little awkward but —

[Karen Russell stops by, tells CD she loved his lecture on persona in the essay. They talk about the Tin House karaoke night and “karaoke personas.”]

CD: Anyway, so I decided to go ahead and do it. It was difficult.

CC: What was that? Something just fell.

[The squawking bird has shit on the table. CD gets up, grabs a broken branch from the ground.]

CD: Watch out. [An avid baseball player as a kid, CD chucks it at the bird, hitting it squarely. Leaves fall.]

CC [essentially batting her eyelashes]: You did play baseball! That was great.

CD [laughs]: I just didn’t want that bird shitting on us.

CC: I’ll just cover that up [puts napkin on the table] — So about your reading, what was the experience like when you were actually doing it?

CD: You know, what’s interesting to me is that you think, thank God, the words are written, the thing is finished, it’s in a book, it’s dead and buried, so I’ll just stand there and read these sentences and then I’ll sit down. But the experience was more like uncorking a bottle of wine. All the emotion, all the power, it was still in there for me, raw and real as day one, and I was a little overtaken by the — by the thing. And I felt kind of foolish and out of control.

CC: But supported? Like this was the right audience for that.

CD: Well, it’s a better audience than [laughs] I don’t know, than some. [Both laugh. Sound of piano in the background.] But yeah, good audience — Tin House people, so it’s family to me, and other writers, so it’s the tribe, and then all these people who come to the conference and take risks all week — so why do something pat, why not model? Besides, people like it when you’re foolish.

CC: It wasn’t foolish.

CD: I know, but it gives everybody else permission, right?

CC: Yeah, especially when, as far as a hierarchy, when the teacher’s doing that.

CD: I mean, you can get up there and you can give a reading and say, “Oh I’m a writer, look at how finished all this stuff is.” Or you can fall apart on stage [laughs].

CC: I love that. No, I felt like people just wanted to hug you. [Both laugh.] This guy needs a hug. So — this is opening a whole other thing probably — your father is still a huge presence in your life?

CD: Oh, sure — in my head. Otherwise, he’s dead, so it’s not like I’ll run into him on First Avenue or anything. His ashes are in Puget Sound, out past Alki Point. He’s undergoing a sea change.

CC: How can you push through that, or do you even want to?

CD: My dad is like a strange country that I go to visit. [Piano in background.] He’s a world and a weather, a thing to be explored and understood and, weirdly, by some kind of backdoor route, appreciated. That’s crucial, I think. You can’t really hate or resent or regret any part of your life without undoing its essential fabric. You just can’t. You have to love it all, the good and the bad; you can’t wish part of it away without wishing your existence away.

CC: Were you aware when you were younger — I’m not trying to diagnose him, but he sounds mentally ill. Were you aware of that? Would you even describe it that way?

CD: This is a little bit of a birth order thing, but as the oldest, I’m aware that I had more time with the sane version of my dad than the others, who more or less only knew the dark daddy. So as a simple matter of contrast yes, I’d say he was — let’s say disturbed. Mentally ill? A diagnosis won’t account for the hatred and violence. He’s accountable — no insanity plea. Besides, my brother is mentally ill, he’s schizophrenic, and he’s practically a saint on earth. Anyway, I had seven or eight or even nine years of good times, of normal life, but the younger ones were mostly parented by a madman. [Piano in background.] Something changed, something emerged. All the violence, the hatred of his own children, the murderous passion — to this day I read Greek tragedy, Aeschylus and Sophocles, to call up feelings I first experienced in our living room.

CC: The black hole is opening as you say that.

CD: It swallowed people up. They were born in a black hole.

CC: So what’s your response to that as the eldest child?

CD: I don’t know. That’s complicated. What’s most devastating doesn’t involve anything that happened to me directly. That wasn’t it. It was that at a very young age I had to witness my father’s treatment of others, and that was horrifying. I didn’t care so much what happened to me. [Switches into Southern accent.] “I can take care of myself.” But to see the way my mother and my sisters and my brothers were treated, to just stand by and witness it all and to live with that impotence and powerlessness, that was a terrible humiliation. To feel so helpless. It left me with a rooted sense of being alone in the world, a sense that when you get down to it, there is nowhere to go and no one to appeal to. I think a basic human impulse is to save the day somehow, and I didn’t save anyone.

CC: And you wouldn’t understand how to help it until you reached a certain point.

CD: I don’t know if there is a certain point. My life’s pretty much a comedy of false mastery — a kid acting like an adult, absolutely clueless but offering guidance that was, of course, misguided. Anyway, my dad had some problems, a handful of which you can find in the DSM-V, but he was also violent and mean, he was destructive. He was a bad man, it turned out. That happens sometimes.

CC: You’ve mentioned in interviews the recognition that everybody is a human being and worthy of respect. Do you think writers pay enough attention to those who may be forgotten or dismissed? Dorothy Allison used the phrase “categories of people it is permissible to destroy.”

CD: It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for everybody, not just writers, of course. To me, essentially, not to bring it back to Catholicism — but I guess I’m going to: it seems to me that the existential call in Christianity — in Christ’s teaching — is to recognize that other people are human beings. That’s the nut of it. It wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now, but that’s what we’re called to do.

CC: In whatever capacity we personally have.

CD: Yeah. It’s tough. There are all sorts of ways, like Dorothy was saying, all sorts of ways to get around that call. It’s easy to forget.

CC: And you wrote the essay about Mary-Kay Letourneau. Do you have that [looking at picnic table] — I don’t want to touch that.

CD: Yeah, don’t touch that bird shit. [Both laugh.]

CC: I won’t. Do you have that consciously in mind … for example, I worked with the incarcerated students and sometimes want to write their stories. There’s so much of their lived experience, so much heartbreak, that people don’t know, but then I feel like I’m putting a mission onto the story which will sink it.

CD: Things filter in, appearing indirectly. But do I consciously —

CC: Do you want to bring attention to those who may not otherwise be regarded as people?

CD: I’d call it more of an orientation. In one of his journals Camus says something like, knowing there is no winning cause, he’s developed a taste for lost causes. He says they demand a complete soul, a soul which is up to its defeats as well as to its fleeing victories. Anyway, I’m a sucker for lost causes, but in particular I don’t like to see other people harshly judged. It’s so hard to judge, and it’s a grave matter, and it should cost you. It’s very difficult, or should be. What we do, I think, is render the people we want to judge non-human, just to make it easier on ourselves. And now we practice daily with mouse clicks, liking and disliking our way across the internet.

CC: Your story “Open House” — it seems that it would have taken so much out of you emotionally to engage with that material [a guy returning home to his unstable father, the hours of painful drunken conversation … ], or create that. [Bird squawks.]

CD: That one I was really worried about. I was afraid the originals for some of the characters would recognize themselves and get mad. Now I’m a little puzzled that I ever believed anyone would care. The dad is a little bit my dad, but also a patchwork of other older men I know. For instance, that whole crazy episode about jacklighting pigeons and shooting them, that was somebody else. Still, I thought people would be mad. [Laughs.] I’d end up with everybody I knew mad at me. I threw all kinds of people in there. My mother, when she was divorcing my father, wanted to use the story as part of the painful process of her annulment. I thought I made most of it up but maybe I didn’t.

CC: It’s fiction.

CD: But I really caught something. And my sisters will sometimes, even today, read that story and just howl. Because it did capture a certain kind of nuttiness about my father.

CC: So when you say howl you mean laugh?

CD: Yeah.

CC: I don’t know if this is something you’d want to talk about or if this is even relevant to you. You mention Wellbutrin in one essay, which made me think, “I take that, too. I know what it’s for.” How has depression affected your writing, or has it?

CD: I don’t know. How does it affect your writing? I mean, being depressed affects your writing — if you’re not getting out of bed, that’s a problem. [Both laugh.] That’s a drag. That’s a bummer. Unless you’re Proust. But I don’t really know. There’s a certain romantic line that would suggest that the stuff comes out of some dark, dank, depressed place and maybe it does, now and then, but just as much, I like to think that Shakespeare had a spasm of joy as he croaked King Lear in that final scene, that he was beside himself when he realized he could turn the wheel once more, giving old Lear a last empty hope as he leans over Cordelia. In the act of writing there’s sensation, excitement, curiosity, a heightened sense of connection, a feeling of fullness — all of which is quite the opposite of the emptiness and waste that characterizes depression. It takes a lot, an enormous amount of human generosity, to imagine other lives, other characters, to involve yourself so thoroughly, but when you’re depressed, you’re drawing everything into that —

CC: — that black hole.

CD: Yeah, yeah. Depression makes people sad, and decent people want to sympathize, but just as often depression makes you shitty and selfish, which is revolting — I’m basing that on my experience of myself. Maybe it’s like any kind of trauma to the body. All the energy draws into the center in order to protect the core functions of being, and you don’t have any extra for anybody. You barely have any for yourself. The heart’s beating but that’s about it.

CC: What about depicting it in fiction? Several people in workshop wrote about depressed characters, which could be an interesting state of mind to explore but problematic dramatically.

CD: Dramatically? Yeah. It’s hard to dramatize a mood. Especially a Goddamn fucking mopey mood. [Both laugh.] What’d you do today? Nothing. What kind of character is that?

CC: Eeyore with a party hat on, that’s how someone described herself. That party hat makes a difference.

CD: For the record, I don’t take any medications, I’m done with those witchdoctors and racketeers — some people probably need medication but not nearly as many people as the industry needs in order to turn a profit. But writing about depressed people, I don’t know. A character can be depressed, but no one’s ever just depressed. No one’s ever merely the sum of their circumstances, so you’re always writing about somebody who works as a crossing guard or tends bar and also happens to be depressed. [Bird squawking.]

CC: Right. And they have other selves. [Bird squawking.]

CD: Writing about crazy people. That’s hard.

CC: That’s a good question. Your story “Drummond & Son” captures that so well.

CD: I’ve got a good ear for crazy people. I know crazy talk because I’ve listened to a lot of it. [Bird squawks.] But it’s tough to write about them. The thing about crazy people is that a lot of stuff they say is crazy, it doesn’t make sense, so you can’t just transcribe loony dialogue into a story and call it a day. The art — and probably language itself — demands that it be meaningful, that it contribute, which poses a problem — because if it makes too much sense, it’ll strike a false note, no longer accurately rendering the craziness. It won’t be true.

CC: And it can’t be heavy-handed, like song lyrics floating in and explaining everything.

CD: Exactly. Also, here’s the thing with crazy people: they’re funny as shit. Often they don’t know they’re funny but they are. You’ve got to be able to write that, because that’s also their truth. [Bird squawks.] It would be inaccurate not to include that dimension. And yet you can’t mock them, you can’t laugh at them or turn them into caricatures. So anyway, it’s really complex.

CC: They don’t become clowns. [Talks about sitting with a schizophrenic woman as a side job in college.] They paid me to do that. She wanted to talk to college-aged girls. And she said some hilarious things. When I first got there, I was terrified. She was standing there in her underwear outside her door and said, “Little girl, little girl,” in this high-pitched voice. [CD laughs.] I had just gotten off the elevator and there she was. I didn’t almost turn around but I thought about it. And she turned out to — she sends me postcards now sometimes. She says, “You’re the one.”

CD: That’s a nice postcard to get.

CC: I love it. I know, Elvis on the front and that on the back.

CD: Crazy people are a little more florid than depressed people. They show up in their underwear — “Little girl, little girl” — whereas your average severely depressed person usually wears what they wore yesterday.

CC: Gray hair. Gray face.

CD: Crazy people do stuff, which is one of the ways we think of character. They do things.

CC: What about writing about your brother’s suicide? Was there a time when you thought you wouldn’t write about it, or how did you approach it as part of your own lived material?

CD: It’s my life. Just as I write about rain because I grew up in a part of the country where it was always drizzling, so I write about suicide. It interests me and I happen to know a lot about it. Just like I know about — I haven’t written about baseball yet, but I know a lot about baseball, too.

CC: So much of it isn’t intentional. It just comes out in the stream of things, just pulling fish that go by.

CD: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I feel that I’ve written not so much about suicide but unmourned death. Unmournable deaths. About the haunting that comes after and never goes away.

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