You might imagine that bookstore employees don't need recommendations to keep them excited about reading. That's generally true. Occasionally, though, our ceaseless ration of words can turn an author's fine work to gruel—every voice begins to sound the same—and when such a rut comes along, we seek out trusted staff members to help us break free. Which is how, last spring, I discovered the work of Charles D'Ambrosio.
A Powells.com coworker noted:
Charles D'Ambrosio's essays are excitingly good. They are good and relevant in the way that makes you read sections out loud—to your boyfriend who's trying to read his own book; to three of your friends in a pitch-dark bar, squinting in the light of a pathetic candle; to your sister on the East Coast who's trying to tell you about her new job. To D'Ambrosio's great credit, although each of these people may have been initially irritated at the uninvited interruption of their respective good times, they all also professed an immediate desire to pick up Orphans for themselves. [Read the complete review.]
Now Knopf has published a collection of D'Ambrosio's equally impressive short fiction. Perhaps you've encountered some of the contents in the New Yorker. Six stories in The Dead Fish Museum first appeared within its pages.
When the Portland-based author stopped by our office in May to say hello and sign books, we sat him down for a short conversation. Because if you happen to be in a bit of a rut, yourself...
Dave: A couple years ago, I went to a Paris Review dinner in honor of William Styron. This was not too long after George Plimpton passed away. I know that Plimpton published you in the Review. It seems that everyone who knew him or worked with him took something away from the experience.
Charles D'Ambrosio: First of all, being from the Northwest, to actually encounter George Plimpton—he had that voice....
Growing up in Seattle and reading the Paris Review, with this obscure desire that I had to write, it was just amazing that I would eventually end up working with George Plimpton. When my first book came out, he threw the book party at his house. And then late at night he whisked me and a couple other people over to Elaine's, another legendary place, which I've never been to again, but he took me in there and got me a good table. It was amazing.
I have a tremendous amount of fondness for him. When he accepted my first story he sent a Western Union Mailgram. Who does that? Why not just call on the phone? I was only in Madison, Wisconsin; it wasn't as if I was unreachable. But he sent this Mailgram. It's one of the writing mementos that I keep on my wall. I've got it framed. I'll always think of that—the little touch of strange elegance seems Plimptonesque to me.
Dave: If you could create your own literary Hall of Fame, a writer or two from each decade of your life, who gets nominated?
D'Ambrosio: Each decade of my life? Early on, I guess it would be a tie between the Hardy Boys syndicate—I don't know if there's an actual author there—and maybe Jack London, which I don't know if I read when I was really young or had read to me, but I was certainly aware of Jack London. That would be zero to ten.
Ten to twenty, in a weird way it probably would have to be James Joyce. I went to Jesuit high school. I didn't read Catcher in the Rye until I was in my thirties, but I did read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was in high school. I was not that bookish and the school was not that good; we didn't have a very good reading list. I came out with a pretty crummy education, I realized once I got to college, but I did read that book. I didn't really understand it, but it was compelling to me in the ways that I didn't understand. Also, I completely got the Jesuit atmosphere, the darkness of it. So that would be one.
Then probably Jack Kerouac. I don't know if I should even admit that. People get kind of sniffy about Kerouac, but I still love On the Road. I love it for its energy, its wildness, and for the fact that everyone reads Kerouac at some point, and loves Kerouac at that point, and then has to turn around and be dismissive.
Dave: In "The High Divide," a nun tells the boy, "The opposite of love is despair." As I read further through The Dead Fish Museum, that line kept coming back to me. For instance, in "Screenwriting," I got the sense that the woman was genuinely troubled and not necessarily headed for recovery, whereas the man seemed to be suffering from despair as much as anything else. Do you see that line as part of a larger motif that runs through the stories?
D'Ambrosio: I think I do, and I think you're right to distinguish between the screenwriter and the ballerina in that story. He's obviously got his own troubles, but despair is ultimately what he's suffering from, and he can't really admit it to himself. He'd love to have excuses. He'd love to have reasons. What he has is despair, but it's the despair that maybe everyone has.
When I wrote that line in "The High Divide," the nun's response was my attempt to keep the story on track. When I began that story, the kid was really hateful and hating, and I could never finish it.
Hate itself is such an open-ended emotion. Once you start down that path, there's no shortage of things to hate. You can just continue hating. I needed some corrective to that, not only at that moment in the story but also to begin to close the story down. The recognition of that despair in our separation from love ultimately leads the narrator to recognize that he's in a community of people, the world. It gave me a way to end the story, rather than the ongoing hate, which had been the engine driving it early on.
Dave: The story has an interesting shape. It starts in the shop, and you're right, this is not a likeable character. Then, just a few pages in, suddenly that changes. It's a quick shift. And you never go back to the shop. The larger picture holds, but you don't ease your reader along.
D'Ambrosio: I don't. Part of it was that I thought I would achieve a structure based on a resistance to story structure. I think it's fairly coherent from beginning to end, but the truth is that he's moving forward and he is not going to return.
There's all this desire inside a story to shape an almost circular, coherent pattern, but he's on a linear path. He's going out and out and out, everybody is, and there's not going to be a comforting return.
I started in a stray moment where he goes to the store. The woman doesn't speak English. That sets the whole language thing in motion. She tells him some stuff in Chinese, which translated means "no hope." Secretly, I think she was warning him about his future or something. He doesn't understand that, and it's not translated within the story, but she keeps saying, "No hope. No hope." Hopefully, it feels tied enough thematically, or somehow it doesn't seem completely irrelevant, but his story becomes an acting out of what he senses her story is: She's come from China; she's opened a store in this little town, Bremerton; she can't communicate what's happened to her. Then he has his story and he can't communicate exactly what's happened to him, either.
Dave: Your stories aren't metafiction and they're not self-referential. You hide the mechanics beneath the surface. Is there a piece in the collection that especially satisfied you mechanically?
D'Ambrosio: They vary. Each one strikes me, as I'm working on it, as some kind of technical triumph. There were problems in them. Whether the reader actually experiences them as a triumph, I don't know, but each one had a problem.
In "The High Divide," there are no quotes around the dialogue, and that was a big issue. I played with it from the get-go, how to do it. Because it's not really dialogue that's spoken. It's dialogue that the kid remembers and is retelling, so he's misunderstanding things a lot of the time. How to do that.
There's a story, "Drummond & Son," which is about a father with a typewriter repair shop and his schizophrenic son. That's a story that in some ways moves in a very traditional way, in a minor key sort of way. I knew from the start that it would be that kind of story. And I really like that story for its traditional coherence. A lot of the stories don't have that, or they're testing the boundaries. But I'm fond of that story just because it is straightforward.
Dave: A couple years ago, you published a short piece of nonfiction in the New Yorker where you described family road trips growing up. They sounded completely off the wall.
D'Ambrosio: Off the wall because we didn't have good cars and because there were so many of us. I think back now and wonder, What were they thinking? Now everybody wears seatbelts. Back then, we had a station wagon with probably two seatbelts. There were seven kids, so nine of us in a car that wasn't running very well.
We always had really old cars, and they weren't in good condition. There was a certain neglect there that as a kid you don't recognize; you don't realize that maybe your parents aren't quite as with it as you'd like to believe. For safety's sake. And my dad had a certain amount of agoraphobia. He didn't like being out in the world all that much. We had an old Dodge. It was red, with fins and oxidized paint. Kind of an Okie, beater car. It had one of those old transmissions with a huge hump in it. Going up and down hills, the hump would heat up and actually catch on fire. One of my sister's jobs was to sit in that middle thing and pour water on it when the carpet fibers would start to smoke. That was our idea of car maintenance: make sure that fire didn't spread and kill the entire family. This was our idea of vacation.
Dave: In that same piece you describe hopping freight trains. How did you start doing that? Was there some kind of urgency? What got you on the first train?
D'Ambrosio: The first time I did it I was hitchhiking back to college. I went to the University of Washington, and then I transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio. I used to hitchhike from Seattle back to college at the end of the summer. So I was hitchhiking, and I got stuck in Spokane at night.
It was hard to hitchhike at night. Probably people don't see you, and partly they're terrified; they're not going to pick you up. So I was stuck, and I thought, What do I do? There was a freight yard not too far away. I thought, I'll ride freight trains, but I didn't know how to do it. So I thought, I'm just going to ask somebody. And I would just say, "Hey, I'm going to college, and I'm trying to go east. How do I do it?" I just screwed up the nerve and went in and talked to somebody.
I was recently having this conversation with somebody, and I was wondering, Have I ever done anything strange and bold? That was, except that it was based on being stupid. I thought, What's the worst they can do? Beat me up, or whatever, I don't know.
Anyway, the guy said, "This is only a local line. You're not going to get anywhere here. But the Burlington Northern Line is about a mile up that way. That's the yard you want."
So I walked up there. This massive Spokane yard with tons of trains. It's bewildering. I don't know anything about trains. So I sat out there, looking at it, seeing if I could figure it out. I couldn't, so I just went into the yard office and said, "I'm going east. How do I do this?" And they actually just told me. They told me where to stand. They told me when the train would be coming in. It's all scheduled. It's not just random. They said, "It will be coming in at this point." So that's what I did. And hopped a train.
But what I did... Trains come in on one or two lines into the yard and then they bottleneck, they spread out. Different trains will spread out over the entire yard. I couldn't quite figure out what line I wanted to be on within the yard, so I went up to the bottleneck. I figured, That train's got to come in on that line. I jumped a moving train, which you never want to do. You throw your pack in and you have to leap up and get in. It's kind of hard to do, but that's what I did. And of course the train that I got on came into the yard and just stayed there for six hours. I just hung out and waited for it to leave. That's how I first did it.
Dave: What year was that?
D'Ambrosio: This would have been the early eighties. I don't know that it's the same anymore.
Dave: I wouldn't imagine it is. But while we're talking about travel, have you ever made a pilgrimage to a literary landmark, an author's home or the setting of a story?
D'Ambrosio: A bunch of them. I went to Walden Pond, which was disappointing. The vastness of that book [Walden], and then you go... It's a nice pond, but it's a pond. And there are Santa cans and picnic tables. Where is that grand, metaphoric place? Well, it's in the book, I guess.
And Herman Melville's house in Massachusetts, mostly because he wrote a story called "I and My Chimney," and I wanted to see it. He's got this huge fireplace, like twelve feet wide and ten feet high, where you'd basically throw whole trees in there. It was a Moby Dick-sized place.
And then I lived in Phillipsburg, Montana. It wasn't specifically a literary pilgrimage, but I knew about that town and used to visit it because of Richard Hugo's great poem, "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg." I had a change-of-life thing going on. I didn't want to teach, I wanted to be a working writer, and I wanted to get out of Seattle. I moved to Phillipsburg. That was partly a pilgrimage; I moved there because of that poem, ultimately.
Dave: How long have you been living in Portland now?
D'Ambrosio: Three years.
Dave: What keeps you here?
D'Ambrosio: My wife keeps me here, partly. But I like Portland. I'm from the Northwest. I like being in the Northwest. Seattle seems a little unaffordable to me. I like Portland because I can afford to live here as a writer.
I like its size. I'm not the most social person, but Portland seems socially efficient to me. Right away, I meet someone. The next week, I meet someone who knows that person. And all kinds of people: writers, painters, small business owners, people that work at Nike, whatever. That matters quite a bit to me. I find people here.
Dave: I moved here eight years ago and, particularly in summer when everyone busts out of the house and fills the public spaces, I felt like there was some kind of Northern Exposure element to Portland. There's so much community and personality for a city.
D'Ambrosio: Yes. And it's strange how, without anybody having to state it, there's a weird kind of community ethos. People support independent business. They open new coffee shops all the time. You don't have to visit the franchises. And riding a bike! I've got a car I rarely use now. I'll get on the bike and do errands. I've never been that kind of person. Suddenly I'm in Portland and I'm doing it. And everybody else is doing it.
Dave: What's the last really good book you read?
D'Ambrosio: I just came off a semester of teaching where I'd been reading student manuscripts like crazy, so I would have to say that the last book is Legends of Modernity by Czeslaw Miosz, essays that he wrote during World War II when he was living in Warsaw. I'm absolutely loving it. But I've turned to that mostly because I can pick and choose my way through these essays.
It seems highly relevant for our times, when we're on a war footing and savagery seems to be breaking out everywhere. That's what he was writing about, how civilization is a thin veneer and beneath it is still the struggle to survive. That's the book that's alive to me right now.
Charles D'Ambrosio visited Powells.com on May 16, 2006.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State