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Loitering: A Conversation with Essayist and Author Charles D'Ambrosio

LoiteringThe absolutely best thing about my job is that there's always the possibility I will stumble upon a great writer. Generally, that means a new writer, or at least a new book, and it happens a fair amount—last week I read a great new novel that I think will make a big splash this year (I'll talk about that some other time; it doesn't come out until next month). What's rarer is me stumbling across a book that has been out in the world for a while. It's the most special experience, because it's so unexpected, and that's kind of what happened with Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering: New & Collected Essays. I had read some of D'Ambrosio's excellent short stories, but I had no idea that he had been writing essays for decades. Then about a year ago a friend talked about him, then I listened to Phillip Lopate wax effusive about him on a podcast, then I bought Loitering, and after reading it and thinking a lot about it I eventually decided to reach out to D'Ambrosio for an interview. He's one of my favorite "new" writers.


Chris Schluep: A lot of these pieces were written while you were at (Seattle's alt-weekly) The Stranger. How did you begin writing for them?

Charles D'Ambrosio: It was innocent enough – the Stranger's books editor at the time, Matthew Stadler, asked me if I'd like to contribute a piece for their annual literary supplement. I can't quite remember the nature of that first assignment, whether it posed a specific question or not, but I have a feeling I was given carte blanche to go at things my own way. That's what I did, at any rate, turning in an essay called "Seattle, 1974," which was pretty ragged – personal, discursive, saltatory—you know, spazzy in its movements—with most of the rough edges left in. Measured by serious journalistic standards the piece was ridiculous, and The Stranger was okay with that. So in a way, they reached out to me, offering an open hand, and I took it. Sometimes that's how life works. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is certain, of course, but often that simple gesture, that open hand, makes possible a possibility. And that's enough to get going. That's plenty.

CS: It seems there are few venues for this type of writing. Would you agree with that?

CD: First off, I should say that I like the desperado aspect of essays, the free lance, that mercenary kind of thing, so I just do it, without asking anyone's permission. I've never written a query letter, I don't pitch pieces, I have no market in mind, I don't spend any time trying to figure out where I might fit in. This isn't bravado or courage or integrity so much as sloth. I'm not a very savvy operator—it's not who I am, it's not what I do—and so I have to go at things in ways that suit me. I just write what I write and the stuff finds its vagrant way in the world, somehow. The venues appear, the work always finds a home, eventually.

I'm kind of a creature of the alt-weekly universe—my real education into higher culture was acquired in coffee shops, reading those papers, digging into that lively mishmash of opinion for drift, a sense of what to see, what to hear, what to read, etc.—and I'd like to think that scene's still vital, although I understand there's been a fair amount of conglomerating, which would seem to undercut its radical roots, its funky local flavor. Still, some greats came out of that world –Vivian Gornick and Susan Orlean pop to mind, Edward Hoagland too—and I'd encourage any writer with an eye for life and an ear for prose to give it a try. You can work out your chops just fine in newsprint.  

Nowadays I imagine people find freer and more accepting venues in blogs, on Tumbler and Instagram and Facebook, in the riot of shouting—the comments section—that trails in the wake of every news story. So there's always the pandemonium of the internet, if you need to get your lunatic opinions out in public. I find most of that stuff a little insane-making—rather than too few venues there might be a few too many—and my preference is to encounter personal essays in the relatively sedate and stable universe of print, in literary quarterlies, magazines and books, but I'm sure you can find plenty of good stuff in lonely outposts all across the world wide web.

CS: For you, what is the purpose of the essay?

CD: When I was a kid I'd butt in on some conversation, offering a squeaky little opinion, and my father would shut me down, saying: Who asked you? And the answer, of course, was no one. No one had asked me. Way down deep in the smithy of my soul, that's probably the engine of my essays, if not the purpose. It's certainly a whisper underneath the work: No one asked, no one asked, no one ever asked. Waa, waa – cry me a river, right? On a side note –my instinct tells me 'purpose' is maybe the enemy of a good personal essay. In my own experience, I'm always lost and wandering and searching—where am I? how'd I get in this mess? what's the point?—right through to the final draft, and sometimes even beyond that – baffled and defeated still, confused as to purpose long after the thing's in print. I never really have a guiding purpose or a point, not at the outset, anyway. It's like life, it's all discovered en route. The poet Amanda Nadelberg puts it nicely in an interview when she says "often what I listen for in poems is a sense that the writer is a little lost, not deliberately withholding information or turning on the heavy mystery machines, but honestly confounded (by the world? isn't it so?) and letting others listen in on that figuring." That's what engages me—the mind in motion, the drama of someone in the process of thinking—and it's the elusive mystery of those movements that I hope to capture in my essays.

CS: Most people find discomfort in ambivalence. It seems like you find something else there—if not comfort, then what is it that makes you embrace ambivalence in your writing?

CD: I suppose I like certainty as much as anyone else, but I also feel that the hidden costs are high, that we pay a heavy price for our convictions. This is a human issue as well as a writing issue—at least in the personal essay as I practice it. Any real essayist knows that certainty is an editorial decision, arrived at, not through conviction, but through suppression, the denial of a whole range of possibilities, of alternatives that we jettison, sometimes necessarily, in order to steady the ship. In that discarding, though, the gain in clarity is also a loss, and the first casualty seems to be the murk that makes us human, the mysterious stuff that ultimately binds us to each other. In writing, that loss-ratio is always a tough, tough calculation, one that's faced sentence by sentence: how to be absolutely clear without killing the mystery? It's doable, of course, but it's not easy. In life—no one else has to think this, by the way—our hankering after certainty seems both sensible and cruel. This is really gross, but I'm going to quote myself, from the prefatory essay in Loitering, where I say that "behind each piece, animating every attempt, is the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions." In an essay, as I'm writing, I'm in the trenches, living with doubt and ambivalence, addressing the problem in prose, sentence by sentence, but I'm not just dinking around, pushing words around—it's a life issue. I'll say it straight, we need to be ambivalent—in the essay, and in life too. Ambivalence (having mixed feelings, entertaining contradiction, living with fluctuation) is a widened embrace. It's about the coexistence of things, and in that light, we have no choice in the matter.

That's a little parsonic but there you go.

CS: You are a common character in your essays. But you remain aloof, almost anonymous, at least until you talk about a Coleman lantern or drop a detail or two about your family. Has this always been your style? Is it your conscious aim to be there but not there?

CD: As for style or mode, I think it's always been my way. The writers who really turned me on were New Journalists like Joan Didion, pure essayists like James Baldwin or Virginia Woolf, gonzo guys like Hunter Thompson and few related spirits, such as Edward Abbey and Michael Herr. Also Camus and Merton, each with their own style of engaging the world. What's common to all of them is their involvement in the story, their presence—that lively dance between the observer and observed.

As for any conscious aim to be there and not there, yes, yes, yes, but that's a tough balance to strike. Too much me is annoying under any circumstance, but too much me in an essay, however personal, would mar the art. My 'character' in the essay is more like a perspective, an angle of vision, a complicating factor, a questioning presence. I don't sit on the sidelines or pretend to objectivity; and I'm not afraid to stick my neck out or to be revealing and vulnerable. But my presence isn't simply about 'character' –I'm present in every part and particle of the thing, in the sound and rhythm of the sentences, in the shifting tones and the selection of details, in the comedy, the sadness, and the confusion. For the space of an essay, I'm the air you breathe, everywhere and nowhere. With a personal essay, I don't think you'd want it any other way. You ought to have the sense of an encounter, the impression of having met someone. In my essays, for better or worse, that someone is me.

CS: Your essays often wind up being about something different than the original subject—but how do you choose those initial subjects (whaling, Salinger, modular homes, a crime scene, etc.)?

CD: Some were assignments, some were my ideas, but the initial inspiration had no influence on the writing. I'm not a journalist or a reporter, so I'm not for hire in that way. I'm stupidly arrogant about it. Even early on, at The Stranger, it never entered my mind to turn in anything other than personal essays. So even with an assignment, I take over, I find a freedom and make the idea my own, and that's where you get the sense that the essays become something very different than the original subject. Assignments are great, though—they test your mettle, your spirit and resilience. All of sudden you drop in, you don't know anything, you're vulnerable and available . . .

CS: When you begin writing a piece, do you usually have an end in mind?

CD: Sometimes I'll have an end in mind, but it's always false, always corny, just a dumb idea anyone could have, sitting on a barstool. An abstract thesis with no real life inside it. And then I start writing and the writing itself confounds me, taking away the comfort of knowing the end in advance. How is that even possible? Doesn't the conclusion come at the end? How can you begin with one –that seems odd, right?

CS: I can imagine you occasionally writing yourself into a corner that you can't get out of. Are there many essays that you've abandoned, or do you always find your way to the end?

CD: I have lots of fiction in the drawer, but the essays I mostly kick out into the world, ready or not. Fiction incubates differently, I suppose.

CS: To what degree did growing up in Seattle make you the writer that you are?

C: When you ask that question, I think of the early November dark, the low clouds and canceling rains, an empty cemetery and the smell of melting ice after the Market's closed, the isolating hills, the wind and the salt air and the damp cold and the impasto of wintry grays and a blue inwardness that lasts for nine months of the year, all stuff that's cellular and strange and beautiful and beyond me to articulate. But yes, the answer's yes, Seattle made me. 

CS: What's your view on nostalgia?

CD: I imagine you're asking the question because I've written about Seattle. I'm not nostalgic in that sense, hankering after some lost city. In writing about Seattle my real subject is time, particularly the violence of American time, which isn't a local phenomenon, experienced by me alone. But nostalgia, I don't know –if we were sitting around on barstools, I'd say it's a pleasant sensation whose seductions ought to be resisted. And then I'd probably fall off my stool. Randall Jarrell joked that even in the Golden Age people were walking around, complaining that everything was yellow—which is warning enough. It's tempting, though, that homesickness, that desire to return home, putting an end to the errors of history, all the weariness and wandering rewarded with a final rest, and so on. In The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga says that "the content of the ideal is a desire to return to the perfection of an imaginary past," which is an apt enough description of nostalgia. He's right, but our nostaligic dreams of perfection thrive just as dangerously in the other direction too, in the imaginary future, that bold and tantalizing future where the troubles of today will be cured by a tomorrow, and all our losses will be recouped, our problems solved, our lives restored, our people made whole again, etc. What the nostalgic past and the imaginary future seem to share in common is a form of idealism, perhaps a dream of wholeness. Our future is just as goopy with sentiment as our past. To me, they're the same, both very tempting, and I don't believe in either, although the idealism is probably important. The reality—no question, it will be yellow.  

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