Interview: Charles D’Ambrosio, new Writers’ Workshop faculty member, reads at Prairie Lights

Charles D'Ambrosio reads from his latest essay collection at Prairie LIghts -- Photo by Steve Rhodes
Charles D’Ambrosio reads from his latest essay collection Nov. 17 at Prairie Lights — Photo by Steve Rhodes

Charles D’Ambrosio, a new faculty member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the award-winning author of The Dead Fish Museum and The Point, will read from his new essay collection, Loitering, at Prairie Lights on Monday, November 17 at 7 p.m.

D’Ambrosio’s writing proudly lacks a signature style. His prose, both fiction and essay, is instead deeply sensitive and occasional, rising to the distinct tonal challenge that each project presents. The essays in D’Ambrosio’s latest collection, Loitering, range in subject matter from Pentecostal hell houses to whaling, and each is written with the closest thing this author has to a trademark — his poignant attentiveness.

Little Village recently spoke with D’Ambrosio about Loitering, the ways in which we approaches his writing and how he is settling into his new role as a faculty member at the Writers’ Workshop.

Little Village: For the duration of your career, you’ve been admired for the incredible depth and breadth of your nonfiction prose. How do you find inspiration for your essays?

Charles D’Ambrosio: The boring truth is that the initial subject matter for many of these essays came to me via telephone or email, as an assignment. I like that, the accidental nature of it, the randomness. I suspect I got the nod to write about Russian orphans because the editors needed somebody quick, somebody who could pack up and leave for Russia in a week — somebody without much of a life, in other words — so the ostensive subject was set by a magazine’s editorial needs. But I don’t write reports or articles — I just don’t do that kind of work — and the real subject of the essay only makes itself known in the act of writing.

To what extent does your subject matter determine your style?

I’m not a classic essayist in the mold of Orwell or Didion, the kind of writer who makes the same branded sound in piece after piece, no matter what the subject is. (Has Didion ever cracked a joke in print?) For me the material has some say in the tone and attack and sound of the sentences, and I see my prose as a sensitive register, a textured reaction to the reality I’m writing about.

As a collection, Loitering makes a lot of different sounds, I think. Some of the essays are long and some are short, some are full of noise and distortion, while others are quiet and inward, and a few, I hope, are funny. Really high praise for me would be to have someone read the book and say it was like listening to a good Yo La Tengo record.

Is any of that process different when you write fiction?

In nonfiction some version of me, a persona, sets the emotional tenor of the piece. These are personal essays, after all, and I’m present in every sentence. In fiction it’s different. I draft and redraft in order to disappear, absenting myself to the extent that that’s humanly possible, and the emotional tenor is determined by other concerns, by other characters, other points of view, other worlds.

The new essays in Loitering seem to fall into dialogue so well with the older ones — are they pieces you’ve been working on over a long span of time, or are they all fairly recent?

They range around, but I hope everything in the book feels cut from the same cloth. I worked on one piece — “This is Living” — right on through the last galley interior, penciling up the manuscript, cutting tangential matters, clearing away clutter, simplifying sentences in an attempt to draw out the essay’s darker tonalities.

The original draft was compiled from a crazy stack of notes scratched out on the backs of junk mail envelopes and old gas bills and had reached 60 pages (and still counting) when I realized I was writing a memoir and needed to start all over. That one drove me nuts, probably because I was trying to say something very simple. It’s hard to be simple.

The Writers’ Workshop seems thrilled to count you as a new member of its fiction faculty. What do you enjoy most about teaching? What do you enjoy most about teaching at Iowa?

That’s difficult for me to say because, in some ways, I just am that animal. It’s like asking a dog what he enjoys most about being a dog. I suppose if I’m really honest, I like the uncertainty of teaching, the way we raise questions in workshop that can only be answered in solitude by the writer, on paper, in some near or far-off future, and I like the mystery of that transaction, which seems fitting for the elusive struggle to make art.

To me, writing is about loving the unloved, so I like our orientation in the world, and I like the simplicity of teaching, the primitive quality of it, the way we gather in a circle, around a table, and talk seriously about our ultimate concerns. That’s a hard conversation to find in America, and yet I find it every Tuesday, at 4:30 p.m., in Dey House. I consider myself fortunate. I realize this is a pretty selfish and indulgent way to answer your question but that’s what I enjoy. Really though, teaching isn’t about what I get out of it — it’s more about giving and giving and giving, and that’s a good thing too.

You’ve moved to Iowa City from the Pacific Northwest, the region of the country where you grew up. What will you miss most about the region? What do you look forward to most about becoming a more permanent resident of the Midwest?

Oh man, I’ll miss the Wishkaw River, Grays Harbor, the stink of vanillin, the early dark and the damp chill and the best drizzle in the world (so fine it makes the air look carbonated), dark clouds so dense with moisture they barely make it over the Seattle hilltops, a certain feeling of loneliness that’s always there, waiting for me. My wounds, my quarrels, my loves. My family. The list is endless.

Between moving and teaching and doing book stuff, I don’t feel like I’ve actually arrived in Iowa yet. Right now I’m mostly just a denizen of Dey House, but I look forward to settling in and letting the Iowa happen to me.

Mallory Hellman received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA in English and American literature from Harvard. Her nonfiction has appeared on the Forbes Booked Blog and in the Indiana Review. Her short story “October, Forest River” was a finalist for the Room Of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize. She’s currently at work on a novel.

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