I first heard of Charles D’Ambrosio in a fiction workshop that put a lot of emphasis on craft. By that I mean that every sentence in every short story was examined carefully, not only for its meaning and utility, but for its beauty, its distinction, and, most elusively, for how it “worked” within the entire story. There is a luxury to this approach that sometimes strikes me as too self-conscious, but in the right hands, it can lead to precise, indelible writing. D’Ambrosio’s prose has this rare integrity. In the preface to Loitering, his new essay collection, he writes: “I worked on each of these pieces a stupidly long time, with a determination that was fueled, in part, by vanity. I wanted the writing to live an independent life and not rely on passing opinion or the ephemeral realities of alt-weeklies to make its way in the world.”
D’Ambrosio is probably best known for his short stories, which have been featured in The New Yorker and collected in two books, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum. His essays have been collected once before, in a book called Orphans, but that volume had a limited reach (only 3,500 copies were printed) and D’Ambrosio never got quite the readership he deserved. Loitering corrects that mistake, gathering together the essays from Orphans, along with some new ones that have been published over the past decade. The result is a twenty-year retrospective of D’Ambrosio’s career.
The oldest essays in Loitering were first published in Seattle’s The Stranger, where he was given carte blanche and plenty of space—as long as he didn’t expect a big payday. I can’t imagine another writer using that freedom more wisely. D’Ambrosio’s first essays are among his best, especially “Seattle, 1974,” a beautifully woven memoir about growing up in the Pacific Northwest and feeling estranged from the rest of the country—and then, in turn, being shaped by that feeling of estrangement. It’s a moody, melancholy piece of writing that brought me straight back to the early 1990s, when the West Coast seemed farther away than it does now, and when certain regions of the country seemed to exist in greater isolation.
Another standout essay from that early period is “Whaling Out West,” which circles around a debate between animal-rights groups and the Makah Tribe, who hunt whales. D’Ambrosio gently takes apart the position of animal-rights groups, pointing out how certain animals are romanticized and turned into mascots: “Abstract love is the nosy neighbor of abstract hate…neither one of them really tests disinterestedness, the ability to make tragic choices between things of equal worthiness and legitimacy.” But “Whaling Out West” isn’t only an essay about environmental politics. It’s also about D’Ambrosio ambivalence about whether or not to have children, which he frames in terms of procreation versus extinction: “As the extant capable male in my family, I either perpetuate our name or wipe it off the earth forever.”
D’Ambrosio’s family is never far from his mind. He’s haunted by the suicide of his youngest brother and the attempted suicide of his surviving brother, a legacy he alludes to often and addresses directly in “Documents,” an essay about letters from family members, including a painful correspondence between D’Ambrosio and his father as they try to make sense of their shared loss. In this and other instances, D’Ambrosio’s struggles with his father are laid bare. Of his father’s letters, D’Ambrosio writes: “I’ve often thought that the unit of measure that best suits prose in the human breath, but there was no air in my father’s sentences; he seemed to be suffocating inside them.” There’s frustration in this observation, but also compassion, and you feel D’Ambrosio’s deep connection to his subject.
D’Ambrosio is best on the subject of suicide and family in “Salinger and Sobs,” one of a handful of pieces of literary criticism in this collection. It explores the theme of suicide in Salinger’s fiction and asks how this theme relates to Salinger’s ultimate silence as a writer. Like a lot of people, I read Salinger when I was a teenager and I haven’t looked back much since then. But D’Ambrosio came to Salinger as an adult and his perspective was, to me, utterly refreshing. He rejects the idea that The Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age novel, instead seeing it as a story about the loss of familial identity after the death of a sibling. This is obviously a subject that D’Ambrosio knows about firsthand, and he is onto Salinger in a way that other critics aren’t: “It’s my suspicion that the [familial] refuge isn’t really a haven the way Holden imagines it—nor is it safe for Salinger, who seems to defang his work by taking the parents out of almost every story.” D’Ambrosio is also attuned to the ways that Seymour Glass’s suicide is elided: “Salinger never really looks at the role of parents in family life, and never examines, in particular, their position re: Seymour’s suicide…the other thing not present in Salinger’s work is outright anger toward Seymour or a sense of doubt about him. As Buddy [Glass] describes him, Seymour really has no flaws at all, and to me this absence of flaws and of anger and doubt is a texture that’s conspicuously absent.” D’Ambrosio argues that these omissions feel like a kind of secrecy rather than restraint or artfulness, and he asks how this feeling of secrecy relates to Salinger’s eventual withdrawal from the world.
Another essay that meditates on the subject of absent parents is “Orphans,” an account of D’Ambrosio’s trip to a Russian orphanage. He’s there as a reporter, but he’s not chasing any particular story, he just wants to see what it’s like to live in an orphanage, a world without parents. There are many beautiful and funny passages in this essay, including this one, about the orphanage’s interiors: “Things inside were so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings that the interior had lost a lot of its rectangularity, and was replaced, instead, by a roundedness, a kind of inner burrowed shaped arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of wren.”
The mix of criticism, reportage, and memoir in these essays reminded me of Leslie Jamison’s recent collection, The Empathy Exams, and also of Michelle Orange’s 2013 collection, This is Running for Your Life. It’s the kind of hybrid nonfiction that is flourishing right now, thanks in part to the flexibility of Internet outlets. However, D’Ambrosio doesn’t seem to be writing in response to and alongside Internet culture in quite the same way as Orange and Jamison. This could simply be that D’Ambrosio is slightly older (he was born in 1968) and not as profoundly shaped by the medium, or it could be that he takes a slower approach to writing. In any case, he feels like the older brother to this younger generation of essayists, and I was interested to notice that Jamison actually thanks D’Ambrosio in the acknowledgements of The Empathy Exams. Her note provides a little window onto his aesthetic: “I feel an abiding and evolving gratitude to Charlie D’Ambrosio, who taught me early that the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.”
I like Jamison’s acknowledgement because it explains to me why I had so much trouble summarizing D’Ambrosio’s essays for this review. I kept returning to his preface, his idea of letting his essays “live an independent life.” What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.
Now that The Empathy Exams, the thoughtful, brave, and honest essay collection by Leslie Jamison, is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s probably a good time to start my bragging: Leslie and I smoked weed together at Iowa. I bring this up not (only) to embarrass Leslie (and me), but also because one particular memory of her from that era remains distinct in my mind, and seems appropriate given that her work is so deeply felt and observed, beautiful as poetry and as probing as a deep sea satellite.
In the memory, our mutual friend A. has just gotten us high. He is a former journalist and a budding playwright as well as a fiction writer, and so social engagements with him carry with them a certain intensity, as if we’re not just hanging out, but being interviewed and excavated, the performative elements of our personalities both applauded and questioned. I cannot get enough of hanging out with A. Once we’re all rightly stoned, he asks me and Leslie how we might define the word dramaturge. In my memory, my brain stutters and stalls like a rusted old car; I am wishing for some cinnamon bread. “It’s…uh…,” I say, “…like…um…someone who helps a theatre company?” A. nods at me (with pity, I recall), and then turns to Leslie, whose arms are crossed. She’s squinting. Leslie is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and when I am high this frightens me a little. “I like to think of a dramaturge as a kind of translator between the text and the performers.” She goes on to describe the art of play production with such elegance and intelligence that I can’t help but feel humbled, jealous, and inspired.
This is how I felt reading The Empathy Exams. In a world where there are a hundred online quizzes along the lines of “Ten Things Not To Say to ___________” and twice as many confessional essays that read like ineffectual diary entries, it’s energizing to find a collection like Leslie’s, which engages seriously with issues of pain, suffering, and human connection and interaction. She is a translator for experiences I’ve had but could not find the right — or any — words for.
She was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.
The Millions: I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the essay form. Can you recommend 3-5 books for a reader who wants to immerse herself in this genre? How have these books informed your own work?
Leslie Jamison: Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard: Essays about boys, sure — and even a disintegrating marriage with one of them — but also about violence and squirrels and weird attachments that show up with unexpected intensity in unexpected places. Beard takes her pain seriously but is also funny, which I like. “The Fourth State of Matter” (about a mass shooting at the University of Iowa) is one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read.
The White Album, Joan Didion: A classic. But whatever. It’s important, and so good. There are meaningful flashes of personal crisis and reaction amidst larger meditations on the chaos and ferment of the 1960s: Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the California Water Authority. Didion takes on the world without trying to solve it; she honors the mess.
This is Running for Your Life, Michelle Orange: Imagine a woman who writes an essay about Ethan Hawke’s face but also goes to Hawaii to report on the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association. This collection is cultural criticism that’s roomy enough to hold surprising pockets of deep feeling, and sturdy enough to launch rigorous intellectual excursions.
Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss: These essays weave together history and private interior life in extraordinary ways. It’s just electric to watch Biss’s mind and heart work through difficult questions about race and American identity — her writing is lyrical and associative but always charged by ethical concern. A fragmented history of the telephone poll becomes a charged history of racial violence. Biss asks her readers to be fearless and open and willing to encounter difficulty.
Some of these collections are more confessional than others, but all of them explore loneliness in ways that feel generative rather than just deflating, or solipsistic, and they offer visions of the ways that private feeling can charge and inflect the way we see the public world. Didion bleeds private and public in ways that have been formative for me. Orange is tender with the absurdities of the world. Biss thinks about guilt and privilege in ways that feel invested but don’t get utterly exhausting. Beard is brave enough to summon the past — and live there for long stretches of time — without apology.
I promise I read men, too. And even admire them.
TM: Maybe because I met you in grad school, when we were both (ostensibly) fiction writers, I’m curious about your omnivorous writing life. How does fiction writing differ from essay writing for you — in process, in aesthetic goals, in voice and style?
LJ: Essays tend to happen in extended bursts — a few weeks, a few months — while the novels I’ve written (one completed, mostly discarded attempts) were long-haul treks. Even the essays that took several years to write and re-write were largely generated in bursts, and then revised in bursts; I sink deep into something, but the horizon of surfacing is never entirely out of sight.
In terms of big aesthetic goals, I think there’s a lot of overlap between my fiction and my nonfiction — or at least, in my aspirations for what both might do: go deep into consciousness (whether an imaginary character’s, a real person’s, or my own) and excavate moments of surprise and awe and tenderness and hurt in that consciousness, and in its interactions with the world and with others. But that excavation happens so differently in fiction and nonfiction.
In my nonfiction — especially reported pieces — more of the work happens away from the computer: getting on a plane, recording an interview, exploring a place and writing down everything I see. These parts of the process — that feel exploratory and experimental and tactile — are part of what drew me to essays, offered a relief from a flailing second novel that had started to feel claustrophobic and contrived.
Nonfiction makes me nervous in so many ways that fiction doesn’t: I get nervous about interviews (standard-issue holdovers from social anxieties of a younger self); I get nervous about upsetting the people I write about; I get nervous — of course, and I hope productively — about getting things wrong. All these kinds of nervousness make me sweat, but they also keep things electric.
TM: In a piece for Publishers Weekly, “How to Write a Personal Essay,” you write about how personal experiences sometimes don’t fit into a larger piece: “I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it — the faint stink of forced correspondence.” You mention a “purgatory file” where you keep “every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself — if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.” I wonder about this file. How extensive is it? I feel a longing for a Leslie Jamison scrap-heap of cast off material, maybe because I feel like you’d do something intriguing and thoughtful with it. Have you ever thought about building something from the shards alone?
LJ: Amazing question! Totally a question from one writer to another. Do you have a purgatory file, too? Do you call it something else? I actually have a bunch of these files, attached to separate projects. And yes, I have tried to work with the shards. There is one period of my life that I’ve tried to write about over and over again but never managed to capture, and my latest attempt was a kind of meta-essay that gathered together all the previous attempts — everything from early diary entries to old term papers, but mainly scraps of discarded essays from the past ten years — and basically making a collage of excerpts, all distinguished by font. I wanted to give a sense of the layers, the ongoing process of returning to something that’s been hard to narrate. I wanted all the fragments to give a sense of difficulty but also desire — the deep, ongoing desire to honor this part of my life.
TM: When I read these essays, I kept thinking about your inclination to problematize: your experiences, your feelings, essay writing itself. If that sounds like it has a negative connotation, that’s not my intention — I admire your striving to see everything from numerous sides, to investigate your own desires and motivations, and to remind your reader that the essay form should be interrogated and upended. Was that a goal with this collection, or did that just…happen? Do you think it’s the writer’s — or the essayist’s — responsibility to problematize?
LJ: If “problematize” means regarding a subject from multiple angles, confessing the bias intrinsic to my subjective position, and questioning my own assumptions — then I suppose there’s no way I wouldn’t; it’s just the texture of how my mind approaches anything. And insofar as the essays are approaching a central subject — though they all come at empathy from different angles — they’re also looking to find the complications and perils embedded in what we might be tempted to view in simple terms: empathy as unequivocal good, unequivocal gift.
But I’ve always thought of this kind of problematizing as a fundamentally recuperative gesture: if we see something as fully as possible, in all its flaws and troubles, we can pursue it and embrace it more fully as well — there aren’t secrets or dangers festering under the surface. I’m wary of saying that writers have an obligation to do anything in particular — most often, you’ll find someone who doesn’t do whatever thing so beautifully that they redeem its absence — but it’s hard to imagine an essay that would be satisfying without complexity, and it’s hard to imagine complexity without some version of what we’re calling problematizing: the negative capability of holding multiple possibilities at once.
A quick note on upending the essay form: In all honesty, I think that the “essay” genre has already been taken in so many fascinating directions — followed down so many engaging formal back roads — that it would be disingenuous and a bit hubristic to claim that I’d upended anything: with the essay, stylistic innovation is more like continuing the tradition than upending it.
TM: Olivia Laing gave The Empathy Exams a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. She had one quibble, however: “These are the essays of a working journalist. Most have been previously published in magazines like Vice, Harper’s and Oxford American. Because they all work to some degree over the narrow field of personal experience, they inevitably turn up the same items of autobiography, perpetually introduced as if for the first time. This has a strange, unwitting effect in a book so preoccupied with the registering of and response to distress — it makes Jamison sound self-preoccupied, too caught up in her own stories to recognize that the reader has encountered them before.” I don’t quote this back to you to be cruel, but because I feel like you must have recognized the repetition in this book. It seems to me that the book’s echoes of pain, the repeated acknowledgment of it, is part of the collection’s project: the emphasis and reminder of selfhood and of pain that is revisited but not necessarily resolved. It feels like grief, in this way. Am I just bullshitting here? What’s your take on it?
LJ: I don’t think you’re bullshitting! In fact, I’d love to quote you on that. I do mean for the collection to acknowledge the ways that certain kinds of pain must be revisited without necessarily getting resolved. This certainly happens in conversations and in life. I’d like to think that each time I return to any of these “same items of autobiography,” I’m doing something different with it. For example, I mention several times that I was punched in the face by a stranger in Nicaragua — one essay invokes an obscure literary theorist to try to tell the story of this assault in terms of traditional Russian folktales; another uses the assault to describe what it felt like to read James Agee for the first time. I don’t tend to think of autobiography as a finite arsenal of weapons that can get deployed at various moments: here is where I whip out my abortion, my abusive relationship, my divorce — so much as a set of inexhaustible resources; each story from my past — or anyone’s — holding a thousand possible meanings, a thousand possible slants. But I do find it fascinating whenever anyone responds to the collection by suggesting its preoccupation with its own wounds — not because I disagree (I am preoccupied with my own wounds) but because I disagree with leveling this kind of accusation: why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with our own hurt? We should just do our best to let these preoccupations spur us into productive kinds of attention and action. And the final essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is about precisely this kind of accusation — what it means to shame women for “wallowing” in pain — so it always interests me to see that phenomenon enacted in responses to the book.
TM: There are a couple of comic moments in this book when you mention the way your writing was received when you were a student at the Workshop (for instance, you describe how another student suggests during workshop that you give your main character a job). I’m wondering if you could talk about the workshop process a little — what it offered you and what it lacked. Sharing work for a group critique requires one to be vulnerable, but also, maybe, defiant. What do you think?
LJ: I have a lot of faith and trust in the workshop process, largely because it’s a model that can absorb and even articulate its own limitations — can be dynamic, adaptive, try to get better. I think it’s a total gift and privilege to have a roomful of people who care about writing pay attention to yours, and offer feedback — but I think it only works if you can set strong internal boundaries around how much that feedback matters. In other words: don’t let the voices crowd too close, or get too loud.
At my first workshop at Iowa, the wonderful Elizabeth McCracken told us that it would be a useful workshop if we incorporated 20% of what we heard — that didn’t mean we were being arrogant, to “disregard” the other 80%, just that part of our job was to sift through the feedback, rather than feeling like it was our task or obligation to incorporate all of it. That was liberating for me, and changed my sense of what a workshop was or how oppressive it had to be. I love teaching workshops because you get so many different voices in chorus. I do think it can be useful — especially with longer projects — to get some distance from feedback for a while, so you can get to know a project — develop a private relationship with that project and follow it somewhere before you expose it to the input of others. I wrote my novel entirely outside the workshop system, after I was done with Iowa, and I think that was important to getting a certain momentum going. I was riding the dream of the thing (sometimes nightmare) without interruptions from other sensibilities. I had to get the whole thing down before I was ready to hear any craft advice from anyone.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
LJ: Easy. Just finished it this week. Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. It’s full of harm and care and crisis and bright light and so much filth, and so much beauty, and so much heart.
This year the books I liked best fell into two categories: the ones I read in a rush, squeezing in pages every spare moment or staying up late to finish them; and the ones I read slowly over several months, so that the books became my faithful companions. I tend to read three or four books at a time and this year what often happened is that one book would reveal itself to be a tortoise, and would live on my nightstand for weeks, while the hares (and whatever animal is between a hare and a tortoise — a cat?) raced by. As someone who gravitates toward “slow” books and movies, my sympathies lie with the tortoises, but I have to admit it was exciting to come across so many books that I couldn’t put down.
The books that raced past were the aptly-titled This Is Running For Your Life, by Michelle Orange; See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid; The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud; Schroder, by Amity Gaige; Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple; The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer; and The Circle, by Dave Eggers.
Of those hares, the one that still haunts me is Schroder. (And I have to thank Kathryn Schulz, whose in-depth rave made me pick it up.) It’s a novel about a divorced father, Eric Schroder, who is so frustrated with his custody arrangements that he kidnaps his daughter, taking her on a road trip through New England. Halfway through the book I felt I had been kidnapped, too, in the way that I was won over by a narrator I didn’t completely trust.
My tortoise reads included Dear Life, by Alice Munro; Far From The Tree and The Noonday Demon, both by Andrew Solomon; and Independence Day, by Richard Ford. I am actually still reading Independence Day, and I have been reading it since September. It’s the second novel in Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, after The Sportswriter, but you don’t need to have read The Sportswriter to enjoy it. (Or at least, I didn’t.) Like Schroder, Independence Day is narrated by a divorced father, concerns a road trip between a father and his child (although without the kidnapping), and takes place over just a few days. It feels a little funny to spend several months with it. A week passes by in my life, while just a few hours go by in Frank Bascombe’s. But I love the way Ford stretches time in this novel, reveling in moments of happenstance, overheard conversations, and local landscapes. Here’s the view from Frank Bascombe’s windshield in upstate New York:
“A sign by a turnout announces we have now entered the Central Leatherstocking Area and just beyond, as if on cue, the great corrugated glacial trough widens out for miles to the southwest as the highway climbs, and the butt ends of the Catskills cast swart afternoon shadows onto lower hills dotted by pocket quarries, tiny hamlets and pristine farmstead with wind machines whirring to undetectable windows…In my official view, absolutely nothing should be missed from here on, geography offering a natural corroboration to Emerson’s view that power resides in moments of transition…”
Finally, I have to mention the children’s book Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, which I guess would fall in the tortoise category, since I’ve read to my one-year-old son at least twice a day for the past six months. It’s a simple story about a 19th-century farmer who travels from his small homestead to Portsmouth, N.H., where he can sell his harvest, his ox, and his cart at the market. My son loves it because it is full of lists and repetition. I love it because the language is plain and elegant and perfectly matched to the story. It’s so elegant, in fact, that I thought it would make a beautiful poem, and in a moment of procrastination I discovered that there is indeed a poem, “Ox Cart Man”, (by Donald Hall), which you can read in the Poetry Foundation’s archives. Now that I think of it, Ox-Cart Man is yet another book about a New England road trip, so perhaps that’s the true theme of my year in reading. Maybe I should close out the year with On The Road and head into the New Year looking west.
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I’ve spent more time outside of New York this year than any other year since I moved here a decade ago, so I’ve been thinking less about what I’m reading, and more about where I’m reading things. I wonder if the constant change in location adds to why, when I look through the things I’ve read this year, I notice that the books I read for pleasure — not for work or research — are more varied than usual.
Susan Steinberg’s collection Spectacle arrived as a galley before 2013 started, though I only opened it after the new year. It was an excellent way to start off a year that promised more than a few wonderful short story collections, including Spectacle, Adrian Van Young’s The Man Who Noticed Everything, and especially Laura van den Berg’s superb The Isle of Youth.
I picked up Max Beerbohm’s Selected Prose in a Provincetown used bookshop, and started reading it that night. After reading two great books this year on Dandyism — one put out by Yale Press and another co-authored by a dear friend of mine, I Am Dandy — my interest in Beerbohm’s work was piqued, and although I’ve been told that reading his novel, Zuleika Dobson, should be very high up on my list, I couldn’t help but be delighted by his stories and essays that called to mind S.J. Perelman, P.G. Wodehouse, and even Fran Lebowitz at some points.
Both James Wood and Wayne Koestenbaum continue to be in leagues of their own, something that was hammered home while reading Koestenbaum’s My 1980s & Other Essays, as well as Wood’s The Fun Stuff. I was chomping at the bit to read James Wolcott’s Critical Mass, and probably won’t stop talking about Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life. I’d just like to put it out there that somebody should give Orange a whole bunch of money to just sit around and write essays. I’d appreciate that very much.
I read Sean Doyle’s zine The Day Walt Disney Died on an airplane, totally ignoring the weird looks the passenger to my right kept shooting at me for whatever reason. Sooner or later somebody is going to tell Doyle to write an entire book, and that person will be doing a big mitzvah for all of us. I also wasn’t shocked to find that the Gigantic crew put out another great issue this year. The fifth issue, read on a train bound for Connecticut, upon my return, had me combing through my personal archives for stellar old issues. The editors (who are friends of mine) have consistently had their fingers planted squarely on the pulse of what’s good in literature and design.
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At NPR’s blog, Meg Wolitzer chooses five summer books that deserve more attention from readers. If you’re a Millions regular, though, you may find her selections a wee bit familiar, seeing as we reviewed Jessica Soffer’s book, interviewed This Is Running For Your Life author Michelle Orange and published The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards author Kristopher Jansma.
I was cleaning my apartment when I stumbled upon Michelle Orange’s debut essay collection, This Is Running For Your Life. It was one of a stack of unread books that I was planning to give away, but after reading just a few pages of her opening essay, “The Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face,” I was hooked by her playful, intelligent, and occasionally spiky voice. Her voice seemed to become stronger with each essay, concluding with a tour-de-force reflection on running, religion, movie-going, romance, and e-mail that was moving, strange, and wise. Orange’s essays are stubbornly her own, refusing to fit into standard molds and one of the pleasures of reading this book is watching her play with the essay form — and make it new again.
Orange is a journalist and film critic whose writing has appeared in a variety of publications including McSweeney’s, The Nation, The Village Voice, and The New York Times. I met with her at a Brooklyn coffee shop where we talked for the better part of an hour about movies, deadlines, discipline, Facebook, and of course, her new book. The below interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Millions: Tell me a little about your career and how you came to write This Is Running For Your Life.
Michelle Orange: I turned to writing full time seriously after moving here [New York City] in 2003. I’d been writing before that since I’d graduated and getting paid intermittently. I’d been doing stuff for McSweeney’s when they were just sort of setting up their website, and that intrigued me and was rewarding to me. When I decided to move here to go to graduate school to study film, I kept up as much writing as I could. And then after I graduated I really tried to make a go of being a freelancer. Because of a couple connections I made at school, that meant I was writing a lot about film — but always keeping in mind that I had these other ambitions.
I don’t think I had a full sense of my ambitions until quite recently, actually. I spent a few years really just trying to make a living. And I felt time passing in a way that was really sort of alarming. I graduated in 2005 and around 2008, 2009, it just seemed like I could keep…spending all of my time writing about film. And that wasn’t something I had ever decided to do…so the book really was an effort to pivot and really concentrate for a while on what it is I like to write about and how I like to write about it.
TM: Some of these essays were published in different forms before they made it into the book, right?
MO: Two of them started out as essays for The Rumpus, around late 2009. Steve Elliot was starting up the site and he was asking some of his friends for ideas and help and I’d been in the recession for about a year at that point, so I had a lot of time on my hands…Steve said, “Do whatever you want” so suddenly I got my brain back in do-whatever-I-want mode. So, two of them started out as Rumpus essays and then one was in the The Rumpus book they put out, Rumpus Women, and one of them was in the VQR — so, four were published.
TM: And when you were structuring the book, were you structuring it around those essays that you’d already written?
MO: I had a bunch of ideas. Steve wanted me to do a column for The Rumpus, so the third one, which appeared in Rumpus Women [“Have a Beautiful Corpse”], actually started out as an idea for the web column, but it just kept growing and wound up becoming too big for a website. But I had a lot of other ambitions and ideas in that vein and my sense was that they were connected. I wasn’t sure exactly how but that’s what I wanted to explore. I wanted to cut myself out some time and figure it out. The structure, interestingly — in terms of just the order of the essays — came very late in the game, and even two of the ideas, two of the essays, were swapped in after I had a contract to write it. When I realized that they were really going to let me do whatever I wanted to do, I was like, “Well, shit, let me rethink this…”
TM: When did you realize that you had free rein?
MO: Well, I mean it’s so weird trying to put a book together like that as a proposal… But once I met the FSG people — and they were really the only ones who not only liked it as it was, but were also interested in whatever I was interested in — I just had the sense that it would be okay if I did it. So I booked the flights to Hawaii and to San Diego and I thought, I just really want to try this. After I’d made the trips I sort of said to them, “So…I have these other ideas.” And they said, “That sounds good — yeah, do that.” So, it feels like a unique experience.
TM: Well, those essays in particular were very strange — in a good way. When I reading them, I thought, “I don’t know who would publish these.” Especially the one in Hawaii, [War and Well-Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W] because it wasn’t like you were taking a stance for or against the new DSMV and it was more interesting because of that.
MO: That’s the thing, that’s how I tend to think about things. I don’t have a lot of magazine writing experience, I guess is the thing, so I don’t really know any other way other than the story that kind of works for me. So yeah, they’re weird. They’re definitely weird.
TM: In a couple essays you write about your ambivalence about writing for a living. Is it just that you get caught up in meeting deadlines and you don’t have time to stretch out and do something weird? Or is it more complicated than that?
MO: No, I think that’s really just it. It’s kind of an obnoxious thing to be ambivalent about, I guess. But it’s what I mentioned before, my sense of just not having decided that this was what I was going to do…especially writing about movies, movies were something that I had a very natural love for, but I’d never had an ambition to be a critic or to write about them on a week-in, week-out basis. So, yeah, it was just a feeling of coming to a moment in my life — I needed to just make a decision. To not just be carried along by the tides. That was probably the bigger part of my ambivalence. But there’s also just feeling burnt out. You know, when you’re hitting deadlines three or four or five times a week… I don’t feel like I’m that kind of writer. I’m not good at that. I didn’t feel like I was doing the best work I could be doing.
TM: While we’re on the subject of movies, I really liked your essay “The Dream (Girl) Is Over” which traces the cinematic feminine ideal from Marilyn Monroe to the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” as embodied, most recently, in Zooey Deschanel. After reading it, I have to know what you think about Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Does she function as an MPDG in that movie?
MO: You know, when I saw the trailer, I was really nervous. The thing about her, though, is that she’s a star. So, I think the specs of the character, you could easily put her into that archetype, but I feel like as an actress she has so much of her own charisma. And the movie was such that it transcended it somehow. I don’t think she fits exactly.
TM: How did that essay come about?
MO: That’s the one essay in the book that was not my idea. It actually came out of a conversation with my agent, who is also my friend. We were at a bar one night or something and I went off on a rant about this phenomenon and she said, “Oh you should write about that.” At the time I was still working on the proposal. And I said, “Really, I don’t know that I have much more to add. I think my two-beer rant was pretty much it.” I was actually pretty reluctant to do it. I thought, “Well, once I get it in there, I can get rid of it.” But then, they were excited about it, too. So suddenly I had to write this thing. And ultimately it was sort of a matter of finding a story and then persuading myself of it. And it wound up being — although I really did not enjoy the writing of it —it wound up being rewarding in that sense, because I did actually persuade myself of it.
TM: Your essays are a mix of memoir and criticism, which a lot of young writers are publishing right now. How did you come to that format? Do you notice that as something that’s happening right now?
MO: I guess I have noticed it, a bit more. But, it felt like a more honest way, for me, to make sense of things, to think about things, was to think about how I experience the world and things I’m exposed to, and the way that they manifest in my life. And I felt like I couldn’t be alone in that. I felt that other people might have those same feelings. It just felt like a natural way to think about the culture that I live in.
TM: You write a lot about time and the way technology changes our relationship to time. I’m assuming you didn’t grow up with the internet or digital photography. Do you think not having that as a kid makes you a better judge of technology now, or do you think it makes you a worse judge?
MO: Probably both. You mean a judge of the impact?
TM: Yeah, I mean can you be more objective about it since you didn’t have it at one point?
MO: When you think about my parents, it was the same with television, and the generation before that, it was the same with the movies. It’s just a question of quantity, I think. But I don’t feel like the internet and television can even be compared because the scale has just expanded a million times over…I feel like it is a very interesting position to be in — having that sort of before and after feeling. And I think it may give you a better feeling of what the impact has been. I think that would have to be self-evident, whereas someone who grew up with it literally doesn’t know anything else. But, they also don’t have the same qualms or reservations, which is sort of a necessity…although I do get the sense with younger people and even with teenagers that they do feel some alarm. It can be overwhelming to most people. Do you feel like you have a better sense?
TM: Well, I notice that people just five years younger than me do not have the same hang-ups that I do.
MO: That is really weird. I recently heard someone refer to someone literally five years younger than him as from a different generation. It’s like, can we at least just agree on what a generation is? I’m imagining it’s like 20 years, but suddenly there are these crazy little micro distinctions. And they’re real…I will be really interested as the next generation of young people moves into their thirties and gets a little older — how their relationship to technology changes. I have a friend who has this theory that the internet culture will wend all the way to one extreme and then there will be a correction like, en masse, and we’ll become a little wiser…a little more judicious about the place in our lives almost naturally. I don’t know if I believe that. But it has been my experience, at least with something like e-mail. When I was in university, that’s when e-mail came out. Everyone just gorged on it. We would just e-mail all day. For years. Writing books. Writing these epics poems to each other. And for me, it really did just reach a point where I was like, I can’t do it anymore… Maybe in order to get a sense of where the balance is you have to take a measure of the other extreme.
TM: What is your balance? Do you only answer e-mails certain times of day?
MO: I wish I had more of it, honestly. My schedule is to get up, try to answer e-mails in the morning, go for a run, make lunch and then start working for the afternoon. I have to get better about just turning the internet off. I did it with the book, I did it religiously because it was the only way to get things done. But it’s so easy to just slide back. I have a smart phone. I don’t like the fact that I have it. But it was sort of given to me as a gift and then I didn’t give it back, so I can’t really pretend that I have no interest. I went and got the plan. But I’m not on Facebook. I don’t engage in long drawn out e-mail correspondences anymore. That might sound a little stupid, but it was a really big part of my life. And I feel like with writers especially, that was not uncommon. It became a real thing for a while there. So I really avoid that…the way it can suck up time is alarming. It really is a lesson in discipline. I’m so undisciplined when it comes to the internet. It’s terrible.
TM: That kind of brings me to your last essay “Ways of Escape,” which is about discipline — well, it’s about a lot of things, but it’s partially about running and discipline. To me it read like a coming of age story and I wondered if you thought about fictionalizing it. You wrote at the beginning of the essay that you had struggled a long time with this time in your life — how to think about it, how to write about it.
MO: Yeah, I hadn’t thought specifically about fictionalizing it because I really avoided thinking about it at all. I really did. And so, I guess with this book I felt like it would be an opportunity to try to figure out that period of my life. And give myself a story at least, that I could hang onto. But I actually was quite reluctant to do that. That seems to be a pattern for me. It’s like, why did I propose writing about it? But I did. But when it came to actually writing it, it turned out much, much different.
TM: What was your proposal for it? How did you describe it? As an essay about being obsessed with running?
MO: Yeah. It was about four paragraphs. It would be interesting to look at it again because it didn’t have anything to do with the person I ended up writing about and only a little bit to do with going to the movies obsessively and alone and nothing to do with my relationship to my faith or anything like that. It was sort of like a big gulp moment when I realized that if I was going to write about that time, then I had to write about all those things because those were the things that started coming out when I was thinking about it and writing about it.
TM: Did you write that essay last? Is that why it comes last?
MO: I think I did write it last because I didn’t want to write it. And then, in terms of the order, I obviously had a better sense of what the book would be and particularly with the first essay, I thought they made an interesting frame — dealing with time and my changing relationship to it. And struggling with it to a certain extent. So I thought it would be a good final one. And also because it’s the most personal one, for me. It just seemed like an intuitive place for it.
TM: To me the first essay is about an older person talking about how quickly time goes by and then the last essay is about a younger person with so much time on her hands she doesn’t know what to do with herself.
MO: Exactly. It’s like, how did that happen? At least there’s a book in between. But yeah, that’s how it feels, right? It’s not a new feeling and yet no one seems to anticipate it happening to them.