Behind Closed Doors: An Exclusive Q&A with Anthony Swofford and Charles D’Ambrosio

Posted Tue, 2/18/2020 - 9:53am by  |  Category: , ,

On February 28, Anthony Swofford, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Charles D’Ambrosio will kick off the second half of the 2019–20 Hugo Literary Series with new works on the theme of “Behind Closed Doors.”

In a recent email exchange, Anthony and Charles revealed details about their projects, their favorite writing advice, and a time they learned something they weren’t supposed to know.

Find out more about the upcoming literary series and buy tickets »


Anthony Swofford

The theme for your Lit Series is “Behind Closed Doors.” Tell us about a time you found out something you weren’t supposed to know.

When I was six, my older brother, age thirteen, was quite a snoop. One Saturday afternoon he went through my father’s office and discovered that my parents planned to adopt a two-year-old girl from Korea. He delivered the news to me and my older sister over the bologna and cheese sandwich lunch he’d prepared. We lived on a US military base outside Tokyo at the time, and my parents were “downtown”—meaning off base at the pachinko parlor or the robata bar my dad loved so much. When my parents returned home, we three kids sat at the kitchen banquet, looking solemn and scared. My brother, in a totally ballsy move, pushed across the table toward my father the Manila folder that held my future sister’s adoption paperwork. I recall a sense of wonder but also bafflement: was this true, why had it been hidden, what might this new knowledge mean? My father said, “We need to have a family meeting.” About six weeks later my little sister Kim joined our family.

What’s one piece of advice that keeps you going when the writing gets tough?

I once heard Joan Didion say in an interview, “Sometimes writers don’t write.” I take this to mean that if you are in a tough spot, there is no rule that says you absolutely have to write at this particular moment or day or even week: read a book, go to a museum, go to Canada or Iceland, the movies, stare at the ceiling and think, get a drink with a friend, if you are lucky enough to live in Seattle, go eat a few dozen oysters. Your talent will rise when it must.

What, if anything, can you tell us about your Lit Series piece?

The generative moment for this novel occurred when I was at a brunch with a bunch of brunchy brunch academics from the university where my partner taught at the time. The hosts were bad cooks and their coffee, as proud of it as they were due to its single origin-ess was weak. So, I was in a bad mood. The talk around the table landed on religion and the fact that a shocking (shocking!) number of their colleagues believed in a Christian God and went to church. There was much mocking of these colleagues and deep laughter. The disbelief in the existence of these believers within our hyper liberal bubble continued when I wandered off to play with my daughter. I am an atheist, but I don’t mock believers, as much as they might confuse and sometimes confound me. One person they mocked was a good friend of mine. I knew him to be an amazing father and husband, a great colleague, a stellar citizen. He was honest in all of his dealings. He was a progressive when it came to reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ issues, and he cared about his community. So, these people and their mockery and ignorance of my friend pissed me off. I began to hate them. Wlliam Gass said he wrote because he hated. This book partially comes out of hate. But also, I wondered: what if you were married to one of these absolutists and you too mocked the believers: what if together you and your spouse were a rock star atheist couple, and then one day, you began to believe in God? And you hid your belief? What would it all come to?


Charles D’Ambrosio

The theme for your Lit Series is “Behind Closed Doors.” Tell us about a time you found out something you weren’t supposed to know.

I’m stuck between really painful and really trivial memories about times when I’ve learned something I wasn’t supposed to know, so I’m going to spare everyone involved and take a pass on this question.

What’s one piece of advice that keeps you going when the writing gets tough?

One of the occupational hazards of teaching is hearing yourself give advice and when I’m off duty, as I am all through 2020, I like to keep my confusions for myself. But here’s some great rules from a nun, the wonderful Sister Mary Corita Kent, who made and taught art and in 1967 wrote up the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules. We keep a framed copy of the rules in our house. There are ten of them, just like the Commandments (but much more encouraging), and as a group they seem rock solid to me but here’s a sample:  

  • Rule 6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s now win and no fail. There’s only make.
  • Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.  
  • Rule 8: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes. 

What, if anything, can you tell us about your Lit Series piece?

I’m treating the prompt as an assignment, a space to play in, and as of this afternoon I really have no idea what my piece will be about or what I might finally read when the night rolls around. Hopefully something that won’t paraphrase easily. Any life’s a mise en abyme of doors, I’m discovering, so there will definitely be doors.