Someone explained fluidity in writing to me recently. They summarized: a novel is fluidly written if you pick it up in a bookstore and the next time you lift your eyes from the page you are fifty pages in. Consider the following novel fluid. I didn’t expect to get drawn into a story about a boarding school for wealthy kids who spend lots of meaningful time on sailboats. It was just not something I had really spent much time thinking about or wondering about. Then someone handed me this book. Amber Dermont‘s debut novel THE STARBOARD SEA is so poetic and beautiful, each turn of phrase so perfectly chosen, that I meandered happily in and stayed put. But that’s just me. The New York Times Sunday Book Review says her book is “engrossing,” “captivating and inspired.” Dermont graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions about writing, inspiration and her future projects.
AVJ: So you are either a meticulous researcher, or you know from experience your way around a jib and a spinnaker and the prep school scene?
AD: Yes, I grew up on Cape Cod and am a veteran/survivor of the prep school wars. New England boarding schools are rich in tradition, mystique and scandal. I’ve known a lot of people who were expelled from good schools and I wanted to create a haven for damaged kids who’d broken rules and become victims of their own unchecked privilege. True, I went to prep school, but Bellingham Academy is my own invention. Personally, I’m grateful for all of the challenges I faced during my adolescence. None of it was easy but in the end, I received an excellent education, had a number of dedicated teachers and developed lasting friendships. The first creative writing class I took in high school was team-taught by two gifted educators, Abner Oakes and Bo Manson. We had a talented group of students. The funniest and smartest guy in the class, Mark Wenham, worked as a writer for Jon Stewart and another of my classmates, David Roderick, became an acclaimed poet. David’s beautiful collection of poems, Blue Colonial, won the American Poetry Review Honickman Book Prize—one of the most prestigious prizes in the country. David and I hadn’t seen each other since high school but we met again several years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and have been pals ever since. I’m lucky to be able to look back on my early days as a writer with a friend who has made similar sacrifices and commitments to craft.
Our prep school was built up around a picturesque harbor. In terms of sailing, I am happiest out on the water. Though I love Atlanta and Decatur, it hurts being this far away from the ocean. When I lived in Iowa, I used to drive to this lonesome lake once a week just to stare at the glassy surface. When I was in grad school in Houston, I would cruise out to Galveston Bay and weep over the offshore drilling rigs. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good deal of time in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. There’s no industry in Croatia and the water and air there are so pure and invigorating. As a writer, the sea is a constant source of inspiration and a reminder of how small and insignificant our lives are in the face of the changing tides.
AVJ: Your story is so beautifully wrought that I forgot I was supposed to be annoyed with reliving the Reagan eighties. What about this time period, including Black Monday, appealed to you?
AD: I still remember overhearing a conversation at my prep school the day after Black Monday. Writers are natural eavesdroppers and I heard two of the administrators talking about the stock market crash and its potential damage to the school and its students. I always knew that I wanted to include the crash in The Starboard Sea. To this day, economists and analysts are still unable to explain Black Monday. It’s a “black swan” event and that mystery spoke to me and seemed worth exploring especially in our current economic crisis.
I’ll never understand the appeal of Ronald Reagan but I remember going to people’s penthouses and summer homes and seeing photos of my friends as children shaking hands with the President, like he was Santa Claus. For some people, the 80s were a golden age, a prosperous time of excess and permissibility. 1987 marked the decline of that excess and it occurred to me that writing about the past would be a way of addressing some of our culture’s present concerns regarding class, privilege, economic abuses.
AVJ: In addition to being a successful author, you teach English and Creative Writing at a women’s college, Agnes Scott College, in Decatur, GA. What writing prompt gets you the most unexpected results from your college students?
AD: Agnes Scott is an absolute gem of a school. My students are so smart and committed to their writing. They also tend to be a little frightened of me because I demand a lot and grant them tremendous freedom. On the first day of class, I invoke Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town and let the class know that just like Hugo, I believe that students will never learn to become writers until they realize that everything I tell them is wrong. I encourage my students to develop their own intuition, their own inner critic and voice. This makes a lot of my students suspicious. “Why is this professor telling me not to listen to her? This must be a trap.” I let them off the hook and then I try to give them lots to listen to, lots to consider. I put a great deal of effort into my critical comments and this sort of detailed feedback can feel overwhelming. Hopefully, my students realize that only someone who cares about their work would take the time to line edit their stories.
I have this one complicated writing prompt that is wild, ambitious and crazy complex. It’s called “Fifteen Things” and it is basically a series of writing obstructions. I have my students create a list of fifteen details triggered by a variety of questions. While the students are creating the list, they have no idea how the details might be connected. My theory is that if I put them in a certain frame of mind, all of the details they write down will already be connected in their unconscious. The assignment is rigid and specific but these constraints often open up the students’ imaginations. They wind up writing a story that they otherwise never would have written.
AVJ: My last English class was Susan Van Dyne’s American Women Poets over twenty years ago, and after that, a whole other kind of career. What advice might you have for people who are pursuing writing outside the academy, or even in spite of it?
AD: That’s such an important question. Probably the single most significant advice I’ve ever been given about writing was by Frank Conroy. He was the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I was in grad school. Frank would begin every semester by inviting small groups of students to his office for orientation. His main message to us was that the best thing a writer can do for herself is to figure out when she is able to write and to protect that time. A lot of people wind up in grad school simply as a means of buying time for their writing lives. If you can figure out how to create the time and space in your life for writing then you will begin to take your own work seriously.
Writing is a job. You have to put the hours in if you want to develop your voice. You also need readers. I think it’s important to find people you trust and to share your work. It’s a pretty lonely pursuit so if you can create your own supportive, constructive community and if you and your fellow writers can give one another deadlines, you’ll feel motivated and encouraged. If you are looking for readers, a lot of independent bookstores and libraries have writing groups. You might consider volunteering at a literary journal, attending writing conferences, starting a book reviewing blog or a reading series or your own small press. There are so many different types of writing communities available now and there is no one right path.
AVJ: Are you an intense outliner or a seat of the pantser?
AD: I’m pretty intuitive, especially where short stories are concerned. I follow my instincts and curiosity as far they lead me. When I feel stalled, I step back and listen to my characters. I’m patient and willing to stalk and pursue a story for as long as it takes.
Where novel writing is concerned, I found that once I had a hundred pages of the story, it was useful to outline the rest and to take accountability for what I was writing toward. I don’t think it would have been helpful for me to begin with an outline, but once I knew the world of my novel, I knew the world well enough to imagine the second and third acts.
AVJ: Please tell me about your upcoming projects, and how you chose them?
AD: I’m currently completing my short story collection, Damage Control, which will be published by St. Martin’s in spring 2013. The stories are about people who find themselves cast as unlikely caregivers to those in need of profound care. One of the stories, “Lyndon,” was published in Zoetrope: All-Story and has been anthologized in Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Worst Years of Your Life. It’s my “Free Bird.” In the story, a young girl’s father dies leaving her with her difficult and distant mother. The girl and her father enjoyed touring Presidential landmarks together and the daughter insists that her mother continue this tradition and bring her to the Lyndon Baines Johnson ranch. The title story, “Damage Control,” was published in American Short Fiction, a wonderful journal out of Austin, Texas. It takes place at an etiquette school in Houston in the backdrop of an Enron-type scandal. Another story, “Stella At The Winter Palace,” appeared in Tin House and is about a young widow who works as a fake granddaughter, accompanying other widows on their vacations. Nearly all of the stories come out of my own personal obsessions and fascinations. I am also working on a novel set within the backdrop of the 1962 Orly plane crash that took the lives of so many of Atlanta’s art patrons. When I heard the story, it spoke to me so deeply and had such a profound impact that I felt as though I wanted to explore, honor and pay tribute to those lives.