Amber Dermont’s debut novel, “The Starboard Sea,” is set in a fictional world of beauty and privilege that she remembers clearly, but with a healthy dose of cynicism. The associate professor at Agnes Scott College grew up in a Victorian coastal village on Cape Cod. “When you grow up by the ocean, you have no idea how lucky you are,” she says. In her novel, teenager Jason Prosper is reeling from the suicide of his prep school sailing partner and first love, Cal, and trying to fit in at a new, lesser East Coast boarding school that is full of similarly rich, fallen kids. “We weren’t bad people,” Jason says, “but having failed that initial test of innocence and honor, we no longer felt burdened to be good.” He finds some comfort with a girl named Aidan and, alternately, with a smug band of annoying, perhaps dangerous classmates. It’s a coming-of-age story about learning to navigate by the right stars—or sometimes in the pitch black. The descriptive passages are lovely, whether Dermont is writing about the open sea or an ancient doorman: “In his navy wool uniform, all epaulets, gold tassels, and brass stars, his kind face glistening with sweat, Max looked like the commander of a sinking ship.” And the author is remarkably adept at writing in the voice of a teenage boy. “Not a challenge,” she says, laughing. “I have the mentality of a fourteen-year-old boy. No, I have a real love for teenagers. I really am fascinated by them, because they’re so much smarter than we are.”
An interview with Dermont
For six years, Amber Dermont has taught creative writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. “There’s such an incredible tradition here,” she said. “It’s stunning to me how you don’t have to ‘convert’ anyone to the beauty of creative writing.” Dermont recently was awarded a $25,000 fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts that will help her find the time and space to finish her second novel, “The Laughing Girl,” which is set against the backdrop of a 1962 plane crash near Paris, France, that took the lives of more than 100 passengers and crew, including some of Atlanta’s most dedicated art patrons.
At Dancing Goats Coffee Bar, Dermont, the daughter of rare-book dealers, talked about tradition, privilege and her debut novel, “The Starboard Sea,” a coming-of-age story written in the voice of Jason Prosper, a teenage boy at a Northeastern prep school who is mourning the loss of his best friend and sailing partner, Cal.
Your descriptions of this world—especially of sailing—are stunning. Do you sail? I do. I grew up in the very beginning of Cape Cod, in a little coastal village called Onset. When you grow up by the ocean, you have no idea how lucky you are. [Laughs] It was really important to me to get the language right, but to not have it get in the way of the story. I always loved Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West.” . . . There’s a lot of privilege that goes along with sailing—there’s an obnoxious side to it—but if you actually know how to harness the wind, what to do with it, you do feel powerful. You feel like Prospero.
Tell me about writing in the voice of a teenage boy. Was it difficult? Not a challenge. I have the mentality of a fourteen-year-old boy. [Laughs] I have a real love of teenagers, although I myself did not have the greatest adolescence. I really am fascinated by them, because they’re so much smarter than we are. And they don’t know it, so they don’t really do anything with their own intelligence usually. I find that stage of adolescence fascinating—where you’re suddenly challenging authority, you’re pressing these boundaries, you’re defiant, and you’re doing all this in an attempt to find out what matters to you, what sense of morality you might have. And I find teenage boys incredibly funny.
So it wasn’t hard to get inside Jason’s head? I really wanted to challenge myself as much as possible. What better way than through gender? If you create a character that is very much like you, that character’s going to notice in a scene all the things that you would notice. If you write a character that’s completely unlike you, they’re going to have to notice all the things that you wouldn’t usually. So it makes you a better writer.
I heard that you do every writing assignment that you give to your students. True? Yeah, it’s true. I just feel like it’s a way of keeping me honest. If you stand up in front of a classroom and pretend to tell somebody what to do with writing, you’d better be able to do it yourself. My students may be struggling with some issue of point of view, and I can come in and say, “You know, I had the exact same struggle this weekend, and this is what I did.” They know I’m in it with them . . . Sometimes we do in-class writing, and mine is not always the best! I think that’s important for them to see. This is a struggle, a process. You don’t get it right the first time necessarily. It’s not really even about getting it right.
You’ve studied under some great writers, including one of my favorites, the late Barry Hannah. Barry Hannah is my heart. He read this manuscript in its very early stages, and he called me up right after he read it and said he loved it. He said, “I loved seeing inside the dirty windows.” He would say things like that in class. You’d come to class and just sort of wait for the wisdom. Just receive it, just receive it. He was so incredibly generous. What I think he was able to do was lead you to your authentic voice.
What have you read lately that you love? I picked up the new Alan Hollinghurst book, “The Stranger’s Child.” “The Line of Beauty” is one of my favorite books. It’s so beautiful. I’m really interested in Geoff Dyer’s essays, “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.” Oh man, they’re so smart. And he’s such a wordsmith. I read a lot of poetry. I’m lucky to have a lot of friends who are poets. Sabrina Orah Mark—she teaches at UGA—has a collection of poems called “Tsim Tsum” that is amazing. She has another collection called “The Babies,” about all the people who weren’t born because the Holocaust happened. She’s the closest thing we have to Samuel Beckett. She’s amazing. She’s married to Reginald McKnight, who’s one of my favorite short story writers. “The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas” is one of the most beautiful collections. Whenever I have my students read that collection, there’s this moment where you feel like everybody is in it together and has learned something about writing, about how to live, about how to be a better human being. It’s nice as a teacher to have those stories that are touchstones, that you know are going to bring your student to this moment of revelation.
Do you write any poetry? I do. I think you have to be able to write everything. I very definitely love narrative, and I was initially drawn to the world of stories. I loved Robert Penn Warren when I was a kid. It was Penn Warren and Flannery O’Connor for me.
What’s your writing process? Do you write every day? My friend Holiday Reinhorn once called me a vampire. She said, “I’ll see you and then there’s suddenly a story, and I don’t know how it happened!” I work at night. I have terrible insomnia, so I stay up all night and I work. I’ve never had that experience where you sort of touch the bottom of the pool—that deep, deep sleep. It’s like the line in Martin Amis’s novel “The Information”: “And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night.” Whenever I’m almost asleep, I get a line or something.
As far as a process, what you do always stays a little magical to you. You never demystify it entirely for yourself. I don’t have a desk. I write in bed. I remember seeing a photograph of Woody Allen writing in bed. That made me feel a little better.
Anyway, the days are sort of useless to me. When I was finishing this manuscript, there were two months when all I did was write, all day long. In order to write a novel, I think you have to be in that world in such a sustained and concrete way, that anything that takes you out of that world is going to harm the process of getting back into it.
So that’s a lot different than writing a short story? Short stories are so different, because each one is so different. I have some stories that I’ve worked on for half a dozen years or more, and I have stories that I wrote in a weekend and got published three months later. And I wouldn’t say that one story was better than the other. I think some stories you receive, if you’ve done the work and you’re ready to receive.
I can’t help but notice the giant skull ring you’re wearing. What’s the story behind that? It’s my tribute to Alexander McQueen. [Laughs] When you’re writing, you always have to think about mortality. I think it’s really important to have that there. When you write, you honor the dead. You honor the great writers, and you honor the people in your life who are no longer there. You think about that.
You’ve studied with some great writers: Barry Hannah, Marilynne Robinson, Frank Conroy, Andre Dubus III . . . I have no ego about my writing. I always just want to make it better and make it better and make it better. And I think a lot of that came out of the workshop process, where you have to defend your work but not be defensive about it. If you make your whole life your art, you figure out how to bring those stories into every part of your world.
Are there tradeoffs when you make your whole life your art? I’m very fond of my aloneness. Whenever people can’t stand their own company, I feel bad for them. I need a lot of solitude. I also don’t know anyone who has as many or as good friends as I do. But, yeah, one of the challenges of making art is dying alone.
Photograph by T.W. Meyer
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE ARTICLE THAT RAN IN OUR MAY 2012 ISSUE