Lordy. Get out paper and pen.
Here are some beautiful lessons
on the craft of writing
the art of comedy
the importance of poets
(for fiction writers)
and on and on...
(And, after, buy the stunner of a debut novel
THE STARBOARD SEA.)
A 1/2 Dozen for Amber Dermont
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
What a beautiful question! I was a silent, sharp-eyed child. To this day, my mother still asks, “What were you thinking?” My parents are rare book dealers and, throughout my childhood, books served as my constant and loyal companions. Mom and Dad were always happy to place books in my hands and neither believed in dumbing down their recommendations. As a kid, I read stories that were well beyond my immediate comprehension. When I was nine years old, my dad suggested I read James Kirkwood’s P.S. Your Cat’s Dead, a sexually charged romance between an out of work actor and the man who keeps robbing his apartment. The book is wild, exuberant and Kirkwood became the first author I can remember calling my favorite. I went on to read his novels, Some Kind of Hero and There Must Be A Pony, then lucked out and saw the musical, A Chorus Line, for which Kirkwood won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Kirkwood’s fascination with the mutability of human desire and the trappings of glamour and wealth made a lasting impression on me as a writer. I’m forever grateful that my parents weren’t afraid to expose me to stories that challenged my imagination.
I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
I’m a huge fan of revision. Once I have words on the page, I’m ready to play. But arriving at that first draft is a glacial and painful process. I always enter the world of a story by sketching out notes in a blank book. I can’t write on lined paper. Something about staying within those lines makes me anxious and so I scribble and draw and rewrite the same sentences over and over again. Then, here’s the funny thing, I can’t read my own writing. The notes I make are totally useless. Somehow, I know when I’m ready to abandon the notebooks and begin typing. For me, the joy of writing a first line is that once it’s written, I know I can rewrite it. A minor victory that leads to a second and third sentence—all of which, I know, I can also rewrite. I’m a big fan of the sentence as a unit of measure, as an inhalation and exhalation of breath, as a precise architecture. I love to study other writers’ sentences for their structure, length and syntax. If I can fill a single page with sentences, coaxing the next page feels, if not inevitable, at least possible.
Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.
Though I’m drawn to dark subject matter, in my heart, I’m a comedy fiend. My favorite comedian is the British standup Stewart Lee. He may be the smartest and purest artist working today. He has this incredible ability to deconstruct the artistic process and call out artifice and hypocrisy without seeming self-righteous. His comedy doesn’t excerpt easily into snippets or sound bites and in order to fully appreciate him, I had to step up my intellectual game and study his prolific catalogue of work. I soothe my insomnia by hunting down videos of his BBC Two show Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. In addition to his standup, Stewart Lee is also the author of the comic novel, Perfect Fool, and Faber & Faber recently published two annotated collections of Lee’s comedy routines, How I Escaped My Certain Fate and If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One. All three are among the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. It’s fascinating to follow his development as an artist. When he was young, Stewart Lee was very beautiful—he looked like a handsome Morrissey—and his hard-edged humor wasn’t taken seriously. He’s still handsome—like a rumpled Morrissey—but now that he’s older, his cynicism feels grounded in experience. He’s married to the brilliant comedienne Bridget Christie and I imagine that the two of them must share the wittiest of witty banter.
I’m especially drawn to Stewart Lee for the way he tackles the subject of class privilege. A staunch liberal, Lee was a student at Oxford at the same time as the current Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron. In one of his routines, Lee tells a fantastic shaggy dog tale about becoming friends with Cameron at Oxford and subsequently being exploited and mistreated by him. The story serves as a clever indictment of the Hooray Henrys of British government. Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon Club, an elite social club at Oxford comprised entirely of teenaged boy millionaires. Members of the Bullingdon Club wear these ridiculously expensive custom suits with velvet collars and sky blue bowties and are known for flagrant abuses of privilege—epic bouts of public binge drinking followed by profound destruction of private property. I first heard of the Bullers in Evelyn Waugh’s novels Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited. In fact, this club was a minor source of inspiration for the insouciant preppies in The Starboard Sea. At the end of his routine, after detailing how the young David Cameron has misled and insulted him, Lee addresses the audience and says, “Now, that story about David Cameron is not true but I feel what it tells us about David Cameron is true.” Right there, Lee sums up the power of fiction to reach a deeper and more precise truth through art.
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?
I crave poetry. Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies and Tsim Tsum are among my favorite collections. I’m dazzled by Sabrina’s use of mysticism and by her ecstatic and sublime imagery. Caryl Pagel is one of the most daring poets I know. She has a chapbook, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, & Other Exceptional Experiences, with Factory Hollow Press and another full-length work on the way. Jericho Brown’s, Please and James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy are both necessary reading—their books will make you weep and roar. In terms of fiction, I am a sucker for a short story collection. Mark Jude Poirier’s Naked Pubelo and Unsung Heroes of American Industry are two I return to time and time again for their ruthless humor and surprising vulnerability. Reading Holiday Reinhorn’s Big Cats and Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter will teach you everything you need to know about comic timing and human longing. Reginald McKnight’s The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas will shatter your heart.
What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
Be the first word, be the subplot, be the plot twist, be the whole story, be the final word.
Amber Dermont is the author of the novel, The Starboard Sea, and the short story collection, Damage Control, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dermont received her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Her work has recently appeared in American Short Fiction, Crazyhorse, TriQuarterly, Zoetrope: All-Story and in the anthologies, Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Worst Years of Your Life and Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform. She teaches Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.