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Interview: Amber Dermont’s debut novel, “The Starboard Sea,” shines brightly

Starboard Sea

Amber Dermont has kept a low profile in Atlanta for the seven years she’s lived here, teaching writing and working on her first novel. That book, “The Starboard Sea” (St. Martin’s Press, 308 pages), has brought her sudden and dramatic notice, with The New York Times offering high praise.

Novels are a mixture of a hundred ingredients that too frequently meld into something as generic as a loaf of white bread. “The Starboard Sea” is different. It comes close to enchantment. The writing is so dazzling and the surfaces so casually beautiful, depicting a patrician class of American youth at boarding school, that the rot underneath is something we almost want to go on concealing from ourselves.

Jason Prosper, the younger son of a wealthy New York banker, has left an elite prep school for a shameful reason he won’t disclose and enrolled in the lower-tier Bellingham Academy. This picturesque Massachusetts boarding school, located directly on the ocean, is a magnet for competitive sailors and a refuge for screw-ups in need of a second chance. We learn that Jason’s best friend Cal, his sailing partner and roommate at his former school, hanged himself, a suicide in which Jason feels painfully complicit. The relationship had an erotic side. At Bellingham, Jason befriends a boisterous group of pranksters. His morality, like his sexuality, is ambiguous. He becomes intimate with a wild, bewitching girl, Aidan, whose sexually charged reputation makes her a scapegoat for the rest of the community. Her mysterious death shakes Jason to the core, forcing him to face the truth about himself and investigate the brutality that his classmates might be capable of.

Dermont sets her story at the brink of the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987, implicating the arrogance of the wealthy for corruption at all levels, from boyish vendettas to manipulations of the wider world. What Jason Prosper can hope to do is find some way to steer himself by the principles of a personal moral code.

We recently sat down with Amber Dermot in a quiet spot in Decatur, not far from Agnes Scott College, where she is an associate professor of English and creative writing. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

ArtsATL: The premise of your novel is seductive: an elite New England boarding school full of kids who are damaged goods, thrown out of other prep schools for one reason or another. Golden youth saddled with a shameful history. How did this idea come to you?

Amber Dermont: I grew up knowing aspects of this world, and it was always charged within my imagination. [Dermont attended Tabor Academy on the Massachusetts coast.] I myself was a very dedicated, serious student. But I was often friends with people who were risk-takers. Their imaginations really fascinated me: if you can create a misadventure for yourself … you create this great story and this fabulous memory. And where [people] get into trouble is when somebody gets hurt. One of the things I noticed was what small price people actually paid for their actions. It was a sad lesson to learn, but not everybody is punished for their misdeeds.

ArtsATL: Jason, the young hero of your novel, is a morally compromised fellow. For one thing, we know he’s harboring a terrible secret connected to the suicide of his best friend Cal at his former prep school. We are in his mind throughout the book, and he starts off seeming like a good guy. But he also behaves badly — inciting acts of hazing, taking drugs. A black student he strikes up a friendship with tells him, “Jason, as much as I’d like to believe that we’re friends, I know I can’t count on you.” This shook me as a reader. Why did you create a central character whose integrity is called into doubt?

Dermont: The easy route would have been to make him a hero, to make him this Great White Hope. And that’s dishonest. He is of this culture. He is of this privileged world and has all this unchecked privilege that he has abused. He has a kind of charm and grace, much of which comes from his friendship with Cal, his sailing partner and best friend who has killed himself.

I am drawn to complex characters who do something horrible that they have shame about. Maybe their greatest punishment is that they have to live with themselves.

One of the things that Jason has to come to terms with is that he is like his friends. He is like these bad kids in ways that are in his DNA, that he cannot run away from. He has to make a choice whether or not he wants to continue to be like them.

ArtsATL: Another tragedy befalls a girl Jason grows very close to at his new school. He unravels the mystery of what happened to her, but takes no action against those who are guilty. Why?

Dermont: That was a very hard choice to make as a writer. There’s the idea that one of the reasons we biologically need to tell stories is we need to tell ourselves how to live. Most narratives in some way require a degree of comeuppance for the people who misbehave. We need to have these clear moral guides, and we need to know that we’re on the right side of them. Again, I just felt that these kids wouldn’t be punished. I know that through experience and also just through looking at our culture. A girl dies and nothing happens. She’s easily forgotten. Her life doesn’t have the same currency or value as these boys’ lives.

Amber Dermont (Photo by T.W. Meyer)

ArtsATL: So the cards are stacked against individual heroic action?

Dermont: I want there to be a sense of hope and beauty in this world — and I hope it’s there. But the darkness of these characters’ lives is as real as any hope might be.

ArtsATL: You create a very vivid world in Bellingham. It’s not just a preppy school, but a school situated directly on the water where sailing plays a big part in the students’ lives. You write beautifully about the natural world and the ocean beyond the school. How did you keep this place alive in your mind as you wrote the story?

Dermont: Growing up by the water [on Cape Cod], water is always a tremendous source of inspiration for me. If you measure yourself against the ocean, you realize how small your life is.

Most people spend their adult lives trying to recover from their childhoods and adolescences. I think people who have a happy time in high school are really lucky. I was pretty brutally damaged by my experiences in high school. I had a lot of friends, but I had a really, really tough time and it stayed with me.… I think it’s a good thing, ultimately. I’m grateful for the tough time I had. [Laughs.] It can really help you as a writer in understanding conflict.

The world that I wrote about, the surface of it all, was something I grew up surrounded by. The film strip always running through my head is of that coastline, of the harbors and the sense of history connected to that: the maritime history, the literary history. All of that is always with me.

ArtsATL: Did you sail in school?

Dermont: Yes. Once I understood how important sailing was to Jason and Cal, I understood their relationship, the physical nature of it, and the sense of camaraderie and intimacy they would have. If you’re on these little dinghies, your bodies have to be in complete unison. [You have to] balance between loving the risk of charging out into the water at incredible speeds versus being very safe and practical about how you harness the wind.

ArtsATL: Is it true that parts of your novel grew out of assignments you gave your creative writing students at Agnes Scott?

Dermont: Whenever I give any writing trigger to my students, I think it’s important they see me do whatever it is they’re going to do. If I give an in-class writing assignment, I have to do it too. I will read mine out loud to them. Mine is not always the best one in the class, and that’s a lesson for them too. I think you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable in that way to your students.

I have a collection of short stories coming out next year called “Damage Control.” There’s one story in particular that very much came out of a class assignment where I was having the students write outside their own experience. They had to do significant research and become an expert on a subject. [My] story, “Assembling the Troops,” is from that class…. If I’m not struggling with the same things [my students] are struggling with, I can’t offer them advice and insight.

ArtsATL: Is there a common thread running through “Damage Control”? What kind of damage are we talking about?

Dermont: I’m interested in difficult situations people find themselves in and how they navigate them…. “Damage Control” is a story about an etiquette school in Houston, Texas, that I made up. I was fascinated that these schools still exist. One of the curious things about them is that, typically, girls pay to go to them and boys are paid to go to them — to chat up the girls, because that’s how girls learn to talk to boys. I thought about these guys: what havoc might they wreak over these girls’ lives?

I’m really fascinated by teenagers and by the period of adolescence, because it’s when you define yourself…. I myself was not a very good teenager. I was very serious.

ArtsATL: What’s your writing routine like? Do you write every day?

Dermont: I physically need to write. I have an emotional and intellectual compulsion to do it.… I tend to write at night and stay up really late. It’s not especially good for one’s health.

ArtsATL: Zadie Smith, the critic and acclaimed author of “White Teeth,” has said that there are some writers who go about painstakingly building a novel room by room, making sure the first room is meticulously decorated before they move on to constructing the next one. Others try to cobble together a whole book in one go, then return to straighten things out and put in the details. Where do you fall between these types?

Dermont: I love the house metaphor. Writing is fairly intuitive. You learn to follow your writerly instincts, and you grope around in the dark for a pretty significant amount of time before you stumble on the ottoman and figure out where the light switch is. But eventually you do need to know what kind of house you’re building. You need to know, “Am I building a mid-century modern ranch house? Am I building a Queen Anne?” You need to understand the architecture.

I really love plot. I’m interested in action and agency, and having my characters do things, make mistakes and get caught. If you want to have any significant plot, you need to have a sense of structure.

ArtsATL: Is there a writers’ community you can draw on in Atlanta? A literary scene?

Dermont: I think there’s a wonderful literary scene. One of my closest friends is Laurie Watel, who’s a fantastic fiction writer and poet and translator.… I think Atlanta’s a true literary city. You have a tremendous amount of experimentation that goes on: Blake Butler and all the guys at HTML GIANT. And then you have Natasha Trethewey and Kevin Young, who are two of the most brilliant poets. National treasures. You have Joshilyn Jackson, who’s really buoyant … doing something completely new and subverting the genre [of women’s fiction] in many ways. Those are three very different ways of pursuing writing, and I don’t think you have to choose a camp.

ArtsATL: I read that your next novel, “The Laughing Girl,” deals with the 1962 plane crash in Paris that killed many of Atlanta’s leading art patrons.

Dermont: I’ve been working on the manuscript. I was fascinated by the art scene in Atlanta and curious about certain gaps in that scene. I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in my heart I’m an amateur artist and really interested in contemporary art.

I heard the story about the plane crash that killed over 100 of Atlanta’s most devoted art patrons, and it sent shivers through my body. I immediately felt that there was a story there —not in an opportunistic way like, “Ha, ha, this is great for me.”… But it occurred to me that it might be worth my own imagination to honor those lives and to consider the impact [the loss] had on the city.

It’s a tricky thing if you’re dealing with real events and real people.… Where do you create your own footing in the world of a story based on events? You have to consider where you stand in relationship to that history. [She mentions interviewing Atlantans with knowledge of the tragedy as part of her research.] The beauty of being a writer is you get to ask people about their lives.… Most people have one great story within them, and that’s the story of their life.

Author appearance: Amber Dermont will read from “The Starboard Sea” at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Eagle Eye Books, 2076 North Decatur Road, Decatur.

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