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Interview with Nina de Garmont, March 13, 2008
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March 13, 2008
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Interviewee: de Gramont, Nina. Interviewer: Rodrigues, Carmen. Date of Interview: 3/13/2008. Series: SENC Writers. Length: 60 minutes

 

Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues. Today is Thursday, March 13th, 2008. I'm at the Randall Library with author, Nina de Gramont. Nina is a Professor of Creative Writing here at UNCW. She is also the author of the short story collection Of Cats and Men, which earned the distinction of being a 2002 BookSense selection and the winner of the Discovery award from the New England Booksellers Association. More recently, Nina served as the co-editor of the anthology, Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion. Her first novel, Gossip of the Starlings, will be released this June. Her work has appeared in Seventeen, Neuf, Post Road, Exquisite Corpse and the Harvard Review. Welcome, Nina.

de Gramont: Thank you.

Rodrigues: So we'll begin by talking about your first collection of short stories, Of Cats and Men. I read an interesting quote from Brad Watson, the author of Last Days of the Dog Men, and he described Of Cats and Men as, "Superbly crafted, dark and funny, at times enigmatic as the two beasts in the title. Of Cats and Men is a sensuous and wickedly honest book about women and men, and the sly, aloof, casually beautiful animals who pad through their lives." I thought that was quite an endorsement.

de Gramont: Thank you.

Rodrigues: And accurate, in my opinion. I wondered why you decided to pair together a short-story collection that focuses on women's relationships with men and felines.

de Gramont: Well, there were reasons both artistic and at the time, and I think still now- now it's almost impossible to get a collection of short stories published. At the time, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing had just come out and had been very well-received, and there was really a desire for well-written short stories by women. But they really wanted the collections to be linked thematically- when they're just all by the same author, it wouldn't cut it. So I was working on short stories exclusively at the time. It's a form I'm very comfortable in and comes very naturally to me. And I was trying to find a theme and actually read Brad Watson's book, Last Days of the Dog Men, which is a short-story collection that has a dog in each story, so I essentially ripped him off, said, "Oh, I can do the same thing with cats." I'm a huge cat person. Most of my writing at the time, and I think still, tends to be very relationship-based. So it was a natural wedding of ideas, and I think that cats function so well as metaphors, because they're such sort of dark, violent yet, you know, cuddly, sensuous creatures. And you know, it was easy to find cats of different personalities to inhabit the stories in different ways, because they can function in so many different ways. So, it was pretty natural. I mean, once I decided to do that, I came up with, you know, a million ideas. There were originally, I think, twenty stories in the collection.

Rodrigues: What are some of the themes that you explore in the collection?

de Gramont: I think forgiveness is a big theme. I think one thing about cats is that if you love cats, my mom always used to say, "Never date men who don't like cats, because men who don't like cats don't like what they can't control and manipulate." And I think that if you're gonna live with a cat, you have to accept it's gonna do certain things and you're never gonna control its behavior, and I think as you get older and inhabit relationships, you sort of learn similar things, you know, that you have to be accepting of the other person's foibles, and you have to be accepting of the foibles that exist interpersonally between you and your partner. So, that was certainly one of the themes. And also, you know, cats certainly lend themselves to exploring the darker nature, so that was another theme, kind of the unknown. There's a story about two little girls whose mothers are sort of going through a breakdown and has locked herself up in the attic, and the cat in that story sort of represents just the things that you can never know. A cat gets stuck in the wall and there's sort of this rustling- they're aware it's there but they can't quite identify it.

Rodrigues: How long did you work on the collection, writing the pieces for it?

de Gramont: I'd say before it was accepted for publication, about a year, and then there was a lot of editing and re-working and writing new stories for it, so altogether, probably about three years.

Rodrigues: While reading some of the stories in Of Cats and Men, I found myself marveling at how personal each story felt. I was quickly able to relate to it. And I wondered if any of the stories in the collection were of a personal nature to you, and more specifically, what role the personal plays in your writing.

de Gramont: I think that all writers use the personal to some extent and for me, first drafts tend to be closer to actual events, and then as soon as I start crafting them, they become farther and farther away from what actually happened, or the characters. And then some stories are, you know, completely made up, but you'll extrapolate things from your life and put them in there. I mean, I think the specific is so important when you're writing, and you know, you take the specific from real life. I just read Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, and at the end, you know, she has all these- it's a very well-researched, but you know, obviously, very fictional book. And at the end she has an Author's Note, where she sort of tells you what stories, you know, were true, that she took from circus history. And I think, you know, if you're writing more- you know, if you're writing about your own time period, where you don't have to do a lot of research about circuses during the Depression age, you sort of do a similar thing, but instead you take things from your own life and put them in the story to make it more real.

Rodrigues: Let's talk a little bit about the anthology, Choice. You worked with another UNCW professor, Karen Bender, as the co-editor of the anthology. And it was published in October of this year, and I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about this anthology, and why this project was important to you.

de Gramont: It was important to me for political and personal reasons. It was born when a lot of states, particularly South Dakota, were trying to pass abortion bans, and Karen had written a story that appeared in Granta that I had read and thought was really brilliant, about a woman who had two children, one of whom was still a baby, and got pregnant and decided to have an abortion, which is actually the most common scenario for abortion. Most people who- most women who have abortions are women who have already had children. And her story, I felt, just captured one person's experience so beautifully that I couldn't imagine anyone reading it without feeling enormous compassion and understanding of the situation, where if they just heard the situation, you know, the bare bones of it without the story, they might be judgmental. So Karen and I started discussing it, you know, her story in connection to the proposed abortion bans, and we just came up with the idea- well, Karen had had the idea of doing some kind of anthology related to abortion, and through our conversations, just thought how effective it could be to have, you know, women's real experiences written, you know, as stories that people could really relate to and, hopefully, understand. And we really wanted to take it beyond just, you know, have an abortion, don't have an abortion. We wanted to- you know, it's a very unique moment in history, with infertility treatments and abortion rights hanging in the balance- all the choices that exist right now that might not exist in five or ten years, so we really wanted to explore that. And I was actually amazed at how- I mean, it was sort of- for something that had such political- a political genesis- I was amazed at what an artistic process it turned out to be. I mean, I'm very proud of that book. I think the essays in it are really stunning.

Rodrigues: What are some of the stories that a reader would find in the book?

de Gramont: There's a story by Jacqueline Machard about- she has many children, I think seven, the youngest of whom was carried by a surrogate, and the surrogate's husband ended up leaving her and accusing her of adultery. You know, saying that the surrogacy was tantamount to adultery, even though he had been on board with it at first- but you know, they were in a very small Southern town and I guess his co-workers started giving him a hard time about his wife being pregnant by another man. He ended up divorcing her and suing her for custody of their children, on the grounds that she had committed adultery and he won. So this woman lost her kids because of her decision to carry Jacqueline's son. And then there's another story by Ann Hood about adopting a little girl from China after her own- her biological daughter died at the age of five. It's just the most incredibly moving essay. I remember getting it and having to like go and shut myself in the bathroom and weep because it was just- and it really, you know, sheds so much light on women who don't have choices- you know, these mothers in China who are forced to abandon their children. And that was the situation that I think without even realizing it, I had felt very judgmental towards these women and sort of like, "Oh, I would never do that." But you don't know what you'd do if you're, you know, walled into a corner. So, it was very, very powerful.

Rodrigues: It sounds like it was an emotionally involving project for you.

de Gramont: It really was, it really was.

Rodrigues: In Choice, you shifted gears from writer to editor, which I'm sure gave you a whole other sort of power in the process. Can you tell us what you learned about the process of editing, and also what you learned about your own- your major- your main craft of writing, during that experience.

de Gramont: I think, as far as just the editing goes, I'm a pretty natural editor. I'm married to a writer and I've always, you know, edited his work to some degree. I think as a teacher, editing comes into play a lot. So, I think that the difficult thing for me about the anthology was sort of the business aspect of it. You know, we had to do contracts and tax forms and there was sort of, you know, nagging. I'm not good at nagging people. I don't like to bother people, so- and you had to send out, you know, constant e-mails about deadlines and things like that. So that part was difficult. But I think any time- it's so hard to learn how to judge and assess your own work, but when you sit down with something somebody else has written, and really kind of get into it as if it's your own, it gives you that ability to- I mean, I don't know if you find that, too, but it really does help, I think, when you sit down with your own work- just sort of remember what you wanted fixed in the other person's work, and then sort of apply that to your own. You know, you see mistakes, 'cause writers tend to make very similar mistakes, I think, especially at a certain level, so you can think, "Oh, I'm doing that same thing that I asked so-and-so to change." So it's certainly helpful in terms of craft.

Rodrigues: Were you working on both Choice and Gossip of the Starlings simultaneously?

de Gramont: Yes. I was, I was.

Rodrigues: How was it juggling the two projects together?

de Gramont: (laughs) It was really hard! It was really hard. I mean, it was one of those things that looking back on it, I really don't understand- I can't answer- I can't tell you how I did it 'cause I really don't understand how I did it. I was still in graduate school, and so I was finishing up at graduate school and I have a small child. And I really just don't know. I think I stayed up late a lot. (laughs) And I think it's also, you know, when you have a lot of projects going on, you learn how to sort of keep them in your mind the whole time, so even if you don't have time to sit down and work on them, you have to sort of prepare in your head that when you do have a minute to sit down and write, it's almost fully formed. And I think being a parent, too, just gives you this- out of necessity- gives you this ability to sit down and immediately focus, because you have to. I mean, before I had Hadley, there was a lot of diddling around and playing freestyle and pacing and snacking and I was like, "Okay. I've got three hours to accomplish, you know, ten things." And you just have to kinda do it.

Rodrigues: Do you have any future plans to serve as an editor of another project?

de Gramont: No. (laughs) It was really hard. And I mean, I should say, too, that I- there's no way on earth I would have been able to do it alone. I mean, the fact that Karen and I were doing it together, I think, is what made it possible, for me at least, 'cause we could divvy things up and if one of us were having a really hard week, we could hand things off. But I don't think I would do it again, just because I'm so- it's so difficult for me to do all this sort of secretarial stuff that's involved. And I didn't realize that, going in. I mean, I hate it and I'm not good at it. You know, maybe if I got to a point where there's a project that really, really ignited me and I could afford an assistant, I would do it, but otherwise, I don't think so. I'm very, very glad for the experience. I'm very proud of the book, but I'm not excited about doing something like that again- (laughs) it was really hard.

Rodrigues: Can we talk a little bit about the process of collaborating with another writer? I'm just curious about how you felt about collaborating with Karen and what that adds to your life as a writer, living in a writers' community.

de Gramont: It was great, it was great. It think it was a really good collaboration. It was really interesting. I mean, most specifically, it was interesting writing our Forward together, because we really sort of had this, you know- first, we wrote the proposal together. It's kind of a different experience actually writing something. I mean, the editing something, that kind of work, with another writer, was very natural 'cause you can really divide it up. You talk to this person, I'll talk to this person, you know, you read this, then I'll get back to you. But writing is ordinarily such a solitary endeavor, and I would hear about people who collaborated, and I couldn't imagine how that would work. And there were things that were difficult about it. I mean, even with a writer whom I admire so much- you know, if somebody else writes something, and it doesn't sound like your own voice, there's some give-and-take. I mean, there were definitely compromises about things that were in there, but I think ultimately, it was a very good experience, and you know, Karen's such a phenomenal writer, I think composing something with her couldn't help but elevate my own work.

Rodrigues: Let's talk about Gossip of the Starlings. That's coming up soon. It's going to be published this year in June, and it's interesting because- on so many levels, but- again, you were shifting gears, moving from the short story, an editor, or simultaneously doing both- you also write essays, as well- and now, you're working on this book-length of fiction. So can you tell us some of the challenges that moving into this new area of writing presented for you?

de Gramont: I think the biggest challenge was finding a topic. Toward the end of writing my short story collection, my stories were getting longer and longer, and I can kind of tell which stories I wrote last by their length. I mean, the last story- I think it's physically the last story in the collection, but it's also the last story I wrote for the collection and it was about 65 manuscript pages. So I think that naturally as a writer, I was moving toward a longer form, but I had a really hard time coming up with- I think I was so used to sort of conceiving short stories that sort of rely on scenarios and epiphany that it was hard for me to come up with a story that was appropriate to a novel. And I mean, it's a pretty short novel, so I think, you know, this novel's probably a bridge between short stories and, you know, I assume my next novel will be a little longer. But that was the hardest part for me is sort of thinking about story in a different way. And I took a class with Clive Edgerton that was really helpful, 'cause he was so informative about the way that he works, and I think with the short story, you can really contain the whole thing in your brain. You don't have to map it out at all. And a novel just seems so unwieldy for me to contain in my head, and Clive showed us how he, you know, rates these diagrams of what- of each chapter that's gonna be in the book and what's gonna happen in each chapter. And once I realized I could sit down and almost do like a storyboard and map it out, it was much easier for me to do. And, you know, you don't have to stick to it, but it just sort of- it made it navigable for me.

Rodrigues: Do you have any preference for either genre? Or can you tell us what you prefer about each genre?

de Gramont: Sure. Well, the beauty of the short story is you can finish it. (laughs) You can conceive it and complete it and send it out into the world pretty quickly. And I love reading short stories. I remember reading an article by Alan Gurganis and how he loved the concept of, you know, something you could start after dinner and finish before bedtime, but you know, can just be this really rich world that you can sort of inhabit and then close and leave with a sigh and not think about going back to. And it's the same way writing them, and it's a very manageable- you know, somebody who really loves puzzles and structure and having things really orderly, and it's very easy- I mean, it's not very easy, but it's easier to write, you know, a short story, that comes together in a really specific way. With a novel, you know, you just get more attached to it, and you can really inhabit it. So I think the things I like about them, as far as writing them, are similar to my experience in reading them. And I doubt I would do another story collection. I think, now that I've sort of learned to write a novel, I think that's, that's how stories have started to work in my mind.

Rodrigues: Gossip of the Starlings is set during the Reagan administration and it tells the story of the blossoming friendship between Catherine Morrow and the beautiful, soft, destructive Skye Butterfield. The story takes place at the Esther Percy School for Girls, an exclusive all-girls prep school. The novel explores toxic friendships and a world filled with decadence. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of this novel?

de Gramont: Sure. I think- or, I decided to write it- I was teaching a Beginning-to-Fiction- or, an Intro-to-Fiction workshop, and I decided to assign the students a lot of books that I had loved when I was in my teens and twenties. And some of these books I hadn't read, you know, since then. And I was amazed by how differently I read them, you know, books that I- books like Endless Love, most specifically, that you know, when I was sixteen I read, totally straight. I came back and read it as an adult and saw- it was a much more complex story psychologically, but I also read it with just more cynicism and I just- I loved it just as much, but I had a completely different attitude toward it. And so I became interested in writing a book like that, you know, that you would read one way at sixteen and a different way at thirty-five. And I thought about when I was in high school, there was a scandal relating to boarding schools and cocaine and there were, you know, things about it that really affected me at the time, that I tried to write when I was around that age. I was a Creative Writing- well, I was an English major in college, but they let me do a Creative Writing thesis. And I tried to write, you know, a long piece that was sort of relating to these events. But I think- so it's natural to reach back to them when I wanted to write that kind of book. They've been germinating for so long and I think I had enough distance to re-imagine it in a completely different way.

Rodrigues: And let's talk about the world that Catherine and Skye live in, because one of the things that I noticed while reading the book was- details were so specific, this boarding school, the teachers that were in the boarding school, the types of girls that, you know, were at the boarding school, and then also there's a lot in there of an equestrian nature, very specific things about riding horses. How much of this comes from your experience and your own adolescence?

de Gramont: I did- I went to private schools that sort of- the schools that I went to that bear a closer resemblance to Esther Percy were- I was kind of a problem teenager, so I went to several different high schools. And the first two were, you know, pretty tony, private day schools, and then I graduated from a boarding school that had some similarities to Esther Percy, and I did ride there, but it was not all girls and it was actually very progressive, kind of groovy place. But, you know, I did, you know, certainly names of the dorms are taken from there, and you know, along the way I had associations with very, very wealthy kids, so some of those details are taken from my own experience. I did ride horses when I was younger, but nowhere near on the level that Catherine does. So for that, I sort of, you know, extrapolated my own memories of competing at a much more modest level, and then I interviewed a woman named Shannon Wolfe, who rode Medal McClay in the 80's, who was very involved in that world and she gave me great, great, great information about it and sort of pointed me toward books on equitation and things like that.

Rodrigues: How long a process was it to write this novel?

de Gramont: You know, again, I think the first draft was just under two years, and then, you know, probably another year and a half, working with the editor who acquired it.

Rodrigues: We're gonna go into more of a discussion on craft.

de Gramont: Sure.

Rodrigues: You write short stories, creative non-fiction and novel-length works. In each genre, your prose is evocative and fresh, but that seems to be where the similarities in content and tone and voice end. For example, in terms of content, Of Cats and Men examines the lives and the relationships of adult women, while Gossip of the Starlings explores adolescence. And your short story, "When Quakers Speak"-

de Gramont: (gasps) (chuckles)

Rodrigues: Which I loved, which I absolutely loved- seems to be an irreverent examination of an illicit love affair with Jesus-

de Gramont: Mm-hmm.

Rodrigues: What role does versatility play in your writing?

de Gramont: It's funny, because "When Quakers Speak-" I wrote that story- that story came out fairly recently- I think it came out in 2005, but I wrote it, I think- when did I?- I wrote it a long time ago, I mean, I think it was probably at least ten years before, 'cause I had just broken up with- you know, I had a bad breakup. So, partly it's what's going on in your life, what you're thinking about, you know, I think at the time I wrote Of Cats and Men, I was preoccupied with male/female relationships. I hadn't been married very long, so I was sort of very interested in the dynamics of a young marriage. And then when I wrote Gossip of the Starlings, it just- it was a matter of sort of wanting to re-visit a story that had been really meaningful to me when I was younger and sort of trying to figure out a way to look back on it. So maybe it's, you know, just like a function of age where you're preoccupied with at the time, and then you reach a certain point where it's interesting to look back and sort of evaluate the past.

Rodrigues: Do you tend to look for a challenge when you're picking your next project? Is it important for you to make sure that it's gonna be a challenge to you?

de Gramont: I don't think so. I think what's mostly important is that it can capture my imagination and preoccupy me. If it's something that I can think about and, you know, there will be challenges inherent and in a way, that's what makes it interesting, 'cause you have to figure out how to make it work. But for me, it's mostly about story, you know, is this a story that I'm gonna be- that I can daydream about, you know, that I'm gonna think about before I go to bed and then I'm gonna wanna spend a lot of time in this world and with these characters. And the characters become very real to me. I mean, I remember the first novel I wrote my first year out of college. I was living in a ski town and working on this novel, and you know, it was the classic, you know, really bad first novel that will never see the light of day. But I got so close to the main character and I remember having a phase where I couldn't write for a while, I was very busy, and I had a dream that she left a message on my answering machine. You know, "Hey, you know, this is Molly. I haven't heard from you for a while. Just coming to see you, wondering what you're up to." So I think, for me, that's the most important thing, is that I sort of become friends with the story and the people in it and attach to it.

Rodrigues: You live with a writer.

de Gramont: Mm-hmm.

Rodrigues: Your husband is David Gessner, and he's a professor here of Creative Writing at UNCW. With two writers in the family, does it become difficult to separate yourself from your craft?

de Gramont: Sometimes. But I think mostly it's helpful. I mean, it's helpful having somebody there who understands you and who knows sort of what, you know, David's always been, you know, chronologically a little ahead of me in the process, so almost anything that I can- that can go wrong for me has already gone wrong for him. Obviously, it's nice to have someone who can commiserate and know what you're going through, and sort of know it's exciting and know it's scary. And also, David, specifically, happens to be a very, very diligent hard-worker, and I tend to be a little bit lazy, so it's really good for me to have him to model myself after, you know. You're not writing and then you hear somebody- he's constantly clicking away- (laughs) you kinda think, "Wup, better get to work!" So it's been very motivating for me. And you know, I mean, I think we're both- writing's an incredibly personal thing, so who you are is gonna be wrapped up in the craft and what you're working on, no matter who you're married to, you know, so it's nice to have somebody who can kind of understand that and that process.

Rodrigues: Speaking of the difference in your writing styles and listening to David click away, do you have a set writing schedule?

de Gramont: I used to. I used to- well, first of all, I used to not. Then I married David and started living with David, and was like, "Oh, that's how it's done." And then I became, you know, really modeled myself after him and very diligently wrote, you know, every morning when I got up. It's been more difficult since having a child. And during the year, when David's teaching and I'm teaching, and you know, it's sort of- now that she's in school every morning, I try to write while she's in school, but it's harder to get a set schedule, except for, you know, during breaks, during vacations, when David and I can kind of switch off on childcare. But I'm a big believer in schedules, and I think that, you know, ultimately that's the way you get things done. You can't kind of wait for inspiration to strike. You have to really, you know, sit down and work on a regular basis.

Rodrigues: What's the difference in your writing style when you're not on deadline versus when you are on a deadline?

de Gramont: I think I always feel like I'm on a deadline. You know? I always feel like I have to produce and I always have deadlines in my head, because I work- that's how I work best. So for me, I don't think it makes that much of a difference. You know, maybe I'm a little more stressed out about it if somebody else is setting the deadline. But also, once you've been at it for a little while, you realize that publishers' deadlines are very flexible, so it's not that much different to me than setting, you know, a goal in my head- have to finish this draft by March, you know.

Rodrigues: What's the most difficult aspect of being a writer?

de Gramont: I think exposing yourself and you know, I think it can be very stressful in the months leading up to a book coming out because, you know, you're sort of sending it out into the world and you know people are gonna be reading it and critiquing it, and it's all gonna be very public. So for me, the hardest part of it is the business aspect, you know, the sort of- well, okay, that's a contradiction. There's the hard aspect of exposing yourself, when you sit down and you write something and it's very personal, and it's very internal, and you put it on the page and you send it out into the world, not only for the people's enjoyment, but for people's scrutiny. And it's, you know, it can be stressful and hard and I'm not a very thick-skinned person, so I have to work on, you know, kind of steeling myself to what people's reactions to it are gonna be. And then also, you know, the business aspect of it is hard, just sort of navigating the business of writing and publishers and agents and offers and, you know, making enough money to survive and that kind of thing.

Rodrigues: Let's talk a little bit about your education and then also about teaching. You received your BA from Colorado College, and your MFA here at UNCW. There's actually a gap, a large gap, between the two, right?

de Gramont: Right.

Rodrigues: And I wondered what role your formal education has played in your career as a writer.

de Gramont: Well, I actually- it's not on my resume because I didn't finish my degree, but I did go to an MA program in between there, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And I think my education has been huge. Colorado College was a fantastic school for the arts, and I had great writing teachers there. I had a lot of freedom to write- like I said, my thesis was creative. And then, at Boulder, it was a very experimental program. We were really encouraged to kind of abandon story and do things with voice and try to really get as sort of funky and different as you could, which was not my natural- I mean, I think I'm a pretty traditional storyteller naturally, so it was really good for me to sort of learn to, you know, focus on language. And then after that, I kind of returned to my more natural storytelling style, but it was infused with, I think, a stronger aesthetic. And then my experience at UNCW was after I'd published a book, but you know, it's just valuable in thinking back to a community of writers and concentrating on writing and talking about writing, and reading books and, I mean, I think it's incredibly valuable.

Rodrigues: Once you have that choice to come back and to go from having already, you know, received the attention that a writer craves in publishing a book and that affirmation, and then coming back to go into an MFA Program.

de Gramont: It was a combination of, you know, wanting to teach. I think if you wanna teach at the university level, you really need an MFA. You need a terminal degree and an MA is not considered a terminal degree. And I didn't have my MF- I mean, I never finished my MA anyway. And then also, you know, David had gotten a job here, I was about to have a baby and I thought, "Oh, I'll need something else to do, besides take care . . ." You know, I was afraid of being locked up in a house, just me and a baby, in a town where I didn't know anybody, so I really wanted a community to be part of.

Rodrigues: Now you're a professor here at UNCW, and I'm curious- as a teacher, what are some of the lessons that you've brought from your own education into the classroom? What are some of the lessons that you're creating on your own for your students and teaching to them?

de Gramont: I think at CU, I really learned how important limitations are. I think when you're first writing, you're kind of making the transition, you know, into creative mindset and you wanna just sort of be as free as possible. And I think learning craft is all about setting parameters for yourself, so I like to do a lot of really limited- you know, you have to write an active scene, and you can't use the letter "e"- you know, that kind of thing. And, I'm sorry- could you repeat the question?

Rodrigues: Well, first I was curious what you brought from your own formal education and then what you're creating on your own in the classroom to help your students, maybe some of the things that you felt weren't in your formal education and you're trying to incorporate while teaching your students.

de Gramont: Well, I try to focus on workshops and I try to keep- like I have- one of the things I noticed once I became a professional writer and was working with editors, was that they always led with a positive, and it helps you to be much more receptive to whatever criticism comes next, so I've really tried to sort of structure my workshops around positive feedback, at least initially. You know, nobody's allowed to criticize the piece until they've said something positive about it. And you know, we talk about all the positive things for the first ten minutes of the workshop, at least. So that's one thing that I've brought very specifically, based on my own workshop experience and my professional experience.

Rodrigues: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about place. You spent a good portion of your adult years living in a beach community. First, Cape Cod and now Wrightsville Beach, and some of your short stories and essays mention these locations. Can you discuss with us how your sense of place displays itself in your writing?

de Gramont: I think it's a backdrop. I think when you're writing fiction, you're sort of responsible for the stage design, the set design, so you wanna bring in as many physical and sensory details as you possibly can, and I think when you're dealing with the natural world, the beach is wonderful for that 'cause there's so many sensory details you can draw from, you know, from the ocean to the bird life to the way the air smells to the plant life, you know. Rugosa Rose- where else does Rugosa Rose grow? What a great word- (giggles) in fiction, so I think there's just- there's so much richness there and there's so much metaphor there. And I like to read work, other non-fiction and fiction that's very grounded in place. I like to be right where the work is set.

Rodrigues: What are some of your favorite authors to read while sitting on the beach?

de Gramont: Oh, I never do that anymore. (laughs) I would say my favorite books are I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love George Eliot. I love Stephen McCauley. I still love Tom Robbins- that's like a leftover thing from my teenage years, but I just- I have a real affection for his sort of crazy storytelling style. I loved Water for Elephants, which I just finished. I think I like books that kind of straddle the, you know- I like books that are really well-written, so literary in that sense, but I also like- I like big, involving relationship-based stories, too.

Rodrigues: What types of books did you read as a child?

de Gramont: I read kind of, you know, the classics, the basics. I loved A Wrinkle in Time. I loved Roald Dahl. I loved, you know, sort of the Narnia books, and fantasy- Edward Eager, I loved. And then, you know, I think I was one of those kids who, pretty young, graduated to adult books. I read Love Story about 3,000 times and you know, I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald quite young, and Hemingway and Louisa May Alcott and the Brontes and Jane Eyre. I read all of those when I was a teenager.

Rodrigues: How much of your time was spent reading as a teen?

de Gramont: Ridiculous amounts- a lot, a lot, a lot.

Rodrigues: Did you have a parent or a teacher who was constantly fueling this desire to read or encouraging it or taking you to the library and-

de Gramont: Sure. My parents were very book-oriented. I have an uncle who's a writer, and he was a journalist and a writer and he would get a lot of free books, and whenever he came, he'd always leave me a little stack of them. And I think he was the one who first started giving me kind of more grown-up books. And, you know, my mom is a writer, and my dad loves books. You know, it's definitely the kind of household where the TV was kind of hidden upstairs in a tiny room, and you know, our living room looked like this place, you know, just books everywhere.

Rodrigues: Did you know at an early age that you wanted to be a writer?

de Gramont: I think I did, yeah, you know, it was something that I got a lot of approbation for whenever I attempted it, so I felt confident in it. And I loved to read and I don't think it ever really occurred to me to be anything else. I think I always knew that I wanted to write.

Rodrigues: Let's talk just briefly about the business portion of writing.

de Gramont: Sure.

Rodrigues: And particularly, a lot of up and coming writers are always curious about finding representation, someone to take their manuscript and show it to, you know, publishers-

de Gramont: Right-

Rodrigues: Throughout the U.S. You're represented by Peter Steinberg of the Steinberg agency.

de Gramont: Mm-hmm.

Rodrigues: Can you discuss with us the role that an agent plays in the career of a writer and what are some of the qualities that an agent should have to help a writer build a successful career?

de Gramont: I'm really lucky because my editors- my agent is a great editor. He went to film school and had aspirations as a writer himself, so he's a very astute reader, and he's really willing to- you know, I can send him a pretty early draft of something and he'll come back with really great edits and feedback. So, I mean, I've been really lucky. You know, I started out- I'm still with the agent I started out with. I'm really happy with him. I know that he's very loyal and that, you know, he'll stick by me and support me. I can call him if I'm upset about something. So I mean, I think ideally you want- the first thing is you want an agent who loves your work, which is pretty much a given because they get so many submissions, I think in order to take you on, you know, they generally do love your work. But also, I think, just someone that you can really trust, that you can trust has your best interests at heart, whose opinion you can trust if you give him or her work. You're gonna take, you know, what's said very seriously. And I really trust my agent as a friend, as an editor, and as an advocate. He's done very well by me. He's a great guy.

Rodrigues: What are some of your future projects coming up? Are you working on another novel?

de Gramont: I just finished a draft of a YA novel, and I've got two possible projects in the future, but I think right now I'm gonna be concentrating on the revisions of the YA novel.

Rodrigues: And what about the Young Adult market appeals to you right now? Well, Gossip of the Starlings, I notice on the Amazon, it's kind of being-

de Gramont: I saw that! Yeah! Yes.

Rodrigues: Being geared towards young adults, so I think that's great.

de Gramont: Right. Yeah, me, too.

Rodrigues: What about the Young Adult market does appeal to you right now?

de Gramont: I love writing about teenagers. I think it's a very like pure and beautiful point in your life. I mean, obviously it's a very troubled and in ways traumatic time, but I think you're never gonna be more idealistic or passionate, and it makes for great characters. It's such a kind of a wry and cynical world that you can't paint an adult the same way you can paint a teenager. You can kind of go back to more classic literary protagonists, I think, if you're dealing with teenagers. Also, I think when you're a teenager is when you're really becoming passionate about reading. I think the books that are most important to you and sort of imprint themselves upon you the most are the books that you discover when you're, you know, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. I think the book that I think about most often on a daily basis is A Wrinkle in Time. I'm always, you know- the metaphors in that book are just ingrained in me, part of who I am, and had a huge effect on how I see the world.

Rodrigues: I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

de Gramont: My pleasure.

Rodrigues: We look forward to when your book comes out in June.

de Gramont: Thank you.

Rodrigues: Gossip of the Starlings. So thank you, Nina.

de Gramont: Thanks, Carmen.

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