profiles in linguistics: Amber Dermont

Amber Dermont for Inprint 2Amber Dermont

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As a child, Amber Dermont grew up in the resonant renaissance of rare book dealers. Poems, she intimates, “taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness.” This intrinsic revelatory relationship between story and text nurtures her admiration of, “writing that doesn’t give up its secrets”. Take for example one musing inspiration she had for her book Damage Control, out from St. Martin’s Press; Bette Davis. Dermont describes her affinity towards the, “beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it.” These sentiments reflect her personal linguistic style, dreaming brightly in a wildfire.

Dermont’s view on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years? She states: “In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same … Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.” For Dermont, “Being a woman is a political act.” There is an advantage sitting in the reams of marginalization: “I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening, but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.”  This is a position one cannot take for granted.

Damage Control is a political pro-choice investigation highlighting the geometric tensions evident in domestication and women’s bodies. Our landscape takes place in an etiquette school between a teacher and his three passion stricken girls who refuse to quiet their desires. Mr. Foster falls for the girls he fosters. He falls for their intellect and their permissive humor. Ultimately, we learn, “the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice, but I also wanted to complicate the narrative.”

Dermont reflects, “Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned … Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger.” The story is one that honors and respects the courageous act of exalting flaw and freedom.

Amber Dermont is the author of bestselling novel, The Starboard Sea, and the short story collection, Damage Control. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Amber received her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Damage Control was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and The Starboard Sea was selected by the New York Times as one of the top 100 Notable Books of 2012. Amber lives in Houston, Texas where she serves as an Associate Professor of English at Rice University.
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1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. My parents are rare book dealers and I grew up in a home filled with first editions. As a child, I spent most of my vacations hunting for literary treasure in red barns and antique fairs all over New England. We’d speed around in the family Fiat listening to books on tape—short stories by John Cheever, Saki, Guy de Maupassant. A semi-charmed literary upbringing but one that made me take the business of books and writing seriously from a very young age.

Even though I write fiction, my first love is poetry. Many of the poems I have memorized are the ones my father read to me as a child—“The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” “The Bat,” “High Windows.” My father is a fan of subversive verse. When I was nine, my Daddy actually handed me Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” then asked, “So, what did you think? Pretty cool, right?” Poems taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness. My mother specializes in children’s books. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of stories and if you tell her the half-remembered plot of your long-forgotten favorite childhood tale, she will know the title and the author. My parents taught me how to care for and about books and I am forever in their debt. They are my first inspirations.

I’m less interested in playing favorites with writers and more invested in what I can learn about storytelling, craft and narrative complexity from authors who take real risks in their writing. As a reader, I’ve come to greatly admire difficulty and am particularly engaged by writing that doesn’t give up its secrets. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum, Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec, Holiday Reinhorn’s Big Cats, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity, Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart, Melissa Ginsburg’s Dear Weather Ghost, Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide To Being Born are books I return to over and over again. These are complex, ambitious texts that warrant multiple readings. Ideally, I want a book to invite me back; to demand more from me as a reader.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My friend Amy Margolis has taught me the most about storytelling, pacing, word choice, dramatic enactment and defamiliarization. Amy is the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and when I was a grad student at the Writers’ Workshop, I sat at her feet and listened. Amy’s lessons were always immediate and life changing. She understands how to turn/detonate/deliver a story and she has a singular relationship with language. No one is a better storyteller. No one. At the moment she’s working on a memoir and it’s the one book I crave daily and cannot wait to read.

As a child, I watched a lot of classic Hollywood cinema. Bette Davis was my ideal. Here was a beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it. “Number One Tuna,” a story in my collection, Damage Control, is an homage to Bette Davis’s incomparable filmography. Barbara Stanwyck’s sadness and her unhappy childhood—actually, her entire unhappy life—are a source of constant concern and amazement. She’s my current muse and I long to honor her work. Jean Seberg haunts me and moves me beyond measure. Her political activism probably cost her her life—a gift of basketball uniforms to the Meskwaki nation sent the FBI after her—imagine that.

A dear friend and a cast of Hollywood icons all taught me how to dream brightly and warned me about the dangers of doing so.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I never want to write the same story twice. Though writers are the crummiest and most dubious authorities on their own work, I might hazard that my novel, The Starboard Sea, is different in style and tone from my collection, Damage Control. Hopefully the short stories are each their own animal. Maybe my greatest wish as a writer is to escape all categorization. Yes, I wrote a novel about a prep school (a guilty pleasure for most) but writing The Starboard Sea was like setting my childhood on fire. A controlled burn is often the only way a writer can create new worlds but sometimes you need a wildfire. With Damage Control, I challenged myself to learn something new with every story. Each narrative pays tribute to someone I love or loved and lost or loved and temporarily misplaced then found hiding under my bed. The stories are an attempt to reconcile this longing.

Most writers are strange people and I am no exception. I am riddled with contradiction. I’m incredibly shy but I feel most at home on a stage. I would give my shoes to a stranger and walk home barefooted but would prefer to never put on shoes or leave my home. I loathe humanity but an enthralled by the human condition. I admire profound and complex human intelligence but nothing is more moving to me than a wild, open heart. My writing will probably always reflect these contradictions.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

When I was a child, you could sit me down with a stack of Archie’s comic books and I’d be very happy. Over time, I’ve tried to heighten my reading powers—though I would still feel at home at the malt shop with Betty and Veronica. I’ve always had eclectic taste and am inclined to read books that others might dismiss as pulp or genre—not for hipster cred but rather for serious appreciation of form, plot, world creation. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Phillip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have been claimed by the academy as literary writers but I loved them first when they were marginal mavericks. I adore British novels about class and privilege especially those by Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, Alan Hollinghurst, and Edward St. Aubyn. Their books play with satire and point of view in daring ways. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the power of fairytale especially Kate Bernheimer, Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. Ultimately, I just wish I could be Alice and write through my own looking glass.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

I’m drafting another novel. It’s terrifying and literally keeping me up at night. Last week, I was doing research and discovered a fact that actually confirmed one of my fictional details. I felt invincible for two glorious days and wrote with conviction. Don’t worry: all of that glory has worn off by now and I am back to my old terrified self.

Recently, I’ve been developing an original screenplay with the novelist Teddy Wayne. I’ve also written with the author and screenwriter, Mark Jude Poirier. Film is a collaborative art and passing drafts of a screenplay back and forth is particularly challenging and invigorating. Most of the time, writing is isolating and no one knows if you’re keeping honest working hours. It’s comforting to have a comrade in arms—someone who urges you on, helps you meet deadlines, fights your worst instincts and benefits from your minor gifts. Mark and Teddy are both blisteringly funny and sharp but they also have big hearts. It’s a curious thing to be able to write with another person—we enjoy shared sensibilities but we also each need to have something the other doesn’t. Mark and I had been friends for over a decade before we wrote together and the intimacy of that friendship made collaborating a real pleasure. Neither of us has any ego so we both wrote in service to the script. Teddy and I barely knew each other when we began our project but we share a similar drive and instinct for storytelling. Teddy has an extraordinary work ethic. You need to sustain that level of commitment if you hope to write a film worthy of production.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same. Prior to that the color black was used to distinguish a widow or woman in mourning and dresses were meant to hide a woman’s body and hinder her movements. Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.

I’m looking for a literary equivalent.

In the past twenty years, seven women have won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and nine in poetry. Ten women have won the National Book Award in Fiction and five in Poetry. Seven women have won the Booker Prize. In that time, six women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. What does any of this mean?

Women buy/read more literature than men (this is a fact) and female writers often top the best sellers lists. More women are being heard but I fear we are still losing voices especially in terms of race, class, ethnicity and sexual identity. For years, I taught at a women’s college and I encouraged my students to not only be writers but to infiltrate the publishing world and make significant changes in terms of who and what is published. All too often when women achieve some degree of power, they give that power away to a man—either by championing his work or privileging his heart and mind over their own. I write this as someone who has worked with male writers and supported their efforts (at great sacrifice to my own) so I myself am guilty as charged.

Writers benefit from maintaining an outsider status. Women, as a rule, are outsiders. We may make up more than 50 percent of the population but we hold 10 percent of the world’s wealth (who knew that this answer would include so much math). For me, the advantage of being marginalized is that I can observe the world and no one really expects me to comment. “Oh, we didn’t see you there with your notebook writing down all of these terrible things we’ve been saying. How dare you?” I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.

Being a woman is a political act. Writing, speaking in public, telling stories are all acts that can result in a woman’s death. I take my position as a writer very seriously and try not to take my privilege for granted. This past year I gave a reading with Jesmyn Ward and I remain in awe of her storytelling, her lyricism and her capacity to understand the good and evil we do. Ward’s writing is one of the great gifts of the last twenty years. She gives me hope.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I’m a big fan of Madeline McDonnell’s novella Penny, n. and her short story collection There is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out (both from Rescue Press). McDonnell’s writing is all razor wit and wild heartache. No one has a better command over language or double entendre.

Kelly Luce has just published a dreamy and daring collection Three Scenarios in Which Hanna Sasaki  Grows A Tail (from A Strange Object) that I recommend to anyone who loves magical toasters, imaginative leaps, outrageous honesty and miracles, miracles, miracles.

Melinda Moustakis won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for her collection, Bear Down Bear North and her writing is in direct dialogue with O’Connor’s work. Moustakis is fearless. She will take you into the darkness then teach you to love the white nights of Alaska.

A. Naomi Jackson has two novels that are about to be published and her words will light

up the sky. Her writing carries the wisdom of the ages.

Laurie Watel writes with profound strength and narrative authority. Her sentences contain a clarity and purity that readers hunger for but Watel never makes easy choices. She complicates her narratives in brilliant and surprising ways.

Megan Mayhew Bergman dazzles me on all fronts. She understands the natural world better than anyone and draws on our relationship to animals in surprising, harrowing and delightful ways.

Periel Aschenbrand is one of the funniest, dazzling and most uncompromising memoirists around. Her two books, The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own and On My Knees will keep you laughing, screaming and reeling but they will also teach you how to take better care of yourself.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I am searching, always searching for the next story.

9.)    In your short story “Damage Control,” there is a triangulation between the relationship to Landon, the boss’s daughter, and the girls in the Sis and Hasty Breedlove School of Southern Etiquette. The school is based around the curtsy; the performance of the comfortable. As the main character, teacher, and boyfriend Mr. Foster elucidates, “manners are neither commonsensical nor elitist, but rather an inclusive, complex methodology for making people feel comfortable.” The established frictive pull to the girls is intensified by their utter lack of manners. Can you describe this tension, why it feels solidified in a genuinity that contrasts Mr. Foster’s statement, and how this relates to the connection he has with his lover Landon?

I’m very grateful for these questions but I also want to say at the start that I do not believe that my opinion regarding any of my stories is any more valid or informed than any other reader’s. What will follow are merely thoughts—not explanations.

Years ago, I was struck by the relationship between gender and etiquette. I was teaching a class on gender studies and used an old etiquette book to illustrate the social construction of gender. If there’s an etiquette around a subject matter then that subject can and will be discussed according to the rules of etiquette. However, if there is no etiquette, there is no discussion. I wanted to write a story with a happy ending where the happy ending was not just one but three abortions. The girls in the story refuse domestication. They are audacious and reckless but they are also smart and funny and in control of their bodies. Mr. Foster believes he can control the world through etiquette and charm but he is merely a servant to these girls and their desires. It’s a strange story; one that I never thought would actually be published (never mind turn out to be the title story in my collection.) I thank Jill Meyer from American Short Fiction for taking a chance on a coven of untamable teenaged girls.

Love stories require triangulation and conflict. Mr. Foster has to choose between his lover Landon and the girls he fosters. I hope he makes the right choice.

10.)    The dialogue of the girls in the etiquette school is robust, overtly sexual, and encompassing. We ruminate between lines such as, “my mom knows how to swim. She thinks I’m a lesbian,” to “Molly showed us her bikini wax. Want to see it?” to “Molly thinks I’m polymorphously perverse”.  And as he himself admits, draws him into their world. The relationship is reciprocal; they need each other. One student tells him, “Mr. Foster, we should all sleep with a picture of you at the bottom of your beds. If your face was the first thing that we saw every morning our lives would, like, totally improve.” Does he want them to improve though and what does that mean? Is he, not in a way improving, further seduced by their inappropriate nature? Can you please describe how you utilize the dialogue of the girls to present this unraveling?

I believe that characters should only speak when they absolutely have to and only when they have something revealing to say. I love a great one-liner, a bawdy non sequitur. From Mae West and Moms Mabley to Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, so many women in stand-up comedy have made heroic advancements in feminism by saying smutty, outrageous and transgressive assertions regarding our bodies, our desires and our disappointments. I love that Mr. Foster falls for these girls—not for their bodies but for their good humor and wit.

11.)    These girls, Mr. Foster admits, “are a mystery to me. Their rituals and desires terrify me, and I feel myself getting lost among them.” He goes on to say, “Everything will go as planned, as ordered and conceived by me. These girls are my future and my family, my destiny, my choice.” But are they really his choice? The connection to the girls seems an unswayable trance yet he remains in a position as facilitator. Can you elaborate on this relationship? How do you see Mr. Foster and the girls participating in the teacher student dynamic? Who is in fact the guiding factor and how does this relate to the title of the story?

Ultimately, the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice but I also wanted to complicate the narrative. Mr. Foster isn’t entirely reliable—he has his illusions/delusions.

Frequently, rumors emerge about anti-abortion politicians who have secretly arranged for and insisted that their partners or mistresses have abortions. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a classic patriarchal rule of etiquette. I feel obligated to call out hypocrisy wherever I see it. Years ago, I heard a story about a famous ex-president who (allegedly) arranged for his girlfriend (pre Roe V. Wade) to have an abortion. It’s an extraordinary yet all-too-predictable story, well-sourced and most likely true and it speaks to a particular culture of American hypocrisy. I had that story in mind when writing “Damage Control.”

Abortion is legal but states make it harder and harder to achieve access. I wrote this story while living in Texas and—at the time—if I’d wanted to get an abortion, I would have had trouble finding a doctor willing to perform one. Yet again I find myself in Texas and yet again reproductive freedom is under siege. (Wendy Davis for Governor!) Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned. Hospital administrators don’t want abortion protesters on their front lawns and so we live in a world where a medical procedure is criminalized.

Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger. A pregnant woman is most likely to die at the hands of the person who made her pregnant. I wanted to write an unapologetic story about abortion but I also, more importantly, wanted to create a world with wounded, complex characters willing to exercise and exalt their freedoms.

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