The Starboard Sea

The Starboard Sea

1.    What can you tell our readers about The Starboard Sea?

The Starboard Sea is a story about friendship, the mutability of sexual desire, the joys of competitive sailing and the dangers of unchecked privilege. The novel is set in 1987 at a boarding school, Bellingham Academy, located on the coast of New England. The main character, Jason Prosper, has just turned eighteen and is transferring to Bellingham after having been kicked out of a more prestigious prep school. Bellingham is a refuge for kids in need of a second chance. It’s the kind of place where, if you can pay, you can stay. All of the students at Bellingham have been damaged by their own sense of entitlement: intelligent troublemakers smart enough to realize that breaking rules can lead to more freedom. Jason is a champion sailor still reeling from the recent death of his best friend and sailing partner, Cal. As Jason tries to reconcile the loss of his best friend, he meets a young woman, Aidan, who is struggling with her own difficult past. Jason and Aidan come together, develop an unexpected friendship and begin to help each other heal.


2. Do you find short story writing and novel writing different?

Writing a short story is similar to carving an ice sculpture while writing a novel is like building a house. Writing a short story requires intuition and a profound degree of focus. Imagine having a block of ice in front you. It’s shiny and clear but it’s also melting. You need to make bold, decisive choices and you need to believe that there is something hidden inside the ice that only you can reveal. A novelist is an architect. When a writer begins plotting her novel, she needs to know what sort of structure she is building—a mid-century modern home, a tree house, a McMansion, a bomb shelter, a shotgun shack—and how the structure will impact the lives of the characters who will inhabit the house. A novelist must marry her artistic instincts with a keen appreciation for planning and engineering.


3. You are an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, so how much has this aided your own work?

One of the great ironies of my life is that I grew up in the Northeast and went to a prep school that was predominantly male but I currently live in the American South and teach at a women’s college. I am very lucky to have lived in every region of the United States. If I’d only ever stayed in the Northeast, I would have a very narrow understanding of politics, race relations, socio-economic privilege and regional differences. My students at Agnes Scott are a constant source of inspiration. So many of these young women are the first in their family to go to college. I am especially proud of the returning and nontraditional students—older women who bring the richness of their life experiences to our creative writing classes. My students keep me honest. I struggle with the same questions about writing that they do and it is up to me to come up with narratives strategies to address these concerns.


4. What are your favourite reads?

In my secret life, I am a stand-up comedienne. Two of my favorite recent books are by the British comic, Stewart Lee, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian and If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One EP. Both are ingeniously annotated transcripts of his comedy routines. I am in awe of Lee’s humanity and wit. He’s constantly innovating and deconstructing how stories are told and received. He takes the kind of necessary risks that challenge an audience. But what I appreciate most about his work is his ability to question and call out his own cleverness. He is merciless, even to himself.


Like so many other readers, I was dazzled and devastated by Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. I read all five in quick succession and believe that these novels are the best company a reader could ask for. As a writer, I learned so much about structure and narration. I admire how each book is essentially set within a single day and I was amazed by how quickly and fluidly St. Aubyn moves through multiple points of view. The books raise so many questions about human cruelty and frailty. We first meet Patrick Melrose as a child and we come to care about him as a young man and then adult. When we later meet his own children we feel this harrowing degree of narrative tension. 


5. Which writers can you credit as being an influence to your own work?

In terms of the great dead, the fiction writers I go back to over and over again are Gustave Flaubert, Colette, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, James Baldwin, John Cheever, Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Parker, Octavia Butler, Barry Hannah and David Foster Wallace. In terms of contemporary authors, I admire the attitude and daring of AM Homes, Jeanette Winterson, Samuel R. Delany, Andre Dubus III, Reginald McKnight, Sherman Alexie, Jhumpa Lahiri, JM Coetzee, Jim Crace, Michael Martone, Sabrina Orah Mark. What I love most is when a novel or story moves me so deeply that I realize how much harder I need to work to have a similar influence on a reader.

6. What was your background before you became a professor?

My parents are rare book dealers. I grew up in a house filled with first editions and I was sort of doomed to become a writer. Most of my childhood was spent visiting bookstores, antique stores and auctions. As a result, I have great appreciation for literary history and am grateful for all of the rare books, letters and literary ephemera that have been passed down to me. My family lives by the water and the ocean has been the most defining feature of my life. Early on, I knew that I wanted to use my own experiences on the water in The Starboard Sea.

7. What advice can you give to new writers who want to get published?

First, write your absolute best and most polished work. Be hard on yourself and be fully committed to your development as a writer. Give yourself plenty of time to experiment with voice and form. Don’t worry about getting published. If you write something that matters to you there is very good chance that it will matter to others as well. Read everything. Subscribe to literary journals and read those journals. I know so many people who want to be published but who never both to read the very journals they are sending their work off to. Don’t worry about rejection. Don’t be afraid to take matters into your own hands by forming your own small press, literary journal or online journal. Develop your editorial skills by publishing other writers. This will give you the absolute best training and understanding of the professional side of writing.  


8. What is next for you?

St. Martin’s will publish my short story collection, Damage Control, in March 2013. I adore the short story form. I love entering briefly into the most important moment in a character’s life. The title story of the collection is set in Houston, Texas at an etiquette school where the girls pay to attend classes and the boys are paid to entertain the girls. Another story, “Lyndon,” is also set in Texas—at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Ranch. One story, “Afternoons in the Museum of Childhood,” takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland and another, “Stella at the Winter Palace,” takes place on a cruise ship sailing around Europe. My hope is that the stories explore the humor and absurdity of the characters’ difficult lives while granting each character a moment of grace.

Click here to buy The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

Female First Lucy Walton


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