Amber Dermont, a veteran leader and creative writing teacher on our Pre-College summer program at Amherst College, Oxford University, and Bennington College, recently released her first novel. The Starboard Sea - a coming-of-age tale set at an elite New England boarding school – explores themes of privilege, prestige, and the quest to navigate one’s own morality. It also deals artfully in the language and metaphor of sailing. Published about a month ago, the novel has already received tremendous praise and publicity.
Amber’s debut earned her the front page of the New York Time’s Sunday Book Review, and has provoked parallels drawn between her novel and Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and even mentioned alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. The New York Times writes, “The Starboard Sea is a novel about the exhilarating freedom of being young and in love with the world, in harmony with nature and with an irreplaceable friend.”
The New York Times reviewer describes in particular the richness of Amber’s literary take on the sea and sailing. She writes, “Dermont’s prose glides across the ocean, reminding us why writers are so reliably drawn to the water — its beauty and its danger, and the inherent adventure every voyage contains as the boat navigates between the two… It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a spindrift from a seaboard — the language of sailing is lovely, both simple and elaborate, unexpectedly sexy and inexhaustibly metaphorical.”
We had the great privilege of catching up with Amber and talking with her a bit about her experience teaching Creative Writing seminars on our summer Pre-College enrichment programs. An excellent example of the caliber of leaders that shape our summer program for high school students, she gave great insight into the value of summer writing workshops and the rewards of participating in a Putney program.
First off, congratulations on all of the positive buzz that your first novel has generated. Has it changed your day-to-day life so far?
Thank you so much! I’m grateful that readers are finding the novel and responding to it so positively. I’m especially touched by all of the letters and emails I’ve received from readers. It’s amazing how willing people are to reach out and share their responses to The Starboard Sea. It’s more than I could have hoped for. In terms of changing my day-to-day life, I find myself a little busier these days but in the best possible way with readings and book club discussions. I still have all of the responsibilities of being a college professor and writing my own stories. My office is messier than I’d like it to be.
Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a staff member on summer student travel and pre-college programs, particularly as a creative writing instructor on our Pre-College Excel programs at Amherst College, Bennington College, and Oxford University?
I loved teaching on Pre-College enrichment programs. I was very lucky to teach four different subjects in three different summer programs: Bennington, Oxford/Tuscany and Amherst. At Bennington, I taught a class on Gender Studies and I still stay in touch with a number of students from that summer—one actually wound up majoring in Women’s Studies in college. In Oxford/Tuscany, I taught Creative Writing and Travel Writing. It was a real treat to be able to take the students to so many literary landmarks. I remember leading an Alice in Wonderland tour through the Oxford campus and bringing the students to The Eagle and Child, the very pub where C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien would meet every week to discuss their writing. In Paris, the students and I lunched at Café de Flore in the same spot where Hemingway and Picasso used to dine together and argue about Modernism. When we went to Florence, we read Mary McCarthy’s love letter to that city, The Stones of Florence, and the students wrote their own travel diaries modeled off of McCarthy’s work. At Amherst, I taught Creative Writing and Screenwriting but I also served as Assistant Director of the program. It was fun to come to know the students in a different capacity. One student mentioned to me in passing that his uncle was a sculptor and I realized that I knew his uncle’s work and that there was great piece of his on display at Mass MOCA. As Assistant Director, I was able to arrange a trip there for the entire program and it was rewarding to see the student take in his uncle’s art work for the first time.
What is your overarching philosophy as a creative writing teacher for high school summer programs on college campuses? What sort of exercises do you do with your students?
I found that the high school students were game for anything and willing to push the boundaries of their imaginations. I often give students triggers to help them begin a piece. Sometimes the triggers have very strict boundaries and forms. Other times, I might ask the students to model their writing after another author we’ve read. No matter the instructions, I always encourage the students to make the assignments their own and to use the assignments as a means of finding their own voice. If they merely fulfill the exercise, all they’ve done is complete an exercise. If they go off on their own into surprising, uncharted territory, then they’ve begun to take the steps toward telling a story and becoming a writer.
Can you think back on any particularly memorable Pre-College enrichment students, stories, or moments from your academic summer programs? What stands out the most in your mind?
One of my students from the Pre-College program at Oxford University, Harry Almquist, visited me in Houston when I was teaching at Rice University and stayed with me during his college visit. Harry is one of the smartest students I’ve ever encountered. He wound up going to the University of Chicago and is currently working in investment banking.
Another student from my screenwriting class at Amherst College, Danny Gilberg, recently sent me the following email, “Thanks to you, I spent my college years at Vassar and absolutely loved it. It allowed me to grow tremendously as an individual and I learned a tremendous amount. I ended up majoring in History, and spent a lot of my time doing theater at Vassar. I did a good amount of acting and production management, but also spent one semester as director and in one other, wrote a twenty-minute play that was performed as a part of series alongside two other plays. I graduated in 2010 spent the last year working for an organization that does after-school programming in inner city schools, and orchestrated a performing arts program at my school for the second half of the year. I don’t know if you remember, but I looked at Vassar at your suggestion, and wouldn’t have ended up there without your help.”
I really appreciate the opportunity I had to work with high school students at such an impressionable and important moment in their lives and am especially glad that I was able to make recommendations about college and working in the arts.
Have your experiences on Pre-College summer programs had an effect on your writing?
Yes! The title story in my short story collection, Damage Control, (forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press) is based on a comment a student made to me at Bennington College during our Gender Studies class. The student in question was very smart and thoughtful but she was also struggling with some of the ideas being put forth in the class regarding feminism and equality. During one class, I brought in an old etiquette book—I’m fascinated by Miss Manners and Emily Post—and the student in question told a story about how she’d gone to an etiquette school. As she described her experiences there, she commented on the facts that while the girls paid tuition to go to the school, the boys were paid to attend. The boys were compensated for talking to the girls and attending teas. Apparently, the boys were valued for their ability to teach the girls how to flirt and make small talk. When my student heard herself tell this story, her whole view on feminism changed in an instant. I used her realization as an inspiration for my own etiquette school story, “Damage Control.”
What kind of an effect can displacement from one’s comfort zone, be it geographically or socially, have on an individual’s writing? How has this been displayed in the Pre-College enrichment programs on which you’ve taught?
That’s a great question! On the Oxford University and Tuscany summer program, I had the high school students in the Travel Writing Class write letters to themselves at the beginning of the trip. The students wrote down everything they were looking forward to and everything they were afraid of experiencing. I collected the letters, kept them during the trip and then at the end of the class, I returned the letters to the students and they read them aloud. All of them had grown and matured so much in those weeks. All of them had faced some fear about traveling, being away from home, meeting new people and making friends in unfamiliar surroundings. I was so proud of them but more importantly, they all learned something valuable about their strengths and confidence.
Were you a writer in your high school days? What sort of things helped you find your narrative voice?
I’ve been serious about writing my whole life. My parents are rare book dealers and they constantly encouraged me to read beyond my own experiences. I never want to write the same story twice, so I’m always searching for my character’s own unique voice. The great thing about spending times with teenagers is that they have such a fresh command over language and vernacular. My novel, The Starboard Sea, is set in a prep school and I often write about teenagers. I love teaching and listening to the innovative ways my students approach language.
What sort of advice do you have for students getting excited for their creative writing seminars this summer on their Putney Excel programs, or for other students on their first Pre-College summer enrichment program?
Be really open and eager to learn from your teachers and your classmates. The students who attend these Pre-College enrichment programs are incredibly bright and sophisticated. You will probably make a lifelong friend and find a lifelong reader for your work. When I was teaching at Putney, I was amazed by the great Tim Weed’s ability to select faculty. So many talented writers have taught for Putney—from National Book Award finalist, Salvatore Scibona to best-selling novelist, Karen Russell, to the brilliant memoirist and political satirist Periel Aschenbrand, the award-winning poet, Michael Dumanis and the historian Dominic Tierney. The faculty will support you in every way possible and will be there for you long after the program has ended.
Amber is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, an M.A. from Emerson College and a B.A. from Vassar College. She teaches Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.