Amber Dermont is the author of Damage Control, a short story collection, and The Starboard Sea, a New York Times Bestselling Novel. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Amber received her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. This July, she will teach a workshop titled “Plot and Action in the Short Story” for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Little Village spoke with Dermont about Iowa City, writing different genres and her new, collaborative project.
It seems like you visit Iowa City whenever you can! How many times have you returned since graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? What keeps drawing you back?
Place is sacred to writers and I’ve always found that Iowa City is one of the few locations in the world where I feel socially and culturally connected. Most of the time I live alone in my imagination, but when I’m in Iowa City, I engage in my surroundings and find myself eager to say hello, to recommend books to strangers, to flirt with waiters. After graduating from the Writers’ Workshop, I stayed away from Iowa City for years because I felt as though I didn’t deserve to return until I had a book to read from at Prairie Lights. During the summer of the biblical floods, I was supposed to return to teach, but my class was canceled. I took those rising waters as a direct order to finish my novel and my short story collection. By the time I returned in 2009, I’d sold them both. Since then, I’ve returned every summer.
Perhaps the real draw for me is that Iowa City is home to some of my favorite writers and closest friends. Amy Margolis, the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, is the greatest storyteller I’ve ever met and the smartest person I know. Danny Khalastchi is a dear pal and his new poetry collection, Tradition, is the perfect marriage of the sacred and the profane. Also, my godson, Baby Vance, and his two beautiful fathers, Vance and DJ, live in the most welcoming home in Iowa City.
You’re teaching a class for Iowa Summer Writing Festival on the short story, but you’ve written both a short story collection and a novel. What work do the two forms do, and how do they differ?
Both the short story and the novel aspire to do the work of great art: To reveal a previously unknown truth about the human condition. The most defining characteristic of a short story is compression while the most important aspect of a novel is the sustained accumulation of detail and action in the service of narrative. There is more to this than simply, “Short stories are short and novels are long.” The method of the short story is to cast a spell on a reader in a single sitting. Short stories are transfixing and magical—both for the writer and the reader. Novels aren’t necessarily more work or less magic but they require a different type of focus and endurance both for the writer and the reader. With a novel, a writer needs to justify the scale, scope and length of their story but that doesn’t mean that a short story is any smaller than a novel.
In order to write anything, the author needs to live within the world of her story and the more complex the characters, the more innovative the structure, the more questions the author might have about the world. Sometimes, an author needs to write 70 pages in order to discover her story, but once she’s discovered the story, she may also realize that the story only needs 12 of those pages. But which 12 pages? She might also realize that she has merely written the first 70 pages of a much longer project. If you listen, the story will tell you exactly what it is. Mostly, I teach people how to listen to their stories.
You’ve also taught a screenwriting workshop with Mark Jude Poirier for the Iowa Writer’s House. How does that process—conceptualizing a film plot—differ from telling a story through a short story or novel?
I adore plot probably because I love mischief, and I’m always anticipating disaster. Writing a screenplay has more in common with writing a novel since both require primary attention to structure, world creation and character arcs. Though I believe you can write about a hundred pages of a novel without a clear sense of where the story is heading, by the time you reach page 101, you really ought to know the ending you are writing toward, otherwise, you risk stalling out and never finishing your manuscript. With a screenplay, you are wise to work out the entire three-act structure—to know the beginning, middle and end—before you even begin to write dialogue and scenes. On the other hand, short stories are intuitive and mysterious. With a short story, the more a writer thinks she knows about how her story ends, the less likely she’ll be able to write an ending which surprises the reader.
So the heart of the work remains the same, even if the process changes?
All three genres require tremendous revision. Mark Jude Poirier and I first met at the Writers’ Workshop. We’d been close friends for years before we attempted to write a screenplay together. The most important thing I learned from Mark is that filmmaking is a collaborative process and a screenplay will always benefit from another revision. A screenwriter cannot have an ego or be a control freak. Actors will interpret dialogue and scenes will be spliced together by directors and editors who have their own ideas about the film. Writing is ultimately a lonely pursuit, but having a great screenwriting partner like Mark made me more motivated, more accountable to my writing and a lot less lonely.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 170