Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Homecoming for a Debut Novelist

Bookstore staffs are populated by struggling writers, hopeful authors and dedicated scribblers who are all a break away from getting published. Many give up, pushing their half-finished novels, ragged drafts of short stories, and marked-up pages of poems to the bottom of a drawer as they move onto more certain and lucrative careers. A few manage to get published, but by the time they do they've long ago left the bookstore behind and are never seen again.

Nina de Gramont worked for the Boulder Book Store in the mid-1990s, and she was one of the more earnest wannabe writers on the staff. Perhaps she knew all the hard work that lay ahead of her, since her husband David Gessner published his superb natural and personal history Wild Rank Place while she was a bookseller. More likely, she was just a bit more serious in her ambitions and much more willing than most of her colleagues to put in the hard work necessary to become a professional writer.

De Gramont, who now lives in North Carolina, returns to the Boulder Book Store on June 26th to speak and sign her new novel, Gossip of the Starlings. It's a magnificent look at adolescents careening towards disaster as they succumb to peer pressure. Her signing will be a rarity in the bookstore world. It's the first time in more than a decade that a former Boulder Book Store employee has had a reading for a published book at the store.

"I'm really looking forward to it," de Gramont said. "I'm excited. I have great memories of working at the store. David (Bolduc) was a generous employer. To me, the Boulder Book Store is a naturally calming space, especially the ballroom where the readings are held. I don't feel like a conquering hero returning, more like a humble servant visiting."

Gossip of the Starlings is a nuanced look at two high school friends, Catherine Morrow and Skye Butterfield. These aren't your typical teenagers. Skye is the daughter of a United States Senator, and Catherine competes at the highest levels of show jumping. Despite their high-class pedigrees, de Gramont manages to make their stories resonate. They are two teenagers caught in a spiraling world of drugs and high expectations. The inner turmoil that consumes them could mirror that of any troubled high school student.

"As a writer, you have to express compassion and sympathy for your characters regardless of their circumstances," de Gramont wrote in an email interview. "Part of what makes the story dramatic is the way in which these characters are willing to gamble with, and in some cases squander, all the opportunity and safety that's been granted them."

Catherine narrates the story in an elegiac tone as she looks back on the fateful year she spent as Skye's friend. This device allows de Gramont to view the wild and impetuous Skye through adult eyes rather than through the harsh lens of an adolescent. Catherine also imbues the entire novel with a hint of foreboding that begins on the very first page. The opening paragraph establishes not only the point of view and the sense of doom, but also the beautiful, meticulous, and poetic language that de Gramont uses throughout the book.

Now, when I see teenage girls laughing, when I see them loosed on a summer evening--
their limbs tanned and gossamer, their imagined freedom radiating like nuclear light--
I can't help but fast-forward two decades or more. I know the curve of their bones has
already made an imperceptible bow to gravity. I see the decay in slow motion, even or
especially through those stunning and immortal years.

"One of the reasons I wanted Catherine to narrate from a remove of years was to accomplish an adult sort of sympathy toward Skye," de Gramont said. "From a teenage point of view, Skye is glamorous and dangerous and very powerful. But from an adult point of view, she becomes quite tragic."

The reader begins to get a clear understanding of the recklessness of Skye's character and a hint of the tragedy that is sure to come in an extended scene that takes place in the eerily empty summer home of Skye's parents on Cape Cod. In the scene, de Gramont touches upon both the exhilaration of being a teenager along with the feelings of ennui that are experienced at that age. Skye's actions are so inappropriate and dangerous that Catherine's other friends clearly see her as a risk, even as Catherine is blinded by her seductive friend.

"I am drawing on some of my own experiences for that scene in particular," de Gramont said. "I wanted to establish the sense of freedom that comes from escaping rules, and at the same time illustrate the dynamics that evolve from new, self-imposed rules. In other words, Skye and Catherine may have escaped the bonds of one culture, but of course they've entered a new one. As a neophyte in the rule-breaking world, Skye doesn't understand the importance of the new parameters. She's as willing to flout her peers' rules as she is her parents', and that more than anything is what makes her dangerous."

The writing is remarkably powerful and emotionally true because de Gramont seems to dig deep into her own experiences and feelings in the narrative. Despite the nostalgic tone, there is an urgency that both teenagers and adults can appreciate in this novel. The drama and the feeling of living life on the edge that are the hallmarks of adolescence are perfectly recreated here.

Surprisingly, the skeleton of the story is based on a real life drug bust from the 1980s. Unlike so many other novels that have roots in true news incidents, Gossip of the Starlings has none of the stiltedness that comes from being bound to the facts of a story. The characters are fully fleshed out and wholly original. Catherine and Skye and those around them take on lives of their own that don't seem to follow a preordained script or fit into a network news cycle.

"In 1984 there was an infamous drug bust involving one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country," de Gramont said. "The incident got some press in the New York Times and even a segment on Sixty Minutes.... The surrounding events lingered in my imagination for years, but they only provided the barest template. I intentionally didn't go back and research any of the old news stories, or conduct any interviews, because I wanted the action to belong purely to the characters in my novel."

De Gramont's fertile imagination has yielded not only a beautifully written novel that perfectly melds tone, character and plot into a riveting narrative, but also an important cautionary tale for teenagers who are just beginning to explore the world on their own.

She might not feel like a conquering hero as she returns to the Boulder Book Store, but coming back to her old stomping grounds with one of the most accomplished books of the season certainly makes her a literary hero.

Nina de Gramont will read and sign her book Gossip of the Starlings at the Boulder Book Store on June 26th at 7:30 p.m.

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