Amanda Uhle spoke with Daniel Gumbiner on her podcast Living Writers about his debut novel The Boatbuilder (McSweeney’s, 2018), which was recently longlisted for 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. Gumbiner began his career at McSweeney’s as an intern, eventually becoming an editor of such books as Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents and McSweeney’s 46: The Latin American Crime Issue. We’re excited to share the transcript of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
AMANDA UHLE: For those who have not yet read The Boatbuilder, I wonder if you’d introduce it for us.
DANlEL GUMBINER: The Boatbuilder is a story of a young man named Berg. He’s 28 years old, and when we’re introduced to him at the beginning of the book, he’s suffering a great deal. He’s sustained a concussion that has left him with these chronic headaches. He’s prescribed opiate prescription painkillers and develops an addiction to them. So he’s got these two mounting issues that are intertwined. At the beginning of the book, he moves to this small town in rural Northern California in order to get away from the city, get some space and time to hopefully recover. While he’s there, he ends up meeting this boatbuilder, Alejandro, and begins to apprentice with him.
The story follows Berg’s relationship with Alejandro. It’s a coming of age story, although Berg is also older than the [protagonist of a] typical coming of age story. It’s not about turning eighteen and going off to college. He’s done a lot of stuff in the world. He’s pretty accomplished, professionally, but he’s also spiritually underdeveloped in some ways. He has his modus operandi of how he engages with certain things, and it just so happens that these challenges that he’s facing in this particular moment don’t respond to that type of approach, and so he’s forced to figure out a new way of approaching what’s happening to him.
UHLE: I like what you said about it being a coming of age story, but a new coming of age story, because it’s generationally different than what you think of as the teenage one, right?
GUMBINER: Yeah. I mean, I think my generation is very good at achieving things that are set out before us, and we’ve been trained to do that very well. We’re a little bit less capable when it comes to figuring out why we’re doing something or sitting in the discomfort of not having a plan. That’s the state that Berg finds himself in at the beginning of the book.
UHLE: Well, the character is in this common scenario of working in the tech industry in San Francisco and then escaping it.
GUMBINER: I think that’s the ladder that Berg has been on. It’s rewarding in certain ways, but it also allows him to not actually have to reckon with his own identity. He is distracting himself [by always] looking to the future, attaining new things, promotions, more money.
UHLE: Making apps. Doing the San Francisco tech thing, right?
GUMBINER: Right. He doesn’t have to really look at himself, and he becomes kind of a stranger to himself in a lot of ways. He knows this on some level and yet also he’s caught up in this whirlwind. That’s, I think, a pretty common experience for a lot of us. Our days—and just life in the 21st century—are incredibly full of distractions. Often times, it takes something like a very chronic or visceral pain to make us take stock of where we are and what’s happening to us. For Berg, it’s this concussion that then precipitates these headaches.
UHLE: I talked to someone else about this book recently and realized that we had a similar impulse after reading it: to make things. I think that you do such a beautiful job of talking about the serenity and the satisfaction in making.
GUMBINER: Craftwork, in a way, can be a mechanism to bring you into yourself and into your body and into the moment, because it necessitates that. When you’re cutting a joint for a boat, for example, if you make a cut too deep or too shallow, it has an [immediate] physical effect. The extent to which you are not paying attention to the [cutting of the] joints—it will result in a worse joint. It’s practice for paying attention to what you’re doing and that can have really beneficial effects for other aspects of your life too.
UHLE: You’re talking about it almost in a spiritual way. Is that fair to say?
GUMBINER: I think they’re related.
UHLE: How? Can you talk more about that?
GUMBINER: I think in the cultivation of awareness, mainly. So often in our lives, we’re thinking about where we’re going or where we’ve been before, and we are very rarely are actually awake to what’s happening to us. I think, as a result, what tend to misperceive things and, therefore, misdiagnose them and mistreat them.
UHLE: Or ignore them. Back onto the topic of making things, I wonder if you felt any parallels between making boats and writing. That’s a different kind of making. How do you relate those things, or do you see them differently?
GUMBINER: Absolutely. I mean, both writing and boatbuilding are creative acts. Boatbuilding has more real-world constraints you have to account for, the physical reality of the boat and the water. It has to float. [The boat] has to move forward. It has to capture the wind and harness it. There are all sorts of constraints that you’re dealing with in boatbuilding, but there’s also a lot of creativity. A boat can take many different shapes. It can be built out of different kinds of wood. It can have a different kind of sail plan. It involves creativity, but it’s creativity within a framework. Writing, on the other hand, has less of a framework, depending on how you define what writing is. But, generally speaking, it’s much more free as a medium. So there are both benefits and challenges to that. The benefit is that you can be more imaginative with what you’re doing. The challenge is that often times it can be hard to tell what is essential or what is important. With a boat, it’s more clear.
UHLE: Right, there’s some math behind it.
GUMBINER: I think the thing that both of them have, to my mind, is that they both reward attention to detail. With writing, along the lines of what I was talking about before with the joint, the more closely you pay attention to the cutting of a joint, the better it will be. I think the same thing can be said for a sentence. That just means honest with yourself about what a sentence is doing. Often times, we write something, and we want it to be better than it is, so we keep moving without actually acknowledging the reality of the sentence or the character or that particular plot thread. And craftwork is something that doesn’t allow you to fool yourself about whether or not you’ve succeeded. The joint either fits or it doesn’t fit, and so it kind of trains your attention in a way that is, I think, useful for writing, and can be transposed onto the writing process.
UHLE: In the end, in both processes, you end up with something to show for your work.
GUMBINER: Yes, this being my first book, it’s the first time I’ve seen a book go out into the world and seen people interact with it and have their own experience with it and take different things away from it. Alejandro, in the book, actually says a similar thing about his boats, which is that they go on to lead these seafaring lives. Someone buys them and takes them on trips, or they go and become this kind of work boat or that kind of work boat. He sees them almost as these animals that he’s raised that then go on and have a life.
UHLE: They have new lives. What has surprised you about either readers’ reaction to the book or what they’ve done with it or said about it?
GUMBINER: I think I’ve just been surprised by how people have connected with Berg’s experience. I think that is something that you hope for, but is hard to imagine when you’re working on something that, at various times in the process, doesn’t feel real or complete to you. To hear that people felt the experience of connecting to that character has been really special and cool.
UHLE: Before you wrote this book, what did you know about boats and making them and how did you came to have the understanding that you do that’s infused throughout the novel?
GUMBINER: I wasn’t raised on boats. I didn’t really know that much about them, but growing up by the water, I had some experiences on them and had always been interested in boats from a purely romantic and aesthetic sense. Several years ago, I heard about this boatbuilding teacher who was out in Sausalito and was reading about him online, and saw these images of his boats that were just breathtaking. He teaches a class on Sundays and I enrolled in that class, and ended up staying in it for over a year. His name is Bob Darr, and he is, in many ways, the inspiration for the boatbuilder character in the novel, although he’s not a one-on-one representation of him. Much of what I learned [about boatbuilding], I learned from Bob. His class opened doors to different aspects of the world of boats, which is a peculiar universe, as you can sort of tell from the book.
UHLE: So you enrolled in the class because of your interest in boats, not because you wanted to write about boats.
GUMBINER: Yes. I didn’t know I wanted to write the book, although, pretty soon after meeting Bob, I had the idea, and that’s in part because of the conversations we would have together during lunch. Everyone in the class would sit at this circular table in the shop, and we would just hang out and talk and tell stories. Part of it was that Bob was just this very engaging storyteller but he also told stories about the place where I was from, which is Northern California, particularly Marin County. Bob grew up partly in Marin and partly in Tahiti, because his father was a schooner captain who would sail tourists back and forth on these charters.
UHLE: That’s incredible.
GUMBINER: But later in his life, Bob settled in this small town called Marshall, which is on Tomales Bay, and he opened a boatbuilding shop. Listening to his stories [about Marshall], I felt like they captured the feeling and tone and texture of the place where I was from in a way that I hadn’t necessarily heard communicated. That’s when it first occurred to me that, oh, this could be a setting for a novel. This is something that could work as an origin point for a novel, so I really moved from there, from a setting.
UHLE: Then you took the class for a year. What are your skills in boatbuilding now?
GUMBINER: Well, I’m definitely an amateur. I was in the class for about a year and a half, but boatbuilding is a lifelong craft. In that sense, I relate to some of Berg’s experience, and part of what Berg experiences in the book is this feeling of, Man, there’s so much here to learn. It’s so great, and also it’s going to take me forever. What do you do with that?
UHLE: That’s kind of an uncomfortable place for some people, knowing how much they have to learn and how far behind they may be of someone else.
GUMBINER: Right, it can feel overwhelming.
UHLE: I wonder if you just want to speak a little bit about the mentorship aspect, because I think that the relationship between those two is the most fascinating part of the book and the lasting emotional strength of it.
GUMBINER: It was important to me to sort of render a mentorship relationship that didn’t feel overly flattering or overly critical. I think a lot of mentorship stories that were told [portray] the mentor [as] an oracle, an all-knowing person at whom’s feet you kneel and study and that kind of thing. When I was younger, I had that idea about some of my teachers. I felt the need, I think, to turn them into saints. As a result, I was incredibly disappointed when they proved themselves to be normal human beings. So having experienced that and now having a different perspective on what it means to have a teacher, I wanted to represent something that both conveyed the experience of meeting someone who knows a lot about something that you want to know—which is a really beautiful, wonderful thing—and, at the same time, not turning that character, in this case Alejandro, into a saint-like figure.
UHLE: I wonder if you have ever been on the other side of a mentorship relationship. Have you been a teacher?
GUMBINER: I have, yes.
UHLE: How did whatever experiences you’ve had as a mentor or a teacher play into how you wrote these characters?
GUMBINER: That’s a really good question. I always tried to communicate myself as human to my students so that there was never any doubt about that. The challenge with that is then maybe your students start to take you less seriously. In the case of the book, I think there is already buy-in from Berg in that he wants to learn this thing that Alejandro knows a great deal about, objectively. There’s not really any risk of Berg not trusting Alejandro’s authority. The one thing that Berg questions about Alejandro, is his own mental health. Alejandro’s seen as this marginal figure in the community. Some people think he’s a genius. Some people think he’s crazy. That is something that Berg has to approach and grapple with.
UHLE: I really felt this profound sense of forgiveness in the book. For me, one of the most beautiful parts of diving into the book was that feeling that there’s someone in the world who is going to look after them and look beyond mistakes they might make. Did you have any plan for that feeling to resonate in the book?
GUMBINER: I didn’t. And you know, that’s the first time someone has mentioned that, although I think it’s a really astute observation. It’s certainly something that Berg is looking for. Something that Berg needs.
UHLE: This is the interesting part about a coming of age story for someone who’s already made mistakes and learned things, because they’re in their mid-twenties. But it’s still about growing up, right? Your writing is funny. It’s a serious book, and it’s an emotional book, but it’s also one that is very deeply amusing in many spots. How did you manage to balance that humor in a book like this?
GUMBINER: It was important to me that the book have some element of comedy to it, because I think all books that I like have some element of comedy to them. I think it’s a foundational part of the human experience, so when a book doesn’t have some humorous element, to me, it feels two dimensional. Also, humor and comedy are really vital and common ways of dealing with suffering and pain, so it felt doubly important to have a humorous element involved in the telling of the story.
UHLE: The book is this beautiful world that you’ve created, that, I think, readers love to be in, and inhabit; that world of a small town and the shop and the water.
I actually think it’s somewhat rare in contemporary fiction to create such a pleasurable and a pleasant world. Do you find that it’s rare, in comparison to other contemporary novels?
GUMBINER: Yes, due to the distracting nature of our moment, where we’re so globalized and so diverted by different sources of information, it’s rare, I think, to inhabit or stay in a place for a long period of time, but I think that can be really valuable to do. It’s part of what Berg is learning, the experience of being grounded in a place, and grounded in community. He is someone whose attention has been diverted. And part of what he learns from Alejandro, which is something Alejandro values very deeply, is the experience of being in one place, knowing the place, knowing the people of the place. Berg is learning that through the process of working and living with him. I [hope] it’s something you also experience, as a reader, through the book.
UHLE: Can you talk about the process of writing The Boatbuilder?
GUMBINER: I worked on the initial draft for about two years. For me, something that was really important process-wise was engaging with the material every day. Even if I was just opening the Word doc and reading a little bit from it, just to keep the world on my mind. A lot of the book developed that way—I would be walking around with it in my head throughout the day and I’d see something and it would be an answer to a problem in the text that had previously seemed hard to get around.
I tried to write one book before this that I stopped working on, mostly because I just lost interest. The main reason I lost interest, I think, is because I was trying to make it into this preconceived idea that I had of it. Another thing that working every day allowed me to do was to just stay open to whatever occurred to me and follow that, keeping an eye on what was interesting to me, even if it seemed like it didn’t necessarily relate to the story. Over time, as you start to accrue those different components of the world that are interesting to you, it forms something of a vision, even if it doesn’t feel coherent at the time.
UHLE: I love that part of the process when you talk about following the story and being awake to it, which is so much like what we were talking about before with attention and focus. Sometimes you talk to writers and they are people who have index cards and plans. They know exactly what needs to happen in the book before they write it. And then, equally as often, you meet writers, like you, t, who just follow the narrative. Do you ever plan your writing meticulously like some people do?
GUMBINER: I think I plan sections, but for me, the joy of the work is learning something about myself, and interrogating my own mind and experience and finding stuff that I didn’t know was there. And there’s a lot of stuff in this book that I didn’t know was there when I was working on it. That’s both the great part of working on a piece of writing, and also the scary part, because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to find. If I were to plan things completely out, it would eliminate that component for me, which really feels like one of the motivating factors for doing it.
UHLE: You were saying you were in the document, or in the book in your mind every day for two years on the initial draft, and I’m sure it was more time after that. Now that the book is out in the world, and it is on the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction, so many more people have read it and have spent a lot less time with it than you have. Is that a surreal experience with your first book?
GUMBINER: Yeah, it’s a strange part of writing a book, that it takes so long to write it, and the consumption of it is quite quick, and should be. If it takes someone as long to read the book as it took you to write it, then there’s something wrong. In many ways, I had sort of moved on from the world of the book, in my own mind, by the time it came out and was working on a different project. It was an interesting experience coming back to it and remembering. It was almost like reading an old journal from childhood—reconnecting to pieces of the story and looking at them anew from this different vantage point in my life.
UHLE: Can you remember anything that you were reading, in particular, when you were writing the book?
GUMBINER: A big influence on this book—and actually I draw the epigraph at the beginning of the book from this text—were E. B. White’s letters. [They’re collected in] this 700-page book, and it’s just incredible. It’s 700 pages, but by the time I’d finished, I was like, “That’s it? There aren’t any more E. B. White letters? He didn’t write any more?”
Just the sensibility in those letters, the attention to detail of everyday life and the humor with which he [wrote about] the world, was so infectious and was a big influence on me, in terms of thinking about the sound and feel of the book.
UHLE: Any other reading recommendations?
GUMBINER: Another book I read recently that I loved, a new book that just came out, is Early Work by Andrew Martin. It’s a novel from FSG. It’s one of these books where not that much happens, so I can’t really reel you in with a delectable plot summary, but it is just a gorgeous piece of writing. Incredibly funny, perceptive and fresh, and very much feels of this moment. I really recommend that book.
Buy The Boatbuilder in our store.