This month Ross Simonini spoke with Daniel Gumbiner about his debut novel, The Boatbuilder (McSweeney’s, 2018), at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. We’re excited to share the transcript of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity. The audience Q&A that followed will forever be a secret, held and closely guarded between those of us in attendance.
ROSS SIMONINI: Is smelling wood something that’s actually done in the boatbuilding community?
DANIEL GUMBINER: Yeah, that is something that older boatbuilders traditionally knew how to do. That detail actually comes from my boatbuilding teacher, Bob Darr, who I thank at the end of the book. His work in part inspired this book. He could smell a piece of wood and know the moisture content, depending on the species. There are scientific processes for measuring the amount of moisture in a piece of wood, as well, but if you’re working in a shop and need to know, based on how you cut a piece, what the properties are, it’s helpful if you can just smell it.
RS: Because eventually the wood will change shape and the boat could sink if it warps.
DG: Yeah, that’s one thing that’s different about wooden boats. Obviously, the tree is not alive, but it was a living thing and its properties will continue to change for a long period of time, depending on the environment it’s in. So it’s something that you have to learn to be aware of. My boatbuilding teacher used to call it wood technology. It’s knowing what wood does, almost like a science.
RS: At one point, the boatbuilder in your novel remarks on the hardest possible wood they have.
DG: Yeah, that’s when they’re trying to hide drugs. That’s not a spoiler.
RS: So, this book takes place in Talinas, as it’s called, right? And this town is sprinkled with unusual characters, and getting to know the town is an important part of the book. It has a Twin Peaks quality in terms of the characters that come in and out of it. But one thing that I thought was interesting is the way you fictionalize it. I mean, it is — spoiler alert, but it’s Bolinas?
DG: Yeah, it is and it isn’t.
RS: What’s interesting is you use both fictional and non-fictional towns in describing its location. So, it’s in Muire County, as opposed to Marin County, but it’s a little bit north of Dillon Beach. Or you’ll mention Pacifica, but then you’ll like change the name of the town of Muire Beach or something. So it’s kind of this half-fantasy version of Bolinas, right?
DG: Yeah, and I think in part that’s because I wanted to create space to let the story do what it was going to do. I wasn’t necessarily interested in documenting the specific reality of the place. I was more interested in its emotional landscape. And it was helpful to me to not have to feel like I was a camera capturing the exact reality. I was freer to consider the parts of it that I was interested in and move from there.
RS: Growing up, I remember that whole West Marin area. You and I both grew up in Marin. And I remember that area had a kind of
mythological quality — we would talk about it. There’s this moment in your book when you say, “Many people in Muire County believed that, if you lived in Talinas long enough, you would inevitably go crazy. They said that, before the town was built, the local indigenous people used the land for ceremonies to communicate with the spirit world. No one was supposed to live there or else they would become part spirit.” I’ve heard that before about Bolinas — that the Miwok people would not go there to live. They would only go there for rituals. And the place is coded in this mythology. Did you feel that way growing up, knowing about Marin?
DG: Yeah, that detail actually came from my brother. Shout out to David. I never lived in West Marin myself, but my brother lived there. And around the time when I was writing this book, he was living there, so I was spending more time there. I think that in part influenced the setting of the story. But definitely, I spent a lot of time there as a kid and I was always fascinated with the landscape out there and the beauty of that place. So I think it’s something that’s always felt close to my heart and was something I was curious to revisit and look more deeply into in this book.
RS: There’s something kind of haunting about there that really… Like you said, the whole book you were looking for accessing a mood, a feeling. It really does feel like a place saturated in feeling and mood, especially the fog there all the time.
DG: Yeah, absolutely.
RS: Another thing that’s going on out there is several ex-Beats or memory of the Beat generation who’ve lived out there. Richard Brautigan, he lived and died out there. The book touches upon the Beats slightly, being in the historical lineage. The Alejandro character has some relationship with a Beat writer. And so the book very much feels as if it’s positioning itself in this tradition of the Beats. Did you feel like you were working in that tradition in any ways?
DG: I don’t know if I was consciously aware of that but the Beats were important to me as a young person and definitely were formative books for me. What we learn about Alejandro is that he had his own mentor. He’s Berg’s mentor in a way. He has his own mentor — not mentor but close companion — who at some point he severed ties with. And in part, he severed ties with him because he felt he was moving in a direction that was not as compelling to him. He sort of embodies this character that is somewhat Beat-like and who is interested in art and cultivating this persona of an artist. And at a certain point, Alejandro really reacts against that and grows tired of the Beat scene. Part of his story—what we learn about his story—is that this has weighed very heavily on him. That separation and that relationship shows up in different ways throughout the book.
RS: Do you feel like that Beat sensibility or that history is still present in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Were you aware of that as a kid growing up?
DG: Yeah, definitely. When I said I was interested in capturing the atmosphere and the emotional landscape of the place, I think that was part of that landscape, for sure. I think those rural communities in Northern California have these rural elements and are agricultural in different ways, but then they’re also, unlike a lot of rural counties in the country, infused with this element of very far-left thinking that is in part, I think, due to groups like the Beats, who moved out there and who were interested in those spaces and going back to the land and that kind of thing. So I was definitely interested in portraying that. I had a boatbuilding teacher myself whose name is Bob Darr. He did this Sunday class that was eight hours long. For the first four hours of the class, we would do a lesson together as a group and the second part of the class you’d work on your own skills. But in between, during the lunch break, he would tell stories and a lot of what he would speak about was his time as a boatbuilder in Marshall, which is a small town in West Marin. And it was so refreshing and interesting to listen to him talk about this time. In part, he was just a very wonderful storyteller but it was also great to hear stories of Marin that resonated with me, and I recognized that I hadn’t heard that kind of story told in a way that felt real to me. So that was the beginning of me starting to think about this book and to think about writing about that place.
RS: I always associate the Beats with a certain kind of coming-of-age literature. Not all their books are necessarily about that but I think most people, when they read the Beats, are in that age where you’re figuring out your identity and your mind. And this is a coming-of-age book, for sure. I wonder, do you think of it that way?
DG: Yeah, it’s funny. My friend Tayari Jones was one of the early readers of the book, and she told me she thought it was a different kind of coming-of-age story for a different kind of generation. She said that Berg is not a young man coming of age in the traditional sense. He’s twenty-eight years old. He’s held numerous impressive positions in the working world. He’s done a lot of stuff. And yet, in some way he is spiritually undeveloped. And so, he’s very good at achieving. He’s very good at making things happen for himself in the world, but ultimately, what happens to him is that he encounters this challenge that doesn’t respond to an achievement-oriented mindset. This is his chronic pain that he encounters, with his headaches. As anyone who’s suffered from chronic pain knows there’s always a psychological component to chronic pain. And, in this case, the more he tries to make the pain go away or fix the pain — in the way he’s used to solving problems — the worse it becomes. It doesn’t respond to that. So he needs a new framework for encountering that and moving past it.
RS: We were talking about how the idea of it being a coming-of-age story, but also about somebody learning this craft of boatbuilding, and the idea that this book is you learning your craft as well as a writer. I’m curious if you have the same kind of relationship you have with Bob Darr about boatbuilding — that same kind of mentorship for writing?
DG: Yeah, I think I have. One of the things that was important to me in this book was portraying the mentor as someone who was fallible and human and not two-dimensional. I didn’t want the Alejandro character to seem like an oracle of some kind, because when I was younger, I was incredibly disappointed when my mentors revealed themselves to be human beings, which, of course, they always were. But I wanted them to be these perfect, infallible things. And I think that’s in part due to the way we are told stories about mentorship and told stories about teachers and learning and masters of craft or skills of any kind. And so it was really important to me that Alejandro both represent knowledge — because he does have knowledge, and mentors and teachers have been really important in my life, and I wanted to represent that feeling —while also, at the same time, portraying him as a human with all of the normal human frailties.
RS: And actually, in the passage you read there was the moment when Alejandro talked about the lines of a boat being high art, but then later on he kind of spits on high art — you were saying he thinks that artists are kind of a joke, or at least navel-gazey, right?
RS: You go crazy if you move to Bolinas because you’re just focused on yourself.
DG: Yeah, that’s sort of Alejandro’s criticism of the art world, which is really just a failed criticism of his writer friend who he had a falling out with, Szerbiak. It’s in part a legitimate criticism, but it’s mostly his own hurt at having lost this relationship. He’s kind of looking for flaws, in the way we sometimes look for flaws in people that aren’t actually about the things themselves so much as about the fact that our feelings are hurt. I think Alejandro does have strong opinions about art, and he does have strong opinions about a lot of things, but I think the questioning that we hear from him about the life the artist is really rooted in the collapse of that friendship.
RS: Do you think about that question? I think a lot of writers especially wrestle with that situation, and it can lead to a state of writer’s block or, you know, just frozen out of fear going forward.
DG: Yeah, yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve thought about, and I think that’s why it appears in the book. I think it’s inevitable that whatever we’re doing, we ask ourselves why we’re doing it, and that’s sort of the realm of philosophers and rabbis and novels. So it’s one of the things I wanted to ask in this book, and not necessarily answer in any way, but acknowledge as a problem or a question, which is: what motivates us? Why are you doing what you’re doing? And those can be hard questions to answer.
RS: So why do you think you wrote this book?
DG: [laughs] I don’t know why I wrote this book. I think it’s… I wish I had a clear answer to that.
RS: What about writing in general? Do you feel like you have an understanding of why you do that?
DG: Some element of wanting to communicate or share myself with the world. I don’t know if I have a specific answer as to why I started writing this book beyond the feeling that I was interested in it. And I can’t tell you why I was interested in boats, or why I liked listening to Bob’s stories — you know, the way you don’t know why you like a certain type of ice cream. But, I was, and the more interested I was in it the more I wanted to think about it. That was really one of the wonderful parts of getting to write this book — just getting to totally nerd out about the material that I was writing about and really dig into, whether it was west Marin — I was reading a lot about west Marin, reading the Point Reyes Light, which is the wonderful newspaper that they have up there that actually won a Pulitzer Prize a while back for their reporting on a cult that was in west Marin. Reading about the community, reading about boatbuilding a lot, talking with Bob. I actually wrote a nonfiction piece about Bob before I started writing this book that was more of a direct biography. This book is not a biography — he and Alejandro are not a one-to-one by any means, although Bob’s life is fascinating and someone should write his biography. But over the course of writing that nonfiction piece, I did a number of long interviews with Bob. That was also an enjoyable experience, to have an excuse to sit down and just ask him whatever I wanted to ask him. I think that’s part of the answer to that question, which is that it gave me an excuse to think about these things that I enjoyed thinking about.