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|June 26-July 2, 2008
Homecoming for debut novelist
Nina de Gramont went from selling books to writing them
by Arsen Kashkashian
Bookstore staffs are populated with 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 on to 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’s new novel, Gossip of the Starlings, is 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. 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 e-mail 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. 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.
“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.
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.
Surprisingly, the skeleton of the story is based on a real life drug bust from the 1980s.
“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 60 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.
(This article was reprinted from Arsen Kashkashian’s blog, kashsbookcorner.blogspot.com.)
On the Bill:
Nina de Gramont will read and sign her book, Gossip of the Starlings, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 26, at Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.
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