By Abby Wargo
To Amber Dermont, every word has the potential to “seduce or destroy” an audience.
Dr. James Allen Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, agreed in his introduction to Dermont’s craft talk on Tuesday, April 10.
“[Dermont] can break your heart and make you laugh in the same sentence,” he said.
It is this artistry that earned her the 2018 Mary Wood Fellowship. Endowed by the late Mary Wood, the fellowship brings one female-identifying writer to campus every two years. The writer gives a craft talk, a public reading, and meets individually with students to workshop their writing.
Dermont is the author of a collection of short stories, “Damage Control,” and a novel, “The Starboard Sea,” which is a re-envisioned version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Currently, she is at work on another novel tentatively titled, “The Laughing Girl.” She is an associate professor of English at Rice University in Houston.
This was not the first time Dermont has visited WC. During a winter break when she was 19, she came to WC for a book arts fellowship and worked with master printer Mike Kaylor in the print shop, which she called an “escape.”
“WC is a magical place for writers,” she said. “Everything I love is here.”
On Tuesday, Dermont led a craft talk on the Literary House porch while wearing a hat with rabbit ears and clad in a skirt with the word “feminist” written all over.
“I had to wear this one because my misogyny skirt is at the cleaners,” she said.
The focus of the craft talk was on comedy in writing, particularly fiction. Dermont described humorous writing as “stealing from stand-up comedy.”
“Nearly all writers are failed stand-up comedians,” she said.
For something to be comedic, Dermont said that the humor in comedy must “violate our perceptions” of what is going on, and that humor should destabilize the audience.
For example, one of Dermont’s favorite characters in literature, the fool in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” subverts the expectation that a court jester is stupid. Dermont described him as a wise character that has the power of persuasion over the king while also providing comedic relief.
Dermont’s comedic inspirations include Hannibal Buress, Amy Schumer, and Patton Oswalt. She described her favorite comedian, Stuart Lee, as having “contempt for conventions and working to dismantle the artistic process.”
“Lee is great at overturning the well-worn cliché and reversal,” she said.
To Dermont, comedy is all about miscommunication over directness. Comedic devices in writing do just that while keeping the reader guessing and interested.
“That’s the power of fiction,” she said. “Showing the truth in art.”
On Wednesday, April 11, Dermont gave a reading from some of her short fiction. She brought a pair of long pink Austrian gloves with her as a talisman, which she always needs one of when she gives readings.
She read an excerpt of her story “The Snow Monkeys of Dilly, Texas,” which she assured attendees “is a real thing.”
After her reading, she took questions from audience members and gave writing advice.
She described being a fiction writer as “self-exile” since the writing process involves “living in a world of your own stories.”
When asked about the process of publishing work, she said that it is heartbreaking.
“It’s easy to get something published, but it’s hard to create something beautiful,” she said. “It should cost you something to write a story. It drains you.”
Although the process to publish work can be difficult, she expressed the delight of putting something out into the world.
“Your book will go places you never will,” she said.
Published author or otherwise, she stressed the importance of being a good literary citizen.
“To join the writing community is to be part of something bigger than you,” she said.
Dermont suggested that if audience members read something that resonated with them, that they should reach out to the author and tell them, because writers will appreciate it.
She said that, as a writer, she is always “fighting falseness” and striving toward the most authentic narrative possible.
“Everything that happens to you in your life will change your relationship with writing,” she said.