CU Boulder alumni David Gessner and Nina de Gramont have succeeded both as authors and teachers
For a couple of writers who also happen to be a writing couple, David Gessner and Nina de Gramont admit they’ve got it pretty good.
Gessner (MA, Engl’98) is professor and chair of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and published nine books, including the New York Times bestseller All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.
De Gramont—who began her master’s degree in the University of Colorado Boulder creative writing program and completed it at UNCW—is an associate professor in the same department and has published eight works of fiction for both young adults and adults, including the novel The Last September.
“We are lucky to be where we are,” says Gessner.
But the couple, who have also lived on Cape Cod—the subject of Gessner’s highly praised A Wild, Rank Place: One Year on Cape Cod—confess a sneaking desire to return one day to their favorite place.
“Boulder is still our shining city on a hill, despite the real-estate prices,” Gessner says.
But for now, they are content to visit for a month each summer with their teenage daughter, Hadley (“Yes,” de Gramont answers, anticipating a question before it’s asked, she was named primarily in honor of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson), where they relish riding their bikes up actual hills.
Gessner and de Gramont met in CU’s creative writing master’s degree program in the 1990s. They acknowledge that the program’s somewhat experimental emphasis didn’t quite match their own, more traditional narrative approaches, but they found their places nonetheless.
“I tend to be a very obedient student, so I started writing things that were really out there. It was helpful for me to have that, actually. When I returned to what came more naturally to me, I had a better grasp of how to use language and how to use form,” says de Gramont, who cites Marilyn Krisl and Suzanne Juhasz as influential faculty members.
“It was sort of a mismatch for me, very experimental. (Program faculty) tended to turn their noses up at any whiff of narrative,” he says.
Gessner cites Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams and Philip Roth as early influences: “Abbey was one of my earliest models. I liked the way he could re-create his personality on the page. You can’t wave hands or use voice to create that. It’s an underrated ability.”
He gravitated toward three faculty members whose work focused more on place and nature, writers Reg Saner and Linda Hogan and English professor Marty Bickman. He also reveled in his life in Boulder—and publishing a cheeky comic strip, “The Ballad of Boulder,” in the Boulder Weekly—in the wake of recovery from testicular cancer. Gessner’s early memoir, Under the Devil’s Thumb, explores his new life in the West, what Stegner called, “the geography of hope.”
Abbey was one of my earliest models. I liked the way he could re-create his personality on the page. You can’t wave hands or use voice to create that. It’s an underrated ability.”
“It was about my awakening and coming back to health, having time to write in a stunningly beautiful place, Eldorado Springs,” Gessner says. He knocked the book out in a month and a half, setting a pattern for future writing projects. “I build, build, build, then blast them out.”
With the pending publication of A Wild, Rank Place in 1997, Gessner decided that “it wouldn’t do for a Cape Cod nature writer to be living in Colorado,” and the couple moved to his mother’s empty house on the Cape.
“That was both a romantic time and a crazy-making time. People think Cape Cod is all about Kennedys and rich folk, but in February, it’s more like the Arctic,” Gessner says. “For us, it was a great and fruitful writing period.”
De Gramont sold her first book while living on Cape Cod, the short-story collection Of Cats and Men, winner of the Discovery Award from the New England Booksellers Association. Gessner, meanwhile, was writing Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder, judged a “classic of American nature writing” by the Boston Globe.
Gessner also began commuting two hours to teach in the extension and summer writing programs at his alma mater, Harvard, where he would later create the school’s creative nonfiction writing program. When he was named to a Briggs-Copeland Lectureship at Harvard, the couple moved to Cambridge, taking up residence in the apartment of the late Irish playwright and poet Seamus Heaney and welcoming Hadley to the family.
In 2002, following the success of Return of the Osprey, UNCW invited Gessner to interview for a job in its Creative Writing Department. He got the job, and the couple has lived there ever since.
“We’re always angsting a little bit, ‘Why aren’t we out West? Why aren’t we up North?’” Gessner says. “But we have two really good jobs in the same program. This is where our daughter grew up. And my writing has grown being here—the fact that I’m not writing book after book on ‘I love this place’; I’m not trying to write ‘Walden’ three times in a row about Boulder and Cape Cod.”
De Gramont recently submitted a new novel to her agent, and Gessner is working on a book entwining the stories of Theodore Roosevelt and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to create national monuments on federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. Bears Ears has become a political battleground between factions that want to either preserve or exploit natural landscapes
“I spent basically two months out there in Bears Ears this summer to experience it,” says Gessner, who also blogs at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. “The book will be a history of the Antiquities Act woven together with the biography of a very charismatic—and potentially racist toward Native Americans—president. … I want to bring readers to the subjects through the prism of my own, more limited self, getting to the bigger issues through a human conduit.”