Q&A with Gabi Burnham
Author, “It Is Wood, It Is Stone”
by: Joshua Gray
Former Inquirer and Mirror staff writer and newly-minted author Gabriella Burnham has just released her first novel, “It Is Wood, It Is Stone” with One World, an imprint of Penguin/Random House.
A graduate of Nantucket High School and Trinity College, Gabi also holds an MFA from The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College. It was in the late-2000s that Gabi and I worked together as staff writers for Nantucket’s paper of record and have remained friends since. The intervening decade has taken her from Nantucket to Boston and ultimately Brooklyn, N.Y.
Her novel depicts the physical and emotional journey of a young woman, the wife of an academic teaching abroad in São Paulo, Brazil. Gabi first moved to Nantucket with her family at the age of 10 from Brazil, where she holds dual citizenship. Many trips to the country since have helped inform her fast-paced, engrossing debut that recently made the must-read lists of Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, and it was also glowingly reviewed in a recent edition of The New York Times Book Review.
You started off professionally as a writer here on Nantucket at The Inquirer and Mirror. Talk about that experience and how it differs from writing a novel.
“I 've been thinking about my experience at The Inquirer and Mirror a lot now that I have a novel coming out. I was so young when I started there. I was 19. it's a very different kind of writing than fiction.
I had to learn to write quickly and under a deadline. Journalism forces you to put your work out on a schedule, and that's something that a lot of fiction writers who don't have a journalism background struggle with.
I never struggled with putting pen to paper after working at The Inquirer and Mirror. Also, being an organized writer and an observant writer is so important. so much of reporting is picking up on the details and making connections.
That’s also true in fiction, knowing when to zoom into a moment to elucidate what’s going on, and knowing when to zoom out. I think you really hone that skill as a reporter, figuring out what’s important and what’s not important, and how to organize that for a reader.”
You mentioned paying attention to detail. that's something I picked up on in the book, and something The New York Times highlighted when the reviewer said, “her descriptions of são Paulo’s neighborhoods, the rural town of Atibaia and the beaches of trindade bring the reader into sensory contact with the setting. As well, her descriptions of the domestic sphere show us the subtle power of dynamics at play here.”
“I tried to write a book that I would love to read. that was kind of my bar, and when I read fiction, I love to be immersed in a world and feel the texture of the things around me.
My favorite books are ones where you can smell and hear and feel the world that the writer created. but I also love a book that moves, one that you can inhale in almost a single sitting. I study poetry for that same reason. it’s a condensed form that packs in a lot.”
When did you start putting words to paper?
“technically I started writing “I t is Wood, it is stone” back in 2013 during my MFA program. When I graduated in 2015 I had about 70 pages written, but they weren't very good. it was much more experimental and a lot of it has changed since then.
I took a break and wrote some other things. I think I was still absorbing everything I had learned in grad school. At one point, I had dinner with my mentor and she said, ‘how are things going with the book?’ I told her it was going ok, but that I hadn’t worked on it for a year.
I ’d been doing other stuff, like writing poetry and short stories. she said, ‘well, maybe you're not meant to write this book.’ And when she said that, it was like something clicked. I thought to myself, ‘that's so not true! I love this book and I really I need to write it.’
After she said that, I basically spent the next two years writing a really good draft, then I found my agent Marya in August of 2018. two months later, we sold it.”
What was the process of selling the book like?
“I ’m lucky to have landed with one World, an imprint of random house whose mission is to represent authors that are typically underrepresented in publishing. And that was really important to me, because ‘it is Wood, it is stone’ is told from a white American woman's perspective in brazil.
I wanted to make sure that my editor would understand how to manage the complex power dynamics there. Nicole and I did a lot of work to make sure linda’s character and point-of-view were clear, and that the other characters had a voice outside of linda’s gaze. it’s been an incredible experience working with the one World team.”
A very central character that’s not mentioned by name in the synopsis is Celia. she’s so crucial to the whole story and provides a significant amount of conflict for linda.
“I’m interested in relationships between women and the ways that women, even in really close friendships, the ways we teach each other and share information about how to be in the world. We kind of give each other hacker tips, you know, or commiserate in solidarity around things that have happened.
And so that’s where Celia’s character started. I wanted linda to meet someone who, from linda's perspective, had a fully-embodied sense of self. she's an artist. she's an actor. she seems very self- sufficient. We later learn that that's not entirely true, she’s kind of adrift in her own way. but I wanted linda to meet someone who she sees as deserving admiration and who she wants to emulate.”
talk about your brazilian heritage and the time you’ve spent there in recent years.
“All of my extended family lives in brazil. My aunt, my cousins, my grandparents when they were alive. so, i've visited them fairly regularly over the years. When I was finishing the book, I knew that, to get the kind of details and texture I wanted, I had to go back to brazil.
I went for three weeks and stayed with my family, and just absorbed what it was like to be there for a longer period of time. in a way, it’s different to go with the intent of capturing memories for a specific purpose.
I wasn’t glued to my notebook the entire time, but at the end of the day, or in the back of the car, I would write down details and images I saw. if a new scene came to mind because of a specific place, I would sketch that out in my notebook.”
We talked a bit about your love of reading and love of language. Where do you think you discovered that kind of joy for the written word?
“The first time I ever read a book that I totally loved was in Anne Phaneuf's class at Nantucket high school. I read ‘love in the time of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And i’ll never forget, I was in class and Anne asked me, in a kind, teacherly way, ‘What books do you like Gabi?’ because I was so critical of every book we read.
I can still be a hyper-critical reader, but I remember reading that book and thinking, ‘i cannot believe that this is something a human being put together.’ it was so beautiful and I thought, ‘i could read this forever.’ I recently reunited with Anne after probably 10 or 15 years for the
Nantucket book Festival’s ‘At home with Authors’ series. that was the most memorable experience i’ve had for my book release so far.”
What does Nantucket mean to you now? is it a special place for you still?
“Some of my closest friends are my friends from Nantucket. I think it’s an extremely unique place to grow up, so whether you remain on the island or not, it really becomes a part of who you are. And when you talk to other people who are from Nantucket, it’s like you have this shared connection. What i’m writing right now is still very new, but it’s set on a fictional island closely based on Nantucket.
I think of the island as this really beautiful moment, but a moment that will eventually go away because of erosion, and climate change, and affordability. it’s a special place that feels finite, and it was a finite moment in my life as well. it’s kind of like a temple in my memory.”
Gabriella Burnham’s debut novel “It Is Wood, It Is Stone” is available at Nantucket Bookworks and Mitchell’s Book Corner.
Joshua Gray is a freelance writer and photographer based on Nantucket. He is the director of marketing and communica- tions and the film programmer for The Dreamland. A former staff writer and editorial assistant for The Inquirer and Mirror, Josh is active in the island’s nonprofit community and (normally) an avid world-traveler.