Daniel Gumbiner’s debut novel, The Boatbuilder, tells the story of Eli “Berg” Koenigsberg, a twenty-eight year-old “digital refugee” who has recently left behind a job at a San Francisco tech company to pursue a simpler life in the rural coastland of Northern California. Although Berg succeeds at extricating himself from the toxic work environment at Cleanr, he has a harder time ending an addiction to opioids, first prescribed to him after a severe concussion. An apprenticeship with a charismatic boatbuilder, Alejandro, offers an escape. The new job provides Berg satisfaction:
When he was working with wood he could get outside of himself, escape whatever it was that was dogging him. His mind no longer jumped from place to place.
In The Boatbuilder, Gumbiner pulls from his biography: growing up in close proximity to West Marin, studying under master boatbuilder Bob Darr, taking opioids after a head injury. He also draws from a wealth of outside research, including long interviews with Darr and extensive study of medical, scientific, and journalistic literature about opioid addiction. The result is a subtle novel that immerses the reader in a world of serene landscapes and eccentric characters.
In our conversation, Gumbiner and I spoke about how his work as Managing Editor of The Believer informs his writing process and how The Boatbuilder responds to a larger cultural conversation about opioid addiction in America.
The Rumpus: What was the genesis of this project?
Daniel Gumbiner: I was taking a boatbuilding class with a man named Bob Darr, who is a master boatbuilder in Sausalito, because I had a vague interest in the subject and was attracted to the beauty of wooden boats. And the way Bob’s classes work is for the first four hours you do a group lesson with about thirteen people, and then there’s a break for lunch, and then subsequently, for the next four hours, you work on your own individual skills. But, during those lunch hours, everyone would hang out around the wooden table in the shop, and Bob would tell these stories about his time working in Marshall, which is a small town in West Marin, in California. And this is when I first started thinking about the book. Part of it was that Bob was just a really great storyteller, and I loved listening to him tell stories, but another part of it was that he was able to tell stories about Marin County, which is where I grew up, in a way that really captured what was peculiar and unique about it. And it was just very resonant to hear my home described in a kind of mood that felt accurate. I started thinking about wanting to capture the feeling of sitting at that table with Bob and listening to those stories. I wanted to represent that mood in the book.
Rumpus: Were you writing at the time you took Bob’s class?
Gumbiner: I wasn’t really working on any fiction at the time. I was writing nonfiction here and there, and I actually wrote a nonfiction story about Bob. His life and his stories definitely serve as a model for the boatbuilder character in the book, Alejandro, although they’re not one-to-one. But Bob’s life itself is very fascinating, and I ended up writing a brief profile of him for California Sunday Magazine. His father was a schooner captain and he grew up on a famous sailboat, Te Vega, traveling between Tahiti and California. In any case, writing that piece was kind of another catalyst for bringing me into the story of this book, in the sense that I had the opportunity to sit down with Bob and speak to him at length about boatbuilding and his life. I recorded some long interviews with him, and those ended up being pretty fundamental to the writing of the book.
Rumpus: Outside of those extensive interviews and your own experiences learning about boatbuilding, what kind of research went into writing this book, which feels so specific to a particular place? Did you did you live out in West Marin for a time?
Gumbiner: I didn’t. My brother was living in West Marin while I was writing the book, though, and I’ve always spent a lot of time out there, having grown up nearby in Southern Marin. The thing I did the most research about was actually the opiate stuff, which initially started as a thread that was somewhat tangential to the rest of the work and began to take up more space in the story as it moved forward. I’ve taken opiates, but I’ve never been addicted to opiates. I have had a head injury, like the main character in the book, Berg, and was prescribed opiates for that and so I had some familiarity with that circumstances Berg initially finds himself in. But then the novel goes beyond that experience, into an exploration of what would happen if you were to become addicted.
I think much of the story is about the idea of chronic pain and dealing with a type of pain that is relentless and won’t go away. What do you do when you are confronting suffering that you cannot relieve? Opiates are a short-term solution to that. That’s the thing about opiates that makes them so dangerous: they work. They relieve your pain. And when you’re dealing with chronic pain, like Berg is, as a result of his post-concussive headaches, all you want is relief from it. And, so if there’s something that really, actually relieves your pain, it’s quite powerful. I mean the potential is already there for abuse because opiates are physically addictive, but there’s even more potential for abuse when you consider the emotional attachment one can develop toward a thing that provides genuine relief from one’s suffering.
But, when I started the book, the world of addiction was not something I knew anything about, not really. I didn’t know about any of the details of what would happen when a person went to rehab or what it would feel like to be dealing with addiction, so I spent a lot of time researching that. And it was actually quite easy to research in many ways because there’s so much written about it right now. There was a lot of medical, scientific, and journalistic literature out there, and then there were also these oftentimes very poignant, difficult-to-read, first-person narratives of people sharing their stories on the Internet. If you just start poking around on YouTube or on any of these opiate-related forums, the stories abound. And so I spent a lot of time reading about that stuff, and that was all super instructive in terms of having a fuller picture of what it would mean for Berg to actually slip into addiction.
Rumpus: I did wonder how that larger cultural conversation affected your writing about opioid addiction. Do you see your book as part of a bigger conversation about the opioid crisis?
Gumbiner: I mean, I think the opiate story is part of a larger story about what it’s like to be an American right now. I think there’s a reason that we, as a culture, become interested in certain drugs. And I think it’s notable that right now we are most attracted to a drug that numbs us, that isolates us, that makes us want to go sit in a room by ourselves. The fact that we desire those things is part of a much bigger story about the conditions of our lives right now and the growing isolation and alienation that comes with living in America in the twenty-first century. We have all these revolutionary communications technologies and we’ve never understood each other less.
So I think the book is part of that larger story in the sense that it’s trying to explore, on a personal level, these questions of isolation and alienation. But I’m no expert on opiates, and I wasn’t trying to write a comprehensive account in that respect. There is a really amazing comprehensive account by Sam Quinones, called Dreamland, which I really recommend. That book is sort of an encyclopedic look at the crisis on a larger social, cultural level. He looks at the history of how opiates first started getting prescribed and marketed, and he also looks at how black-tar heroin first began to creep into the market, replacing the more expensive prescription opiates.
Rumpus: I was really drawn in by the novel’s setting, the fictional town of Talinas. I thought it was beautifully rendered. Can you talk a little about how you went about creating that world?
Gumbiner: In all cases in the book, I really tried to just follow my nose in terms of what I was interested in. When I set out to write a book, I didn’t know how I was going to create the thing I wanted to create. I had to learn it as I was doing it. It’s interesting, I’m working on a new project now, and I feel sort of the same way about it as I felt when I was writing The Boatbuilder—which is that I’m learning about what it is as I make it. And the key, I think, is to keep exploring the things that are interesting to you and to follow your nose. Ultimately, a cumulative picture begins to emerge. And so in the case of setting, I was looking at the aspects of this particular Northern California rural universe, which is obviously infinitely complex, and trying to pay attention to the things that attracted my eye and explore them and think about why I’m interested in them, whether it be a character or an aspect of the landscape.
Rumpus: The book is filled with so many strange and compelling people, like Garrett and Simon, the odd couple that work at the Yacht Club, and Alejandro, the eccentric boatbuilder. As I read, I wondered how you managed such a large cast of characters. Was there a kind of logic that went into deciding who makes the book and who ultimately gets cut?
Gumbiner: There was actually a much larger cast of characters in the first draft. When I initially wrote the book, I wrote all of these flashbacks. There were two major things that were different about the book in my first draft. One thing was that I wrote it from both the perspective of Alejandro and the perspective of Berg. In the current version of the book, only Berg’s perspective is there. And I also wrote a number of flashbacks that explored each character’s past in greater detail. But, when I showed that version of the book to my editor, he was like, “I think these flashbacks are obscuring the story you’re trying to tell. You’re covering certain things up about the forward-moving story by flashing back to these past moments.”
That was really good advice. I went through and removed almost all of the flashbacks and saw that it was true: there were certain aspects of the forward-moving story that were undercooked. And, in that process, I also ended up cutting out a lot of side characters who were related to those flashback narratives. For example, there’s the cult reference. You know, one of the characters, Woody, talks about how half the town used to be in this cult. And, originally, there was this whole flashback story about the cult and the full history of the cult and Alejandro’s interactions with the cult when he was younger. And all that was cut. But then, in the final version of the book, the presence of the cult still hovers in and out of the story. And so I think the process of cutting was useful because it lent a sort of density to the present moment without necessarily bogging the reader down by explaining every single detail of the town’s history to them.
Rumpus: Does your work as Managing Editor of The Believer inform your writing process? Does that work play a major factor in the way you write or the way you revise?
Gumbiner: I think so. You wear different hats at different times as a writer. And I think when you’re initially just putting stuff down on paper, you need to take off that more critically-minded hat because it can be stifling if you’re picking everything apart. But then there is a sort of secondary phase, in which you do examine things more critically. I think working as an editor has helped me with that stage of the process. But I think, overall, writing and editing feel like quite different practices to me. The thing that has helped me more and has generally compelled me to get started on fiction projects is working on my own nonfiction writing projects because it gives me a good impetus to just get out in the world and ask people questions and get outside of myself a little bit, which I think is, in part, what makes for good fiction. That was certainly the case in this book. Like I said, I wrote that nonfiction piece about Bob beforehand, and that was definitely a contributing factor into what helped me get started on this project.
Rumpus: Many of the chapters have a really wonderful episodic quality to them, like when Woody whisks Berg off on an adventure down a manhole. How did you conceive of the novel’s structure?
Gumbiner: To a certain extent this episodic quality was baked into the early drafts, but in the editing stages, my editor recommended I lean into it even more. He suggested I take a look at Cannery Row, which I had never read. He said my book reminded him of that book and that I should look, in particular, at the way Steinbeck opens and closes chapters. That ended up being really great advice. The way Steinbeck frames his chapters is so masterful and helped me think about certain moments in my book in new and useful ways.