Meet the Neighbors: Jerry Gabriel of the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference

Jerry Gabriel’s first book of fiction, Drowned Boy, won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2010 (Sarabande Books). It was a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick and awarded the 2011 Towson Prize for Literature. His second book of fiction, The Let Go, was published in 2015 (Queen’s Ferry Press). His stories have appeared in One Story, Epoch, Fiction, Five Chapters, and The Missouri Review, among other publications. His work has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize and he has received grants and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts (2004), the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (2011), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2016). He lives with his family in southern Maryland, where he teaches writing at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and directs the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference.

Q: I can say that I love the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, but I’m less sure I can honestly say I love the Chesapeake Bay. I just haven’t spent much time on or around the water. What’s the Chesapeake Bay mean to you?

When I was in perhaps fifth grade, I wrote a “paper” on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which I guess fascinated me at the time, but that was probably most of the thinking I did on the subject until I moved here with my wife twenty-five years later.  But my relationship with the Chesapeake Bay is actually pretty rich, if mostly mediated through my children. We live about five minutes from the bay, and we spend a great deal of time there, digging around along the wrack line and in the tidal pools, swimming, getting ankle-bitten by the insidious flies. Though I am not a native Marylander, and I don’t especially like crabs or extreme humidity, I have come to see the bay as a special place. There is a museum on Solomon’s Island—the Calvert Marine Museum—that does a great job of showing the interconnectedness of life in and around the bay, and at the college where I teach—St. Mary’s College of Maryland—we try to speak to that same interconnectedness. I act as faculty editor for a journal on campus that is dedicated to the environmental and cultural change in the region—it’s called Slackwater—and being involved in that project has also made me appreciate much about the bay and its bounty, as well as its fragility.

Q: Has proximity to the bay in St. Mary’s City influenced your writing at all?

I wouldn’t say my writing has been affected yet by this proximity, but I certainly think it’s slowly working on me. I have lived a number of places, and in some important ways, I think of myself as a place-based writer, so I’m not especially comfortable just dropping my characters into new landscapes. I have to feel like I know a place. That said, I’m working on a book set in the 1860s in the Midwest, a place I couldn’t possibly have known, so take all of this with a grain of salt, I guess.

Q: There’s a lot of history to St. Mary’s. I know very little but I think of early Catholic settlements and of slavery. Have you written about these or other aspects of the history of your region?

Through my involvement with Slackwater these last several years, I’ve learned a great deal about the history you speak of. It’s powerful—and goes way back. Again, I have not yet had any of that seep into my work. But I certainly don’t rule it out. I have become very interested in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lately, so it could be a case of adding two and two together, creatively.

Q: What’s the origin story of the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference?

Well, there was a poetry festival at the college for many years that was created and directed by Michael Glaser, a poet who is still lives in the area. This conference is an extension of that work, in some ways. But it is also an attempt to make this beautiful spot a hub for literary connections in the region. The campus is very quiet in the summer and it is a great place to get together and talk about ideas related to writing. I’ve been very lucky to gather some incredible faculty members—including folks like Patricia Henley, who has been a finalist for the National Book Award—and it’s just been such a rich experience across the board, for me, for the faculty, for all the folks who attend (including high schoolers and SMCM undergrads).  The ethos—and I think this, too, goes back to Michael Glaser’s festival—is rooted in possibility. No one here subscribes to the “cut me down to make me stronger” theory of creative writing instruction.

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