How a Nantucket student became one of the country’s most promising breakout authors.
Growing up on Nantucket, Gabriella Burnham didn’t plan on becoming an author. Even after graduating Nantucket High School and heading to Trinity College where she studied English literature, she was uneasy about pursuing a literary career. Instead, after graduating college in 2009, Burnham began working at a law firm in Boston and then in New York City, where she’s spent most of the last decade. With her passion for literature still simmering, Burnham enrolled in the MFA writing program at Saint Joseph’s College in New York. The program completely altered the trajectory of her life. Today, Burnham is widely regarded as one of the most promising literary talents in the country. Last month, her debut novel It Is Wood, It Is Stone hit stores and is already being heralded as a masterpiece.
Published by One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Burnham’s first book details the lives of an expat couple living within the upper-crust world of São Paulo, Brazil’s academic community. Her character Dennis is a young college professor whose wife, Linda, is restless and struggling to find purpose. Lauded by critics as a “fever dream of a book” and “immensely satisfying and new,” It Is Wood, It Is Stone is a psychological and emotional rollercoaster that takes place over the course of a year in Brazil—a country where Burnham traces her own roots.
“We moved to the island when I was ten years old from Brazil, and all my family is in Brazil; my mom is from Brazil,” Burnham said. “But I’ve been thinking more about the island lately. I have a kind of conflicted relationship with Nantucket for a few reasons, but all my closest friends are from Nantucket and it’s just an extremely unique place to grow up.”
While the island is known for its literary talents, Burnham is the first Nantucket High School graduate to sky-rocket to the top of the publishing world with her first book. And she’s quick to credit the island for the early inspiration for her career.
“Honestly, the first time I ever read a book that I loved was in Anne Phaneuf’s class at Nantucket High School,” she said.“I read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.” Back then, Burnham was highly critical of the books she was assigned in class, so she leapt at the chance to pick a novel that she thought would interest her. “I’ll never forget it; Anne just allowed me to choose Cholera and right from the beginning I could not believe this was something another human being had put together. It was so beautiful, and it was in that moment that I said I could read this forever—and I want to write.”
Burnham is currently working on a new project inspired by Nantucket that is tied to some of the issues the island faces today. “Right now, it’s a fictional island, so who knows if I will actually decide to set it on Nantucket, but it’s closely based on it,” she explained.
“I think of the island as this really beautiful moment, but a moment that will eventually go away because of erosion, and other things happening in the world. It’s a special place that feels finite—and was a finite moment in my life as well…It’s kind of like a temple in my memory, now balanced with the realities and difficulties.”
It Is Wood, It Is Stone, originally set to be published this past June, was just released at the end of July due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Burnham was also set to appear as a featured author at the 2020 Nantucket Book Festival in June, but participated in the podcast series the festival hosted instead, delaying what would have been her first return to the island in a couple of years. In the meantime, she will continue to return to Nantucket in her mind as a source of inspiration. “Whether you remain on the island or not, I think Nantucket really becomes a part of who you are,” she concluded. “And when you talk to other people from Nantucket, it’s like you have this shared thing…it’s very different.”
Gabriella Burnham’s first novel It Is Wood, It Is Stone is available through Nantucket Book Partners and everywhere books are sold.