The novelist and Believer magazine editor surrounds himself with reminders of his past — and intimations of the future
Daniel Gumbiner wore many hats before landing his most recent position as managing editor of The Believer, the literature magazine housed in UNLV’s Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. He was a kale-chip salesman, a waiter for a fusion restaurant in Chile, an editor at McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco, and a boatbuilder’s apprentice in the Bay Area, where he’s from. Gumbiner’s eclectic resume informed his debut novel, The Boatbuilder, which was long-listed for the National Book Award, and ultimately led him here, to the desert.
“Even though it’s such a new city, it’s really drenched in history and story, so it’s an interesting place for me to be as a writer; it’s been a very exploratory phase for me,” Gumbiner says. In his workspace, he strikes a healthy balance of both exploration and connection to his roots.
1 UNLV lamp. It may have come with the office, but its history is noteworthy. The lamp belonged to Carol C. Harter, UNLV’s first female president and founder of BMI.
2 Cigar box. (Behind card.) It belonged to his grandfather, who was the last delivery milkman in Brooklyn. “He loved to chew cigars, and would chew them when he was, like, playing golf or hanging out at the house. I use it to keep little notes and things like memories that I want to hang onto.”
3 Window. The highlight of Gumbiner’s office is the floor-to-ceiling window with a view of one of UNLV’s less-frequented trails. Outside, passersby can only see their reflection in the one-way glass; inside, Gumbiner can see everything they do. “I’ve seen break-ups, and a lot of people checking themselves out. There’ll be a guy standing there, doing his hair, looking directly at me, and he can’t see me.” It’s not just people: A desert hawk that lives in a nearby tree occasionally flies directly into his window.
4 Source material. Gumbiner’s second book will be set in a fictionalized Las Vegas, so he’s accumulating books on the city and the desert. “I take something that is related to the subject material but has nothing to do with it, and just see where my mind goes. It can be a way to free my mind.”
5 Beach mementos. “Home things” Gumbiner says, gesturing to a horseshoe crab shell, coral, driftwood, and assorted seashells scattered across the window sill — keepsakes from his life in the Bay Area. “My homeostasis is there; it’s where I feel most comfortable. But that being said, it’s also fraught with all the constraints that a home place can be fraught with. Coming here, it’s very uncharted, there’s a lot of freedom to it, which I think is what a lot of people experience when they come to Vegas.”
6 Back issues of The Believer. These two stacks represent the magazine’s two eras: One comprises old issues from when it was based in San Francisco, displaying the classic, four-quadrant Charles Burns-illustrated covers that a longtime reader would recognize. The other stack includes every issue since the magazine moved here. Now, each cover is designed by a different artist.
7 Coworker Michael Ursell (not pictured). Because his cubicle walls don’t meet the ceiling, Gumbiner has an unseen officemate with whom he often talks. “In the past we have listened to podcasts at the same time. We just speak to each other as disembodied voices, which people find very weird, but it’s very natural to us at this point.”
“Very natural!” Ursell says over the wall.
8 Champagne. The bottle of Ogio Prosecco was a gift from BMI fellows Claire Vaye Watkins and Derek Palacio after The Boatbuilder was long-listed for the National Book Award; he keeps it as a memory of that day. “It used to have this amazing unicorn balloon attached to it that was floating above the barrier here, and Michael could see it, so he would take these videos of the unicorn balloon. Then eventually it was dying, and we staged its death in a video.”