In 2014, Trent Preszler was at the lowest moment of his life. His long-estranged father had died of cancer, leaving his son with a raft of unanswered questions and a toolbox as his only inheritance. In his grief, Preszler, CEO of Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, did something completely out of character: With no woodworking experience, he used his dad’s tools to build a canoe — by himself and by hand.
From that moment came a new passion for boat building via the Preszler Woodshop, a new sense of peace and, finally, a new memoir, “Little and Often,” out April 27 from William Morrow and receiving plenty of national buzz.
“It was almost like the story was burning a hole inside me,” said Preszler. “I felt this huge relief that I had found a path out of the darkness through working with my hands and finding some other inspiration. It began to dawn on me, after a couple of years, that Dad’s gift wasn’t just a gift, but that it had actually changed the whole trajectory of my life. And then I started to think, ‘Well, maybe this is a lesson that other people might relate to.’ ”
Preszler’s beautifully written memoir will carry meaning for anyone who has lost a loved one with the relationship unresolved. It’s also a tribute to hard, meticulous work — and a product of it, as Preszler found the same little-and-often process that builds a boat was required over the nearly two years it took him to draft the book, stealing writing time in groggy “twilight moments” at the start and end of his workdays. We talked earlier this spring about the new book, journeys literal and emotional and his special connection to this corner of the world.
What originally brought you to the North Fork?
It was work. I did my M.S. and Ph.D. at Cornell in Ithaca. I studied winemaking — viticulture and oenology. And I came out to work for Bedell Cellars in 2003. I thought I might stay for a year or two and then maybe go to California or something, but I never left.
A familiar story.
I thought, “Hey, this is a pretty good life.” You can have the best of both worlds: You’re out here on a beach and you’re totally isolated and then hop in the car and you’re in the center of the world. The ocean here, too, is oddly similar to South Dakota, where I’m from, because there’s no trees in South Dakota and there’s no hills, it’s just grass. All you see is the horizon. And just like the ocean, it can be meditative. It can also drive you insane and, you know, kill you. It’s isolating and spare and flat, and that can be really beautiful.
You write in the novel about your upbringing in South Dakota, and leaving because it felt inhospitable to a young gay man. But on the other hand, you seem protective of South Dakota and misperceptions of it among New Yorkers.
Who knows, maybe it is more hospitable today, but certainly in the 80s and 90s, growing up, it was not a safe place to be gay. I didn’t even know any gay people there and I kind of had to get away. But, and maybe it’s true of anyone with an important childhood place, there is a sacredness to it where I feel like if I don’t defend it, who will?
I’ve often found that New Yorkers can think that they’re the center of the universe, but maybe they’re not even curious enough to go visit the other 48 states besides New York and California. I brought that up in the book in part to defend “flyover country,” but also to show that I was stuck in between. For a long time, I felt like I was too country for the city, but too gay for the country. I never quite fit in, but I’m realizing now as I mature that I don’t have to fit in and that’s not the point.
It’s so charming that “The Muppets Take Manhattan” was the turning point that made you want to leave South Dakota to live in New York City.
It really was! I swear, my mom will tell the story, too. We saw the movie and I was star-struck. There was a scene where they couldn’t afford a hotel, so they use the quarter lockers at LaGuardia Airport to sleep. And Janice, the sort of stoner, hippie Muppet was like, “I want the one with the Jacuzzi!” Eight years old, I walked out of the theater and thought, “I’m going to live in New York someday.” Oh, I did. And it’s funny: I have talked to other people who’ve said that that movie affected them deeply, too. It’s a dreamer’s movie. If you’re a kid who is hoping for something greater in life, you see that movie and you’re like, “Maybe there is something greater out there.”
The book begins with your trip from New York back to South Dakota for the first time in 14 years, which would end up being the last time you saw your dad. When he was in the hospital and asked you to take his toolbox, what were you feeling in that moment?
I did not understand the seriousness of it and did not think he was dying. No one wants to admit that … And then my whole life, I always felt a burden of expectation from my dad. So it was like, “Oh, he’s giving me his tools because yet again, I’m being expected to be or do something that I’m not. Or to clean up his mess.” These are all unflattering things for me thinking back, who I was and how I responded to his situation. We had been estranged for so long that I was all wrapped up in my New York life.
Sadly, or maybe this is the beauty of it, I was left to pick up those pieces and figure out why it was important later. It was like this big slap in the face: “Pay attention.” I got a second chance to pay attention and I tried to make the most of it.
So tell me, how did you come from inheriting those tools to building canoes with them?
I was living in Mattituck, right on the Peconic Bay. There had been two historic blizzards, the most snow we’ve received out here in decades. I was stuck in my house staring at the frozen bay, which had not frozen over in 40 years, and there were people out there on iceboats with the sails.
And there was me, sitting alone in this quiet house with my dog, staring at this pile of tools from Dad, thinking, “What can I do with these to honor him? And is there something I could build that’s relevant to my life in New York?” I didn’t ever really even think about furniture or a table or a bookshelf. It was clear as day to me, I had to build a boat, because I lived on the water and I’m not a great swimmer. In fact, I can’t really swim. In some ways it’s like, “I’m afraid of the water and therefore I built boats.”
But also, canoes are a manageable thing that you can do for yourself and by yourself. It felt like an entry point to the maritime world; something that was approachable, and in a more mystical way it linked me to explorers of centuries past. Even where I grew up, Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri River using canoes. And I grew up on Lewis and Clark Lake in South Dakota and some of my earliest memories of Dad involved these rickety duck hunting blinds that he and his buddies made with aluminum canoes and skiffs, these rusty broken-down boats sitting in the mud. I thought, “What if I could make a New York fancy version of that?”
And so I did. But it was total insanity, really. People were like, “You could start with making a cutting board, perhaps?” Or anything but a 20-foot boat.
You had a number of disastrous setbacks. At one point you’re taking a hammer to the whole project in frustration and at another, you’ve covered yourself in epoxy and you’re stuck to your own floor. What made you keep going?
Oh, you’re right. There were a lot of exit signs on this interstate highway that I kept driving past, saying, “It would be really easy to quit right now.” And the only person I would have disappointed was myself — I had only told a handful of other people about it. But I knew I was doing this for very personal reasons, in part because of Dad’s tools and in part because I had a sister who was disabled [with cerebral palsy and who died young]. I’ve always kind of felt like I was living life for two of us. She could never even start, and so what am I going to do, quit? That’s a really hard thing to swallow, when I know I have an opportunity to keep going in a way that other people in my family can’t and couldn’t and didn’t.
You grapple in the book with the idea of traditional masculinity, as both a positive and negative influence. It seems like something you have thought a lot about.
It’s a big theme in my life and in the book, too. My dad was the Marlboro man. He was a rodeo champion, Vietnam vet, cattle rancher, and could kill snakes with a whip and rope foals. It was hardcore, even for straight guys. And they were very religious Evangelical Christians, too. And then moving to New York, which has a strong gay culture that has its own set of cultural mores — I didn’t fit into that either. And so I struggled, a big part of my life, to figure out where I fit in, not just geographically, but also in this spectrum of how American men exist in ways that are both fulfilling to themselves and respectful to their history and their family.
The sad part, the flip side of my dad’s life and a masculinity on that level, is that I think it prevents people from expressing love. Maybe there’s a macho thing where if you’re a tough guy, you’re not overly talkative. My dad had other reasons for being shut down — he was traumatized by Vietnam and certainly had a tough life. But I never heard the words “I love you.” Part of writing the book was a meditation on, What does love mean when you don’t hear it or experience it in the same ways that society tells you you’re supposed to?
I thought, “Well, he didn’t love me because he never said so.” But he did. If you read the book again from my dad’s perspective, it’s fascinating. You’d see that he was building me through the whole book, protecting me from harm and showing me how to work hard. And my sister, having a neurological disorder that prevented her most of her life from speaking, she never said “I love you” either. But I know she did; she was the sweetest thing. I don’t think the standard ways of expressing love always are even possible, so we have to find it somewhere and somehow.
That’s beautiful. What else do you hope people will take away from reading your story? You’ve talked about those “big T” truths.
First, forgiveness and second chances. I hope that people know that no matter how far out their relationships get in life with their family or friends, that you can always reel it back in and make it matter again somehow, if it really matters enough to you.
And then there is also this line from the Pixar movie “Ratatouille” that has always stuck with me. And I felt like was one of the big truths of my book, which is that “not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” I came from the middle of nowhere, the most remote place in America, 180 miles from a McDonald’s. And I went to a one-room schoolhouse and I literally rode a horse to school. If one kid reads this and has his “Muppets Take Manhattan” moment because of me, then I’m totally happy and content with whatever happens with the book. Because if I had had this story when I was a kid, I think about how different my life might’ve been.
Is there anything North Fork residents specifically will take away from reading the book?
It was really important to me to link the North Fork — physically, geologically — to my transformation. I talk about glaciers and the North Fork beaches not because it’s scenery. The whole area was created by slow, incremental change; the glaciers melted slowly and deposited all the sand and soil here. “Little and Often” is a reference, not just to lessons about working slowly and methodically to achieve your goals, but also to the very geology of the North Fork and how the place came to exist at all.
I hope that local people take a real interest in this book. In some ways it’s like a love letter to what the North Fork can be for people. It’s a spiritual kind of refuge. It was for me, in a very deeply troubling time of my life. And I think in the last year it has been for thousands of people that came from the city so they can be by the beach and work in peace and not get sick. And I hope in that way, maybe the timing of it is really good, and that it resonates.