Thursday, September 5, 2019

Q&A with Sion Dayson

Sion Dayson, photo by Frederic Monpierre
Sion Dayson is the author of the new novel As a River. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Writer and The Rumpus. She lives in Valencia, Spain.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for As a River?

A: I was walking through Harlem one day and overheard some teenage girls gossiping. One said: “She’s pregnant and never even had sex.” You can imagine that line really struck me!

Luckily, I was just a couple blocks from home. I rushed to my apartment and immediately wrote a scene. What came out featured a young girl in a small town in Georgia in an era before I was born. I came to learn Esse was the young pregnant girl. But after, I got interested in her daughter, Ceiley, too. What would it be like to grow up with a mother who claims you were immaculately conceived?

Then a stranger came to town, a handsome man in his 30s with something troubling him from his past. I felt a lot of energy when Greer entered the picture and I could sense there was some sort of connection between these characters I had already met, but I didn’t yet know what. It soon became clear he was my main protagonist and I really wanted to understand him more. That meant getting to know not just him, but also his mother Elizabeth and why she was so sad. And Caroline, his first love. And on and on.

As I began with dialogue, and then with character, it took a while to discover the heart of the story. The central question became why Greer had fled his hometown and left everyone behind. But the seed of the idea had been crucial. As a River is very much about our origins and how the stories we tell about ourselves shape our lives.

Q: The novel is set in a Southern town. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Essential. The novel would not exist without the setting. Full stop. So much of what the characters contend with hinges on the social and emotional realities of living in a small, segregated Southern town.

Q: You note in your acknowledgments that it took a dozen years between when you started writing the novel to its publication. What was your writing process like?

A: The novel did take a long time, but I should note that it was not a dozen years of writing. A big chunk of that time was spent in trying to find the right home for it.

That said, my writing process is definitely not efficient! I work best when I can totally immerse myself in a project and tune out the rest of life. Obviously those occasions are rare. I advanced most on the book during my MFA and when I was able to do writing residencies. The large swaths of time where my main responsibility was to the book.

So the novel happened in fits and starts. I’d do intensive work on it when conditions allowed and then it would marinate for a while when I was attending to other things.

I know the common advice is that you should write every day. I suppose that’s true for a lot of people, but there are other ways to get it done. I carried the characters around with me and while there were long stretches when new pages didn’t pile up, I think there was something valuable in meditating on the story in other ways. It meant when next I had (or created) an opportunity to dive back in I had a lot of creative energy stored up that I could channel.

I do write really slowly, though. I blame that on my perfectionist tendencies. My drive to write has always been steeped in a love of language. I can worry over one sentence for hours trying to get it right. I find it exceedingly difficult to move on if I’m unhappy with what I already have on the page. So that’s more conventional wisdom that I just toss out the window! The usual refrain is to write that wild first draft without editing and then go back to see what you’ve got. I’d love to experience the rush of being able to do that. But instead, I carefully lay the foundation, one painstaking brick at a time.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: There’s a wonderful essay called "Writers, Protect Your Inner Life" by Lan Samantha Chang I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

There’s this passage that really resonates with me right now:

“Suddenly the newly minted writer must make laborious efforts to describe what he or she has written. This struggle takes place, I think, because the sincere reaction to making meaningful art is often speechlessness. We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method. The finished product is like a pearl, complete and beautiful, but mute about itself…there is frequently no explanation, nothing to be said about it. Often, the writer himself has very little idea of what he has created.”

I never write with a message in mind. One of the most wondrous things about reading is that each person can connect with a book in their own way and take what they need from it.

As the writer, I don’t usually have a conscious understanding of what I’m trying to transmit. I told the story because it was the only way for this complex of emotion, thought, and insight to come out. But yes, I do feel almost mute speaking about what I actually wrote.

That being said, I hope readers take away a sense of our shared humanity. About the importance of finding out who you are and not letting others determine that for us. That the story we tell about ourselves matters. We shouldn’t let a single story define us. I hope readers continue thinking through assumptions about identity, family, and love – that they feel their way through, too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Honestly? This moment has been so long in the making and there’s so much to do when launching a book that I’m not actively writing anything new at the moment. I have a quarter of a memoir about my decade in Paris finished and I might return to that at some point. But right now, I’m soaking in this time as my debut finally finds its way into the world. After so many ups and downs, it’s nice to enjoy the celebration for just a little while.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For a time, I had mostly given up on this book being published, even though I still thought it had value and beauty. Seeking publication had been a demoralizing experience and I had decided to surrender to the idea that it probably wasn’t going to happen.

Then the universe reminded me again: there’s always the possibility for things to change. You think your dream – whatever it might be – won’t come true. But it might.

Also, though, it’s perfectly fine to change what you want your dream to look like.

It’s never too late. To conjure a different dream or try something new or to make the world a little better in some small way. And there’s always a chance that serendipity might smile upon you. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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