The Flow of Fiction: An Interview with Sion Dayson by Ruut DeMeo

Sion Dayson was born in New York City, grew up in North Carolina, and earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, and many other venues, and her writings often focus on travel, living abroad, and her literary hero, James Baldwin. She has won grants and residencies from The Kerouac House, Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Stone Court Writer-in-Residence Program. She also got the chance to spend a month writing in Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount. Her popular blog paris (im)perfect explored the City of Light’s less glamorous side. After a decade in Paris, she now resides in Valencia, Spain, where she teaches English as a Foreign Language. As a River is her first novel.

Ruut DeMeo:  Congratulations on As a River. It is a gorgeous and compelling story that had me crying in the end, and left me wanting more. In the acknowledgements, you tell us that the story took over a decade to write. Can you share about how Jaded Ibis Press ended up publishing it? From what I’ve read on your blog, you had some disappointments along the way.

Sion Dayson: Thank you so much for the kind words! It means a lot to finally have the novel out in the world and hear feedback like this.

I should clarify that it was the whole process that spanned more than a dozen years. The book did take a long time to write – but it took equally as long to find the right home for it. A good reminder that writing and publishing are two very different things.

I started the book in New York in 2005, thinking it was a short story. But it just kept growing. A year later I brought it with me to Paris, where I lived for exactly a decade. When I finished the novel (or so I thought!), I started querying agents in late 2011, early 2012. I received a lot of complimentary feedback, but the concise version boiled down to “it’s beautiful, but too quiet.” (Ask me what I think about that sneaky description of “quiet” sometime!)

I did keep editing the book, but I realized that it would probably be better suited to a small press. So I started sending it out. Another long process, but I was thrilled when it got signed in early 2015. Right when the production cycle was about to start, however, the press abruptly closed. Needless to say, I was heartbroken.

The novel then found its way to another small press who had agreed to take on some of the original publisher’s orphaned manuscripts. Though the intentions were noble, they unfortunately didn’t have the bandwidth to follow-through on the commitment. Essentially, they ghosted.

It may seem strange to say, but this series of disappointments turned out to be lucky. It certainly didn’t feel that way at the time – especially as the saga drew out over several years – but it’s true. I decided to stop actively pursuing publication at that point. I know that’s not the story we’re supposed to present to the world (the officially sanctioned version is “never give up!”). But surrendering was the healthiest thing I did for myself. Yes, publishing a novel had always been a dream. But what other dreams did I have?

I moved to Spain, which I’d wanted to do since I was a child. While the querying and publishing gauntlet felt like waiting for someone else to bestow their approval on me, I knew there were certain things I did have control over. So I leapt.

Remarkably, my first summer here, in 2018, I received two emails from different publishers on two consecutive days about my manuscript, completely out of the blue. The first was an offer; my manuscript had been sitting in a Submittable queue at a small press for nearly a year. Once they read it, they wanted it!

The second message was from Jaded Ibis Press. While I had been delighted by the previous day’s surprise, something inside me immediately lit up as soon as JIP’s email arrived. I felt that I had finally found a home. Or rather, it had found me! They had heard of my manuscript from another press who had enjoyed it but didn’t have space in their catalog. But unbeknownst to me, they had recommended the manuscript to Jaded Ibis, who reached out asking if it was still available.

Can you believe it? The generosity, the kindness. Really, the connections you aren’t even aware are blossoming. You never know who your champions will be. But they exist. I’m still so moved that it happened this way.

RD: As a River is a poetically told story that also holds an abundance of poetry.  Can you share about how you ended up weaving poetry into this narrative and what it means to you?

 SD: I appreciate you saying that! William Faulkner once posited that “maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first.”

I’m a perfectionist, and though that tendency can cause a lot of grief, I think it’s also what draws me to the art form. I obsess over every word. I read things aloud over and over again trying to find the appropriate cadence, the right rhythm. I marvel at the music poetry can create, a whole universe conjured in a small space. I sometimes think of Elizabeth Bishop as a patron saint of perfectionism. It’s said she didn’t write prolifically because she would endlessly polish her work. She “only” published 101 poems in her lifetime. I don’t know – 101 perfect poems sounds like quite the enviable legacy to me!

In a first draft of my book, I briefly imagined Greer, the protagonist, as a writer. Unoriginal, I know. I immediately scrapped that idea, thankfully, but the importance of words still felt like they belonged in the narrative.

Greer begins anonymously receiving boxes of books when he’s young. At first the source of these shipments is a mystery, but they eventually lead him to unravel a family secret. The delivery of these books was initially a plot device. But I knew the books he read would inform who he became.

I have to credit a serendipitous note I received in a workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts while I was doing my MFA. I don’t remember my original wording when I have Greer meet Caroline, the girl he falls in love with when he’s sixteen. But it was something that prompted a penciled-in note from a peer: “Do you know that Emily Dickinson poem? ‘I’m Nobody! Who are You?’” That brief query sent me down the route of incorporating more poetry into the book. And it was Emily Dickinson who describes knowing something is poetry if she “feel(s) physically as if the top of (her) head were taken off.”

That’s still what it feels like to me, too.

RD: I want to ask you about the title (and a major theme) of your novel. As a River feels like a classic name to me already; it has that old-fashioned ring. The river is a central location for what happens to the characters in your book. They meet there and have important moments there, some even die there. I’m always curious about if and how much the title directs writers to let a certain plot unfold. In your case, was the river — or the title — part of the seed thought for your story, or did it evolve?

SD: My publisher is going to love hearing this; she suggested the title!

The river was always a major part of the novel. The very first scene I wrote, centered on a rumor of an immaculate conception you hear about early in the book, was set by the water. While that exact text is no longer in the final version, it formed my foundational understanding about the river’s crucial role in the characters’ lives, as well as the town’s psychic and literal geography. An actual physical element that divides Bannen along racial lines.

But people also go to the river seeking freedom. It’s a source of both joy and pain.

For the majority of my time writing the book, I had another title in mind. (I’ll let Internet sleuths see if they can find it; the old title is still floating out there in some recesses of the web).

My publisher, Elizabeth Earley, who has her own novel coming out this fall, too, wasn’t sold on the original title. And while it was hard at first to let go of the one I had carried with me for years, once we landed on As a River, my heart sang again.

We had been brainstorming several different options focused on the river, but it started to feel really belabored to me. But at the last hour, I got an email from Elizabeth saying she had gone to a Buddhist monastery that day and there was a sign on the wall that read “go as a river.” And then the group did a long, silent walking meditation through the woods together and the monk said, “move as one like a river.” And so the thought: what about As a River?

It felt right to me. Its unadorned beauty. A simple elegance. It seemed to match the lyrical restraint of the novel’s style and leave space for interpretation. It offers an invitation to inhabit the river and its meaning. That openness also speaks to how each of the characters has their own relationship to the river.  An important underlying tension in the book is the power of the unsaid, and I think the title points to that, too.

RD: If I have the years straight, you wrote the majority of this manuscript in Paris. Stories about race and the bi-racial experience are by no means American, but somehow Greer Michaels’ experience in the South feels like something that could only happen in the States. It’s a very American book. Was it strange to work on such an American story while living abroad?

SD:  James Baldwin, one of my literary heroes, also lived in France for a long time. In his famous essay, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” and in much of his work, he talks about discovering more about oneself and one’s country when you live outside of it.

For me, that’s proven true. The distance, rather than being an obstacle to rendering an American story, in fact, offers space to observe in a different, perhaps clearer, way.  Baldwin opens another essay, “A Fly in Buttermilk,” with the admission that he found himself “alchemized…into an American the moment [he] touched French soil.” You don’t realize just how thoroughly your country of origin has shaped you until you find yourself in a different culture.

Living abroad while writing the book was a boon. I’m not even sure if I could have written it if I still lived in the States.

RD: Tell us a little bit about your background. How did your upbringing inform you to become a writer? Is there a specific time you remember when you knew this was what you wanted to do? (And was it always fiction for you?)

 SD: My mother was a librarian, so our house was always filled with books. I also adored old movies and dreamt of being the host of “American Movie Classics.” Where did the desire come from? I don’t know, but storytelling was always in my blood.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, a moderately-sized university town in North Carolina. A “liberal” place. But at the time there weren’t a lot of families that looked like ours. I felt like the awkward mixed-race kid that didn’t belong. I was quiet and shy and tried to hide in the background – which was never really possible. Writing – in all forms – was a solace. I was quiet on the outside, but a million words churned on the inside.

RD: I’m curious about the research you did for the book. This story takes place in Georgia, and you grew up in North Carolina. Did you model Bannen, Georgia after a real place you’d visited? How much does this story reflect your own (or your family’s own) experiences in the South?

 SD: I imagined Bannen, Georgia out of whole cloth. I’m drawn to stories that feature fictional towns – Tims Creek, North Carolina in Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. I was a big Stephen King fan when I was younger and he had his fictional Maine towns.

But I didn’t base Bannen on any real place.

One of my writing mentors at VCFA, Xu Xi, talked about establishing the “facts of the fiction.” For me, one of the facts of this particular fiction was that it took place in Georgia. I wondered why I should set it there, and not North Carolina where I grew up, and I admit feeling a little self-conscious about that. But writing has always worked best for me when I don’t prod too hard at my creative impulses and let my curiosity guide me. The intuitive knowledge I feel about a story emerges on its own.

I did do a bit of research to add some specific details – what kind of flora grows in middle Georgia? What would I smell? The name of the soil where crops are planted, graves dug. But for the most part, Bannen is an invention. One I hope feels real.

RD: Part of what makes As a River such a rich story is how you allowed the reader to see inside each character’s mind, one at a time, whether the narrative was in close third person POV or through the first person accounts that were dispersed throughout. I think the POV changes flow really well and don’t interrupt the flow of the story at all. Is this combination of perspectives how you wrote it, or did you play with POV as you worked on this manuscript?

SD: Here’s the genesis story behind the book: 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 definitely provided a spark!

I went home 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 the young girl was Esse and then I got interested in her daughter, Ceiley. 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 thirties with something troubling him from his past. I said hold up, who is this? I felt a lot of energy when Greer entered the picture and I knew I wanted to know more about him. That meant getting to know his mother Elizabeth and why she was so sad. And Caroline, his first love. And…you can see the cast of characters kept expanding until it became this polyphonic project.

That’s how it happens for me. I can’t explain the workings of the subconscious, but I try to follow where it leads. I sit with characters until they start to tell me their stories. And let’s just say there’s a lot of talk in small towns and plenty of folks eventually opened up. Some even demanded their own first-person sections. I think of those interludes almost as soliloquies.

RD: I especially love how the plot unfolds through Greer’s inner life, and I think this idea of a “lack of men” is important in your novel, especially for Greer and how he is driven to solve the myth of his father. Can you share some thoughts about choosing a male character to tell your story? Were there ever moments when you found it difficult to write from a man’s perspective?

 SD: I find just about every aspect of writing difficult! I’m not sure writing from a man’s perspective was any more so than any other.

As I mentioned, the energy in the project shifted as soon as Greer entered the scene. So it wasn’t so much that I chose him. He chose me.

That said, I agree with Flannery O’Connor: “I write to discover what I know” – as well as explore what I don’t. So often, I’m surprised by what appears on the page. Fiction is a vehicle for fostering empathy. Perhaps I write from a male perspective because I’m trying to better understand men.

It’s interesting you note the “lack of men.” This image of men as an absent, invisible, but inescapable force, is something that arose for me early on and fits with the landscape of Greer’s individual history. He describes himself almost as a ghost, and I think this “haunting” is an important strand in the book.

RD: You switch between the decades seamlessly and let us see the same characters unfold through various eyes at various ages. I think it’s amazing how the chapters feed off each other. When and how did you decide to chop up the narratives? Did you write one narrative all the way through or write it the way we read it?

SD: I struggled with the structure for a long time. I most definitely did not write the narrative all the way through or the way you read it. There was a lot of trial and error, but it finally unfolded  organically.

At first I thought As a River would be a series of interlinked short stories. Some chapters worked as stand-alone stories, but others just didn’t. I realized after awhile that I would have to break open the narrative and try a different approach.

I actually studied examples of “mosaic” writing because the traditional plot structure has never been my strong suit; I yearned to figure how to piece together the fragments I was writing. Because I do start drafting with seemingly disparate moments that I then work to weave together.

What finally clicked was an idea that the wonderful novelist Sophie Hardach offered after reading a draft. She suggested that I think of narrative as washing lines that I could string along throughout the whole book; I could then peg the other stories onto those lines.

So while I have different time periods, the complex structure I had been wrestling with suddenly had a simplified solution. 1977 became the “present time” of the novel and every chapter set in that year moves forward chronologically as you advance in the book. Interspersed between these present time chapters, we fly back to the past or into a new character’s head. Each of those past chapters illuminates the present. I think it grounds the reader that they keep popping back up in 1977 and the time keeps moving sequentially forward, even if the other chapters swirl around in time.

I did use some techniques I picked up while studying mosaic writing. I’m so glad to hear that the switches between decades worked seamlessly for you. That’s very much what I was trying to do by creating echoes that would resonate between the past and present. For example, I would intentionally put an image at the end of a chapter that would then get taken up in the next, in a different decade. I think it kind of subtly connects the two and helps with transitions.

RD: I found that the pace sped up a little bit at the start of part two. Stuff started happening a little quicker as Elizabeth’s illness became the focal plot point. But then there were still those contemplative moments that took my breath away; you have such a poetic way to describe scenery. It’s very visceral and lyrical; your words definitely sound good when read out loud. Can you share about your process as far as letting plot play out, sticking closely to a plan, or letting the words be in the center of your work? What’s it like to be a blank document on Sion Dayson’s computer screen?

 SD: I have no plan and I never start with a plot. I am a pantster all the way (as in “flying by the seat of my pants” style of drafting).

The blank document on the computer screen is pretty scary to me, which is why I usually first scratch out on paper images or lines that have floated into my mind. Words really are the center of my work. I think it goes back to my love of poetry; the only way I know how to write is to keep rearranging words over and over again until I unearth some meaning.

I also agree that the pace picks up in part two, and I think that goes back to the structural design I was talking about. In the second half of the book, the frequent time shifting fades as the past fully catches up to the present. So then we’re running forward headlong until the end.

But you can never forget the past. That’s why we still get those contemplative moments even as things move faster.

RD: I had a feeling about Greer and Caroline’s connection as soon as they met, but then when the time came for him to figure it out, the scene was so well done that my heart was pounding even though I’d kind of been anticipating it. You write suspenseful moments very well; there’s a lot of tactile human emotion on the page. What would you say is the key to capturing that kind of tension?

SD:  One of my mentors at Vermont College, the fabulous Ellen Lesser, really helped me interrogate what constitutes true surprise in fiction. There are different ways to create tension. One is that the reader discovers information and it comes as a shock. A big twist!

But another is that the reader is privy to information that the characters aren’t. So the suspense can come in the reader knowing – or having a feeling, as you did – and wondering how events will play out. The mystery of the plot is not in what happens, but how.

I love both ways, but there’s something particularly heartbreaking and poignant when you love and are rooting for a character and know that something is in store for them. The key, I think, is staying in scene. The tension comes by slowing down the moment of revelation and not looking away.

RD: What do you hope to work on next? Do you think you’ll ever incorporate what you’ve learned from all your years of blogging into a work of fiction? I’m definitely eager to read whatever you publish next. I thoroughly enjoyed As a River. Thanks for writing it.

SD: That’s so kind, Ruut. I’ve actually thought of using a lot of my blog material in a longer work of creative nonfiction. I actually have a quarter of that book finished, but it’s been lying fallow for awhile. My “bloggy” voice, in its heyday, was lighthearted and conversational. Pretty different from my fiction, I’d say.

With today’s bleak political circumstances, I confess I put it aside unsure if that kind of work had a place these days.

But I’m beginning to think some joy might be exactly what we need.

Ruut DeMeo has studied music at CCBC, children’s literature at Johns Hopkins University, and creative writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. In 2018, her short story and poetry were published in Fine Print Literary Magazine, and in the same year she contributed to a non-fiction memoir collection called “Suominaiset Maailmalla,” which was published by Otava in Finland. Ruut’s research into Nordic Folklore has been supported by the Mellon and Finlandia Foundations, and she recently won the Appelstein-Sweren Book Collecting Prize for her Kalevala-themed collection. Ruut is a recipient of the 2019 Kratz Writing Fellowship, and is currently working on her first middle grade fantasy novel.

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