Sion Dayson is the author of As a River, her debut novel, which is available from Jaded Ibis Press. Born in New York, raised in North Carolina, and a decade spent in Paris where she acquired French nationality, she now resides in Valencia, Spain. Her work has appeared in numerous venues including The Writer, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Hunger Mountain, Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, and several anthologies, including Strangers in Paris and Ms. Aligned: Women Writing About Men. Sion has won grants and residencies from the Kerouac House and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In her recently released novel, As a River, author Sion Dayson tells the tale of Greer Michaels, a man who returns to his segregated hometown of Bannen, Georgia, in 1977 after sixteen years of trying to outrun a devastating family secret. While taking care of his dying mother, Greer finds comfort in his budding friendship with Ceiley, a teenager who aches to run away from her own family secrets and travel the world like Greer. Alternating between the past and the present, Dayson’s lyrical prose moves like water, carrying us through the tributaries of her characters’ lives. From romantic rendezvous at the riverside to overflowing bathtubs and drowned bodies, Dayson’s novel is indeed as a river—full of life, mystery, and danger to be discovered far beneath the surface.
Cameron Finch: What inspired the idea for your debut novel, As a River?
Sion Dayson: None of my writing ever starts with a big idea, but rather a small detail: an image, a scent, a stray line of dialogue. As a River definitely was sparked by the latter. I was walking through Harlem one day and overheard some teenage girls chatting. One said, “She’s pregnant and never even had sex.” You can imagine, that really caught my attention!
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. The dialogue I’d heard on the street transformed itself into the person of Esse, a young girl who weaves a story of a miraculous conception to make sense of something more troubling. But afterward, I got interested in her daughter, Ceiley, too. What would it be like to grow up with a mother who raises you with this tale?
The more I wrote, the more the cast of characters expanded. Soon, an intriguing man with something haunting him from his past entered the picture. I could sense there was some sort of connection between Greer and these characters I had already met, but I didn’t yet know what. It 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 awhile 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.
CF: As a River has had quite the journey leading up to its publication by Jaded Ibis Press. In the novel’s acknowledgments, you mention that “the time between first page written to published book in hand spans more than a dozen years.” Wow! You know the quote, “You can’t step into the same river twice”? As you, the author, evolved over the course of those twelve years, how did your approach to your novel likewise evolve?
SD: I should clarify that it was the whole process that spanned more than a dozen years. So while the book did take a while to write, it took equally as long for it to find the right home. Writing and publishing are two very different things.
When I first started the project, I was in my mid-20s. So when I imagined Greer in his early to mid-30s, he was older than I was. It’s hilarious to me that I’d conceived of him as wiser and more mature when I’ve blown past his age now. Ha!
I had finished the book years ago. But things kept falling through in the quest for publication. I found the querying process pretty demoralizing, even though I had willed myself not to take anything too personally. Then I signed with a small press—but it shut down right as my book was up in the production queue. Then it went to another one—and they ghosted.
I kept returning to revision with each new bump in the road. Endless editing. But at a certain point, it was basically there… Except that I continued changing the last five pages! I could not settle on an ending. It tormented me.
Though it can be hard to admit, I’d wager that the book hadn’t truly landed in a lasting way anywhere because I wasn’t really sure of it myself. I think you can see my evolution by that ceaseless re-working of the ending. What I wanted to convey as the lasting idea changed as I grew.
The most common critique I received from agents was that the book was “beautiful, but too quiet.” Instead of trying to turn the volume up, I kept moving even more toward the quiet, more toward the minimal. Stripping away every last bit of fat. In earlier drafting I was trying to think through things structurally and find the most appropriate narrative arc. The longer the process took, however, the more the question became, what is true? Life doesn’t offer us—at least not usually—the big climax, the tidy ending. So I started allowing myself to play in the ambiguity more.
CF: Your novel is set in a fictional segregated town called Bannen, Georgia, and the majority of the novel alternates between the years 1961 and 1977. Why did you choose to fictionalize a town instead of choosing a real city? And how did you go about researching the culture, politics, and environment of ‘60s and ‘70s Georgia?
SD: One of my writing mentors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Xu Xi, talked about establishing the “facts of the fiction.” For me, one of the facts of this particular fiction—from that very first scene I described above—was its setting. (Though I first called the town Banning, only to Google later and find out that Banning, Georgia, exists! Did my subconscious know that? I changed the name to Bannen).
I did wonder why I should set the story in Georgia, and not North Carolina where I grew up. I admit feeling self-conscious about that. But writing has always worked best for me when I don’t prod too much at my creative impulses and let my curiosity guide me. Working with a fictional town liberated my imagination by offering a freedom to build the world intuitively and organically without having to fact check against a real place. Most elements of the story were a mystery to me at the beginning, but I felt solid about my invented Bannen, Georgia, from the start.
Of course, we’re talking about a small, segregated town in the South during those years, so obviously there are racial and political realities inherent in the terrain, regardless of whether it’s a fictional town, or not. I did weave in time markers and incidents to acknowledge the charged context. But I didn’t do as much research as you might think.
I am a lover of history, but as a person of color in the United States, you feel this history as you move through the world. It’s a lived experience. One doesn’t need to research to recognize the unsettling looks, the acts of bias, the microaggressions (and the overt aggressions) that make up daily existence.
I appreciated how a reviewer in The Arts Fuse put it: “While the central conflict of As a River wouldn’t exist without the miserable history of racism in the South, racial tension provides less a background than a means of psychological pressure in the narrative.” That psychological pressure was something I could create from my own understanding.
CF: Writing about racial and sexual violence, death, and strained family relationships, I can imagine many of these scenes were quite difficult to write. Was it ever uncomfortable to write about your characters’ suffering? How do you find the mental strength to continue writing through these emotionally-charged scenes?
SD: I’m a highly sensitive person (literally; HSP is an actual designation!). I do feel things deeply and consider myself an empathetic person. Witnessing anybody’s suffering is difficult for me.
That said, writing in and of itself—regardless of the content—is usually an excruciating exercise for me. I feel like I’m having to extract each word from the well.
One saving grace of this painstaking process is that it allows me enough time and space to work through difficult material. I endlessly polish a sentence before I can move onto the next. That also means that I’m building up the strength with each pass.
I remember having difficulty with a scene and telling my MFA advisor that I was walking away unsatisfied each time I tried to write the scene. She replied, “So don’t walk away.” There’s no other way out than through. You have to stay in the scene, especially when it’s charged. That’s where the real material lives.
CF: Within the novel, your characters constantly grapple with the question, “Can we ever know the whole truth about another person?” Each character has secrets that they guard with their lives, and often they must decide which is more dangerous: to keep those secrets or share them. How do you, as the author, decide which secrets you want to share with your reader and which secrets shall remain unspoken?
SD: I’m obsessed with the fact that we can never truly know the whole truth about anyone. I strive for understanding, but no matter how much you place yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can never access the totality of their thoughts and feelings.
The book wrestles with that idea by putting it under extreme pressure. All of the characters have secrets. For the purposes of knowing which to reveal and which to remain unspoken, I thought through who the characters were and what made the most sense for the story. I interrogated the concept of what constitutes surprise in fiction. There are different ways to create tension. One is that a reader discovers information and the revelation comes as a shock. Another is that the reader is privy to information that the characters aren’t. So the suspense happens in wondering how things will play out, not what the secret is.
But the book is very much about the power of the unsaid, too. Things don’t have to be explicitly stated for you to know them to be true. I trust the reader and knew that I didn’t have to point a neon sign to certain facts. With each draft, I crafted more subtlety into the plot.
CF: This novel is also concerned with family mythologies and the ways in which our beliefs guide our choices and actions. For example, Ceiley grew up hearing of her own “immaculate conception.” Greer calls the little information he has of his father a “mythology.”
There’s this wonderfully poetic passage in the chapter “Invisible Light (1961)”: “Only a truth did hide in the myth, it was not lost in water: Man is elemental. You cannot hold water, but it is necessary for life. Greer had this great need to know his father, yet there was nothing of him. Greer, beating heart, blood, flesh and bone. How did he exist with half of himself unknown?”
Both Ceiley and Greer are curious about their origins almost to the point of disbelief. As they work to discover the truth about their past, their desire to run away from their homes grows and grows. What are the difficulties in writing characters so full of contradictions?
SD: That’s an interesting question. Is there anyone who is wholly consistent? Something that makes human beings fascinating creatures are our contradictions. I understood the impulse that you so beautifully described. One can wish to know the truth, but fear learning it at the same time. One of the key takeaways of the book is that you can’t run away from yourself or your history; you carry it wherever you go. But it can be difficult to grapple with painful truths. It is common for people to try to run. So while it can be a challenge to capture a character who might have shifting impulses, I think it’s an accurate depiction of their nature. As long as it’s clear to the reader what is behind an action, I think it’s all part of creating three-dimensional characters.
CF: I see so many comparisons in your work to the great writings of James Baldwin, especially in the way light and shadows are cast in As a River. Which writers/texts have influenced your writing, and particularly this novel?
SD: Well, there could be no higher compliment for me. You’ve just named my biggest influence! I revere the work of James Baldwin; if you see shadings of him in As a River I am deliriously happy.
I am always more interested to hear what influence readers see in my work than naming them directly, as I’m not sure what translates directly to the page. But I feel like there is a whole canon of Southern literature that informed my work. And I’m not sure As a River would have come out as it did without reading the work of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Randall Kenan, Jean Toomer, Ernest J. Gaines, and so many more.
CF: What is next for you?
SD: I have no idea! I’m currently heavy in the promotion phase of As a River. I’m envious of writers who manage to keep working creatively while in the depths of publicity, but I am not someone who can. I’m just trying to keep my head above water at the moment. But the book took so long to make its way into the world that I am grateful for every second of this.
I have about a quarter of a nonfiction book about Paris gathering dust that I might pull out again and dive back into. But I am always open to what unfolds. Who knows when I’ll hear the next line of arresting dialogue while innocently walking down the street? It could set me off on a whole new adventure.