Stacey D’Erasmo by Himali Singh Soin

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Himali SoinThe Sky Below, Stacey D’Erasmo’s most recent novel, explores the theme of flight in many realms. Gabriel, the protagonist, wears a tattooed bird on his hand and is constantly in metamorphosis, from a young boy to a man, traveling from Bishop, Massachusetts, to Brewster, Florida, to New York City. He finally flees to Mexico, where he arrives at a kind of spiritual redemption. He is perpetually in a state of flight as an artist processing the world and a human transforming into a bird. What is it about flight that captures our imagination?

Stacey D’Erasmo The desire to fly, and the sense that in some former or future incarnation one might be able to fly is among the most basic dreams we have. We dream—literally—of flying; humanity has spent quite a bit of time building ever more elaborate flight machines. For Gabriel, travel is a way of becoming, however briefly, another self, or several. Every time he goes to a new place, he shape-shifts. He might be a thief and a cheat, but he’s a seeker, really. In his travels, he’s trying to get back to a better, lighter, more imaginative self: the inner bird, I suppose.

HS What was the hardest part about writing the New York City landscape?

SD Seeing it fresh. Though I didn’t go to Florida, I did actually take several trips downtown to the Wall Street area, where I filled my notebook with notes. Though I’ve lived in New York for many years, I was amazed by what I saw: the detail, the uncanny atmosphere, and the peculiar ornaments and carvings down there were extraordinary. It’s like another city, an even older and denser city, inside Manhattan. It’s marked all over with emblems of gods and goddesses, of seafaring, and of commerce. The streets are quite narrow. It has a moody atmosphere all its own.

HS What do you think the most courageous adventure would be to undertake in the city?

SD To go into the underground tunnels and down into the labyrinthine underground world there. There is another New York under New York, quite a dangerous one, where the homeless have set up underground living spaces behind the trains, where the abandoned subway stations are, and who knows what else. Probably dragons live down there. It would be very courageous, though I don’t think I could do it myself.

HS You said that you rewrote the entire section of when Gabriel goes to Mexico after visiting. How did the actual experience of riding the bus from Oaxaca City to Ixtlan de Juarez affect an otherwise imagined-narrative?

SD Taking the bus in Mexico up the side of a mountain changed the experience entirely. It was terrifying. Those buses do go off the sides of the mountain from time to time. I kept looking out the window at the sheer drop thinking, I’m not quite ready to die for my art. But it is, of course, how many people in Mexico get around. They risk their lives every day just to get to and from work. And once I got off the bus, actually being in one of those mountainside towns was wonderful. I never could have imagined the silence, the particular quality of the wind, and the strong light there.

HS Was the commune that Gabriel works in one that you had visited? What was your experience with the people there?

SD I invented the commune. I did, however, at the suggestion of a friend, visit an ex-convento not far from Oaxaca. The ex-conventos are quite interesting—people use them as meeting places, workshops, studio spaces, and so on. What does one do with an ex-sacred space? The spiritual air haunts them, even when they’re being used for the most ordinary, secular things. The walls themselves are amazing—crumbling, layered, still very much in use.

HS What is one phrase they should never use or a gesture they should never make?

SD “Is this bus safe?”

HS Gabriel spends his entire life collecting things. As travelers, we all collect souvenirs, memories. What was one thing you collected on your travels researching this book?

SD A small statue made by the famous Aguilar sisters, who revived the art of pottery. It’s a statue inspired by a Frida Kahlo image: a dark-faced woman with leaves springing from her back carries a tiny, adult woman in a long white dress in her arms.

HS Why should everyone read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the inspiration for your book?

SD Because it’s extraordinarily beautiful and profound, for one thing. But for another, it is a book wherein doors to the unknown are constantly opening. I first read it actually when I was on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis. There the distance between the dense, superabundant world of Ovid and the dense world around me seemed quite small. When I lifted my gaze from the book, doors to the other worlds were everywhere.

Himali Soin is a writer from India. She currently lives in Brooklyn with acrylics, her diary, and a seahorse.