What led you to write this book?
I’m very interested in what happens to ordinary people when they’re faced with events and circumstances so vastly out of human scale; things so large, so overwhelming, that they’re akin to the gods breaking into mortal life. In my first two books, I wrote about people caught up in psychological crises, but in this one, I really wanted to explore a more existential dilemma. Then I happened to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I was just enthralled by it. Ovid is so perceptive, tender, and inventive. I began to think about transformation in the modern moment, what that would be like, how it might happen. In Ovid, it’s very often these ordinary people who are changed, and that charmed and moved me, too: the idea of a little guy, a chiseler, being thrust into something so much larger than himself.
How long did it take you to write it?
About four years.
Was there anything different about writing from the point of view of a man?
You know, it took a while for me to find Gabriel’s frequency—I had to woo him a bit, I had to learn how he moved. It’s not only that he’s a man, it’s that he’s wired so differently from me. I’m kind of horribly honest and not a very good manipulator, unlike Gabriel. I’ve never broken into a house, turned a trick, or stolen from my neighbors or friends. Though I have to say that whenever I’ve read from the novel, at least one person has come up to me, winked, and said, “You did those things, right?” So I must have found that frequency, after all. Maybe it’s because I’m quite fascinated by people who are just a little roguish, a little thieve-y, a little to the left of the line. I’m compelled by cuspiness.
Gabriel, like, it seems, many 30-somethings today, is in a bit of a period of suspended adolescence, as it were. He’s stuck in a dead-end job, trying to find time to make his art, unsure about his relationship, etc. – whereas the 30-somethings of our parents’ generation were probably already married with kids, careers and homes. Is this trend something you’ve observed in your own students, your own friends?
Yes, of course. I’ve felt it, and I’ve certainly seen it in friends and students. I don’t know that I’d call it “suspended adolescence”; I might call it something more like a long arc of young adulthood, which isn’t necessarily bad. On the one hand, modern 30-somethings have a lot of choices and can be very creative about how they live their lives—you don’t have to conform to a readymade idea that includes the house, the car, and the kids by the time you’re thirty. But on the other hand, we stay “young” for such a long time that the late thirties can be a bit of a shock: all of sudden, and in a rush, that long arc comes to an end. It’s not a midlife crisis. It’s more like a “What is my life?” crisis.
In her review of your last book, A Seahorse Year, Margot Livesey said that you write very well about art and sex. Do you continue with those themes here?
Well, thank you to Margot Livesey for that remark—I try. Here, I would say that I continue thinking about art and sex as condensed in the sensitive character of Gabriel, but probably more on their edges, on the places where the art isn’t quite getting there and maybe never will, the sex doesn’t feel quite right or it’s not with the right person, and generally things maybe aren’t what they seem. In my previous two books, the questing took more direct paths to more direct results. In The Sky Below, the questions are more open-ended, and the answers, I think, are more open-ended as well. Art and sex both get transformed in this novel, and Gabriel ends up making things and desiring people in ways he never expected.
The Sky Below seems to present Gabriel as sexually somewhat fluid. At the start and finish of the novel, he’s in a relationship with another man, but there is an interlude where he is in a relationship with a woman named “Malcolm X.” Why was it important to you that this character be sexually ambiguous?
Well, he just sort of appeared to me that way. In earlier drafts, he was actually even more sexually fluid. As I continued to work on the book, I decided to move the relationship with the female character into the section where he finds himself a stranger in a strange land in many ways, but he’s still fundamentally fluid—if that’s not an oxymoronic phrase—to me. That's probably one of the few traits Gabriel and I have in common, that fluidity; I liked having the chance to explore that on the page. I think that as we grow more sophisticated as a culture about the great range of sexual identities and configurations, fluid characters like him may become more common. There are so many different ways to be, and love, in the world, and it provides so many fascinating opportunities for a character.
Though the novel moves chronologically, the sense of time in it is unusual. What were you doing with that and what did you want to achieve?
I wanted the book to have both ordinary time in it—hours, days, months, years—and something close to mythic time, the soul’s time. Of course, part of the book’s long-view sense of time comes from the fact that Gabriel is looking back on the events that had such a powerful impact on him. When you look back, however, you see not only this particular occasion or drama, but the long echoes, the subterranean changes that were happening that can’t be reduced to one conversation, one scene. I wanted the book itself to be constantly looking up, at a larger sort of time, a more mythic clock.
Did you find yourself being transformed at all by writing this book?
Of course. One always is, every book changes you, but with this one in particular I felt that some fourth wall in my sense of storytelling came down. Once you let Ovid in, you really can’t go back—people can become birds, trees can grieve, you realize that traces of the gods are everywhere. In my study, my desk sits against a long wall that curves. Just as I began this book, I painted that wall metallic gold. So I spent four years, basically, staring into a gold sea (Gabriel, too, is attracted to gold surfaces, golden objects, a gold-tipped East River). That wall or sea always looks as if it’s about to turn into something else. After writing The Sky Below, I don’t think I can ever be as loyal to realism as I was before, and it certainly changed me to inhabit a consciousness so different from my own. My sense of what’s possible, in every regard, has expanded considerably.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope that when people close the book at the end, they feel that sense of deep communion with a stranger—Gabriel’s dilemma is the human dilemma: how do we live? He’s maybe a little more…creative…in how he grapples with it, but don’t we all feel, in some way, that we’re at the mercy of forces much larger than we are? Don’t the gods have their way with everyone, in the end? I want people to look at the person sitting opposite on the subway or bus and think, That person could have an epic story to tell; that person could have gone to the underworld and back; that person could be right on the brink of changing into something else entirely.