On writing when everyone else is asleep: an interview with Sion Dayson

Process
Process
Oct 8 · 6 min read
Writer Sion Dayson at the launch of her debut novel, As a River, at The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, in Paris, France. Credit: Carole Cassier.

Process Magazine caught up with writer Sion Dayson to discuss her debut novel, As a River, out with Jaded Ibis Press in September. Nearly fifteen years in the making, As a River tells the story of a black man who returns to his hometown in the deep South to reckon with dark secrets from his past.

Sion grew up in North Carolina, earned her M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was a writer in residence at the Kerouac House. Following in James Baldwin’s footsteps, she moved to Paris on a whim and stayed for a decade. She currently lives in Valencia, Spain.

Whenever she was stuck on the book, Sion would go for walks at the Père Lachaise, the Parisian cemetery where many great writers, including Molière, Oscar Wilde, and Colette, are buried. Credit: Carole Cassier.

I started writing, thinking it was just a short story. Then it kept growing.

Can you pinpoint the moment this project started for you?

I was in Harlem, walking behind some teenage girls, and I was eavesdropping, because I always love listening to people. One of them said: “She’s pregnant and she never even had sex.” Word for word, that’s what she said. Interesting, right? [Laughs].

I went right home, and something about that line…I just wrote an entire scene centered on this immaculate conception idea.

That was in 2005. I started writing, thinking it was just a short story. Then it kept growing, and I just started calling it “this thing.” Because I don’t know how to write a novel, it’s just a short story that is more than a short story. In 2011, I felt like I had finished it.

Did you have a structured way of working on the book?

I’ve never had a good writing routine ever. I’m very intense. The only way I can actually work on something big is if I give myself huge swaths of time to work on it, and regular life doesn’t really allow that. So I think that’s why I did an M.F.A., because that’s a priority. And it’s also why I kept doing writing residencies, because it’s like you live and breathe it. That’s also why it took so long. I wasn’t looking at it every day during normal life.

So you wouldn’t work on the book at all, and then you’d only work on it for a fixed period of time?

Exactly. For instance, when I was at the Kerouac House, I was like: I can do nothing other than this. I kind of become like a crazy person. I’m not seeing other people. I don’t go out and get a drink with friends. That doesn’t mean I’m working the entire time, but it means I’m just sort of in the fog. Almost like a method actor for writing. I have to work myself up to it, because it’s so painful. But I know that that is the only thing that I’m supposed to be doing that day.

I love when people are away and I’m working.

Do you feel like you need to defend that time and space?

Yes, I think there are some people who don’t understand that we need this bubble. It’s not that I don’t want to see or connect with friends, but for me to get into this creative space, I really can’t be concerned with normal daily life. And I don’t know how to multitask. I don’t get creative work done if I’m like, in an hour, I’m running out to do this. I just need the hours.

How many hours is enough?

It’s about having a stretch of time.

Like a horizon.

Exactly. It’s not like I’m working the whole time. I am doing fuck-all sometimes. But I know that there’s a possibility for me to be focused, for me to sit down. I usually work best at night. It’s almost like I have to wear myself out by avoiding this the entire day, and feeling the guilt, and knowing that it’s what I should be doing. I work myself into this state, and finally, I’m so tired and sick of myself, that I’m like, okay fine. Then, my defenses are down and I allow myself to actually work.

Does working at night help bring down those defenses?

It helps. It feels like a cocoon. I secretly feel more productive. I’m like, hmmm, some people are sleeping. They’re done with their day, but I’m getting all of this done. I don’t know why that helps me, the feeling that I’m getting stuff done when other people aren’t. Like, why should that matter? But that’s the reason my favorite time in Paris is always August, when everyone is away on vacation. I love when people are away and I’m working.

Sion Dayson at Café Lino, her former neighborhood café, where she spent a lot of time working on the manuscript. Credit: Carole Cassier.

Do you read your book out loud when you edit?

Oh yeah, over and over again. It’s very important. I’ve read my entire book, several times, aloud.

Why?

To hear the sound of poetry, the language, the rhythm. I hear if something clangs. Like, ugh, that’s not the right word. It’s different just reading it on the page. You can get a good approximation of it, but then you read it out loud and you’re like: Oooh, no. That doesn’t work.

What about the ways you’ve had to reconcile doing what you love and earning a living? How did you balance those two things?

I feel like I’ve been hustling as long as I’ve been an adult, and I haven’t figured it out.

[Everyone laughs.]

No, honestly!

So how do you actually make a living and still write?

For a long time, I was a freelance writer and editor. It changed all the time. I was good at the actual jobs, but I was a very bad business person: finding clients, making sure I’m not starving one month, etc. I would sublet my place certain months to make the rent. One year, I was working on a project for a big tech company, and that was the best money I ever made. But it was also mind-numbing. I can’t do that indefinitely because then I start going dead inside. [Laughs].

As a River is out with Jaded Ibis Press, a feminist press committed to publishing historically silenced and culturally marginalized voices. Credit: Carole Cassier.

Even though it was years of suffering, I feel like I’m able to enjoy it more now than I would have before.

This book was 14 years in the making. How do you feel about it appearing now?

I think it is happening when it should be happening. Because at this point, I’ve taken all of the pressure off of the project. Anything that happens now is just a bonus. Whereas I see other writers worrying about things like: I’m not on this list; I’m not getting these reviews; I’m not going to win a prize. And those are all valid concerns. Luckily, I don’t have them. Because I’m just happy that it’s out in the world, and I see some completion. So even though it was years of suffering, I feel like I’m able to enjoy it more now than I would have before.

Interviewed by Anna Polonyi and Carole Cassier. This is a transcript of a real-life conversation.

Process

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Process is a bilingual interview series about women artists and how they produce their work. Process interviewe des femmes artistes sur leur processus créatifs.

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