Stacey D’Erasmo’s new novel ‘The Sky Below’

The third novel by Stacey D’Erasmo — a New York writer but one who lived in the Bay Area for a couple of years as a Stegner fellow at Stanford, and whose second novel was set here — is about a young man named Gabriel and his struggle to become himself — whether that self is actually a bird, an artist, or something else. Along the way, he lives in a seedy motel in Florida, buys a house in Brooklyn, and flees to a commune in Mexico.

Reviews have praised the novel’s beautiful prose. On Sunday the New York Times said: “Gabriel’s voice is irresistible… he’s a brilliant narrator. Vibrant and precise, his storytelling is memorable not so much for its individual phrases (though plenty are exquisite) as for its overall sense of immersion into a distinctive world.”

D’Erasmo appears at City Lights Bookstore on Wednesday at 7:00 pm.


I’ve seen your new novel “The Sky Below” described several different ways. Some describe the main character, Gabriel, as an artist; others mention only his job as an obituary writer. Some highlight his homosexuality, but other descriptions of the book make it seem unimportant. Each review seems to be describing almost a different character. What is it about this character that makes him so slippery? Am I right in thinking that he is also struggling to define himself?

Well, Gabriel is a bit of a shape-shifter. He would describe himself first as an artist, but he’s also a guy on the make, who’s willing to do many things, some of them illegal to get the beautiful life he wants. He’s also a charmer, so he can seem slightly different to different people — perhaps that’s been true of reviewers as well. I would describe him as a soul in struggle, trying to find his true place in the world.

He is concerned with transformation and metamorphosis on many levels. Because it’s sometimes said that this is a country where, because of the lack of social constraints and the possibilities of economic mobility, a person can readily take on a new identity, I’d like to ask if you consider this a particularly American theme?

Sure. The history of America is absolutely riddled with people who reinvented themselves — immigrants who changed their names when got here, Hollywood stars who basically completely made themselves up, moguls who came up from nothing. These days, people seem more interested in transformation through plastic surgery or dramatic weight loss, maybe, than identity per se, but I do think that’s very American: to think that we can metamorphose at will.

What did you have to research or learn about, that you weren’t already familiar with, in the writing of this book?

I had to go to Mexico, up into mountains to a town like the one Gabriel goes to; the trip was actually revelatory in terms of what he might see there, and how he would actually feel, being there. Those towns are beautiful, poor, and ancient — they have a very powerful atmosphere.

You’re both a novelist and a teacher of writing. Do your students express concern about getting published in the current economic climate? Do you feel any anxiety about the future of American publishing?

Yes, my students do express concern about getting published right now, and I have to say, it’s not the usual anxiety about getting published that they’re facing. Publishing itself is obviously not just in a slump, but in a state of metamorphosis. No one knows exactly what publishing will look like in five years, two years, six months. It’s a very uncertain time.

I don’t think, however, that people are less interested in reading, or that writers are less interested in writing; I just think the form of how we get texts is changing, possibly in quite a radical way.

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