Skip to main content

Interview: August 8, 2008

August 8, 2008

In this interview with's Sarah Rachel Egelman, debut author Andrew Davidson describes how a combination of unlikely inspiration and simple curiosity prompted him to write his highly anticipated first novel, THE GARGOYLE, and provides some insight into the story's recurring motifs, as well as the behavior of its characters.

He also lists the wide range of topics he needed to research in order to vividly recreate the book's different settings and time periods, elaborates on its overall messages regarding the idea of true love, and discusses the beginning stages of his next work of fiction. THE GARGOYLE is a very complex and multi-layered book that explores history, religion, medicine, mental health and, of course, love. Can you share with us your inspiration for the book as well as how the story started to come together?

Andrew Davidson: Talking about "inspiration" is always a tricky thing, because the truth is that I am rarely inspired. I write every day, but it's not because I have ideas jump into my skull and start banging from the inside until I release them. I discover my ideas in the process of writing them out; before I do that, they exist so vaguely that I could never explain them.

Now that I've categorically stated that I rarely get inspiration, I have to admit that in the case of THE GARGOYLE, I did. The lead female character, Marianne Engel, emerged from my consciousness without my having to coax her out. This was a weird and unexpected experience: she arrived with her full name and her appearance already set, and she began intruding upon my other writing until I consented to give her my full attention. She seemed to have a lot to say, and wouldn't shut up until I wrote it all down. Eventually, that resulted in the novel.

Though strange, the experience was not unpleasant. I was quite happy to have a guide such as Ms. Engel to lead me through the book.

BRC: Marianne Engel offers the narrator parallel forms of nourishment: food for his body and stories for his spirit. Are they equally important for his recovery?

AD: The doctors had hooked up nasogastric tubes to deliver nourishment to the narrator as he was recovering from his burns, but as he spent all his time imagining the perfect suicide, it was obviously not enough. Marianne Engel, feeding him stories, gave him the will to live. While it's true that you can't live without food, why would you want to live without love?

BRC: It is obvious you did a lot of research for this novel, on a variety of topics such as medieval Christianity and traumatic burns. Did you have any knowledge of these subjects before you began the book? What was most interesting to learn about?

AD: By no means was I an expert in any of these fields, nor would I claim to be now, but before I began writing THE GARGOYLE, I had already started learning about the treatment of severe burns. There was no reason for this, other than simple curiosity, as I've never been seriously burned, nor has anyone I know.

Regarding the other topics, I did have some familiarity with Dante, inevitable given the fact I studied literature in university. (He's a difficult guy not to stumble across.) As far as medieval theology, I was completely uninformed --- but that's what I love most about writing: sometimes I discover I must research a topic that I would otherwise never approach. I can think of no surprise more pleasant than discovering a need to understand, as best as I can, the nuances of German mysticism or how homes were constructed in ninth-century Iceland.

I can't say that any one topic was more interesting than any other; all had their highlights and all were necessary.

BRC: Why did you choose to keep the narrator unnamed?

AD: What? I forgot to include his name? Well, now that the book's gone to press, I guess it's too late.

BRC: Of all the couples introduced in the book, only Gregor and Sayuri do not meet with tragedy. Is true love, at least according to this story, doomed?

AD: It's either doomed or it can transcend both time and death.

BRC: All manner of creative modes of working appear in the book, from Marianne's feverish pace to the narrator's secret and highly personal recording of the story to the studious work of the nuns of Engelthal. Which most resembles your writing style?

AD: I would definitely be in the school of the slow and studious, and I'm happy to be there. I began work on this novel in Japan on May 1, 2000 and the final edits were entered in New York on April 9, 2008. That's a long time to live with one project, and quite a way to travel with it, but it was an enjoyable living arrangement. The novel and I found a way to co-exist peacefully, more or less, before parting amicably when it headed out into the world on its own. I wish it well, but I have to admit that I'm not altogether sorry to see it go.

When I have mentioned how long I worked on this book, often I'm met with the suggestion that the next project will inevitably take less time to write, now that I know how to write a novel. But that's the problem: I don't know how to write novels, I've only learned how to write THE GARGOYLE. In writing a second novel, I'll have to figure it all out again --- and, unfortunately, I can't imagine it'll be any quicker.

But who knows? I might be pleasantly surprised, and maybe the next one will take a scant five years.

BRC: Discuss the symbolism of arrows, which figure prominently in the novel.

AD: Sometimes an arrow is just an arrow.

BRC: What about the importance of Marianne's tattoos? Why was she compelled to cover herself in such religious imagery?

AD: In the book, Marianne Engel's agent --- a woman named Jack Meredith --- talks about this very subject. She says: "... (Marianne had) gotten her first tattoo, one of those Latin sayings on her arm. When I asked why, she said that since she can't afford stone, she might as well use her body as a canvas. All those tattoos she's got, she got them when she couldn't carve for some reason."

Jack Meredith is generally a straight shooter, so I'll assume that her opinion has some merit. In regards to the question why Marianne chooses the images that she does.... Well, she seems to be very much preoccupied by the relationship of body and spirit, so to embed religious iconography into her very skin seems quite logical to me.

Ultimately, however, neither Jack Meredith nor I are fully qualified to explain Marianne's fascination with tattoos. Only Marianne knows for sure.

BRC: Is it important whether Marianne's story is true or not? Why did the narrator feel the need to share it?

AD: I'm sure it's important to her, and I'm sure the narrator shared the story because it was important to him.

BRC: The cover of the book reads, "All things in a single book bound by love." What does that mean to you?

AD: It means that if you're going to steal, steal from the best.

O plentitude of grace, by which I could presume to fix my eyes upon eternal Light until my vision was spent on it!

In its depth I saw contained by love into a single volume bound, the pages scattered through the universe...

--- Dante, Paradiso, XXXIII, 82-87, A verse translation by Robert & Jean Hollander Doubleday © 2007, by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander.

BRC: Are you surprised by all the attention the book is receiving? How has its publication changed your life?

AD: I'd be a good-for-nothing liar if I didn't confess that I'm surprised by the attention. Any writer hoping for publication probably has a dream scenario that s/he imagines, late at night when no one is around. When I imagined mine, it usually involved seeing my book on a shelf in a store. One book, on any shelf, in any store --- even if I had to print a copy and sneak it into the shop, and furtively leave it behind. But it seems now as though there will be more than one book on one shelf.

How has this changed my life? In the best possible of all ways: I have the great privilege of being able to write professionally, without needing another job.

BRC: What are you reading now?

AD: I'm reading about history, religion, medicine, mental health and, of course, love. In other words: same old, same old.

BRC: Are you at work on another book? If so, what can you share about it?

AD: I am at work on another book --- the research stages of it, at least. I have hundreds of pages of notes, which means, of course, that I have no idea what the novel will be about. This isn't bad, by the way: I'm looking forward to the grand surprise of discovering what I'm actually thinking these days.

I've written about five pages of prose for the next book, but I can guarantee that none of it will be used in the final version. Well, that's not entirely true: I'm seriously considering keeping the words "the" and "and."