Dawn Major interviews Gregory Ariail, author of “The Gospel of Rot”

Dawn Major discovered Gregory Ariail’s debut novel, The Gospel of Rot, through Mercer University Press, a publisher of Southern authors and/or books on Southern themes. issues, and interests. She was immediately taken in by the description on the back of the book and knew The Gospel of Rot would prove to be complex and challenging read, possibly one of those rare books that impacts the Southern canon. The novel continues to stir her headspace long after the last page. Perhaps, her interview with Ariail will illuminate some those remaining mysteries.

Dawn Major

DM: I read your article The Mysterious Lives of Appalachian Hermits in The Offing. You have obviously done your research on hermits and have now written The Gospel of Rot whose main character is a female hermit. What fascinates you about hermits?

GA: I’m interested in people and characters who live atypical lives, especially in rural areas. While I made a few friends thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, those five months were, for the most part, quite solitary for me and I thought a lot about hermits and loners. I like how hermits reject social and cultural norms and develop creative relationships with the landscapes they inhabit.

 DM: I found it very telling that Sir Walter Scott surmised that Amelia was a witch. I am not an expert on hermits, but it seems that when a man chooses to live in isolation, they become famous for it…are even nicknamed. However, if a woman chooses this lifestyle there is something fundamentally wrong with her. What are your thoughts on this?

GA: Absolutely! Very few women hermits show up in eighteenth-and-nineteenth century newspapers. And yes, there’s a long history of reclusive women being viewed as dangerous. In real life, Sir Walter Scott abhorred the tradition of persecuting so-called witches, but he was fascinated by the subject, as seen in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Unfortunately, my Sir Walter has been through a lot, and he’s not quite in his right mind anymore, so he resorts to the old stereotypes.

 DM: I see that you thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Did you write The Gospel of Rot while you were on the trail? If so, how influential was that experience when writing this novel?

Gregory Ariail

GA: I started brainstorming about the book a few months after finishing the Appalachian Trail in late 2019, so this was my pandemic novel. My main inspiration, however, came from the Highlands-Cashiers region of North Carolina—its landscape and history (I grew up not too far away). While hiking the AT, I plotted out a realist novel set in Appalachia, but when I got back home decided I hated it. I wrote Gospel as a dramatic response, as a kind of counterpoint, to this scrapped realist novel.

DM: For myself, I viewed The Gospel of Rot was a combination of genres but stated I thought it was Appalachian Surrealism before I became aware this is an art movement. Are there any Appalachian Surrealist artists who inspired this work and how? Or any Surrealist artists in general?

GA: I’m quite passionate about expressionist and surrealist art; these movements definitely influenced The Gospel of Rot. Leonora Carrington, Egon Schiele, and Marc Chagall are a few of my favorites. Franz Kafka, a literary expressionist, is the writer closest to my heart (his short stories, not the novels). And I wasn’t aware of Appalachian Surrealism. Can’t wait to dig into that.

DM: With the number of banned books out there now, what are your expectations for The Gospel of Rot? How has the feedback been so far?

GA: It’d be a privilege to be banned! The book would be in wonderful company. My iconoclastic handling of Christian motifs may have ruffled some feathers, but I expected that. Overall, though, readers have been pleased with the wild ride (a phrase I’ve heard a few times). It’s a book with many layers, and I hope readers will be intrigued by at least one of them.

DM: What is brewing in that wonderful imagination of yours? What should readers expect next from Gregory Ariail?

GA: A little while ago I completed a novel reimagining the “Rip Van Winkle” legend—which, as you’ve noted, has some major correspondences to The Gospel of Rot! I’m currently writing another novel, a historical thriller, about an exiled Roman poet. After that, I have an inkling my next project will return to Appalachian soil.

DM: On behalf of Southern Literary Review and myself, I wish you the very best for The Gospel of Rot and hope to read more of your work in the future.

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