Prester John is no ordinary legend, even by the standards of the hearsay scribbled onto scrolls and collected in the libraries of medieval monks and long-deceased rulers. The enigmatic prince has captivated the imagination of storytellers for centuries: the fabled (Nestorian) Christian ruler of lands unknown. Famously, Prester was the hoped-for ally of Crusaders fighting in the Holy Land. He was believed to have crushed all the kings of Persia, and was supposedly on the march to Jerusalem in order swell the forces of his co-religionists when he met with sudden difficulty while crossing the Tigris River. He has since become one of the all-time great subjects of speculation, rumor, and, of course, literary invention.
Christopher Smith’s debut novel SALAMANDERS OF THE SILK ROAD, published last year by Lanternfish Press, affords Prester yet further life. Smith revives the ageless hero on the page alongside some other myths — Cyclops, rocs, gryphons, and, yes, salamanders — and traces his surreal life from his time in Asia and Africa up to his present incarnation as a surprisingly relatable Southern real estate agent vacationing with his wife on the Florida Panhandle.
Smith is a journalist by trade, writing for the Nashville area newspaper The Tennessean. His prose is sharp and lyrical, and he makes use of fabulist elements in order to access the messy business of his characters’ inner lives. (The inclusion of the Redneck Riviera as a setting, alongside the likes of ancient Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, makes the work that much more magical.) I conducted this interview with Smith to try to further unmask the mysterious Prester John and to see what went into crafting the worlds — both past and present — that John finds himself inhabiting.
I wondered what you were reading prior to the writing of this book. I was reminded of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, although it’s a different project in a couple of big ways, I think. Did you look at folklore and history books?
I like reading nonfiction every now and then, particularly history, because it’s a great source for material. Reading fiction, especially good fiction, can sometimes be frustrating if it, in some way, fulfills your need to live in that creative world. Sometimes you need to carve out that creative world for yourself, and you don’t want another storyteller competing for that space, fulfilling that need. Reading nonfiction while you’re writing is a good solution. But, that said, writers need good models to follow, so you never want to get too far from well-written fiction.
During the writing of SALAMANDERS, I was reading a lot of William Gay. His writing isn’t exactly surrealist, but it’s stylistically stunning. I like to underline great sentences as I read, and my copy of his novel Twilight (not the vampire story) is underlined on about every other page. I was also reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, and that kept my mind racing with ideas and, I think, helped me feel the freedom to let the writing flow. Somewhere in there, I read Fight Club and some other Chuck Palahniuk novels. That may have inspired some of the cruel humor sprinkled in SALAMANDERS.
The project started, though, with some nonfiction reading. I’d been working on a short story about a couple who’ve decided to kill themselves, but they can’t stop fighting with each other long enough to pull it off. At the time, I was reading Daniel Boorstin’s history book The Discoverers, and he made several references to Prester John, whom I’d never heard of. The more I learned, the more I became fascinated by this bit of little-known history. Then it clicked: the main character in my story became Prester John, and the short story ballooned into a novel.
That’s cool that the book started as a short story. I feel like that probably happens a good bit for different writers. Have you written work in the past that employs alternating sections?
Yes, I’ve done it in a couple of stories now, but not in such a structured fashion. I’m fascinated by the idea of nonlinear time — that linear time is a construct we use to make sense of the world. Now, maybe without linear time we’d all be mad. But I find great comfort in accepting the idea, intellectually, that linear time isn’t necessarily real.
What that means for fiction is that characters exist in both their past and their present. The way they interact with the world is informed by what they’ve been through, and to explain all that in a fully linear story structure doesn’t capture the way people live — in both the past and the present. Especially if your main character is dragging around 1,800 years of baggage. The first complete draft of SALAMANDERS was actually in what I liked to call “psychological structure.” The present-day story was frequently interrupted by flashbacks to Prester’s history, sometimes only a paragraph or two, sometimes one or more chapters. These flashbacks were directly related to what was happening to him in the present. But in a couple of transitions it felt forced — that cliché, “I remember it like it was yesterday…” — and I also had readers tell me they couldn’t keep track of what was going on. So I took the whole thing apart and put it in linear chronological order. That was incredibly helpful because it forced me to dig deeper and flesh out Prester’s history more fully. But, I found that terribly boring because I like those three days in the present in Florida and I wanted that to be the primary narrative. So I took it apart again, dividing it into a sort of compromise a, 1, b, 2, c, 3 structure.
Was it challenging setting it up like that? Like, were the past and present always given roughly the same weight in earlier drafts?
Gloriously challenging! Dividing things up that way forced me to think harder about the book’s structure and pacing. It showed me places where I needed to slow down or speed up, places where I hadn’t fully explained motivations or background. In some cases, I just needed to back off the action and relax into some description of the environments, and doing that inevitably would lead me to some other scene or plot point.
I did keep a tally of how many pages were in each chapter, and while I didn’t use that as an absolute rulebook, I tried to keep the chapters balanced so that they were roughly similar in length. It’s not unlike poetry. If you establish stylistic rules and aspire to work within them, those rules can both drive a sense order and inspire creativity.
Along the way, there were entire scenes, in two cases entire sections of history, which I simply took out. They were part of Prester’s history, but they were not parts of his history that were critical to understanding what he was going through in the present. Having a good editor in Christine Neulieb was very helpful in that area.
Did you do that, in part, to be symbolic of the act of weaving, or did it just happen that way?
No, but that’s an interesting idea. One of the later scenes has Prester and Mina eating Dreamweave cotton candy, which induces a variety of mental or emotional insights, depending on what color Dreamweave you eat. And the book as a whole weaves reality with the surreal, the physical with the emotional, so, yeah, weaving is a nice symbol through which to analyze the story.
Have you noticed that the name Prester can almost be spelled with the letters of your name, Christopher? I’m always hesitant to read too much into what the characters say about the writer. I imagine you’re considerably younger than Prester.
I have noticed the similarity. It happened long after the novel was complete and I was into the editing process. There is a part of me in Prester, principally the concept that he doesn’t age. I look younger than I am, which I know a lot of people think would be great. But it’s frustrating when people don’t take you seriously because they think you’re a kid, when you’re actually their age or older. Gray hair is catching up to me now that I’m nearing 50. But when I was teaching Freshman Comp and looked like a high schooler, and later when I was in my early years of management and looked like a college student, it was a constant source of frustration. Some of that came out in Prester John, in the way he would allow people to think he was in his mid-forties. Had they known he had 500 or 1,000 years of experience and insight, they might not let him get away with as much. There can be advantages to flying under the radar, to being taken for granted.
Prester’s emotional distance, or handicap, is an extension of my worst fears about myself. It’s inspired to a great extent by my father, who was very emotionally subdued. He always projected calm, quiet strength. But as I became a man and projected that myself, I’ve questioned how much of that was strength and how much of it was discomfort with, or fear of, the turbulence of emotion. So when writing Prester as a character, I had a combination of myself and my father in mind, both extrapolated and magnified.
Without giving away exactly what happens, your characters end up in some dark places in the more-present setting sections. Did you always see it going there? And did having a main character who has been alive so long open up any possibilities for you, as far as allowing for some extra leeway in terms of what a character could or might think given the unusual circumstances of extremely advanced age?
The initial short story was already dark before it turned surreal and before it involved Prester John — this question of how much would you have to love someone to kill them and yourself, and how much can a growing rift in a marriage interfere in something as intimate and devotional as killing one another out of love? It’s not exactly a plausible scenario, but I wanted to explore those extremes. Going surreal helped make it work, embedding it in some dark humor, as did the concept of Prester being 1,800 years old. His mind would have to be twisted by time in some way, or flat out overloaded by all he’d been through.
Prester had to have done something horrible that ruined his life to bring him to this point of suicide. But I didn’t want it to be so horrible that the reader would feel no sympathy for him. So I landed on this concept that his shadow, which embodied all his darkest, most impure thoughts, but also his emotion and impulses, had become distinct from him as a person. His shadow does these horrible things. Is it really Prester? In a way, yes. Aren’t we all corrupt this way, in our dark, fleeting thoughts and our troubling desires? Prester’s struggle with that side of himself becomes manifest, and I enjoyed exploring the implications of that happening to a person.
I feel like I get where you’re coming from unusually well. I grew up in Georgia and worked in newspapers in Nashville (like you do now) before I moved to New Jersey for grad school. And you grew up in New Jersey, and went college and have worked down there in the South. My guess is you visited Florida a good bit while at Auburn University. I very much love the idea of elevating the Florida Panhandle to mythic status. Do you believe in the law that everyone, if they live long enough, ends up in Florida?
I like to think that deep inside, all of us live in Florida. It’s such as strange mix of country folk, migrant Yankees, genteel Southerners, Cubans, retirees, young ravers, farmers, businessmen — you name a demographic and there’s a block of that with a strong identity somewhere in Florida.
But on the Panhandle, that started as a matter of setting logistics. The couple was having an argument in a hot tub, and why were they in a hot tub? They were on vacation. What’s a vacation spot I know intimately well? St. George Island, Florida, just south of Apalachicola. But already in my head, St. George had mythic status. For my wife and I, it’s our happy place. It’s where I took her in our visualization exercises when she was in labor with our son. In some ways, it’s holy ground — it’s our Mecca. So I suppose it was easy to me to take it from being special to mythic, finding it just different enough to fill in all the gaps with new histories and altered realities.
Auburn also exists in the novel, as Alabama Polytechnic Institute, the original name for the university. Altering the name helped me push it into a “what if…?” surreal world. So my experience there informed the funeral scene, but twisting the reality slightly made the scene much more fun.
I should ask you what is it like living in Clarksville (Tennessee)? I’ve really only driven through. I imagine it’s a pretty unusual combination, both a heavy military town and a college town with Fort Campbell and Austin Peay State University. (“Let's go Peay!”) I don’t know that Clarksville inspired anything directly in the book, but I could almost feel how living there — how I imagine it, at least — could bend someone in a surreal, future-looking direction with all of that muscle and youth. The idea that people are watching you and that there are checkpoints everywhere is pretty felt in the book. Or maybe that’s just America in general now?
Clarksville is a pretty standard American town. It does trend young, and there are a lot of military here, but the university, which houses a strong arts and music program, brings a constant influx of talented classical musicians and other artists. All the disposable income tied up in young families means we have lots of chain retail and restaurants, but the local university and arts community is always thirsting for independent and locally owned shops.
I guess I’ve always felt most comfortable being part of a small group of oddballs in a community with an identity that runs counter to that. It’s like that for most artists growing up in the South or rural America in general. But for all that anti-establishment rhetoric, the idea of living in New York City or even downtown Atlanta intimidates me. Would I be cool enough to run in those circles? Never. Surround yourself with too many other outsiders, and you’re not longer an outsider, are you? I like it outside.
I’m sure you’re keeping busy with your journalism, as that’s an especially challenging career these days, but what sorts of writing-related projects are you working on now?
I’m about a third of the way into a first draft of a sequel of sorts to SALAMANDERS. More of a spinoff, actually. It’s set in the same world, focused on a character who has some dealings with Prester John. This started with a scene from SALAMANDERS that I cut because it was extraneous, but it had some material in it that I really liked.
But recently I got sidetracked on another project. During some soul-searching about what it would take to make a living just off my writing — journalism not being the most secure career path these days — it occurred to me that if I have skills as a storyteller, writer and editor, shouldn’t I be skilled enough to write a genre fiction novel? Why not? I’m already using those skills to make a living as a journalist in the world of nonfiction. So I’m giving myself a few-months challenge to write a fantasy novel. Maybe it’ll be terrible and go nowhere, maybe it’ll make my career and buy me a beach house at St. George Island. But I might as well try it. All I have to lose is time.