NOVEL CHATS: Ann Hite Interviews Gregory Ariail on his debut novel, THE GOSPEL OF ROT

Award-winning author, Ann Hite interviews Gregory Ariail on his first release at Mercer University Press, THE GOSPEL OF ROT. 

Gregory Ariail is a Buford, Georgia native. He boasts degrees from Oxford University and the University of Michigan, and he recently completed his MFA at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. 

His debut novel THE GOSPEL OF ROT is a creative intervention into the Appalachian imaginary, steeped in the Southern gothic. It explores lesser-known, idiosyncratic, and historically taboo subjects: Biblical apocrypha, heterodoxy, mysticism, queerness, Cherokee lore, and the weird, and the fantastic. It strives to upend and complicate any static conception of the Appalachian experience.

AH: Every book has its own origin. Where did The Gospel of Rot originate?

GA: In the long-term, it originated from my connection to the Highlands-Cashiers region of Western North Carolina. I grew up about an hour away and started hiking and making (quite terrible!) fantasy movies there as a teenager. I’ve spent countless days of my life in those mountains; they’re inextricably tied to my roots and maturation as an artist. But the seeds for this particular book were planted while researching obscure Appalachian photographers in various archival collections in Western North Carolina.

AH: What is setting to this book? How do you use it to tell the story or stories?

GA: I was interested in an apocalypse that exposed and explored a regional and human history (in addition to a mythic one). Setting is everything to this book. The stratifications of history and landscape exist inside my characters.

AH: The Madonna is laced throughout this book and becomes a symbol for this reader. Did you intentionally work her in as a symbol or did she grow into the role organically?

GA: She grew organically, I think. There is such a weird, varied, and regional history to the Cult of the Virgin. I’m fascinated by abandoned things—apocrypha, heterodox and (officially) blasphemous traditions, and the like, and the Madonna draws such ideas into her orbit.

AH: This novel is set in Appalachia and steeped in folklore. How much of the folklore came from your imagination, and how much is gathered from tales and myths from the area?

GA: I would say about half and half. Some tales are drawn from Appalachian literature and oral tradition while others are inventions. Folklore, I believe, is an active, fluid genre of storytelling as well as a project of recovery and transmission, so it’s exciting to blend the old with the new.

AH: So often, both in the past and even now, Appalachian characters are stereotyped as uneducated fools. What drove you to create such an intricate cast of characters?

GA: I’m really glad you asked that question! It’s so important to me (as I know it is to you) that Appalachian characters are rendered with nuance. There are innumerable Appalachias that overlap and clash; characters should embody this cultural and individual diversity.

AH: What made you use Sir Walter Scott as a character?

GA: One day I was reading a book by Sir Walter Scott called The Monastery, and around that time I read somewhere that he was once beloved in Appalachia. I also read that long ago the Appalachians and the Scottish Highlands were a single mountain chain. So, all that just clicked and coalesced: the idea that the quintessential Scottish writer—now practically defunct in America and rarely included in college courses—and Scotland and Appalachia were all entangled.

AH: Was the use of dream-like quality intentional? Why this choice?

GA: I’m passionate about the fantastic as a vehicle to critique normative ideas about our world; it shakes things up, introduces a dose of chaos. I like to write stories that operate in the seam between the literal and allegorical. 

AH: The relationship between Amelia and Elodie is written with rich language that brings the setting around them alive in this reader’s mind. The story of their relationship unfolds over a fifty-year time span, but was actually only a year. Where did you find Elodie?

GA: In many ways Elodie represents the upper middle-class world of early twentieth-century Appalachia, which I’ve encountered less often in books. With her Cherokee heritage, she’s deeply tied to the mountains, but also gravitates towards the urban. This is quite a foil to Amelia.

AH: Talk about what the dolls and photos represent in this novel without giving away too much.

GA: The dolls and photos represent, in part, the resonant flotsam of an artist’s life; they are forms of detritus that nevertheless act as keys to her father’s personality and past—and to Amelia’s future.

AH: When did you discover you were a writer?

GA: I wrote a little bit in my twenties but was hampered by mental illness; in my early thirties I finally achieved the health required to pursue writing seriously. I was lucky that that time coincided with my enrollment in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, which gave me the time and flexibility to develop my craft. 

AH: What are you working on now?

GA: I just finished another novel that reimagines “Rip van Winkle,” shifting the focus to his wife and children while he sleeps for twenty years; it changes the original legend quite dramatically and introduces new weird and fantastic elements. While it’s set in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the 1700s, I still view it as an Appalachian novel (thru-hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail dissolved the hard distinctions between the Northern and Southern mountains for me). I draw on the works of many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, like Hawthorne, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Jonathan Edwards, and the Quaker visionary George Fox, among others. It’s a fun project!

Gregory Ariail’s book with Mercer University Press:

Use coupon code MUPNEWS at checkout to receive 20% off your entire order. Shipping charges apply.

Stay up-to-date on Gregory Ariail’s events at:

Ann Hite at her book launch at FoxTale Book Shoppe
Ann Hite, a storyteller from birth, is an admitted book junkie with a library of over a thousand books. Her debut novel, Ghost on Black Mountain, not only became a Townsend Prize Finalist, but won Georgia Author of the Year in 2012. 

Her personal essays and short stories have been published in numerous national anthologies. She lives in Smyrna, Georgia, with her husband and daughter, where she allows her Appalachian characters to dictate their stories.

Ann's titles with Mercer Press:


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