From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Austin Bunn

This story was so wonderfully evocative of the Age of Exploration. What inspired it?

I was listening to a lot of John Tavener (“Eternity’s Sunrise”), whose music is shimmering, almost glassy—and I had this image of a metaphysical encounter: an edge to the ocean. Sometimes I write backwards just this way, from a premise that I can’t shake. It occurred to me that the strongest protagonists to a story about the curve of the world (or lack there of!) would be those who had never been there before. My mom was a Spanish professor of Golden Age literature, and I grew up with Don Quixote statuary around the house, hearing stories about Queen Isabella and the Inquisition . . . I also am a (very) amateur sailor, and the proximity of spiritual questions on the water are very real to me: it’s a great place to sense your (small) place on the planet. Then it turned out Columbus wrote his own meticulous journals that were a font of riveting details (like the slurry in boat holds becoming so toxic that it gave sailors fever). A long answer, but I suspect most threads of inspiration are this viney!

I thought the ending of the story—the image of ships pulling ships out of the underworld, slowly assembling an armada—to be so arresting and so unexpected. Where did that come from? Was it always what you intended?

This is a perfect example of the dividends of just simply sitting in a chair, showing up every morning to write, and discovering something. I had absolutely no idea where this story was going. I sent that longboat over the edge not knowing, then it seemed my fingers described an old woman appearing, drawn back by cordage into our world. Where the heck did that come from? Once the metaphysicals began to reveal themselves to me—that longing was itself the rope out of the afterlife—I just followed the thread.

I see that you’re a creative writing professor at Cornell, and I feel like there are so many allusions in this work: the sailor who hunts the petrels seems like a call back to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the Captain’s journey into the Underworld—as well as the dull, gray quality of the afterlife that Coralito’s wife describes—seems to be very reminiscent of the eleventh book of The Odyssey. Is this something you were aiming for? How do you see this story as being in conversation with other tales about encountering the unexpected while at sea?

Wonderful question! I re-read many classic adventure tales in an effort to occupy that prior consciousness—it is, honestly, one of the hardest things to do with historical fiction (and where so much if fails, I think). If you’re noting allusions, I didn’t put them in there intentionally, but I did get an A- in my Freshman Classics class! For me, I turned to Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—in fact, the story (in terms of tone and event) is my best attempt at capturing my love for Poe as a young man.

I feel as though there’s always been a strong queer subtext in sea stories: Ishmael and Queequeeg; Billy Budd; Robinson Crusoe and Friday. What does it do to the sea story to take the subtext and turn it into text?

Thank you, Queers Destroy Fantasy, for bringing this up! Many people who read this story look past the queer material, perhaps because it’s fairly subtle and inarticulate—my best attempt to reflect of how a young gay man in the late fifteenth century would think about his desire, at a moment when sodomy was a crime punishable by death (hence the opening). At the same time, it is the heartbeat of the story, the unspoken longing: I made that literal with one man electing not to speak from his grief. Billy Budd was certainly an inspiration here. I’d offer that I think it remains subtext, if only because the word gay appears nowhere and remains in the half-light of the story’s plot. I think this kind of subterfuge was native to male sailing societies. To go more open and explicit would have been anachronistic.

I see that you had a short story collection come out this year. What’s next? Are you working on anything?

I’ve been reading and touring with the book for a few months, which has been a wonderful experience—I highly recommend it. I am also a filmmaker and screenwriter, and a short documentary I made called In the Hollow has been making the rounds at film festivals. It’s about a notorious bias-crime killing on the Appalachian Trail in 1988 and the origins of hate-crime law in America. At the moment, I’m working on a screenplay about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, another narrative of subterfuge and survival. I enjoy writing in different forms (fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting)—there are so many options available to writers these days.