Sarah Gerard’s first novel, Binary Star, meanders between a narrative of two road tripping, afflicted lovers – one suffering from anorexia and the other alcoholism – and beautifully written passages on stars in their various states of being. It’s difficult sometimes to separate the narrator, who considers herself to be a star, from the author.
Gerard isn’t merely stellar though — she’s ambitious, and like the flora of her native Florida, a heliotrope. She publishes a monthly column in Hazlitt, hops from the Ucross Residency in Wyoming to a residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, and in between teaches writing courses in her current home of New York City.
Earlier this year her second book, a collection of essays called Sunshine State, was published by Harper Perennial. It was just named as a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017. Through the writer’s lens we are transported to the human worlds of the constantly alienated state of Florida – Gerard volunteers at a bird sanctuary whose owner is in a downward spiral in the eponymous story, shares her family’s experience with the green-light from Gatsby farce peddled by the DeVos family and Amway in “Going Diamond,” and witnesses the agony of G.W. Rolle, who makes it his life’s work to help the homeless but has trouble helping himself in “The Mayor of Williams Park.” This book is very “Florida” if judged by the cover – a tableau of scientific wildlife drawings by Ernst Haeckel – but its focus is on the beauty of vulnerable human beings, not being a punchline. It’s a personal work for the writer, who was born in Clearwater, FL and has lived in both Largo and St. Petersburg.
In our interview, Gerard shed light on her process as a writer, how important artistic expression is to her, and the gorgeous ambiguity of our Florida.
Jason Katz: What has your writer’s life been like recently?
Sarah Gerard: I just got back from a residency four days ago. Actually, going to another residency in a week. And then I’m going to Oaxaca, Mexico for the month of October.
J.K.: What will you be doing in Mexico?
S.G.: It’s a collaborative residency with my friend and my girlfriend. We’re putting together a little book of texts and visuals about water. It’s a kind of a hair-brained scheme. A reason for us to go to Mexico.
J.K.: Have you done any other residencies? Do you find yourself productive when you’re in residency?
S.G.: Yeah, I was just in residency at Ucross in Wyoming. I wrote four and a half chapters of my novel while I was there, worked on two other long form projects, one of them is a book—a non-fiction book, and another one is an investigative piece for the NYT, and then I wrote a short essay about Hurricane Irma which just came out in The Baffler a couple of days ago. Another project is a book with my girlfriend. I write a little and she writes a little. I’m putting out a book of collages and texts with my friend Amy Gall, who’s an amazing writer and collagist, with a new art book press called Pacific. We’re publishing a couple of collages in Epiphany Magazine. It was a really busy month.
J.K.: Holy Cow. Pretty prolific month…
S.G.: I’m really hoping to finish my novel while I’m down in Mexico next month. I have the rest of it outlined and I’ve written partial chapters. I want to get it done so I can send it off and move on to the next thing.
J.K.: Do you have a deal with Harper Perennial for your new novel?
S.G.: I haven’t signed a deal for it yet. Harper Perennial gets a first look at it. Doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make an offer.
J.K.: Are you done with the Sunshine State chapter of your life?
S.G.: I would love to be done but I’m excited to go to Texas Book Festival and the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading in November. I’m doing a couple of other readings in November, back in New York. Just went to the book release of my friend D. Foy’s book, Absolutely Golden. I would recommend it to anybody looking for a fun, intellectually stimulating work.
J.K.: I just finished reading your first novel Binary Star. Part of me is glad I didn’t do it on it while enjoying a recent road trip.
S.G.: Yeah, it’s pretty depressing. People have told me they can read it in one sitting though. It moves quickly, but pretty heavy. I spent a full day reading it after I completed it so I get the impact it has on people.
J.K.: In creating the narrator of Binary Star did you have in the back of your mind the famous Carl Sagan saying that we are all just “star stuff?”
S.G.: Yeah, the stars aren’t just a metaphor but a real definition of herself. The first line of the book is “I’m a white dwarf.” She means that literally. She is a star. She doesn’t say “I’m LIKE a white dwarf.” She says “I am.”
J.K.: I made note of another line. “I have a purpose. I do. It’s making myself a star. I’m serious.” Is there something in that line that comes from you and not the narrator?
S.G.: Well, I’m definitely ambitious. I have a lot of ideas. The world is such a fascinating place and I understand it through my writing. I’m deeply motivated to understand the world so I’m dedicated to my work. It’s not just writing. I’m a visual artist. It gives me a physical connection to the world around me. I’m a good listener because I care, but I don’t store information very well when I’m just listening. When I’m listening to people talk I’m mostly just empathizing and imagining, but I don’t have an encyclopedic memory so I have to write things down. When I’m telling a story, I’m constructing a linear narrative so I understand it. It comes to me raw and disorganized and is very overwhelming. Life is an onslaught of sensory information that doesn’t in and of itself mean anything. Making art is way for me to connect physically, spiritually, and intellectually with my life. Otherwise I just feel like an alien.
J.K.: That inability to store information immediately, did it make interviewing people for Sunshine State a challenge?
S.G.: I conducted a lot of interviews for SS but I always used an audio recorder, unless it was via e-mail. I have audio files of every person I interviewed for the book. I transcribe all those recordings so I have written transcripts of all those conversations. Transcribing is a really good practice because it forces you to listen deeply. You have to listen to each conversation multiple times to make sure you heard somebody correctly. Everybody tries to say what they mean. Which is to say, when you listen to somebody multiple times, you think about every word that they use and what it means. It helps you get at the deeper meaning of the story. It’s good for fact-checking too. Like to be able to go back and say “Oh, wait. Did he say they were taking care of Gannets or Pelicans?” A small detail like that can make all the difference. It’s a challenge only in that it’s time consuming but it’s not challenging, it’s actually beneficial to have this archival content. It allows you to go back and look at your participation in the story.
J.K.: Before this book when you were still working day jobs, did something like transcription make you feel a sense of time pressure?
S.G.: I was lucky to be able to sell Sunshine State on proposal. I got the first half of the advance when I sold the rights to the manuscript. It wasn’t enough for me to completely live on, but it did give me enough time to be a full-time writer. I did supplement it with teaching classes. I was also writing a monthly column. But I do other side gigs. Anybody who calls themselves a writer in NYC has a million side hustles. Just ask a writer what they’ve done for money. You’ll be amazed. I’m not a full-time writer but, I’d love to only write. One way of kind of floating yourself as a writer for a month is to go to a writer’s residency. Maybe they’ll give you $1,000 to offset rent and then maybe you’ll sublet your place so you have, call it… $2,500 for the month. Then you can just write. It’s helpful but there’s really no security in it. In the spring, I’m teaching a fiction seminar at Columbia, then I’m going away to another University out west to give a lecture, and I’ll also be writing a column. That’s my income for the spring. The last two months of this year I’m teaching a class for Catapult workshops and doing their boot camp and critiquing some manuscripts. You just piece it together.
J.K.: Some MFA’ers feel that the success is in being published. Doesn’t it just begin then?
S.G.: You’re doing work in your MFA program. It’s not that you have more work. It’s just completely different. I had no idea about the publishing business when I graduated from New School. I had been working at a bookstore for two years which taught me a lot about publishing, but it didn’t teach me how writers keep themselves afloat.
J.K.: Did you apply other MFA programs besides New School?
S.G.: Yeah, I applied to Columbia, Brooklyn College, NYU. I got into a program in London but my boyfriend at the time dragged his feet about moving overseas. I’d made my own arrangements, but he didn’t make his. So stupidly I didn’t move to London because of a boy. I will never make that mistake again. We didn’t even end up staying together after we moved to NYC. I went to the New School because people there seemed to be creating interesting work. They’re open to experimentation. I was a pretty crappy writer. I’m surprised they let me in.
J.K.: What was your writing sample like when you applied?
S.G.: A couple of short stories. They were pretty surreal and poetic. Almost poetry. Barely fiction. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time. I had applied to the fiction program because I had this sense that I wasn’t very good at fiction and I wanted somebody to show me how to do it. I was just beginning to write fiction when I applied. I think I was writing mostly poetry because I had experienced a really terrible trauma. It was truly hard to process. It’s very impressionistic when something terrible happens to you. There’s no story. It’s just a bunch of upsetting images. When I started to move into fiction and couldn’t really tell what my stories were about.
J.K.: Was the trauma when you jumped off the freight train, injured yourself and went to rehab?
S.G.: Yeah, before going to The New School I moved back to Florida to go to rehab and then I ran away for a couple of months, only to move back to Florida again and live with my parents for a couple of months to figure my life out. My boyfriend at the time moved back to St. Petersburg. We moved in together. He and I got into Haiku strangely. We would pass haikus back and forth to each other. I was reading books about train hopping. I started to try and write a novel about train hopping so I guess I was writing fiction at that time but it wasn’t my main focus.
J.K.: Did you always know you wanted to write?
S.G.: I was always a writer. I would write little stories and poems on my family computer and in my journal. Always kept a journal. Always wrote poetry. In college, I really enjoyed writing critical essays. One time my professor made me get up in front of the class and read, which was humiliating because I’d had an overnight job working for public safety letting students into the dorm, and I’d stayed up the whole night on coffee and Adderall so I was not ready to do it. I tried to say no, but she insisted. It ended up being really good for my self esteem and I guess it gave me the courage to go write other things. I dropped out of college at the end of my senior year to go to rehab so it took me a while to get back on my feet with writing after that. I tried bringing my computer to rehab with me. They wouldn’t let me bring it in. I had to write other things. Usually when you go to rehab they make you write your life story. You end up just constructing a narrative from the raw material of your life. I don’t necessarily use my writing as therapy, but a really important part of therapy is putting together your life’s story. Your life itself means nothing. It’s pretty psychically upsetting. Therapy helps you make sense of your completely nonsensical experience.
J.K.: Did you always want to write about Florida? Did you want to transcend the genre of “Florida novel?”
S.G.: No, not at all. I didn’t think I would write about Florida ever. I didn’t even think this book would be about Florida. It only became necessary because I couldn’t sell the first version of this book proposal which had nothing to do with Florida. Florida became an organizing theme because a couple of editors at different publishing houses told us that the proposal needed a hook. Florida’s a pretty good hook. Interesting characters, everybody’s curious about it, people are whack, it has a long fraught history, one of the first discoveries in the New World was this body of land. It’s the south but it’s not. In some ways, it’s really progressive and also really conservative. It’s as wild as it is civilized. You have both the Everglades and Mar-A-Lago. It has a native population and is also full of immigrants. Everybody has an interest in this body of land. I didn’t always want to write about Florida, but it lends itself to a literary approach. Literature can contain all of that. Ambiguity is what makes a piece of literature great, that it can hold these internal conflicts simultaneously. There’s no such thing as story without conflict. Florida is a very conflicted place. It’s a very good place to begin a story.
J.K.: Do you think Florida is a good environment for writers themselves?
S.G.: I think it’s changing for the better. St. Petersburg now has St. Pete Lit. There’s a writer’s residency, new bookstores, and more readings popping up. When I was there we only had the Writer’s In Paradise Conference at Eckerd College. I was doing journalism, writing local news, only getting paid every other story so it was hard to squeak by. I was interested in writing fiction. I had to go to New York City to study the kind of writing I wanted to do. It was full of opportunity that I didn’t have in Florida. But it’s changing. For writers who already know what they want to be doing, Florida can be a good place to hole up and write your story. It’s cheap, the weather’s good, and it’s easy to be alone down there, but at the same time there are interesting things to write about everywhere you look. I like going to Florida for self-imposed retreats.
J.K.: How did you transcend Florida tropes, especially with you being from Clearwater, like Scientology for example?
S.G.: I avoided Scientology by simply not writing about it. A lot of people have written about Scientology before. What could I have said that hadn’t already been said? There are a lot of incredible, detailed, hard-won investigative works out there about Scientology. I couldn’t compete. As far as transcending stereotypes you have to humanize your subjects. First, you have to listen to what your subject has to say rather than imposing your own pre-conceived notions onto their story. For instance, if you’re an atheist interviewing a born-again Christian, you have your own previously held beliefs about Christianity, but it doesn’t mean that your subject’s point of view is not valid or isn’t worth telling. I happen not to be Christian but for two of my essays I had to get close to Christian communities. By letting my subjects speak for themselves I was able to learn a lot about spirituality. Similarly, if you want to write about a stripper or a sex worker but you believe in not having sex before marriage, you might feel inclined to ridicule or judge your subject, but it’s certainly not helpful to you as a writer. As a writer, it’s not really your place to impose your opinion. Your job is to just tell a really good story, to teach and touch people, not to force people to believe what you believe. I think you get into trouble if you think you know what’s true before you write a story. Your job is to get a little bit closer to the truth. Like I said before, ambiguity is at the heart of storytelling. There’s also a way of alluding to your own opinion by positing an alternative viewpoint. That’s how you transcend stereotypes. Listening. Respect. Ambiguity.
By Jason Katz