I met Sarah Gerard on the massive crowdfunded tour for her debut novel Binary Star. The book’s sparse, jagged prose reflected the main character’s struggle with her eating disorder with a power and immediacy that yielded multiple reprints and accolades. Her new essay collection, Sunshine State, is simultaneously doting and candid, casting a critical but fond eye on personalities and scenes in her home state of Florida.
A lot has changed for Gerard in the two years since her debut, but she remains candid, funny, intense, and ambitious.
Michael T. Fournier: The last time I saw you was in Minneapolis about two years ago. I got the impression that you’ve been shot out of a cannon since Binary Star, with the big tour that you did and everything else that was going on. What have the last two years been like?
Sarah Gerard: Right before I saw you in Minneapolis, I sold the proposal for Sunshine State to Harper Perennial, which enabled me to leave my full-time job—I haven’t gone back to full-time work since then—and work on that book for a little over a year. That entailed going down to Florida for six weeks to conduct research between July and August, organizing that research between August and November, and beginning to write a couple of the essays.
I went back to Florida in November for two weeks and returned in late January or early February to finish out collecting materials and interviews and field research. Then I went away to Yaddo for six weeks between late March and early May and finished the first full draft of the manuscript at the end of July. I was at the Tin House conference when I finished it. I workshopped one of the essays there.
Everything in my life has changed since Binary Star came out. Every single aspect of my life has changed.
Michael T. Fournier: It sounds like it changed really quickly, as well. Total nineties indie rock question here for you: what’s the biggest difference between Harper Perennial and Two Dollar Radio? How has it changed in that specific way?
Sarah Gerard: Well, the experience of writing Sunshine State was completely different because I turned in the essays as I completed them, and my editor and I had a really close relationship. I’d be editing an essay while finishing another and researching another. We’d meet for long dinners once a month, talk about everything, and email every day, whereas I wrote Binary Star completely alone. The manuscript was finished before I submitted it to the publisher, and most of what we did together was minor: we did a little bit of scene editing, added a scene or two, but the rest was line editing. It was a very different process. Of course, Harper Perennial has a professional publicity team separate from the editorial team, so there’s more manpower.
But I really enjoyed the one-on-one relationship I had with Eric and Eliza at Two Dollar Radio. It felt really punk rock, DIY. Doing that together was really fun, a different kind of fun process.
Michael T. Fournier: The Kickstarter touring you did for Binary Star with the countrywide loop—it was so big and so awesome to see all that happening. Do you have tour plans for this book?
Sarah Gerard: I’m doing a lot of readings around New York City in the spring and in the surrounding area—Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—later on in the year. Then I’m going to Florida for about a week and a half, in late April. Then I’m doing a mini tour to Cincinnati and Chicago. Maybe one more stop before that in mid-May.
That was a month that I did for Binary Star. To be able to take that much time off from my work entailed kind of having a second job in planning the tour. I didn’t do much writing at all in the months after I finished Binary Star, before and after it came out. I really don’t want to take time off from my writing right now. I have to finish another book this year. I have one in the works right now. I’m kinda grateful to not be going on a huge tour like that this time.
Michael T. Fournier: What’s the next book going to be?
Sarah Gerard: It’s a novel. I can’t really tell you any more right now.
Michael T. Fournier: In terms of Binary Star into Sunshine State, what was that transition like for you? Did you have any training when you did your MFA with creative nonfiction? All the research, the huge endnotes, and the bibliography at the end is really impressive and seamlessly incorporated.
Sarah Gerard: I didn’t want the book to read like a research-heavy piece of nonfiction, like a critical study of Florida—I very intentionally tried to get away from any sort of academic sounding tone. But the process was very seamless because I wrote Binary Star very much from my own life. It’s an autobiographical novel, and I draw all of the material in my writing from my life. Sunshine State feels to me like a more mature work. I was thinking more of contemporary narrative forms and how I could intentionally use them or intermix them to bring forth the perspective that I held in a way that wouldn’t hit you over the head with my opinion or my expertise. That’s not a position I’m comfortable taking.
It was fun. I can tell you that I really enjoy doing research and figuring out how to use research in a creative way. I was happy to be able to do so much of it. Spending six weeks in a place is a privilege. I felt lucky to be able to do it. I had a lot of fun gathering materials and trying new and creative ways to make stories form raw materials. I used spreadsheets and went to the card catalogues at the library and got really good at using Google News and Google Archives to search old newspapers and things like that. It was fun learning how to do new things, to sort through and present the information in an interesting way.
Michael T. Fournier: Reading through Sunshine State, in terms of the structure and the prose, one of the ones that reminded me the most of Binary Star was ‘Before: An Inventory’. The core or the heart of the writing seemed to be the same with Binary Star and ‘Records.’
Sarah Gerard: Oh yeah? That’s interesting. ‘Records’ is the one that’s about my senior year of high school. Can you say more about that?
Michael T. Fournier: There’s something about it. When I read that piece, it had the same sort of gravity to it, in a weird way.
Sarah Gerard: Well, they’re both told in first person present tense, and they both concern a period of adolescent self-exploration and identity, piecing that together. In ‘Records’ I was thinking about the impulse towards sexual exploration and artistic exploration and general adolescent impulsive tendencies and how that played into who I ultimately became in this life.
I was thinking about the reader, first of all. Coming into this, the reader knows already that I turned out to be a writer. And if you know a little bit more about me you know that I do visual art. But at that age I was in a special program at a school I had joined because I was an artistic kid. I was really trying to figure out who I was, what my unique perspective on the world was, and how best to express it. I was looking for my voice. I was studying music and I was studying photography. I had studied dance, and I was writing—trying to write—songs.
Implicit in all that is earnestness. This is truly who I was at the time. But between now and then, what has transpired? That’s why at the end I had the little coda about “this is what everybody turned out to be, at least for now.” I was interested in tracing my artistic development and how sexuality, at the time, was an expression of that. The connection is in the relationship I had with the guy (whose name is Mitch in the essay), and how an act of sexual assault literally robbed me of my voice at the very moment when I was just about to find it—or was most earnestly seeking it.
Michael T. Fournier: I thought ‘Before’ was the closest prose-wise to what you did before. How conscious of distancing yourself or moving onto the next thing do you think you were as you were writing these essays?
Sarah Gerard: Well, ‘Before’ was the last essay I wrote, so by that time I had put a lot of space between Binary Star and the writing I was doing. I don’t know that I was thinking about the novel, but certainly I was feeling experimental in my aim with that essay. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could make a story out of it.
The information you find in that essay as a reader is in its rawest form in comparison to any of the other essays in the book, so I was interested in how, first of all, I could look at my life and extract data, you know? Raw data. And then how I could present that data in a way that’s interesting and tells a story without tampering too much with the story or inserting my own interpretation of it. Couching it in story, scene, or dialogue. There’s a through line, and you can see the progression. If you look closely, I’m a character in the essay and you can see how my life is changing from one moment to the next.
In one scene, someone’s my husband, and in the next scene he’s my lover. If you look closely. The details, all the information’s there, but—not that it isn’t an emotional essay—but, I wasn’t thinking too much about how to make it emotionally dramatic.
Michael T. Fournier: My favorite was ‘Going Diamond.’ The thing that struck me the most is that Amway and businesses like that seem really solid at the top when you see the big earners, but the further down things trickle, the more tenuous it all becomes. I was impressed with the way that the pyramid scheme—no, not pyramid scheme, but—
Sarah Gerard: Multilevel marketing corporation?
Michael T. Fournier: Yeah! It’s re-enacted throughout the entire essay as you and David check out these ridiculous mansions. There’s a complete willingness to accept something that seems flimsy.
Sarah Gerard: Visiting the mansions was really fun. One of the things that I wanted to do in those sections was allow the readers to disappear into the fantasy. I talk about what it was like to be a child inside that fantasy. In those sections I’m taking a slightly critical lens of myself. The reader is looking at the thing she wants inside the girl’s bedroom, in the den, the walk-in closet.
Something else I noticed in these houses, when I was touring them, was that they really are chintzy houses. That was an important thing to point out, the latent but less desirable aspects of being in this fantasy. If the house in those sections is a metaphor for the fantasy itself, then the fantasy is inherently flawed.
Michael T. Fournier: If you buy a big house, you have to clean a big house and heat a big house, or someone to pay those things. The fantasy seems nice, but then you have to live in it, and it becomes something else.
Sarah Gerard: Because the fantasy has to come with flood insurance.
I like my life in my studio apartment. It’s fine with me.
Michael T. Fournier: You’d been talking about moving to California. Now you’re going to be staying in New York?
Sarah Gerard: Yeah. I’m grateful to be staying here. I’m living alone for the first time, trying to make it work. Trying to sell my wares. It’s a phase of my life where it’s important that I try to prove to myself that I can pursue my dreams independently. I’m in the process of turning my apartment into a little artist den, a comfy studio space towards that end. I’m giving myself a lot of time to make things. And I spend time alone reading, and I’m enjoying that.
Michael T. Fournier: Last thing—when you were in Belchertown with us, I remember you were really regimented about getting up and reading for an hour and a half every day. Are you still doing that?
Sarah Gerard: I’ve been less disciplined recently. I need to get back on track now. Since my divorce I’ve been trying to embrace enjoying the moment, so that has included—I wouldn’t say sleeping in, but I’m getting up at eight o’clock in the morning now as opposed to six-thirty. And I’m taking my time to do things throughout the day, giving myself time to think about and reflect on my life. It’s an important part of my work, to be self-reflective. I need quiet moments to do that. Not to say I’m not still reading a lot, but I’ve been reading slightly less because I have someone else’s voice in my head when I read, telling me what to think. I need to listen to my own voice right now.
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard
Published April 11, 2017
Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction and appeared on best book of the year lists for NPR, Vanity Fair, Buzzfeed, and Flavorwire. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Paris Review Daily, Vice, BOMB, and other publications. She teaches writing in New York City.
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Author of 'Swing State' & 'Hidden Wheel' (Three Rooms Press) and 'Double Nickels on the Dime' (Bloomsbury's 33 1/3). Editor of Cabildo Quarterly and Zisk. Dead Trend drummer/songwriter. More at michaeltfournier.org and @xfournierx.