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The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #88: Sarah Gerard
By Enma Elias
June 15th, 2017
Sarah Gerard’s dazzling second book, Sunshine State, is a collection of essays interlacing narrative nonfiction and personal essay. It is inventive in its narrative use of memories to recall and analyze the life and death of a raw and all-consuming friendship that spanned nearly twenty years. I do it to ask a question, or just to find meaning. Sunshine State holds up a mirror that is both revealing and inspiring. It has led me to be confused in love. Lane. And the ways that my artistic impulse is wrapped up in my sexuality and how sexual assault is stealing someone’s voice. So it’s like that: admitting I messed up in that relationship has helped me a lot in future relationships. Gerard: Yeah that’s the thread. How do I pluck a story out of the entirety of what it means to be alive. In “Mother-Father-God,” I talk about how the new thought movement led me to be superstitious. The opening essay, “BFF,” is stylistically similar to her debut novel Binary Star. Gerard: Yes, I feel like I always learn when I’m writing, even when I’m not writing about myself. I think that might resonate with a lot of Americans, the superstition around optimism, like ‘don’t say anything negative’ because you might jinx yourself with your thinking. Enma Elias has a degree English and History from the University of California. She flirts with Amway’s promise of abundant riches by visiting vast estates while simultaneously revealing the company as a pyramid scheme. Gerard: I want people to be moved by it, and learn something about themselves, about Florida, and about other people. When I thought about all things that lead up to that event, then I could more easily lift that thread. She lives in Brooklyn. When you revisit trauma, you don’t know what’s going to be triggering for you because you don’t know how it’s connected in your mind. That would be something that I want people to take away from all my writing, a feeling of emotionality, connection, and empathy. “BFF” includes a lot of unflattering details about my life—things that I’ve done that might have hurt this person. When you’re first starting to write about your own life it feels so shapeless because you don’t know how to make your own story cohesive. Using her home state of Florida as the medium to navigate the human psyche, Gerard surrounds herself with a diverse cast of characters bringing a voice to issues of upward mobility, religion, relationships, and homelessness. Sarah Gerard: Writing helps us heal in certain way, but it doesn’t make the experience of thinking about writing that occasion any less painful. Both confessional and shocking, Gerard divulges gut wrenching facts about sex, toxic relationships, and class divides. More from this author → The thirty-one year old Brooklynite teaches nonfiction and writes a monthly column for Hazlitt. In the case of “Records” I’m searching for how I found my voice as an artist, among other things, and how that process was interrupted by this traumatic event that happened three days before I left for college. In searching for these answers, Gerard exposes socioeconomic and cultural beliefs as well as her own psychology. When I tried to tell the story about an event alone, it didn’t mean anything. My relationship with Florida is fraught because I didn’t want to be living there always, but then after I left I really missed it. Were you looking for healing or closure through it? Phonetically, narratively, historically. I really like animals, I’ve always felt really drawn to them; they have this energy and magnetism. In “Records,” that event was the culminating experience of an entire year and once I realized the thread that I was lifting was just this year, it made so much more sense. Gerard: I just always felt like animals are spirit guides, you know? It occurred to me recently that when you’re telling a story about your own life, rather than taking a chunk, you’re kinda like lifting a thread from a loom. But also because it’s a rich place. Gerard: Florida is kind of notorious. Looking at my own life, it’s also humbling to write. That was my intention with that essay. It can feel therapeutic, but that’s not the reason why I do it. She writes about art and culture and is studying Journalism at The New School. When you write about people three dimensionally, it inspires a sense of empathy. Rumpus: What do you want people to take away from the book? She delves into the history and beliefs of the Unity Clearwater Church, which her parents stopped attending when she was twelve. Rumpus: A lot of essays talk to each other. I’m careful not to judge; I try to internalize and empathize with the characters. Rumpus: I can see there’s definitely a pattern with all the animals in your life, going back to when you were a kid. She has received rave reviews from the New York Times, NPR, and The Millions. Rumpus: In “Mother-Father-God,” you mention how you find enthralling this idea of the mysterious things that happened in your earlier life that might of shape you. So in the same way when we write something, it doesn’t completely resolve the experience for us. It changes you. They say the first step to changing is admitting you have a problem, you know? Stepping into that person’s shoes is transformative. Is finding meaning the reason you wrote the book? Moving through the series, Gerard further experiments with her writing to dig into aspects of her own character that might have been subconsciously influenced by her earlier, forgotten narrative. ***
Author photograph © Justin N. Gerard is ingenious and conscientious in her journalistic research, while her voice weaves a soulful and witty narrative. You can tell your life story with all the jeans you’ve worn, or every pair of shoes you’ve owned. Or if you’re writing about an experience, like rape. Gerard: Yeah, definitely. You can pretty much do it with anything. The superstitious beliefs you wrote about in “Mother-Father-God” are repeated again in “Going Diamond.” Did that help you learn about yourself and your relationships? Sunshine State is moving, funny, and fascinating in its search for answers. But also, I was interested in the ways we can write biography. Just like every other essay in the book, to varying degrees it was an experiment in autobiography. ***
The Rumpus: In your first essay, “BFF,” it is so raw and personal. I wanted to know Florida better and I could easily find stories. Rumpus: Why did you use your home state of Florida as the primary background? I want people to enjoy the book.