"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, November 16, 2017

An Interview with Sarah Gerard, Author of Sunshine State, our November Soup of the Month

Afton Montgomery: The first thing I have to ask is about the last essay in the book, "Before: An Inventory." I’d love to hear about your process with that one— obviously it comes at the end of the collection and really draws everything together, but it reads more like a road map that was written ahead of time... is that the case? (By the way, that essay completely blew me away— absolute favorite piece.)

Sarah Gerard: This was a really fun essay to write. My original intention was to tell the story of my life backwards through every animal I’d ever seen, which of course is impossible. Also, mostly irrelevant: not every animal I’ve ever seen has been important to me, so they would not add up to a story. This was my plan until I talked to a hypnotherapist. I’d planned to visit one to help me remember all of the animals. By the time I talked to her, “every animal I’d ever seen” had ballooned to include every animal I’d ever seen on the Internet, and the essay was going to explore our modern relationship with technology and the natural world, and etcetera, etcetera. It was unmanageable, and would have made a very disorganized, and very long and boring essay. Thankfully, I was set straight when the hypnotherapist explained to me that memories are stored selectively, and that I would not have memories for animals that weren’t associated with significant experiences. Ultimately, the essay was revised to tell the story of my life backwards through every animal I’ve ever formed a relationship with. We did some exercises to determine whether my dominant modality was more visual or auditory or sensory. Then we went on an imaginary journey to the bottom of a lake, and every bubble that rose to the surface had an animal inside it. Over the next several weeks, clusters of animal memories came to me in bursts, and I would pull over to write them down, or dictate them into my phone, or my recorder. Then I plugged them all into a spreadsheet with as much information as I could recall, including the year or span of years in which I’d known these animals. Then I organized the spreadsheet in reverse-chronological order, and just began writing the piece as a list organized into paragraphs, or stanzas. I went through several rounds of editing this piece, alone, with friends, and with my editor at Harper Perennial, to nail the rhythm.

As far as it being like a road map, it may seem that way because there’s a road trip at the very beginning—my book tour for Binary Star. I turned thirty right after my return to New York, and the essay was written on the occasion of my 30th birthday.

AM: In your title essay, “Sunshine State,” you wave off the title of journalist and identify yourself as “more of a memoirist.” Can you tell me more about that identifier? When do you think you became a memoirist? I’d also love to know why you were drawn to such a path. 

SG: I think that conversation was meant to highlight how I identified when I began writing the essay, but what’s funny about that answer is that I had yet to find out, on my first day as a volunteer at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, that I would be rudely pushed into the role of journalist. I had no idea what kind of scandal was brewing beneath the surface at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. I would need to become quite a sleuth to uncover the story. The essay is also a piece of first-person journalism, and I appear in it quite a bit as a character. This is to say that the line separating journalism from memoir is very thin, and that the difference between treating myself as a character as I would in a piece of memoir is not very far away from the way I treat the people I’m writing about as a journalist. Memoir is a kind of journalism of the self.

AM: Your essays sway heavily between deeply personal explorations and more strict reportage. What were your intentions with the variance here? How did you find a balance?

SG: It’s really a question of how much I belong in a given essay with regard to the subject matter. Some of the essays in the book are about events and people from my life, and they’re treated like straightforward memoir. But do I really want to foreground my own experience in an essay about homelessness, for example? I’m not homeless, nor am I an expert on homelessness. I simply think it’s an interesting and important topic. At the same time, I do have some personal experience with the Amway Corporation, so in the essay about Amway, I included my own experience, because it was relevant. Because I was included in that essay, I had to answer the question, “How did my childhood in Amway shape my ideas about success and achievement?” If I had included myself to a greater degree in “The Mayor of Williams Park,” the essay about homelessness in Florida, I would have needed to answer a similar question. Which I can’t do, because an essay about homelessness simply shouldn’t be about me—I can’t make it, nor would I want to make it, about me. So, I leave myself out of the essay and foreground those individuals whose story it is. What is journalism and what is memoir is a matter of degree.

AM: My favorite thing about Sunshine State is the way that your tone of voice changes as a narrator with age and maturation. Was that a conscious decision or something that happened naturally when you went to write about certain topics?

SG: I think both. I’ve understood the world differently at different points in my life. I can inhabit those mindsets and compare them against my thinking in the present day. When I reinhabit myself at age seven, I think in the voice of a seven-year-old. When I inhabit myself in high school, I think in the voice of a high schooler, and all of my high school friends sound like me, but if I were to write about them today, they would sound different. I used words in high school that I no longer use today. I responded to stimuli differently, and for different reasons. As a writer I try to show this to my reader in a way that’s seamless, so I embed it into the sound of the text, as well as writing it into the text as information. This is voice. It also goes back to the question of the author writing herself as a character—Sarah at age seven and Sarah at age seventeen are two different characters. Every character has a voice of her own.

AM: Dwight Garner at the New York Times wrote, “One of the themes of ‘Sunshine State’...is how Florida can unmoor you and make you reach for shoddy, off-the-shelf solutions to your psychic unease.” Would you say that your collection brought you some of those solutions or some catharsis in its creation? (If this is the case, I’d love to know if it was also, in fact, your purpose in writing this collection; if not, can you say what was?)

SG: I think I wrote this book just to prove to myself I could do it. Also, as a matter of economic necessity: I sold it before I wrote it because I needed some money to live on for the year that I took to write it. I wasn’t going to waste that money, so I had to write the best book I could write. It wasn’t cathartic, but I did feel accomplished when I was finished. I was grateful for the opportunity to write about some aspects of my past that remained obscure to me, like my mother’s first marriage, my off-beat childhood church, Amway, a sexual assault, and deaths in my family. I also proved to myself that I’m not a bad journalist, and that journalism is a tool that I have at my disposal as a writer. I had time to feel fascinated, even obsessive, about some things, too, which I always enjoy.

AM: I’ve been reading your column Mouthful on Hazlitt and really connecting with it. Do you want to share anything about that project or anything else that you’re currently working on?

SG: I’m about to write what is supposed to be my last Mouthful column. I had originally intended it to be a year-long exploration of my relationship with food ten years into recovery from anorexia and bulimia. Of course, food is connected to every aspect of your life, when you think about it. In addition to food, I’ve written about love, Donald Trump, my ex-husband’s cancer, a woman who babysat me when I was a toddler, vegetarianism and veganism, religion, my divorce, water quality in Mexico, and lots of other things. Hazlitt really likes the column, so they’ve invited me to continue writing it, but they’ve also given me the option of launching a new column, so I’m considering what I may want to write about next. I’ll keep everyone updated. Thanks for reading!

AM: And last but not least (of course I have to ask), what are you currently reading?

SG: I’m reading a few books: Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses, Maggie Nelson’s The RedParts, and my friend Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming book And Now We HaveEverything, about new motherhood.

Order your copy of Sunshine State.
Follow Sarah on Twitter:  @SarahNumber4

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Our November Pick for Soup of the Month is Sunshine State: Essays by Sarah Gerard!

Reading this book is like being blindfolded and led by the hand—round and round, over a hill, along a long, straight bit—then spun in a circle or two. You have no clue where you’re going. You’re unsure why you’re going there. But from page one, you trust no one more than Sarah Gerard to be the person holding your hand and guiding you. (And if you’re anything like me, you will be shaken and literally struck with awe when she brilliantly removes the blindfold at the end and shows you the entire path on which you traveled.)
This is a book of essays, but it parts from the immediacy of the essay form. Rather than gathering pieces that are temporally close to each other (as most essayists seem to do), Gerard is comfortable letting her collection span the length of her entire life so far. Her essays are about widely-varying topics that seem often deeply unrelated; she writes about the tangled history of the Unity Church and growing up in it, about homelessness in St. Petersburg, about a bird sanctuary in the Florida Keys as it falls apart in slow motion.
While Gerard herself is heavily present in some essays and nothing but a background figure in most, we get to see her voice grow and mature as she ages over the course of the collection— and this is absolutely where she is most brilliant. Late in the book, we see an adult Gerard cope with the reality of a loved one’s illness and death with an understanding that the teenage version of her (who we’ve witnessed taking ecstasy, hooking up, and trying to figure out what it means to love someone at all) could not have fathomed.

I’m obsessed with this book because Gerard doesn’t over-concern herself with the perpetual essayist’s struggle of the political versus the personal. She is wholly both, every step of the way, merely by shifting in subtle ways the tone of her voice. Because of this, we get to grow with her, and come to her understandings with her, and question things with her. A keen reporter and memoirist, Gerard invites us to be these things right along with her. When she asks a question, you really get the sense that she doesn’t yet know the answer—as if she wrote this book in real time while she had every experience and underwent every interview in it.

The most perfect blends of boldness and subtly that I’ve ever read, the essays of Sunshine State are like well-worn favorite songs to me—whenever I think of one, I immediately remember exactly where I was and what I felt when I first read it. I’ll continue to re-read this book again and again until the record skips, and I’ll continue to cherish the nostalgia Gerard has given me for experiences I never actually had. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you do the same.

- Afton Montgomery, Book Soup Bookseller

 Order your copy HERE!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

An Interview with Grady Hendrix, by Book Soup Bookseller Sarah Nivala

 Sarah Nivala: I’m so happy to get the chance to talk with you!

Grady Hendrix: Oh, well, that makes one person!

SN: My co-workers Emma and AndrĂ©s turned me onto My Best Friend’s Exorcism and I’m grateful they did because I really loved this book. You said in a past interview that the book is set in 1988 because that’s the year you would’ve been the same age as Abby and Gretchen. You also talked about how you gave the first few chapters to your wife and she said that it was contrived or dishonest so you went back and started tapping into your own memories of what it was like to be that age at that time. Do you think you could have written it if it was set in a different decade?

GH: You know, I couldn’t have set it in a different decade and had it still be honest. I really wanted to not have to worry about, you know, researching cell phones. I wanted to focus on what mattered to me, which was the emotional stuff. So the easiest way, for me, was to get rid of all the extraneous stuff. It was hard enough to imagine myself back in high school; I didn’t want to have to imagine myself back in high school but in a completely different era.

SN: Was that disturbing, in a way? To have that flood of emotions and remember what it was like?

GH: It was actually great! A lot of experience gets sort of mediated. There’s a layer of pop culture and references and all this stuff between myself and even my own memories, sometimes. It’s nice to have the time and the space to sort out what really happened and what feels like it should have happened. 

SN: One of the things that fascinates me about this book is that there is so much widely-accepted evil. Gretchen’s parents or Wallace… Which character did you have the hardest time writing? Whose head was most difficult to get inside of?

GH: Once they clicked, no one. I mean, I grew up with all these people. It’s funny you’d say that about Gretchen’s parents because there is a totally different version of this book from the Langs’ point of view, which is this: “We supplied our daughter with this wonderful life: she has a nice house, she gets to go to this really good school, and she is out of control. She’s doing stuff we don’t understand and we can’t grapple with it and she hates us and every time she’s around [Abby] things get really bad. We don’t know what to do.” I really feel for Gretchen’s parents. I don’t have kids but if I did… I’m the age my parents were when I was a teenager, and I would have no more clue how to deal with the angst of a teenager than I would know how to deal with some kind of giant robot punching me in the face.

SN: One scene that really stuck out to me takes place when Gretchen explains to Abby that her parents took her to a doctor to see if she was still a virgin. That really hurt because I can very vividly remember what it was like being that age and being that vulnerable, particularly as a young woman. I can imagine how heartbroken Gretchen must’ve been. That’s where that sentiment about the Langs came from. I just really feel for Gretchen in that situation.

GH: To some extent, Gretchen is me working out my life in high school. I mean, I was a mess. If someone had turned to me when I was in tenth grade and said, “you’ve been possessed by a demon,” I would have gone, “you know, that actually explains a lot of things.”

I’m glad you mentioned that scene because that’s such a breaking point, with Gretchen and her parents. There’s this thing when you get hurt as a kid where you go to your parents, and you have this “I need my mommy” type of moment. It’s very primal and that scene is Gretchen’s moment. Her mom doesn’t know what to do and turns her back on her. That’s when she realizes that no one is going to help her and that Abby is the only person who might and – Jesus Christ – Abby is so unprepared for everything.

SN: Gretchen has that moment less than a hundred pages into the book. She knows that something is happening and no one is going to understand and no one is going to be able to help her in the way that she has relied on adults to help in the past. There’s no mom or dad who can charge into the room and say, “I’ll make it better.”

GH: Exactly. There were some kids, I found growing up, who either knew or felt like they were alone. You know what I mean? They are the ultimate protector of their own best interests. Then, there are other kids I grew up with who always thought, “someone else has my best interests at heart.” A lot of people waver between those two points of view, but Gretchen is one of those kids who’s able to say, “I’m on my own.” Abby’s always looking for someone to help. As independent as she is, she’s never broken with everyone around her the way Gretchen has.

SN: That’s how Abby defines herself. She’s the nice one. She’s the one who helps people. She’s the one who goes out of her way to be there for everyone. So, when she’s put in this situation? Something snaps. We see that dark moment where she comes home and tries to rid herself of everything childish. She rips up her stuffed animals. She tears down her posters. It’s a huge turning point for Abby.

GH: Sometimes I think people underestimate people who are nice and who like to be liked, like Abby. People like that: until they get put to the test, you don’t really see the mettle beneath them.

SN: Abby grows up very quickly. That moment is when Abby becomes, for the most part, the person that she will be for the rest of her life.

GH: Oh, absolutely.

SN: Undoubtedly, the core of the book is the strong friendship between Abby and Gretchen. I will say this, and I don’t mean this as a dig, but I am wary of men writing female characters. But, to be frank, I didn’t realize you weren’t a woman until about halfway through the book! I was really impressed with how you let these characters experience adolescence in a natural, honest way.

GH: It’s nice to know that it [feels] right. There’s a lot of stuff, especially right now, about appropriating other peoples’ beliefs and experiences and I agree but I think it’s hard to have a rule about it because it’s a line that moves so much. You can’t make one rule for Book A that’s going to apply to books B, C, and D. To be honest, it didn’t worry me so much because I really love Abby and Gretchen. I have so much respect for teenagers. So, I was like, whatever mistakes I’m making are because I love these guys and I have so much respect for them. Abby and Gretchen were the heroes that I needed at that point in my life and I made them because I needed them.

SN: You have a familiarity with female characters that reads very earnestly. It’s the depth that you give to these young women and the strength of their character arcs.

GH: Thank you. With Paperbacks from Hell, I read all of these paperbacks from the 70s and 80s and there were occasionally dudes writing from female points of view and they would go on and on about bras. They would go on about their characters’ breasts. It’s so weird! 

SN: We actually do think about them all of the time. It’s really the only thing in our heads.

GH: You know, I’m amazed, Sarah, that you can even hold a job. Probably ninety percent of your brain power goes to thinking about your bra.

SN: It’s a constant struggle to not just abandon work and run to the closest lingerie store. You know? But that’s our struggle!

GH: That’s your own personal struggle and that makes you brave.

SN: Oh god. Yup.

GH: I think some writers are just going, “wait, a woman is just another human being? What?! There must be some differences, let me try and get those on the page.”

SN: I’m curious to know: what is your favorite and least favorite horror trope?

GH: Oh, well, my least favorite… you know, it’s hard, because I have nothing against the slasher movie, but I hate serial killers. It’s all Hannibal Lecter’s fault! Because of Hannibal Lecter, we think, “oh, serial killers have really good taste in wine. Let the serial killer pick the wine for dinner, they can’t go wrong!” And that drives me nuts. The thing I like most is this whole tradition that’s never really made it to the US: black magic movies. These movies always have these big set pieces that are, like, the ritual and the rituals are so much fun. The curses are just so insanely body-oriented. You don't disappear in a puff of smoke. You don't fall down dead. Fish hooks come out from under your eyes. You vomit hair. There are just such baroque, awful punishments. I love it.

SN: You said in another interview that you are disappointed in horror films that don't deliver, that make promises they don't fulfill.

GH: You've got to deliver. It's something my editor texts me a lot, he says, you know, if we're doing a ghost story, it's gotta have all the ghosty stuff in it. You can't shy away from what you're doing.

SN: Right, and you follow through with that in this book in a very literal way.

GH: I really felt strongly that Gretchen had to do something that couldn't be fixed while she was possessed. She had to do something that couldn't get a coat of paint and make it all better. There had to be permanent repercussions. Abby needed to forgive her. Abby needed to look at the mess she made and say, “it's okay” and “I know that's not you.”

SN: What is your biggest fear? Are any of your fears represented in My Best Friend’s Exorcism?

GH: Oh, sure. One thing that terrified me in high school was losing control. I felt so many times that I was doing everything right, everything I was told to do, stuff that was supposed to be good, and then I would get to the end of it and it would all turn out to be the wrong thing and I would be in huge amounts of trouble. It was such a helpless, bleak feeling. That’s a real fear, too. That everything you’re doing is the wrong thing. As an adult, I’m scared of the normal things. I’m scared of the dark. Everyone’s scared of the dark. But in terms of deep existential dread… I’ve been broke a few times and that’s been horrifying. The times I’ve experienced fear as an adult have been real financial fear.

SN: What is your favorite moment in the book?

GH: In terms of writing the book, the one that was the most fun, because it was the grossest, was the tapeworm scene. However, I really, really, really had such a blast writing the birthday party at the roller rink.

SN: That scene made me love Abby instantly. She’s so nerdy and I connected with her. I know you did extensive research for this book, but what the weirdest or coolest thing that you learned while doing research?

GH: The stuff about deliverance ministries and exorcisms in America. It’s really fascinating how that works. I wound up looking at a lot of YouTube videos of exorcisms and deliverances. There’s a church, I think in Virginia, that had a clip of a big “puke and rebuke session” where thirty or forty people were getting deliverances at the same time and there’s, like, kids in the background and a snack table. I love how normalized that is for some people. I really believe in therapy and medication and stuff like that, but you know, I think if you choose to deal with your problems through deliverance or exorcism, I gotta accept that that is as legitimate for you as the other is for me.

SN: Yeah, I guess it’s whatever works for people, it’s really about whatever makes you feel better.

GH: Yeah, and I do gotta say, just as a caveat because everyone’s probably seen these stories that percolate up in the media every now and then where someone dies at exorcism or a kid is beaten to death at an exorcism. There are people who are just abusing their kids and they put that “oh, it’s an exorcism!” gloss on it. That’s just straight up child abuse. There is no way a kid can consent to that kind of thing. I do feel though that if you are a consenting adult and that’s what you want to do, you’re responsible for yourself, so fine.

SN: What was the most important thing you learned about yourself while working on My Best Friend’s Exorcism?

GH: How much of what I thought I remembered was just bogus. Everything I thought I remembered about high school and my friendships in high school and everything was so affected by pop culture! It made me super cautious moving forward as a writer that I am actually writing about reality and not about things that I’ve seen in movies. Movies shape things into a narrative, and I think we are really susceptible to narratives. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end – cause and effect – and I think that’s a really seductive way to look at the world. It’s like, we’d all rather eat a donut than a banana because a donut activates the right switches in our brains. I feel like narrative does that: it activates all of those switches and allows you to ignore the messy reality.

Earlier you were asking about horror movie tropes I hate, and there’s a trope in everything that drives me up the wall, which is that the second things go wrong, a group of people will turn on each other. You always see that thing, like in Night of the Living Dead, where all they do is fight and bicker and eventually they go, “oh, my god! We’ve discovered that humanity is the worst monster of all!” Every single bit of research that has ever been done on disasters and crisis situations shows that human beings get more altruistic and work together in a more cooperative manner the greater the threat and the greater the level of stress. We don’t turn on each other when things go bad; we work together. Every time you see that trope, though, it is so poisonous.

With My Best Friend’s Exorcism, when my wife turned to me and said “this is garbage,” it was such a wake-up call. If I want to write stuff, it has to be about real life, it can’t be based on recycled ideas from other people and from pop culture swirling around out there. If I’m going to say “this is what friendship was like in high school,” I need to read all of those letters from high school again. I had to go offline and really sit and think, “was this what it was like? Or is this just what I like to think it was like?”

Grady Hendrix discusses and signs Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction on Saturday, October 14th at 4pm!