"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!