Interview with Sarah Gerard

by Julia Paganelli Marín

Photo by Justin N. Lane

Photo by Justin N. Lane

Sarah Gerard is a writer who is willing to examine her own discomfort. In her devastatingly clear, self-possessed memoir in essays, Sunshine State, Gerard provides a balance of the public and the personal. The author examines her parents’ encounters with the pyramid-scheme Amway; the origins of Unity Church, an offshoot of the Scientology movement; and the creation and fall of Florida’s Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. Gerard also maps her own emotional landscape, detailing her mother’s career as an advocate for victims of sexual assault; Gerard’s own coming-of-age in Florida; and the deterioration of one of Gerard’s own young best-friendships. Sunshine State is all about coming to terms with the places and people that form us, acknowledging their every detail. In reading these poignant essays, I found myself turning inward to examine myself as Gerard turned inward—and as she turned outward to examine Florida and its people, I found myself turning outward as well. “It’s important to remember that uncomfortable feelings can’t actually hurt us,” writes Sarah Gerard. In Sunshine State, Gerard’s clarity has contributed to the creation of her exquisite book. Here are a few words with Sarah Gerard about her latest book, Sunshine State.

What made you decide to center a book of essays around Florida?

I grew up in the Tampa Bay Area and have gone through phases of loving and hating my home state. I think, as a writer, it’s good to begin a project in this place of ambiguity, or two extremes of emotion. I noticed that even though I had wanted to leave Florida in my mid-twenties, I would feel defensive when non-Floridians would make jokes about the state being trashy—you know, like the “Florida Man” stories about a guy trying to pay for a beer with a taco, or something, or riding an alligator to the mall. They’re funny stories because they sound so absurd, but what are we really laughing at in them? We’re laughing at addiction, poverty, mental illness, and so on. Laughter in these cases gets in the way of empathy. So, I wanted to get behind the stereotypes and explore Florida’s humanity, and its beauty, and its unique culture. Because a lot of my writing is memoir, I also wanted to look closely at the ways in which Florida shaped me while I was growing up there, and how it continues to shape me.

Even though I wanted to leave Florida in my mid-twenties, I would feel defensive when non-Floridians would make jokes about the state

Many of these essays mediate your personal life to the page. How do you navigate writing as a public and private act?

It can be very fraught. Thankfully, I don’t have to share any of my writing before it’s finished, when I’ve said more or less everything I need to say, and in the best possible way. Still, I’m an introvert, and a book is very personal. I sometimes feel embarrassed by the attention it attracts when it enters the world. I try not to think about that while I’m writing, though. My only concern while I’m writing is telling a good story.

One of the things I was most impressed with in Sunshine State was the amount of research you dedicated to each essay. The book has an extensive bibliography that includes pages of books, numerous personal interviews, journals, speeches, a sermon, a marriage certificate, newsletters, board minutes, etc. Did you know what you were getting into when you started this book? What was it like to commit to researching each of these essays?

I’m not sure I knew quite what I was getting into when I began writing, but I was willing to commit to whatever the book required. I spent six weeks in Florida in the summer of 2015 collecting materials, and then made two more research trips, the following November and January, for a few weeks each time. I continued researching while I was writing over the months in-between.

The first time I went to Florida, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for, and had only a vague idea of what each essay would be about (if you remember, in “Sunshine State”, I initially thought I’d be writing only about birds). Once I began writing, my focus for each essay narrowed and it was much easier to concentrate my research efforts.

I actually had a lot of fun conducting the research, especially for “Mother-Father God”, the essay about the New Thought Movement. A lot of the materials I collected were personal documents and papers and journals of my parents’; obscure historical texts that I could only find in the library of my childhood church; church directories that I hunted through, looking for pictures of my family; interviews with my childhood pastor. I also interviewed both of my parents for that essay. Of all of the essays, that research felt the most personal.

Were there any bits of research that you found particularly interesting but couldn’t fit into the book? If so, would you share a couple with us?

I initially thought I’d be writing only about birds

One of the essays that I cut from the book concerned the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I was living in St. Petersburg when it happened, and although none of our beaches were oiled, the spill was really devastating for anyone who calls the Gulf of Mexico home. To research that essay, I attended an oil spill conference held in Tampa. I became really interested in the difficulties scientists face in sharing their research with the public. I was also interested in the psychosocial effects of repeated disasters—such as for people who were living in New Orleans during both Katrina and the oil spill—and the general importance of water, for me personally. So, as you can see, I was a bit unfocused in that research! Too many interests for one essay. It was ultimately wise to keep it out of the book and meditate on it more before publishing it. It will be coming out now in an anthology of Florida writing being published this year.

“The Mayor of Williams Park” discusses Florida’s homeless population and the personal history of homelessness for G.W., an ordained minister in St. Petersburg, Florida, and “Sunshine State” examines the many narratives surrounding Pinellas County’s Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and its founder, Ralph Heath. Both essays are narrated by your voice and share your presence (“Sunshine State” more so). How did you decide how much of yourself to weave in and out of these essays?

I was really thinking about “Sunshine State” as a mystery story with myself as the detective. The process of hunting down clues led me to interact with a lot of interesting people whose trust I had to earn—some of them, even though they had a lot to hide. So, including myself as a character benefited the cast of characters as a whole, as it was important to see how they reacted to me as an outsider.

And as I say in the beginning of the essay, I was there as more of a memoirist than as a journalist. I was really attracted to birds in a semi-magical way—there seemed to be appearances of them happening all around me. It felt personally significant.

In “The Mayor of Williams Park”, I felt that because of the subject matter it was important for people to be able to speak for themselves, and for my own involvement in the story not to be foregrounded. I wanted to get out of the way of the narrative because, simply put, it’s not about me. As a young, able-bodied, middle-class white woman, I’m the least important character in a story about homelessness.

In “BFF” and “Records” you write about emerging sexuality and young friendships. One of the conversations that occurs, within each essay and between the two essays, is who does or doesn’t have power over a young woman’s body. You focus clearly in these essays on both the regrets of best-friendship and the shame of sexual harassment and violence. We often want to turn away from these kinds of moments in our personal lives. How were you able to look back clearly and write these essays?

It’s important to remember that uncomfortable feelings can’t actually hurt us; that if we just sit with them, eventually the discomfort will pass.

Well, I think writers don’t typically turn away from these moments in our personal lives. In fact, we return to them over and over again, trying to find meaning in them. They’re moments of extreme conflict and ambiguity, which is where we find the best stories, and the most personal and universal significance. In the case of these two essays, the experiences I’m writing about happened many years in the past, so I had had a lot of time to reflect on them before writing. It’s important to remember that uncomfortable feelings can’t actually hurt us; that if we just sit with them, eventually the discomfort will pass. Also, that once you spell something out, ninety-nine percent of the time, it will seem less scary than it seemed in your head.

One of the things you do in these essays is bring multiple, often conflicting narrators and narratives together to bring us to uneasy questions. For instance, in “Mother-Father God,” the history of Unity as part of Christian Science conflicts with excerpts from your mother’s personal journal about the Unity movement and her work as a victim’s advocate. What have you learned about narrative in the writing of this book? How have you made this discomfort within narratives work for you as a writer?

Well, in writing “Mother-Father God”, one of the things I was interested in was demonstrating how the philosophy and practice of the New Thought Movement had changed since its inception. I was lucky in that the founding of the Unity-Progressive Council occurred on the centennial of Unity’s founding, so the most elegant way to organize the essay was to interweave the two narratives: New Thought’s Founding, and its shift toward fundamentalism exactly one hundred years later. It was an ironic shift, considering that one of New Thought’s foundational values was not to adhere to any dogma—and ironic also because this anti-dogmatism is ultimately what has led to the dissolution of the movement as a whole. Interweaving the narratives in this way allowed me to demonstrate the irony instead of simply explaining it. It also allowed me to delve more deeply into the stories of the people involved in the movement, including, most importantly my parents and myself.

Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, the novel Binary Star, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times first fiction prize, and two chapbooks. Her short stories, essays, interviews, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Vice, BOMB Magazine, and other journals, as well as anthologies. She’s been supported by fellowships and residencies from Yaddo, Tin House, and PlatteForum. She writes a monthly column on food for Hazlitt and is currently at work on a second novel, called True Love. She teaches writing in New York City.

Julia Paganelli Marín is in her third year of her MFA in Poetry at the University of Arkansas. She's been published by HOOT, Hobart, BOAAT, Connotation Press, Chautauqua Literary Journal, and the Madison Review, as well as in Accents Publishing's Circe’s Lament: Anthology of Wild Women Poetry. Her chapbook, Blush Less (2015),  considers the lives of women in Northern Appalachia.