Interview | Sarah Gerard
Known for the questionable mental state of its citizens in a land of concrete slabbed over mangroves and sand, I remember living out West for years and when someone found out I was from Florida, they’d say, “I’m sorry.” At its default, Florida is a breeding ground for pill heads, dark smoke-filled apartments – living for the moment like they just gave up altogether. And now we have an influx of trust funders and techies moving to Florida at unprecedented rates, condos flying up faster than balloons out of a child’s hand.
Following her debut major publishing feat Binary Star blowing up on the national fiction circuit last year, Sarah Gerard is out with her second book Sunshine State, starring the west coast of middle Florida where she draws from the symptoms of local-interest institutions such as the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Unity-Clearwater Church, Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School and the international pyramid-scheme-esque corporation Amway (run by the DeVos family, from which Betsy was chosen to be our Secretary of Education) and Sarah’s intimate social circle in a book that is both investigative journalism and a memoir, intensely crafted through the fingers of a distinct voice. She says an author’s second book is always about their childhood home. She heard that in an interview once.
Sunshine State was just distributed from the printers and it’s already picking up reviews in the New York Times, the Paris Review of Books, the Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed, and NPR.
Sunshine State contains eight chapters of unusual local history illuminating the reader on some intricate Florida culture, which some say is an oxymoron. But as I’ve learned from my anthropologist friends, everywhere has a culture, and just because you’re too in it to see it, doesn’t mean it’s not a culture with specific dress, speech, values and tendencies as different from the world over. So Florida definitely has a culture – in Sunshine State we learn the backstory of how the Unity-Clearwater Church came to be, with the help of Gerard’s parents in the ’80s and ’90s. Her mother Pat Gerard today is a County commissioner, and I was glad someone working in politics allowed herself to be so open as to have her life dissected for the public to read. That’s a kind of honesty I’d vote for, though she seems a little easily swayed by cult structures as evidenced in the essays “Mother-Father God” and “Going Diamond.”.
Sarah has a relentless talent for writing that comes from actively doing it, her prose confessional and unapologetic. Some essays are stronger than others, but work together as a tribe culled from well-researched facts and the poetic details of these people’s lives – a cold warmth.
Her essay “Sunshine State” is her answer to local interest in the rumors surrounding the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, whose behind-the-scenes director Ralph Heath has managed to take a noble enterprise and piss off a lot of people while running a private substandard warehouse of his own filled with pigeons, turtles, filth and trash, according to Sarah’s research in the book. Sarah gets the story by volunteering there and interviewing staff, who are aware she is writing a book. In “The Mayor of Williams Park,” she does her research while volunteering at the Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Pete to serve the large weekly breakfast, giving us an intimate introduction to G.W., a college-educated homeless advocate who reigned as the king of Williams Park through his generosity and drive to help others while facing his own adversities.
“A human being can get used to anything,” G.W. says in Sunshine State. “My friend asked me-he’s a religious guy-and he says, ‘What does Judgment Day mean to you?’ And I thought for a minute and I said, ‘To me, Judgment Day would be me standing before God, and God telling me that, “I gave you a certain amount of intellect. I gave you writing ability, communication ability; I gave you cooking ability; I gave you the ability to get along with people; I gave you this very deep voice-and you haven’t used any of it. “‘ To me, hell is squandering my abilities.”
Sarah took a few moments to chat with me about writing Sunshine State.
What made you think of Florida as an interesting point of reference for your essays, besides the obvious fact that you’re from here? I mean, you could have done essays into a group of anything. Is it cause everyone thinks Florida’s crazy anyway?
Sarah Gerard: There were a few reasons. For one thing, I wanted to challenge myself to really use setting, because that’s something I didn’t do much in Binary Star—even though the characters stop in several places on their road trip, the settings are more or less sketched out. They’re not very rich
Another reason was that Florida is a place that I know deeply on a certain level, but not all that well in a scholarly sense, and culturally it’s a very complicated place, so I had a lot to learn about a topic that’s implicitly interesting to me. Because I was shaped by growing up there. Another reason was that for the reason you mention above, people who aren’t from Florida tend to be fascinated by it. They want to know what it’s like to live there.
How do you overcome the fear of sharing so many intimate details about yourself with everyone?
There are a few ways to answer that. One is you just have to kind of trust that there’s someone out there who will relate to your story. Another is that you have to trust that, simply for the fact that it’s yours to tell, your story is important and needs to be heard—stories are part of what make us human, both telling them and hearing them. And the last part of that is that someone reading your story might really need it. So, you’re doing them a service by telling it.
Also, telling your story helps you to give meaning to your life. It’s how you process and understand what has transpired for you on planet Earth. You have a right to tell it.
You don’t have a fear of anything being used against you. You trust your own voice over everything else. Would you say that’s true?
I would agree with that.
Was it always that way? In your essay “Records” you sing so quietly until your last performance, and then you belt it out with no microphone.
It took me a long time to find my voice. I actually began making a list of all of my “failures” the other day—projects that I’ve abandoned over the years. I dug through two old hard drives for several hours and I’m still not finished.
OK. Amway. How have I NEVER heard of them? Is this more insider than your essay makes them sound? Or did I just totally miss the Amway fad?
Haha! I think it was biggest in the States in the ‘90s. It’s still going strong in the U.S. but it’s more prevalent overseas now. It wasn’t an insider thing at all! They’re very Evangelical. Also, for a while they were operating under a different name The name was Quixtar
I just wanna be known as the writer who doesn’t know who Amway is.
Haha, this has to go in the article. That’s the headline