Sarah Gerard’s dazzling second book, Sunshine State, is a collection of essays interlacing narrative nonfiction and personal essay. The thirty-one year old Brooklynite teaches nonfiction and writes a monthly column for Hazlitt. She has received rave reviews from the New York Times, NPR, and The Millions. 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.
The opening essay, “BFF,” is stylistically similar to her debut novel Binary Star. Both confessional and shocking, Gerard divulges gut wrenching facts about sex, toxic relationships, and class divides. 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. 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. She delves into the history and beliefs of the Unity Clearwater Church, which her parents stopped attending when she was twelve. She flirts with Amway’s promise of abundant riches by visiting vast estates while simultaneously revealing the company as a pyramid scheme. In searching for these answers, Gerard exposes socioeconomic and cultural beliefs as well as her own psychology.
Sunshine State is moving, funny, and fascinating in its search for answers. Gerard is ingenious and conscientious in her journalistic research, while her voice weaves a soulful and witty narrative. Sunshine State holds up a mirror that is both revealing and inspiring.
The Rumpus: In your first essay, “BFF,” it is so raw and personal. Were you looking for healing or closure through it?
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. 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. So in the same way when we write something, it doesn’t completely resolve the experience for us. It can feel therapeutic, but that’s not the reason why I do it. I do it to ask a question, or just to find meaning.
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. Is finding meaning the reason you wrote the book?
Gerard: Yeah, definitely. 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. And the ways that my artistic impulse is wrapped up in my sexuality and how sexual assault is stealing someone’s voice. It has led me to be confused in love. In “Mother-Father-God,” I talk about how the new thought movement led me to be superstitious. 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.
Rumpus: A lot of essays talk to each other. 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?
Gerard: Yes, I feel like I always learn when I’m writing, even when I’m not writing about myself. I’m careful not to judge; I try to internalize and empathize with the characters. Stepping into that person’s shoes is transformative. It changes you. Looking at my own life, it’s also humbling to write. “BFF” includes a lot of unflattering details about my life—things that I’ve done that might have hurt this person. They say the first step to changing is admitting you have a problem, you know? So it’s like that: admitting I messed up in that relationship has helped me a lot in future relationships.
Rumpus: Why did you use your home state of Florida as the primary background?
Gerard: Florida is kind of notorious. But also because it’s a rich place. Phonetically, narratively, historically. I wanted to know Florida better and I could easily find stories. 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.
Rumpus: Why are there so many animals in the book?
Gerard: I just always felt like animals are spirit guides, you know? I really like animals, I’ve always felt really drawn to them; they have this energy and magnetism. But also, I was interested in the ways we can write biography. 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. How do I pluck a story out of the entirety of what it means to be alive. 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.
Rumpus: I can see there’s definitely a pattern with all the animals in your life, going back to when you were a kid.
Gerard: Yeah that’s the thread. You can pretty much do it with anything. 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. 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. When I tried to tell the story about an event alone, it didn’t mean anything. When I thought about all things that lead up to that event, then I could more easily lift that thread. That was my intention with that essay. Just like every other essay in the book, to varying degrees it was an experiment in autobiography.
Rumpus: What do you want people to take away from the book?
Gerard: I want people to be moved by it, and learn something about themselves, about Florida, and about other people. I want people to enjoy the book. When you write about people three dimensionally, it inspires a sense of empathy. That would be something that I want people to take away from all my writing, a feeling of emotionality, connection, and empathy.
Author photograph © Justin N. Lane.