Sarah Gerard’s new book Binary Star has exploded onto the literary scene of slim novels, so when I ran into Sarah a few months ago at a dive bar in St. Pete, Florida, we took advantage of her writing vacation away from Brooklyn and did an interview at my house in Roser Park.
Before Sarah found herself in a web of opportunity writing essays, short stories, criticism and interviews for BOMB Magazine, The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Bookforum, she studied theater in Florida. We met at American Stage Summer Camp around 1997 and then again two years later in the same high school (Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School), she in their theater program and I in visual arts. So I was really excited for Sarah when I heard she got her novel published!
Outer space has always been really fascinating to me: the visual beauty of it, the elegance of it, the horror of the vacuum.
I read Binary Star during slow bike rides on the Pinellas Trail to and from work. I read it in the bathtub. I read it falling asleep—it’s dizzying. The LA Times was like, “Gerard captures the beauty and scientific irony of damaged relationships and ephemeral heavenly lights. Just as with the stars, it is collapse that offers the most illumination,” the NY Times was like,”The particular genius of Binary Star is that out of such grim material it constructs beauty. It’s like a novel-shaped poem about addiction, codependence and the relentlessness of the everyday, a kind of elegy of emptiness,” and the book was also reviewed by VICE, Vanity Fair and NPR.
Writing a book sounds so big, I wanted to know all about her process: How much time went into each part of the process, how much help did she receive, and how hard was it to get published? How’d she land all those reviews? What excites me about Sarah’s trajectory is she up and decided that she was going to write professionally forever and then made it happen: One day long ago, while working at a nonprofit aftercare program, Sarah decided she was going to write for Creative Loafing, the Tampa Bay area’s weekly alternative. She contacted the editor to let him know.
“While I was at the office one day, I looked up the contact info for David Warner at Creative Loafing and pitched him a story,” she said. “No—I told him I was going to write for him—’Here are six ideas for stories I could write.’ Right away he wrote back and asked me to send him a sample piece. So I think I sent it to him a week later and he published it. I just kept building on that and used that as a clip to publish other places.”
Eva Avenue: At what point did you feel you were writing for a living?
Sarah Gerard: In St. Pete, because the cost of living is so low, I was able to support myself with my writing alone. When I moved to New York, I had to get a couple of day jobs again, especially while I was at school. But writing has always been at the center of everything I do. Everything I do has always pointed toward enabling me to write. And if I get involved in something that somehow detracts from my writing, I just get rid of that thing as quickly as possible. And now I’m happy to say that, with the exception of teaching, writing is all I’m doing now.
When did you move to New York?
2010, to go back to school to get my MFA in writing at New School.
What was awesome about their writing program?
There wasn’t much of a literary community down here, or at least not many people writing fiction, and my move to NY was a way for me to embed myself within a community for writing, find feedback for my work and share resources and also just find a fellowship, a community.
When did you start working on Binary Star?
Binary Star began as my graduate thesis but it was a very different novel. It was about two girls in the summer after they graduate high school, they’re best friends, grasping for some direction in their life. I was trying to do some very creative things with the form, even more so than exists in the finished novel. It wasn’t really working and I threw it away and started over with this story of two lovers and I found the passion of their relationship became a much better engine for the story. I began writing it in 2012 and threw it away and started over in 2013 and finished in in 2013. Thanks for doing this, Eva.
Oh sure, this is really fun. How did you know so much about stars?
I became interested in stars when I was a kid—my parents watched a lot of sci-fi. Just outer space in general has always been really fascinating to me: the visual beauty of it, the elegance of it, the horror of the vacuum.
I love that, “the horror of the vacuum.”
They had one or two suggestions I could get on board with, such as expanding a scene.
And just the huge proportion of celestial objects, interstellar distances. The power. But then I began reading about stars specifically. When I was writing about somebody else I was reviewing a science fiction novel for BOMB Magazine and I can’t remember whether he mentioned black holes at one point or if I had the idea all by myself but I started reading about black holes myself and became totally enraptured. But then I learned a black hole can be part of a binary system and that’s how I got into binary stars.
It’s so fucking yin yang but it’s, like, real. Yeah, and I like that in a binary system, the death of the system is inevitable. There’s nothing you can do to stop its complete destruction.
So you’ve never been an astronomy teacher.
No. I was a TA at one point. I thought I’d be teaching high school English and I realized during my residency that I just hated it.
So you wrote the book and then upon completing the manuscript, what did you do?
I sent it to my husband and I read the whole thing and edited it in a single day. Because I wanted to know how it read from start to finish all the way through. And then when I got back to New York, I sent it to my friend who is a copyeditor, whom I used to write with at McNally Jackson Books; she’s one of the best editors ever. Because the book is so language-driven, I thought somebody who’s accustomed to thinking on that level would be the best second reader, someone who can ask me difficult questions about individual words. And she did. She was very good at it.
Did she charge you?
I don’t think she did. I can’t remember. I’ve asked her to edit other things though and I’ve paid her. I believe she asked me to pay her when she edited my first chapbook, “Things I Told My Mother.” I actually don’t like that chapbook anymore.
Ah, like when musicians don’t like their albums anymore.
I tried to edit it recently to include in an essay collection but it’s too much work and I don’t feel like doing it anymore. Dude, I would spend days and days on this porch!
So you got the whole book edited. How long did the copyediting take?
She took a couple days. I wasn’t sure at that point how to end it; it ended very differently the first time around and I admitted to her I wasn’t happy with the ending and she agreed that it wasn’t perfect and we wrote the end four or five times. Between the galley copy and the finished book, I edited and rewrote the last scene again. I knew that I wanted the protagonist to do something very seemingly destructive but in a way that she’s acting out, acting outside of herself, turning her anger outward so for her it’s a productive, creative move. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted that to be for a long time.
What did you do after?
It’s fun to read aloud for that reason. It’s like chanting or singing.
I started sending it around almost right away. A friend of mine finishing a chapbook, she was looking for a publisher too, so we made a list of all our favorite literary agents. We worked our way through the list and everybody turned us down. And we kept a Google spreadsheet between us so we could hold ourselves accountable; we’d make a note when we sent it to an agent and put a date on it. We’d follow up with the agent and make a note for that. We had a note for their response, what day they read it.
When you say “favorite literary agents,” how did you come to have those?
We knew who represented our favorite writers—that says a lot of about a particular agent’s tastes, whether we thought they’d be interested in reading our work. So we just followed the paper trail and tracked people down and started sending our stuff around. Every single literary agent I sent it to said no. A lot of them said they liked it but said they wouldn’t know how to sell it. A couple asked if I could write it again but with no paragraphs.
And how did you handle their suggestions. Were you just like “No?”
Yeah, it’s written in the way it’s written for a reason that I think is very important, so I said thank you, but no thank you. Then we made a list—after we faced so much disappointment, we made a list of our favorite independent presses and that’s how I ended up with Two-Dollar Radio.
What did you like about them?
They had a bunch of books I liked. The Drop Edge of Yonder is a book I really like. They came out with a book earlier that year called Mira Corpora. And then another one called How To Get Into the Twin Palms.
What was their response?
It took three months and they said they wanted to publish it the following winter. They said they wanted to publish it in the winter 2014/2015 season and they had one or two suggestions I could get on board with, such as expanding a scene. They might’ve even mentioned the last scene. He said the ending reminded him too much of this book called Zazen. So I said cool, yes!
Did you freak out and celebrate?
I was at work when I found out and I wanna say I took the rest of the day off. I told everybody in office right away (at BOMB Magazine). It was the end of the day actually, it was dark outside. But a couple other presses were still reading it, I had to tell them they couldn’t read it anymore, haha.
Did they give you an advance?
They paid me for it, it wasn’t very much at all. I don’t know how much they pay other writers for their books so I don’t wanna say.
That’s okay. Did they schedule the book tour or was that you?
It got reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, reviewed by NPR, Vice, The New York Times.
No, I did that. They helped with some contacts with some bookstores they had relationships with. I did the Kickstarter to pay for the book tour. I had the whole thing scheduled—I knew I’d have to pay for it. I needed to already know where I was going on the tour so I needed to tell people what I was doing (in order to get the money). The amount that I raised ended up not being enough. I scheduled more stops after the Kickstarter closed. There were some bookstores that said the date that I wanted to go was too late after the book had come out, that they only scheduled readings two months after a books release. I was invited to read in Mexico.
So you went?
It was a writers conference in San Miguel de Allende and I got second place in their short story contest so they let me go to the conference for free. In the invite they asked if I could read at the conference. I met Diana Spechler, she teaches at the conference—I think she won first place in one of the contests, but she was also reading. I got to know her—she was just starting to write this New York Times column about weaning herself off of psychiatric medication, which is an amazing column and you can still read it online. It’s called Going Off—it’s a great column.
What are some of your favorite things about your book?
That’s such an uncomfortable question: We’re not supposed to praise ourselves. I think I like the rhythm of it. It’s fun to read aloud for that reason. It’s like chanting or singing. I like that the protagonist is not some nice girl. I appreciate how fucked up she is. And proudly so.
You had so many reviews! Were you the one who submitted it to publications for review?
The publisher sent galleys around, too. I let people know if I wanted it reviewed and I’d offer to send a PDF of the book. I think the tour also helped to make people aware of it, it drew attention to it. Maybe otherwise it would’ve flown under the radar. It got reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, reviewed by NPR, Vice, The New York Times.
Did that feel unreal, those reviews?
Every time one came out, I was pretty scared it would be bad. I’m pretty sensitive so I don’t like reading bad things about my work.
You didn’t really get bad reviews did you?
They were good, I don’t think anybody really trashed it but some people had a couple criticisms about it. NPR was overall a good review, but within the review it said something about the politics of the book seemed immature, which, I mean, they’re supposed to. They are and they aren’t. It’s supposed to be kind of an insincere political movement in the book. Maybe the characters believe they’re doing this sincerely, but from the outside we can see they’re not fully committed and are going about it the wrong way. They’re making clothes and purses instead of doing real activism. As hard as they try, they can’t escape capitalism.
How did your parents react to the book?
I think my mom found it really upsetting but they both really like it and they’re proud of me.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing an essay collection now. That’s why I’ve been in Florida for six weeks; I’m writing a collection of essays all having to do with Florida, specifically this area. They say a writer’s second book is always about their childhood, so here I am. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at first. When I first wrote this proposal for the collection, it was not really about Florida. It was originally called Tracks and it was about the ways we make impressions on each other and the ways people make impressions about us and how people decide our own path.
People liked the proposal but felt it was too vague. I was like, I can take these five essays from the projects and add it to these new essays I’m writing and now here I am, writing this book about Florida I never intended to write. This is for Harper Perennial. It’s the paperback original imprint of Harper Collins. An imprint is a press within a larger publishing house.
I have an agent now. When Two Dollar Radio told me they wanted to publish Binary Star, I was already planning to have coffee with this agent about my nonfiction. She had read Things I Told My Mother. She liked it and told me she wanted to work with me. I wrote this proposal and she sent it around for me. And the editor at Harper Perennial had shown some interest in my work already so I was very happy that they wanted to publish this book.
That’s so fucking cool.
Well, you’ve gotta seize the day, you know?