I met Sarah Gerard when I was a student in one of her workshops at Catapult in New York City. I chose the workshop after reading her intricate, beautiful novel Binary Star published by Two Dollar Radio. Being in workshop with Sarah as the instructor was revelatory. She had a way of deeply empathizing which each writer’s mission and encouraging them using their own gifts as a starting point. This can be rare in workshop where an instructor can easily impose their own systems and beliefs onto their student’s writing.
From that early experience as her student I came to call Sarah a friend and have admired both her creative and personal pursuits for the last four years. I interviewed her for the first time after the publication of her book of essays, Sunshine State, at Little City Books in Hoboken, New Jersey. After spending a year in Florida she has recently moved back to the New York City area with her partner, the writer Patty Cottrell. This most recent interview took place right before her move. We discussed Florida, being in a creative relationship, and her book of collages. Her next novel is coming out in summer 2020 and will be published by Harpers.
A few years back we talked about Florida as an object being used in a lot of creative projects over the last five years or so, your second book included. If I remember correctly, The Florida Project had just come out when I was interviewing you and we were talking about Florida as creative inspiration. Since then, Lauren Groff’s book has come out, Mostly Dead Things comes out later this year.
Do you think Florida is having a “moment”? Why do you think that might be?
One reason is that a lot happens in Florida. In the last few years alone, we’ve had the Pulse nightclub shooting, the various goings-on at Mar-a-Lago, the murder of XXXTentacion, a couple of hurricanes, some drama with the Church of Scientology, the Parkland shooting, the nightmare of the mid-term elections recount, and now new cases against Jeffrey Epstein and Robert Kraft. Today is the seventh anniversary of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, which happened in Sanford. There’s no winter and no income tax, so rich people like to have houses here. Simultaneously, much of Florida is very conservative. There is racism, poverty, homophobia. Florida boasts one of the highest numbers of hate groups of any state. But it’s a great place to go on spring break (in fact, Harmony Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers was shot in St. Petersburg). The landscape is beautiful. There’s a complex and contradictory history.
“There is racism, poverty, homophobia. Florida boasts one of the highest numbers of hate groups of any state. But it’s a great place to go on spring break (in fact, Harmony Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers was shot in St. Petersburg). The landscape is beautiful. There’s a complex and contradictory history.”
Many people are writing about Florida, or moving here, or publishing anthologies of Florida writing. T Kira Madden’s heartbreaking and victorious new memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls tells her story of growing up as a queer person of color in Boca Raton in the 1990s. Shane Hinton’s anthology of Florida writing, We Can’t Help It If We’re From Florida brought together some amazing authors including Jaquira Díaz, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Laura van den Berg (as well as myself). Erica Dawson, the director of the MFA program at the University of Tampa, just published a new collection of poetry called When Rap Spoke Straight to God, a luscious and intense cultural mirror, which has drawn praise from the New York Times Magazine, Jericho Brown, and Jennifer Egan. Colette Bancroft, the books editor for the Tampa Bay Times, is bringing together a collection of Tampa Bay noir to be published soon with Akashic Books, in which she’s including my short story, The Midnight Preacher. Just to name a few.
How has being back in your home state shaped your creative work recently?
Change of scenery is very important to me as a writer. I had been living in the same studio apartment in New York for seven years. I was married and divorced in it, and had very much outgrown it by the time I left. I was ready to begin a new phase. I wanted to be able to move in with my partner, Patty Cottrell, and we could not afford to do that in New York, where landlords expect you to make six times your rent.
I’m very sensitive to my surroundings and draw a lot from them in my work. We live a suburban lifestyle in Florida. It couldn’t be more different than the way we were living in Brooklyn. We drive everywhere. We have a yard. We have multiple rooms in our home in which we can each be alone. When we look out the window, we see palms, oaks, birds of paradise, sunshowers, blue jays, weeds, neighborhood cats, squirrels, lizards, bougainvillea. With space, time, and silence, I’ve been writing more fiction. My new short stories are all set in Florida. My novel, also, is partially set in Florida. The place seeps into you.
You released a book of collages last year. How did you get started doing collages? How do the creative rewards of this practice differ from your writing practice?
It’s a completely different creative process from writing. I like doing it in the presence of other people, while talking, listening to music, watching a movie. It’s completely recreational. Play. I actually haven’t been making collages since moving to Florida, though, mostly because I haven’t been sure what to do with them. I hit a wall after publishing Recycle, and had grown a bit bored with my approach to collaging, and my own style. I decided I wanted to try something completely new, but I’ve been scared of failing and making something terrible, and I don’t have a large workspace at the moment, or a way to keep the pieces safe while they’re in-progress, as they can take me days or weeks to finish.
I’d been waiting for a sign that I should start again, and some directive as far as where to begin, or how to go about doing something new, or even a sign that anyone cares, when a friend who works for a small press reached out to me asking if I’d donate some art for an auction. Then another friend who edits a series asked my girlfriend and I if we would collaborate on a short project together, which would involve collage. I think both will be illuminating and rewarding.
“How do people make space for each other generally? We have separate work areas, separate goals artistically, taste that is sometimes aligned and sometimes different.”
When we met, you were married and planning on moving to L.A. Over the last three years, you’ve transitioned in a lot of ways, including into a new relationship with Patty. How does being in a relationship with another writer affect your practice? How have you made space for both of you to thrive creatively?
Patty and I are also collaborating on a book, so in that way our relationship directly shapes my practice. Otherwise, I think we’re like any other couple. How do people make space for each other generally? We have separate work areas, separate goals artistically, taste that is sometimes aligned and sometimes different. I believe in what Patty is doing artistically, and I believe she feels the same way about me.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of writers talking about how the current political climate affects their work. What place do you think creative writing has in the “resistance” (for lack of a better term), or is it something separate from that?
Artists have always been at the forefront of resistance because they see beyond what is presented to them. They’re visionaries and agitators. Taking a wider view, ecological collapse is inevitable, and it may be that within a hundred years, there will no longer be a world to fight for, speaking on a human scale. Language is part of what makes us human, and writing is one of the foundations of civilization. How should we use language now, at the end of civilization, at the end of humanity?
Aptly recommends Sarah to readers who love Maggie Nelson, Kris Kraus, and Rachel Kushner. Sarah’s books can be purchased from your local bookstore using Indiebound.