Q&A: Sarah Gerard on Obsession, Art, and Community

A writer needs a deft hand and a full heart to portray human suffering without treacle, yet at the same time loaded with subtle beauty. Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio), has both in spades.

In her stunning debut novel, Gerard reveals the complex inner workings of an unnamed protagonist: a young woman studying to become an astronomy teacher who struggles with an eating disorder. The novel’s slim size belies a churning world of studied self-destruction. With frightening intimacy, the protagonist reflects on a cross-country road trip she and her boyfriend took, recounting the pair’s discovery of radical movement veganarchism, while drawing us into her internal landscape.

It’s terrain fraught with dichotomies: she maintains a clinical distance from herself and her strained relationship with her alcoholic boyfriend, but in that absence of self-reflection, we see a young woman in mourning for the life that her illness has stolen. Gerard’s staccato, scientific sentences — which read alternately as an astronomical field guide, an obsessive collection of lists (what she ate; what she saw; what she may have felt), and a personal diary — merge to create poetry.

Binary Star was challenging and inspiring, original and modern. I’m hardly the only one who’s impressed with this young writer: Binary Star is drawing a slew of well-deserved praise. I spoke with Gerard, who graduated from the New School’s MFA program in 2012 and who currently works at BOMB magazine, over coffee in Brooklyn. We talked about her diverse artistic influences; her experience in writing a very personal piece of fiction; her admiration for scientific discipline; and her fascination with sea slugs, slim novels, and honest writing. Here's a slice of our chat.

BUSTLE: I read Binary Star in one sitting, and I assume other readers have had the same experience: once you begin the story, you get caught up in a sweeping momentum, and it’s difficult to resist that forward-moving stream. Did you find that the style came naturally, or were you planning on writing in an experimental, poetic form?

SARAH GERARD: I didn’t know that it would be as short as it is, but I knew right away that I had to write it in that style, because I kept hearing the beginning lines repeating in my head. I worked for a couple of months on the prologue thinking that I would write the whole book in that style, that I wouldn’t separate it into chapters, that there wouldn’t really be “scenes” in the proper sense. But even in the prologue a story emerges, though aren’t any scenes. So I wanted to write the whole thing in that style but I reached a limit at about 40 pages. I went about as far as I could without telling a story in the traditional scene-centered way that it then breaks into in the three chapters. So the style came naturally. It takes a lot of editing, because it's very spare, and I didn't want there to be any words that weren't doing all of their work.

Have you read Verlyn Klinkenborg? I saw a lot of similarities between his book and your prose, in which every sentence says exactly, and only, what it's supposed to say.

I love Verlyn Klinkenborg. I have a shelf in my apartment for books that are very important to me, and Several Short Sentences About Writing is on that shelf.

I didn't read it until after I’d written Binary Star, but I related to it so much. I think it's a beautiful book. There's so much feeling in that book. And that's a tenet of journalism, actually — Klinkenborg's a journalist. My father began his professional life as a journalist working for the Tampa Tribune, and he taught me how to write. When he saw that I was becoming very interested in writing at a young age, he would look at my sentences and say, "Well this word doesn't need to be here," or "If you just rearrange it this way it can be much shorter."

I read in an interview that, over the course of the month in which you wrote Binary Star, you read every day for three hours before you started writing. I found it so interesting that you dedicated so much time to reading other writers. How did you find that helpful towards your own writing and your own process?

I’m a writer because I love books. Books are a huge part of my life. The books I brought with me to Florida were books that I thought could help me with Binary Star, so I was reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, which is where I learned about Vitaly Zholobov's flight. I brought The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, but I didn’t finish that until afterward. Then I brought Wim Wenders' book Once, which is actually a collection of photographs from his film sheets paired with poems and diary entries. But they were written in this very spare voice, and they’re very observational; they’re very matter-of-fact statements.

I didn't want there to be any words that weren't doing all of their work.

I borrow a lot from other writers. I think every great writer does, whether it’s style or information. For Clarice, I thought her energy was really inspiring. In genre writing, plot is so important, and plot is my biggest weakness, so I brought Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, because he’s a really beautiful writer, and I loved the movie. And because it’s so much about the plot — she fails to find what she’s looking for in one scene, and has to keep looking for it in the next scene. So every successive scene moves the story forward. And even if you’re telling a story that’s not linear, like Binary Star, the narrative has to hold together. It has to feel like you’re moving forward at all times. I think reading something that’s written in a very unexperimental format helps me to think about how to organize my own book — how to think about it in a linear way, even if the plot is nonlinear.

I also wanted to ask you about veganarchism. How did you learn about the movement, and what led you to incorporate it into Binary Star?

I learned about it when I was in college. I was raised vegetarian — my parents went vegetarian when I was 4, then I decided to go vegetarian when I was 10 for my own reasons. By the time I got to college, I’d been [vegetarian] for about 10 years and had kind of lost touch with the reasons why I went vegetarian in the first place. When you’re living in a way that most of the world doesn’t, you need to remind yourself very often why you’re doing it — you have to be informed at all times, you have to be researching it all the time. When I got to college I met a guy who became my first love, and for the next three years I ate meat. And then, my senior year, I began to date someone who I’d known in high school, who was vegan at the time, and we became interested in [veganarchism] together. We were planning to be more active than we ended up being in the movement.

Until I sat down to write Binary Star, I hadn’t really done that much research about [veganarchism]. But I knew that it would resonate with the main character in all these different ways: in the sense of relating to the conditions of caged animals, and relating to abuse. I want to say that I don’t subscribe to that belief system necessarily. I am vegan, and I have lots of feelings that people would consider radical about the way animals should be treated, but I don’t necessarily endorse a violent revolution!

Even if you’re telling a story that’s not linear, the narrative has to hold together. It has to feel like you’re moving forward at all times.

The protagonist is so compelling, because although we feel her, we never see her objectively — we don’t actually know her. What was the experience like of writing a character who is so internally full, but objectively flat? Did you find her difficult to develop?

Well, it’s impossible for someone who’s struggling with anorexia to objectively observe their behavior, so I knew it had to be told in a first-person point of view. And I was also really careful when writing the book not to glorify the disease. [The protagonist] is reading a lot about other people who suffer from this disease, and I was careful to include celebrities who had died as a consequence of their eating disorders. But she herself is doing all kinds of objectification.

I really wanted to humanize the disease. I think there’s a lot of ridicule surrounding eating disorders in our culture, especially in mass media. People who are obviously suffering this disease are on the covers of magazines and everyone’s like, “Oh my God, look how skinny she is.” It’s so pornographic, the way we deal with it. And I didn’t want that to happen to her. I didn’t want to give the reader any possibility of objectifying her through a third-person point of view: this is what her hips look like; this is what her ribs look like; this is what her legs look like. Because then we set up a system of standards. I didn’t want to consider what a realistic set of standards would be, because it’s not my place to do that. But I also didn’t want there to be a baseline for standards in the usual way that we understand a character. We should be understanding her on her own terms.

I also found the tension between her obsession with consuming — especially consuming information, in the form of tabloids — and her desire to disappear completely. Can you talk a bit about that dichotomy between narcissism and self-destruction? Or consumption and purging?

I think she’s trying very hard to define herself. And because she doesn’t have a strong sense of self, she’s grasping at straws in our culture. She’s sort of collaging her identity, which is a humiliating process. And when we read, for instance, celebrity magazines, or we’re standing at the top of an aisle of diet pills, a person can feel very much like they’ve already disappeared, or can feel the humiliation of being unworthy, or… invisibilized. I think she wants to shrink away from that humiliation, and I think also from her own general suffering. Her own inadequacy.

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Had you researched astronomy beforehand, with the expectation of including those concepts in the narrative? Or did you find that it naturally braided itself into the story?

I did a little bit of research beforehand. Most of the work I did in Florida was reading, whether reading other people’s books or reading university websites or scholarly journals, to find material for the book. But in general I love science. I love incorporating science into fiction. I love the language of outer space; I love the language of botany. It’s all poetry to me. We talk about the natural world in very humanistic terms — plants have organs, plants have aerobic systems, stars attract and repel each other, they shrink away from each other. And I think we can all relate to the feeling of being gravitationally drawn to something.

I think we can all relate to the feeling of being gravitationally drawn to something.

I think also of how forces move through the world that a character is living in — where a bus intersects a scene and it kills a person while the character is watching and how many different kinds of force are operating in a scene — like the character is witnessing the accident, the brute force of the bus. And then who else may be standing nearby and how those characters are now connected through this experience. So I think that’s why I had to bring science into it. When we’re talking about human relationships, we’re literally talking about physics operating on us.

Where did you begin with astronomy? What initially drew you to this particular science?

I had initially started with black holes, and that led to an interest in binary stars, because the black hole is often the unseen member of a binary system. And then when I learned that there’s a black hole at the center of every galaxy I was like, “Oh my God. That’s it.” But I also love science fiction.

Have you ever tried to write science fiction, or any kind of genre fiction?

No. I think you have to be incredibly well versed in a genre to be able to write it. I dabble in science fiction, but I’m not as deeply immersed in it as I think a writer needs to be to be able to do something new with it. But literary fiction is like an open field. I decided I wanted to write because I fell in love with literary fiction.

Two Dollar Radio has been applauded for its support of women writers. When you were looking for a publisher, was it important to you to find a house that fairly represents female writers? Was that a big draw for you?

Oh, yeah. That was always a really big deal for me. I tried first sending Binary Star to agents, and a lot were very complimentary but they didn’t know how to sell it. So then I tried small presses. All of the riskiest work is coming out on small presses, and it’s not hard to find a small press that represents women well. That’s one of the many benefits of publishing with a small press.

All of the riskiest work is coming out on small presses, and it’s not hard to find a small press that represents women well.

What’s been your experience like working with an indie house?

It’s fun! We’ve been in touch the whole time. They ask me what I think every step of the way. Even when Eliza was copy editing, before she made a change she would call and ask me, “Is this how you want the word to be interpreted? Is this what you want?” They even looked for a new printer who was eco-friendly.

You worked as a bookseller at McNally Jackson, and you currently work for BOMB magazine. How has working in various literary environments shaped you as a writer?

It’s absolutely shaped me. BOMB was one of the first places ever to publish my writing. And, in fact, in the acknowledgments I list both BOMB and McNally Jackson, because they were both so important to my development as a writer ... Each bookseller at McNally Jackson specializes in a kind of literature, or more than one kind of literature. My section for a long time was children’s books — I actually wanted to be a teacher for a long time — and then it was poetry. That’s what kept me working there for so long, because I got to talk about books all day long. ... So, for a writer, that’s like a dream come true.

And BOMB does so much for artists. Just to have a place for artists to talk about how their work is made, that’s so important. I’ve learned a lot about writing, about how to write, through reading interviews in BOMB. And everyone’s some kind of artist at BOMB, so if you need to go away, like on a residency for a month, then everyone’s supportive. Everyone’s doing something interesting there. And it’s a really small team, so everyone’s doing something toward making the magazine exist.

It definitely helps to surround yourself with like-minded people.

Definitely. And it helps to listen to people talk about art. I think, for a long time, the literary world has been kind of myopic in its view that, with certain exceptions, we’re very focused on what’s happening in literature only. But art occurs on a continuum, where literature is never only literature. It’s a performance. For instance, Anne Carson calls chapters “tangos.” Every piece of art that a person makes is a performance of some kind, and we need to think of literature in a more open-minded way. We’re not the only ones telling stories here.

I don’t want to be just a book that’s coming out this week.

Just today, I was listening to two people in the office talking about Tania Bruguera, a Cuban performance artist who was just arrested in Cuba for staging a revolutionary public performance. And that kind of thing, even for a writer, is very important — I’m glad I’m aware of other types of art. I’m not just concerning myself with what books are coming out this week. That’s the most important part of writing, or reading, or being any kind of artist. I mean, I don’t want to be just a book that’s coming out this week. I’m here telling a story that I hope will be perennial, and will touch people in all kinds of practices and studies and disciplines.

Image: Josh Wool; TwoDollarRadio/Twitter; Charles16e/flickr