Reading Sarah Gerard’s fiction can feel like watching a sitcom in which, while you’re busy getting to know the characters, things happen that shatter their lives. By the time you get to the end of the season, they may be drinking together in the same bar, but you feel you’re not watching the same show. But even though there isn’t comedy in watching a life unravel into the unknown, there can still be a lot of humor in this genre of crisis, especially when people get too close together.
In Sarah’s second novel, True Love, Nina, an aspiring writer, strives to keep up with adult life as she drifts in search for a place to stay. Along with her parents, friends and lovers, she navigates multiple zones of intimacy as she moves from Florida to New York, from a troubled past to the uncertainty of a bright future, from a lousy relationship to the promise of an almost-perfect connection. But in the advent of Trump’s election, she still wonders, like many of us, if she still can change. Or if not, will the world give her — and us — another chance?
Like her thrilling debut Binary Star, True Love embraces the very modern sense of a life in suspension that accommodates the temporalities of trauma and precarity; Sarah’s writing is an improv lesson in finding less painful ways to fall. We talk to the author about her approach to humor, the music that inspires her writing process, and the bodily and political functions of art.
Nina is the type of contemporary heroine you get to love despite all her faults. She often acts irresponsibly and finds it hard to be honest, but you get to identify her suffering as a very timely feeling. She has plans but no direction, she has a lifestyle but never enough money to turn it into “a life.” How was your relationship with your protagonist during the writing process?
I enjoyed skewering her. I knew that Nina would not be an easy person to like, and yet I very much wanted to challenge the reader to enjoy her, and also to recognize themselves in her. In order to win their affection, and their attention for 250 pages, I knew that, among other necessities, I would need to punish Nina for her poor choices as well as justify them, however warped the justifications may be — because justification is a core feature of her personality — as is everything you cite above: her immaturity, and her proclivity for lying. This shaped the direction of the story, as consequences for her actions compounded. At the same time, I couldn’t let the reader pity her, because pity is boring. So, I had to make them laugh.
The novel’s temporality made me think of critic Lauren Berlant’s idea of “crisis ordinariness,” which reflects on this collective sensorium developing in these precarious times. According to Berlant, we don’t experience life as shaped by a traumatic loss, but as a series of random moves that we improvise to adapt to an always changing environment. Likewise there’s no central event that disrupts Nina’s life, but instead a few episodes driving her to multiple scenarios. How did you work on this sense of contemporaneity in the novel?
I think you’ve described it well. I did wonder if the book was missing some catastrophe at its center — something coming from outside — until I realized that the catastrophe was, in a sense, hanging in the air. I don’t subscribe to the dramatic triangle theory of narrative that says I need an “inciting incident” in order for my story to be defined as such.
I think Jane Alison says it well in her craft book Meander, Spiral, Explode. To paraphrase, she basically chalks the dramatic triangle up to patriarchal bullshit — like having sex with a man whose only aim is to cum, whether or not you cum, too — because the whole point of the dramatic triangle is to get to the climax. Then the story ends. I prefer a more tantric approach.
Speaking of modern forms of fiction, critics have talked about autofiction as the quintessential contemporary genre. How does your work relate to it? I’m asking you this because I’ve read some of your columns for Hazlitt and I know you share a few experiences with your characters.
Yes, I’ve written about my history with anorexia and bulimia in both fiction and nonfiction forms. As a debut author when Binary Star came out, I think I felt pressured to lend my book about anorexia credibility by bolstering it with my own personal experience, talking publicly about my struggles with eating, as if the work itself — the craft and the subject — wasn’t enough for readers to take me seriously. I’ve since learned that I can, and sometimes should, let my work speak for itself.
All fiction begins in life: there’s some impetus for beginning a story. Then I carry it through my life until it’s finished, and it gathers material along the way, as if it’s made of some sticky substance. But I do not call my fiction, in general, “autofiction,” because by definition that genre is designed to signal a direct resemblance to the author’s real life, and since publishing Binary Star, it has not been my desire to signal that relation with my fiction. Though inevitably, choices in True Love were informed by my life experiences, education, research, reading, observations, and opinions, Nina’s story bears no direct relationship to my own. However when I choose to write a personal essay, it’s because I want the reader to know that I have personally had a certain experience, such that I can bear witness to the truth of it. I’m a reporter of my own story and the ethic of speaking truth to power informs my choices.
Binary Star was partly a road trip story. In True Love there’s also an interest in transformative experiences of movement: moving between states, moving to a big city and along diverse physical and emotional landscapes. How do you work on the spatial dimension of your fiction?
In Binary Star, the road trip gives the narrative a forward momentum, even as the characters are trapped in cycles that preclude forward movement: the protagonist’s anorexia and her boyfriend’s alcoholism. Their enablement and codependency. Their journey’s course is also a circle, but the book travels along the course in a linear fashion. In True Love, the characters’ move from Florida to New York City exists to place additional pressure on the preexisting difficulties in Nina’s life, in particular in her relationship with her boyfriend, Seth, through financial precarity and a lack of privacy.
I imagine such geographical diversity must be a transformative force in your work. How has your relation to the American landscape changed since you started writing?
I no longer live in New York City. My partner Patty Cottrell and I live in Florida at the moment, where I find it much easier to write, as I can take breaks from my work and tend to my garden. Fresh air and sunlight are important for my overall wellbeing. So is cooking. I think less about the profitability of my writing or my productivity while I’m here, because I’m not constantly worried about how I’ll make rent, as I was constantly in New York City. I spend more time now dreaming about alternative ways of being in the world, which aren’t specifically Western or capitalistic.
When I started reading True Love, some of Nina’s ironic comments struck me as obscure and ultimately serious. Soon I understood that humor and tragedy relate somehow seamlessly in her tale. What’s your approach to humor as a writer and how did you build this register in the book?
A few days ago, I discovered that my great-grandfather, Milton Wright, was a writer of books. My mother says that “of course” I knew this, but I never knew. I enjoyed paging through one of his books in particular, called What’s Funny—And Why. Here’s the first line of the Kirkus review, from 1939: “Anatomy of humor, technique of the pun, the insult, sex, family life, double entendre, nonsense, topical type of jokes with illustrations of famous people, stage and radio comedians.” Sounds familiar.
Much has changed about humor since 1939, but much has not. I think most of these categories apply to the way I employ humor in True Love. Milton says that two kinds of jokes (among three, but I’ve forgotten the third kind) are jokes that confirm what we know and jokes that turn what we know on its head. A lot of jokes from True Love fall into those two categories: the laugh of recognition and the laugh of absurdity, or shock.
One joke from Milton’s book goes something like this:
Speaker 1: What’s the difference between an elephant and a flea?
Speaker 2: I give up.
Speaker 1: An elephant can have fleas, but a flea can’t have elephants.
Some jokes in True Love are like this one, too. It’s so stupid you have to laugh.
The novel starts in the middle of three simultaneous interactions between Nina and her best friend (via phone), her mother (via email), and her lover (via sext). I wonder how contemporary practices and technologies of communication influence your writing, which is so concerned with the joys and the problems of modern intimacy.
Technology provides avenues of communication for the characters in True Love, for better or worse. It often is a point of tension in a scene — the third thing in the room — or a source of distraction, or temporary pacification, or manipulation. It tracks and amplifies our changing social landscape, and provides immediate gratification, followed by the come-down of the drug. Sometimes, it’s a way for Nina to compare herself to others whose lives may seem happier than her own. In craft language, this is called contrast. Sometimes, it’s a way for her to carry on an affair. Or express a political opinion.
As a writer, I have a very fraught relationship with technology, as I think most people do in today’s world. Patty and I watched the new documentary The Social Dilemma tonight, and one of the interviewees was a cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology. He said it well: we live in simultaneous utopia and dystopia. We can touch a sensing screen in the palm of our hand and a car will appear within 30 seconds to take us anywhere we need to go. In exchange, our phone sends our fingerprint to Apple.
You mention Kurt Vile in passing, as an artist that Nina’s first partner predictably likes. I used to like him a lot back in 2016, so when I read that passage, it made me think of how the things we used to listen to barely four years ago already sound historical, as if music ages faster these days because it absorbs the aesthetics of the times more deeply. I’m really curious about True Love’s soundtrack.
I have a playlist of about 100 songs, which you can find on my website, that I compiled and listened to on repeat over the three years I was writing True Love. Each song acts as a point of entry for the text: creates a mood, or a monologue, or captures, as you said, the feeling of a time. Offers a different way of thinking about love, or character, or pain, or self-destruction. I curated a shorter list for Largehearted Boy, as well, with explanations for my choice to include certain songs.
Which artists inspire you these days?
I have two playlists that I’m listening to a lot these days. One of them I created when a friend of mine died in January. I’m writing about that person, so listening to music that we used to listen to together when we were children in the ‘90s gives me solace, and occasion to think about her, be with her in a certain way. It’s mostly techno and hip-hop, but also some alternative radio hits.
The other list is one that a friend curated to help with her own writing project. There’s overlap in our subjects, so I’ve found it helpful, as well. Waxahatchee is on it, Neko Case, the Replacements, to name a few.
Considering Nina’s expectations from her sexual and romantic partners, you can read the novel’s title as ironic. Still, I finished the book thinking that while Nina’s story is about the failure of monogamous, heterosexual, pro-family model, there’s still a space for romance and true affection. Where do you locate that space in your work?
I wrote an essay for Literary Hub that talks about this, actually. It’s called “On Falling in Love With Your Characters.” I believe in true love. I’ve found true love with Patty. I believe Nina will find True Love, too, when she’s ready to be honest with herself and others. Also, when she learns to discern which people are worth her time and forgiveness, and which aren’t.
One of my favorite parts of the novel revolves around Nina’s abortion, which is a consequence of her precarious financial situation and results in her and her partner getting a STD that leads their already palpable crisis towards a particularly violent climax. Throughout the book, and particularly in this section, you can feel Nina’s struggle with the world — her family background, the monogamous heterosexual model, the neoliberal state — as bodily, in the sense that every conflict starts and ends with her body being under threat. I’d like to know about your relation with corporality and bodily experience as a writer and artist.
This seems to be a popular subject in recent years, to an extent that kind of amazes me. It’s as if the whole world forgot that writing is an art form like dance, theater, music, and sculpture. That, like every other art form, it takes place in the material world, and involves a living creator, acting in space. Is this a Cartesian problem? I wonder if it has to do with the dominating history of Catholicism and the mortification of the flesh, or maybe the Puritans and denial.
Yes, everything comes through the body. There’s no such thing as torture or pleasure without the body. The skin is the body’s largest organ, but the brain burns more calories than any other, and the gut houses more neurons than the spinal cord — is a second brain, seated in the cavern of the body. When I’m tired or hungry, I can’t write. When someone’s hands are cuffed or when they’re physically occupied with a minimum-wage job, or child care, or manual labor, or are in physical pain from an abortion, or are being raped, they’re not writing. All political issues come through the body. Just as all art comes through the body. And all art is political.