Little City Five: Sarah Gerard

1. The meaning of "home" in a general sense is important in these essays — what drew you to that topic?

I was interested in exploring the various ways that growing up in Florida has shaped the person I've become, and through writing about my home state, and my family home, became interested in attempting to define what it means to have a home in the first place (or not).

2. Florida is a big state a lot of people are from, but you don't often see it given this type of literary treatment — why do you think that is?

I think we've seen a lot more writing coming out of Florida, and about Florida, in recent years. But historically I think Florida has been a bit pigeonholed. Depictions like the Florida Man Twitter account, and Florida's less-than-likable governors, may have given people the impression that the state isn't worthy of serious attention. But I was interested in getting behind the Florida Man stereotype and asking what we're actually laughing at in a story about, for instance, a man tattooing penises on his girlfriend's face when she's passed out drunk. It might be a funny story, but is it also a story about addiction, domestic violence, mental health, poverty? I also wanted to showcase Florida's natural beauty: its wildlife, its sunsets, its history, its humanity.

3. What was the biggest challenge in getting over the Florida stereotype from a writing perspective? How did you make use of these stereotypes in your book?

It's really all about character. The thing about stereotypes is that they're one-dimensional—they don't reveal anything about the people they're used to describe. They actually prevent us from understanding people deeply. Dimensional characters draw readers in and make them want to empathize, and spend more time with a subject than usual, and think more deeply about it. Good characters also have range: they can be funny or pithy or scary, when they need to be—even better if they're more than one way at a time. Writing good characters is a matter of facing your own, perhaps unconscious, judgments, and truly seeing things from another person's perspective. Once you've done that, you'll see how flawed the stereotypes are.

4. You talked about nonfiction having a code of conduct but any story we tell is inherently from our perspective. You often use people you know personally in your essays — how do you manage their reactions? Does this ever come into the writing? 

It comes into the writing in the sense that I'm aware of being accountable for what I say, and I think that's a good thing, because it keeps me honest and fair. I manage people's reactions to my work by, if I value my relationship with them, allowing them to read my work before I publish it. Most of the time, people are on board with their portrayal. Once or twice, I've had to have conversations with people before revising—but I'm always grateful for those conversations, because the last thing I want to do is destroy a relationship that can be preserved. This is to say that there are times when writers have to make difficult choices about preserving a relationship or being true to themselves, or true to their subject. For instance, if you're writing about family sexual abuse. In those cases, it's ultimately up to the writer whether or not she sends it to her family members first before publishing it. 

5. You wrote a novel, Binary Star, first and this is your second book. What draws you to fiction? To non-fiction? Do you think these genre distinctions are still important?

I think there's a very porous relationship between fiction and nonfiction. It's really a matter of degree. Also, a code of honor regarding sticking to the facts. If you tell a reader that a piece of writing is a work of nonfiction and then it later comes to light that you made up a scene, you've broken that reader's trust. My novel was autobiographical but whole scenes or parts of scenes were fictionalized, and a lot was left out, or patched together. So, I called it fiction.