Sarah Gerard Talks Sunshine State

By on Wednesday, April 26th, 2017 at 9:05 am

Sarah Gerard reads from SUNSHINE STATE, a new collection of essays

Florida often serves as the butt of jokes. Sarah Gerard’s new essay collection, Sunshine State, offers new insight into the state’s mythos, as well as examining her own life through memoir-style personal essays. Gerard, who also is the author of the novel Binary Star and teaches writing workshops at Catapult, was at Greenlight Bookstore to discuss the essays with Julie Buntin.

The collection of essays was sold as a proposal based on a vague idea Gerard has about writing it. Then over time the concept began to change is she got deeper into the manuscript. Unlike with essays for magazines, Gerard was unrestrained by word count limits and so she approached the essays as an opportunity to explore some subjects in greater detail than she otherwise would have been able to.

The essay collection she had proposed didn’t have much of a hook, Gerard admits. Some of the essays she intended to include ultimately didn’t fit as the book evolved. The book required some research too, and Gerard made an initial six week trip to Florida and then several shorter followups.

Sarah Gerard, author of SUNSHINE STATE, essays, and BINARY STAR, a novel, talks with Julie Buntin, author of the novel MARLENA

Gerard grew up in Florida, and after a near death experience in college, returned after graduating. She lives there for three years before heading to graduate school in New York City. But while she was there she an autobiographical novel about nearly dying.

Also during that period of time, Gerard started writing for an alt-weekly. She more or less called up the editor and demanded to be allowed to write for the publication. There wasn’t much of a literary community in Florida, and writing journalism was her only outlet. Since that time she hadn’t written much journalism until she began the essay collection.

There were some stylistic challenges she faced also. She didn’t want the essay collection to sound academic, nor did she want it to feel too scientific or historical. She wanted to tell a story.

“I didn’t think I’d be writing journalism,” she explains, adding that she thought what she would be writing was memoir.

An injured bird helped inform her writing. Gerard came across a wounded bird one afternoon in Central Park. She took the bird to the Wild Bird Fund, one of the only wild bird hospitals in the nation, and hoped it could be nursed back to health. The hospital named the bird after her, but she suspects it didn’t survive because each time she called to check on it, nobody seemed willing to give her an answer on the bird’s condition.

She describes the incident with the bird as a sign appearing in her life. She became fascinated with birds and started researching them.

Besides animals, economic class is persistent in the collection of essays. Gerard says it it was something that was always persistent in St. Petersburg, Florida. As it city, it is known as an ideal place to be homeless because it’s warmer than many other cities. Though she grew up middle class, she describes her family has having an acute awareness of trying to ascend. Her parent’s flirtation with Amway, the pyramid scheme, inspired another essay.

Many of her friends growing up lived in what she described as mansions. Meanwhile, other friends lived in trailers.

Despite the hyper-awareness of class, money is something that Gerard continually tries to grapple with as a concept saying that is terrible with managing money.

An important lesson is that poverty is limiting. The lie of the American dream is that hard work gives you everything you want. As she explores in her essay about Amway, this is a lie.

A lot of portrayals of Florida can flatten it as a character, Gerard says. The mythology ridicules Floridians. People are quick to laugh at mental illness, poverty, domestic violence, and addiction. But those are all issues in Florida.

“As a writer, my goal is always an empathetic response in the reader,” she says.

Sarah Gerard and Julie Buntin
Greenlight Bookstore
Thursday, April 18, 2017

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