in conversation: Sooze Lanier and Sarah Gerard

Sarah Gerard’s new book, Sunshine State, is a vibrant collection of essays that deftly weaves the personal and the historical to build a complex portrait of her home state of Florida. We recently caught the author at a reading at Chicago’s City Lit Books, where Gerard shared the knockout opening essay “BFF,” a chronicle of the dissolution of a long-time on-again off-again best friendship. When Gerard reads, she propels her lyrical prose forward with a matter of fact delivery that often feels like a staring contest—you don’t dare look away. Afterwards, author Sooze Lanier sat down with Gerard to discuss Sunshine State. The two authors shared a transcription of their conversation with us, and a condensed version of it, edited for length and clarity, is presented here.

Sarah Gerard
Sarah Gerard

I love “BFF” so much. You just seem incredibly generous.

SG: Really?

Well, I think you don’t let yourself off the hook, which I could see being very difficult.

SG: Yeah, it’s true. I think I carried a lot of guilt in that relationship. For a long time I didn’t really understand where my friend was coming from because my life was very different from hers. My parents were solidly middle class. They’re still married, unlike her mother. I’m an only child. She has a much older sister, who had already left home by the time she was born. I didn’t grow up in a house with alcoholism. She did. She also had a baby when she was really young, and I had a lot of opportunities that she didn’t. I didn’t completely understand what happened between us until after we stopped speaking. It was just a very complicated relationship; there were lots of things that went unsaid for years, that really weighed upon us.

I think it’s a perfect opening for the book, even though it’s not a quintessential Florida story. It’s about your relationship, but a lot of the crux of the story is this animosity about you leaving Florida, whereas the rest of the collection seems like a return.

SG: I think you’re right. She’s a very smart person and she could have done very well in college if she had been able to go. And now she’s getting an education of a different kind. But you know, I got to go away and major in English and change my major a couple of times. I got to leave college without debt. I think there was a lot of resentment. And actually, after I got my bachelor’s degree and moved back to Florida for a couple of years, we reconnected—but then after I left, we tried to keep in touch, and there was again a lot of resentment. I was working full-time and I was also in grad school, so keeping in touch became more difficult. I also was living with my partner at the time, so that relationship was taking up a lot of my time. I remember at one point, I was leaving one of my MFA classes at like 10:30 at night and walking to the subway. I called her after class, knowing that she had been trying to get in touch with me for a couple of days. I only had a ten-minute walk from my class to the subway, and when I got to the subway I was like, “Ok, well I’m about to go underground.” She was like, “You’re always going underground.” She was really mad, like I never had time for her anymore. I mean, she’s an artist too, so she would have loved to be able to go to grad school and study art. She didn’t have a chance to do that.

I’m curious about how, in “Going Diamond,” you gave yourself the permission to fictionalize some things.

SG: “Going Diamond” is about my parents’ time in Amway. They joined Amway when I was seven. Amway is a multi-level marketing corporation—it has many times been accused of being a pyramid scheme. The company encourages you to “dream-build” as a motivational tool, so you’ll keep selling Amway products—you have to actually go out and physically enter your dreams. For instance, if you want to live in a mansion, you have to tour a mansion. You don’t get paid for this, but it’s heavily suggested that you do it. So my parents and I toured mansions, and yachts, and we had mood boards in our house of all of our dreams. Sections of “Going Diamond” are fictionalized composite accounts of tours that I took in development communities that my parents and I used to tour

The fictionalized sections came about because I wanted to write a different essay about residential development in the Tampa Bay area, and how it has shaped the landscape. My first tour was with a real estate agent who knew that I was a writer. I got a lot of good information out of that tour, but I could tell she would have talked to me differently if she had thought I was actually in the market to buy a house. Soon after, I decided not to write that essay about residential development, but then I remembered, Oh, I’m writing this essay about Amway, and my parents and I used to tour these houses. I decided to fold tours into the Amway essay. For the next two tours, I told the real estate agents that I was actually a millionaire in the market to buy a house. It became necessary to fictionalize the tours so that I could use the first tour in the context that I wanted to use it in, as if I were touring the houses as a buyer, and also because for the second two tours, I was carrying the recorder in my purse. The quality of the recordings is poor, so I couldn’t hear all of the dialogue clearly. I wanted to be able to fill in the blanks and also intermix the dialogue here and there, though I was faithful to the layouts of the houses in the descriptions. It also worked out formally because as a reader you can disappear into the fantasies of these houses, into this fictional world.

I thought it was very well done. It was very clear thanks to the disclaimer.

SG: Yeah, there’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the essay, and then at the top of each fictional section there is the address of the house to follow. Each of the houses was bigger than the last. The houses were in golf course developments, so I ended up touring a golf course country club also, which was good comic fodder.

The “Going Diamond” essay and the essay on homelessness, “The Mayor of Williams Park,” play off of each other very nicely.

SG: I wanted the essays to talk to each other, especially because so much of what I was looking at in the book has to do with aspirational thinking and the dark underside of it. At the time that I was writing “The Mayor of Williams Park,” Florida had the third-highest number of homeless people in the country and the second-highest number of unsheltered homeless people, such as people sleeping outside rather than living in a shelter. It also had the highest number of homeless veterans. In order to write that essay, I shadowed a formerly homeless minister and activist who runs a free meal program. He’s part of a consortium of churches that provides services for people experiencing homelessness in the Tampa Bay area. I followed him for six weeks, and then I returned for two research trips, and all together shadowed him for another month after the initial six weeks. He became homeless for the first time when he was 17 because he was part of a drug deal that went bad, and the dealer’s girlfriend was shot. He was locked up for manslaughter. Now he’s 65 and has been in and out of jail countless times, and homeless on and off ever since, for the last almost 45 years. Since getting off the streets eight years ago, he’s become a very vocal advocate for better legislation to help people experiencing homelessness. He actually has worked with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. He’s also a writer.

How much have you kept in touch with the people in the book? Are you in touch with him?

SG: He and I text from time to time, and I keep in touch with others—everybody in “Records,” for instance. That essay tells the story of my senior year of high school, and all of the people who appear in that essay, save for one, read it before I filed the book manuscript. We’re all still friends. I see them pretty regularly, talk to them pretty regularly. Of course, my parents, and my grandmother, whose illness I write about, read the book before I filed the manuscript, also.

Interview by Sooze Lanier.
Photograph by Josh Wool.

Read our review of Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star and our profile on Sooze Lanier.