Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Books

Florida stories a rich source for Sarah Gerard’s ‘Sunshine State’

Sarah Gerard has moved away from her native Pinellas County, but Florida plays a starring role in her book Sunshine State.

"I love it," Gerard says of her home state. "Itís such a rich source of stories."

The book is an unusual one, a collection of essays that range between memoir and journalism. Some are entirely personal, some are straightforward reporting, and some of the most intriguing are a mixture of both. (Read the review at bit.ly/2zmaFz1.)

Gerard, 32, grew up in Pinellas County and graduated from Gibbs High School. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teaches writing workshops at Columbia University and for Catapult, a writing community. She is also the author of the novel Binary Star.

How did you navigate between personal memoir and reported journalism for these essays?

Itís really a matter of following my own interest, finding a way to get to the heart of the story. Iím not married to one form or the other; I donít feel the forms are that categorical. After all, the membrane between memoir and journalism is pretty thin. What I do think about as the author is how much I belong in the story. I want my presence to be explicitly stated, honest and respectful.

For example, when I was writing about G.W. (Rolle, whose ministry to the homeless she writes about in "The Mayor of Williams Park"), my own involvement was not important. Iím not an expert on homelessness.

When I was writing about Amway (in "Going Diamond"), I was answering questions for myself about what achievement and success mean to me, because of my familyís involvement in Amway when I was a child.

You write about taking tours of luxury homes as a way of getting at that, posing as a potential buyer. How did you think about the line between fact and fiction there?

My parents and I did take home tours like that when I was a kid, as part of that whole fantasy. When I did it again in my 20s and 30s, it was really bizarre, like, what am I really doing there?

I was fictionalizing in part for practical reasons. I toured three houses and one golf course. For the first one it was me as a reporter, recording the interview. But I began to question how the agent would treat me if she didnít know I was a reporter. So I decided to experiment with how theyíd treat me differently if they thought I was a buyer. I got a friend to pose as my husband. I decided to combine the tours, almost like a collage.

When I wrote about Williams Park, there was nothing fictional. In "Sunshine State" (an essay about the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary), I wrote in first person. Iím in there, but itís very straightforward journalism.

One essay that combines personal and reported material very artfully is "Mother-Father-God," about your familyís intense involvement in the Unity Clearwater Church. What was it like to write that?

"Mother-Father-God" is about my family, but itís very fact based, lots of very hard research. I interviewed my parents, my childhood pastor, some of the women involved in domestic violence that my mother had worked with. I read my motherís old prayer journal and learned some very personal things about my parents that most people wouldnít really know. In the essay, they are my parents, but not my parents today. They became characters to me, like a novelistís.

They read it before it was published and made some corrections, and we took some things out that were too personal. It was a strange and difficult essay to write.

Much of the writing about Florida goes for the sensational and the stereotyped. Why do you choose to steer away from that?

Iím obviously aware of all the cliches and how easy it is for them to be ridiculed. To me these people are friends of mine, parents, lovers. Essentially this is a book of characters. Itís a way to build empathy, to tell stories with beauty and dimension and depth. Youíre not going to want to relate to characters who are ridiculed. Itís just a way of othering people.

In different ways, most of these essays address belief systems, whether theyíre organized religion or the unique way some people see the world. Is that an especially Floridian quality?

I was about halfway through my research trips to Florida, for archival material and interviews, in 2015. I realized that the unifying theme was truth, how our beliefs cross over into action.

Florida is a kind of microcosm of all the clashes over politics, religion, all the clashes in our society. I was interested in how people act on their beliefs, or against their beliefs, and how we come to hold our beliefs.

The coast of Florida is a really good example of this. On one side you have people who believe itís important to preserve it, to protect the natural world. On the other side you have the people who think itís more important to grow the economy. They all live there, but itís hard for them to see each otherís side.

Sunshine State: Essays

By Sarah Gerard

Harper Perennial, 384 pages, $15.99

Times Festival of Reading

Sarah Gerard will be a featured author at the 2017 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 1 p.m. in the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion.

Comments
Novels ‘The Floating World’ and ‘Summer Cannibals’ focus on families in crisis

Novels ‘The Floating World’ and ‘Summer Cannibals’ focus on families in crisis

Debut novels by C. Morgan Babst and Melanie Hobson differ in settings — post-Katrina New Orleans versus a mansion on a Canadian cliff — but both offer insight into complex family dynamics.
Published: 10/19/18
‘Panorama’ author Steve Kistulentz takes a deep dive into reading about Russia

‘Panorama’ author Steve Kistulentz takes a deep dive into reading about Russia

After publishing his first novel this year, the director of the St. Leo University creative writing program is researching his next book with fiction and nonfiction about post-Cold War Russia.
Published: 10/19/18
David Small’s ‘Home After Dark’ a powerful graphic novel about adolescence

David Small’s ‘Home After Dark’ a powerful graphic novel about adolescence

Although it’s set in the 1960s, the book’s story of a young teen’s struggle with bullying and homelessness is as urgent as ever.
Published: 10/15/18
Updated: 10/17/18
Jeff Klinkenberg is reading Lauren Groff, Tara Westover and Gary Shteyngart

Jeff Klinkenberg is reading Lauren Groff, Tara Westover and Gary Shteyngart

Former Times Real Florida columnist Jeff Klinkenberg is enjoying fiction and memoir by women writers and looking forward to meeting novelist Gary Shteyngart at the Times Festival of Reading.
Published: 10/12/18
Review: G. Neri’s ‘Grand Theft Horse’ a thrilling true tale of a woman on a mission

Review: G. Neri’s ‘Grand Theft Horse’ a thrilling true tale of a woman on a mission

The real-life main character of "Grand Theft Horse," a new graphic biography for middle-grade readers, gave up almost everything to rescue a racehorse she trained.
Updated one month ago
Gernhard biographer Bill DeYoung finds little new in Petty bio

Gernhard biographer Bill DeYoung finds little new in Petty bio

Bill DeYoungDeYoung is the author of Phil Gernhard, Record Man, a biography of a record producer with ties to St. Petersburg whose hits included Stay and Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. When we caught up with him recently, DeYoung explained his interest ca...
Updated one month ago
Review: Grief turns into danger in Lisa Ungerís thriller ĎUnder My Skiní

Review: Grief turns into danger in Lisa Ungerís thriller ĎUnder My Skiní

Grief is sometimes akin to madness. The loss of a loved one can knock our world off its rails for a while, until we find a new way to live. But for Poppy Lang, a young widow still struggling a year after the unsolved murder of her husband, sanity see...
Updated one month ago