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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. "It's 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?

It's really a matter of following my own interest, finding a way to get to the heart of the story. I'm not married to one form or the other; I don't 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. I'm 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 family's 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 didn't know I was a reporter. So I decided to experiment with how they'd 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. I'm in there, but it's very straightforward journalism.

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

"Mother-Father-God" is about my family, but it's 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 mother's old prayer journal and learned some very personal things about my parents that most people wouldn't really know. In the essay, they are my parents, but not my parents today. They became characters to me, like a novelist's.

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?

I'm 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. It's a way to build empathy, to tell stories with beauty and dimension and depth. You're not going to want to relate to characters who are ridiculed. It's just a way of othering people.

In different ways, most of these essays address belief systems, whether they're 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 it's important to preserve it, to protect the natural world. On the other side you have the people who think it's more important to grow the economy. They all live there, but it's hard for them to see each other's 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.

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