INTERVIEW: Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star
Sarah Gerard’s new novel Binary Star is an intense story about a young astronomy student struggling with anorexia and her relationship with a long-distance, alcoholic boyfriend. Together, the destructive couple takes a road trip around the United States and experiments with veganarchism. As she starves and purges, he consumes. The prose reflects the characters’ behavior. Sparse and lean, Gerard’s writing hurtles forward with a momentum that seems bent on burning up, much like the stars her protagonist studies. It’s a novel that takes risks, both in style and subject matter. Women are told that writing about eating disorders is cliché, or that if they write about their bodies or their own narcissism they won’t be taken seriously. Sarah Gerard refuses to let those experiences be devalued and instead puts them at the center of a serious literary work.
Gerard previously published a chapbook, Things I Told My Mother, as well as numerous essays and short stories, but Binary Star is her first novel. I spoke with her at Housing Works Bookstore Café.
Kristen Felicetti: Binary Star started as a memoir, and then you decided to make it a novel. Why a novel?
Sarah Gerard: If I had written it as a memoir, I would have had to be very careful. Because both of the characters are very sick people, I would have had to be very careful about how I treated them and who might feel exposed by this story. I didn’t want to have to worry about that. I wanted instead to put the story entirely inside the protagonist’s point of view and allow her to say whatever she wanted about the things she was struggling with. In that regard, it’s completely fictional, because everything is being filtered through the very skewed point of view of this protagonist. And it’s clear that sometimes the way she perceives things is not totally factual, or is not objectively accurate.
I think people have done really creative things with memoir — Lidia Yuknavitch is a very poetic memoirist, Maggie Nelson has done a lot with the essay form and memoir, and of course, Kate Zambreno. But I am a fiction writer and I wanted to give myself complete liberty.
KF: In Things I Told My Mother, you said that your best writing begins from a place that frightens you. I think that’s probably a pretty common place for many writers and artists. From the start, what frightened you about writing Binary Star?
SG: There have been lots of books about women with eating disorders and I wanted to challenge myself to write about it in a new way. I wanted it to not just be a sappy story about a girl who thinks she’s ugly, because it’s so much more than that. I kind of wanted to explode that form and speak to my own history with this, and give myself credit for having suffered in a way that is genuine and vital. I also wanted to remove blame from the victim — that being the protagonist, or being myself — and sort of exteriorize it and look at what might have contributed to the sickness in the first place, what sort of cultural triggers there might have been, and to see how those play out in her immediate surroundings.
KF: The style of the book is really distinctive and different from the style of your other writing. Was it immediately a conscious choice to write it that way or was that just how the story demanded to be written?
SG: I just kept hearing the opening lines repeating in my head, and they had a certain velocity that I thought was really exciting and attractive. I’m not even sure what it means to be traditional anymore, because everybody writes in their own voice and in a style that is appropriate for that piece of writing. This was the character’s voice and I wanted to give her a voice that was her own. I think I was sort of tired of trying to write in a way that would be widely acceptable. Like ‘this is how you’re supposed to write’. And ‘where would you shelve this in a bookstore?’ — that was not even a concern I wanted to acknowledge. I knew that the feeling when I began to write Binary Star was one that could carry me through an entire book. That’s what mattered to me.
KF: Did you think about the voice a lot? Did you read aloud to yourself? Did you move around while you wrote it?
SG: I always read aloud to myself, especially when I’m editing. When I was writing the book, I found myself physically exhausted by the end of day. It’s a physically tense book; I would find that my body was actually tense while I was writing. I didn’t get up and move around very much, but I think you can feel it. I think you can feel the urge to move when you’re reading it. That’s what I wanted: the feeling of pacing.
KF: There’s an ambiguity about who is saying what in the book. But did you have, with each line, an idea of who is speaking or who is being addressed?
SG: Sometimes, but sometimes not. In the prologue, there’s one point where he or she says, “You don’t even know me.” And the very next line is, “You don’t even know me.” It sounds like an argument, but I’m not really sure who says it first. And it doesn’t really matter. I think in a lot of ways they’re the same person, but they’re also opposites of each other. They could also both be her — the protagonist.
KF: You had a successful Kickstarter campaign to support your book tour. It’s nice how the tour will echo the book itself. Part of Binary Star involves a couple driving around the country, and your tour will be you and your husband traveling around the country. Is there something about traveling/moving that inspires you or intrigues you? Is there something that interests you about making similar movements as your book?
SG: I’ve done this drive before. Maybe not exactly, like I haven’t stopped in each of the places we’re stopping; for example, I’ve never been to Missoula, Montana before. The road trip in the book is roughly one that I took with a boyfriend in college, so I’ve been to a lot of these places and I’m pretty excited to see them again. It’s been many years since I was in Portland and I really love Portland. I haven’t driven down the California coast in a long time, so I’m excited to do that. I’d like to stop in Big Sur. I haven’t been to Ojai since I was 15. In that way, it’s pretty exciting to see how places have changed, or how my memory serves me, because memory is so imperfect.
But of course travel is really important to all writers. It’s pretty boring just to stay in New York all the time. I was actually telling my father today that I’m excited not to see concrete everywhere I look anymore. After awhile New York looks the same, everywhere you go looks the same, and that’s not very inspiring. I’ll also be journaling and blogging the whole time. My husband’s a filmmaker, so he’ll be shooting video. Gathering a lot of raw material is pretty important, even if we’re not sure what we’ll do with it yet. We’ll do something. We always do.
KF: You’ve been conducting on-camera interviews with people who have struggled with food and will be doing more interviews around the country when you tour. Can you talk more about this project? What is the goal of these interviews?
SG: I’m writing an essay about the process of conducting the interviews and about the interviews, themselves. I’m also doing a lot of research about eating disorders in the animal kingdom and trying to find the similarities. Again, to remove individual blame from people struggling with eating disorders. There’s a lot of ridicule in our culture of people with eating disorders. Not just eating disorders, but mental health in general, I think, is probably the last frontier of empathy in our culture. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a health care worker, but I am somebody who has been through this before and I’m also a writer. I think with that I can probably do something useful.
I think it will be impossible to do the interviews in every city, but I would like to talk to at least a few people while we’re traveling.
KF: In the acknowledgements, your book ends with the note, “And to all who have struggled and continue to struggle with food: keep fighting. There is a world for you.” And in your Kickstarter video, you talk about wanting to help others who’ve struggled with anorexia. Binary Star is a novel with literary ambitions, but I feel that’s not the only goal. It seems you also want to connect to other people who’ve had the same struggles, or show them that that experience is not one to be devalued. Do you feel that artists have any kind of social responsibility? Is that something that’s important to you? Or do you consciously try to address that in your work?
SG: I think people always expect artists to have a larger understanding of the issues they write about. People have looked to writers and artists forever and asked them to be cultural commentators or political commentators, which can be very scary because I can only speak to my own perspective, and I’m figuring this out along with everybody else. I’m not even sure I’m the best person to talk about it, whatever it is, but I’m someone who can and does. I think if nothing else, being outspoken about something like eating disorders can be significant all by itself. I don’t have a solution necessarily, but I do think that having a conversation about it is probably the first step. Sharing an experience is probably the first step. And I like to think I’ve learned something since I began to recover from my anorexia about what it takes to be healthy again.
My eating disorder is no longer the most important thing in my life. I’ve come to a place where I care about being alive for at least one more day and also being a positive force in the world. An eating disorder, or any kind of addiction, is an incredibly selfish disease and one that affects a whole community of people. It’s never something that someone suffers with alone. My addiction affected my parents. It cost them thousands and thousands of dollars to put me through rehab and to fly to Buffalo to save me after I injured myself horribly jumping from a moving freight train. It affected my boyfriend at the time, who was struggling with his own addiction. It hurt all of the friends I alienated. The people I knew in rehab and the people I knew afterward, it affected them, too. Countless, countless people. The students who were in my class when I was student teaching, who I’m sure knew that I was going through something awful. My mentor at the high school where I was teaching, who found me in the supply closet crying into a tissue, who had invested so many hours in my training and was relying on me daily. I then had to abandon my post to go recover in a different state. I dropped out of school. I was just not responsible for anyone or anything. I realize that now. Not that I regret anything, because I’ve learned so much from that experience, but I sincerely wish I hadn’t hurt so many people with my disease. I think only in that way is it an individual responsibility. It’s not my fault that I was anorexic, but it was my responsibility to do something about it.
KF: Along those lines, in another interview you talked about how you want this tour to partially be a conversation about problems in our culture. What are some subjects you hope to talk about when you meet with readers? I know it’s a vast topic, but what are some of the ideas you’ve been forming about how we talk about women’s bodies, about food, about Americans’ values, and Americans’ approach to food?
SG: I think the way that we talk about food is pretty unhealthy. I don’t even know where to begin. Just walk around a grocery store and see how things are marketed. Start there. We have all kinds of hidden ingredients in our food. Things that are addictive and that these companies know full well are poisonous. Companies just lie and lie about what they’re selling to people and what it should mean to them emotionally, and how it should be integrated into our lives. I can’t believe that Lunchables even exist, with the way that they’re designed, down to their ingredients and the shapes of the meat slices, and the arrangement of the different elements. They’re marketed to families, particularly low-income families, and made of complete crap — white flour, salt and sugar, that’s it. And they’re marketed to people who systemically don’t have the time or money to make healthier choices for their children, and who, in that way, are fully taken advantage of. This is how processed food perpetuates socioeconomic and racial inequality in our country. And that’s just the beginning, because as children grow up, they learn to associate these foods with happy memories — in the lunchroom with their friends, for example — on top of which, these foods are designed to produce chemically pleasurable feelings, when there is really nothing nutritious about them. In fact, they’re terribly unhealthy, and have been linked to rising rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
KF: What about women’s bodies? Women, or maybe just everyone, are affected by certain things, like dieting or image, and sometimes that’s a conflict, especially if you perceive yourself as a smart woman or a feminist. Have you struggled with that thought process?
SG: Like, “How should I look today?” What do you mean?
KF: Like: I don’t like that this kind of stuff even concerns me, or that I spend time thinking about it. I want to be an artist. I want to be an intellectual.
SG: No, I hate it, I hate it. I don’t think about that stuff very much anymore, on purpose.
KF: Of course. Or even if it’s not about you, for somebody else, to make it more removed.
SG: I find that the way I look at other women is sometimes insidiously judgmental, but I think I’ve practiced excommunicating those ideas. Because what is beauty, anyway? I’ve decided not to treat myself that way. To speak for myself, I don’t have a mirror in my house. I don’t have a scale in my house. I don’t shave my legs very often. I don’t shave my armpits, it’s been years since I’ve shaved my armpits. I don’t wear make-up. I know that’s a pretty privileged position, because I’m white and petite, and have some degree of what could be considered attractiveness, so I can get away with that and not think of it very much. But I consider it, in my own life, considering my own history, a rather rebellious lifestyle. This is not to say that women who choose to shave their armpits, or who care about fashion — I actually think fashion is very interesting — or who enjoy wearing makeup shouldn’t do that. It has everything to do with what makes women feel confident as individuals, but by their own personal standards. That is, without male intervention. With that said, I do think we need to totally revolutionize the way we talk about women’s bodies. There are certain magazines that I propose we boycott for exactly that reason and plenty of T.V. shows that I wish weren’t on the air because they really do violence. We can do violence with our ideas, and with our words, and with our images, and we do, every day. I would like to encourage women everywhere to shut their eyes to those things and think about what they would like to do with their lives. And what kind of force they’d like to be in the world. Because we have the power to do that, if we can focus our thinking, collectively.
KF: You seem like a pretty well-read person from other interviews, and you used to be a bookseller at McNally Jackson. What books were an inspirational point for Binary Star?
SG: Well, the epigraph to Binary Star is Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life. I think when people think of the Situationists, they always go to Guy Debord, but they should really be going to Raoul Vaneigem, because his work is a call to action, and especially a call to art making, and included in that is love making. I prefer him. I think a lot of his ideas found their way into Binary Star, intentionally or not.
I brought Wim Wenders’s book Once along with me, but there’s another book of photographs by Tarkovsky, called Instant Light, that I came across around the same time as Once. Those were pretty inspirational, too. I like to think of the road trip in Binary Star in a sort of photographic way, like snapshots that they took on the road. Tarkovsky’s Polaroids are very intimate, some are intimate portraits of his family. There’s a sort of blurriness and a dual tonality, of greens and purples.
Clarice Lispector is always an inspiration to me. I was reading The Hour of the Star when I wrote Binary Star, but actually my favorite book of hers is The Passion According to G.H. That has been much more influential to my writing than The Hour of the Star.
KF: Do you have set reading habits? Or a way that you approach reading? And a second part to the question — what are you reading now and what do you plan to bring on tour?
SG: Oh! I haven’t decided what I’m bringing on tour yet. I just finished Luke B. Goebel’s book Fourteen Stories, None Of Them Are Yours. And just now, I picked up a copy of Ethan Frome that I found sitting on the table. I included it on a list of my ten favorite novels under 150 pages recently, but it’s been a few years since I’ve read it. So I’m reading it again. Next, it’s Men Explain Things to Me. I’m making it a point to read essay collections by women this year.
My reading habits are pretty rigid. I read for about an hour and a half in the morning, or maybe two hours, before I go to work. I get up around 7 and then I read. Of course I read every time I’m on the train, or waiting somewhere. I don’t have a very long commute anymore, but I used to read for an hour on the train when I was going to work at McNally Jackson.
The things I’m reading usually depend on what I’m studying at the time, for whatever thing it is that I’m writing. So I read a lot of books about animals this past year. Before I leave for the tour, I’d like to give myself a little more freedom to read literary fiction, because I was reading non-fiction for a long time and I need to just relax. I always have a stack of things to get around to: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is next in my stack. I just bought Danielle Dutton’s novel S P R A W L. I encouraged my dad to buy Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper earlier today. I reviewed it for the LA Review of Books along with Elisabeth Sheffield’s book Helen Keller Really Lived, because they’re very similar in the way that they talk about women’s bodies and motherhood narratives and marriage. They’re both pretty radical novels. I read a lot of women writers, not intentionally, but it’s a point of pride, I think. I’ll read four women in a row, and then realize that I’ve read four in a row, and think, Gosh, should I read a man next? And, Nah, it’s okay.