A Self-Destructive Woman in Her 20s Looks For Love, Sex, and Bad Influences

Sarah Gerard on her novel "True Love" and the search for creative identity

In Sarah Gerard’s latest novel, True Love, Nina Wicks navigates the late Obama era in a maelstrom of narcissism and malcontentment, the formation of her creative identity informed by a dark political backdrop, a hatred for the gig economy, and a string of toxic relationships.

Nina says that “self-destruction is [her] trump card.” This is true for her both physically—she’s cut herself, had an eating disorder, been addicted to pills—and emotionally, between dating a man whose solo art show consists of trash-filled tupperware (Seth), cheating on that boyfriend with her editor (Brian), and getting involved with a filmmaker who still lives with his parents (Aaron). But these harrowing relationships give Nina a certain focus: “A partner is a conduit for conducting a certain dimension of one’s experience, a way to collage and create oneself, like a walking, breathing search engine: it’s expedient to have one, affords one’s life content and depth and authority and direction.” 

Nina’s platonic and familial relationships come with their own degrees of toxicity. Her emotionally detached mother lives with a polycule in a nudist colony (“I don’t have the space or the time to clean for you,” she says when Nina wants to visit); her best friend, Odessa, harbors her own grievances against Nina (“I didn’t say you don’t work hard. I work harder than you do”). Still, Nina tries to love the people in her life in the ways that she knows how. “I’m not a sociopath,” she says. “I’m in pain. We all are.”

Gerard’s first novel, Binary Star, was named among the Best Books of 2015 by NPR and Vanity Fair and the Best Fiction of 2015 by BuzzFeed; her 2017 essay collection, Sunshine State, was a New York Times Critics’ Best Book of the Year, an NPR Best Book of the Year, and a NYLON Best Nonfiction Book of the Year, among many other accolades.

We spoke on the phone in early June, as protests following the murder of George Floyd took place throughout the country. From our respective quarantines in New York and Florida, we discussed privilege, political intersections, self-delusion, and art.

Deirdre Coyle: True Love takes place in the years leading to Trump’s election, with references to situations like the Flint water crisis and Elliot Rodger’s shooting spree, giving the novel a sinister backdrop. How did the politics of those years affect the way you wrote Nina’s relationships?

Sarah Gerard: There are a spectrum of relationships in the novel, and not only romantic relationships, but also friendships—especially the kind that I learned a lot from in my early 20s—and Nina’s relationship with her mother. I was looking for a way to make the novel feel more expansive than just—how do I say this?—I was looking at all the different kinds of influences working upon these relationships. How is the personal political, to fall back on a cliché? I don’t want to give away the end of the novel, but the precipitating event in one of these relationships is Trump’s election. And that was true for me, too, in my relationship at the time when he was elected. I mean, it was one of the precipitating events in the end of one of the most life-altering relationships of my life, significant relationships of my life. I think a lot of people felt that way, too, felt that pressure on their relationships when he was elected, because it exposed so much of what had been subterranean before that. These different tensions in people’s relationships. All of that was brought very rapidly to the surface, and people had to confront these really uncomfortable things about each other.

Some of that, in the book, is gendered, some of that is more atmospheric frustration of Nina’s with, for instance, the Florida state government in the beginning of the novel, that has allowed the fracking that has caused this red tide—this infection of red tide—that is wrapping all the way around the state. Phosphorus mining, too. So some of that is a broader frustration of Nina’s, but some of that is a conflict that she has to confront in her life every day, like in her relationship with [her boyfriend] Seth, and his kind of backwards ideas about how she should be using her body, just to give two examples. Some of it was like, how do I make this novel feel more expansive, and some of it was like, how can I dissect what’s happening between people?

DC: I hadn’t known about the red tide. Very intense.

SG: Yeah. In the book, [Nina] compares it to a fungal infection of the ocean. She says, there’s no solution, because you can’t just Monistat the ocean. So some of it’s baked into the setting, too. In the imagery, you have a number of different modes, or intersections, political intersections happening. The kind of white, patriarchal, capitalist mindset that has given the ocean a fungal infection. It was kind of a joke, but also kind of dark humor.

DC: At different points, Nina finds herself involved with a struggling artist, a struggling screenwriter, an editor, a musician. I struggled trying to decide which of her romantic partners’ work I hated the most. Did you have any favorites or least favorites among these men’s creative endeavors?

SG: Oh, god. I have a soft spot for the script that she begins writing with Aaron [the screenwriter] because it’s so earnest, and it’s also the first time that she is working collaboratively with a partner. I was exploring this spectrum of dynamics in creative partnerships. Some of it is this erotic tension, like she feels with Seth [the artist], and some of it is this trance-like worship relationship, where he’s almost like this oracle figure at the beginning, and she is his devotee. But with Aaron it’s much more a common ground where they begin, and they’re trying to help each other and fix each other, so I feel a lot of tenderness towards that. They want to get off the ground together, and they learn a lot from each other, and they grow up a lot together, even though the dynamic becomes explosive. But in the beginning, that project feels very tender to me. 

The one that I laugh at the most might be either [her friend] Jared’s benches, or Seth’s tupperware show. Brian, the editor, I don’t know—it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek commentary on predatory editors, maybe. Because his work is not really his own;  he doesn’t really have a project of his own. He’s very parasitic.

DC: We don’t see anything he’s making, just what he’s telling Nina that she should be doing.

There are so many reasons why you might stay in a situation that’s not always happy. People can get used to a lot.

SG: Which says a lot, too, about what she might need from that relationship. She’s very hungry for approval at that stage. Also, I think every character is a line of inquiry, and Nina is very much looking for her creative voice via these different [characters]. She’s kind of a tourist in other people’s creative practices, as she finds her own voice. What was your favorite project?

DC: Oh, I had a hard time. I mean, the trash in the tupperware is just classic. Because it’s so annoying, and because you see him taking advantage of this opportunity he’s being given. He’s inconveniencing all these different people who are trying to help him. In that way, it was more annoying because it’s so self-involved and ungrateful.

SG: Yeah, remarkably. Did it remind you of anyone you know?

DC: Nobody too close to me—fortunately I guess. But it feels like something that I’ve witnessed in action. I think we’ve all been adjacent to that kind of person, in some way.

SG: It’s just a classic example of male entitlement. Especially recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. I mean, I’m glad I have a safe place to live right now, I’m glad that I can practice my art right now, grateful that I have books to read right now, and people that I get along with, that want to help me, and keep me safe, and protect me. Just how basic it is that not everybody has this laundry list of things that I have, and so. But I think some of that, too, comes from being forced to confront those things, you know? Confront my privilege. Obviously that’s not something that Seth has ever been made to do.

DC: After hurting someone, Nina often refers to herself as “caring,” “selfless,” or “not a sociopath” (my favorite). Relatable! I know this is an unfair question to ask any author, but would you consider Nina a reliable narrator?

SG: Oh, no. No. Nina is very self-deluded and, you know, I think she is really trying. She wants to be a good person. She does really care about the people in her life, and sometimes rationalizes what she’s doing because she knows she’s fucked up but doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And also because she has been hurt as well, and often is reacting to—how do I say this—repetitive trauma. Doesn’t trust people very easily, expects people to hurt her—and they do—but also really, really longs for someone to protect her, and really wants to trust someone, and really wants to think the best of people. She really likes giving people the benefit of the doubt. She thinks that if she’s generous enough, people might love her in return, and for some reason, [she] hasn’t learned yet that that’s not always going to happen. So no, she’s not a reliable narrator, because A) she’s pretty naive, B) she’s pretty good at lying to herself, and C) she feels a lot of shame and she really wants to hide from that feeling. So that entails telling herself a different narrative, and it might not always align with the truth. She also cares a lot what other people think of her, especially Seth, especially Brian. Wants to be the person that that person wants. She’s maybe not reliable, but hopefully she’s relatable.

DC: Well, I thought so. When she’s talking about having a partner, she says that “it’s expedient to have one, affords one’s life content and depth and authority and direction.” I feel like most people can relate to that on some level. I think we’ve all been there. I mean, maybe not, maybe I’m just speaking for myself.

Some of the poor choices [my protagonist] makes are in search of privacy, solitude, a sense of her individual self.

SG: No, no, no. There are so many reasons why you might stay in a situation that’s not always happy; that’s one of them. People can get used to a lot. Especially if they don’t know how much better it could be. And she’s pretty young, you know, she’s in her 20s. I put up with so much shit in my 20s because I had not learned yet that I could expect more. I hadn’t learned how to give myself a more comfortable life yet, how to disappoint people and be okay with it and move on. Let go with gratitude. We date people in our 20s that—well, we’re still finding ourselves, and they’re still finding themselves, you know? Or, in Nina’s case, we’re still finding ourselves, and they might be at a slightly later stage in their life, and more authoritative. So she’s learning. One of the things she has to learn is to let go when something’s not working, and that a meaningful relationship is much more than just a quick fix.

DC: Someone to split the rent with.

SG: Yeah, no. God, no. That’s a huge mistake. But sometimes you don’t know how to solve a problem otherwise yet. Maybe this person is solving it for you right now.

DC: In one of my favorite scenes, Nina looks at Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott painting while telling her therapist, “I want everyone to leave me the fuck alone.” Truly a mood. I found her desire for solitude in a living situation, with Aaron, where she can’t physically have solitude particularly relatable during quarantine, when a lot of us are not in our space, or we are in our space and we can’t leave our space. How do you think Nina would fare under quarantine? 

SG: Ooh. Not well. Well, is she living alone, or is she living with Aaron? (Laughs.)

DC: Good question. I mean, I’m sure if she were still living with Aaron, that would not be good.

SG: Yeah, I think it really depends. Who is she quarantining with? Let’s start there. I think if she’s quarantining with [her friend] Claudette, she’d be fine. Or even Odessa, they’d find equilibrium in some way. They’d get through it somehow.

DC: So if she’s just not with a romantic partner, she’d do better, you think?

SG: Yeah, I think it depends. I mean, the book is a contained world. And of course, Nina’s life extends beyond the book, and the book ends on a cliffhanger, kind of, so who knows what happens afterward? At this stage, she might be fine. But in the book, she’s already in some ways quarantining with Aaron, and we can see how it goes. Some of the poor choices she makes are in search of privacy, solitude, a sense of her individual self, you know? Some separateness that she’s unable to find for reasons of income, her living situation, her interpersonal relationships, et cetera. 

Actually, Patty [Yumi Cottrell, Gerard’s partner] and I were talking about this earlier, too. Who has the luxury right now of living alone, or living with people of their choice, you know? It says a lot about the way society is organized. And the stratification of class across racial lines and lines of ability, gender, sexual orientation. But in particular, right now, looking at issues of race, people are dying in higher numbers in Black communities than any other, and that’s not an accident. 

I actually think Nina might be fine during quarantine because, you know, she does have [her grandmother] Nana, and Nana might actually just fly her down. Fly her somewhere else. Maybe she could. Nina is a very privileged person in certain ways. Odessa points this out to her at one point, too. Like, ‘how do you like your fancy college degree that your Nana paid for?’ It doesn’t feel good to hear that, but it’s a very fair question. And actually, some of the reason that Nina is in that situation she’s in—in that apartment with Aaron—is because she’s too proud to ask her Nana for financial help, and [Nana has] been there all along. It’s important to recognize that. So she might be just fine during quarantine. Good question. I’m glad we dissected that.

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