Sarah Gerard is the author of a novel, Binary Star (2015); two chapbooks, BFF (2015) and Things I Told My Mother (2013); and a forthcoming collection of essays, Sunshine State, centered on her childhood in Florida, the home state she shares with Points. She also writes a monthly column on artists’ notebooks, “Paper Trail” for Hazlitt. Gerard’s chapbooks garnered praise from tastemakers such as Hobart and The Rumpus, and Binary Star received glowing reviews from, among other publications, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Vanity Fair, and The Los Angeles Times, which chose the book as a finalist for its Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Largehearted Boy, NPR, and Vanity Fair put Gerard’s debut novel on their 2015 year-end lists. Her short stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in venues including BOMB Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” The Paris Review Daily, and Vice, as well as in anthologies for Joyland and The Saturday Evening Post. She teaches writing in New York City and has been a visiting writer at the University of Maine, The New School, Pratt, and other institutions.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I write about the intersection of arctic birds and religion. Can I interview you?
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
Well, the protagonist of Binary Star is anorexic and addicted to diet pills. Her boyfriend is an alcoholic and takes his psychiatric medication not exactly as prescribed. So, they may find that interesting. I write about drugs and alcohol in a rather different way in my essay collection, which I’m finishing now. I kind of toy with the boundaries of what is a drug: alcohol is a drug, ecstasy is a drug, but is religion also a drug? Is capitalism? Is success? Also, I don’t like to categorically vilify drugs and alcohol. Sometimes recreational drugs are a lot of fun, and sometimes they’re used as medication when another isn’t available.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
Writing comes out of life. It’s in my personal history. I wrote Binary Star from my own experience of anorexia and addiction. There’s a history of alcoholism in my family. But I wouldn’t say that I always write about drugs and alcohol. Sometimes I do, but most of the time when they appear in my writing, they’re just part of the story.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
When I was writing Binary Star, I thought a lot about the cycle of addiction and how it could be mapped onto periods in the evolution of a star, or the phases of a binary star. I wouldn’t say there’s a direct correlation, but those two ideas shaped the narrative. And of course, the characters themselves being addicts, their actions shaped the narrative.
I don’t really think about what’s in my writing arsenal, I just follow ideas that interest me. Sometimes drugs appear in stories in interesting or important ways. They motivate characters or hinder their progress. They’re a part of the setting, or they’re a theme, or they’re even an important plot point—say someone goes out to score and gets shot, for example. So, of course, there’s a lot that could potentially be missing from a story if the topic of drugs were somehow off-limits to me.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
In the essay I’m writing now, I’m finding them interesting in the way they bring characters together who wouldn’t otherwise have any reason to know each other. It makes for fun shifts in power dynamics from scene to scene. They’re also a social lubricant. When characters are on them, they do and say things they wouldn’t usually.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Binary Star, one of your chapbooks, or even an essay gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
I would want the title essay of my collection Sunshine State to be made into a movie. It’s a story about a bird sanctuary. Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” plays at the end.