A Conversation with Sarah Gerard

I read an excerpt from Binary Star in a class I am taking with Kate Zambreno this semester—then I promptly bought my own copy. I read it quickly because the book almost insists that you do so, but also because it is just that good. As someone who has had my own struggle with anorexia and as a writer eternally curious about the how and why, I decided to ask Sarah Gerard if she would be willing to talk. We spoke on the phone while she was stopped in Montana for her book tour—about anorexia, the lie in literature, and the challenge of writing the mind and body.

– Adrianna Robertson, Poetry Staff

Adrianna Robertson: Can you talk a little about why you felt it was so important to write about anorexia/the female body?

Sarah Gerard: It’s not so much that it was important to write about anorexia. I came at it sideways. I started writing about this teenager in California who was using photography, particularly selfies, in order to understand herself. I have an interest in photography and a history with anorexia, so I started thinking about the two things together somewhat accidentally.  I became especially interested in the way that photography becomes important to an anorexic. When I was anorexic, photographs were the only place where I felt attractive because I could position myself in a way that made me look the most thin. These two ideas became one essay but I couldn’t find a home for it, so I took it to Susan Shapiro, an independent editor who eventually became a mentor to me. She said that, actually, it was two essays: the one about the teenage photographer, and the one about my anorexia. I broke them apart, and then I published them both separately. I published the photographer one in New York Magazine’s “The Cut”, and the other one, about anorexia in the New York Times. So, I had this whole essay about my own anorexia that I never intended to write but that people really identified with. Then, someone asked me if I was writing a memoir. But instead of writing a memoir, I ended up writing this novel. It turned out this was the thing I had wanted to write for a long time. I think I’d thought it was cliché because there are so many novels about anorexia in the world—but this is mine, and, this is the most painful story I could have told at the time—which is also why I was able to do it well.

AR: I think really good writing like this comes out of being able to write into that difficult thing—where there is risk.

SG: Yes, I think you have to write where the pain is.

AR: What was it like to get the book published? Did you run into any road blocks considering the subject matter?

SG: Actually not really. The major roadblocks all had to do with style and length. Some agents said they loved the book but didn’t know how to sell it because it’s a quick read and not an easy one—and, also because it is not a happy ending—or at least not a happy one on the page. We assume that it’s not going to be easy for this character. And it seems especially with stories of addiction and anorexia that the reader wants to know that this character is going to be okay. There is this lie in literature that says that we read stories like these because we want to know that the narrator survives this ordeal but I don’t know that this is always the case—and if this is the case then we have to wonder for how long. Because 1 in 5 people with anorexia die from the illness. So, I guess it’s not that people take issue with the subject matter, but it’s really not a pleasurable read.

AR: I appreciate that you mention that statistic because I think people forget how severe the illness is. People often shrug it off as a silly, teenage-girl phase, rather than a legitimate mental illness. You mentioned that this started out as a memoir, but you changed your mind. Why?

SG: My aversion to telling this as memoir is that I told the most exciting parts of the real story in the New York Times essay. My recovery from anorexia was overshadowed by the accident that happened four months after I got out of recovery; the anorexia story itself is not really that interesting. I struggled with it for a long time in a way that was not unusual. So, I decided to fictionalize it so that I could end the story of the anorexia in the way that I thought did justice to the struggle—in a way that felt right.

AR: This has me thinking again about what you said about the “lie in literature” and how it would have been a lot tougher to have an unhappy ending in a memoir because readers would be upset.

SG: Exactly. And, not only would it not be a happy ending but people would feel like the narrator is not qualified to tell the story yet—like the author does not have the hindsight at this point.

AR: I’ve read that as part of this book tour you are doing interviews with people struggling with food in preparation for another project.  I’m interested in this. Can you talk a bit more about the project?

SG: Yes, I started out with a book in mind, but I realized that a book about anorexia is way too big of a project for me at this point in my career—with finances being an issue. I would need to do a lot of research, and I don’t have the time or money to do that much research yet—I’ll need a few more years. Instead, I am using some of the interviews I have done, and more that I’m doing now, in an essay that will appear in a collection that I just sold. Hopefully, I will return to the original idea later, but for now it will be an essay rather than a longform scholarly work about eating disorders in our culture right now.

AR: I admire that you are giving this issue attention in writing. In conjunction with this, you mentioned the importance of removing the blame for people struggling with eating disorders—and not just eating disorders—but mental health. Was this something you thought about while writing Binary Star as well?

SG: I wasn’t really thinking about making a political statement but I did set out to write a book that was non-judgmental and non-pitying.

AR: And I think you managed this. This isn’t a “woe is me” kind of tale. It is ultimately difficult and sad but it captures a state of mind—the helplessness of the mind in illness and spiraling toward self destruction. Let’s switch gears here a bit and get into a few craft questions. The metaphor of stars and space creates beautiful language within the book; however when we discussed your book in class, I suggested that it was also a way to give the reader a break from the intensity of the “real” subjects—addiction, anorexia, self destruction. Was this indeed part of your thinking?

SG: Yes, it does do what you mentioned—but it also brings in a broader perspective, literally the universe which makes the disease seem somewhat insignificant. Plus, space is objectively beautiful and contains all of power the narrator wishes she has.

AR: This idea of her wanting power and control is a nice transition into my next question, which has to do with the way time is presented.  The narrator describes herself as “eating time” but I also felt it captures another important piece of the experience being that time ceases to matter as she is consumed with the illness. How did you think of time as you were writing?

SG: It is simultaneously a ticking clock as in, how much time does she have left? Or does her life even matter? It’s also a selfish choice on my part, simply because I think time is interesting. It’s the secret theme of every story.

AR: So true, and the choices a writer makes concerning time completely change the way a reader experiences the book. Let’s continue on this path of choices a writer makes.  In our class, we also discussed the way a fragmented text works—because it takes something special to keep the reader invested and along for the ride. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways you made this magic happen here; for example, your use of repetition and the way the novel is always circling back around to phrases and words. In particular, I am thinking of the way that the first section and the last literally have the reader ending in the same place. “I am reeling. I shine”.

SG: I attended a panel about short stories at AWP that included Kelly Link. There was a question about plot and a few of the other writers said that they thought plot was the most important thing to consider when writing a short story. But Kelly Link said that she doesn’t care that much about plot—for her it’s about pattern making—those moments where you see the pattern that shapes your habits or narrative thought. Personally, I don’t outline more than a couple of paragraphs or scenes in advance of what I write, but while I’m writing, the experience becomes magical—there are these moments of witnessing the pattern of narrative thought, and patterns of images. In terms of what keeps someone reading, I think it has to do with the fact that I’m developing my own interests throughout the book and I have faith that they will be just as interesting to someone else.

AR: I love that idea of pattern making as opposed to plot. It seems to accurately describe what I think fragmented texts in particular manage to do—make patterns—replicate consciousness because our minds work in patterns. For someone with an illness like anorexia these patterns become obsessive. The title gets at this as well. The word ‘binary’ means having to do with numbers—the narrator is constantly counting and quantifying— but also meaning “involving two things”. I saw the two things as not just John and the narrator but also the mind and the body. What were you hoping to accomplish in terms of this mind/body relationship? And along these lines, how did you develop the voice of this character who on one hand seems so keenly aware of mind and body, but is also detached and somehow disembodied?

SG: Well, I saw another panel at AWP called “Writing Through the Body” with Claudia Rankine, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson. Eula Biss spoke about challenging the mind/body dichotomy—that a writer has to inhabit the body of her subject in order to do the work of the mind, and also that a writer is always writing through the body. Especially on a work like On Immunity, that deals so directly with the relationship of mind and body, and the porousness of both. In Binary Star, it is also about the impossibility of maintaining that binary relationship—the operations of the mind at war with but affecting the body. And in terms of voice, it wasn’t so much developing the voice as it was just letting the voice speak. I didn’t question it or censor it.  When I sat down to write this character, this is simply the voice that emerged.

AR: I wish I had been at that talk! Those are some strong female writers giving voice to a topic that deserves attention. The trickiness of anorexia, as you indicate here, is that the mind is at war with the body and figuring out how to restore peace in that relationship is nuanced. The mind is so subjective, complicated. At the end of your New York Times piece you said that part of recovering from anorexia was realizing that starving was no longer the goal…which brought you to writing. Would you say writing—the desire to be a writer—was an essential piece of your recovery?

SG: Yes, but in conjunction with or not until I had the realization that my suffering wasn’t the only suffering. After getting a job teaching in a school with kids who lived in unimaginable circumstances—sleeping at different relative’s homes each night because their parents were not around, not having the necessary school supplies and amenities, such as eyeglasses. I had to realize the selfishness of “holding onto” the disease and the consequences it wrought on the lives of the ones I loved. Like any addiction, I had to decide to recover from it and then once I did that, then the writing could make a difference.

AR: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

SG: Practice. Shed all your hubris. Read all the time. Be selfish with your time. Show your work to other people and shut up when they talk about it. Remember that you are not the best person writing today and be comfortable with that. As in: I realize that I just suck sometimes and that the writing is crap. This is the nature of writing…and it’s better than the alternative—which is not writing at all.

AR: What are you reading right now?

SG: I just finished On Immunity by Eula Biss and started Jillian by Halle Butler. My husband and I read to one another when we are on a long car rides. At the top of “David and Sarah’s Favorites” for road trips has been Debt by David Graeber.

AR: Thank you so much, Sarah. It was a pleasure talking with you and good luck with the rest of the tour.