I read most of Sarah Gerard’s debut novel Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio, 2015) in three days and then right before I got to the end I put it down for a couple of months. There was a point at which I related too much – I’ve been recovered from an eating disorder for around five years. There are sections of Binary Star that feel plucked from my journals. There is something dense and true about envy when it comes to having suffered from an eating disorder and reading or speaking with someone who has suffered, also. There’s a sisterhood, an unspoken awareness, and then also a strange competiveness that rises up in me. When I picked Binary Star up for a second time, I started at the beginning and finished in two days.
But this review isn’t about Binary Star. After Binary Star I searched out anything I could find by or about Gerard. I remember reading an article she wrote for The New York Times about jumping from a train. I remember imagining what it must have been like for her to spend a month alone in a friend’s trailer in Florida working on what would become Binary Star. I remember wondering if the fervent obsessiveness I had regarding Sarah and her writing was similar to the obsessiveness I assumed she felt in sharing parts of her life through her writing. It was because of my obsessiveness that I learned of her new chapbook, BFF (Guillotine, 2015). A friend of mine, equally obsessed with Gerard and her writing, bought it first and let me borrow it. I sat in my car after work the day I got it and read it in one sitting.
The plot of BFF focuses not on the ‘how’ of a relationship’s end (a relationship that is, in this case, a friendship between two young women), but on the ‘why’ of everything else; the way that Gerard compared herself to the friend (“Are we mirrors even now?”) and reflected on the moments that made their relationship tumultuous. It reads the way memory works: not linearly, but in moments that web outwards into others. What I love about BFF is that it reads like a dead letter to a lost person, one that would never get sent (but is cathartically published and out into the world). The narrative extends beyond itself and exposes the nature of young and volatile friendships; the way in which they often begin from a sort of convenience, the ways in which we become softly intimate with each other, the ways we love deeply without trust; vulnerability and wariness often existing simultaneously.
Sarah Gerard was kind enough to answer a few questions I had surrounding her new chapbook, female friendship and Internet stalking.
You've discussed the time you went to live in a trailer for a month to finish Binary Star. What was the process like for BFF?
I wrote it in my free time over a couple of weeks and spent a lot of time revising each section before moving on to the next. I didn’t lock myself away or need to do any research, which wasn’t the case when I was writing Binary Star—I needed to do a lot of research. I always spend a lot of time alone when I’m writing, but because I live with my husband, that alone time was pretty loosely defined while I was writing this piece.
I understand what you mean. I just got married and I have to struggle to protect my writing sometimes.
Our apartment is really small so I don’t have a home office. My desk is shoved into a hallway that connects our kitchen to our bathroom. When he has to use the bathroom, he has to walk through my writing space. But we make it work.
How is the process going for your upcoming book of essays, Sunshine State (Harper Perennial, Forthcoming)?
BFF is part of Sunshine State. I’m down in Florida doing research right now, working on five or six essays simultaneously. Some of the pieces require a more reportorial approach and some of them are more personal, essays like BFF. I’m also revising a few at the moment, and beginning to put them in order.
Your last book was fiction. Could you explain a little about your decision to write it BFF as non-fiction? How has this experience been different for you?
I don’t see them as being that different. I mean, it’s really a matter of degree. A lot of Binary Star is autobiographical. For the parts that are fictionalized, they are fictionalized simply because the narrative is much longer. So in order to fit things together into some kind chronology, I had to link factual events with pieces of fiction, and I intermixed people and places and did my best to protect the innocent. Some would say I didn’t do that well enough. With BFF, I knew it would be shorter, and I didn’t have the desire to write a full-length book about it, so I didn’t need to fictionalize it. I’m also frequently a writer of essays, and have written a lot about my own life. This essay is written as a direct address to its subject. I didn’t want to write this as a narrative; I wanted it to read as an epistle, to have that particular sense of intimacy.
Sometimes when I write about my past it puts me in a completely different headspace. How did you feel while you were writing this piece? And then after, when it was published? Are you nervous about the friend you spoke of reading it, or hoping one day that she does see it?
Well I went into it feeling a lot of anger, but my goal was not to place all the blame on this person, and instead to come to a place where I could be accountable for my own role in the friendship. So sometimes, I would have to sort of… I spent a lot of time sitting and thinking about it, feeling pretty introspective for many days. And then, you know, it’s a very emotional piece. There were tears. When I’m writing about the past, I’m aiming to come to a place where I can feel or understand something that I’ve previously never been able to resolve. Or feel something other than anger, because anger is never just anger.
What was the need or desire behind publishing this essay? In other words, what drove you to share this story?
I pretty much think that, short of slandering a person or being cruel, if you have a story to tell, then it’s a story you’re allowed to tell and should. I was not looking to slander my friend. I’m not the kind of person who writes only for myself; I also write for an audience. So, I hoped to share a common experience with my readers. Why do you write and publish anything personal?
That’s kind of a question I am always asking myself too. There’s just a drive.
Humans are a storytelling animal.
Talk to me about internet "stalking." I admittedly Googled you a lot—after Binary Star was published and before I heard about BFF. Do you think your friend did the same with you the way you discuss in the essay? Do you wonder about it?
I guess sometimes I wonder. She has a right to do that, and the internet encourages it. There’s no animosity from my part anymore, so I would not be upset if she did—which is not to say that I want her to. It’s not like there’s anything I’m hoping she would see, like, “I bet this will piss her off.” That’s not healthy or kind. But I like to think that we still have love for each other. That’s my reason for “checking up on” her, as I say in the essay.
In BFF, you ask of the friend: "Were we unique?" It really struck me because I have had deep, sister-like friendships with women who, now, are no longer in my life. Those times were painful and I still look back on the "before time" with them with nostalgia, despite knowing I can't be a healthy person and have them in my life anymore. Why do you think friendships like that end up taking place? Why do we love so hard and yet trust so little? Better yet, why do you think we lie to each other/compare ourselves/hurt each other?
I think with us, it had a lot to do with the fact we went through puberty together. We met when we were 10. Puberty was just beginning and then we were friends until our mid-to-late 20s. And during that time, my friend had two children. We had a very physical relationship with each other, from beginning to end. We also came from very different socioeconomic situations. We’re both very emotional people; we came from very different situations, but we felt strongly, and learned to express ourselves in opposing ways. Growing up, there was a lot of pain and disappointment on both sides and we did our best to understand each other, and probably failed to.
How have you felt about the reception of BFF so far?
I’ve felt very good about it, thank you! Actually, my favorite development so far has been the short film Lily Baldwin made in response to the essay. It’s a brilliant film, and Lily is a brilliant filmmaker. Everyone should check out her work.