I’ve waited hungrily for the arrival of Sarah Gerard’s newest novel, True Love (Harper), since I interviewed her about her first novel, Binary Star, five years ago. True Love is a scouring tale of how a person moves through toxic relationships while maintaining a sense of agency, subsisting with awareness in a noxious world. The first time I interviewed Sarah, she was living in New York City and hadn’t yet begun writing True Love. A year later, my partner and I left the city we lived in. We moved to a smaller, more rural (yet liberal) town for a few reasons. We were cash-strapped and needed to find a more affordable place to live, and we were thinking of starting a family, which felt impossible to do in a city where our rent was the same amount as the national federal poverty guidelines.
Since then, so much has changed—the toxicity of our world has become more apparent than ever, and many people are no longer standing idly by. True Love feels pertinent to this moment because it investigates how a person is affected by their environment, and whether they can jump into action to effect positive change. Right before this interview, Sarah and I chatted about her desire to leave New York City and move to Florida, where she now lives with her partner, who is also a writer, Patty Yumi Cottrell. We discussed the experience of city life when you’re in your twenties versus in your thirties—the energy it takes, the concessions you’re willing to make—all themes that True Love grapples with.
Elle Nash In the novel, Nina is from Florida, then moves to New York for school. Is True Love a “New York” novel? How has the mythos of New York influenced you?
Sarah GerardIt’s hard to write about New York because it’s been done so much. I’ll put it this way: I personally have only ever lived in New York and Florida, and those are the settings that I know most intimately, but I wasn’t able to write either of them until I left them as an adult. In writing this novel, I wanted to capture the pressures of being a woman in her early twenties. As writers of fiction, we have to be a little cruel to our characters and put them in the highest-pressure situations that we can think of, and for me that was New York City, in part because I had gone through the whole arc of falling in love with it and falling out of love with it again. In some ways, the novel is a love letter to New York. And maybe in some ways it’s a breakup letter.
EN I like that more, a break up letter.
SG It was an ideal setting because it’s so claustrophobic, and much of what Nina experiences in her personal life is, too. Just like in her personal life, New York is a situation she’s put herself in, but didn’t foresee the severity of. A lot of the book is about how Nina lives in this fiction she’s created for herself, and how she, consciously or unconsciously, feeds it. I mean, she and Aaron are actually, in the beginning of their relationship, writing a screenplay together for a film that they’ll star in and co-direct. But every fantasy has a dark underside.
EN Aaron and Nina abandon the script. This is so emblematic of how creatives, even when they are trying hard, can still lack discipline.
SG When we enter into new creative projects, it’s almost like a love affair you’re having with yourself. You’re projecting all of your desires onto it. You have this ideal image of what you want it to be, and the closer you get to the manifestation of what you’ve imagined, the more reality sets in. Sometimes it’s kind of disheartening or even heartbreaking. I was exploring how we blur these lines: What does this look like if your creative partner is also your romantic partner? How can creative partnerships transform into love affairs? How are love affairs creative partnerships? There ceases to be any separation between the story Aaron and Nina were telling in their screenplay and their everyday life.
EN Esther Perel talks about how love wants us to know every facet of each other, but desire requires mystery. In your novel, Nina marries before fully knowing the person she’s marrying, then finds out she doesn’t really even like him.
SG One of the things I love most about Patty is that we will never fully know each other. Patty is so mysterious to me. I mean, in many ways I know them better than anyone, but at the same time, I think part of what keeps our relationship healthy is that we give each other space to live our own lives. Of course a lot of these things overlap for us—just this morning, we meditated together and it was lovely. Meditation is a practice Patty maintains on a daily basis, and occasionally I’ll join in it, but there isn’t an expectation I’ll join every day.
Once you place that expectation on each other that you will live identical lives, that’s where resentment begins to fester. Personal space is crucial in a partnership. It can be difficult to learn that it’s safe to hold that space. I trust that Patty having privacy won’t cause them to stray from me or keep secrets from me. I want them to be happy and flourishing and living their own life. It maintains that mystery. And we do sometimes make things together, but usually we take turns contributing to them, rather than how Nina and Aaron are trying to write together at the same time.
ENWhen you wrote this novel, were you thinking, I want to write an unlikeable female narrator? What do you think of that concept?
SG If I’m being completely honest, I challenged myself to give the reader a reason not to like her, then win them back by making her funny and a little bit naive, so they might feel compelled to protect her from herself and others. Nina doesn’t realize how cruel the world can be. As for the concept, I think the question is: unlikeable to whom? There’s no such thing as a general readership. I’m sure to certain male readers Nina might come off as a bit abrasive.
EN I want to talk about writing sex. I’m interested in it, because I write a lot about sex, too. I’m curious how you approach it and what some of the most cringe-worthy scenes you’ve ever read are. What makes you feel successful when you write a good sex scene?
SG Oh my god, that’s such a complicated question.
EN I know, I’m sorry!
SG It’s hard because it really is a balancing act, right?
SG It’s hard to say, “Here’s a road map for writing convincing sex,” but there are some pitfalls that are really cringe inducing when you come across them in someone’s book. I don’t want to name any names on the record, but I will slide into your DMs with the most cringe sex scene I’ve ever read in my life. I really try to write in a way that isn’t overblown or overladen with similes or metaphors, or flowery, or erotic in a way that is unrealistic. When you look at the facts of it, sex is actually kind of gross—the bodily fluids that are mixing, and the things that you’re saying, and the sounds you’re making, and the slapping sound of skin on skin—especially if you’re not one of the people participating in it. And even sometimes when you are.
Think about how much you pass over on a porn site. There are certain people that I do not want to hear or see having sex. You know? So I think one of the most cringe-worthy experiences of reading sex scenes are those where the writer is trying to convince you that it’s hotter than you know it is. One of the things I did in True Love was not try to write hot sex. When Nina is having sex, oftentimes there is something really gross happening right near her.
EN It feels almost clinical in a way, minimalistic—the way you wrote some of those scenes.
SG Right. Also, if she’s is enjoying herself for a minute, there’s often a rude awakening. It would be impossible to write a sex scene that everyone finds sexy, because what everyone prefers is so individual. I also wanted to focus on the deeper reasons why Nina is having the kind of sex she is having. Why is she having sex with this person, in this way?
If she’s not having intercourse with someone, she is frequently having some degree of an erotic experience. She may be having an erotic experience with her phone as she is texting someone, or having an erotic experience with herself, thinking about someone. Or imagining someone having their own erotic experience. These are lines of communication with other characters, or with herself.
What are some of your rules for writing sex?
EN The foremost thing I focus on is the emotional content, to express the feelings of it. I think sometimes I can fall prey to using a lot of flowery language. What I’ve been trying to do lately is focus on the sensation of things that generally have nothing to do with the body parts we use for sex.
The English language is so clumsy when it comes to talking about sex. There are some erotic ways to write about it, but it’s so clunky when you say cock, or boobs, or breast. One thing that I did in this novel I’m working on is I made a word bank of body parts that people wouldn’t normally find sexual, and I made my character feel erotically attracted to them. Like knees, or armpits.
SG I love that.
EN If I stay away from what’s vulgar and focus on the visceral stuff, it’s getting readers to pay attention to the atmosphere and the emotional content.
SG Definitely. Sex is also at its base a form of communication. I was thinking of forms of communication in the book as existing on a continuum. Texting with someone or talking with someone is on one end of that continuum, and having sex with someone is on the other end. There’s a broad range of relationship orientations in the book. There are friend groups, and fuck-buddies, and polycules, and monogamous relationships, and monogamous relationships that are really non-monagamous, and a lot of what I was exploring was how this group of people communicates, and how they are all managing these complex relationships with one another. Sex is one of those ways.
EN It’s interesting you say that, because Nina’s mother is in a polycule, and she spends a lot of time divulging information about her relationships to Nina, almost like she’s seeking advice. It made me think of that type of parent who is trying to be friends with their kid and lean on them for emotional support. Her mom is connecting with a lot of other people in her life but has trouble connecting with her own daughter.
SG One of the ways her mom has managed her relationship with Nina is by divulging a traumatic childhood experience, but she isn’t taking responsibility for the long-term effects of that trauma. She’s compartmentalizing it, and she thinks she’s very good at that.
Nina’s relationship with her mother is very toxic: it makes them both sick. There’s been a lot of conversation in recent years about toxic relationships and what they look like, but I’m also thinking about toxicity in our media, our food system, our environment, our government.
One of the things I did was to look for the toxic agent in every scene, and in the very first scene when Nina hooks up with Brian, she smells red tide. While I was revising the book there was an outbreak of red tide that wrapped almost completely around the coast of Florida. It’s a fungal infection of the ocean that kills off vast swathes of fish, hundreds of thousands of them every day, that wash up onto the shore, and stink. Red tide is caused by phosphorous mining, among other things the government allows but shouldn’t. I was in Florida revising the book when this outbreak happened, and I realized it had always belonged there as part of the setting. I imagine the chapters in Florida infused with the stench. In my mind, it’s very foreboding.
EN You said once that you’re a really slow writer. Is that because you’re methodical with your sentences?
SG Some stories take longer than others because they require more research, or have more characters, or maybe I need to do some growing before I can finish them.
EN It’s so hard when you have to grow into the novel you want to write!
SG It’s true! Because there’s some emotional question you don’t know how to answer yet or because you don’t know how to do something on a technical level. I write journalism too, so my reporting has its own timeline. I’ve been following one story for four years and it’s yet underway. Some books take people a decade. That’s fine with me. I’m not in a rush to publish. It’s actually quite humiliating to publish something too early. You can’t take it back, so it’s better to do something shorter-term in the meantime. It’s rewarding to complete something quickly if you’re working on a project with a longer timeline.
I’ve been writing short stories since finishing True Love, just because I have the time to now to return to abandoned material, some of which is over a decade old. It’s clarifying, even in this time of utmost uncertainty, while sitting in quarantine for an indefinite period, to find a way to make sense of the past. Finish something that has felt unresolved. I think publishing something too early is almost a way giving up on it. I don’t like that feeling.
EN After I had my kid I was like, Oh my god, I feel like I have no time. I have to rush, I have to write, and I finished some drafts really quickly, but none of it was good. I read an interview with Alice Munro in the Mother’s Day email for the Paris Review recently, and Munro said something like, I wish I had spent more time with my kids, because now they’re grown and gone, and all I have time for is writing, and I’m sad.
And I was like, Okay, maybe I should just slow down and not worry. My partner is always telling me, “Writing will be there, you have time.” I just feel like, If I don’t do this right now, something bad is going to happen. I have this weird rush to do it.
SG It’s true. I’m confused by how often parenthood for a writer is framed as an inconvenience, because it must give you so much knowledge. It’s a profound experience that I think isn’t given enough credit among creative circles. Why wouldn’t becoming a parent actually be good for your writing? It deepens and extends your experience of the world so much, forces you to be a better person. Not that I know from firsthand experience—but I desire to become a mother because I want that experience. In this world of so much ugliness, care is beautiful. Children are pure love, and you really can’t do anything more important than protect that.
EN In order to create, you have to sacrifice a lot, including your time. And to be a mom, you also have to sacrifice a lot, which includes a lot of time, and sometimes friendships, because you just don’t have the energy for as much. But one thing that I wish the art community would explore more is just the idea that with little children, it’s not a permanent state. We’ve always struggled towards art, for as long as we’ve been creating. The only people who don’t have to struggle are the ones who are independently wealthy, or seven figure novelists whose lives are made, they don’t have to worry about monetary struggle anymore. But having a little child is a very small portion of their time on this earth. A human life is eighty years long.
SG I have a lot of friends now who have children and I love spending time with them because I love watching them learn the world from its most basic elements. It was the most amazing thing to be with my friend’s daughter when she learned how to put the cap back on the bottle instead of taking it off. Like her life was a video game and she had just unlocked a new skill. Babies are also natural artists. They’re creating something new all the time. So much of being an artist is holding on to that elemental creative drive.