When I tell people I write literary fiction, I am most often met with a long, blank stare. At times, this is followed by "how nice," or occasionally "literary....like?"
I usually launch into my love letter to William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, or tell them about more recent lit favorites like the masterful The Sport of Kings (by C.E. Morgan) or the literary (and erotically charged like my novel Skyscraper) What Belongs to You (by Garth Greenwell).
I believe in fiction, deeply, despite the hard right turn toward reality housewife shows and tweets, so I was particularly thrilled when I stumbled across the edgy and lush novel Binary Star by (fellow New School alum) Sarah Gerard. Not only is the book a revelation, it's a success! A downright phenomenon.
I caught up with Sarah to talk about the explosive success of her novel that has made quite a splash on the literary scene, despite (and surely because of) its risk taking, its uncanny beauty and its being a tad bit out there.
Scott Alexander Hess: Part of the brilliance of Binary Star is its use of structure and poetic language in slowly revealing a complicated and rich character. Large portions of the novel are written like a long prose poem. Was this intentional when you started the book? Did it begin this way, or did the form evolve as you wrote it? Tell us about your process and how it shifted along the way.
Sarah Gerard: When I began writing Binary Star, I thought the whole novel would read like the prologue. I later realized that I'd have to intersperse the fragmented, poetic passages with more formal scenes in order to move the plot along--as opposed to suggesting the plot more poetically. But I was never interested in writing a novel in paragraphs because I felt that would contradict the narrator's frantic interiority. I wanted the novel to feel anxious and confused, to mirror her experience.
SAH: You were able to express some painful experiences in a very compelling way. What can you tell us about writing in a way that is equally intense and engaging? Did you ever fear you were going too far or that you might alienate the reader or was that part of the intention? Did you have to wrestle with any editors who wanted to soften any edges?
SG: I'd like to say that when I'm writing I'm thinking about myself and not thinking about readers--that it's only in the editing stages that I begin to think about the reader--but once or twice while I was writing Binary Star, I wondered whether it could be triggering for people recovering from anorexia and bulimia. Ultimately, I had to push those ideas aside and write the story I needed to write for myself. I've seen one or two trigger warnings for the book on the internet, and I'm grateful for the people who thought to add those warnings. Writing the book was triggering for me at times, but I resisted those urges because I needed to be courageous and tell my story. I'm grateful for the people at Two Dollar Radio being courageous in that way, too.
SAH: When my first novel Diary of a Sex Addict came out, a lot of people presumed it was non fiction. Have you run into this? Along those lines, did you draw on your own experience for Binary Star? If so, was it cathartic? Painful?
SG: When I was twenty-two, I took a medical leave from college to check into eating disorder rehab. I drew heavily from my own experience with anorexia and bulimia to write this book but many things were fictionalized: the character of John, many of the settings and events, the character as an astronomy student. Writing the book was painful at times, of course, but I can't say that was a bad thing. It was cathartic in the sense that I needed to tell the story to move onto other stories I needed to tell--to get it out of the way, and make way for others.
SAH: I was speaking to people in my writing group about Binary Star and one woman referred to it as a phenomenon. It indeed got incredible praise and coverage. For writers inspired by your success, tell us about how that success happened. Were you a big part of PR? Was working with a smaller press an advantage?
SG: I'm so thankful for people who reviewed the book positively! Two Dollar Radio is a small team, so we shared some of the PR. I reached out to places, and they reached out to others. I think the book tour Kickstarter may have also drawn attention to the book, which was useful in getting people out to the readings.
SAH: Your success is especially inspiring in that your book being experimental in form did not hamper it's catching fire! Do you think the market for transgressive, and/or edgy literary work can grow and thrive in the age of tweets?
SG: I think there are always readers looking for bold literature and writers who are willing to write it. I don't know that it has anything to do with Twitter, as I don't think the human experience and Twitter are closely related--I think Twitter is an ornament like a spire on a place of worship is an ornament. But the spire doesn't make the place of worship.
SAH: You worked with a smaller press Two Dollar Radio, and then Harper Perennial with Sunshine State. Are there big differences in the process and/or how the work is handled? Advantages or disadvantages of both?
SG: I'm writing very different books for each press, so the process has been different, of course. The essay collection is a book I sold on proposal, so I've been turning in the essays continuously. The novel was something I completed before submitting it to agents and small presses. I loved working with Two Dollar Radio and have loved working with Harper Perennial, as well. I can't say that I've enjoyed one more than the other. In both cases, I have felt very encouraged and supported.
SAH: I enjoyed the trailer for Binary Star by David Formentin. A few years ago I did a story about the validity of book trailers as a viable method of promo. Do you think the trailer contributed to your book busting wide open and gaining such success?
SG: I think David is brilliant and did amazing work with both trailers--he really saw the work. And yes, I think it was instrumental in getting the book out to larger audiences, especially because Flavorwire was keen enough to feature the trailers both times--and Colin Winnette's novel, as well. It's so difficult to translate a book to the screen, but David is a genius. So yes, I think it was a critical contribution.
SAH: So who would you cast in the film version of Binary Star (or is there already one happening!) and who would direct it? Would you want to do a cameo?
SG: Chloe Grace Moretz stars, but she has to dye her hair. Bette Midler, Cher, and Yoko Ono make cameos. And Stephen Hawking. And Neil deGrasse Tyson.
SAH: Are you planning to write another novel soon? Do you feel more of an affinity to fiction or non fiction?
SG: I'm writing another novel. I don't prefer either fiction or nonfiction--they're both made of words.
SAH: We are both New School MFA alum. What's your take on writer's debating on to do an MFA or not, in pursuing a fiction or poetry writing career?
SG: I don't think about writing as a career--it's just what I do. I could not do anything else. I'd sooner die. So, I think people should do whatever they want with the determination to survive. If that means getting an MFA, so be it. I'm happy to write your recommendation.