Recently, Sarah Gerard started a new job at Books Are Magic, a Brooklyn bookstore owned by novelist Emma Straub. That was about the same time Gerard began touring in support of her second book, an acclaimed collection of essays titled Sunshine State.
Gerard’s first book, the novel Binary Star, was a success, too, with rapturous reviews in The New York Times, and elsewhere, and it was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award.
What’s more, Gerard is a busy freelancer, with credits in New York magazine and The Paris Review Daily, among other outlets, and she writes a monthly column for the Penguin Random House online journal Hazlitt. So — why is she doing toiling at an entry-level retail job?
“I like talking to people about books,” Gerard says from a hotel in Chicago, a stop on her book tour. “That, and as long as I’m working a regular job, I have a regular paycheck.”
She thinks for a moment. “I get a lot of free books,” she adds. “I get to see what’s coming out. It’s like window-shopping for books all day, may favorite thing in the world. I get a discount on the books I buy. It’s a win-win-win.”
Her tone is cheerful, but there’s wistfulness in it, too. It says something about the literary landscape that a writer as hot as Gerard is right now feels compelled to take a day job, even a part-time one. And Gerard is hot, indeed.
Sunshine State appeared to a chorus of accolades. Dwight Garner of The New York Times calls the journalism in the book “serious and impeccably reported,” but reserves his highest regard for the pieces about Gerard’s family, or growing up in Florida. “She’s best when her evocations of the frenzy that is Florida are personal.” Publishers Weekly lauds the way Gerard’s “brave, keenly observed” book “illuminates the stark realities of Florida’s Gulf Coast.”
Usually that kind of praise is reserved for writing that holds Florida up to ridicule. After all, the state has been a laughing stock at least since the 2000 election — even though almost everyone seems to want to move here, if only for the weather. But while Gerard turns her gaze on such topics as alternative religion, or the Amway multilevel marketing empire, Sunshine State is not the usual collection of grotesques. Gerard never goes for the easy laugh, never stoops to the lurid metaphor.
“I love Florida,” says Gerard, who grew up in the Gulf Coast town of Clearwater, in the Tampa-St. Pete area. “I love to visit. I have a lot of family and friends in Tampa, and also Jacksonville and Venice. It’s my longtime goal to buy a salty duplex on the beach and hole up there and write.”
Unlike most books of essays, Sunshine State is not a collection of magazine pieces. Instead, Gerard sold a proposal for the book while she was on tour for Binary Star in 2015. She had wanted to return to nonfiction after writing a novel, and her native state “seemed a good topic to hang essays on,” Gerard says. “It’s a place people are curious about, and I knew it really well.”
Many of the essays are memoiristic, but Gerard did not rely on memory alone. She made three research trips to Florida during the year she worked on the book. She did the reporting and research on the journalistic pieces, like the strange, sad saga of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. But she also researched some of the personal essays.
Two of the strongest stories are about her parents, Pat and Eric Gerard. One tells of their involvement in Unity-Clearwater, a New Thought church related to Christian Science, the other about their four years selling Amway. Gerard’s mother, Pat, is a public figure, working for decades in behalf of victims, particularly victims of domestic abuse. She currently serves as a county commissioner in Pinellas County.
This presented Gerard with a narrow gate to pass through. “Was my aim here to reveal everything about my mother?” she says. “Is there a way to be complete without revealing potentially hurtful details? In a sense, she entrusted me with her story. I have to consider the nature of the relationship. This is my mother. Other people I don’t take this degree of care with. They aren’t in my life.”
She interviewed both her mother and her father, a retired newspaper reporter and ad man. She sent the finished essay, “Mother-Father God,” to them before it was published. Her mother asked her to remove a couple of details, things Gerard says were not “crucial” to the story.
“I wanted to maintain my relationship with my Mom,” Gerard says. “She’s an elected official. The last thing I’d want is to jeopardize her reputation. Not that I could have done that if I wanted.”
Besides, Gerard says, her parents remain proud of the years they spent in the New Thought movement. The faith provided guidance as her mother recovered from an abusive first marriage. It helped her father stay sober. It’s not too much to say it saved their marriage.
“They never tried to hide it,” she says. “They just moved away in their personal beliefs.”
Some reviewers have praised Gerard for showing how Florida has become a bellwether for the future of the rest of the country. That’s true, she says, but it’s not as significant as people might think. Recently, she visited Columbus, Ohio, where she was told that white-bread central Ohio city is “the test market capital of America.”
Gerard adds, “You can glean a lot of what it means to be an American from Florida. But that’s true of any place in the country.”
As Gerard starts work on a new novel, along with her new job as a bookstore clerk, she remains positive that her generation, contrary to what some older observers believe, remains devoted to reading. Consider the great work being done in publications aimed at the youth market, she says, like Teen Vogue.
“Look at the Young Adult market in fiction,” Gerard says. “It’s blowing up. I get the sense younger people are reading more than ever. We are a very well-informed, very literate generation. People are producing and consuming more literature than ever.”