“My aim wasn’t to scandalize, but to write into a space of discomfort, and complexity.”
Sarah Gerard is an intensely attentive listener. I studied with her last year in Buenos Aires as part of Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas program. As we walked and talked, trying not to trip on the craggy collage of pavers characteristic of the city’s sidewalks, I told her I was writing fiction about an infamous killer. “You should interview him,” she said. Later in the conversation, and with more context, I mentioned my dad was considering traveling back to Honduras to study gangs. “You should go with him,” she said. Neither suggestion seemed flip, or even unreasonable; rather, I realized, they came from a fearless person with a deep interest in truth-seeking.
Sarah brings these qualities to her latest book, True Love, which, in addition to being very funny, treats its exploration of the relationship between truth and love with utter seriousness. Our tour guide on this messy journey is Nina. Both raw and refined, unlikeable and lovable, manipulative and brutally honest, Nina leads readers through a series of doomed relationships among her friend group. This cast of similarly unlikable twenty-something artists trying to make a life in New York might be insufferable if not for a deft satirical touch, which manages to be critical and poke fun without the flattening effect of pure satire. And while levels of sympathy for these characters may vary, the novel gains richness and complexity from their interplay, and much of its insights come at their expense. There are dark moments of real pain that, from a certain distance, are also hilarious. Nina lives in these awkward, ambiguous spaces, where it’s unclear if we should laugh or cry on any given page. Reading True Love is like watching a train wreck. At the center of it all, Nina, who is both passenger and conductor, barrels into disaster with a kind of reckless (or is it fearless?) clarity that some truth can be salvaged from the wreckage.
This interview took place over email from our respective Florida homes.
THE BELIEVER: I’m curious about the recurrence of toxic water in the first part of the book, and also your relationship to writing about Florida.
SARAH GERARD: All writers work from an anatomical data set called memory, informed by life experience, culture, reading, study, practice, and specialization. For a large part of my life, I’ve lived in Florida, so of course much of my memory takes place here. I’m not writing historical fiction or sci-fi, and I’m not writing across cultures, so setting the book in the two places where I’ve lived most of my life—Florida and New York City—was a fast-track to the book’s emotional content. I didn’t have to make any research trips to learn a new geography, which is also to say a new set of metaphors.
I imagine the stench of red tide infusing the early chapters of True Love and lingering throughout the book. Red tide begins with the legalization of ecologically destructive practices like phosphate mining and industrial agriculture, due to greed, which poisons us all. The people in office get rich and stay in office. In True Love, I believe red tide also stands for other toxic paradigms we hold as a culture—those we derive from romance novels, or those of political conservatism—but especially relative to how people relate to one another on a personal basis.
BLVR: There’s a rawness in the narrator’s voice, delivered with a kind of journalistic precision that creates a compelling and often funny contrast. Where does this voice come from?
SG: Trial and error. The first draft of the book was in third-person, and Nina’s name was different—I won’t tell you what it was, because it’s so off-base, it embarrasses me now—and because her name was different, her personality was, too. I think that ultimately, Nina’s personality proceeded from my discovery of her name. It’s young, feminine, abbreviated, quippy, in a sing-song, alliterative rhythm. Another facet of her voice, its immediacy, appeared when I moved the text from past into present tense; and it finally came into focus, sharpened, in my last draft, when I did a lot of work filling in backstory en media res, rather than dumping it all at the beginning of the novel. The intensity of the present moment, and all that weighs upon it, I believe is an essential aspect of contemporary life that I wanted to come through in the text, in a visceral way. I wanted that to be very apparent for Nina, coming of age in America, negotiating with her responsibility to those around her, as well as her place in history.
BLVR: This novel isn’t too interested in backstory. Or, at least, it isn’t preoccupied with using backstory to pinpoint the precise motivations for Nina’s behavior.
SG: There’s essential backstory delivered in the second chapter, and it’s delivered throughout at key moments to propel the narrative. I will own that it might not look like your typical backstory. For instance, Nina at one point wakes from a recurring dream that she’s had since she was a child. I don’t offer a precise interpretation of that dream, but I allude to it being symbolic. It offers a legend for reading the map of the story at that moment, but I ask the reader to meet me halfway in translating what it means. Another example is when Nina and Aaron run into Daniel and Heidi in the supermarket, and they all simultaneously remember the sordid history between Nina and Daniel from college. I pause the scene in the supermarket and deliver that backstory to the reader, revealing something Nina may or may not have been hiding all along. Certainly, she isn’t the most reliable narrator.
It’s very easy to bog down a story with unimportant background, which may have been important for the author to know, but not the reader. An author needs to make informed choices. A reader wants to keep turning pages.
BLVR: The reader does stay with Nina, and I’d say Nina stays with the reader. I found her charming and sympathetic, despite her being extremely manipulative. I also want to say Nina is self-absorbed, overly dramatic, insufferable, and yet I feel bad saying these things, even if they’re true. Were you hoping readers would have this kind of messy love/hate relationship with your protagonist?
SG: Absolutely. Nina is very flawed; the best characters are. We read books like The Talented Mr. Ripley, which follows a serial killer, yet doesn’t seem to scandalize its readers. Or Lolita, which does, but is considered high art. My aim wasn’t to scandalize, but to write into a space of discomfort, and complexity. I thought that the best way to learn about love might be to follow a very, to some, unlikable person. My sense was that the only way to convince readers to follow Nina through her lies, fuck-ups, traumas, and general shitshow for 200 pages would be to make her funny. Also, to punish her for being so awful.
BLVR: Nina is a writer, and at one point she’s at work on some autobiographical fiction. She asks herself: “What is the nature of my protagonist’s darkness?” This doesn’t come off as overly meta, but painfully true in the sense that fiction writing can often be a kind of therapy.
I want to put that same question to you for some authorly insight on Nina’s character. What is the nature of her darkness? Or is this a question that’s best left open-ended?
SG: Is the following better left unsaid? I can also imagine other interpretations, and I’m open to them. Certainly various characters speculate throughout.
To my mind, Nina is guided by an extremely misplaced need to feel loved and wanted. She fails to understand that finding and sustaining another person’s love begins with learning to love herself. Until she can do that, she’ll never believe good love when she finds it, and she’ll never be able to set boundaries, which are essential to self-preservation, character, and peaceful relations. She relies heavily on outside validation, which will never fill the abyss.
BLVR: Nina is driven by a search for love and a desire to grow and understand herself. Does Nina think those two things are related?
SG: In All About Love bell hooks says that growth entails taking responsibility for your life. Nina is unable to face the truth of how others see her, and how her behavior has affected people, yet she’s also increasingly unable to avoid it. The past comes back to haunt her. Friends fall away as they realize how she’s misled them. The walls close in when she moves into a studio with Aaron—there is quite literally nowhere to hide anymore. There is no such thing as true love without the truth.
BLVR: Something more playfully meta is the script that Nina works on with Aaron called True Love. Nina gives this synopsis of the film, which could double as the novel’s: “It follows a group of troubled, narcissistic young people as they become entangled in a series of ill-conceived relationships that flame out in humiliating ways.” On the surface you’re making a fun meta move, but I think there is more going on here. Self-awareness seems like an important underlying quality that binds all the narcissistic characters in the book. Nina distances herself from the less self-aware characters and surrounds herself with people who seem to be following a script, who act as if their life is a movie, and who often use self-awareness as an excuse for shitty behavior. Can you talk more about the role of self-awareness in the book?
SG: You said it very well. Psychotherapy is a motif in the book, and I want to connect that to what you said earlier about fiction being a kind of therapy. Throughout the novel, characters are telling stories about one another and responding to them. There is a lot of gossip; this is a way of compressing information with action happening off the page, but it’s also on some level what holds the friend group together. The friction that results from this activity propels the narrative. Sometimes, there is friction because a character is showing Nina something about herself that’s correct, but which she isn’t yet mature enough to integrate into her self-concept. It’s a story that she doesn’t want to tell about herself, and doesn’t want to be perpetuated about her, because it isn’t flattering. But gossip has velocity. Nina is very good at crafting stories. Her behavior is a kind of revenge against the world for its shittiness, and she often operates within a fiction in which consequences don’t exist. As they begin to mount in her material reality, she becomes increasingly unable to maintain the fiction she’s crafted about herself.
BLVR: I feel like honesty plays a similar role in the book. Many of the characters seem to weaponize it.
SG: Honesty is the foundation of love. Sometimes love hurts. As Brian says, isn’t it better to know the truth?
BLVR: While the story is told entirely from Nina’s point of view, there are also markers that exist outside her awareness that pierce the bubble of the world she’s created. A funny example is the psychoanalyst who listens to Nina go on and on but says very little. Why were these moments and others like it important to the novel?
SG: There is Nina’s truth, Seth’s truth, Odessa’s, Claudette’s, Brian’s, the hypnotherapist’s, the analyst’s—none is absolute. The trick was to find a container for each perspective, as each perspective delivers essential information about what is true. There was also the challenge of showing the shifts in Nina’s perspective. The analyst was a mode of inquiry. It gives Nina the permission and the space to monologue on subjects she’s unable to touch outside the sacred space they co-create in his basement office.
BLVR: Nina shows some awareness of her whiteness when she moves to New York. She notes that Michael Brown was murdered the day before she signed the lease on her apartment with Seth, and she spends a couple paragraphs, a couple different times, talking about Eric Garner’s murder by police not far from her. Why did you choose to make Nina aware of this, and to reference these specific events?
SG: This calls back to your earlier question about self-awareness. I decided as I was revising the novel that I wanted to compress the story’s events into the two-year period leading up to Trump’s election. I believe the election was a pivotal event for us as a country, and had devastating personal and familial ramifications for a lot of Americans, myself included. As an author, I needed to examine the emotional effects of the election in my life, and in the lives of those I come into contact with on this plane of existence. That includes examining my whiteness. I can’t ignore that Nina is white. Her inner circle is majority white. She moves to New York City and is in the class of young artists gentrifying Brooklyn. She lives in two gentrifying neighborhoods that I know well, because I also lived there. As I said earlier, I take information from memory, because I believe that an author’s memory is a set of signs and symbols unlocking the truth of who I am as a being. Writing toward truth, the historical events of that period were not something I could ignore, given that the novel is a satire of white toxicity, and partially takes place in Brooklyn. Those events shaped New York City. They called to our collective attention that we had been failing one another as human beings. I was part of the marches and die-ins across the city that followed those atrocities. Nina sees them. Others in her midst choose not to. She’s incorporating all of that information into her total version of the truth.
BLVR: I thought it was interesting that Nina describes Daniel Pantaleo, Garner’s killer, as someone who broke his pledge.
SG: The NYPD’s first pledge is to, “Protect the lives and property of our fellow citizens and impartially enforce the law.”
BLVR: I sense the title is mocking the idea of “true love,” but not necessarily love. What are your thoughts on true love? Can it exist?
SG: Absolutely. I think “love” is a bit broad, as a term. It captures too much to really refer to anything specific. Yes, love is devastating. Is that the same love that’s ecstatic? Or joyful? Or sensual? Or the kind of love that is also grief? I think of true love not as a fairy tale concept, but as an orientation to the one or ones to whom you commit and devote yourself completely, with full vulnerability, transparency, and honesty.
BLVR: I love seeing the range in your work, from Binary Star to Sunshine State and now True Love. What’s next for you, writing-wise?
SG: I’m writing short stories, to practice new skills and revive old material. I’m also working on a longer work of nonfiction, and I just finished a story for the New York Times about Cassadaga, Florida, the “psychic capital of the world.” It comes out the first week of August, and is called, “Talking to the Dead in the Sunshine State.”