“Beauty can be tricked into being where it is not,” writes Sarah Gerard in her new novel Binary Star, an eerie, fevered account of anorexia and the life and death of stars from one of Brooklyn’s most exciting new voices. The L talked with Gerard about memoir, disease, and crowdfunding.
Binary Star is a novel about an acute experience of disordered eating, something you’ve written about as nonfiction elsewhere. What drove you to make a novel of this story? What do you think is the value of an autobiographical novel, versus memoir?
I began writing Binary Star as a memoir, but right away, I felt I needed to give in to the momentum of the style and worry less about fact. If I had written it as a memoir, I would have needed to spend a lot of time excavating personal materials and concerning myself with who else may be implicated in the story, and most importantly, I would have had to resolve a lot of the ambiguity that exists in Binary Star now, and is one of its strengths—who’s saying what, are they saying it out loud, and are they saying it to a class of students? For example. This is not to say that people haven’t done very poetic and hybrid things with memoir—Kate Zambreno, T Fleischmann, and Maggie Nelson spring to mind. But I needed the freedom that fiction afforded me in order to feel the anxiety of the protagonist’s struggle instead of the anxiety of historical accuracy. I was aiming for a different kind of accuracy.
Your book also tells of the drinking problems of the narrator’s boyfriend. They are tied to each other in oppositional miseries—his of excess, hers of deprivation—a dynamic reflected in the book’s title. They are victimized and villainized by each other, at turns. How did you decide to place a couple at the center of this story, and why is John’s self-medication so critical to the narrator?
People have written incredible novels featuring only one character, and I think Binary Star’s protagonist is really successful at being her own antagonist, but like you pointed out so well, John is another kind of antagonist altogether. He’s everything she’s not, and at the same time, so much of what she wishes she could be—principled (or seemingly so), adventurous, confident. He’s also a very sick person, and his sickness is a great foil to the protagonist’s own—she throws up if she eats at all, while he can’t stop pouring things down his throat. His sickness is a scapegoat for her: “Well, I wouldn’t need to do this if you hadn’t done that.” They also, many times, save each other from the worst consequences of their diseases. So many romantic relationships between addicts are enabling in this way, and that’s why Al-Anon exists, isn’t it? Because enabling, or codependency, is its own addiction. In its original form, Binary Star’s two central characters were best friends, but I really needed the power of young love to fuel this story. Young love is so desperate and so fiery, and feels like it could last forever.
The narrator studies stars and space, an obsession with weight and weightlessness made large. This conceit leads to some of the book’s most arresting language, phrases like, “I eat nothing but time.” Where did your interest in stars begin? Was it tied to the writing of this book?
It’s hard to say when my fascination with outer space first began. The other day, I told someone it started with astrology, but just last night, sitting at a bar in my neighborhood, Elton John’s song “Rocket Man” came on and I thought, “Oh, maybe this is where it actually started.” Which is to say, maybe my interest in stars actually began with an interest in space travel, or the metaphor of outer space to explore human psychology, emotion, and endeavor. I used to watch Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 a lot with my parents, and of course I love the Alien movies (who doesn’t), and really all science fiction. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my favorite movies, as are Moon and E.T. When I finally read Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris a few years ago, I felt a familiar feeling returning, like, this is a world I know well and should use. Lem makes it so clear that he’s exploring the landscape of the mind—it’s literally there, on the surface of the planet—and I found that literal approach useful in writing a story so rooted in the physicality of an eating disorder.
You conducted a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign (which was a Kickstarter “staff pick” and exceeded its goal) to support a national book tour. Could you talk about your decision to crowd-source a tour for an independently published novel? Do you think this is a model that other writers should or could follow?
It was never a question for me. This is my first novel and I intend to continue writing and publishing books for the rest of my life—a goal that relies upon the success of this first book. Having worked at a bookstore and organized events around the literary community, and having faced enough rejection in my life to be relatively immune to it, I went into planning my book tour feeling capable of making it successful from the start. I have friends who are writers and have admitted they’d be too timid to do this. Why? Nobody cares about your work as much as you do, and nobody can represent it as well as you can. While I don’t want to flat-out recommend crowdfunding as a solution for everyone, because I think we’ll quickly exhaust our resources that way and should find more permanent resources for writers and publishers, I do want to recommend that we all toss aside our humility and stop waiting for other people to notice us and get to work on our behalf. It’s not going to happen. You have to be your own champion.
Binary Star is out January 13, 2015 from Two Dollar Radio.
Molly Rose Quinn is a poet living in Brooklyn and the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.