Dissecting Desire: The Millions Interviews Sarah Gerard

Sarah Gerard arrived on the literary scene with her collection of essays, Sunshine State, three years ago, garnering much praise and being hailed as a “writer to watch.” Her debut novel, Binary Star, received similar praise two years earlier. The Florida-born writer just published her highly anticipated novel True Love, but not before the book made its presence known vis-a-vis every book preview under the sun. And for good reason.

Nina, a struggling writer, college drop-out, and professional bad-decision-maker, forgoes the muted suburbs of Florida for the calamity of New York City in pursuit of the kind of love that will countervail the past she’s left behind. Her search for fulfillment is anything but linear, oscillating between the various people in her life like her mother, a narcissistic lesbian living in a polycule; Odessa, a single mom with a similar penchant for toxic men; Seth, a detached artist who’s lack of commitment permeates every facet of life; Brian, who sets the bar for stability low, but whom Nina considers her most stable partner; and Aaron, a former classmate and aspiring filmmaker who lives with his parents, with whom Nina initially develops a creative relationship with—leaving her life as a writer in the middle of it all.

Told with acerbic wit, keen observation, and elements of dark humor, Gerard’s True Love is a timely tale of yearning for connection in a world that is fragmented by default.

The Millions: I see pieces of myself in Nina. Did she come to you like that or did she arrive on the page fully formed from the get-go?

Sarah Gerard: She took some massaging. I went through a few different names and occupations, and at one point had given her a very cumbersome backstory. Hardest was landing on what her motivation is, moment-to-moment, and also long-term—and how those two things might be in conflict. The tone of the book was also difficult to land. For the first several drafts, Nina just had no sense of humor, probably because, ironically, she wasn’t being totally honest with the reader.

TM: How did the idea for True Love come to you?

SG: I was asking broad questions about what love is and how it operates, in my life and in the world. It’s both ambient and directed; a state of being and an action. It’s ecstatic and painful and joyful and crushing. Very often, we can’t seem to find love—or what my partner and I call “good love”—though we want it very badly. A character is a mode of inquiry, so I used Nina as a vehicle to explore how people might get in their own way, looking for love; where we learn to love; how we know love is present; and what love, or the desire for it, leads us to do. I was also, as the title might suggest, curious about the relationship of love and truth.

TM: Your previous novel, Binary Star, hones in on addiction and codependency, which are also, in some form, present in this book. Why did you want to continue your exploration of these themes?

SG: One definition of love that I offer in the book is that of an addiction. Another is a trance. In either case, it’s an altered state of seeing and sensing and understanding. In the book, I define trance as an inwardly directed, selectively focused attention, to the exclusion of all else. I was also thinking of love as a substance that could be just as easily used to manipulate and exploit and traffic in as a drug.

TM: Florida lit is a genre in and of itself. Your debut collection of essays, Sunshine State, I believe, stands at the helm alongside the work of Alissa Nutting and Kristen Arnett. What nod to Florida did you want to give by having your new book start there?

SG: Structurally, my intent was to divide the story into two parts. Florida is much slower and lazier than New York City, so there’s a tonal shift midway through the book when Nina and Seth leave. The world of the story becomes darker, in my mind, and more claustrophobic, threatening. The Florida setting is somewhat disturbing, yet edges toward absurd and provincial, whereas New York is dangerous and exploitative, as Nina experiences it. She’s also separated from her friends and her support network after she leaves Florida, so although the city seems to close in on her, it is also lonelier.

TM: I love the specific references to the neighborhoods in New York City, especially the bookshop where Nina works. I know you were a bookseller at two of NYC’s beloved indie bookstores. What other similarities do you share with Nina?

SG: I love independent bookstores. They really do the Lord’s work. I’ve worked at McNally Jackson Books and Books Are Magic, and would work at another bookstore in a heartbeat. There’s nothing better than talking about books all day, then spending half of your retail-wage paycheck on books because you get a staff discount and have been shopping at work. Seriously, though, bookselling has taught me so much about writing and publishing. 

TM: I’m particularly intrigued by Nina’s friend Odessa. She offers this contrast, makes certain things about Nina stand out more. Was this your intention in writing her?

SG: Especially in a first-person narrative, the catalyst for character transformation has to originate outside of a character. Change comes about as a result of friction in the narrative. Nina and Odessa are very different people, but they have a long history, and know each other on a fundamental level. So, Odessa both offers a counterpoint to Nina, as well as a touchstone for who she is, on a base level, when she may feel as if she’s losing herself—or as when, as Odessa points out, she’s lying. Odessa also calls Nina out for her class privilege and her selfishness. A lot of characters call Nina out for various things. Ultimately, each one of them offers a window onto a very tangled situation.

TM: As someone who, at one point, could have been the brand ambassador of toxic relationships, I sometimes fear of stepping back into my old habits. Like, I have to consciously remember the emotional work I’ve done in years of therapy. Do you think we can become addicted to those types of relationships and, if so, do you think we can ever truly move beyond them without them haunting us?

SG: Toxic relationships are hurtful, and exist on a continuum of uncaring and manipulative behavior, ranging from microaggressions to violence. It haunts us because it hurts us. Unlearning it takes self-reflection, and practice acting with compassion, as well as setting boundaries. Forgiveness is also important, and that includes self-forgiveness.

TM: Nina’s mother is very much a presence in her life, even though her absence—especially when she constantly dodges her daughter’s attempts to visit her—is what mostly comprises that presence in Nina’s heart and mind. Do you think her relationship with her mother holds her back, maybe even influences her bad decisions?

SG: One of the questions I was asking in writing this book is where we learn to love. Early relationships are foundational, and patterns are very hard to break, especially when they’re deeply ingrained from a young age. Nina and her mother are more similar than she realizes. There is a lot of her mother in her desire to please, her martyrdom, her inability to take responsibility for the ripple-effects of trauma, her bossiness—just to start. Nina’s path to healing her relationship with her mother begins when she finally sets a boundary with her that she can hold.

TM: Has writing this book taught you anything about yourself?

SG: Everything I write teaches me about myself. It also teaches me about the world.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Transforming Florida: On Sarah Gerard’s ‘Sunshine State’
The Path to Destruction: On Sarah Gerard’s ‘Binary Star’

Art Imitates Life: The Millions Interviews Sam Lansky

Listen, I’ve never had my chakras realigned but I do have a crystal somewhere that probably needed to be charged four full moons ago. When it comes to new-age spirituality, I’m probably a bit cynical. But I’m not one to look askance anyone’s religious, spiritual, mystical—or anything in between—practice.

Especially after I finished reading Broken People by Sam Lansky.

Like any good book, it challenged my ideas on how we practice self-care, self-awareness, and introspection. Without being prescriptive, Lansky’s exploration of how pain and trauma live in the body is triumphant in its careful, sensitive, and often humorous exploration of complex and nuanced topics.

After Sam (the protagonist), overhears a conversation about a globetrotting shaman at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills—“he fixes everything that’s wrong with you in three days”—he’s skeptical but his interest is piqued. A young man on the edge of emotional collapse, Sam agrees to sign up for a weekend—a three-day ceremony—facilitated by the shaman who promises to tap into the divine by using ayahuasca, a powerful South American psychoactive, as a gateway. Whether the ayahuasca was a placebo,,magic, or myth, the ghosts in Sam’s memory prove to be a powerful force of their own.

Broken People explores the space between the material and the mystic,, and carves a space for the neurodivergent in the midst of it all: a place to coexist with pain and, eventually, learn from it.

The Millions: As someone familiar with your work, including your memoir, The Gilded Razor, it’s apparent that this novel is a work of autofiction. What made you go this route instead of writing another memoir? Did it have anything to do with you experiencing resistance when pitching another memoir, like your protagonist does?

Sam Lansky: Greg! You’re not going to let me off easy here, are you? This is what I’ll say about this: The publishing market is its own slightly temperamental thing, and I’ll admit to some anxiety about memoir fatigue, particularly from a relatively young writer. But I also had a genuine desire to get away from the trap of the “I” voice, which was a place I’d been living in for much of my career, and this felt like an opportunity to mine some of my own experiences while experimenting with a medium I hadn’t explored yet.

TM: Your protagonist is also named Sam. Why did you choose to name him after yourself and not create greater distance with another name?

SL: I don’t want to be prescriptive about what readers should take away from this book, but the story I most wanted to tell—and the one I tried to tell with Broken People—is about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how sticky our seductive tendencies to self-narrativize can be. Naming the character after myself felt like a way to address that head-on—I intended it less as a way of saying, “This is a book about me!” and more because I have thought so much about how my own propensity for storytelling can be my worst addiction. To call the character Sam points out my complicity in that pattern.

TM: Every body of work—be it a memoir or a novel—follows an arc and aims for tonal consistency. What was it like fitting your real life story into the narrative framework of a novel?

SL: After my first book came out, I spent about a year writing without much sense of structure or narrative cohesion—it was just a familiar, therapeutic way of processing my experiences. Then, an encounter with a healer—not unlike the one Sam has in the book—shifted the way I had been thinking about my own loss and heartache. Very quickly this narrative snapped into place, and I felt like I had a really clear sense of the shape of this story, which I’d been missing up until that point.

TM: What tools did fiction equip you with that may not have been utilized when writing another memoir?

SL: As a journalist and writer of personal narrative, I long felt beholden to accuracy, even if the pact you make with a reader as a writer of memoir is more about memory than the facts. Having the freedom to compress, imagine, or rewrite stories or characters that may have started as lived experience but then got to shape-shift into something more dynamic or imaginative felt like such a gift.

You know, I came up during the golden age of the personal essay (which critics like Jia Tolentino have written about so smartly), and I felt very steeped in the culture of so-called “confessional” writing; it’s almost been something I’ve had to deprogram from, both my perception that it’s inherently positive or valuable to write about yourself and also the way that doing so serves my ego and fuels my narcissism. Writing this book as a novel felt like a very gentle tug away from personal narrative. My next book will be much more of a departure. I’m giving you my word on that. Mercifully, I’m not as interested in myself as a subject as I once was.

TM: Your novel moved me to my core: that’s a pun (Intended, thank you very much), because the shaman identifies a mass in Sam’s core, which basically stores the years of trauma he’s experienced. It made me think about what I live with, things I’m learning to live with. Was writing this novel a way of coexisting with the pain in your life?

SL: I’m glad to hear it resonated with you so viscerally. (Sorry.) This is tricky: I think there’s a tension between learning to live with your pain and refusing to fight your demons because they feel intractable. I should also say that I’m not a guru; if I wrote a self-help book, it would be terrible. Far be it from me to dispense life wisdom! But, both with my first book and with this one, I discovered a lot of grace in the phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, releasing it—that I had turned some tale of personal struggle into something useful that no longer belonged to me, because it now belonged to readers, and so it wasn’t mine to carry anymore. I do think we continue coexisting with pain, but I also believe, more and more, that we can learn to transcend it.

TM: Do you think that, as a society, we need to move away from the language that includes “healing” and “being fixed” and focus more on accepting the role of pain and trauma in our lives?

SL: Yes! Although I might draw a distinction between “healing” and “being fixed.” I’m definitely suspicious of anything being fixed, but I am more willing to consider a vocabulary of healing. (Maybe too willing, if I’m being honest with myself.) For those of us who’ve had access to resources like therapy or self-care—and that access is a tremendous privilege in and of itself—there can be a tendency to pathologize everything, or to view our feelings as problems to be solved. A lot of my own growth over the last couple years, as a writer and as a human being, has come from asking myself questions like: What is this discomfort trying to show me? Is there wisdom in this pain? Which I realize sounds very witchy, but I mean it in a real, practical way.

Let’s say I’m at a party and I’m having a ton of anxiety—which has been the case at every party I’ve ever been to, by the way. My first impulse is to make the anxiety the problem, and by extension, myself. But what if the anxiety is my body’s infinitely wise way of telling me that the party sucks? Can I embrace the anxiety as a teacher instead of as a fault? And can doing so allow me to be more forgiving with myself? I also think that, as the extraordinary pain of the last few months has laid bare—both from the pandemic and then more recently from the reckoning around violence against Black people and police brutality in America—we have an urgent responsibility to honor pain and trauma in our society, both the personal and the collective. It’s tempting to want to compartmentalize, or to shut down whether we are feeling our own anguish or witnessing that of others. But as we process and move through our own pain, we crack open and become more capable of empathy. That, to me, feels like its own form of healing. 

TM: Towards the end, I was reminded of something my therapist has been trying to teach me: radical acceptance. Is this something you practice in your life?

SL: It’s something that I aspire to, but I don’t know if I’d call it a practice! I’m not someone who’s historically done a great job of embracing life on life’s terms, and that’s something I’m still working on. When I got sober, people in recovery talked a lot about acceptance, and I always felt uneasy about it. My unwillingness to accept what was happening was the primary driver of my ambition—if I was truly in acceptance, wouldn’t I become complacent? But I’ve come around to it much more, or I should say that my resistance has softened. Even if I’m not in radical acceptance, I push back more gently now. Also, it sounds like you have a good therapist.

TM: I feel like the people in my life fall largely in the middle of the Venn diagram, between cynic and believer. What do you want your reader to take away in regards to the intersection of materialism and mysticism?

SL: One of my biggest frustrations with the rhetoric of self-care, especially as it’s tied up with contemporary mysticism, is that it can feel so rarefied and so classist. But self-love and self-acceptance should not be solely available to people of a certain tax bracket or race—bluntly, they are not the exclusive domain of wealthy white women, regardless of how they are sold—and I don’t really believe that you need a fancy shaman to “fix” you. Part of my goal with Broken People was to interrogate that bougie New Age culture, about which I feel so much ambivalence, even as it continuously props me up through my life. I’ve been reflecting on my own potential for healing and the extent to which change can be incremental, and function outside of a capitalist framework; my earnest hope is that it leads readers to do the same.

TM: What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

SL: You know, it’s funny—I think I learned that I am capable of saying the thing that I need to say, even if it scares me. Though it’s fiction, I poured so much of myself into this book, and it feels like a radically vulnerable act of public nudity. But for whatever reason, I needed to tell this story, and so I did, as plainly as I could. Now there are no more cobwebs.

Adulting in Motion: The Millions Interviews Emma Straub

Emma Straub is the gift that keeps on giving. She’s the New York Times-bestselling author of Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and the short story collection Other People We Married. She and her husband are the owners of the beloved Brooklyn independent bookstore Books Are Magic. She is loved and admired by the literary community far and wide. I’m not totally convinced that Emma Straub isn’t just three rays of sunshine, standing on top of each other under a trench coat.

In her latest novel, All Adults Here, out May 5 from Riverhead, Astrid Strick has had her ducks in a row all her life, no silly business, no stone left unturned. Her three grown children don’t know any mother besides the compulsively scrupulous one they grew up with, until they are introduced to a new side of Astrid, the one lurking beneath the surface, hesitant to make the leap from private to public. Since witnessing Barbara Baker, a 40-year acquaintance, die in a school bus accident, Astrid has tried to reconcile who she is now with who she thought she was as a mother, a wife, and, ultimately, a person moving toward her future. It is the story of love and growth among a triangulation of generations, of distance and collision, and what it means to be an adult still, and forever, in the throes of growing up.

Written in a signature wit that can only be delivered by Emma Straub, All Adults Here is the novel you want on repeat, the characters immune from the fade of memory. It sparkles in its own unique way among Straub’s body of work, and I was fortunate enough to discuss its unmistakable shine with her.

The Millions: There used to be a moment in the Celion Dion Vegas show—just stay with me here—and I don’t know if she does this anymore, but she would dedicate a song to “all of the children and parents in the room.” Which is, just, everybody? But also, I can’t help but feel like this book is for everybody. Was this your intention writing it?

Emma Straub: Greg, not nearly enough people start out their interviews with Celine Dion anecdotes. Thank you for starting this out on that note, I’m having a wonderful time already, no small feat these days.

To answer your question, though, that does indeed include everyone, but I think there are a lot of childless adults in the world who don’t see themselves as children, and who wouldn’t self-identify that way, despite having passed through those years of their lives. All Adults Here is very much for everybody, because, as you and Celine know, we all fall into one or both of those categories, and for me, the book is really about the point in life when you’re in the middle of that Venn diagram, and are both a parent and a child simultaneously.

TM: What was your initial motive for writing this book? What were you looking to explore and, ultimately, unearth?

ES: Oh, to have a motive! What a beautiful idea. The next time I write a book, I’m going to try that. You’re much closer when you say explore and unearth—that’s really what writing is about for me, and what writing feels like—and if we can loosely say that my motive was to write a novel about people, then what I ended up exploring—how people are or aren’t allowed to change, forgiveness, sexuality, adult sibling relationships, for a few—all came about in the exploration. If you’d asked me what my book was about when I started, I would have said the answer was cheese.

TM: You and your protagonist, Astrid Strick, are, obviously, at very different points in your respective lives. What was it like getting in her head?

ES: Delicious. I loved Astrid. She’s tough, she’s cool to the touch, she doesn’t fuck around. Also, unlike me, she’s a successful cook and gardener and full of skills. She was a pleasure. And I think that through her, I was working to better understand women in my mother’s generation—maybe mothers in all generations—but mothers who are further down the road than I am. My kids are four and six years old, and already I feel like I understand life so much more differently than I could before. This is obviously not to say that people without children can’t understand people of different ages and stages—I think I’m just a bit slow, actually, to understand things.

TM: Even though she dies on the first page, Barbara Baker is very much an omnipresent character throughout the book, serving as a reminder to live authentically, especially for Astrid. Was Barbara and her death your first choice as That Moment of something clicking for someone—in this case, Astrid—or were there other moments you considered as well? What made you ultimately choose Barbara’s death as the impetus for what follows?

ES: Oh yes, that scene was so much fun to write. It’s not a spoiler, because it’s the very first sentence. Poor Barbara gets whacked right off the bat. It just felt right, to have someone who feels neutral to set the whole thing in motion, and then, at the end, to see Barbara from the inside. I guess I was thinking about a character like Barbara—an acquaintance, someone who Astrid had formerly socialized with but not for decades—because I’m surrounded by people like that at [Books Are Magic]. Parents of kids I went to school with, former teachers. That sort of thing. And of course people I’ve met just through the store, but now say hello to on the sidewalk three times a day. It’s a funny thing, being a fixture in a small town. Even if that small town is Brooklyn.

TM: You reference Don Hill’s, a former nightlife staple for any club kid in New York City, in the book. I used to spend a lot of time there myself! Do you have any memories from this place, beloved and missed by the nightlife community, and if not, what made you choose to include this particular spot in the book?

ES: I spent a lot of time at Don Hill’s. A lot. Oh, lord. I loved it so. We used to go in high school, on ‘80s night. This was like 1996 to 2001, I’d say, high school and college. There were always movie stars. I followed Joaquin Phoenix around the whole place, when he and Liv Tyler were dating. She would dance and he would sulk. It was incredible. We were cool NYC kids, and would never dream of approaching a celebrity, but one night I was so very, very drunk, and I was standing in that narrow hallway waiting for the bathroom, and Liev Schreiber was suddenly right next to me—this was in the days of The Daytrippers, and Walking and Talking, and Scream, all truly exceptional movies that I loved—and I clapped my hand on his arm and said, like a 96-year-old grandmother, “Li-ev Schriber! I am such a fan!” And then, of course, I ran into him on the street the next two days in a row. I miss being young and stupid in New York City.

TM: Robin, whom we originally meet as August, is trans. You write her and her arc with such care and sensitivity. How did you ensure writing this character with responsibility and respect to the trans experience?

ES: Thank you. As a cis-woman, obviously I can only try to understand the experience, and I would never try too write a book that was exclusively a trans character’s story, because there are fabulous trans writers for that. I’m reading Jordy Rosenberg’s The Confessions of the Fox right now, and one of my fave YA debuts in recent years is Tobly McSmith’s Stay Gold—but I did feel like I could write Robin’s story with love and care. I asked a trans friend to read it. I read a lot of books about gender, a lot of kids books in particular. And I watched a lot of YouTube and Tumblr coming out stories. I hope I did Robin proud. I certainly was proud of her. I don’t think there’s anything more brave than a kid knowing who they are, and telling the world. One of my children identifies as non-binary. We talk a lot about gender in my house.

TM: What did you learn about yourself, as a parent, while writing this book?

ES: Oh god, a lot. I learned a lot about myself as a parent and a child and a person, in part because of the book but also because it took me four years, and so much of my life has changed in that time. Hell, so much of my life has changed in the last month! Could I tell you exactly what I learned? No. But I can tell you that I’m very glad that I found a therapist I love before the pandemic.

TM: You, as you mention, birthed your third child, your bookstore, during the writing of this book. How has becoming the owner of a bookstore influenced your voice as an author?

ES: I don’t know if the store has influenced my voice, per se, but it has certainly influenced my reading habits, and my book intake, which of course only adds to a writer’s voice. I love my bookstore. I don’t want to spend too much time on this question because I will start crying. Let me just say that I really, really can’t wait until we can open our doors again. 

TM: You write that Astrid had “always been trying to survive one day so that she could live the next,” which is a helpful and poignant reminder to live in the present, to find joy where you can. How are you finding joy right now, in the midst of this global health crisis, on top of also having to promote a book and take care of your business and employees? 

ES: So, a lot of childless people on social media are just cackling to themselves (and to me! directly! which is very rude!) about how much better it is not to have children at this moment. In some ways, sure, you have endless days to yourself, and can learn how to knit or read all of Tolstoy or whatever. But if I were alone, I would be spending a lot of time reading the news, and on Twitter, and watching CNN, and I think I would be a wreck. Because I’m with my kids all day, I’m not doing that. I’m building things out of Legos. I’m playing games. I’m watching My Little Pony. I’m baking cookies. I’m cuddling and reading books with the people I love most in the world. So that’s where I’m finding joy.

Obviously, the twin worries of my business and my book are enormous, but honestly, and I don’t know if I should say this, but I’m a very ambitious person, and always have been, and the silver lining of this horrible, horrific experience is for my ambition to sit down for a little while. I want people to buy my book, of course, and I want my business to survive and succeed, but right now I just want the world to be okay.

TM: Books Are Magic is my second home, as it is for so many in the community. How are you all doing?

ES: Thank you for asking. We are doing okay. It’s weird and uncertain, and we’re taking each day as it comes, but we’ve been flooded by online orders, and so we are buoyed by the support of the community and the neighborhood.

TM: Besides ordering books from the website, what are other things we can do to support the store and its employees?

ES: I’m glad you asked! There are lots of things one can do. Shipping things out (whether things are shipping from the store or from a warehouse, as the case may be, depending on what different bookstores are doing) costs money, and so if you really want to do a store a solid right now, order a gift certificate. But yes, order books, order merch. Buy audiobooks from Libro.fm, buy ebooks from Kobo. Buy subscriptions, or join memberships programs. If there isn’t a store you love, but you want to support bookstores more generally, order books from Bookshop.org, which gives money back to indie bookstores, unlike Amazon, which is just out to crush all of our souls. I think if this slowing down is good for anything, it will be all of us living more intentionally, and thinking before we make choices. Shop like your life depends on it, because it does. What is New York without small businesses? What is your neighborhood without the places you love and rely on for community and sustenance?

TM: Releasing a book right now seems to be scary and uncertain at best. But what is one good thing about releasing a book right now?

ES: As for a good thing about having a book come out right now, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something other than my total lack of anxiety about it, because my anxiety is working so hard in other zones. But if that’s a silver lining, I’ll take it.