If you caught the excerpt we ran last November from Sarah Gerard's debut novel, Binary Star, you are already aware of her ability to take the cosmic aspects of a human body and bring them down into your hands. Using a stop-start style that folds its energy into and onto itself over and again to disburse its narrative, the grander scheme of the novel is an exploration into the depths of several varieties of contemporary personal torment. Gerard explores everything from body dysmorphia and bulimia, to onslaught of ads and social media and desire for consumption, to damaging relationships and phobias and trepidation over the future, to simply wanting more from life.
What's most satisfying about the novel, though, is Gerard's ability to wield such a familiar range of personal terror in a vibrant, addictive display of prose. More than just a relentless confession amidst the narrator's sprawl into emotive depths, Gerard enacts a nearly Kathy Acker-esque intensity to her dictation, invoking styles at times clipped and maniacal, like Artaud, other times siren-shriekingly transcendent or trauma-shocked-out calm. There's no sense of varnish to her realism, and no mode in which the feeling slips out of the frame of being led on through a personal hell so meticulously considered, it feels as much like science as it does the wider product of great pain.
I got in touch with Sarah to talk with her about her approach to the book's creation, how its writing changed her, the question of personal experience in fiction, her veganism, and more.
VICE: I didn't want to assume at first that Binary Star was based on your life; but then I read a note somewhere that said it was an autobiographical account. Is that correct?
Sarah Gerard: The book is not a strictly autobiographical account at all—I drew from my life about as much as the next person, but I suspect the question of autobiography is important with this kind of story because anorexia is something a lot of people are curious about. Honestly, I didn't give much thought to how I toed the line between fiction and experience while I was writing the book, maybe because I was more concerned with landing in a place that was emotionally accurate and because I felt instinctively that I was fictionalizing enough of the story to protect the innocent, if there are any. True, I went on a road trip with a boyfriend. And true, I spent many years struggling with anorexia and bulimia. I was student teaching during the worst of it. But otherwise, everything is fictional. I would even argue that the entire book is fictional because the narrator is fictional.
With that said, I'm also an essayist and have written about my own life enough to have to consider how it will affect others. I haven't always made the best choices in this regard—this is the "onslaught" you refer to—but I do my best to be even-handed and I change or omit names where necessary. I can't always portray people in the most flattering light, though, if the light I'm using is fair. But that's their fault, not mine.
The novel opens with a sequence of brief passages that seem to act like intense flashes of energy, as if preparing the reader for the following, larger sections of the book, which you refer to as "dredge-ups." I assume that's a reference to the way the book was composed?
Beginning the book, I actually thought that I could write it all the way through in the style of the prologue, and I do think I might have been able to do that. But the dredge-ups lent the book a sense of order, and also literalized the link between the protagonist and stars; that she was literally a star dredging up this core material, undergoing a three-act change in her physical state and her color. So, you're right that "dredge-up" is a reference to the way I wrote the book, but it's also a stage in the evolution of a star—the passages that begin the sections describe the events comprising each of these stages. There are two or three before a star becomes a carbon star, depending on its mass, unless it undergoes some other kind of change in the meantime, like a supernova. Of course, the actual writing of Binary Star was also very difficult, as I think writing a book always is. A writer can't help but be changed by the end.
One of the things I loved about the feel of the book was its ability to shift through styles while maintaining a kind of emotional fervency all throughout. Were there any other writers you were reading or thinking about that were integral to your approach?
I can't say she's a major influence, but someone whose work I think is very interesting and very important, and whom I often think about when I consider what I was trying to do with Binary Star, is the Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo. She's unafraid to make her body the center of her work, a site to make social and political injustice visible and tangible, with the idea that the body is always the place where violence occurs. For the same reason, Elaine Scarry's work has become very important to me, especially her book On Beauty and Being Just. Scarry has written extensively on torture and its world-destroying power, but On Beauty and Being Just is the counterpoint to her ideas about torture. In her mind, beauty is world-creating; it's the opposite of torture; beauty is linked to altruism, which helps us to address issues of injustice as we see them. Beauty helps us to care, and because we care, we care-take. Lastly, Binary Star opens with an epigraph from Raoul Vaneigem's book The Revolution of Everyday Life, which people have described as a somewhat more poetic version of the Situationist text The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord. I was reading it while I wrote Binary Star, so inevitably some of its ideas made their way into the book. Less specifically, my training in music and dance—neither of which I've practiced seriously for many years, but which I practiced every day for many years as a younger person—helped me a lot in writing Binary Star. I wanted the book to feel like it was composed of complicated rhythms that could be felt in the body. An accelerated heartbeat, tapping of the foot, hands moving in circular motions.
Since this is your first published novel, I wondered if the visceral approach that produced it is something that came to you after trying to approach other, perhaps less volatile, subjects and not finding what you wanted, or if this is the kind of book you always knew you would have to write?
I've been trying to write a book since I was a little kid. Binary Star is actually the second book I've completed, though I'd never dream of showing the first book to a wider audience. The first is called Elephant Tracks—a title I still like, actually—and it's about a couple that goes train-hopping up the east coast and gets seriously hurt jumping off a train. It's also autobiographical, though more so than Binary Star; I actually did go train-hopping with an ex, and it ended badly. So, I suppose I've always wanted to write about difficult subjects. I've just never been able to do it well until now.
My father is also a writer and was talking to an editor when I finished Elephant Tracks. I showed the editor the book and he basically told me I needed to take writing classes and left it at that. I was heartbroken, having worked on the book every day for a year. But I learned a lot from the sheer effort of writing it: how to make a scene, how to keep a writing schedule, how to say no when people try to distract you from your schedule, how to write dialogue. I don't mean to say that I did any of these things well at the end, but I was certainly improved.
When I wrote the version of Binary Star that exists in bookstores today, I was working with a metaphor I had carried over from another attempt at writing the book, which I didn't complete. In that form, it was about two girls in the summer after they graduate high school. I think best friendships can be extremely powerful, but this relationship wasn't working for me. I was only able to finish Binary Star once I went for blood—that being my own.
In what way did writing this book change you?
When I went down to Florida, I had been eating meat for about three years since starting again in 2010. Vegetarianism and veganism have been lifelong core values to me. I was raised vegetarian and have gone vegan a few times, and was vegan when I went to eating disorder rehab. In the past, I've told people I started eating meat again because I was recovering from anorexia and didn't want to restrict my food in any way, but that's actually not true for a few reasons. First, I was vegan for the whole two months I was in rehab, and was working closely with a nutritionist to make sure I got all of the nutrients I needed and was gaining healthy weight, and I continued living a vegan lifestyle for a few years after leaving rehab. Second, I don't think of a vegan diet as a restrictive one at all: the idea is to get all of the nutrients the body needs without harming other living things—in that way, it can actually be quite nutritive, in a physical and spiritual sense.
Finally, I started eating meat again because I was still a very sick person in the sense that my identity was very unclear to me and I was looking around desperately for anything that might help me define myself. I've always had a very punk rock sensibility but at the time I was clinging to punk rock in a way that I see now was very dishonest and unhealthy—I'm not sure how else to put it. In the past, I've used romantic connection to feel stabilized and this has manifested in promiscuous or adulterous ways. I started sleeping with a friend of mine whom I eventually started dating, and dated for several years. He was a carnivore, and because I was completely out of touch with my own values, I started eating meat with him.
When I decided to include veganarchism in Binary Star, I was forced to refamiliarize myself with a belief system that, at one time, had meant a lot to me. I don't necessarily subscribe to every aspect of veganarchist ideology, but as I was writing, I felt all these areas of my core belief system reawakening, with the foundational belief being that no living thing should be forced to live in oppressive—and in the case of factory farming, world-destroying—conditions. I realized that compromising my values in this way had led to a total compromise of my identity as a nonviolent person. Every day, I was contributing to the useless torture of countless animals, and the rape of the planet, and thus had severed my humanity—I was basically living adrift, and had been harboring years of guilt. In short, by the time I left Florida, I was vegan again, and I continue to live vegan.
Binary Star is available now from Two Dollar Radio.
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