Author photograph: Josh Wool.
In reading Sarah McCarry’s review of Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon’s Nothing on ‘The Rejectionist,’ I really appreciated when she referred to Two Dollar Radio as “a press that keeps putting out great, boundary-pushing work by women.”
Sarah Gerard is another boundary-pushing, exceptional, and fresh female voice, and I’m really excited to be working with her. Gerard is a former bookseller at McNally Jackson, who currently works for BOMB Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine (the Cut), the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slice Magazine, New South, Bookforum, the Paris Review Daily, and BOMBlog. Her chapbook, Things I Told My Mother, about her participation in a topless march, was published last fall by Von Zos. We’ll publish Binary Star, Gerard’s debut novel, one year from now, on January 13, 2015.
Like a star, the anorexic burns fuel that isn’t replenished; she is held together by her own gravity. With luminous, lyrical prose, Binary Star is an impassioned account of a young woman struggling with anorexia and her long-distance, alcoholic boyfriend. On a roadtrip circumnavigating the United States, they stumble into a book on veganarchism, and believe they’ve found a direction. It is an intense, elegiac portrait of young lovers as they battle extreme personal afflictions, toy with veganarchism, and traverse the American countryside.
Q: You wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times about your struggles with anorexia. The unnamed narrator in Binary Star, her hunger owns her existence. It is her addiction and her affliction. How hard was it for you to mine your own life for material?
It was difficult insofar as I had to inhabit a character that was, herself, very sick, and reinhabit the logic, or illogic, of disordered eating. It’s a kind of insanity: to want to be sick, to want to suffer horribly, to force that upon oneself and justify it by saying, “I’m only valuable if I’m in pain, I’m only valuable if I’m wasting away. I don’t deserve to be healthy.” And it was compounded by the fact that I was literally alone while doing this. I purposely arranged my life so that I had no support structure while I was returning to this way of thinking. There was no one around to remind me of what was healthy or unhealthy for me, at this point in my recovery, or tell me that I was enjoying this obsessive way of thinking too much, which was a real danger.
At the same time, the narrator’s obsession forms the engine of the book; her hunger is literalized in the driving, urgent voice of the story. I’m a big fan of Lydia Davis’s book The End of the Story, and thought about it a lot while I was writing Binary Star. Her narrator’s need compels her to act in a way that actually works against her. It feeds itself, and drives the story forward. In a strange way, Binary Star’s narrator finds a sick satisfaction in never being satisfied, at least not in a way we’re accustomed to recognize. When I finally decided to get help for my eating disorder, I confessed to an emergency room nurse that I hadn’t slept in weeks. This was partially because I had been replacing food with diet pills. But it’s also because hunger is a motivator – it forces us to act, to stay alive.
Q: In many ways, our culture contributes to keeping us sick. Or needing. Or wanting. Our unnamed narrator struggles with eating disorders. She is a preferred pharmacy shopper – drinking Red Bulls, consuming diet pills, splurging on gossip rags with their weight-loss secrets and fascination with celebrity diets. Can you talk about this?
I would never argue in favor of this reaction, but it seems to lend itself to the explanation that an eating disorder is a radical stance against this culture of consumption. Some studies place the number of people suffering from eating disorders in the U.S. at 10 million; others place it as high as 30 million. Eating disorders are most prevalent in Western cultures by far, with the United States consistently ranking highest, and the number of people suffering from eating disorders in the U.S. has gone up each decade since the 1950s.
There’s a false understanding of people suffering from eating disorders which says that, if you’re starving yourself, you’re not consuming. That is absolutely not true. You consume almost constantly. One of my favorite things to do, when I was starving myself, was buy and read gossip magazines. I had hundreds of them in my kitchen. I knew all the stories. The months before I finally sought help, when I was deepest in my sickness, coincided with one of Hollywood’s many “scary skinny” crises. Nicole Richie was my favorite; I coveted the shadow between her thumb and her wrist when she held a cup of coffee. I tried to emulate it when I held my own cups of coffee five or six times a day. I ate that shit up. I knew all the tricks. I acted on every single diet pill ad – Walgreen’s was right down the street from my apartment. I hid the pills everywhere: in my dresser, under my mattress, behind books on my bookshelf, anywhere where I thought my roommate wouldn’t find them. More than once, in a state of paralyzing fear, I threw them all away. Once, I gave them to my friend and begged her to keep them away from me. Then I went and bought new ones.
It’s unjust and infuriating that our culture preys on its weakest members. It cripples our thinking, and proceeds to take advantage of our disability. When I finished the first draft of Binary Star, I broke down in tears and cried for several minutes. I had never been so angry, because I finally saw how I’d been lied to. Everything I had been taught about beauty, and health, and eating, was a big, evil lie. And not only is it false, it had been used against me. It almost killed me. And it happens to millions of people every day.
Q: Much of the action of Binary Star occurs during a roadtrip the young couple takes circumnavigating the United States. To satisfy my own interest in the subject, can you tell us something about your time hopping trains cross-country?
I talk about this a bit in the New York Times essay, but I didn’t have a whole lot of space to elaborate. I also tried to write a novel on the subject when I returned to Florida, after the accident that I talk about in the Times, but honestly, it’s very hard to write about being on a freight train for someone who’s never done it before. It’s a completely sensory experience. William Volllmann wrote about it well in Riding Toward Everywhere, and I also enjoy Ted Conover’s book Rolling Nowhere, although both of them focus more on the hobo culture around train hopping than the feeling of being on a train going 75 miles per hour through wilderness in the middle of the night, while you’re slipping in and out of exhausted sleep. There are no words for that.
We weren’t just hopping freight trains, though. We were also hitchhiking and scraping together money for Greyhound buses, and sleeping in very strange places, and walking a lot. We were outside pretty much all day, every day. We went all the way up to Maine and stayed with my boyfriend’s uncle on the coast for two weeks, and helped him paint his house, and read books, and spent a lot of time at the Goodwill in town. I was reading Loren Eiseley’s book The Night Country, which at this point occupies a very fuzzy place in my head, all mixed up with other images from that time.
We only hopped a few trains, and only up the east coast, before we jumped from one in Buffalo and were both injured. I ended up with a hundred and fifty stitches in my face and a missing tooth, and he ended up with a lot of cuts and bruises and a sprained wrist. Later, he left again to hop trains with some people and I’m not sure where he went exactly, but it was clear that, even after our accident, he hadn’t had enough of that lifestyle. That should tell you how addictive trains can be.
But before I leave everyone with the idea that they should run out and catch a train on the fly, let me say this: riding trains illegally is extremely, extremely dangerous. Your body is no match for the force behind thousands of tons of steel. If you get on or off a train the wrong way even one time, you will lose a limb or die. I’ve heard hundreds of stories.
As thrilling as it was at the time, and for all of the funny stories I took away from that brief excursion, what I did was incredibly stupid. By all rights, I should be dead today. I’m lucky.
Q: How is the language of the stars the language of the body?
Another way to say this might be, “The psychology of stars is the psychology of the body.” While I was writing Binary Star, I was also doing a lot of research into the life cycles of stars, in particular white dwarfs and red giants, and the cycles of stars in binary relationships. Stars are vulnerable. They react to each other. They’re born and are alive, and their lifespans are determined primarily by their mass, which is an incredibly useful concept for someone writing about an eating disorder. The burning of a dying star became an analog for the cold burn of starvation.
Stars burn out and die, or explode from pressure, or “run away,” or “dredge-up” material from their cores. They’re luminous or dim. They orbit each other. They’re drawn to each other. They’re violent, unstable. Hot and cool. How is their language ours? It just is.
Q: You wrote much of the book during the course of a single month, when you rented a trailer and rarely left. What was that like?
I knew that, in order to write this story, I would have to place extreme restrictions on my social life in order to remove every restriction from my psychological life. I anticipated going completely insane by the end of the month, which is exactly what happened. I think I showered once. I lived on mostly raw vegetables and coffee, with few exceptions. I turned off my phone and set an away message on my email and went dark on social media. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, except for a handful of people, which included my parents and my husband. My husband and I talked for about 30 minutes a night. It helped that he was also away writing at the time.
The trailer was in a 65+ retirement community about twenty minutes from my parents’ house in Florida, and was completely pink inside. My neighbor had a recliner and a huge plasma-screen T.V. on his screened-in porch, and a light-up electric palm tree decoration by his front door. I wrote about him a few times in letters to friends. There were many adult tricycles. It stormed a few times. It was the quietest place in the world. So, in other words, it was heaven.
I woke up at 7:00 every day and read until 10:00, then wrote until I couldn’t write anymore, which was usually around midnight. I finished the final draft as the sun was rising on the day of my high school reunion.
If you’re interested in reviewing Binary Star, or are a bookseller who would like to receive an advance copy, please email eric[at]twodollarradio.com.