This is the first entry in a new series that looks at contemporary publishing through the lens of how new books are written or made, especially by younger writers, and how these writers “make it” over the hurdles set by a competitive industry.
Sarah Gerard’s debút novel, Binary Star, won’t be released until next January, but already several young, established authors—including Kate Zambreno, Jenny Offill, and Justin Taylor—are offering their praises. The novel tells the story of a young woman who struggles with anorexia, and the road trip she takes across America with her alcoholic boyfriend. I’d also mention that it deals with veganarchism and the birth and death of stars.
The novel’s publisher, Two Dollar Radio — a new press based out Columbus, Ohio — has already put together a catalogue of impressive titles, including Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. Still, TDR is a small and growing press with limited resources for book marketing and advertising. Knowing that she wanted to tour with Binary Star, Gerard recently decided to start a Kickstarter campaign (still ongoing) to raise money for a book tour. This week I spoke to her about the forthcoming novel and her motivation to start the Kickstarter campaign.
Can you give us a little background on Binary Star? What it’s about and how you got started with it?
Binary Star began as my graduate thesis, and in that form it was the story of two girls in the summer after they graduated from high school. It was based on a relationship that I had with a friend at the time. But I think I was trying to do too many things with the form — with formal experimentation. I got pretty far into the book, or the story, but it wasn’t really doing anything interesting or dramatic. I turned it in for my thesis, and it was fine. They accepted it, and I graduated, but I didn’t feel motivated to write any more of that story. So I threw it away, and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s that.”
Later I published a piece in the New York Times about my recovery from anorexia. Afterward, an agent contacted me to ask if I planned to write more. I had wanted to write about it, but no one had ever really invited me to do that before. So, I said, “Now I am!” I sat down to write, and it quickly became something I could control. I didn’t have to push the story; it was fine by itself. All I had to do was write it. And I had wanted to go in directions that weren’t purely factual. I decided that was okay.
The novel is about a girl in her last year of college who is struggling with anorexia, and she has a troubled relationship with a boy who lives in Chicago. They decide to go on a road trip. When they leave, it’s apparent that they care for each other — they want to help each other. In Portland, they find a book on veganarchism, and they become involved in the “beginner kit” sort-of ideology. They get carried away. They plan this political direct action. All the while, she’s falling apart. The novel is told from her point of view, and the narrative also mixes in what she’s studying in school, which includes the birth and death of stars.
Isn’t there a backstory about how you absconded to a trailer to write the book?
Yeah! I got about 70 pages into the book while I was working part-time at McNally Jackson Books. I was also freelancing. It made me feel scattered creatively. I had time to write, but I didn’t necessarily have time to write the things that I wanted to write, and because I was interrupted so often, it was hard to make much progress. So my parents live in Florida, and their friends own a retire community — with mobile homes — and they gave me a deal on a mobile home for a month. It was really, really cheap: half the cost of my rent. So I was alone, and the only other people in the neighborhood were over 65. So nobody bothered me! I lived on raw vegetables and coffee. And I wrote. It was great. Then at the end of the month I went to my high school reunion.
Your book is published with Two Dollar Radio, an impressive, new, and small independent press based out of Columbus, Ohio. In conjunction with the launch of the book, you’re also in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign for the book tour. Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to do this? And how it came about?
It’s difficult when you’re publishing with a small press because you believe so strongly in what small presses do: they give a voice to authors who are writing about nontraditional subjects in nontraditional ways. That’s so important. From a purely political standpoint: that’s so important. Not to mention the quality of the books, which, in my opinion, is so often superior to larger publishers. I’m also thinking of presses like Dorothy. They’re championing highly intelligent and talented women writers. And Triple Canopy!
But because small presses have less capital, it’s difficult for their authors to do all of the things that authors at larger houses are supposed to do. The responsibility falls to small press authors and their communities to support this kind of art-making. I really believe that the things I want to talk about are important, and I believe that any writer who publishes feels this way about their work. So I’m calling on my community for support. And I hope they do not see this as a narcissistic or self-indulgent endeavor. This is my attempt to have a conversation about fundamental problems in our culture. The way we talk about women’s bodies. The way we talk about food. And the way we talk about scientific discovery. Where we place our values. There’s a nice echo of the book in the tour itself.
How did you get involved with Kickstarter?
I have a friend at Kickstarter who helped look over our materials. So we’re basically finalizing the tour now, which is great because I get to update the followers of the Kickstarter as we do it. We’re also introducing new rewards every couple of days. (We have a new one coming up soon!) And I’m sending out some of the rewards while the campaign is going on. I like to make collages! We made temporary tattoos. It’s all very DIY. Actually, I have a tattoo on right now!
Yes, I would wear that temporary tattoo.
Really? I should have brought one. Shit. Sorry! Yeah, but we’re doing everything at home, which is very interesting. David [Sarah’s husband] is making the videos, and he’s brilliant. It’s been so amazing. People I have talked to in years are donating, people I’ve never met before that now I get to talk to. Then there are people I’m reading with on tour that I’ve never met—they’ve gotten in touch. Someone on Twitter — that I’ve never met before — offered us a free apartment on tour. People want to help!
Did the idea to do the Kickstarter come from Two Dollar Radio? You? Or was is it a conversation?
It came from me! (Laughs.) I don’t want my book to disappear. It took everything out of me to write just one book. Now I’m ready to write more. I know that I won’t be able to write the books I want to write, if I have to worry that I don’t have an audience
You can’t start at ground zero every time.
Exactly. I never thought that I would publish a book and never do anything about it afterward. Why would a writer do that?
Beyond the question of natural or earned writerly talent: Do you think that your work history contributed to your knowledge of how to navigate the publishing industry? I know you’ve worked in various capacities in New York publishing.
Well, I’ve done a lot of things on my own. I think that’s the biggest thing. But working at McNally Jackson was a wonderful education about how publishing works. When I moved to New York I didn’t know, well, very much about how publishing works, although I definitely knew some things. I had edited a few literary journals — very small journals. I didn’t know exactly what publishing was like on a large scale, when there are many titles coming out at once. And of course I didn’t know about the amount of work that goes into doing a reading series. From that perspective, I now know, for example, when to get in touch with a book store—several months in advance. And I now know what will draw a crowd, because I’ve seen some of it work and some of it not work [at McNally Jackson].
I’ve been making art since I was a child. I know that there is so much work that goes into making art. It’s way more than just harnessing creative energy. You need to have office skills. You have to actually love spreadsheets. I hate to say that, but I feel like you really need to know how to use a spreadsheet.