Sarah Gerard on ‘True Love’ and Corporeal Writing

Sarah Gerard’s latest novel, True Love, offers up a darkly comic and often heartbreaking critique of modern society, politics and romance. The story follows college dropout and struggling writer Nina on an increasingly desperate and deceitful search for connection, security, and self in the age of Trump. From a seedy Florida suburb to even seedier digs in New York City, Nina chews her way through self-absorbed family, lovers, and friends, seeking to escape her relentlessly bad choices and discover her place in a detached world. 

Last month, I got a chance to speak with Gerard about True Love, her thoughts on its place in the Southern literary tradition, the fluidity of language in a wired world, corporeal writing, and reaching readers during a pandemic.

Your 2017 book of essays, Sunshine State, draws deeply on your childhood in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area to produce what NPR book critic Jason Heller calls “unflinchingly candid memoir bolstered by thoughtfully researched history.” Your novel True Love, though for the most part set in New York, also feels to me like Florida runs under its surface, stinking like the red tide. Is this a really a Southern novel disguised as a New York story?

At first it seems absurd to think of True Love as being in the tradition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gone With the Wind, As I Lay Dying, or To Kill a Mockingbird. But then I think of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, a book that absolutely influenced True Love, and I do have to reconsider the extent to which I may have written a Southern novel. Thinking of Edna Pontellier’s fate in The Awakening leads me to remember the reasons for Nina’s own proximity to the Gulf of Mexico in the opening chapters of True Love, and Nina’s story as being one, too, of a woman contending with stifling societal structures and expectations. True Love’s focus on the degradation of the natural environment, and its political critique — even Nina’s allusion to Christianity’s infusing Southern culture in a later chapter, and her description of Aaron’s family as “faithless,” could be seen in the light of its Southern lineage. Nina moves to New York, but she remains in touch with friends and family in Florida, and their language is decorated with Southernisms like “y’all,” and “white trash.” I could also imagine Ignatius Jacques Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces being a character in True Love, couldn’t you?

I lost count of how many times your main character, Nina, professes love — for the self-centered, often abusive men in her life, for family, for friends. And yet, there is no way her story can be called a love story. What is “true love” for someone like Nina?

I have an essay coming out in Lit Hub called “On Writing True Love,” where I talk about what true love is. It proceeds from honesty. It promotes growth and healing. For Nina, finding true love would require a lot of deep introspection and practice breaking bad habits, reckoning with her choices and their aftereffects. 

I thought author Catherine Lacey’s description of Nina as a woman intent “on living at the apex of desire and self-destruction” is perfect. She also called True Love  “a rush,” and I agree with that too. How did you manage to make the ugly and sad story of Nina’s relentlessly horrible choices both an invigorating and oftentimes hilarious read?

This is a very compact book; things happen quickly, and the consequences for Nina’s choices often are severe, and compounding. Nina is narrating her own story, so the book’s humor follows from her perspective on the book’s events. It sometimes appears as a necessity to relieve tension, because many moments in this book are designed for maximum cringe. Sometimes it’s Nina’s defensiveness, sometimes her self-deprecation. True Love is a satire among other things, so humor also comes from the reader’s own pleasure at the recognition of what they’re seeing: a person or far-too-typical situation being rightfully dragged for their shittiness.

There’s a dreamlike quality, albeit kind of a nightmare, to the way Nina’s internal dialogue and her observations of and conversations in the external world blend together. You also work into the mix text messages and photos, emails, and even a porn revenge video. I know lots of novels use texts and such, but none that I can think of do it with such fluidity. Can you talk about how you incorporate electronic communications when you shape your characters’ points of view?

I divide my narrator’s point of view much as I experience my own being divided up on a daily basis by overlapping conversations or tasks such as answering an email while making dinner, or looking up something about a movie while watching it. I also notice myself thinking about online interactions even when I’m not looking at my phone or computer, because I regard them as happening with real people in the real world, though that might not always be the case. My daily tasks are mitigated by my need to spend a certain amount of time on the internet, and the effects of that time on my mood and attention. Nina’s communication patterns are defined by her complex relationships with the people in her life, scrutinized and mediated through all available mediums including phone calls, text messages, emails, and interactions on social media. All of this finds its way into her narration, as she uses the information gathered from various sources to draw conclusions and make choices, which translate into action. 

There’s a lot of sex in this book, but it’s in no way sexy. But it is overwhelmingly corporeal, swampy not hot, and again Florida comes to mind. Then again, that may just be me trying to make you into a Southern writer. Can you speak to why you feel the body plays such an outsized role in your work?

I don’t think it’s outsized, but I agree it plays an important role. Touch is a central part of the book because it’s a basic human need, one of the first things an infant requires outside the womb. Ideally, it communicates safety, care, warmth, healing, connectedness, bonding. This is what Nina wants to find in her encounters with other people, but instead she finds that touch can also be a form of manipulation and control. 

Violence manifests in the body, even structural violence: unequal pay results in diminished ability to support oneself and one’s family with necessities like food and medicine, for example. At one point, Nina is unable to afford birth control due to her inability to sign up for insurance at her minimum-wage retail job. This may seem minor compared to another example of violence in the book: the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In both cases, we see the results of violence, to borrow a phrase from Jeanette Winterson, “written on the body.”

There are some sex scenes in True Love but I don’t consider them to be any more important with regard to how I’m treating Nina’s body, as an author, than any other scene in which I draw attention to it, such as when she’s fighting with Aaron.

Lidia Yuknavitch has based her entire writing practice and workshop series on the idea that all experience and information comes through the body, and that if we center the body’s experience in our writing, then our writing, and our stories, will feel different. She calls this Corporeal Writing.

How do you think a character like Nina, so dependent on her relationships with men, would fare in a time of social distancing?

Nina depends on her relationships with everyone in her life, not only men: consider her relationship with her mother, distinctly codependent. There’s a kaleidoscopic cast of men in the book because I was interested in showcasing varieties of toxic masculinity. Her dependence on men is a kind of trance; basically, patriarchy is brainwashing. But to answer your question, Nina is fundamentally a loner, and that is in conflict with her loneliness, but I think she’d probably benefit from spending more time by herself, and despite her initial discomfort, would find plenty of ways to entertain herself while social distancing. 

It really stinks to have a book release during a pandemic with so many venues for readings closed and so many readers staying home. We’d love to list what you’ve got planned for the release here and send some readers your way.

I’m not planning to do any more Zoom events because I find them very awkward, but I’m pre-recording a conversation with Catherine Lacey and Raven Leilani, which will be online sometime in August on Burrow Press’s website, and the topic will be love. I’m also publishing a short story in Guernica, called “The Killer,” and a feature in the New York Times Sunday Review, called “The Road to Cassadaga,” both in July. Otherwise, I’m encouraging readers to celebrate True Love’s release with me by buying their copies from independent bookstores instead of Amazon — I’ve signed copies of books at Tombolo Books, in St. Petersburg, FL, which is donating 10% from every sale through July to the local chapter of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I’ve mailed signed bookplates to a number of other stores around the country, since developing a small obsession with them. I’m hoping to channel my new compulsion into my strong belief in supporting communities at the local level. Any indie bookstores that want bookplates are welcome to reach out and I’ll mail them at no charge. Current stores include:

Thank You Books, Birmingham, AL
Third House Books, Gainesville, FL
Writer’s Block Bookstore, Orlando, FL
Charis Books & More, Atlanta, GA
Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, NC
Books Are Magic, Brooklyn, NY
Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY
Unnameable Books, Brooklyn, NY
Book Revue, Huntington, NY
The Merritt Bookstore + Toy Store, Millbrook, NY
White Whale Books, Pittsburgh, PA
BookPeople, Austin, TX
Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX

FICTION
True Love
By Sarah Gerard
Harper
Published July 7, 2020