An interview with Sarah Gerard, the author of “Sunshine State,” the highly acclaimed new collection of essays set in her native Florida.
By Emma Sarappo
Born and raised in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, author Sarah Gerard combines memoir and investigative journalism in her new book “Sunshine State” (Harper Perennial). A collection of eight essays, “Sunshine State” deftly covers topics ranging from homelessness in Pinellas County to the history of the New Thought Movement to Amway and multilevel marketing to domestic violence, pivoting in style and tone but remaining anchored in Gerard’s life and voice.
“Sunshine State” is not a comprehensive answer to the question “What is Florida?”, but instead is a peek into the vast trove of experiences, stories, and characters in the state — tales often overlooked in favor of quick jokes about the absurdity exhibited in headlines that begin “Florida Man ____.”
I spoke with Gerard about the writing of the book, the “Florida Man” meme, the impact of Disney, and the Southern-ness of America’s southernmost contiguous state.
Emma Sarappo: So I finished “Sunshine State” maybe a couple weeks ago, and I thought it was fantastic. There's a lot I could ask you about, but the broadest question is: Why write a book of essays about Florida, especially considering the thematic range of all of the things you cover?
Sarah Gerard: Well, the fact that I grew up there, so it was very accessible. It was broad enough to contain a lot. It's something that I know well, but wanted to know better, and a lot of other people want to know about Florida, too. [Laughing] There's just a lot of texture in Florida, and some really good characters, and I was interested in writing on this broad range of topics. I already had most of the topics in mind that I wanted to write about when I sat down to write the proposal for this book, but then thinking further about Florida and asking myself what else could fit under that umbrella, and thinking also about what would be accessible to me as I was doing field research in the Tampa Bay area, because that's where my family lives and where I grew up. Does that make sense?
Sarappo: Yes, totally. You kind of addressed this in the essay about the seabird reservation, where you're asked "Are you a journalist?" and you say you're "more of a memoirist," but you talk about field research in the process of writing a book that is also heavy in memoir and other genres. I mean, are you a journalist? How do you see yourself there, in that sort of nebulous spectrum?
Gerard: Well, I was doing journalism, but I don't work as a journalist on a regular basis. When I was living in Florida, I was writing journalism for a couple of places, but wanted to pursue creative writing, and now in my day-to-day life I write lots of things, but I'm teaching writing. I'm not working as a journalist — but I have stories that I'm researching right now, stories I'm following. But I've never worked as a reporter, I was never a staff writer for any newspaper; it's just a tool, just a tool that I use, a tool in my toolbox. So when she asked me if I was a journalist, the honest answer in the gift shop that day was no, because I don't work as a journalist. I wasn't writing for a newspaper or a magazine.
Sarappo: Before, you mentioned that a lot of people want to know about Florida, too, and I think that's true, but I think that a lot of popular perception is that meme of the "Florida Man." How much of your writing here was a reaction to that? How did you feel about that?
Gerard: When I went to college at the age of 18, I really thought that I would never go back to Florida again. It wasn't until I left — and that wasn't because I thought of Florida as low-class, necessarily, which I think is behind the "Southern Man" or the "Florida Man" meme, I wasn't really thinking of it that way — but I didn't quite see how bizarre it was until I moved to New York, and my roommates were from New Jersey and Connecticut, and my boyfriend was from Pennsylvania. I was in a very different part of the world, among people who came from very different environments, who grew up in very different contexts, and the first thing I kind of identified as being strange about Florida, the Florida mindset, was Disney World. I grew up in such close proximity to Disney World. I've been there probably about twice a year for all the years I lived in Florida as a young person. I could begin to see how Disney kind of infused everything in Florida and then spiraled outward in these comparatively… bizarre characters, and this idea of fantasy or escapism, commercialization and development. It might be the commercialization of fantasy. When I was writing this book, it wasn't so much a reaction to the "Florida Man" meme, although that was what kind of clued me into the idea that people might be interested in Florida. I just am really interested in characters, in three-dimensional characters, and the "Florida Man" is not a three-dimensional character. He's flat. There's no complexity to him. We have already formed an opinion of him. I don't want to write [that] which I've already formed an opinion — there's nothing exciting or fascinating to me about that. In fact, it seems kind of arrogant. I was going down there to do this research in pursuit of interesting characters.
Sarappo: As a writer — and this kind of speaks back to the journalism question — how do you balance that personal, the memoir-type stuff, with the reporter? How do you think about balancing that line both when you're researching and when you're actually writing?
Gerard: Just asking myself, what do I want to know about this? Kind of continuously circling back to myself and saying, well, why am I telling this story, what is this research for, what question am I seeking to answer in it? I was really interested in the New Thought Movement. As a kid, growing up in that church, it took me a little while to realize that none of my friends knew what this church was that I was going to; that my religion was less, I don't know, common than my counterparts'. A lot of my friends were Southern Baptists, some of them went to Seventh-Day Adventist church up the street, some of them went to the Methodist church — I went to Unity. It was kind of hard for me to explain what the difference was as a kid. Even as an adult, I began to notice differences between my ex-husband and me over basic approaches to the universe. He was pretty negative; he expected to be disappointed. He expected not to succeed, which was to me like blasphemy. One day, it was like an epiphany and I just traced it back to this church and the things I would hear my parents say when I was a kid, about affirmation and denial. That opened up my curiosity again.
Sarappo: And, I mean, religion is such an interesting theme in this book, because, like you said, Unity is definitely more uncommon than Southern Baptist or Methodist churches in Florida. So I think it's fascinating that you have written this book about Florida — which may not be smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, but is certainly, deeply entrenched in this Protestant Christian mindset — and I think religion is really deep in the book, but not the religion you might expect. For example, G.W., the preacher, has a congregation, but not the kind we’re used to, since they’re mostly homeless. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
Gerard: It all came out of characters, really. G.W. is a very religious man, but he's not affiliated with a denomination because he hates dogma. They're misfits. The best characters are misfits. They don't fit into the typical religious categories; they can't adhere to that dogma. Everyone in the book is very flawed, so that kind of religion doesn't work for them. And also, this book comes out of my life, and I spent time in my friends' churches as a kid sometimes, because that's what there was to do on Wednesday night, go to Bible study. [Laughter] But I was always the kid who would ask questions in Bible study, and they didn't like me very much, so I never went back after the first couple times getting dragged along. I could never adhere to dogma either; I never fit into those churches either. The people who belonged to those congregations didn't make any sense to me. They weren't allowed to dance at their school dances; they couldn't date, you know? [Laughter]. They never tried a cigarette. Meanwhile, my friends were all weird artist kids. By the time I was 10 years old, I knew I was going to art school, so all my friends were weirdos. They were gay, they grew up in the ghetto, they did drugs, they had sex. So that kind of religion isn't interesting to me. Dogma's not interesting to me because there is no variation. I'm interested in the ways that people kind of make up their own religion. Like, G.W., for instance, or New Thought. New Thought was a spinoff of other religious traditions, like meditation, like Christian Science, and even early studies in mesmerism, which was its own kind of faith. G.W., same thing. He minored in religion in college, so had dabbled in many different religious texts. He's very deeply read across genres. He has read the Bible many times and lots of religious texts, but he also reads James Baldwin and he reads Ralph Ellison, and has his own books, too, has original thoughts of his own. Even Ralph Heath — his hoarding can be thought of as a kind of extreme version of his beliefs about the importance of nature, and that his own kind of religion, too. Everyone in the book has fallen away from traditional religions, or they have made up their own.
Sarappo: I think a lot of what you're writing about has to do with the way Florida is shaped by human intervention. One of the essays in the book covers Ralph Heath, founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, who loves birds so much and is terrified of human impact displacing them. But the essay is also about the sanctuary’s legal and financial problems, mostly caused by Ralph’s behavior and animal hoarding. I'd love to hear what you thought about that.
Gerard: There's a line from “The Orchid Thief “ by Susan Orlean that says something to the effect of the wild part of Florida is pretty wild, and the tame part is pretty tame, but the two of them are constantly in flux. It does seem to me that the Ralphs of Florida are warring against the Bayou Clubs of Florida. The membership director of the Bayou Club really stunned me when he said, like, they built their golf course around the bayou. I was like, that's not... you know, it's really amazing. It's such a huge blind spot. They don't realize if you alter something that has grown wild — if you come build a golf course over it, the wild thing isn't wild anymore. It can't live anymore. We have these blinders on, and it's just a matter of greed. It's greed.
Sarappo: And in terms of coexistence, the list of animal encounters and the resonances of that — I can imagine that you probably don't come across as much wildlife in New York. What part in the Florida of your experience do nature or animals play?
Gerard: Well, one part of it is that I left Florida for the first time when I turned 18, so my childhood lives there, but my adulthood I've spent mostly elsewhere. Children and animals have a kind of natural bond. When we're children, we're roughly the same size as our house pets, so we see them at eye level, and we personify them. We're so used to personifying animals in the books we read as children; animals are a part of our childhood, and they have language and they have ideas and they teach us things. We have these emotional relationships with animals already when we're children. I built a house for my cat when I was a kid — like, my dad and I built this playhouse together. So, they had this huge sphere of importance when I was a kid, and since I moved back to New York I haven't been able to have a pet. I don't see many animals. In fact, when I found that bird on the sidewalk, it was like this magical moment. It hadn't even occurred to me until that moment that baby birds existed in New York City. [And] from the point of view of someone who's thought a lot about food over the course of her life, somebody who's had anorexia, who's been vegan or vegetarian or not, alternately, for kind of the entirety of my life, I have thought a lot about animals.
Sarappo: I have some questions about Florida specifically. You mentioned the presence of Disney, and that was really surprising to me, because I got a lot things from your writing, but that wasn't one of the the things that stood out to me most.
Gerard: The biggest thing is tourism. On the subway in New York, we had these huge ads for St. Petersburg/Clearwater as a tourist destination. Tourism is definitely a felt presence in that area, a necessity, especially in Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. There are big strips of hotels; most of Clearwater Beach is just huge hotels, and as you drive down the beaches, following the Intercoastal Waterway all the way down the coast of Pinellas County, you'll see large hotels, condos, little salty motels, and further south, there's historic hotels. So commercial development and tourism have had a huge impact on that coast. I mean, you can't see the beach from the street. You know? [Laughter]. It's interesting being a child living in proximity to Orlando, because children everywhere watch Disney movies, but children who grew up in proximity to Disney World get to go to Disney World like three or four times a year! Fantasy felt really accessible. We'd go there on school trips a couple times a year. It was incredible! In addition, my friends and I, when we were old enough to drive, we'd go to Disney World; my parents would always take us separately.... It always gave me, among other things, among other aspects growing up in Florida, it always gave me the feeling that fantasy was very real.
Sarappo: You mentioned how that "Florida Man" meme is built on assumptions about class. What is that foundation that we're all kind of building on when we make those jokes?
Gerard: I think a lot of it has to do with the assumption that people who grew up in poverty don't have good education. That just snowballs; perhaps people who grew up in poverty didn't have access to good education, but also, who cares? Like, so what? There are still plenty of incredibly intelligent people who didn't have good education who are nonetheless brilliant. I have many friends like this. But that also has to do with, perhaps, maybe their schools were underfunded. For example, the program that I was in when I was in high school, the magnet program, was designed to bring white kids into a black neighborhood. In fact, Pinellas County was one of the last counties in Florida, or perhaps the last county in Florida, to officially desegregate its schools, and that didn't happen until the ’80s. So, there are many reasons for this. Ask the question again, so I can kind of enter it from a different angle?
Sarappo: Yeah. Just like, this idea that the joke of the "Florida Man" is underpinned by certain assumptions about class ... I think that a lot of it is a specific twist on stereotypes of "rednecks."
Gerard: Well, yeah. So some of it has to do with easy access, like Florida open records laws, easy access to stories that are probably happening everywhere or could be found anywhere, but because they're reported on more in Florida, we think they come from Florida more than from other places, which isn't true. Some it probably also has to do with the state's conservatism, and the ways that conservative thinking is limited and can glorify that — like, glorify mudding with your friends, or like NASCAR, or hunting, or racism... You know, the state's pretty conservative, or it can be, so it's easy to draw conclusions about people's beliefs down there, things that they do. A lot of the book has to do with the ways our beliefs shape action. We can assume people have guns or are racist, and thinking people tend to assume that racist people are a little stupid — and they might be right about that. And there is a lot of poverty in the state. And like many other places in the nation, like West Virginia, Florida has had trouble with opiates.
Sarappo: At least in the circles I run in, people joke that places like Texas or Florida aren't the South; they're their own place. "Florida's not the South; it's Florida." I guess my question for you is, you know, is Florida the South? How do you think of it in that way? Do you think of yourself as Southern?
Gerard: In some ways! In the food that I eat when I'm in Florida, I feel Southern, you know; eating alligator tail, I'm eating seafood, I'm eating boiled peanuts, grits, things like that. I mean, one of the high schools in the region where I grew up is called Dixie Hollins High School. A lot people wear Confederate flag T-shirts or have Confederate flags on their cars. A lot of my friends growing up had guns; some of my friends who still live there have guns. In fact, one of my best friends keeps a gun in her house, and she's the mother of a 4-year-old; that feels very heavily Southern to me. But in other ways, the area I grew up in isn't. We have a lot of Northern expats, people who migrated from the Midwest or the Northeast, my parents among them. But there are parts of Florida that feel more heavily Southern, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way people talk, among other things. Like, if you spend a lot of time in the Panhandle, near the border of Florida, northern Florida, it's a lot like Georgia. But in a lot of ways, the area feels Southern. We have Spanish moss, we have mosquitoes, things like that. It's extremely hot. [Laughter].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.