The essayist discusses the joy of Florida, and why she’s coming home
This feature is part of Salon’s Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America’s red states. Read more Young Americans stories.
Florida holds a special place in the country’s imagination. It’s the home of Disney World. Alligators fight pythons on golf courses. People move here for the beach, and a second chance.
But the state, so full of possibilities, isn’t always the paradise people expect. Because of laws and geography, Florida seems to amplify the country’s problems with drugs, guns and income disparity. This tension of sunshine and scandal makes Florida unique, and few write about it better than Sarah Gerard. She’s a true Floridian, one who revels in the state’s idiosyncrasies and a good key lime pie from that one place near the beach.
Her essay collection "Sunshine State" deftly examines her relationship to Florida, a state full of characters often misunderstood by outsiders. Gerard, who gained acclaim for her 2015 novel "Binary Star," looks at Florida with a loving yet measured eye, and last year the book landed on a bunch of best-of-the-year lists.
We both grew up in the same part of town in Pinellas County, and Gerard, who’s about three-quarters through a new novel and currently lives in New York City, plans to move back to the area this summer. The rent’s too high to make art, she said, and in this political climate, she believes her vote and voice means more in Florida than it does in New York.
In your "Sunshine State" essay “Records” you talk about high school partying in Ybor. I used to do the same, but reading about it helped me realize how dangerous it all was.
When you’re a teenager you think you know everything, like, "I got this under control, nothing bad is going to happen." It was definitely reckless. I convinced myself that it wasn’t dangerous because a lot of the people I was doing it with had done it before and they “knew how,” like my boyfriend at the time. But in retrospect he was a pretty serious drug addict, so what did he know. I was hungry for any kind of experience. Anything that would give me a thrill.
Same. I went to a Christian School with a morality contract, but in Tampa I thought I could do whatever I wanted.
Yeah, across the bay — no one is going to see me over here. God can’t see me in Tampa. A lot of that stuff I was doing in St. Petersburg, too. I would go to raves in Tampa. I’d say Tampa bay is a pretty liberal place, but there are also a lot of staunch conservatives throughout all of Florida and in Tampa Bay. I’m thinking about the massive Confederate flag that flies over I-75. Or Dixie Hollins high school, whose mascot is a rebel. They make the argument for Southern Pride or celebrating our pride, but why do we need this? Why do we need to continue celebrating this fucked up heritage?
There’s always the conversation that Florida’s not the South.
It is the South. It is very heavily. A lot of my friends growing up have Southern accents. When my girlfriend and I were down in April for my book tour we were driving — I can’t remember where, somewhere in the middle of the state — and we stopped at a gas station. We were kissing in a parking lot and suddenly I realized everyone was staring at us. I actually can’t kiss you here, it’s not safe. It was a scary realization. People were openly staring. Florida is absolutely South — some areas more than others.
It’s such a long state, and not every county has the same rights for the LGBT community.
As an artist I don’t want to be in a place where I’m completely comfortable all the time. It’s not a way for me to grow as a person. It’s not a way for me to make interesting art that I think is important.
I feel pampered in New York, politically. It’s very easy to get involved, which is a great thing. But I don’t really feel like I’m needed in the room, because a lot of people are already there. For the political work that I want to do, I want to be in a place where there’s some resistance or where it needs to happen. I think my vote matters more in Florida than it does in New York.
Sometimes Floridians don’t want to tell people we’re from the state because of the reputation, and people say, "Oh, you must be crazy."
I think when people hold that kind of opinion, it’s because they’re unaware of their classist and ableist inclinations. A lot of the people I grew up with have gone to prison for drug offenses. I could have just as easily gone to prison for a drug offense when I was living in Florida, but I don’t think that addiction makes you a bad person or low class. I think the idea of high or low class is so stupid. It’s so shallow.
There are a lot of interesting characters in Florida. I also have an intimate understanding of some interesting characters that non-Floridians find inexplicable or off-putting at first. To me, they’re very endearing. I understand them. As a writer, I’m always looking for interesting characters, and it’s also just a really beautiful landscape. It’s a beautiful setting.
Last night I watched "The Florida Project" — it’s really good. Some of the cinematography was beautiful because there’s a talented cinematographer, but always because it’s a very photographic place. It’s very colorful. There’s a lot of green space. You have places like Twistee Treat that is shaped like an ice cream cone. It’s almost comical. We have exotic plants. Some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. The beach.
You have the nice beach houses, and there’s the actual beach where anyone can go.
There are all these public spaces where people of all walks of life intermingle. On the beach, everyone is in a bathing suit. You don’t know what kind of house they live in. It doesn’t matter what the shape of their body is. You get so used to all these different kinds of body types when you’re at the beach, too.
I never thought about that.
It was one of the most freeing experiences when I was in an eating disorder rehab. I was there for two months, and toward the end we went to the beach. At first I was terrified that I had to wear a bathing suit because everyone would see me. But once I got there I was like oh, here’s this 80-year-old woman who doesn’t care at all what you think of her body. It was very liberating.
I started my recovery in Florida, too, but people have this image it’s always spring break.
Maybe it’s because of the leisurely lifestyle and people think that they should should go to a place of leisure for recovery. And a lot of people go to Malibu, too.
And that’s expensive.
Yeah exactly, so Florida’s cheaper and easier to get on your feet. I mean, we’re leaving New York because it’s too expensive. In Florida we can have green space, sunshine, and time. I don’t have a lot of grass here in New York.
When I lived in St. Petersburg [Florida] I had time to write in the afternoons, and I didn’t feel a whole lot of pressure to make money like I do in New York. I could actually take an afternoon off and work on my novel. I began to identify as a writer because I had space and time to do that. I didn’t need to put a lot of pressure on my writing to make money because my rent was super cheap at the time. My studio apartment in New York costs $1,100, which is considered cheap, and it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to get to lower Manhattan. I’m pretty remote, and my apartment is still pretty expensive. It’s like 460 sq. feet so I have no space at all. Comparatively speaking, it’s easy to be an artist in Florida and sunshine is good for your mental health.
Contrary to that trope that unhappy artists make better art, it’s not true. When you’re suicidally depressed, you’re not going to want to get out of bed and write something. You’re not going to have that kind of motivation. It’s much more conducive to making good art to have a healthy, happy, safe mind and to have some distance from your emotional trauma.
How do your collages factor into that part of your writing?
They’re outgrowths of an artistic impulse. Sometimes I’ll become interested in a certain topic and the best way to explore that topic is with text and that’s what happens most of the time. But sometimes there’s not a story so much that can be articulated linearly, and it’s a different process of exploring materials. Collages are much more freeform way of creation for me. I put much less pressure on my collages than I do with my writing. I don’t expect them to be perfect. I can’t control the outcome as much as I can with writing, so I think it’s a healthy exercise for me because I can be a little bit perfectionistic.
It’s good to do something creative that you just like.
I didn’t know that I was good at collage until I started making them. I never went to school for it. I never had the goal of a solo show or having work in a permanent collection. It’s not about that. It’s just a form of play. I use the collages as a springboard for ideas and as a way of unsticking myself when I get stuck. It’s a way to depart from the writing and let my brain doing the work for me instead of trying to force and outcome. If I don’t know what’s coming next, I get up and go to my drafting table to work on a collage. My brain is still making connections. Not every feeling has a clear verbal articulation. I might not know how to explain what I’m feeling in the writing, so the collage kind of helps my ideas.
Making art takes so much energy.
Exactly. It’s time, it’s energy. You need space to make art. You need privacy to make art. You’re not going to get any of that in rehab if that’s where you end up.
Or New York, it seems.
Every time you walk outside, it costs $50.
In Florida you can pay $75 to swim with manatees. My girlfriend and I did it with my family over Thanksgiving. They took us out on the boat, gave us wetsuits, and went diving in three sisters spring and a fucking manatee swam up to my mom and kissed her on the face. You can do that down there.
I love manatees so much.
I know, me too. I’m so glad they’re not endangered anymore. I think last year I saw it, and I was like crying because I was so happy. They’re still protected but not endangered.
There is a lot of nature here. We used to kayak, and an alligator would just swim under us.
And that’s the other thing, too. There are so many wrong stereotypes about Florida. First of all, alligators are not that vicious. They’re actually pretty chill. They don’t want anything to do with you. You can walk right up to one of them and won’t even notice you’re there if it’s the right time of day, not feeding time. Wildlife is one of my top five reasons to move back.
The other day I saw a dolphin jump out of the water, then a hawk flew over with a fish in its mouth.
Florida so fucking magical. It’s very picturesque but also kind of seedy and grungy. One of the reasons I’ve always felt like an outsider in New York is because there’s always this pressure to present and imitate high society. I can’t do that regularly. I just don’t give a fuck.
I would much rather be in the Emerald Bar than the Astor Hotel. It’s just not my style. It just makes me very uncomfortable, and I find that kind of posturing distasteful. I’ve always found myself more comfortable in places like Florida where people are a little bit more downtrodden. They have real life experiences. I would much rather find humanity in a place like that.
The above interview has been edited for length and flow.
Tyler Gillespie is the palest Floridian you’ll ever meet. He’s a graduate student in Journalism & Media Studies at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. This series focuses on profiles + portraits of Floridian lives. If you – or someone you know – represent a facet of FL culture and want to be featured, feel free to email email@example.com. You can read more of his work at TylerMTG.com or on Twitter: @TylerMTG
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