Online Fiction Interview: Sarah Gerkensmeyer

Sarah Gerkensmeyer author photo - black and white

Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s “Ramona,” our online exclusive for April, is nearly a contradiction in terms. It’s at once a tender-hearted, naturalistic reflection on adolescence and faded friendship and an utterly non-naturalistic look at the limits of embodiment. In this interview, we asked Gerkensmeyer about bending the rules of nature in fiction and, in the process, we learned a bit more about how she approaches a draft, a story, a novel, and key metaphors that are—at times—seemingly incidental to the writing process itself. We emailed with Gerkensmeyer from her home in Fredonia, New York, where she lives with her family and teaches writing at SUNY Fredonia.

 

Nate Brown: “Ramona” is such a lovely and odd story, not merely because the title character has a heart that occasionally exits her chest cavity and beats on the outside of her body. Where’d the idea for that particular, fantastic element of the story come from?

Sarah Gerkensmeyer: I wish I knew exactly where the idea came from. But I also don’t wish I knew, because then I think these strange little creature ideas would get scared off and stop showing up on my doorstep. I do know that the idea of unordinary human hearts is in my head in general because the protagonist in the novel that I’m working on has an extremely complex and rare congenital heart defect (Double-Inlet Left Ventricle—she basically has half of a heart). And while that condition is very much real and of this world, the experience of living it can seem so unordinary (a bluish tint to the skin, for instance, due to poor circulation). And so I’ve been thinking about extraordinary hearts a lot for the past few years. But a heart jumping outside of someone’s chest—that took me completely by surprise. And I’m always happy to encounter surprise.

NB: Because these girls are in that weird, in-between time when they’re no longer children but not yet fully fledged teens, the externalized heart seems a good metaphor for vulnerability, and I wondered how consciously you were working with metaphor as you drafted the piece. Is it generally true that you set out with figurative elements in mind, or is the process looser than that for you? 

SG: I did not think overtly about metaphor while writing this story. I began with the idea of two friends and this odd heart thing and went from there. I think pre-teen angst comes naturally to me because I remember it so well, but I did not know that the strange heart would come to symbolize that awkwardness and anxiety. And for me this is always a goal when I write a story—to refrain from inserting or over thinking intentional metaphors. I try to have faith in discovery instead. Of course that’s a hard thing to pull off. I’ve found the most success with this, for some reason, within my shorter pieces. I don’t allow myself to plan ahead too much when I’m within such a tight narrative space, and so the story leads me more than I lead it.

NB: How does that function in terms of working on a longer piece? You mentioned that you’re working on a novel, and I wonder if you can comment on how your process is different when working on that project. Do you have the same sort of faith in the discovery you describe, or is there more overt planning involved when writing the novel?

SG: This is my first novel attempt, and the planning has been intense. The project involves a ton of medical research, which has added to the pressure to plan. So now, a few drafts in, I’m trying to let go of that plan, to some degree. The best writing advice I’ve ever received was from a world-renowned cardiologist I was shadowing at the Mayo Clinic while conducting research for the novel. I was overwhelmed with the medical details and issues of accuracy, etc. This cardiologist knows her stuff, of course, and I felt the responsibility to understand all of it (which would be impossible). We were at dinner and she asked me to set my notes down for a little while. She told me that this is my story to tell, and that the research should never get in the way of that. So I’m reaching for that sense of discovery right now, and I’m definitely noticing the narrative structure shift as I let myself explore and let go of the blueprint a bit.

NB: From the first time I read the piece, this paragraph really grabbed me: “I miss Ramona. It’s a simple kind of missing. It’s the way vague regret and longing pool in your stomach when you shouldn’t be feeling anything at all—while pulling laundry out of the washer, while walking the dog, while reaching for something in the shower with your eyes squeezed shut.”

I think a lot of people have experienced this sudden sort of longing. Yet, I don’t think of that as a “simple” emotional experience, so the paragraph sort of pushes against itself, and the reader can sense the tension in the narrator’s own observation. She’s telling us that the sort of longing she feels for Ramona is a simple feeling, but then she goes on to provide examples of something that’s actually quite emotionally complex. Ramona has had such an influence on the narrator’s life that she’s there, in the background, waiting to come to mind seemingly whenever. It’s a lovely contradiction, and I was wondering if you could tell us more about how you come to these sorts of observations in your work. Do you begin with an idea (like “longing”) and set out to comment upon it, or do these observations pop up more organically than that?

SG: Thank you for loving this paragraph! I don’t think I set out to write about longing. But I have become much more aware (and even self-conscious) of the idea that this is a consistent theme in my work. When my story collection was published, I was able to step back and see it through a new lens. And I thought, Wow, I write a lot about lonely, unhappy women. And I thought, I hope people don’t think that’s me. Followed by, That’s not me, right? I do not set out to write about longing, but I do find myself tripping upon the subject over and over again in my work. It’s a human emotion that we all know, and it has a dimension that resonates powerfully in fiction.

NB: Are there other recurrent concerns in your work? 

SG: Another thing readers have pointed out about my collection is a lack of men/empty male characters. I get the sense that people think my characters don’t like men very much (and so I’m nervous that maybe they think the same thing about me!). I really hope people don’t think the book is trying to make some kind of anti-men statement. If anything, the book is making an anti-anything statement. I think my characters are shutting a ton of things out of their lives. They are secluding themselves from many things and experiences, men included. They are trying to step away from the entire world.

NB: How does “Ramona” compare to your broader body of work and the stories in your collection? 

SG: “Ramona” felt like play to me as soon as I sat down and wrote the first line. There was a sense of ease and joy and discovery that I’m always hoping for but not always able to tap into completely. I’m working on a novel for the first time and the pressure is intense. Some of my shorter fiction, flash in particular, has started to feel like an escape from that pressure—an excuse not to plan or worry or set expectations. This was a story in which I felt comfortable taking risks and exploring and blindly following a ludicrous idea to some kind of end.  This is the type of story that ended up gluing my story collection together. After the birth of my second son, I needed a break from bigger projects. So I churned out weird things like “Ramona” and realized that those pieces complimented my longer stories (the ones that I sweated over and had to revise several times).

NB: Oh, that’s interesting: so, not only is a short piece like “Ramona” a pressure valve of sorts that expends some creative energy outside of your larger project of a novel, but you can see that it’s also doing something quite different than your longer stories are doing. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach these three very different forms — the flash works, the longer stories, and the novel? It’s always struck me as funny that writers have an innate sense for what stories need to be told in which way, but how do you make that decision when you sit down to write? Is there any “there there” if you know what I mean, or are the decisions about what form or shape or length a story takes, well, arbitrary?

SG: I would love to say that I treat any story of any length in the same exact way (no planning, only faith), but that’s impossible. And I’ve come to accept that the process is going to feel very different as I slide along the scale from flash to novel. I’m realizing that maybe each form/length needs to feel different. This gives me a chance to play with a different kind of creative rhythm and process, which allows me to recharge and become freshly energized as I move between different projects.

NB: What compels you to get to the computer or the notebook to get a story off the ground? What’s your starting point?

SG: Well, my starting point used to be pages and pages of careful notes. I bet I could fill an entire notebook with a single story idea—with lots of marginalia and highlighting and post-its and strange notations. Since having kids, however, that kind of planning has dropped away a great deal. Now my writing is fueled much more by panic and the unknown. I often don’t have a starting point. I sit down, write a sentence, and then just charge off into darkness. I’m at the point with my novel where I’m trying to figure out how to create that same sensation of blind anxiety. I need to figure out a way to not know what I’m doing.

NB: l love that! I often feel like I need to figure out a way to not know what I’m doing, too, which in a broader sense is its own form of attempting to get a handle on the process of writing itself. In attempting to  charge into that darkness, you’re also attempting a new way to regain control over something—a novel, say—that sometimes feels messy and unbridled and flailing, right? Does a writer ever really have the reigns fully in-hand? 

SG: I’m going to wager a bet that a good writer never has those reigns fully in-hand. Here’s a helpful writer’s prayer from George Saunders, which I swear by: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

NB: Glad you mention Saunders because there’s a significant body of contemporary work where seemingly naturalistic stories are infused by elements of the fantastic. Often, these works aren’t full-on fantasy or magical realism, but they’re not Raymond Carver-esque domestic pieces either. Writers like George Saunders and Kelly Link and about a dozen others frequently occupy that space—where the world seems familiar but with a few usually large, overt tweaks. What interests you in working with both elements of the naturalistic and of the fantastic?

SG: I admire those two writers to the moon and back. And yes, I’m drawn to this puzzle of the naturalistic versus the fantastic. My first foray into the fantastic was not intentional. I was in graduate school and suddenly a three-month-old baby was having a sage, philosophical discussion with his nanny about his parents’ failing marriage. I freaked out when that talking infant showed up. I don’t know what stopped me from scrapping the story, but I am so glad that I didn’t. And even now that most of what I write is tinged with the surreal to some degree, I’m never quite comfortable with these fantastic houseguests. I’m always a bit on guard and wary. I loved the interview that you guys just posted with Karen Russell (another writer whom I admire hugely). And I loved what she said about how fantastic elements can place uncomfortable constraints on the writer but also open a story up in ways that wouldn’t be otherwise possible. For me, the bits of the fantastic in my stories help me open up and peer into my characters. I hope that I use the unordinary as a lens with which to view very ordinary human experiences. I will never be exactly 100% certain why I write strange things, but I’m having the best time trying to come up with possible answers.

NB: That sense of play and enjoyment is apparent, I think, in a story like “Ramona,” and we were so glad to be the place to publish it. Thanks for chatting with us, Sarah. We’ll be on the lookout for that novel!

SG: Thanks, Nate! American Short Fiction is one of the best playgrounds out there.

 


Sarah Gerkensmeyer‘s story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories and poems have appeared in Guernica, The Coffin Factory, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, B O D Y, Hobart, and Cream City Review, among others. 

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