Sarah Gerard and Danniel Schoonebeek in Conversation
Danniel Schoonebeek and Sarah Gerard sat down at Momo Sushi Shack on a Friday night before a poetry reading. Danniel’s first book of poems, American Barricade, was published in the winter of 2014. Sarah’s first novel, Binary Star, just came out from Two Dollar Radio. They asked each other questions about what the other does. Writing novels seems unfathomable to Danniel, and writing poems seems unfathomable to Sarah. They wanted to get to the bottom of it.
I. SEASONING THE SKILLET FOR TRAGEDY
DANNIEL SCHOONEBEEK: The first thing I want to talk about is naming: names in general, how that happens for you when you start a story. Do you feel at all boxed in by names? Like Nora, like Sarah?
SARAH GERARD: I wrote a story recently and named acharacter Rosalie. I liked the name a lot and I wanted to use the diminutive,which is Rosie. At certain points in the story, there are two characters whodon’t realize they’re talking about the same person. One person is saying Rosalie, one person is saying Rosie.
I showed it to my husband, David, who’s my first reader, and he said, “That’s a Latin name.” And I said no. He insisted, and I kept saying no, it’s not.
The story is about the circumstances surrounding this character’s abortion and I knew that it could be problematic if I, as a white writer, were to include a person of color inadvertently in this controversial situation, because I’m not qualified to inhabit her experience. I didn’t want to pretend to know what that situation could be like for a person of color—certainly it is very different for a white woman than for a Latina woman. So, finally, I changed her named to Danielle, which then became Dani.
DS: I always wonder if it’s frustrating for fiction writers to just name a character John.
SG: In Binary Star, the narrator’s boyfriend is named John. It’s universal; it can be anybody. I prefer for my writing to remain ambiguous at times. I haven’t yet needed in my work to appeal to character archetypes.
I wanted to talk about John Steinbeck with you because you write very narratively. You have characters in your poems who appeal to an Americana that reminds me a lot of Steinbeck. It seems like you’re almost trying to write stories. You’re keeping a safe distance. One foot in poetry, one foot in fiction.
DS: People don’t want anything to do with narrative, which I think is weird. That revulsion isn’t the reading tradition I come from, even if it’s the writing tradition I come from. It’s hard not to resent the term narrative poetry—but I’m also a little obsessed with the ways in which words situate themselves inside their own stories. It’s different than connotation. It’s more like the skeletons in the closets of words.
Sometimes I wonder if naming isn’t a religious hangover, a Christian or a Puritan hangover, like we’re still bitter about the Garden, where Adam and Eve were free to name things at their leisure.
SG: When I first name a character it feels arbitrary like that. I can choose any name, I just have to pick one. I think that’s why, if I’m forced to choose a name, I pick one that’s invisible.
DS: American prose really loves rooting its stories in the commonplace, which feels to me like one way of seasoning the skillet for tragedy. Having a character named Nick already roots the story in the least crazy life. Whereas when I’m writing poems and using proper nouns I want names to be like flypaper, like Billy or Osmon Steele. Both names, both real names from my life, still have this weird, regional identification. Nobody is really named Billy anymore.
SG: Anybody could be a Nora.
DS: My niece is named Nora.
SG: It’s a beautiful name.
DS: It is.
SG: It’s not a very important name. If someone writes about my story “Alligator,” or uses it in a high school English class, no one’s going to talk about Nora as an archetype. It’s an easily forgettable name, but on purpose.
II. THE MEMORY’S NOT NECESSARILY TO BE TRUSTED
SG: One of the things I wanted to ask you: when you start to write a poem—I can tell some of your poems begin with a line that repeats and repeats, and you become attached to the rhythm of it. What’s the second step?
DS: I wrote a lot of the poems from American Barricade in my head, on walks from 35th St. to Union Square in New York. It meant I couldn’t start writing the poem on the page, and besides I almost never write longhand. It’s somehow too visual for me. I would think I had the lines down solid before I tried to transcribe them.
As soon as you start writing them down on the page, you become unhappy with what you thought was done in your head. You somehow convince yourself you’re finished before you even start, and then you’re bewildered and pissed. You can write a poem in your head anytime, so you think the poem evolves that way, moving forward. And then you have to rebuild it, which is another kind of moving forward. When I read American Barricade now, I can tell the poems are very arranged in a way, like songwriting. The poems I’m writing now are not like that.
SG: I find it much easier to like a poet’s work when I hear it in the room. If I were to read it later, I might not even recognize what I heard. How do you reach a point where you’re satisfied with the poem you hear and the poem you read?
DS: If a line stumbles while I’m reading, it probably needs to be slashed. But the stumbles can also break a poem open. And a lot of the editing is recollection, too. I’ll open a page while I’m drafting and see how much of the poem I can do from memory. But the memory’s not necessarily to be trusted.
SG: I think mine is getting worse all the time. Names of filmmakers are really hard for me to recall.
DS: I lose names of art.
SG: It makes me long for the days when people couldn’t write their stories down.
DS: You think memories were stronger?
SG: I know Homer’s memory was stronger than mine.
DS: We’ve arrived at this point where people are nostalgic about pre-internet times. There are great stories about writers with one or two copies of their manuscript, typed on a typewriter, and they bring it to a publisher and it disappears in a pile. Or it blows away in the wind one day. Or it burns in a car crash. I guess our equivalent today is the computer crash. We’ve gotten a lot less romantic.
SG: I find it hard to write longhand. I’ve made a point of bringing that back into my life, feeling what I’m writing. And now when I have to write something down my hand feels weak. My handwriting is awful.
DS: You wrote in this thing [points to his own book].
SG: When I was writing Binary Star, I took a lot of notes. Most of the book exists in a messy form in a notebook. And I don’t learn very well unless I copy things down. I don’t recall very well; I have to make my own personal version of every book I read.
DS: My awe with novelists and short story writers is how it seems like they must have such sweeping capacities to remember their own work. It seems like novelists’ brains have more space to contain this attic full of things.
SG: It’s not so much things, it’s experience. I have a lot of memory for experience. I recently read Moonwalking with Einstein. Joshua Foer goes to an international memory conference and he spends the next year training for this memory competition. One of the things he talks about is the concept of the memory palace, an imagined world you create in order to remember things inside it. A long string of numbers you would place in consecutive locations within your childhood home, for instance. I think it’s the same thing when you’re telling a story: you become familiar with an imagined place and set people free inside it. That can be very problematic when you’re living your actual life, if you’re not good at keeping the two separate. People commit all kinds of sins in your imagined world that you would never want to commit in your real life.
DS: I always want Jeopardy to do an episode of poets versus novelists. The novelists would kill on the dates, the history. Poets would kill on the categories where it’s words hidden inside of words, entire categories devoted to flavors of soup. Poets, I think, remember glimpses and flourishes, like abstract expressionist painters, in a way.
SG: For the record, I’m very bad with names and dates. But it’s hard to talk about fiction as a unified field right now.
DS: It seems less scary than the poetry circles.
SG: Some people will get mad at me for saying this, but I don’t think it’s hard to publish a novel once you write a novel. Because there’s more room to experiment than there was twenty years ago, and indie presses are behind that.
DS: I want to ask you about the economics of novel writing. In my notes it says, half-ruefully, “Sarah has a real shot at making some money with this one!”
SG: If you’re trying to make money you’re gonna lose.
III. YOU NEVER ENCOUNTER A REAL PERSONALITY ON THE INTERNET
SG: The first person in American Barricade is almost like a character. Who is he?
DS: I inevitably gave up believing in the “speaker.” Which led to an essay called “Death to the Speaker” and that was one part of my first-person: I put out a provocation for people to stop hiding behind their speakers.
I wanted that provocation to collide with a certain mythology in American Barricade, with intentional Americanized mythos-making. There’s a poem in the book involving incest that bothers some people.
SG: With Billy?
DS: Yeah, Billy.
SG: See, names are helpful sometimes.
DS: I tried to write a poem where autobiographical material and mythologized material smash into each other.
SG: People want to know if it’s real.
DS: They want to know if my dad shot me in the face when I was a kid. I refuse to answer the question.
SG: Why does it matter?
DS: The internet has primed people for TMI, but I think it’s also made them more weirded out by autobiography.
SG: Which is nice because you never encounter a real personality on the internet.
DS: Transparency is always a performance of a character. What’s your process of characterization like?
SG: Some people build characters in blocks, but I prefer to begin with a blank slate and follow the character’s desire. It’s about resolving unresolved questions. Why is this alligator so important to this girl?
DS: I love the alligator. You think it’s going to be this ominous symbol, but the symbol keeps shifting. I kept wondering when the bad thing was going to happen to Nora.
SG: For me, symbolism is a scaffold on which you hang the story.
DS: How did “Alligator” start originally? It has a great cold-open.
SG: Because I lopped off the first page while editing.
DS: Is that what makes you a fiction writer and not a poet?
SG: I make up stories in my head all day.
DS: And did you do that when you were a kid?
SG: I’m an only child, so I spent a lot of time in my own head. We got a computer when I was five and it had a word processor. I wrote my first novel when I was seven. I gave it to my dad.
IV. YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO COME HOME
SG: Why aren’t you a novelist?
DS: I come from an arts family. My dad was a painter, my brother’s a painter, my sister played flute and wrote. So poetry was a way to carve out my own place and make that place weird at the same time. But it was also sad. It was hard to find anyone who felt about poetry how I feel about poetry. It still is.
SG: I felt that way reading Heart of Darkness. I was laid up in a hospital for two weeks with something called orbital cellulitis. My eye was the size of a grapefruit. I was in this solitary place with a masterwork.
My everyday life is frustrating because I distract myself with this piece of shit. [She points to her phone].
DS: Do you think it’s making people shrink?
SG: When I wrote Binary Star I had to tell people I was going away for a month and they weren’t allowed to talk to me.
DS: I need silence and empty rooms. There are so many synapses firing that you need a way to wear them down. I do think it’s gotten harder to wear myself down.
SG: Nathaniel Mackey listens to jazz while he writes. I can’t hear anything but the music if I try that.
DS: If I’m listening to gospel I start writing gospels.
[Enter David Formentin, Sarah’s husband, a filmmaker]
DAVID FORMENTIN: I just walked past four young cops and one of them said, “You know, don’t shoot your gun, it’s as simple as that.”
SG: I want to ask you about this prose book you’re working on.
DS: It’s a travelogue, a book of prose portraits. The form belongs to a French writer named Edouard Levé, who wrote this book called Autoportrait. The travelogue is called C’est la guerre, and it started when I wrote this piece about AWP Boston called “744 Hours,” and then after that I wrote that essay called “Death to the Speaker.” C’est la guerre is a third step in that direction. It’s about a book tour I did in support of American Barricade.
I like travelogues because the form always fails. You always have to come home.
SG: David and I eloped in 2011. We drove all the way to California, shot a movie for a month, and then got married.
DS: From New York?
DF: We made it in three days.
SG: Tennessee is a really long place.
DS: It takes a long time to drive through America.
SG: I’ve decided I need to journal while I’m touring for Binary Star. But a journal feels like an additional obligation and something I need to make time for, but which has no definite outcome. A place where ideas go to die. Do you keep a journal?
DS: When I first moved to Brooklyn, about seven years ago, I kept a journal. I like journals with rules, and the rule of that journal was every time I visited a new address I had to write about what happened while I was there. Even if it was a bodega or a job interview. It’s weird to think of it now, because you could call that the beginning of C’est la guerre. When I was touring the country last year reading poems, I’d record the events of the previous day and post them online. I was alone inside my head so much that keeping a public journal was a necessary antidote. What I love about traveling is that everything becomes a would-be journal. The cards and receipts in your pockets, the belongings on your back. The jokes that build up. Even the work, and the rhythm you develop reading it night after night, becomes documentary in some way. I also knew I wanted to take a lot of pictures as a way of triggering myself. I didn’t keep a handwritten journal for that reason. A lot of times, working on the C’est la guerre manuscript, I’d look at one of the photographs from that tour and rebuild the experience around it.
To me Binary Star is one of those personal works where part of the drama is enacted by knowing that the author lived through the trauma in the book. Which I bet makes touring very disorienting, because you show up at some bar or some bookstore and these strangers begin reconciling the work with the person who is the remains of it. How do you negotiate that terror?
SG: I have the benefit of not knowing exactly what a reader’s experience of the book is. But I can imagine they might expect me to be significantly more neurotic and self-hating than I am today. It’s probably beneficial to see that the person behind the book is actually relatively well-adjusted from the trauma, albeit many years have passed since I began my recovery. It’s a bit strange reading from Binary Star now—the character’s voice is one that I know intimately, but I feel very far away from it. My impulse is to rationalize with the narrator and she resists my rationale. I wonder if this is how a reader feels, too. It’s certainly not how I felt while I was writing it.
A few times, people have confessed to me at readings that they’ve been anorexic or bulimic, or are currently—in fact, someone once told me she’s been struggling with anorexia for years, and then said, “But you’re so elegant.” Which I think means, “You don’t seem afraid anymore,” and maybe, “Why not?” In that moment, I felt like all I could do was reassure her that I’m glad she’s alive today. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t find it terrifying, or even uncomfortable. I’m glad that I get to be proof of the possibility of recovery. It would be much more terrifying if I thought that I had to be a role model, because I’m not a role model—I’m just someone who hasn’t given up, and probably won’t, because I’ve found something to live for.
Danniel Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade, was published by YesYes Books in 2014. It was featured as one of the year’s ten standout debuts by Poets & Writers and Boston Review calls it “a groundbreaking first book that stands to influence the aesthetic disposition of its author’s generation.” His work has appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Boston Review, Fence, BOMB, Iowa Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. He hosts the Hatchet Job reading series and edits the PEN Poetry Series. In 2015, Poor Claudia will release his second book, a travelogue called C’est la guerre.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the novel Binary Star, a Publishers Weekly First Fiction selection which NPR called, “a hard, harrowing look into inner space.” Her second essay chapbook, BFF, is forthcoming from Guillotine this summer. Other short works have appeared in The New York Times, Joyland, Tin House, VICE, BOMB Magazine and elsewhere. She is on a nationwide tour for Binary Star this spring. For tour dates, visit Sarah-Gerard.com.
Portrait of Danniel Schoonebeek by Trod Koch.
Portrait of Sarah Gerard by Josh Wool.