One Cup of Curiosity, Thawed: In Conversation with Sarah Gerkensmeyer
“Each time their husband found them bunched up together on one of the couches, chuckling and chortling, or in the heavy swing out on the back porch doing the same, he’d laugh and look at them sideways and say, shyly, in his feathery voice: Hear my voice, ye careless daughters. Number three knew that this was a quote from the bible, but she couldn’t remember exactly what part it came from or what it referred to. He said this often, even though he didn’t believe in God.”
What You Are Now Enjoying, recently released from Autumn House, has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award, alongside the likes of George Saunders, Junot Diaz, and Joyce Carol Oates. As an admirer of all things that dip into what one might call magical realism or slipstream, I found Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s debut collection an absorbing adventure into a world slightly unbalanced. Naturally, I want to know some of the why’s and where’s of such a pleasantly unpredictable collection.
Stefanie: Congratulations on your collection and the longlist news from the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award. How does all this validate your writing and what sort of celebration went on in your house upon receiving this news?
Sarah: The experience of receiving that news was surreal indeed. I couldn’t pinch myself enough. I had two cocktails that evening to celebrate. To see my book on a list alongside some of my heroes—including George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates—was something I never expected. And this is what I love about a prize like the Frank O’Connor. Emerging writers like myself have a chance to race alongside the big horses, and it’s been a glorious moment for me. Such a wonderful gift.
SF: You took on a brave task in my favorite story of the collection, “Careless Daughters,” telling the story from the point-of-view of a polygamist’s third wife. The courage to do this and the manner in which you’ve pulled it off—easily convincing the reader that this is a reliable narrator—brings up so many curiosities: the inspiration for the story and the character, the dilemma of polygamy, the idea of a writer writing in a brave and courageous manner. What can you reveal?
SG: Thank you for your thoughts on courage and bravery. To be honest, I didn’t feel brave while writing this story. I think I felt curious, and maybe a little nosy. This is one of my strange story ideas that I can’t trace back to the original inspiration. Somehow I discovered the subculture of secular polygamy, and immediately I was sucked into the various websites where men post ads for multiple wives. I needed to know, with a fierce urgency, who would answer such an ad. And I became intrigued with the idea of a character trying this foreign lifestyle out as an attempt to escape her own life. She’s the brave one, I guess. And she’s extremely curious about the subculture she’s fallen into, just like me.
SF: In terms of making your collection whole and complete, how did you decide the order of stories and feel confident in their organization?
SG: In terms of a feeling of completeness, I had been waiting for years to feel like I finally had a set of stories that was cohesive in some way. After my second son was born, I couldn’t muster the energy and the focus to return to the novel I’ve been working on for a few years now. So during his sporadic naps, I’d scoot up to the dining room table and churn out quick (and very strange) little tales, tapping into my subconscious in a way I’d never been able to before that point. I thought I was procrastinating. I thought I was being lazy and self-indulgent. But then I looked at those little odd-ball stories and realized that they were the cement that I needed to finally piece a collection together. Structurally, I tried to develop a rhythm within the book that moves back and forth between the longer pieces and the short tales. And I wanted to end with one of my favorites of those little pieces—“The Cellar.” That piece is perhaps the most hopeful of all of my stories. I think it taps into the fresh, urgent kind of hope I was feeling while manically writing during Charlie’s naps, and so I wanted to capture that feeling at the very end of the book.
SF: Stewart O’Nan, author of The Odds: A Love Story, describes you as “…a sneaky sorceress of a storyteller…” If you had to describe your writing to the unfortunate soul who hasn’t read your work, how would you word the description?
SG: I can’t believe O’Nan called me a sneaky sorceress. And I want a T-shirt that says that. Maybe a tattoo? “Hank” (a story about a five-month-old baby who talks with his nanny about the faultiness of his parents’ marriage) is the first story I wrote in which the fantastic and the surreal sneaked up on me and ambushed my writing. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m drawn to elements like magical realism and fabulism. I’ve noticed that my characters seem stuck within some kind of emotional inertia, unable to move forward with their lives (something we can all identify with at some point in our own lives). And I think I use the fantastic to try to jerk my characters out of that state, giving them a chance to recognize and maybe even accept what Flannery O’Connor called “grace.” I guess I’m using the unordinary to try to peel back and reveal the ordinary experiences that we are all familiar with to some degree.
SF: As a child, how did storytelling play into your life and eventually in the role as a writer?
SG: Like most of us, I remember having a wild imagination as a kid. And I’ve been so lucky to somehow hang onto a bit of that. I wrote a lot when I was young (penned a short story every single morning in the first grade—to have that productivity again!). But beyond the habit of writing, I’ve managed to maintain a bit of access to the deep, strange, exhilarating regions of my imagination, and to wander around there without the burden of too much self consciousness or doubt. And sometimes I think that’s the hardest and most important job of any writer, more so than getting the words on the page.
SF: Patrick Somerville describes your voice as “legitimately one-of-a-kind.” If you had to write a recipe for your voice, what are the ingredients?
1 cup of curiosity, thawed
2 tablespoons of humor
1 can of the fantastic, drained and rinsed
3 heaping cups of sadness, empathy preferred
A pinch of lyricism (don’t overdo it)
As much doubt and fear as you can spare (this is the secret ingredient—vulnerability)
Sift, mix, knead, whatever. You can throw it in the microwave. It freezes well.
SF: What other debut collections or novels have you read and recommend?
SG: I’m going to go with a trilogy of fierce women writers who recently blew my mind in exhilarating ways:
Sharma Shield’s Favorite Monster, a collection of stories that features a wide array of monsters living ordinary lives, to the best of their ability;
Alexis Smith’s Glaciers, a compact, lyrical novel that takes place during one day but opens up into eternity in one fell swoop;
Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath, an English translation that this Swedish storyteller compiled herself. For me, Tidbeck has defined the essence of fairy tale—how the unordinary is born out of the ordinary, quietly sneaking up on us and then devouring us and defining the very landscape of our lives.
Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale, Grub Street, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her stories have appeared in Guernica, The New Guard Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Sarah is the 2012-13 Pen Parentis Fellow. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Fredonia.
Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water (Press 53) and Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press). Stefanie’s published and forthcoming work can be found in magazines such as Witness, Sou’wester, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, American Literary Review, Night Train, Edge, and Pank. She is the former Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review.