Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


2 Comments

What You Are Now Enjoying – an Interview with Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

I am so pleased to introduce you to author Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Sarah and I met during our January writer residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. Since then, she has published a collection of short stories entitled What You Are Now Enjoying and is currently making the promotional rounds. I asked Sarah if she would be interested in discussing her journey here at Riding Bitch and am thrilled she said yes! I think you’ll find a lot of information and inspiration in her answers. Be sure to read the excerpt at the end.

Q. Sarah, can you tell us about yourself: who are you?
I am a mother, writer, teacher, wife… Everything in my life feels like a juggling act at this point. Because of this, I immensely enjoy a glass of red wine and an episode of New Girl. I have always loved to write (I know that’s cliché–but it’s true).

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

Q. How do you describe your book?
From Wonder Woman as an angst-ridden teenager to ghost twins to monster catfish to the secret relationships between polygamous wives, the stories in What You Are Now Enjoying approach the familiar in unfamiliar ways, allowing us to recognize and claim the unordinary moments in our own often ordinary lives. I’ve found myself using magical realism and fabulist elements to try to tell everyday stories about everyday people.

Q. Where do the stories come from?
I absolutely love this question. And I’m thrilled to be able to answer: I’m not sure. Lately I’ve realized that this is okay–a sense of mystery and even confusion in my writing. I’ve found myself trying to talk to my students about this–how any element of the unexpected, the unknown, the mysterious is a gift to our writing, not an annoying roadblock.

Q. That’s a great piece of advice! Did you approach the book with a theme or did you find the theme as you wrote?
All of this was very much a gradual (and even surprising) discovery for me. I wrote the extremely short (and especially strange) stories that are in my collection just after my youngest son, Charlie, was born. I was desperate to return to writing but couldn’t face the huge project of my novel. And so I thought of these little pieces as a distraction and guilty form of procrastination. I had no idea that they would end up cementing together a book. But when I stepped back and looked at them, I realized that they held threads of some of the things in my other stories–loneliness and a feeling of inertia.

Q. What was the hardest thing about writing your book?
For a few years, it was trying to figure out when/if I had a book. Beginning with my time in graduate school, I over thought the project (I think only one of the stories that I wrote in graduate school made it into the book). I think I was especially self-conscious in this regard as a writer who was dabbling with surreal and fabulist elements. I had to recognize that those weren’t the things I was writing about. Rather, I was using them to write about very real and very ordinary people.

Q. How long did it take to write? Did you write it full-time or while doing other things?
This book has been coming together, bit by bit, since about 2002. I always wanted it to come together quickly, but now I’m glad that it had plenty of time to stew. I needed time to figure things out.

Q. How did you get it published?
It’s very hard to sell a collection of short stories as an emerging author. The big houses want to buy novels, because that’s what sells. Smaller presses have become a champion for short story collections, but many of them only consider submissions via their annual prizes. And so I sent my book off to a few prizes and was lucky enough to catch the eye of Stewart O’Nan, the novelist who judged Autumn House Press’ Fiction Prize.

Q. What did you learn from the experience (of writing and publishing)?
As for the writing: it will come when it wants to come. And when that book does finally come together, love it. Even if it isn’t the creature that you originally intended it to be. As for the publishing: authors are expected to do a lot of leg work these days, even at the bigger presses. I was part of an inaugural program called the Launch Lab at Grub Street in Boston. We learned how to direct our energy in ways that fit our personalities and our work. The program helped me realize that I need to find pockets of PR that feel intimate, where real conversations can occur. Because of this, I’ve really enjoyed participating on various blogs (thanks, Niva!) because this is a world of passionate writers and readers who want to have a real conversation about books.

Q. What are you working on now?
I’ve returned to the novel that I set aside when my second son was born. And I think the strange stories in my new collection really gave me the fuel to return to it with fresh eyes. I’ve done a lot of intense research on congenital heart disease for this novel. It takes place in the Northern Minnesota wilderness. There’s a pregnancy, and somebody has blue skin… Maybe that’s enough of a tease.

Q. What lessons will you apply from this one to the next one?
I’ve discovered that a sense of urgency (and even anxiety and panic) can be put to good use. As a mother especially, this has been a good thing to learn. My children, and my teaching, and all the other things I love don’t need to be set aside so that I can write. The rush (and even the anxiety) that I get from trying to juggle all of these things can be harvested and can provide an exciting sense of momentum in the stories that I tell. These things aren’t in the way of my writing. They can be helpful.

Q. How is writing short stories different (for you) than writing a novel?
When I write a short story, (especially a very short story) I know that a breath of fresh air isn’t too far off. And so I’m able to pull myself into complex and strange worlds with a great deal of abandon. There isn’t as much hesitancy as when I sit down with a longer project. And sometimes I think stories can be more immense than a novel. They can create a sharp sense of echo, or what ZZ Packer calls “resonance.” I think that’s why I’m working with a much more fragmented structure in the current draft of my novel–in an attempt to simulate that same kind of feeling that I get from a short story.

Q. Do you have any advice for other writers who are moms and/or teachers?
While I do think parenting and teaching can inspire and fuel writing in unexpected ways, I still think it’s so incredibly difficult. They aren’t necessarily completely separate things, but sometimes you do need to find a way to step into only your writing. I’ve found writing residencies (like Vermont Studio Center, where Niva and I met) to be invaluable in this regard.

Q. Last question – will you share with us an excerpt from one of your stories?
Sure! This is from the beginning of “My Husband’s House”:

I didn’t go looking for my husband’s new place until after his fourth or fifth late night visit, after a long day when the sun had set without much color. I couldn’t believe what he had told me that first time he showed up in the middle of the night in our bedroom a few weeks after he had gone missing, a living ghost. Yet the first place I tried was the river. The further you follow the river back into the woods, the further back in time you go. Kirk’s favorite noodling spot is beneath an old railroad bridge that must be at least eighty years old, a bunch of broken timbers running across the water. When I got there that night, the water was slow and not too cold. It came up to my thighs when I reached Kirk’s spot nestled into the far bank.

I stood in the dark water, my feet shifting in the silt, and continued to not believe my husband. I crouched down—the water pulling at my old blouse, seeping up its seams—and cursed him for telling lies. Reaching with my right hand, I closed my eyes and felt my chin hit the water. I didn’t believe him. But I’d been drinking, and that was enough to make me curious. It was enough to let me change my mind once everything started to happen, the tugs and the pulls and the sinking shift. I was relieved and tired when I realized that my husband had been telling the truth, that there was no way to stop what was happening. I could feel it then: all of Ohio, its towns and its churches and its roads and its rivers—this old, snaky one especially—swallowing me up.

It makes you feel like singing, like burping after a fine meal and then closing your eyes, because who cares if anyone heard.

Awesome! THANK YOU Sarah. I can’t wait to read your book.

If you want to learn more about Sarah or find out how to purchase What You Are Now Enjoying, please visit http://www.SarahGerkensmeyer.com


2 Comments

Me Time

Sunset

This past Friday Ruby came home from daycare with a limp in her front paw. Her LA daycare mom said she had been playing a bit too hard. I didn’t get upset, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this would have happened in Vermont, where she was in a smaller group of dogs and watched carefully by that daycare mom. She also received obedience training in addition to daily off-leash hikes in the mountains. I actually questioned whether it was right to bring her back to a one-bedroom apartment in LA, where the only place she can run around is a dog park, to which we have to drive 15 minutes, 25 in traffic. But this is where we live. Unless I gave her up, she had to come back with me to the urban jungle.

Two days after we arrived, VT daycare mom texted me: Is she missing any dogs you think????

I looked over at the sleeping puppy. Was she dreaming about hiking and wrestling with her VT buddies? Both of us have been dealing with medical issues developed while traveling, and now she gets a nasty squirt of medication in her mouth every night. But despite this, the long car rides to and fro, and the fact that she has to walk on a leash again, she seems happy. It’s possible she misses Vermont, but here she is the center of my attention, doesn’t have to share the bed with four other dogs (and two people), it’s 80 degrees out and she hangs out at Venice Beach. I’ve also been training her more consistently than before we left and making sure she has plenty of exercise on the non-daycare days. It feels as if we have found our rhythm again and we’re both on the mend from our travel wounds.

That said, today is the first day since being back that I’ve been able to truly concentrate, partly because I put her in daycare instead of keeping her home with me. This morning I had to question whether it was worth the money. But if there’s one thing I confirmed in Vermont, it’s that I am a happier person when I’m writing.

My sister recently reminded me that our mother used to regularly go into her art studio and close the door. During this time, she was not to be disturbed for any reason other than an emergency. I know a dog is not a child, but she’s the closest thing I have at the moment. And as smart as she is, I don’t think she would understand, “Don’t disturb Mommy right now, she’s writing.”

Hence, she is in daycare on my day off (hopefully not playing too hard), and I am taking advantage of this Me Time by writing and strategizing my future. Time is of the essence.

Ruby in car