Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Episode I: "The garish and the beautiful"
In the inaugural installment, I speak with Sarah Gerard (above) and Merritt Tierce (below) about titling books, high school lit, handwriting, dedications, Merritt’s dog Sparklemousse, La Croix, Florida, Spring Breakers, and kids' impressions of art.
Andrew: Welcome to the very first installment of PIXELATED. I’m here with two fantastic debut novelists: Merritt Tierce, author of LOVE ME BACK (Doubleday, September 2014) and Sarah Gerard, author of BINARY STAR (Two Dollar Radio, January 2015).
Both are gritty, sparse novels that you read like taking an unknown pill—quickly and without full knowledge how it’ll change you. They affect you physically—at least they did me—in that way that you don’t realize your mouth is open until someone asks what you’re reading.
1st of all, let me thank you for being my guinea pigs in this series. You are trailblazers. 2nd, to get started and help bridge that digital divide, would you a) each kindly describe your environs, and b) confirm whether you have ever met?
Merritt: we've never met, but i did just agree to do a talk with sarah at a fabulous local indie bookstore if she was available on her swing through texas. didn't work out this time but i'm looking forward to reading the book!
Andrew: Looks like it was fated.
Merritt: as for environs do you mean at this moment?
Sarah: Yes! And I'd be so thrilled to talk to you, Merritt—really hoping I can make an additional stop in Texas! I'm in my living room, having just returned from the first leg of my book tour. I'm home today and tomorrow and then leaving again on Tuesday for another ten days.
My living room being the same as my bedroom and my kitchen—such as New York studios are.
Andrew: Merritt—you're in Texas, then?
Merritt: cool. i love the title of your book, by the way. i'm in my "annex," so named by my daughter. it's a cedar closet that has been converted into a hiding place for me.
yes in texas
Andrew: Yes, at this moment.
Merritt: i'm on the top shelf of the closet
Sarah: I used to have one of those, too. Writers need annexes.
(I love the title of your book, too, by the way.)
Merritt: in the dark, with some Christmas lights.
thanks! yes, they do need annexes.
Andrew: Where in the process of writing did your titles come to be?
Sarah: That reminds me of that episode of South Park where Cartman pretended to be trans so he could have his own private bathroom.
Merritt: ha ha oh cartman
Sarah: The Christmas lights, I mean.
Well, Binary Star seemed a natural title, since the dominant metaphor of the novel is a binary star. I'm usually terrible at titling things and usually end up with a one-word title, just to get it over with. But this one seemed to write itself. The binary star is at the forefront of the story throughout the novel, so it came to me very early.
Merritt: my title came pretty late in the book's evolution. it refers to a line in one of the last chapters, and as soon as i wrote that line i realized it worked as a title.
Sarah: Oh, god—my desire to self-edit is strong already.
A good title does have that feeling of finality, doesn't it?
Of fitting perfectly into a hole of the same shape?
Merritt: yes—although i think there's also a moment where you can't hear it any longer and you wonder what it means
Sarah: Sometimes I hear myself saying "Binary Star" and think I'm not saying it musically enough.
If that makes sense.
Andrew: Like you're ordering a new coffee drink?
Like literature titles have to be wafted in the air, instead of ordered
Merritt: it used to annoy me when people compared publishing a book—especially a first book—to having a baby, but i grudgingly admit there are many neat parallels. one being the naming of. no one wants to tell someone the name they picked out is stupid or trendy, so sometimes i wonder what people really think of my titles.
Sarah: Yes, an automatic recitation. It doesn't even matter what I'm ordering anymore.
Andrew: Do you think parents worry they aren't saying their kid's names musically enough?
Sarah: But "Love Me Back" is brilliant! It's an entire story unto itself.
I think, certainly, kids sometimes think their parents aren't saying their names musically enough.
Merritt: thanks!—my worry though is that it fits into this category of titles of quirky found language—usually phrases that contain YOU or ME
there are so many of them
BINARY STAR seems like what i subconsciously think of as a "real" title :)
Sarah: Oh, thanks! I just like stars.
Merritt, did you ever think you wouldn't finish Love Me Back? And if so, what was happening in that moment?
Merritt: i never had much of an idea of the book as a book—so in that sense, no, but only because i wasn't thinking of it as anything at all. but i did certainly think that i would never finish A book, or see it published.
i always felt intimidated by the notion of writing a novel—it seemed like such a big, deliberate thing to do.
i still feel that way, even though i have written a novel!
and they published it...
Sarah: I know what you mean! For my part, I'm now thinking about the next "novel" and wondering how I should even begin. I find myself doing a lot more planning even though I did none of that the first time.
Merritt: me too—binary star is your first book?
Sarah: I'm almost afraid it will go stale before it's written. Like it's being too much exposed to the air already.
Merritt: exactly. i've talked about my next novel so much i'm starting to wonder if i've killed it. a rookie mistake.
Sarah: Yes, the first full-length book. I published a chapbook in fall 2013, an essay.
I know! We should really stop talking about them.
My husband knows too much.
Andrew: Perfect segue. For my next Q
Merritt: yes :). now i've started wondering if this is the book i'll just talk about for the rest of my life and never write.
Andrew: No one would say either book is “light”, per se, and by that I mean you probably won’t find it on an 11th grade English syllabus. What’s ironic to me is that if I had been exposed to this sort of writing when I was in high school, I probably wouldn’t have been turned off to novels for so long. What were your personal experiences with the lit taught within secondary education?
Sarah: I regret telling him anything because he's already telling me it's good. It's like, "I haven't even written it, yet!"
Oh, I loved some of it and hated some of it, of course. But I've forgotten the books I hated and reread the books I loved.
I think I was lucky to have an excellent AP English teacher (thanks, Mr. LaMore!)
Andrew: What have you reread?
Sarah: Heart of Darkness and Ethan Frome, recently.
But many things.
William Carlos Williams, recently, also.
Merritt: i think i probably didn't understand a lot of what i read in school
Sarah: That is also true.
Merritt: i didn't have enough exposure to the world to get it
Sarah: Oh, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I loved especially because I grew up in Florida.
Andrew: Where in Florida!?
Sarah: I wonder if that's always true with rereading.
That there are things I'll never get the first time around.
Andrew: That's ironic though, that you didn't understand because you lacked exposure—to me books are about exposure, and I didn't get that from virtually every book I read in high school
Merritt: i think perhaps they try too hard to teach kids how to read critically—how to study books. how to break them down into literary elements like theme and character etc.
rather than teaching kids how to love books, first.
Sarah: Yes, and it's also the responsibility of the teacher to select books that will stimulate their particular students and also extend the students’ experience.
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Merritt: sorry, my connection dropped for a second
Andrew: Speaking of, I'm curious how disconnected you are when you write
Sarah: I think you're right, Merritt. Although, I always enjoyed learning to recognize those things in the books we were reading, it's probably difficult for students who are just learning to read at all. And even more difficult if the books don't appeal to those particular students.
Merritt: not disconnected enough
Sarah: Disconnected from the internet, you mean? And the phone?
Merritt: i'm headed to a residency in a couple weeks and i'm considering not taking my phone or computer
Andrew: Yes, everything
Sarah: It depends on what I'm writing.
Oh, man. Not taking your computer is ballsy.
Merritt: i was in greece for three weeks without either, the summer of 2010, and i wrote more easily than i ever have in my life.
Andrew: So you write by hand?
Merritt: i don't, usually. but i like what i do write when i write by hand. it's noticeably different.
Sarah: My hands feel weak nowadays.
Merritt: i type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts, but when i'm writing by hand it's more like trying to catch a moving train
Sarah: All this delicate typing has atrophied my finger muscles.
Merritt: mine too
my hands hurt if i write for long now
Sarah: That's what I find scary. What if I don't catch it?
Merritt: but i also love handwriting, and the physicality of it
Sarah: Do you have good handwriting?
Merritt: i've been told so
Sarah: Mine looks like a six-year-old's.
Merritt: i like looking at my handwriting, anyway
ha ha :)
Sarah: How did you learn to write in school?
Merritt: but if i do write by hand i have enormous anxiety about losing what i've written
Merritt: with those Big Chief tablets
with the blue and red lines
and we learned cursive
Sarah: Oh, what are those? We didn't have those
Merritt: i think they're phasing that out for the most part
Sarah: We learned cursive, too! Apparently they don't teach it anymore.
That's what I've heard.
Such a shame.
I actually think learning to write was one of those things that led me into a love of language.
Merritt: yes—and handwriting is so unique
Andrew: How so?
Sarah: There were rules, but within those rules, I was learning how to communicate, and learning how to be expressive. The lines, themselves, were a visual expression of my personal aesthetic, and the words I chose to write were a translation of my inner life.
I remember it being really exciting to break the rules sometimes, too.
Merritt: yes! nicely put
Andrew: Writers should have to write their dedications by hand, so we have a feel for that inner life
Sarah: We learned D'Nealean handwriting but in the back of our book, there were examples of Zaner Blozer (am I spelling these right?) letters, which I preferred.
Merritt: oh wow i don't remember that, or which kind we learned
Sarah: D'Nealean was so curvy, but Zaner Blozer was sharp, with angles and hard lines.
I think D'Nealean's curviness was supposed to help kids learn cursive later on, actually.
Merritt: i'm really drawn to dedications and acknowledgments, andrew—for what they reveal about the writer
Andrew: How's that?
Merritt: like Albert Murray's dedication of SOUTH TO A VERY OLD PLACE
Sarah: It's true. Hilda Hilst dedicated one of her books to the philosopher Ernest Becker, which led me to his work, which illuminated so much about hers.
Merritt: for my wife, Mozelle, who, honeysuckle-fairytale downhome girl that she is, was as the old folks used to say, was born knowing
Andrew: What's the worst type of dedication?
Sarah: That's beautiful.
Merritt: ok it's tragic that i messed it up: "was, as the old folks used to say, born knowing"
Sarah: Is there a bad type of dedication?
Andrew: Pet dedications? To myself?
I guess I'm being too negative?
Sarah: But there's such a rich history of writers and their pets.
Eileen Myles is writing a dog memoir right now.
Merritt: and writers and their long-suffering unknown partners...
Sarah: Very true.
Merritt: i could easily dedicate my next book to my dog
Sarah: Tell me about your dog.
If you don't mind.
What breed? Boy or girl?
Merritt: his name is Sparklemousse.
he goes by Mousse.
Sarah: Oh my gosh.
Merritt: he is a male longhaired Chihuahua
Sarah: I love him already.
Andrew: Is that like pamplemousse?
Merritt: yes! his name was pamplemousse for a day
but then my husband kept calling him silly variations
Andrew: That's our favorite flavor of La Croix
Merritt: and one was sparklemousse, which was obviously his real name.
ha, that's where it came from—ours too!
Sarah: Is there a lot of wordplay in your house?
Merritt: i'm into lemon more now though.
Andrew: No way!
Merritt: oh so much!
yes way :)
LOTS of puns around here
Andrew: Shifting La Croix flavors is a subtle change with deep undercurrents
Sarah: Lots of puns around here, too. And nonsense words.
Merritt: my daughter is 13, and is always trying to make new puns, many of which are really ornate and contrived and don't totally work. but it's a fascinating revelation of what it takes to make a pun that actually does.
Sarah: We embrace nonsense on a deep, spiritual level.
Merritt: andrew, true. some will never ever work though. like coconut, or peach-pear.
Sarah: Oh yeah, puns are a delicate art form.
Andrew: Have either of you read "Nonsense" by Susan....
Sarah: I haven't.
Sarah: But I'm looking it up now.
Andrew: and have never finished
I half-read it & then left it on an NJ transit train
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Merritt: i think sarah went to get it
Sarah: Oh, I'm back.
Okay, sorry—I went to add NONSENSE to my Pinterest and closed our chat window
Merritt: ha, i was kidding
Andrew: Merritt—I'm curious what half-puns your daughter is making
Merritt: i wish i could think of a good example—but puns are always so in-the-moment
What place does humor play in your favorite lit?
Sarah: Do you ever write them down?
Merritt: i don't! i should though. as literary anthropology.
i think strong writing always naturally contains humor, like life
if there's no humor in it it won't feel real
Sarah: Well, I just read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, which I wasn't surprised to find hilarious. And in that book I think it comes mostly out of the characters and the sense of absurdity inherent in Florida's atmosphere.
Andrew: Are you ever turned off by humor? If it doesn't feel real?
Sarah: Its atmosphere and the landscape.
Andrew: My girlfriend claims all of Florida's youth is forced to read that book
Sarah: I wasn't but I'm glad I did now.
Merritt: florida is just funny, i have to say
Andrew: Ha—why's that?
Sarah: I've been thinking a lot about Florida and its literature.
Andrew: Harry Crews
Sarah: Florida is a living contradiction.
And is, I think, the wildest U.S. state.
Merritt: i don't know. i haven't spent a lot of time there but it's such a weird combination of the garish and the truly beautiful.
Andrew: Contradiction how?
Sarah: Its landscape is wild and its people are wild.
Andrew: A new doc on Vimeo is called "Florida Man"
Great to watch if you're in a surreal mood
Sarah: We just watched it the other day.
Andrew: No way!
Sarah: That same director directed "American Juggalo", which our friend shot.
And "Oxyana", which is the most heartbreaking documentary I think I've ever seen.
About Oceana, West Virginia, which has the highest concentration of Oxycontin addicts in the U.S.
If you can find it playing somewhere, watch it.
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Merritt: sorry again
i was saying that florida is a weird combination of the garish and the truly beautiful
Sarah: So, Florida as a contradiction, in this same vein: an example would be the overwhelming Christian ideology among a high rate of drug arrests and prostitution.
Merritt: and people (and animals) wash up there from all directions
Sarah: And I agree with Merritt, about the garish and the beautfiul.
Andrew: I think the former are the things that were made in the past 50 years, and the latter are the ones that have been around before us
Did either of you see "Spring Breakers"?
Andrew: Hell yes
Merritt: no. good?
Sarah: Oh, so good.
Andrew: Filmed in Sarasota
Sarah: It was shot in my hometown, and fully embraces the garish AS beautiful.
Andrew: The best part for me about that movie was watching it in a movie theatre with 17 and 18 year olds who didn't know what they were getting into
Sarah: St. Petersburg and Sarasota
Merritt: wow i'll have to check this out
Sarah: People seemed really upset.
Andrew: Yes, visibly
like, disgusted by art
I think it was Franco's best role to date
Merritt: somehow i'm going to see the spongebob movie this afternoon
Sarah: It's funny because it really was everything they were expecting from a spring break movie, but pushed to the extreme.
I agree about Franco.
Nobody else could have played that role.
Andrew: I assume daughter will be in tow?
Merritt: well it's actually for my husband's birthday, but we're taking all three kids and his mom
Andrew: How have children affected your art intake?
Merritt: i loathed spongebob when my kids were little because it is insanely annoying as background noise. but apparently there are gems of existential profundity i totally missed.
Sarah: I can see that.
Merritt: i'm not sure how they've affected it—i like what i like, and have always been appalled by the way some people turn themselves into children when they have kids. kids' music, kids' movies, kids' everything all the time.
even the youngest kids can appreciate really complex art if it's good
Sarah: Did you notice that they were disinterested if it was bad?
I'm almost afraid to ask this, but what is bad art?
Or do you mean that if you bring them to where art is and then guide them into an appreciation, perhaps?
Merritt: yeah...i don't know if i could say. but there is definitely art my son is totally disinterested in. a lot of modern art, like video installations and conceptual pieces, he sort of scoffs at.
Sarah: What is his taste, would you say?
Merritt: i took him to the art institute in chicago and there was a piece i really loved—a neon sign—and he seemed personally offended that someone might have been paid money for it, as art
he's a practical person. he likes tangible, representational.
Sarah: I'm interested in how that moment played out. Did you talk to him about why it's considered art, and do you remember what you said, he said?
I don't mean to put you on the spot, I just think kids are interesting people.
Merritt: i wish i remembered. i loved the fact that he didn't care that so many people obviously did think it was art.
Merritt: that he still felt free to think it was lame.
Sarah: Good! That is everyone's right.
I love it.
Sarah: I used to teach art to kids at a children's museum summer camp.
It was the most fun I've ever had.
Merritt: oh wow
my kids went to one of those at the modern art museum in fort worth. it was amazing.
Sarah: They were brilliant. I think I learned more from them than anyone else in my whole life.
Sarah: We made these huge pieces out of butcher paper and suspended them from the air conditioning vents, then held an art opening for the rest of the summer camp classes.
Everyone was amazed, and the kids were so proud.
They felt like real artists.
I mean, they were.
Andrew: Looks like we're at our allotted time, so I'm going to politely ask for final thoughts.
Merritt: just getting kids to realize that they can be makers is so important
Sarah: I could tell that some of them were already making decisions about their future, you know?
Realizing that they were makers.
Sarah: Well, this has been really fun! I'm glad we got to talk, Merritt.
Sarah: And thank you, Andrew!
Andrew: Y'all were a ton of fun
Merritt: hope we can talk in person before long, and i can't wait to read your book!
Sarah: We will! And I will gladly sign your copy. See you soon. 8^)
Andrew: Thanks again people, This has been PIXELATED, Episode One.
Merritt: Andrew, vive La Croix.
Andrew: Vive La Croix.