By REBECCA SCHWAB
OBSERVER Staff Writer
Though "What You Are Now Enjoying" is her first book, Sarah Gerkensmeyer is not new to publishing.
Her stories have appeared in several journals, including "The Massachusetts Review," "Hayden's Ferry Review," "North Dakota Quarterly," and more. She was a finalist for the 2011 Cavino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, judged by well-known author Aimee Bender, and was awarded a waiter scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. "What You Are Now Enjoying" won the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Contest, judged by Stewart O'Nan.
The stories in "What You Are Now Enjoying" contain surreal elements, often taking readers to unexpected places with surprising results. Gerkensmeyer describes the collection:
"From Wonder Woman as an angst-ridden teenager to ghost twins to monster catfish to the secret
Author: Sarah Gerkensmeyer
Book Title: "What You Are Now Enjoying"
Genre: Fiction, short stories
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."
Gerkensmeyer explains that although her characters may seem extraordinary, they face the same daily struggles, setbacks, and difficult emotions of real people. One such emotion that Gerkensmeyer has noticed throughout her stories is a pervasive sadness and rather than bring people down, she hopes that this sadness is something with which her readers can identify, and even learn from.
"Looking back at the collection as a whole, I've been grappling with the fact that my stories contain a lot of sadness (...) I don't think I wrote the stories with the intent to simply make people sad. Rather, I hope they become a kind of exploration of the longing and emptiness that people can sometimes feel. And I hope there's a kind of redemption in exploring those themes," she muses.
The stories in the collection, though they do contain sadness, also hold up for their reader moments of insight and reflection. One such moment, from "Edith and the Ocean Dome," explores the feelings of the protagonist, a marine biologist whose personal concerns interfere with her research on a Japanese island:
"But Edith also feels good right now. She must admit this as she stands in that open pool. She has seen so much. She has seen a pipefish standing on its nose among blades of waving sea grass. She has been engulfed in clouds of metallic-blue wrasse and sweepers and silversides. Edith is certain that there have been moments in her life when she has been able to simply look at a thing without classifying it or pulling it apart. Right now as she stands here, dumb in the water, fingering the familiar, rounded edges of emptiness and longing in her mind, Edith finds comfort in what she knows she has seen."
Edith's story is just one of many within "What You Are Now Enjoying" that deals with both issues of loneliness and of self-discovery. In many of the stories, the characters are able to gain a sense of direction in their lives only after first attempting to face what's been missing all along.
Gerkensmeyer, like many authors, has been telling stories for as long as she could talk. She feels lucky to have encountered encouraging professors at DePauw University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in creative writing. She went on to graduate from Cornell University's MFA program, and has been developing her craft ever since, despite the demands of teaching creative writing at Fredonia State University and raising her young sons Simon and Charlie with husband Andrew Cullison. She admits that finding space in her schedule to work on her fiction is challenging, but makes sure to use what time she does have to her advantage.
"For the past few years, I've found myself writing intensely during short pockets of time. I have a very generous husband who has sent me to artists' colonies for two weeks at a time during three winters (...) Each time I'm away from my family, I know that I have to take as much advantage of that time as possible. I'll sit in my studio for hours and hours caught up in a very strange mix of emotions - missing my family terribly, but also high on the rush of writing and being back inside my stories," she says.
Another author might take time to sit back and enjoy the success of a prestigious award and his or her first published book. Not Gerkensmeyer. She is currently writing a novel, and has been, for four years. This work involves copious medical research, which has slowed down the novel's progress. Ironically, Gerkensmeyer worked on the stories in "What You Are Now Enjoying" as a kind of reprieve from her novel something she admits that she needed.
"Oddly enough, the story collection became a guilty indulgence. I thought that my return to short stories was merely a form of procrastination from the novel in progress. Turns out I needed a break from the longer project, and I'm so glad I let myself return to the short stories," she says.
Gerkensmeyer hopes that the stories within her collection will reach different people in different ways, that the experiences of the characters she has created will tap into the general vein of human experience.
"We all want things; we all lose things," says Gerkensmeyer. "We all try to get those things back. I think I'm drawn to telling this common story in weird, new ways. And maybe this will give readers a fresh way of experiencing the things that often seem so ordinary and even mundane in our lives."
"What You Are Now Enjoying" is available on the Autumn House Press website, www.autumnhouse.org, as well as on Amazon.com.
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