About the Author:
Kate Bernheimer is the author of Horse, Flower, Bird, two novels, and the children’s book The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. She is also the editor of Fairy Tale Review, and three anthologies, including My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010). Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Bookforum, and stories from this collection have appeared in the Portland Mercury, Tin House, and elsewhere. An Associate Professor and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette each spring, Bernheimer spends the rest of the year in Tucson, Arizona.
Kate Bernheimer in conversation with Willy Vlautin
Willy Vlautin: When we lived in the same town we used to meet at Tom’s Restaurant. You were the first writer I really got to know. For me, meeting you was a great gift. Although we wrote about different worlds and grew up in different worlds, you had the instant ability to understand the heart of my stories. You were like that with me as well. If I came to the diner hungover and a wreck, you’d know I was having a hard time before I opened my mouth. You just know. I think your writing is like that, it has a rawness and honesty even though it’s oftentimes set in an off-kilter world. Have you always had that ability to feel people’s pain? Is it hard to be like that? How does that affect your stories?
Kate Bernheimer: My husband has a poem about a couple walking through an apocalyptic city where one of them takes a straw and sucks the darkness out of people, and the results aren’t very pretty. He claims it’s not about me, but I don’t know. I believe that some people are, for better or worse, tuned in to other people’s emotions, which often means being acutely aware of their suffering. Sometimes really insecure people suffer in ways that make them mean—espec-ially toward other sensitive people whom they recognize as easy targets. In junior high I was viciously bullied; I was an easy target—I was weak because I hadn’t yet accepted the fact that I didn’t fit in with normal society (now I know how to fake it much better!).
You are a kind, sensitive person. You may be a wreck, but you’re a real wreck (to paraphrase Truman Capote, who wrote of Holly Golightly that she was a phony, but a real phony). When I met you, it was around the time I began to put aside my petty needs for acceptance. I had plunged headfirst into a mad world of musicians and artists where there were no mainstream rules of comportment. That was hard for me, and meeting you was an easy spot in that time. I just felt incredibly at ease with you; you calmed my nerves. I also fell in love with the kindness in your books. When one of your characters is depressed (and for good reason, because your characters are always pretty down on their luck, like most people in life), he watches a Paul Newman movie, runs a warm bath, and gets a beer from the fridge. You’re sensitive to your characters’ sadness and you tend to them—just like with your friends, just by hanging out quietly with them. There’s no pressure. You can’t stand any on you, and we got that about each other I think. You took me to the horse track and didn’t laugh at me when I’d only bet a dollar and anguish over which horse to place it on.
Even though my characters are less dignified than yours—they’re often enraged, bewildered, or inappropri-ately elated—you didn’t think my writing was that weird, and that was a comfort to me. Our writing looks really different, but I think a lot of it comes from the same place. Also, it can be hard to talk about writing without feeling like a fraud or a failure, but when we talked about it over breakfast—neither of us having, at the time, yet published a book—and the conversation would become embarrassing, we’d just kind of look down at our French toast and laugh. Artists need friends like that—it was Megan Pickerel, a phenomenal artist and musician, who introduced us, understanding that some people just need each other. She introduced us after a Swoon 23 show she played in Portland, maybe in 1995, saying simply “You guys are both writers and you need to know each other,” and I remember you gave me your phone number all folded up on a scrap piece of paper. I make sure now whenever I can to introduce artists to each other who need to know each other, who are kindred spirits.
Willy Vlautin: Your new collection is just amazing, and I’m not just saying that because we’re pals! It’s so unique and sparse and odd and full of great heart. Can you tell me about this collection, where did it start, how did you come up with the layout and the initial idea?
Kate Bernheimer Aw, thanks Willy. I spent more than a decade (from 1995 to 2009) on a trio of novels, and it was a draining project with three very difficult girls at its center. There were times I needed to walk away from those books—to leave those girls and get them to stop bothering me. A novel is by nature flawed (I have heard that Randall Jarrell once described the novel as a long prose work that has something wrong with it). But for me, stories are exacting. If you’re failing a story, it frowns on you (a novel just goes “Wheee! here we go into the failure!”). I wanted to try to do something that had (for me as an artist) very clear parameters. Working on the stories for Horse, Flower, Bird became a form of consolation. I guess it could be hard to see them as consoling because they’re full of loneliness and maladjustment, but there are also talking tulip bulbs, loving children, and chirping parakeets.
I designed these stories to let the air into them, to make the whole experience less claustrophobic. As a writer a lot of your time is spent alone in a room (ceiling, walls, door). The white space in these stories is the airy world, coming in there. Also I felt really strongly that these stories needed the pages to turn, like in a children’s book. A lot of the tales are about childhood and the child’s imagination, even when their characters are so-called adults; I think of them, in a way, as children’s books for adults. They are best read in one sitting, and they invite you to participate in them by turning the pages. In this way, you yourself live in the book.
The idea of having the book illustrated evolved very naturally—in fact, you were the first person to suggest it after reading the manuscript. Later that same year, I was talking to Rikki Ducornet about how the stories appeared on the page, and she said, simply, “Oh, I’d love to do some pictures for you.” Rikki illuminated the book perfectly; she knew that the stories would have been overwhelmed by too much imagery—when I saw her art for the collection I was astonished by its delicacy, its strangeness, its grace. She is such a generous and intelligent person—I learn so much from her way in the world.
Willy Vlautin: I always admire your ability to create your own world, your ability to set your characters in a fairy-tale/off-kilter setting, yet their hearts and the stories are so real and simple and oddly modern. It’s an alternate universe. It’s amazing to me. Have you always written that way? When did you begin to write that way?
Kate Bernheimer: I do think I have always written that way, ever since I was a kid. When I was really little I’d write stories about talking rabbits and queens. Fairy tales are so much about isolated underdogs searching for home; as a very shy kid, I felt most at home inside books and inside stories. It happened that a lot of the books available to me in the public library were magical books—so lucky! The stories I wrote reflected the stories I read.
Then, in my mid-twenties, I spent a very isolated and magical year as the writer in residence at a private boarding school, and had a glass-walled office on the top floor of their beautiful library, sort of a glass coffin of an office, I guess. It was in that library that I discovered a section of fairy-tale collections and scholarship; I’d never read about fairy tales, only read the stories themselves, and even those not yet as an adult. It was rereading them as an adult, and reading the scholarship about them, that I recognized fairy tales as one of our oldest and most innovative traditions, of deep influence on so many of the authors I revered over the ages (Italo Calvino, Kathryn Davis, Joy Williams, Edgar Allan Poe). Becoming more dexterous intellectually with fairy tales gave me new confidence, not so much in my abilities but in the way that I saw the world—broken and magical at the very same time. And rereading the fairy tales deepened my intuition as a writer, I think. So I returned to them as fully as I had as a child and never looked back.
Willy Vlautin: You’re known as a major scholar of fairy tales—especially Eastern European and Yiddish folk tales. Can you tell me a bit about what attracted you to them?
Kate Bernheimer: I would have to describe myself more as a self-taught critical celebrator than as a scholar, though I love the idea of being a scholar. My critical work with fairy tales goes back to childhood too, when being a bookworm led me to so many magical volumes; though again, it wasn’t until adulthood that I read the older and more gruesome versions. Yet even adapted tales for children retain vestiges of the traditional tales’ dark motifs and unusual form, which I write about in my articles on fairy tales. So I think encountering the stories so young just deeply influenced me.
But it wasn’t just in the library—my grandfather worked as a promoter for, among other things, movie premieres in the Boston area. Because of that job, he had access to a vast warehouse of reel-to-reel films. My mother would drive me, my sisters, and brother to this mysterious building and we’d all go up an elevator, stand at this counter, and wait while she checked out heavy, metal cases of animated films from a gruff woman with whom my mother exchanged friendly banter. Then we’d drive to my grandparents’ house in Brookline and go down to the basement and line up on the couch and stare, rapt, at the screen. Like a wizard, my grandfather fixed broken projector bulbs and spliced burnt film in a little booth (which also housed the washing machine, boxes of family photographs, and tarnished family silver from Russia); out of that booth came the most remarkable images—we watched Fantasia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Snow White, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, and Mary Poppins down there.
So in addition to having read through the children’s room at the public library alphabetically, I, like a lot of American kids, was weaned on animated magic. It seemed in those stories, anything could happen—even the weak could become strong, which in real life was, to me, absolutely inconceivable. I had no words to articulate this until my thirties, but I was instinctively drawn to the plain and isolated tropes of the tale: horse, castle, donkey, teakettle, hedgehog, and bed. Like a perfect dollhouse (a mad, constructed universe), fairy tales contained the whole world and all of its domestic, natural mysteries. To me they were mythic. I love what the scholar Maria Tatar says about fairy tales—that reading them creates an intense “contact zone” between story and reader, a magic mirror you walk through with trepidation and bliss.
Willy Vlautin: Here are some questions I’ve always wanted to ask you: If you could disappear into any story, which story or novel would it be?
Kate Bernheimer: That’s a neat question. Pretty much whatever book I am reading and loving at the time makes me want to live forever in it, and I’m sad when it’s over and a lot of the time I’ll just start reading it over again right away. I read a book on an airplane last week that mostly took place in an all-night diner in Japan, and I wished I was sitting there wearing a baseball cap and drinking a bottomless cup of coffee, too, even though the book was violent and sad. But I guess that is why I love reading so much—it is full of all kinds of possibilities from bleak to utopian.
As a kid, reading allowed me to disappear into a story com- pletely and become invisible. When I was a kid, I thought it would be so great to live in the land that the Borrowers lived in—to be miniature and have a matchbox as a bed! That seemed marvelous! Especially The Borrowers Aloft, where they’re floating around. The Secret Garden, Harriet the Spy, Little House on the Prairie, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan.
I would be hard-pressed, however, to find a novel I’d rather disappear into than Franny and Zooey—I could lie with Zooey on that couch forever reciting that prayer over and over, trying to become nobody—that would be perfect as a forever-home, with its domestic isolation and its spiritual humility. Or any Emily Dickinson poem; I’d be a bee, I’d be a flower. Reading is bliss; it is disappearing, losing attachment to ego and self, to their afflictions.
I feel the same way about songs—a great song makes you live inside it. I could live in your song, “Allison Johnson,” among countless others of yours, any of them really; in the Talking Heads’ “Heaven”; in Cat Stevens’s “Trouble”; in R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming.”
Willy Vlautin: When did you start writing seriously?
Kate Bernheimer: I wrote all the time from a pretty young age; I think that counts as writing seriously. I consider my daughter a serious writer at age five: she makes the sweetest little grocery lists and short stories (“The cloud was a rain cloud over Snow White” is a recent example—that’s the whole story, which is illustrated). She takes it very seriously while she is writing—half of it is that she’s just learning how to make the letters and so it’s slow and thoughtful. I love seeing, in her, the reminder that it really is humble and challenging work to make the words come out on the page.
My best childhood friend, Diana Selig (now a brilliant history scholar) and I started a newspaper together in third grade, called The Waban Bulletin. We worked on it voraciously, all of the time, after school, on the weekends, writing all of the contents ourselves—family news, profiles of people we knew, works of short fiction, editorials, horoscopes (we invented new ones—Syntumbeedee was autumn). Diana wrote these really elegant pieces—particularly memorable was a persuasive editorial on “Why There Should Be a Woman President,” and a wrenching short story about a girl with leukemia. Also she wrote a profile of Golda Meir. Of course, I wrote gushy fairy tales about Russian princesses eloping to America with Jacob, the Gardener, and news items about learning tour jetés in ballet class, and about new toe shoes and my mother’s latke recipes. (How little we change!)
But I do think I started writing seriously—by which I mean on deadline, and rigorously copyediting my own sentences—at that time, with Diana. She was my ideal reader, and I hers: we loved everything the other person wrote and painstakingly typed up our stories and mimeographed and distributed them. Eventually, and much to our parents’ dismay, we changed the name of the Bulletin to Kubbedeus, which was a combination of our initials (KB & DS), which we’d repeated over and over on the swing set one day, until we invented that word. For our own reasons, we were interested in alchemy—in language and possibility, in transformation.
It’s probably no accident that I have ended up working as an editor and publisher as well as working as an author—the roles are deeply entwined for me. I began writing seriously at the same time as I devoted myself completely to Diana as her reader and editor. Loving other people’s work—reading their work—that was always really serious to me.
Willy Vlautin: Was there a book that changed you, that made you stop and say, “I want to do this”?
Kate Bernheimer: I think there was. My first memory of that is sort of doubled: I had read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and also seen the movie around the same time, the one with Margaret O’Brien. The March family seemed to me to live a very romantic life—they put on plays together, acted out Pilgrim’s Progress; they sang by the piano; even the brushing of hair seemed artistic, intentional. Jo scribbled up in the attic, munching on apples, and sent her work off hopefully, hopelessly, eventually receiving a check in the mail for a mystery story. Of all the sisters’ triumphs and disappointments, Jo’s—as a writer—spoke most closely to me. I didn’t think to myself, “I want to be a writer,” but I began to see my future within that fantasy, that kind of scene.
Then when I read Franny and Zooey, I learned two things that made me want to continue writing. First, I began to comprehend the terrible human evil of egoism, of hope. That changed and shaped my relationship to writing. It helped me commit myself to the world of books without expectation of “fulfillment” in any worldly sense. Also I just loved the domestic isolation in that book and intuitively, I think, Salinger confirmed for me that writing within the domestic sphere was as expansive as any kind of writing out there. And something else in that book that deeply affected me was that presence and function of the prayer book. This goes back to your earlier question—about the desire to live in a book. Having a character read the way Franny reads (i.e., she is literally lost in the book)—there was something spiritual and childlike about the whole endeavor. That was something I realized I had been trying to write about, and it’s continued to shape my stories, novels, and children’s books.
Willy Vlautin: Today, this minute, what is your favorite record?
Kate Bernheimer: I like that you ask the question like that. It changes all the time, doesn’t it? I’m the sort of person who plays the same record over and over for weeks and then I do the same thing with another one. For a long time I tortured late-night customers at La Cruda in Portland by playing the Carpenters’ “Superstar” on the jukebox ten times in a row. The bartender at the time, Mike Hughes, sometimes intercepted my purchases with his remote control. “I’m cutting you off,” he’d say. All my friends were eighty-sixed from whiskey, but I was cut off from the Carpenters!
Okay, so right now in early 2010, I am obsessed with anything Patti Smith recorded. Because I just read, and am sort of obsessed with, the Patti Smith memoir Just Kids. I’m incredibly inspired by Smith’s early commitment to living the life of an artist and how she worked so hard to find her form—her style—that thing that only she could do.
Willy Vlautin: Writing is a lonely craft, one where people often think you’re crazy for doing it. Before I got published, you and one of my old drinking buddies were the only ones who didn’t think I was crazy. How were things for you coming up, were friends/family supportive?
Kate Bernheimer: My family—and not only my parents and siblings, but aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—were incredibly supportive, in that they never told me once not to be a writer. They just treated me like a writer all along whether I was published or not. Looking back I see how lucky I was (and still am) to have a family like that. I don’t think they care for all that I write, but they are extremely supportive that I do it. Looking back I see that growing up, I instinctively was drawn to kids who were becoming generous citizens, artists, and thinkers—my childhood friends are now scholars, poets, actors.
When I was in my twenties, I saw a documentary about Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes that influenced me deeply; Gena Rowlands described in it, very persuasively, how she and Cassavetes made an extremely conscious choice to surround themselves with artists, as a way to survive. I saw this on television, soon after I had moved in with my boyfriend (now my husband, the writer Brent Hendricks) in Oklahoma. We decided to make the same choice one night over whiskey. We had one of the first in a lifelong series of conversations about having felt, our whole lives, like outsiders, and how surrounding ourselves with artists/outsiders—you know them when you see them, regardless of their worldly success—would be important to our own work. From that time on we have been incredibly lucky to know people who have utterly devoted themselves to some generous form, among them amazing musicians, poets, environmental philosophers. Some of these people work as dishwashers and housepainters; others put on suits and teach college; others live on farms or in the desert, more or less free to do their art all the time. Doesn’t matter what their job is—they’re all survivors and they are my heroes. It’s the friends who haven’t survived that pain me, the ones who couldn’t hang on.
Willy Vlautin is the author of three novels: The Motel Life, Northline, and Lean on Pete, and singer/songwriter for the band Richmond Fontaine.