Books In Conversation
A WAY I COULD BE
KATE BERNHEIMER with Matt Bell
How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales
(Coffee House Press, 2014)
Kate Bernheimer is the author of the new story collection How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, as well as a previous collection, Horse, Flower, Bird, and a novel trilogy: The Complete Tales of Ketza Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold. She is also the author of the collaborative novella Office at Night, written with Laird Hunt, a joint commission of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN and Coffee House Press. She has edited four influential fairy-tale anthologies of original work including the World Fantasy Award-winning My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales and the current World Fantasy Award nominee xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths. She also writes award-winning children’s books: The Girl in the Castle inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair. There is perhaps no living writer who more ferociously champions the fairy-tale tradition than Kate Bernheimer. Her work in the form is innovative, challenging, and always accomplished, and as the editor of the popular and influential literary magazine Fairy Tale Review she has worked tirelessly to bring attention to other practitioners of the form. The worlds Bernheimer’s fairy tales create are mirrors and prisms, reflecting and refracting other fairy-tale worlds that have come before, but they are also each worlds all her own, animated by the power of her singular voice, her unmistakable imagination.
Matt Bell (Rail): Let’s begin with the Walter Benjamin quote you open the book with, which reads, “The fairy tale tells of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest.” It’s an interesting quote by itself, but it also makes me curious about how this new collection follows your last book of similarly-sized tales, considering that in between you edited two anthologies, one of contemporary fairy tales (My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me) and one of contemporary myths (xo Orpheus). How would you characterize the relationship between myths and fairy tales? Is there a specific tension between the two forms that you’re exploring in this book, or your larger body of work?
Kate Bernheimer: Myths and fairy tales—I’m not sure they’re different—exist on a shared aesthetic wavelength and use a shared set of techniques. Looking at specific examples, I can identify, oftentimes, different affects—that is individual works can be seen to have a more mythic feel or a fairy-tale feel, though of course they can also have some combination. I find myths “more vertical” (wonder is above with the gods) and fairy tales “more horizontal” (wonder is down with the humans). In How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, as in all of my fiction to date, I try to induce a fairy-tale feel in the writing. I try to bring fairy-tale techniques into high relief.
I have been interested greatly in how old fairy tales emphasize radical modes of survival, via omission. In a fairy tale you might need to cut off your finger to use as a key, but there is no pain, likely no blood. The grammar of mythic violence is less abstract, but equally stark. As a kid, myths scared me more than fairy tales; fairy tales always consoled me. Still, I kept both Edith Hamilton and Andrew Lang on my night table. And I count on reading all of these stories to keep me solid on a day-to-day basis.
Rail: I love the phrase “the grammar of mythic violence,” and I wonder if you’d unpack that a little further, as well as its obvious counterpart, “fairy-tale violence.” In my own work, I move between fairy-tale and myth-inspired modes and more realist modes of storytelling, and one thing I sometimes find jarring is how much more difficult the violence in the more realist works is to write and to stomach having written. The difference is becoming increasingly disconcerting for me, and it makes me wonder if I’m giving in too easily to violence in my fairy-tale/mythic work. What effects can you create within the grammars of fairy-tale and mythic violence that a more realist treatment might not allow? It seems to me that the setting of other books of yours, like the ones about the Gold sisters, ended up being a sort of blend between the two modes, because the contemporary aspects of the story changed the feel of the darker events in the books.
Bernheimer: Violence is always difficult for me to write—it’s exclusively as a reader that I find the violence in old fairy tales “easier” to take than in myths. I’m interested in what you say about being increasingly disconcerted by the choices you make as a writer around violence. Me too. I actually think it’d be horrible to become less disconcerted about this. Still, when I’m writing, the techniques of fairy tales continue to help me write about violent things—stylistic techniques such as abstraction, omission, substitution, parallelism, doubling, mirroring, and rhyming. Over time I’ve focused on different techniques, getting more abstract in the stories than I was in the novels. The violent themes seem not to change, I guess because I’m really troubled by them. The feeling might change, depending on the words that I use and how I use them, but not the violent themes, not yet alas. Any stylist from realist to fabulist can use these techniques—I would argue most have to use them, and by instinct or talent simply foregrounds different ones, and abandons those that don’t suit his kind of story. Raymond Carver wrote great realist fairy tales, as an example of what I mean here.
Rail: Both How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales and your previous collection Horse, Flower, Bird are laid out with a single paragraph on each page. Is that how you composed the stories, or did that happen on Coffee House’s end? Assuming that it’s a choice you’re making during composition, has it been responsible for any other changes in the way you’re writing? For me, this kind of layout always makes me think of Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview, where he talks about composing The Names a paragraph on each page:
“When I was working on The Names I devised a new method—new to me, anyway. When I finished a paragraph, even a three-line paragraph, I automatically went to a fresh page to start the new paragraph. No crowded pages. This enabled me to see a given set of sentences more clearly. It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I’d written.”
Bernheimer: That’s neat you see a relationship between the composition of my stories and Don DeLillo’s The Names. I am a huge fan of his writing. Another author I also deeply admire, Joy Williams, told me in the early 1990’s, when I first met her, about DeLillo’s practice of working on a paragraph each to a page and then moving on, which stuck with me. I hadn’t identified his practice as a direct influence on the composition of my own story collections, but it certainly influenced my thinking about composition of a paragraph in general, absolutely. For both Horse, Flower, Bird and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, I composed the stories just as you see them in the printed books, page by page. Coffee House Press was very supportive. The editors sometimes suggested a new paragraph or page break to highlight a line or an image—they’re wonderful close readers.
I know some readers have said they find the form initially strange, but for me it feels very familiar. The form of these books is heavily influenced by the format of books we call “children’s books” where often a block of text is illuminated by an illustration on a facing page or under or over the picture. The white space on the page helps me picture what “illumination” I want to evoke with the words. Children’s books were the first books I encountered as a reader, the first stories I fell in love with, and they influenced my form. As Andre Breton says, we’re all “former children.” I think that’s a very serious way to think about reading.
Rail: Joy Williams also writes beautifully of her admiration for DeLillo, and I always appreciate her perspective in part because she comes at him from a different angle than most other admirers. I love how she uses him as a leaping off point in her essay “Uncanny Singing That Comes from Specific Husks,” where she says DeLillo is “like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment,” then says that she writes because she wants to “be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, and an excellent example of a writer so secure in her own excellent aesthetic that she can be able to openly admire a wholly different one. I wonder what other literary “sharks” you might admire? You get asked so much about fairy tales, and have been such an incredible champion for people writing them, but I’ve always wondered what other kinds of fiction you admire most, and if those have any influence on the work you’re doing.
Bernheimer: I also love that essay. What other kinds of fiction do I admire the most? That is so hard to answer, because I read so many different kinds of books for so many different reasons. On the whole I tend to admire, that is be grateful for, writers who are able to transport me somehow. Who make me forget everything around me, and then, when I look up from the book, everything looks a little bit different. I felt that recently reading They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, a 1930’s noir novel by Horace McCoy that was reviewed really badly when it was published. The font gets bigger and bigger on some of its pages as the novel progresses, it’s insane in a way I totally admire. The story is about a dance marathon, and suicidal depression. That novel, along with Margaret Wise Brown’s Little Fur Family (a book published in 1946 with a real rabbit fur cover) are huge influences on a novel I’ve been working on for the past six years. I suppose I admire writers who take risks because they so want to make contact. These risks can be very subtle stylistically—can be very shy.
Rail: I teach a lot of fairy tales and fairy tale-inspired stories in my creative writing classes, including some of yours: I frequently teach “A Star Wars Tale,” from Horse, Flower, Bird, alongside stories by Norman Lock and Blake Butler, among others, and I send a lot of students toward your Gold sisters trilogy. But one of the things I find every semester is that many of my students aren’t yet equipped for reading fairy tales well, even if they’re using some versions of fairy-tale techniques in their own work. There are a number of excellent introductory texts—again, I teach your essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” in my own fairy-tale unit—but I’m very curious about what exactly it is that isn’t coming across in the first go. What mindset should contemporary readers bring to fairy tales in order to fully enjoy them? Is there an ideal kind of reader you envision for How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales?
Bernheimer: Thanks for teaching my work, Matt! I often marvel that I am employed to read, teach, and write about fairy tales. You know, I find that my American students are mentally equipped to read fairy tales well but just don’t know it. I find it easy to open that gate. Sometimes they’re a bit compromised by what they have learned elsewhere about fairy tales specifically and literature generally, mainly that fairy tales are children’s stories that aren’t very serious or aren’t very “good.” I certainly don’t find this is the case when I teach or lecture out of the country—in Scandinavia, China, Ireland, other places I’ve been, fairy tales don’t have this particular trouble. Often people I meet when I travel out of the country to speak about fairy tales are astonished to learn that the diverse international tradition of the fantastic—spanning thousands, maybe millions of stories, over hundreds of years—is not considered “literature” by many American establishment critics. I find my American students at all levels of the university to be rightfully broken-hearted about this, because when you ask them what their favorite books were growing up, they’re almost always magical stories, and later they’re asked to “leave childish things behind” as it were. Nonsense. I find the learning curve not only painless but euphoric for students, on the whole really, when it comes to introducing students to this diverse body of work.
And I do have it down to a sort of fairy-tale boot camp where the focus on techniques deftly unencumbers our discussions from stereotypes about fairy-tale meanings and all the improbable things students may have been taught about what makes a story realistic. Realism was for a while recently the American establishment form but it has never enjoyed world domination among intellectuals, let alone general readers, and realism is not synonymous with “realistic.” You could say I’m a fairy-tale enabler.
To answer your question at last: My ideal reader is actually highly specific but not highly specialized. It’s pretty much someone who does not want in the slightest to hurt me, even if he might have a better idea than I do about the whole story, once it is done. In a way, a friend. I don’t mean an actual friend, or even a fully imagined one. But that’s vital for me. I’m sure it’s different for others, but for me, I couldn’t write my stories if I couldn’t imagine a companionable reader.
Rail: I want to ask a few specific questions about stories in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, and maybe we should start with the title story: I love the opening of that tale, with the child who wants only dolls that tell stories, specifically the stories “with the goriest endings.” And then, of course, a new doll arrives at their door in the night, immediately after the mother thinks for the first time about how to wean her daughter from fairy tales. “They agreed on some terms,” you write, as chilling an archetypal fairy-tale moment as any other, and then the doll agrees to tell the daughter stories. And of course things go badly, as they probably must, but not in the most obvious ways. I’m not sure I can say more without spoiling the story—although I’m not entirely convinced “spoilers” exist when it comes to fairy tales—but I wondered about how you make the leaps between beats of the story that give it the distinctly fairy tale logic it possesses. Is it a matter of trying out different actions until something clicks? Is it recursive, where what comes before determines what comes next, just not in a realist cause and effect way? Would you be able or willing to walk me through the process of writing a story like this one, or at least how you moved between a few of those beats?
Bernheimer: You are a master of the challenging question! I’d be happy to try. I wrote that story as I write all of my stories, with a fairy-tale book open on the desk, in this case the Russian fairy tale “How a Husband Weaned His Wife from Fairy Tales.” The husband in that story beats the fairy tales out of his wife, physically. The story suggests, but never states, the wife has been unfaithful. He is beating her to try to control her, which is the main reason anyone hits anyone else. I knew I wanted to write a story about someone trying to control someone else—someone who loves them. So that’s the emotional context I was thinking about when I started the story. The cause and effect seems to me very realistic, in that to identify with and even love someone who hurts you, as the daughter does, is not very uncommon. And I wanted to write about a girl who is punished for loving fairy tales, like in the Russian tale, because it is a story that sadly does speak to me as a writer of fairy tales. When it comes to what actually happens on the page—I work it out rhythmically, beat by beat, just as you notice. I do think about that. I don’t like anything to interrupt my story—I don’t want to be distracted from the plight or desire. On a basic level, I pay extra special attention to the things that are actually there in the room—a girl, her mother, a new talking doll. I think about what happens and then I think what does that mean can only happen next. I don’t let anything else happen except what seems has to happen, and my mind automatically goes to the worst thing, which may be why “things go badly.” This is an interesting question, Matt. I’m going to keep thinking about this, because maybe I need to give my characters more options to GET OUT ALIVE!
Rail: One of the other stories I found most striking was “The Girl with the Talking Shadow,” both for the tale itself and also because it was written in the first person, as some of the stories in this collection are. In some ways, the first person seems like a more difficult point of view to tell a fairy tale from, in part because the distance between the events and the sensibility of the narrator collapse so much. It’s the kind of question I might not ask at all of a different kind of writer, but to me the tradition of fairy tales seems much more firmly rooted in the third-person narrator, and generally a fairly distant one. What does the first person perspective make possible inside the fairy tale?
Bernheimer: A lot of old fairy tales come, of course, from a very oral tradition. The first person narrator is no stranger to old fairy tales, but not often sustained through the whole story as its point of view. Sometimes the narrator just kind of interrupts a story to say it’s not a very good story or the story actually went quite differently, or just to ask for a drink. (Some old fairy tales are very postmodern.) I find that many old fairy tales—you can look at the Grimm stories, certain translations of them, and see this effect—have very much the feeling that someone’s telling the story directly to you. In their case this is a highly sophisticated sleight of hand because these are very “literary” stories—one of the Grimm brothers was a scholar, the other a poet, after all. They are said to have influenced the very grammar with which German was written, in fact. In the case of “The Girl with the Talking Shadow” the girl is telling her story to you directly and not very well. Here the dynamic you identify is flipped, because it’s the shadow, and the fairy-tale books she reads, and the tales the story itself is based upon (J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan cycle of works) that provide the distance between the events and the sensibility—not the character. She has no distance from anything. I mean, she has a shadow who hates her. I think if I’d tried to write this story with a third person narrator, the narrator would have ended up hating her too. I wouldn’t want to give her more suffering than she already has—I try to help my characters out.
Rail: You recently collaborated with the writer Laird Hunt on a novella inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting “Office at Night, ”which was serialized online by Coffee House Press. Can I ask about the process of that collaboration? I’m very curious about how you went about the work, considering how different your styles are, in your own books.
Bernheimer: I have always loved both Edward Hopper and Laird Hunt. And I love office work. Before I began to teach college, I was employed for many years as a legal secretary, and my favorite job was as a night typist, an “information processor” to be exact. So this particular painting has always been extra special for me. I don’t know Laird privately well, but I had met him twice in professional contexts and, wow, he is as impressive as his books and on all the occasions I’ve been at a table with him I was speechless. So I was excited and unnerved. We both responded yes to the invitation from Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center within about an hour of receiving the email and without consulting each other about it. The first thing we agreed was that we didn’t want Laird to play the guy and me to play the gal. So he began with that despondent man, whom he named Abraham Chelikowsky, and I began with an off-scene secretary, Hester Chan. Eventually we entered the walls, followed the light, threw ourselves out the window, and each of us wrote for Abe and Hester and of course the pictured woman, whom Laird named Marge Quinn. Often I would change what I had written based on whatever Laird sent me back of his own—I think our styles started to blend, and to argue, and that was exciting. We were up against something, just as the figures are in the frame. At one point I sent Laird a paragraph, Hester speaking elliptically about this one time Abraham had punched her and thrown her against a wall, and he thought I was speaking from the point of view of a cat who had appeared earlier, who also got thrown by Abraham, who had caught him mid-air. Laird had invented Abraham first, and so I felt badly to do that to his character, make him hurt someone. I never felt like we were ventriloquizing each other, that is—we never spoke “in unison,” and thus, to go back to your first question, I had the tension I needed to write. Maybe some of the tension was between myth and fairy tale, actually, because now that I think about it, Laird’s more on the myth end of the continuum than I am.
I wrote a lot of the novella during what was a pretty hard time, and on a basic level it was perfect that I got to flee an actually ominous space into a completely imaginary ominous space with someone as kind-hearted as Laird.
Rail: In an email you wrote me while we were conducting this interview, you mentioned that your “whole body of work, the ‘fairy-tale oeuvre’ which is at this point, after 15 years of publishing, [is] almost like a piece of fairy-tale performance art in its insane way, from theory to practice—and editor-authors always trip critics up, though in my case there is really no difference; it’s part of the history of fairy tales, that authors, editors, translators come in one body—like a topsy turvy doll come to life.” I think this is an incredibly moving way to think of your career, and I’m grateful for the model you’ve created with this “topsy turvy doll” of a writing life you’ve led so far. Especially through editing Fairy Tale Review and the recent anthologies, I think you’ve become one of the few writers actively working to create the world in which your own work might flourish, while also creating plenty of room for other writers working in similar veins. (And that’s such a fairy tale kind of thing to do: to create the world in which your story might exist at the same time you’re telling it.) I can’t help but wonder what the next part of this “performance art” piece is: What are you working on now, in your various roles? Are there aspects of the fairy tale that you’re particularly interested in right now, as either a writer or an editor?
Bernheimer: Thanks, Matt, for what you say here. I am working on a nonfiction book about fairy-tale aesthetics. You could say it’s a book-length lyric essay, or a manifesto. It began with the essay I wrote some years ago (upon invitation by Tin HouseBooks for a craft book) that you referred to earlier, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” I am asked so often to speak about fairy-tale techniques that I figured I would put it all in one place. My brother Andy, an architect, and I are collecting more architectural fairy tales for a series we began curating for a fantastic magazine called Places some years ago. And I’m working on a novel. As for aspects of fairy tales I’m particularly interested in now—all of them still. They will not let me go. I once read that one thing that most fairy-tale authors share is an obsession with them, from Italo Calvino to Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter to the Brothers Grimm. Maybe obsession is the only thing I share with my brilliant predecessors, but if so that’s okay. Since I found fairy tales, I found a way I could be.