Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Kate Bernheimer Interview

[These were some of the questions about The Complete Tales of Merry Gold my fiction students came up with.]

1. Why is Merry so sadistic? She seems more like the villain of a fairy tale than the main character (who tends to be innocent)?

Merry doesn’t like people and she isn’t very nice to people. But Merry herself warns the reader that “why” is the wrong question to ask, generally speaking, of life. She gets that dictum from fairy tales. She’s a Merry Know-Not. A Merry Know-Nothing. Why, for her, is an insane kind of question. I think of my grandmother; conversations with her had the most marvelous progressions of why: “Why is the food at this restaurant so bad? And why such small portions? Why did our waiter never come back? Oh, Kathy! Why do we live and then die?” So why is too troubling and partial. So then, what? What is cruelty? I am saddened and astonished by the sheer cruelty humans calmly dole out to each other, other living things, and to the earth on a daily basis. The disgusting selfishness of that! It does not interest me at all, and thus it was destined to become an obsession of mine.

And meanness is a very important trope in many of the fairy tales that fascinate me. It’s true that while American popular culture has canonized female fairy-tale characters with hearts of gold, in fact the “main characters” of fairy tales are extremely varied: as many stupid, clumsy, boring, mean, ugly, plain, deficient, weird, pathetic, and sad characters as there are “good” ones. So actually, the “main characters” of many fairy tales are cruel. One example, easy to find on the shelves, is Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Girl Who Trod on A Loaf” where the young hero’s hobby is to pull wings off of flies. She suffers in the end, but she is still the story’s beautiful, troubled cold center. She is the bright star in a terrifying and sublime drama. Countless examples of mean girls at the center of story exist in fairy tales from around the world, just as they do in the junior high classroom or [fill in the blank], but in fairy tales they are a lot more interesting to know. I would entreat readers to look at the many, many available translated collections of tales from around the world, to see the existential variety in them.

2. Why switch from first to third person?

I felt I just had no choice in this matter. The novel is put together (by Merry herself) in the tradition of the edited fairy-tale volume, where there might be a translator, a writer, an illustrator, an editor, a printer, a binder, involved. Merry is all of these things to the novel, which is an homage to fairy-tale collections, to serial books. (Her sisters Ketzia and Lucy have their own volumes in the set too like a mad family project.) In part, the book is an homage to childhood and to growing up in books—to the experience of becoming through reading. And to the serial novel as a form itself. Serial reading—it is a form of psychosis. The only way the book could evoke what Merry feels about living in (being in) a collection of books in a box, like a coffin, was to use first and third for different parts of the story. Certainly the memories of her molestation had to be distant (third); but I’ll leave that to the psychoanalysts to discuss. Basically the book has to contain every possible variation on self that Merry encounters in books. Also, obviously, the the book is in part a critique of our culture’s worship of “self,” a construct that has been our ruin. Self is overrated, so this book doesn’t have one, it has many, they are stapled together like the little mice that Merry might staple onto a dress.

3. How did you select the images for the illustrations?

Well . . . Merry selected them. They were put there, tucked in, like a note someone wrote to herself that you find in a library book and it makes you sad (“Buy eggs”—did she remember to buy them? What were they for? Is she yet dead?) I adored novels with illustrations when I was a child (and still do) so I wanted to recreate that experience, of course, but because Merry is mad . . . she can’t get them quite right, nor can her sisters. I spend years gathering the images for each of my novels, carefully researching and selecting or creating them for each book. It’s sad I don’t have room for more, but I use so few words.

4. What inspired you most about the particular fairy tales you used?

A lot of the fairy tales I like to write from are unfamiliar to popular culture. So they seem modest to me. Hobbled. Poignant that way. I easily fall in love with the unknown, the unsung. Also I spend many hours reading and reading, looking for the precise sequence of tales to use in each novel—some of this is by motif (“I need a fairy tale where someone is slapped”) and some of it is what some people call intuition.

5. Can reality or realism be a fairy tale?

Can reality be a fairy tale. That is a great question! I think it can be, except it is not flat enough, which makes it not a fairy tale and is the whole problem. I think I will write an essay about this, so I must give it more thought. Can realism be a fairy tale: I have written about this a lot and am writing about it still. I think realism, to function at all well with its particular artifice, absolutely must “employ” fairy tales and does employ fairy tales—and speaking broadly, realism is a “subset” of fairy tale. My essays speak to this. I know it’s not popular to speak this way.

6. Why the fascination with clothes?

Where in the world, apart from in a fashion show, can you walk around wearing a monocle? In a novel. In a Truman Capote novel. For each of the three sisters, I created a uniform: Merry wore a lot of dead things of course. Ketzia wore high boots, mini skirts. Lucy, the main character in the novel I just finished, wore white blouses, pencil skirts and black pumps. Part of it for me is the attraction to the words—in part, I am sure, Lucy wears pencil skirts because pencil skirts remind me of pencils. The fascination with clothes is the fascination with language, actual language—I don’t mean this metaphorically.

7. What do you think about modern day portrayals of fairy tales (ie Disney)?

I think a lot about them, all sorts of things—some positive and some negative. I live and breathe this work, all of it. I love all of it insofar as it gives me more to think about this amazing and misunderstood kind of writing. But to plug what is at risk in the tradition: more people should read the older, translated fairy tales (Maria Tatar’s CLASSIC FAIRY TALES: A NORTON CRITICAL EDITION is a great place to start, or Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. There are new collections published each year; Jack Zipes’ translations of a Dadaist fairy-tale writer, Kurt Schwitters, was just published by Princeton University Press, as an example. For serial readers out there, there is nothing better than a 500-page collection of fairy tales from a particular culture—and then finding the “other” translation from the same place, 500 more pages of the very same stories but in totally different sentences. It’s amazing, it is very Dada in fact.

8. Are you interested in shocking your readers?

The fairy-tale scholar Max Luthi, whose work deeply informs this trio of novels—the existential three-way mirror that that they comprise—puts forth in his volumes the idea of what he calls “the beauty shock” of fairy tales. The consolation a fairy tale can provide: it is shocking. It takes a peculiar form. Stops you right there. There are other kinds of shock in the novels—electro-shock, shocks of violence, aftershock, shock of hair, etc. Yes, I am interested in shock. I’m not sure I am interested in actually shocking my readers, or anyone, though—not directly, though sometimes I like to imagine shocking people. A sort of parlor game of the mind.


Blogger Kate Durbin said...

This is great.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Thank you for posting this, Johannes. Your students' questions were a pleasure to consider. I just wonder when Vice is going to call me for an interview. Don't they ever Google themselves?

11:09 AM  

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