“In a way I’m trying to hypnotize the reader”: A dialogue with Kate Bernheimer
There was once a mother whose only child loved fairy tales above all else and accepted as dolls only those that told stories. Of course, the child suffered as a result, for there were not many dolls that could perform such a task. Her mother suffered as well: when she went to the department store on birthdays or Christmas, she often left empty-handed, destined to disappoint her only child, who asked for more and more stories over the years. The child never said she was disappointed; she only said she wanted more fairy tales—that’s all she ever wanted, she said.
“The ones with the goriest endings. Find the dolls that can tell those, won’t you please?”
–Excerpt from How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press, 2014)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: I’m struck by how spare the prose is in these stories—you give the reader just enough specific detail to set the mood, and our imagination fills in the rest. I imagine that revision could be a particular challenge here. In these sentences each word feels carefully chosen and changing a phrase or detail could significantly alter the meaning and shape of the story. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing and revision process?
KATE BERNHEIMER: I want to picture with words – have the words evoke a picture for the reader. The picture might change: it may be just one detail or a whole scene, it depends on the reader’s mood and memories, not mine, but I do have control of the words so I try really hard not to use words that might make a picture for the reader that I don’t want them to have. It’s a slow process for sure. I learned this technique from fairy-tale books, which influenced children’s books, comics, and graphic novels, which I also love. These stories aren’t illustrated –How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales contains illustrations, but these are separated from the stories proper. For the stories, the paragraphs are on pages with lots of white space, and that’s where the picture would be.
As to process, every story in this new collection is based on an old fairy tale and I read anywhere from ten to a hundred versions of the old fairy-tale before I start my own. I always write with a fairy-tale book open to my favorite old version of a tale next to my notebook. I start writing as if I’m transcribing the fairy tale word-for-word, almost like I’m covering a song. At this stage, I am really intent on the grammar. I translate the words and the syntax into my own, searching really carefully for the right ones that might capture whatever emotion I’m writing about in that story. Eventually, I depart from the old tale and sometimes rifle through other fairy-tale collections to keep my new story going. I don’t separate writing from “revision,” it’s all writing for me. I write and write, going over and over the sentences, trying to be sure they sound and feel the way that I want. In a way I’m trying to hypnotize the reader, induce an emotional condition, so I try to get the spell right. Of course, words mean different things to different people, so I can’t control whether a “rock collection” reminds a reader of something happy or something sad.
AR: You mention the white space on the pages (which–I’ll confess–the hyper-logical part of my brain resisted at first!), as well as those wonderful illustrations by Catherine Eyde which appear between some of the stories. I’m always curious about the nuts and bolts of putting a collection together: how directly did you get to be involved in determining the story sequence, design, and overall look of the book?
KB: I delivered the manuscript to my editors at Coffee House Press, Chris Fischbach and Anitra Budd, in the sequence in which it was published, and with the page breaks basically as they are. I left matters of design – cover design, font, layout of illustrations, placement of titles, any “flourishes” of design, if you will – to Linda Koutsky, Coffee House Press’s designer, and the team there, including Caroline Casey in marketing. I love the overall look of the book. It’s a joy to be able to hand my words over and trust that they will be transformed into book form in a way that is not only relatable but very special. Everyone I’ve had contact with at Coffee House Press is very into the “nuts and bolts” of books, which is just one of a host of reasons I love working with them. We’re library geeks. A lot of the people I’ve worked with at Coffee House Press are people I wish I’d had as friends in elementary school.
AR: You’ve changed the title story “How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales” somewhat from its source tale, in which a husband employs similar strategies to “wean” his wife from her enjoyment of fairy tales. (In the original the wife is violently beaten by her husband after “interrupting” a stranger’s story.) Your version tells of a mother-daughter relationship; the mother invites an enchanted doll/witch to carry out the punishment—not a physical beating, but the loss of the daughter’s beloved story-telling dolls—an outcome which, once achieved, the mother seems to genuinely regret. What drew you to the original source story, and what made you retell it in this way? Is the mother preemptively doing this to save the girl from learning this message as an adult (perhaps from a man, as the wife in the source tale does)? Or is the mother here as culpable as the wife-batterer in the original tale?
KB: Oh, the mother is culpable, for sure. But she’s more complex (for me); the wife-batterer’s bad all the way through, though the story implies that the wife has been unfaithful to him for she only takes in lodgers to their inn who will tell her great stories – “this has hurt him” the story tells us. Yet, it’s pretty vague on the details, as is the fairy-tale way, and presents his actions as totally justified. The mother in my story, this character, I’ve offered her choices, at least in my mind. In a way it is easier for a person who can only be bad – he doesn’t know the difference – than to be a person who falls short of his goodness. That character has failed.
The title story is based on the horrible, amazing Russian fairy tale you describe called “How a Husband Weaned His Wife from Fairy Tales.” It’s in Angela Carter’s great edited collection The Virago Book of Fairy Tales which really needs to come back into print. People don’t really know this story – it’s not too adaptation-friendly for Disney or children’s books, is it, though I could see David Lynch doing it. (Dream collaboration!) I have long been obsessed with this story. The idea that you can be punished for some innocent pleasure, that is absolutely terrifying to me. Unfortunately it isn’t just an idea. A lot of abuse is that bewildering. Someone blindsiding you for something you don’t even know you did wrong, that wasn’t wrong except for the person who’s angry about it, who’s maybe bloodthirsty for power, and there you are – with a big “Hit me!” sign taped on your back you don’t know about. That’s the fear that draws me to the old story.
AR: When my colleague first saw the title for this collection he asked “but why would she [the “mother”] want to do that?”
KB: I love that your colleague was upset! Why would the mother want to deprive the daughter of the one thing that she loves? Your colleague asks just the right question. I don’t have any answer for him, which is why I wrote the story I guess. Why would anyone ever want to hurt someone? Let alone someone weaker than them, someone who loves them and hasn’t done anything wrong?
By my reading, the mother in that story, she’s lonely. All she has is her daughter, and her vodka. She’s totally dependent on her daughter, in my mind. It’s the opposite of how it should be. I think she wants to be a good mother but she’s so unhappy, and destined to fail, so she uses the enchanted doll to do what she can’t bring herself to do on her own – punish the daughter for having needs she (the mother) cannot fulfill, in some final way. That mother is not compassionate and she won’t admit that she isn’t. She regrets what she did, but more than that, she regrets who she is – uncompassionate.
And speaking of compassionate the story – as the title story – is absolutely a retort to critics who say fairy tales are not very serious stories, not good literature, and worse. So yes, I like your reading that the mother is also, in a way, very protective. She is trying to protect the daughter from growing up in love with something that people will use against her, use to cause harm. Absolutely. She could be seen as protective to such a high degree that she ends up hurting the kid, denying her a connection to that which she loves. Or maybe she’s a sadist. I think different people will experience different ideas about the mother, but I hope most readers will think be confused about her actions, like your colleague was, because really, “Why would anyone do that?” Exactly.
In this story it’s all a drag in the end, whether the intentions are good or bad, except when it comes to the daughter. She is one hundred percent good. I do want to add that my own mother always encouraged me to indulge my hunger for fairy tales. She’s a great, great reader, reads maybe three or four books of new fiction a week.
AR: Many of the stories feature girls who are on the cusp of adulthood but still holding onto the imaginative parts of childhood—there is the notion that they’re getting “too old” for fairy tales and games, yet they fiercely hold onto this imaginative space. I distinctly remember entering junior high alone (my best friends were a year younger) and knowing that I wasn’t supposed to want to “play pretend” anymore. The idea of stripping away all outward signs of believing in this kind of magic was both repellent to me and a necessary social survival strategy. The “Girl with the Talking Shadow,” Cathy prefers books of fairy tales and myths to her real-life encounters in school where she is mocked and teased. And in “Oh Jolly Playmate,” two teenagers try to prolong the magic of their childhood bond, dressing identically in pink, making up games and reenacting scenes from The Twilight Zone. What books, authors, and stories made the biggest impression on you as a child, and as you began to navigate adolescence? At what point did you begin to identify as a writer?
KB: I am so sorry you had that experience in junior high. Do you remember a specific pretend game you used to play – either alone or with a friend – that you abandoned, or kept alive but only in dreams or in private? You should start playing it again. Andre Breton writes in his 1924 First Manifesto of Surrealism how tragic it is that children have the “wonder” wrung out of them as they grow up. I agree. I mean, wonder is one of the primary gateways to empathy – selfless love – isn’t it? Breton was in part warning that if you conform to the idea that nothing improbable is possible, you risk being a fascist.
Which brings us back to “social survival” – survival generally – that’s where reading and writing came in for me, early on, and fairy tales too. I got my first library card at the age of seven or so, and from that point on I loved nothing more than to disappear into the adventures of books. The characters in books stocked in the Waban Public Library were by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Astrid Lindgren, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Enright, the Brothers Grimm, Tove Jansson, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, Louisa May Alcott, Anne Frank. The characters were my real friends. (I had no idea what an author was, I just devoured the stories.) The fairy-tale scholar Maria Tatar shared this quote by the philosopher Roger Scruton with me once: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.” That’s what reading and writing are for me. Not escapist fantasies, but a means of survival. Our public library was stocked with hundreds of magical books – it was a place of real resistance. Not to mention the children’s room was the basement. Truly an underground.
I started writing serialized fairy tales in the 1970s – third grade. My best friend and I, for many years, produced a newspaper called The Waban Bulletin that we typed and mimeographed and sold to family members for around twenty five cents. We also included horoscopes, riddles, profiles of family members, and recipes in it. She wrote the editorials – very political – and I wrote magical stories about star-crossed lovers. She’s now a professor of American History.
AR: Zilpha Keatley Snyder was one of my favorites, too! I was fortunate enough to meet her once, when I was in 6th grade. She was the invited speaker for a school district writing contest and instead of reading from her books she spoke to us as writers—which I loved. She mentioned in her talk that she always drew the floor plan of the house in each book before she began writing, to avoid making continuity errors as her characters moved around the space. I was so struck by that idea that I went home and immediately started creating floor plans as an entry point to my own stories and games.
KB: Wow, I can’t believe you saw Zilpha Keatley Snyder speak when you were in elementary school. When I was in 6th grade (must have been 1976) she was one of my favorite authors. But at that age, I didn’t connect the “author’s name” on a book with the concept of a human one might meet. It really never occurred to me that books were written by actual people who actually lived. For all I knew, Louisa May Alcott was a creation of Jo March’s and not the other way around! Authors, characters, they were all part of some other world entirely. The world of books. I also basically assumed librarians lived in libraries – that was why they were called librarians, etc. I didn’t see an author read her work out loud until I was in college and I attended this thing I’d heard about, a “reading.” I had no idea what a reading was – and I remember being so nervous even to go! It was a reading by the brilliant poet Jane Miller, and she recited her poems with her eyes closed. I was astonished this sort of thing actually – happened on earth.
AR: I love the child-logic and mashup of odd details within these stories. The town librarian admits that she lives in the library (of course she does!) in a secret compartment hidden behind the circulation desk. A brother follows his sister’s written instructions to construct a cardboard house on chicken legs—to protect him from a cannibalistic witch. The dimensions of the house are tiny (5”x5”) but he dutifully constructs it without any concern for scale. (He fits, of course!) During the past few years you’ve collaborated with your brother, an architect, on a series of “fairy tale” houses—working with architecture firms to create detailed drawings, scaled renderings, and construction plans inspired by structures in fairy tales (Rapunzel’s tower, Baba Yaga’s chicken feet house, Jack’s beanstalk). I love this idea. How did the Fairy Tale Architecture project come about?
KB: Thank you so much! “Tale of Disappearance,” the Baba Yaga tale you refer to here from How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales was actually also a collaboration with my brother. It was solicited for a special supplement to the journal Ninth Letter. We had already been curating the fairy-tale architecture series and publishing the installments in Places/Design Observer. Brother-Sister partnerships crucial to many fairy-tale plots, and I find this a poignant and personally meaningful motif in fairy tales. We’re working on more stories like “Tale of Disappearance.” I am lucky to have a close emotional and artistic connection with my brother. For this series of architectural fairy tales, participating firms — including Guy Nordenson and Associates, Leven Betts, Rice+Lipka Architects, studio SUMO, Bernheimer Architecture, and many others — have produced works exploring the intimate relationship between the domestic structures of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture. It was a project that naturally evolved out of conversations Andy and I had about our work, and I really enjoy the labor involved – seeing what architects do with the mechanics of Jack’s beanstalk or Rapunzel’s braid or with Borges’s library is fun. This project gets written up in magazines for people who buy steel, or sell drywall – the first installment of it won an AIA NY Award of Merit for “Unbuilt” structures. The architectural world seems to have no prejudice at all against this body of work.
AR: Did you and your brother collaborate on many creative projects as you were growing up? Was it a surprise for you to see the architectural world embrace this project so readily when you expanded the brother-sister partnership to include more collaborators? Which tale/structure has been the most challenging to produce a design for so far, and why?
KB: My brother’s bedroom was kitty-corner from mine when we were kids and I have very fond memories of hanging out by our respective windows, talking through the screens to each other. My older sister and I would dress him up and marry him to various neighbors in elaborate backyard ceremonies until he was old enough to rebel. He had a huge baseball card collection and was super into Atari – I wish I’d hung out with him more when we were kids, but I always had my nose in a book.
We were both thrilled when the architectural world embraced the fairy-tale project – and we have been surprised, and delighted, by how quickly and enthusiastically the esteemed architects we invite to participate say yes. I love doing research for them once we settle on the tale they’ll design for – the architects ask me really different questions about fairy tales than writers do. I think my brother would agree that the most challenging fairy tale so far, among all that we’ve done, is “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, which I assigned him and which he never had read before that. He had asked me for a story with a tree in it or fire and so I thought of how the little girl has that marvelous vision just before dying of the Christmas tree, the candles glowing. I somehow forgot, when I enthusiastically assigned it to him, how sensitive he is. The story really upset him, but he soldiered on and produced a remarkable series of images. Eerie ice-cube structures with girls locked inside them.
AR: In many fairy tales, the roles allotted to grown women are pretty thankless—they are either powerless mortals (they can control children but are controlled in turn by a husband or male boss), or “evil” witches, vested with supernatural powers. So I laughed out loud at your choice to set one of these tales in academia, where gender dynamics can be similarly proscribed and limited. Poor Prof. Helen C. Andersen is forced to “mentor” the attractive young fabulist who has recently been installed in the office next door (on the other side of a one-way mirror). In spite of her discomfort at the situation, she has flashes of resignation, “I know my place,” and moments of sympathy and protectiveness of the newcomer “women in this town can be…so cold.” But her envy of her new colleague’s unorthodox methods, youthful appearance, and subject matter (the fabulist, she hints, has not yet learned her place) quells any impulse towards solidarity she might feel. In her role as “mentor” the narrator slyly undermines her mentee’s weight, appearance, eating habits. There’s so much to unpack here, but I was struck by her name which I imagine is an allusion to Hans Christian Andersen. Why the nod to Andersen in this particular tale?
KB: Yay! You are the first person who caught the Hans Christian Andersen reference in Professor Helen C. Andersen’s name! No one needs to catch that to like the story but that’s cool that you did. Did you get that right away?
I work references to fairy tales and fairy-tale history into all of my stories – almost every sentence – it’s for me, to help me think through these stories, and it’s fun too. When I encountered fairy-tale scholarship I learned how to study, how to apply what I learned in a way that would be meaningful to me emotionally and intellectually, and hopefully mean something to somebody else too.
As to the one-way mirror, the person who read that story, the novelist, poet, and critic Joyelle McSweeney, a dear friend, sent me a short email afterwards that said basically “Ha! Brilliant! A one-way mirror!” in a winking kind of way. And I blushed because it was sort of an accident. Of course it’s two-way mirrors you can be seen through, when you’re being interrogated and so forth. Accidents like that are wonderful when they happen at the desk. Because of course, Helen C. Andersen, fairy-tale writer and professor, would be more tortured by a one-way mirror, through which she could see the young fabulist – but not understand what was happening. “I know my place” is Helen C. Andersen’s humble and traumatized mantra – it’s her best and worst feeling.
Hans Christian Andersen, he’s a sublime literary sadist. One of my favorite books, by Kathryn Davis, is The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story of the same title. It features a girl named Inger who is really mean – she pulls the wings off of flies just for pleasure. She’s punished in the end by Hans Christian Andersen – ends up living down in a bog surrounded by wingless flies, so they can’t fly away from her, She’s tormented by them. Sadism goes both ways with H.C.A.
To go back to the beginning of your question about the fairy-tale females (those popularized in American culture) being cast as powerless or “witchy,” i.e. outsiders. Could be argued, so are fairy-tale authors, especially the females. Prominent establishment critics love to pull rank on fairy tales. Yet fairy-tale heroes and authors are probably the biggest shared literary influence on post-Grimm American writers from realist to fabulist. Not so powerless, but maybe witchy! I like your phrasing on this.
AR: I think that’s why academia felt like such a great setting for this tale. In many ways it’s its own little kingdom where certain individuals wield great power over others, while being simultaneously marginalized by larger forces that push an entirely different agenda. And the prospect of tenure feels like a fairy-tale sort of “promise of eternal life” that is way more complicated than it first appears. (I didn’t catch the H. C. Andersen reference right away—it occurred to me on a walk, as I thought about how this piece got under my skin). I haven’t read The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, but I do admire Kathryn Davis—I was struck recently, reading Duplex, by what a fearless writer she is—she really goes all in with the world she creates.
You’ve mentioned the “establishment’s” reluctance to take fairy tales seriously—are you referring more to the market for literary fiction or the academic side of the coin? Since you founded the Fairy Tale Review, has the interest in fabulist literary fiction gained any steam, either in terms of the audience for these stories or the increased visibility of contemporary writers like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender (among many others) whose work contributes to this tradition? Or is that wishful thinking on my part?
KB: Since I first began teaching, institutions have allowed me to indulge my fairy-tale habit quite freely and teach this material to my heart’s content. That statement – it went more to the fact that a couple of currently powerful establishment literary critics have a pattern of behavior vis-à-vis books that remind them of the enchantment of childhood reading. Harvard professor Maria Tatar knows how serious childhood reading is for future intellectuals; she wrote a whole book about it (Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Childhood Reading). It’s nothing to scoff at. But a couple of critics seem to find it rather important to undermine adult books that have a fairy-tale feel. They want to see these as non-serious stories, dismiss them wholesale simply for their reliance on wonder, without knowing a single thing (far as I can tell) about the complex, fascinating, political, intellectual history of an extremely diverse and influential art form.
When I founded Fairy Tale Review in 2005, I had already been conceptualizing fairy-tales’ influence for almost a decade. My first book dedicated to celebrating and investigating their influence on today’s writers came out in 1998 (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, which includes essays by Joy Williams, Kathryn Davis, Lydia Millet, and many others). I was troubled early on in my career by the marginalization of fairy tales. Of course, I’m not alone in sensing there’s a need to educate on this subject – W. H. Auden and Albert Einstein also saw fit to point out the importance of fairy tales to adults.
I absolutely think your wishful thinking is right on – editors of many kinds have been very welcoming to fabulism and fairy tales in the past decade, since I founded Fairy Tale Review as a retort to those literary editors who marginalized this traditional, avant-garde work in “special” issues for “weird” stories, and/or only published work by a couple of writers working with some of the fairy-tale techniques, but not so much that their work wasn’t also mainstream whether in genre or literary circles. There’s always room for a couple of minoritarian practitioners at a time, right, in the majoritarian circles? I’m about fairy tales as a minoritarian art form – à la Gilles Deleuze.
Find a copy of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales on IndieBound
Check out A Tale of Disappearance (Fairy Tale Archictecture collaboration with Andrew Bernheimer) here
Click here to find links to other Fairy Tale Architecture projects.
Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and the story collection Horse, Flower, Bird. The World Fantasy Award-winning editor of bestselling My Mother She killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin 2010) and xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (Penguin 2013), she teaches at the University of Arizona