The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Kate Bernheimer
March 29, 2013 § 3 Comments
Kate Bernheimer, editor of Fairy Tale Review and author of a trilogy of novels, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, and The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, loves to talk fairy tales, even with a grueling schedule of panels and readings at the 2013 AWP Conference. Which is how I found myself lucky enough to be sitting next to her at a flyer-littered table in the AWP Bookfair as she graciously answered my questions about fairy tales, her past work, and her upcoming projects. Just that morning she was among the speakers at a unbelievably packed panel on fairy tale retellings (the other panelists were Jane Yolen, Kelly Link, Anjali Sachdeva and John Crowley), and so fairy tales and their prolific influence on all kinds of literature were on both our minds. In our conversation, we talked about the undefinable nature of fairy tales, writerly childhood nostalgia, the brutality of myths, and the power of the perfect final word.
Kate is the author of the children’s books The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and the forthcoming The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair (Random House Children’s Books/Schwartz & Wade Books, illustrated by Jake Parker) as well as the short story collection Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press, illustrated by Rikki Ducornet). Her second story collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, is forthcoming in 2014 (also from Coffee House Press). She is the editor of the award-winning anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin Non-Classics), as well as of Fairy Tale Review, which is now accepting submissions for The Emerald Issue, which will be inspired by The Wizard of Oz. She teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she lives with her husband, the writer Brent Hendricks (A Long Day at The End of the World) and their daughter.
CF: So when I was coming up with questions for you, I came upon a theme, and that is how fairy tales overlap and blur the lines of genre. Mostly because my 1st question is about the Oz issue, and it occurred to me that, like Alice in Wonderland or Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, it’s not technically, by traditional definition, a fairy tale. It’s a novel with an author that we can point to and say, that’s where it comes from. And yet there are all of these examples in children’s lit that become, in the popular consciousness, fairy tales, and so it still seems to fit.
KB: To speak first to the “traditional definition” of fairy tales, it’s important to point out that many do have authors; authored works are not excluded from the body of work known as “fairy tales.” Pinocchio is a fairy tale. Even the Grimms are author/editors. The stories collected in their editions were painstakingly gathered, and edited by them in literary versions, that is “written.” Of course the stories don’t belong to the Grimms; fairy tales don’t belong to anyone. So that question of authorship and the question of the purity of the author and the individuality of the author comes into play in diverse ways in the fairy-tale tradition. My operating sensibility is to read through fairy-tale techniques and a fairy-tale affect. Reading this way, the entire Oz series is inarguably a fairy tale. Some scholars consider The Wizard of Oz series to be “the first American fairy tale”—I don’t think along those lines – looking for originating definitive versions; that’s a gesture that weirdly obliterates a more expansive sense of history.
CF: Although I do like that idea of an “American” fairy tale.
KB: Yeah, what is that, compared to something else – are there such boundaries we can draw around nations and stories? The question itself leads to interesting ideas whether resisting or absorbing the concept.
CF: So, in my thinking here, it’s almost like if we were to create a map of genres, to see where fairy tales connect with all these other genres that we think of individually—like, when we think of the most traditional definition of a fairy tale, they reach out from that definition in so many other ways. [At the panel] this morning, somebody said something that I thought was very interesting, about seeing the moments when fairy tales bubble up to the surface in a story and where they pop through. I like that, if you think of them as always sort of underfoot, in any genre. But stemming from that, would you say that there are new definitions of the fairy tale being created, and how do they overlap between what we consider to be children’s literature? How do children’s lit and fairy tales overlap and inform each other?
KB: There are fairy tales that are part of children’s literature, but not all fairy tales are part of children’s literature, depending on how the boundaries of “children’s literature” are being defined, which is not a constant. Too, when it comes to definitions of fairy tales, there are as many definitions as there are desires to have definitions. I don’t think that there is any one definition that has ever really functioned perfectly in any universal way, historically speaking, and that is part of what makes fairy tales so mysterious, engaging, and enduring, for sure. They are a trickster art form. Just as you try to contain the fairy tale, it eludes you, like fairy, right? It’s the fairy way to do that. If there is an operating definition for me, it’s bound up in their evasion of definition as a fixed thing – fairy tales are a becoming, I’ve written. And in my writing I speak of “Fairy tale” as a language, identified in the “fairy way of reading.” For me, it’s less “what is a fairy tale,” that is, how do you identify a fairy tale through a definition, than how does a reader or viewer or author or artist experience a fairy tale as a kind of affect, as a way of becoming in the story. And so you recognize a fairy tale through its techniques, and through its effect on you. And that is to me operating as its definition—a very aesthetic and ethical definition, the emotional and affect definition. And I think that it’s not changing. People will always try to use new language and new categories of ontology to assign to the genre and to how a genre functions culturally, but I think that those are fairy tales too, those narrative definitions. So, I think of fairy tale—I mean, the idea of genre is a complicated one, of course—but I think of fairy tale as more of a language than a genre, actually, and a sort of multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-generational, multi-physical language. I wouldn’t say I’m developing a theory of their definition, but I guess I’m developing a theory about the fairy way of being, in my writing.
CF: I like that.
KB: Thank you so much! I was thinking about the panel conversation, and I think it was Kelly [Link] who said, oh, when fairy tale bubbles up into a story, vestiges of tales sort of jutting out, as if there’s a buried body and a limb sticks out—
CF: That was kind of the image I got too—
KB: Her comment reminded me so much of “The Willful Child,” you know, can you bang the body back under the ground, and eventually it’s gone? Fairy tales are the willful child, I often teach. I think that they’re just always there, and you can’t really just plunk them in part by part, or bring them up. They will misbehave and come back to haunt us. So, I’m interested in how they infiltrate in all ways.
CF: Going back to children’s lit, just a little bit—
KB: Yeah, I’m sorry—
CF: No, that’s ok—that’s great. Actually, I want to come back to some of that. But your third children’s book, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair, is coming out this year. Can you tell me a little bit about how your devotion to fairy tales in your more adult writing informs your writing for children?
KB: For me, it’s all part of the same process of being a reader and loving fairy tales, and being someone who thinks about them a lot, and who uses them to think about all kinds of disciplines, from medicine to nature to botany, science, literature, art—and when I sit down and I write, I’m just sort of writing as that kind of reader, through the lens of fairy tales. Whether a work ends up being a story for children, or really not at all for children, it just depends on where my narrative soul rests for the moment. But fairy tales, of course, weren’t for children, although there were children often around, hearing them, in times of aurality, and then they migrated into the bedroom with industrialization, and onto the nursery shelves. So I’m interested in their vexed history that way – or just, even, their aura as library books children check out – their being for children sometimes, which for me as a child was a pure gift. There is a difference I can point to, however, when I write for children—when I find myself writing for children—the stories tend to be a little bit prettier in their conclusions, I’d have to say. The moment, I mean (not the language, which I work on the same across the board – which I seek to sculpt whether for children or former children, as Andre Breton called adults). My books for children are a little more hopeful.
CF: That was actually one question I had. Fairy tales were never really meant for children until around the Victorian age, and yet I think there seems to be sort of a false impression in popular culture that they’ve always been for children. At least I know, having taught freshman English courses, [the students] will describe them to me in their papers as moral tales for kids—
KB: A story with a lesson. Even the dictionary that came loaded onto my laptop defines fairy tales as “stories for children.” I need to write to the company that produces that program!
CF: And so I wonder if that sort of widespread belief affects the way that they’re being retold in popular culture now, how we see so many “dark” versions of fairy tales. You want to say, well, they’ve always been dark.
KB: Right. People will say, oh, fairy tales, we’re returning them to their darker roots… I love how cyclically, there’s a cultural movement to “restore” the tales to their rightful dark place. Somehow it strikes me as poignant and hilarious too. Generally speaking, there is definitely a misperception that these stories – which cannot even be defined or identified en masse, but only in specific examples – have always existed for children, and I think that it goes even further back than that misperception, to concepts of childhood itself, and of the child. And if you think of myth time, children who were lucky enough to be educated used to have to recite myths. You look at the myths, and they were brutal. And they are great fairy tales, right, but they were like vertical tales from up on high to down, and fairy tales are domestic on up (I’m writing about this now, so this is sketchy here, sorry). Many fairy tales are not really for children, but they feature children, and with that whole wave of industrialization, with ideas of childhood, with their migration into the nursery and children’s literature: our notions free float from all that. There was a lot of disparagement coming fairy tales’ way because of this association, as well, in American culture. But I think fairy tales also were preserved by their “status” (low as it might have been) as children’s literature, well preserved. Not like in a disgusting way, like a heart in a jar, not that a heart in a jar is disgusting, that’s not really fair to a heart, but more like a dusty toy on a shelf. That is, I think that I don’t mind that people have that misperception that all fairy tales are stories for children or were once upon a time, because that creates something exciting to share with somebody that surprises them. It seriously makes my job fun.
CF: That makes me think of your short stories a little bit, and reading short stories from Fairy Tale Review, too. It seems like a lot of people, when they use fairy tales as their inspiration and as their source material, you can sort of feel that they’re writing from places in their childhood. There are echoes of people’s childhoods in their writing, even though you can also tell on the page that they are very well aware that fairy tales are a dark place to go.
KB: I think that there’s something about fairy tales that does ignite childhood memory, in part because so many people learn to fall in love with reading through magical books, through fairy tale books. It ignites a sort of memory, like some sort of neural memory of that kind of story. And I think too, that it’s hard to get around their motifs of vulnerability—and who among us are more vulnerable than our children, as earth’s newest citizens? So there’s something that people return to there. And they feel dexterous with the form because it’s familiar, in some ways. But then there’s a desire I see frequently now, for people to smudge them and dirty them up to sort of play with people’s excitement. People get seduced by the idea, like digging in dirt. Feels pretty good.
CF: There’s the quote I’ve heard you use a few times recently, “the fairie way of writing” from John Dryden. And that quote—I wasn’t able to find much of the actual Dryden quote, but that it’s his way of telling poets that they should incorporate “figmentary characters such as fairies, witches, magicians, demons, and departed spirits.”
KB: That’s actually Joseph Addison, writing about “the fairy way.”
CF: Right, because Addison says, of Dryden’s suggestion, that it creates a “pleasant horreur.” I liked that idea of the “pleasant horreur” from incorporating those kinds of things, which made me think even more about how fairy tales are the roots of so many different genres, because we go from children’s literature to horror, which you would think now are so completely separate things, but like you were saying just now, there’s something that thrills or maybe almost frightens people when they start to write fairy tale adaptations, even if it’s coming from a place of childhood.
KB: Yeah, it’s like domestic horror. It’s the miniature made grotesque. I mean, David Lynch writes fairy tales. I do think that horror, Gothic, children’s books, Noir and the Noir novel, detective novel, Romance novel, avant-garde literature, language poetry—film from Dogme scripts to Wes Andersen to Quentin Tarantino—all of these forms find their techniques in fairy tales. I don’t even know that I can think in [terms of] genre—I just think, where’s the [fairy tale] technique and how is it amplified and minimized, changed and disrupted, mirrored and made in this work? I write about this in “Form is Fairy Tale, Fairy Tale is Form.” And I write about it, reflecting a few years’ of study and writing I’ve been doing, in a new essay called “The Fairy Way.” How is the writer taking “the fairy way”? What’s their “fairy way”? Because when you do write at all, you are sort of entering fairyland, just ’cause you’re doing self-mind reading. It’s this weird act of self-telepathy. You’re on the fairie way–you’re talking to yourself! So the acts of reading and writing are bathed in that sort of ether that Dryden talks about. So I am trying to urge people to write as he did, a movement of artists going “the fairy way” and not to be afraid to admit it. Because you see a lot of people who say, well, I’m a realist, I don’t write fairy tales—well, Raymond Carver wrote great fairy tales. He just used the techniques differently. He sewed them together differently. Whether he knew it or not and I suspect that he did.
CF: Speaking of techniques, you mentioned this morning that you’re working on a craft book. You also mentioned some fairy tale tropes this morning, like the happy ending, which can be very hard to get right without using cliché, so are those the kind of tropes that you explore in the book?
KB: Yes, and there are many others too. And they’re great, I mean anything from the Tiny Flaw to Sublimation, Abstraction, the Everyday Magic, you know, where in a fairy tale the magic is one of the least magical things. And – this is all from the book and the new essay – then you have form and style like Fabulism, that people like to refer to as like, the new kind of fairy tale—it’s just a fairy tale that makes much ado about magic, which old fairy tales don’t really do. What I’m trying to do in the book is articulate years and years of reading and writing “the fairy way,” which I’ve taught for years too. People talk so much about the interpretation of tales—and more so now than in the past, the history of them—and seek definitions of the tale, and I really want to shift the focus, or at least bring into the conversation front and center, their artistic techniques, and to the pleasures of the art form. I love all the rest too, of course.
CF: Which I thought you put very interestingly this morning when you said you were sending out stories [as a young writer], and you were using fairy tale techniques—
KB: I didn’t know I was…
CF: And they didn’t quite seem to be working for you until you consciously decided to control them.
KB: I had to learn about them, right.
CF. And I think that there’s an impression that fairy tales were just created off the cuff.
CF: And you’re saying the opposite, that these are things that can be controlled.
KB: They can be sculpted, like any art form, right? I mean, the Grimms took their collection through 40 years and seven editions. They painstakingly revised it, their stories didn’t just grow in the woods and they just gathered them, like [each one] was a miraculous toadstool they found on the ground. It feels that way—many literary fairy tales have this organic quality to them that’s like the ineffable, you can’t quite get at it, which must have a whole lot to do with their incredible folkloric and mythic existence. But it’s like the myth of the artist itself is bound up with that (in reverse, when it comes to fairy tales). I ardently like to debunk that sort of image of the artist gazing out the window, writing a poem he sees writ in the beam of a moon or something. Or the inverse, creating something out of nothing, just because he’s a wunderkind. (American culture loves this myth most of all). Sometimes magic happens, but it happens also after many hours of painstaking labor. And I don’t presume to think I can actually control and discipline my writing to such a conscious degree that it comes out right [the first time]. But the more I learn about the art form, the more chances I have to do it well. And I think a lot of writers say, oh! I think I’ll write a fairy tale. And they just litter it with every possible wonderful, hideous cliché, right? Really good artists do this and it’s purely because we don’t pay much attention to the artistry at hand in the diverse form. Botanists learn about flowers. And flowers are a natural thing, right? Going in close to how something becomes – a creative science – opens incredible visions and paths into story. I teach graduate classes in new fairy tale technique and any kind of writer that I’ve encountered from mainstream to avant garde has found a clue, or a key, that just was sitting there waiting. I think it could save you a lot of time and a lot of heartache if you just…
CF: I would love to know either about your architecture series, or you mentioned in an email that you were working on a collection of retellings of myths. How does that differ from your collections of fairy tales, as inspiration?
KB: Sure. My brother, Andrew Bernheimer and I—he’s director of architecture at Parsons and has a firm called Bernheimer Architecture that does all manner of incredible work, often green, always innovative—have been collaborating on these architectural fairy tales that have been such a joy to do. We’ve been curating other architects and structural engineers to take a fairy tale and just interpret it in a design. The magazine Design Observer, the imprint called Places, has been publishing them, and the first set of three that were published by them this last December won an AIA award in the “unbuilt” category. Which I think is so funny, it’s like this big animatronic chicken right next to this detention center that was a beautiful actual building design. We’ve done many of these and they are very consuming and exciting, especially to see readers’ responses across disciplines from engineering to art. We’re hoping to do those in a book someday. It’s fascinating to see how much engineering and architecture comes into fairy tales. I mean, it makes sense, because they’re often stories of domesticity and home, and edifices of horror and bliss. It’s really neat to see how people from another discipline enter those stories from a completely non-literary perspective, but they know the stories. Sometimes they don’t even have to read them, and they just have ideas. So it’s really inspiring to do. And the fifty new myths, it’s a book called xo Orpheus: 50 New Myths, coming out with Penguin in November. Ate my life for the past 9 months [laughs].
CF: So, was that an idea that you came up with?
KB: When I did My Mother She Killed Me, that was only 40 writers, and it could have been 4,000 writers in it. For me that’s an exercise in editorial humiliation, because there are so many people who you cant include, and I’m just not a very exclusive person—if you haven’t gathered—and I wanted just to do more. I wanted to do more. And because I’m working on my own new stories based on fairy tales and to deepen that project, I wanted to immerse myself as a reader, selfishly, in mythology and the classical myths and traditions from around the world. I felt like it was the next step I needed to take, in my intellectual and artistic progress. The myth book evolved in tandem with my reading for my own stories. Secretly I think they’re the same thing, just older, the myths. Okay, not so secretly now.
CF: Although I liked what you said about myths coming down from on high, and fairy tales coming up the domicile.
KB: Yeah, I had to develop a way to think about it, and after many months of reading I did come upon, in my thinking just the idea I mean (in conversation with my husband who writes books about apocalypse) that, well, the myths—they have the verticality, right, so, the celestial, the magical, is other, it’s from on high down, and intersects with the humans. And in fairy tales, it’s among us. And then the sublime, which would be the high, that’s the like the eucatastrophe, that’s the ineffable thing.
CF: I love that you are also describing it architecturally.
KB: Exactly! Fairy tales are like a whole constellation in space, they are a space. That’s why I sort of define them less as a genre than as an affect or space, right, like an atmosphere. You know, you can’t really go and leave it. Or I can’t. Maybe you can’t either—it’s your special enchantment, too, right? It’s an affliction and gift to have this entrapment. Historically those who work with fairy tales can be described as madmen and madwomen of sorts – obsessive, really, when it comes to this body of work. Thank goodness. So the myths: I think that if you just look at human history and geologic time, there are other differences, that just happen with changes in the way that humans experience and grapple with or refuse to grapple with the unknown. And the new myth book I have gathered for Penguin is in some ways very different from the new [fairy tales]. When prospective authors heard the word myth, the stories they wrote were sort of primarily brutal and primarily sad. No eucatastrophe. And it’s interesting that the response to the word myth than to fairy tale was different. I’m still conceptualizing the why of that. I have some theories about it, often pointing to technology and environment, but other things too. Environmental collapse.
CF: The eucatastrophe—can you explain that?
KB: It’s in Tolkein’s essay on fairy stories—do you have that? In his collected essays. You’ll love it. He has a passage in there where he talks about the happy ending as the vital other side of the tragic ending. You can only have them together. Two sides of the coin. I don’t know where I am with the binary thinking about it, but what he does say is that the eucatastrophe is like the happiness after the terribleness. He describes it as “joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” So what he’s saying is, a terrible thing happens, and after that comes the happy ending. And the happy ending, for him, is a very religious sort of sublime. For me, the happy ending isn’t so much what happens as the poetics of it. So, the happy ending could just be the word “air.” [If] you look at a lot of poetry or fairy tales, and the word it ends on, or the image it ends on…the happiness is sort of a precipice for the poetics. A beautiful sound or vision or space for the reader. Even “The Juniper Tree,” which has, like, an apocalypse! And then the family is sitting back down to their supper, and eating the brother, even though he’s there, so he’s eating himself, right? [laughs] But the words—”and they happily ate their supper.” It’s not really a happy ending in terms of what happens, but the story, the author, gives you the grammar of happiness.
CF: Like the end of Where the Wild Things Are—”and it was still hot.”
KB: “And it was still hot.” The grammar of happiness. Yes! So [the happy ending] is not really like a tidy bow so much as it is, again, a kind of language technique. Or an image.
CF: Almost like an invitation.
KB: Exactly, an invitation to feel that way. And a consolation. And what’s wrong with that?