Thursday, January 24, 2008

Interview with Kate Bernheimer

1. What is the significance of using titles for only some chapters? Is there a pattern that we could not find?

The chapters that are titled are based on the fairy tales listed at the front of the book; so only the chapters that are based on specific fairy tales have titles. Many of the titles themselves are based on the traditional fairy-tale titles.

2. As a reader who is unfamiliar with the particular fairy tales that parts of the novel are based off of, is my understanding of the text lacking in some way? Am I missing some links to the novel? Is my understanding compromised due to my lack of knowledge in this particular genre??

I hope that the opposite is true. I hope that the novel offers a sense of familiarity with the unfamiliar; that is I hope that one way to understand the novel would be through an intuitive reading. To encourage intuition, as with all the novels in this series, I carefully selected tales which I assumed most readers would not know, and with which I myself was not as familiar with from my childhood. I do this for many reasons, but one of the most basic reasons is that I want to sidestep the reflexive associations that I, and readers, might have with the more well-known stories. I do not assume that readers have any specialized knowledge in fairy tales, and I certainly hope that the books are easily comprehensible without any such knowledge. That said, a reader who has an awareness of the tropes and history of fairy tales might glean different things from the book than a reader who only knows fairy tales as a faint and familiar memory from childhood, or from popular versions. I hope neither reader is compromised by the incompleteness of each of these books; if you sense missing links, it is probably because Merry herself is missing links in her own story. The novel is, in part, about the implicit failure of personal narrative to tell a whole story. There is no whole story, and that's sad.

3. What is your intention with using animal imagery throughout the novel?

Well, I love animals. So that's the simple answer, but animals, of course, are very important in fairy tales; neither toad nor snake, bear nor hedgehog, is lower than a human on any scale of earthly significance. The culture in which we live, by which I mean 21st century American culture---provides little contact between humans and other species, unless you count the giant cockroaches with whom I am now intimately familiar down here in the South. I lament that distance between humans and other animals, and I populate my novels with many creatures out of adoration and longing. I would say the same reason exists for why I use many plants in my novels.

4. What is Merry's obsession with amputation about? What is this based on? Could it perhaps be symbolic of her desire for power?

That is an interesting interpretation of Merry's obsession with amputation, that is is symbolic of a desire for power. Because I don't have very much philosophical distance from my characters, it is hard for me to objectify them enough to know the answer to questions like this; I inhabit the characters in a very deep abstract and emotional way, so for me they don't exist as symbols, but as realities. Merry is obsessed with amputation because she is obsessed with amputation is what first comes to mind when that quetsion is posed to me and I'm surprised, but it is posed to me a lot. I think her interest in missing limbs has a lot to do with fear and powerlessness, her sense of herself as missing some significant part of herself, which she is. She lacks empathy (though I could also read her as deeply empathetic, to the degree she cares enough about people in the end to keep herself away from them). She lacks memory, she doesn't know what happened to her in childhood. She lacks knowledge: she doesn't know why she is how she is.

5. As the author, which of Merry's frustrations, characteristics, or experiences can you most identify with?

As the author, I identify with, i.e. am deeply interested in, i.e. am intellectually and emotionally invested in, all of her frustrations, characteristics, and experiences, and the conclusions I draw from them about the human experience. Obviously, I consider the contemporary human experience, in the industrialized and developed world, to be rather problematic. As to her specific failures and predicaments, they are all things I have experienced, whether in my imagination or elsewhere.

6. How did you select the name Merry, particularly this spelling of the name?

I knew her name from the moment I began The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, the first novel I wrote in this particular series. The names just came to me, by which I don't mean to imply anything mystical. I was quite pleased when I realized Merry's name was Merry; Merry Gold, of course, invokes Marigold, and that made me glad.

7. How and why did you select the images you did? (We loved them, by the way!)??

Thank you so much! I work painstakingly on selecting the images, on Merry's behalf. There is intuition at work. I know that I want to depict certain feelings with the illustrations. I select illustrations that feel special to me, and that come out of instances in the novels where I feel a rising out of the novel of an idea just as in a fairy-tale book, the illustrations depict not necessarily the character who is the main character, but maybe a wee rat in a corner of the tale, glowering out. So in the chapter where Merry lives briefly with her little sister, Lucy, and starts hearing things, in partiuclar mice talking to her, the image I chose is from NASA, a photograph of a spiral galaxy that some scientists thought looked like a mouse. I wanted the image to have a cosmological feel, but also reflect Merry's particular brand of madness; she's a girl who hears mice talking, so of course she'd love (as I did) that a galaxy might resemble a mouse, and also that scientists might think so. In Merry's world, that would provide some proof that she was not insane: See? Even scientists recognize in mice the meaning of the universe! There are certain images that will appear in each novel in this series; each book contains a Halloween picture of the character herself, for example. I have coded reasons for this, one of which is that the books are about female disguise.

8. Why do shifts occur in POV throughout the novel? Do the shifts have to do with Merry's emotional involvement in a particular scene/story/fairytale? (For instance, is first person used for the more involved fairy tales?)??

The books are in part designed to invoke the multiplicity of a fairy-tale collection; there are the tales, but there is always also the spectre of the editor or translator who collected the tales, and then there is the illustrator, and the book designer, and so on. Fairy-tale books are objects in themselves---a fairy-tale collection is not generally remembered only as text, i.e. as just words making stories. This is Merry's collection, edited by her, in a sense. The chapters with the titles are the chapters based on fairy tales; those chapters are told in the first person, as they are Merry directly narrating events of her life through a fairy tale lens. The chapters that are in third-person illustrate a particular moment in time through a more distant historical lens. The first-person chapters narrated by the seamstress are meditations on time and story, more reflective, less experienced than the fairy-tale chapters. Then there are the pictures, and the reprinted fairy tales; these are hand-selected by Merry for the book.

9. What is your inspiration for writing, studying, and supporting the fairy tale genre?

I consider fairy tales to be of tantamount literary importance---perhaps the single most influential body of work on hundreds of years of literature. I also think fairy tales contain the secret of the world, which is that it is violent, insane, beautiful, transient, fated, and almost gone (and so ever-after). It seems to me that while our culture reveres fairy tales recycling their motifs and tropes again and again it fails to recognize their deeply transformative power. As an academic, I find now that many of my beloved colleagues have little awareness of the scholarship being done about fairy tales, which of course is a deeply felt effort to preserve and celebrate this intricate, political tradition. So as a novelist, children's book author, editor, and occasional creative scholar, I seek to celebrate the genre in every way that I possibly can. Fairy tales might survive the great reading decline, if I have my way.


1 comment:

Sara G said...

This interview has a lot of meat. Good job ladies with the questions as I encountered the same quandaries in the text. I have to make comment on the last question and say that Kate's empowerment of the fairy tale is, well, empowering. It reminds me of a piece I read in Classical Rhetoric where a writer comes to the defense and appraisal of the essay. The fairy tale can be a many of things--well, so can all of fiction--but with fairy tale, the complexity that the other is trying to portray in a whimsical, almost childlike at times manner, I think as well, can be the great reading revival.