Kate Bernheimer is the author of The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold from FC2. This interview was conducted upon publication of The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold in 2001.
From what I remember, honestly, I began writing in earnest in kindergarten. My first story was about Jesus rising from the dead. I narrated the tale, which was one sentence long (“Jesus rose from the dead, the end”) while sitting on my kindergarten teacher’s lap during naptime. Miss Pushee typed my words onto an IBM Selectric, which remains to this day my favorite machine. Then I illustrated the story with a picture of a rabbit; this was near Easter-time. My older sister had recently been chased home from school by three girls yelling “You killed Jesus” at her. Perhaps, after this, my mother had told us about Jesus, or anti-Semitism, though what I really remember is the rabbit and Easter, the rising from the dead and the houses inside sugary eggs. I continued to write a lot throughout grade school. My first published book was a self-published poetry collection in 1973, called The Many Moods of Kathy Bernheimer. In the poetry collection, a series of allegorical verses, the main characters were Envy, Chance, Luck, Jealousy, and Mad (it should have been Madness, of course, but I got the parallelism wrong — sort of poignant to me). This book was influenced by mythology, which I already loved, and by fairy stories in books, and by Shakespeare verse my friend Diana’s father used to recite to us in the attic of her house during sleepovers. The allegorical poems rhymed and were about a birthday party to which Jealous wasn’t invited, and at which Mad sat beneath a tree. I mention these two pieces of writing — Jesus and the allegorical verse series — not to make light of the question, but rather because I do think that formally and philosophically these works are a lot like my later writing — and my most recent writing — in the fairy tale novels (The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, which FC2 published in 2001, and The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, forthcoming with FC2 next fall, and, now in progress, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold). I answer the question with tales from my childhood writing experiences not to be precious but because I’m not sure my writing has in certain regards changed much from grade school. When I began writing The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold at 27, secrets, drawings, abstractions, transformations, moods, tales, and retellings: these were my obsessions and they had been since my earliest days as a reader, as a writer.
What led you to explore the rich world of folk and fairy tales in your writing? Do you have a personal connection to German, Russian, and Yiddish folklore?
I’m glad you find the world of fairy tales to be a rich world. Thank you for saying that. So often, I find that this immense, strange body of literature is subtly, or not-so-subtly, misunderstood and maligned. This is not to say I think everyone must love fairy tales, but at least ought to consider them, and as works of art. A few years ago a writer in a widely read and prestigious magazine asked “Is it possible that we have actually come to the end of fairy tales as an available, rather than an archival, entertainment?” The rest of the article, though praising of traditional fairytales, seemed, to me, to come to the conclusion that indeed we had. I believe that we haven’t. I suppose that for my work to be considered “archival” rather than “available” could be considered a compliment. To think of myself as an Archivist, instead of as a Novelist or Editor, would be great fun, actually.
A number of events conspired to bring me here, to fairy tales. As a young child, I loved my fairy tale dolls — particularly the Madame Alexander Cinderella “before transformation” doll that I shared with my older sister. We had a pair of dolls, one Cinderella in a pink sparkling gown and one a Cinderella in a drab green dress. We messed up the fancy Cinderella’s hair — cut it ragged, ripped the tulle of the gown — and fought over the two dolls, both of us wanting both of these dirty creatures to call our own. I recently read, in a New York Times article entitled “Love the Riches, Lose the Rags,” about how girl-children now only identify with Cinderella as the ballroom-dress version; that’s a strange twist, and sadly unsurprising in our wealth-obsessed culture. It couldn’t be further from some of the beautiful early Cinderella variants, which celebrated the strength of the disenfranchised, the poor. Anyway, I grew up watching Disney movies in my grandfather’s theatre basement; he had a movie projector and we four kids would sit on his old leather couch with popcorn, terrified and elated. In the books, the printed versions, I have been drawn as long as I can remember to fairy tales because of the abstract and elegant earthiness of them, their saturation with the natural world and their constant excursions toward rapture. Existentially, I am fascinated by their obsession with isolation, and how this isolation is reflected in them artistically. When I began work on my first novel, I began — at first on a whim and then with an imperative — to read fairy tale scholarship, by writers such as Max Luthi, Maria Tatar, Jack Zipes, Donald Haase, Cristina Bacchilega, and many others. What I discovered was an exciting intellectual dialogue, a conversation about literature, politics, art, philosophy, books, and it began to enter my work: somehow, it gave me form. In the cultural heritage of my biological family (which includes Latvian and German people), there is a close connection to Russian, German, and Yiddish fairy tales. Their syntax provides me with rapture, and makes me think.
What unique qualities does the folk/fairy genre offer to writers (you in particular), and what do you believe it offers to readers that other genres do not offer?
That is a very difficult question, one which I address in an essay that is forthcoming in Marvels & Tales: The Journal of Fairy Tale Studies. It’s a revision of a talk I gave at the Museum of Modern Art in 2003, when I was asked to speak about this very subject. This was part of an incredible retrospective of the artist Kiki Smith’s work and I was asked to comment on the fairy tale motifs in her work and in contemporary literature. I was asked to do this alongside Jack Zipes, who is a hero of mine, who’s written numerous influential books about fairy tales. And with Kiki Smith there on the stage, too. I stayed up for six weeks writing this 20-minute talk, I worked on it for 200-plus hours, I was so nervous! In the end it was about rapture, and fear. I cited quite a few writers in the talk — focusing mainly on Marina Warner and Kathryn Davis, but also Clarice Lispector, Salman Rushdie, Cynthia Ozick, Fanny Howe, and others. I was looking at what Max Luthi refers to, in The European Folktale: Form and Function, as “firm form.” An aesthetic quality, along with other unique qualities fairy tales offer — this is my obsession! They have a peculiar, sensate construction, one which I find wild and free but also dictated, firm. They are full of abstraction, if something can be “full” and “abstract” simultaneously (I think fairy tales can, and Luthi would call this sublimation). Jack Zipes says that to him, what marks a work of literature as fairy tale is radical transformation, often violent. There are many ways of answering this question, of course.
I often think of what Nabokov said, “All great novels are great fairy tales.” At the very least, I believe that fairy tales offer some of the things any art form might potentially offer at any given point in time, in its very own manner. Rapture, becoming. But I do think there is something about certain works that absolutely make them fairy tales, whether or not they are commonly recognized as fairy tales. Also, what fairy tales offer to me as a writer is likely very different from what it offers to other writers. I’ve seen this distinctly in my work as an editor. What they have offered to me, and what the scholarship has offered, is like a key to a forbidden and beautiful world in which things can fall into disorderly, meticulous place. They draw me to them and into them with a madness and eerie simplicity that tells me what to do and how to do it, and when. I love their flat, their collapsed, mise-en-scene. They challenge me to write in new ways, to abandon what it is that I think I know. Fairy tales, their little narratives, their wooded paths, offer me the solitude of a natural and isolating world, one which does help me write. And I am tenderhearted about the meek — fairy tales’ most frequent heroes.
Finally I think of fairy tales as an endangered species — one of many in literature. Fairy tales have a similarity for me with what conservationists call charismatic species, like pandas (you know, as opposed to snails, though I find snails charismatic). Maybe fairy tales, with their intensely ecological settings, can help us save books and more.
What writers have had the biggest influences on you? What contemporary writing influences you?
I’m very, very porous, so the list is too long! Invariably, when I think of influences on my writing — in addition to all the books that I’ve had the great honor of having the time, the luxury really, the sort of life, that allows me to read them — I think of books from my childhood, from All of a Kind Family (a poet I admire recently admitted a mutual infatuation with this particular series) and the Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, Harriet the Spy, and Anne of Green Gables books — all series. I’ve always loved serial works. I tend to read books by one author at a time — all of their books — and then I am bereft when I get to the end of their body of work. I am influenced by the patterns and the perfection in so many books — books in a range of forms and from many ages. Whatever I am reading is the biggest influence on me in the moment. Right now I am reading Maria Tatar’s critical study of Bluebeard, Secrets beyond the Door, a collection of essays, Spatial Form in Narrative (ed. Smitten & Daghistany), a collection of poems, The Red Bird, by Joyelle McSweeney, and a book of Chinese fables.
I like Andy Warhol’s response to what contemporary art he thought influential: “I like it all.” (If anyone could provide me with confirmation that he actually said that, and where and when, I’d love to have it. I have a suspicion I heard the line in the film I Shot Andy Warhol, but I hope he actually said it in so-called real life.) I do feel that way — a sense of deep admiration for so much of the writing I have the privilege of time to read. Instead of naming individual contemporary writers, I’ll say that I am very interested in what small presses are doing right now, as entities in our literary world. Independent publishing, its place in contemporary writing, is changing, I think. It is my hope that new fiction presses planning to publish novels and stories look not only to commercial models for inspiration as to how to bring their books forth, but really acutely to poetry presses, places like Copper Canyon and O Books, Burning Deck, Sarabande, Wave.
What are some of your current and upcoming projects, and what is Fairy Tale Review?
I’ve been working on the final edits of The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, which is forthcoming with FC2 next fall. (Ralph Berry gave me a meticulous reading of the manuscript, which I’m working from closely, and Brenda Mills was exceedingly supportive from the start of this novel.) I’ve begun a third novel, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold — it’s the third Gold family book. I consider these to all be part of the same book — though any one could be read apart from the others, they co-exist for me as a writer. Right now, I’m editing a second collection of essays about fairy tales, called Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales. Wayne State University Press, which has a fairy tale imprint edited by the scholar Don Haase, is publishing it, and it’s pretty exciting for me. Some FC2 authors have been kind enough to write for this book. There will be poets, scholars, and novelists in it, and some visual art. Finally, at least for now, my brother, an architect whose work I greatly admire, and I are co-editing a book about architecture and fairy tales — architects are producing original works-on-paper inspired by houses and other structures in fairy tales for it. And I’m editing Fairy Tale Review, a new literary journal devoted to fairy tales as an art form. I’m busy, but I just talked to a poet about possibly working on a collection with him, so maybe I’m not quite busy enough!
I should mention that while a fascination — some might say obsession — with fairy tales saturates my work, I am an omnivorous reader. I do love many literary forms and learn from so much of what I read, from what other people are doing, have done, are saying, are being, in their work. Every time I get a new packet of books from FC2, I get terribly behind in all things.
What advice can you give to aspiring fairy tale writers?
I don’t know if I can give advice, but I can say thank you for continuing to read and write fairy tales. I guess I like to think about how in fairy tales, gifts show up just when you need them — so the important thing to do is to survive, and to give unto others, and hope for those moments. They don’t always happen, but even then something beautiful might.