Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels ENCHANTMENTS, ENVY, THE SEAL WIFE, THE BINDING CHAIR, POISON, EXPOSURE, and THICKER THAN WATER. She has also written memoirs, THE KISS and THE MOTHER KNOT, a travel memoir, THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO, a biography, SAINT THERESE OF LISIEUX, a collection of personal essays, SEEKING RAPTURE, and a work of true crime, WHILE THEY SLEPT: AN INQUIRY INTO THE MURDER OF A FAMILY.
Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in THE NEW YORKER, HARPER’S MAGAZINE, VOGUE, O MAGAZINE, MORE, TIN HOUSE, ZOETROPE ALL-STORY, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children. She is currently at work on a biography of Joan of Arc.
CONVERSATIONS WITH KATHRYN HARRISON
June 11th, 2012, THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
Kathryn Harrison: I Want to Destroy Your Equilibrium
SO MUCH HAS BEEN said and written about this stunning, prolific author that many of us have strong perceptions of her, be they right or wrong. I tried to bring an open mind, and a sincere desire to know her better to this conversation. It was difficult to leave my feelings of awe, extreme admiration, and a fair amount of hero worship at the door…
– Mary Anne Kolton
MAK: Kathryn, it’s hard to know where to begin with you. I’ve read and loved all of your books and just finished reading most of the interviews you’ve done. You are an iconic, truth-telling writer who has given us much to consider, including your newest book, Enchantments.
After encouraging all of us to rake through the ashes of your personal life in SeekingRapture: ScenesFroma Woman’sLife, TheMotherKnot: AMemoir and TheKiss: A Memoir, you leave us wondering: how have you managed to maintain your equilibrium?
KH: I admit I encourage you to look, but I’m the one who does the raking. And I’m doing that for me. I feel I’m unusually fortunate in having a genuinely symbiotic relationship with my work — it exists because of me, and I because of it. Certainly it’s the only means I have to approach anything like balance.
The phrasing of the question makes it sound as if I leave readers struggling to find balance, or maybe I’m just projecting. Because that’s what I want. I want to write well enough to seduce you into watching me unfold the story. And when the story has ended I mean for it to have destroyed your equilibrium.
I love it when people write to tell me what weird and disturbing dreams they’ve had after reading something I’ve written. That response is better even than the praise, because it means that my words slipped past that reader’s defenses and into his or her unconscious.
There are soothing books, books to which I return when I’m tired and want to be diverted from one or another tribulation. I like them — at times I depend on them — but I don’t write them. I don’t intend to, and I wouldn’t know how.
MAK: Almost all the authors I’ve interviewed have had less than ideal childhoods — some bordering on the horrific and appalling. Most of them don’t or can’t write about them. The symbiosis you describe is perhaps one of the reasons your work is deeply seductive.
You were raised by your grandparents? What were you reading as a child?
KH: I was raised by my mother’s British parents, and my grandmother’s conviction that hers was the superior culture meant that most of the books my mother read as a child were British. They remained on the shelves and beckoned all the more for being from another culture — I could get all the American books I wanted from school or the library. And they offered a tangential connection to my seductive and elusive mother.
Most of them had to do with magic. Andrew Lang, especially The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie. E.M. Nesbit. Enid Blyton — both The Enchanted Wood and Wishing Chair series and her Holiday collections of short stories. Most of these concerned naughty children and their comeuppance. A girl whose punishment for pulling the cat’s whiskers was to grow a set herself — that kind of thing. P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books, which are a lot scarier than the movie.
I went on to discover C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time. I can see Mrs. Who’s illustration of the ant crossing the thread to illustrate the tesseract. The Phantom Tollbooth. A Cricket in Times Square. The Borrowers. But stories didn’t have to be fantastic. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books over and over. Harriet the Spy. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Black Beauty. The series that begins with The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. Cherry was a precursor for Nancy Drew, whom I also liked.
MAK: The wonderful mists of magic realism. I found Enchantments to be a carefully woven tapestry of Russian history, magic, innocence, and the drumbeat of what is to come.
You also weave strong threads of another compelling father-daughter relationship throughout. The unknowable Rasputin and his child, Masha. This theme appears in so many of your novels. Is this done by design or subconsciously?
Word traveled quickly, more quickly than it would had any other man’s body been dragged from the river…A crowd of people had come running to where we’d stood before, on the frozen river. They came from their homes with bowls and jugs and cast-iron kettles — anything that would hold water…I saw an old woman lugging a chamber pot. Now that would have made Father laugh until he hooted and howled and dried his eyes with the heels of his hands — the idea of a withered crone ladling his ghost into a chamber pot.
KH: Because I’m aware of it, I think of it as more helpless than unconscious. But I don’t have much more control over how a novel unfolds than I do over how a dream plays out while I’m sleeping, so in that sense what I write is certainly steered by my unconscious.
And, on a conscious level, my relationship with my father still torments me — I expect it always will.
MAK: You have said that you read and enjoy Freud’s writings. Does it make a difference that many of Freud’s theories have now been discounted as a basis for psychological thought as we know it?
KH: Well, Freud remains a monolithic figure, the father of psychology, a flawed father, with his blind spots — he was, after all, human — but a thinker of profound influence, his centrality proved by the seemingly endless urge to contradict or disprove his theories.
I think if Jung’s insights are collated with those of Freud, together they offer an unparalleled means of understanding the unconscious, which — post analysis — is not only a personal preoccupation but a means of understanding human action and relationships.
That said, Freud’s lexicon — unconscious, repression, sublimation, libido, transference, id, ego, super-ego, oedipal, neurosis, anxiety, obsession, anal, traumatic hysteria, defense, projection, reaction formation, repetition compulsion (and these are just off the top of my head) — has so permeated our language and our way of approaching the psyche that one reason I set novels in eras that predate his influence is to work in a world in which the unconscious remains hidden and I am not allowed to use any of the terms on the page. But even in that world my thinking is informed by his (and Jung’s and many other of his inheritors) vision.
MAK: I was hypnotized by the lyricism and elegant, passionate prose of your book Exposure: A Novel, but it pained me, and suggests that a reader might want to approach your work carefully. Should readers start with a book like Envy prior to delving into the darker side of your writing?
KH: I don’t know about beginning with Envy: A father and mother try, with limited success, to recover from the drowning death of their young son. Will, the husband, makes a grief-addled foray into a past overshadowed by his doppelganger, a disfigured twin who is an Olympic swimmer, and who, Will discovers, has betrayed him in an insidious and truly malevolent manner.
And then the unrepentant bad girl appears, bent on vengeance. I enjoyed writing that character — how could I not when she sexually manipulates a father-figure and nearly destroys his life? — and I hope she affords the reader amusement in her endless capacity for sexual mayhem. But I don’t know that there’s much else to celebrate. In fact, had I the chance to revise the ending once more, I’d finish on a bleaker note, without any apparent hope for the marriage’s recovery.
Maybe The Seal Wife would be a better starting place? At least it has an ambiguous, Gone With the Wind kind of closure: will Bigelow’s mute lover stay with him, or will she leave again and break his heart once and for all?
I don’t think of Exposure as being particularly dark, at least among my novels. Maybe because the shoplifting is fun? Sexual abuse; life-threatening illness; death; suicide; betrayal; murder: at least two of these advance the plot of each of my novels. But despite my dark preoccupations, I think I can be playful, and in that way provide solace and even pleasure. For a novel that ends in the assassination of an entire family, Enchantments is almost lighthearted. At least it does consistently lift the characters out of their dire predicament, if only by using “magical realism.” I do wish there were a better term for fiction that’s informed by the conventions of folk tales and myths. The kind of stories that unfold around a fire as the night presses in. The kind that require some form of alchemy to spite the darkness.
MAK: Can you tell me how you came about the idea for the Seal Wife? So spare and lovely.
KH: I was fortunate to have been raised by two elderly European Jews, both of whom had lived in far-flung places, and who loved to tell stories. Just as The Binding Chair plundered my grandmother’s history, The Seal Wife was based on the early life of my grandfather, whose wanderlust carried him to Anchorage Alaska in 1917, before the city was a city. He was there at the land auction, lived in the tent city. As a young man (he was 18 in 1917) from very humble circumstances, he had the freedom to travel because of his unusual math abilities — in the age before adding machines, he was just as fast and accurate; it didn’t matter how long the numbers or how many. Wherever he went he found work as a bookkeeper, and I gave that mathematical genius to Bigelow, the character modeled on my grandfather.
In Anchorage, my grandfather knew a woman called Six Mile Mary (she lived 3 miles out of town, so six was the round trip) and he had photographs of her. He took a lot of pictures of Alaska, very beautiful, black and white. He developed them himself. When I saw the one of Six Mile Mary smoking a pipe, I fell in love. I was six, maybe seven, and I knew I’d discovered something important, an independent female power that stood in contrast to all I understood from my mother — her vanity table, the perfumes and cosmetics. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly what held me as a child, but it kept me returning to the image: a woman, all alone, with a pipe in her hand, a dog, a hovel, that was it. She seemed self-contained, silent, content in her isolation. Her life seemed both grand and mysterious. When I began The Seal Wife I had Bigelow marrying the tent singer, as my grandfather had in real life. But I couldn’t keep Six Mile Mary out of the story; she’d had a great impact on me over the years and still lived — and lives — within me. By the second draft she’d taken over, as the silent Aleut woman: the seal wife. And, of course, the novel was also inspired by the fairy tale of the same name.
MAK: How do you answer those who would say you should have written the personal books as novels? That you did not have to expose your family in the way you did, and did so only because someone encouraged you to do it, or because there was more money to be made in disclosing the personal aspect of the stories.
KH: Well, you’re asking about one book, really, aren’t you? The Kiss. Not that I haven’t written other things that are personal, and have invited judgment, just that that book is the real lightening rod. I don’t listen much to “those who would say” whatever they say. I strove for years, and failed, to win my tormented young mother’s love and admiration; then, to keep what I believed was my father’s love, I gave him whatever he demanded. I emerged from my father’s grasp changed: I understood that my desire for love had cost me my integrity, and, as I hadn’t ended my life, I would live it differently. Even if, as my father told me and I believed, no one would ever love me. I knew, at great cost, that what I understood about myself was more important than what anyone else might think or say about me.
I tried writing the story as fiction — Thicker than Water, my first novel — and discovered, too late, that I had betrayed myself again. One of the motivations for writing The Kiss was my increasing discomfort over having presented the story of what happened between me and my father as fiction: I’d done as society dictates a daughter should: I’d said, in essence, “I made it up. It didn’t really happen.” But it did. And that’s an important difference in this case. To me, it was.
As for exposing my family, I didn’t. I exposed myself. No one encouraged me to allow the story to be published as nonfiction — on the contrary, anyone who cared about me tried to warn me what the public response would be like. I guess I’d lived with my history so long I’d lost the ability to imagine other people’s outrage over incest. Which is proper — this is how taboo functions in society: shaming/shunning/exile. I was surprised by the virulence of some of the attacks, and of strangers’ eagerness to judge me on the basis of a book they hadn’t read. But ultimately, none of that matters. The book has many more ardent supporters than enemies.
And I don’t write anything to put in a drawer. Especially not that book; as a human being as well as a writer I had to tell the story as it was, in nonfiction: it had to be heard. So much of what I write — female characters in particular — are about giving a voice to the silenced. Had my father not been able to depend on my keeping his secret, he’d never have been able to manipulate me into sex. But I’d learned what the world taught me: what had happened was unspeakable. And then, later, I learned the cost of keeping such a secret. Of being silenced about what had nearly ended my life. And I knew there was value in having such an account out there — I’d looked for one myself, desperately, when I was involved with my father. The one thing that did surprise me about the publication was some people’s insistence that I should never have spoken up. One review even ended with the words “Shut up.” It was by a woman. I guess her life had been a lot different from mine.
It’s easy to judge a person whose experience you refuse to acknowledge. To say she’s lied, she’s not thinking of her children, she did it for the money. And of course those are all the standard slurs made against a woman who gets out of line: call her a liar, a bad mother, a whore for doing it for the money. As to that, the big advance was a rumor. There was no money involved. My publisher expected a novel for which they’d already paid an advance and agreed to swap in a memoir.
MAK: Is there a new book we should know about?
KH: I am currently working on a biography of Joan of Arc.
The Days of Yore‘s Kassi Underwood joined Harrison for lunch at a sushi restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn on January 23, 2012. Five text tattoos in Aramaic, Latin, and French wrap around the author’s right wrist, but she won’t translate them for anyone. Not even her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison.
Tell me about growing up in California.
I was born in 1961 and grew up on Sunset Boulevard, right smack in the middle of L.A., with my mother’s parents. My mother lived with us until I was about five. After that, it was just me and my grandparents, both of whom were quite old, even for grandparents. My grandfather was born in 1890 and my grandmother in 1899. Both of them had lived in many far-flung places, and they both taught me about them. Not that I thought so at the time—I entered college as a pre-med—but it was probably the perfect beginning for a writer. My grandfather grew up in London, and my grandmother grew up in Shanghai. She came from ridiculous wealth, at least for a little while. In Shanghai, labor was cheap, so she lived in a house with forty servants.
And my grandfather had been so poor as a boy that he was sometimes hungry. So there was that spread. He was a tall, elegant, and athletic man who left Europe in the early teens of the last century. A young man with wanderlust. His education was incomplete, but he was a math whiz and could always get work as a bookkeeper. It allowed him to indulge himself. He traveled all the way across Canada and ended up in Alaska, though Alaska wasn’t a state yet.
Then came The Seal Wife.
Exactly. The book was very much inspired by his experience. My grandfather lived in Alaska when it was a tent city. He trapped fur. He did fall in love with a tent singer, in the dark, based on her voice. They married, and then she died in her thirties.
My grandfather married my grandmother when he was fifty-one, and she was forty-two. They never expected to have a child. So my grandfather ended up with a daughter when he was in his fifties. When I came along, my grandfather was seventy-one.
Did you have an early desire to write?
Writing was something I always could do. I was considered an unusually good writer by the time I was in the seventh grade. I read a lot. I was an only child. Toward the end of college, I thought, this is something I might do. I backed into it, in a way. I started doing it before I said I wanted to.
First I thought I was going to be was a veterinarian. Then I thought I was going to be a doctor. I started college pre-med and defected… precipitously. [In high school] I had been one of those really neurotic students. I was valedictorian and the big queen fish in a small pool. Then I went to Stanford, a really competitive school for engineering and medicine. Suddenly, I had these problem sets. I knew I wasn’t going to be the one on the top, and when I took an Art History class I had a vision that school didn’t have to mean calculus and chemistry, it could be sitting in the dark looking at something beautiful and then writing about it, and I thought, it’s a no-brainer. I still wasn’t thinking about writing as a career until I wandered into the English department and took a creative writing workshop. My relationship to writing developed slowly and organically and largely unconsciously.
Even while writing my first novel, I never referred to myself as a writer or it as a novel. It was my “thing.” The “thing” I was working on. The “thing” I did in private when I wasn’t working at my job.
Did you enter an MFA program directly after college?
When I graduated from college, I thought the last thing I wanted to do was to spend two years in writing workshops. They’re hard, and they’re exhausting, and they make you feel vulnerable, and the idea of devoting all of one’s attention to that seemed pretty excruciating. There were three years between college and graduate school.
What did you do in the interim?
Mostly fuck up my life. I was entangled with my father, and my mother was dying, and my grandfather was dying. I had one job—not even a job type job—and I was going back and forth between Los Angeles and New Mexico, where my father was living at the time. For years, I just disappeared into that void. As for why Iowa, I’m old enough now that back then there were really only about three places to apply to [for an MFA] that anybody had ever heard of.
Was Iowa pretty competitive?
Iowa had a serious pecking order and everyone knew where everyone else stood. The top positions were the teaching-writing fellows. The directors and teachers decided the ranking.
We were all dropped down into this weird little bubble, and we all got to know each other, and nobody knew anybody from Iowa. It heightened the amount of attention you paid to the workshop itself. It had this incestuous pressure cooker aspect. Rivalries and affairs and gossip, both careerist and personal. A place where you had to make an effort to protect your privacy.
Did you find it difficult to create in an atmosphere of competition?
I didn’t like it. I don’t know how much of an effect it had on me because I’m an introvert. I’m sort of a loner. I wasn’t the person who was out drinking with people after workshop. I pretty much went home and tried to get work done. During my first semester, my mother died, so I had this huge distraction. It put things in perspective. It conferred a certain immunity. And I became a teaching-writing fellow [laughs] so I wasn’t worried about my place in the pecking order, which I’m sure made a difference, too.
Tell me about meeting your husband.
When I first arrived at Iowa, my life was a complicated mess. My mother was about to die. I had asked to defer, and was told I’d have to reapply, so I had had to make a difficult choice. Jack Leggett, the director, was a very avuncular person—disarming in the best sense—and at our first workshop, he said, “Some of you will even meet your husbands and wives here.” I looked at him, thinking, “As if.” And of course I was the one.
My husband is a hard-driving extrovert, somebody who approaches, as opposed to me, who looks from the sidelines. We were in the graduate lounge, where all the mailboxes were. He asked me out to lunch, and I said, “OK.” And he said, “How about Wednesday?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “Aren’t you going to write it down?” And I thought, “Who is this controlling bastard?” I rolled my eyes. But I wrote it down.
We had lunch, and then we had another date that Friday night. I moved in with him on Monday. Two days earlier, on Saturday, I’d thought to myself, “I’m going to marry this guy.” And then I’d thought, “That’s just exactly the kind of thing that crazy people think.”
Colin never said, “Will you marry me.” We always knew. After a few years, we got married.
Where had you lived before you moved in with him?
Nila Kelso, a farmer’s widow, had a house and she rented out her extra bedrooms to students. I had a weird garret. Colin came over and spent the night once and said, “I’m never going to spend the night here again.” You sat up in bed and bumped your head. I was used to it.
When you lived with him, would you go back to your weird garret and write?
I kept writing in my place and always spent the night at his.
So you basically had an office?
I guess I did. It was a rather odd living situation.
Were other people milling about?
I shared the upstairs with a young woman named Alice. She was an undergraduate who hadn’t declared a major yet and she’d been there for eight years. Alice would stalk on the periphery like a small storm. It was okay. We figured out how to share the space. We had nothing in common. She had come from Iowa, and she thought I was a strange freak from outer space.
Because you were from Los Angeles?
I don’t know. Alice was an odd duck. I remember moving in and strolling past her room. She had maybe three books. They were I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and, you know, Jesus is gonna love you no matter what, and I thought, okay…
You knew all you needed to know.
I, on the other hand, came with a pet rat.
Wow, what color?
White and black. A lab rat. I’d had rats as pets for some time. My first rat, Wilhelmina, really was very smart and kind of a character. I kept her in the bathroom with the door closed and left her cage door opened. I kept my jewelry there, and I had a couple of earrings that she considered hers. If I took them out of her cage, she’d scold and bring them back. She was fun. Although once, I did leave my school uniform skirt hanging on a towel rack where she could get to it, and within eight hours, she had reduced it to a grass skirt.
Tell me about your move to New York in 1987.
My husband had been born here [New York] and had lived on the East Coast all his life. Having discovered New York when I was about fifteen, I was always trying to get back here. So when the time came to leave Iowa, we thought, what the hell, we’ll try to live in New York. So we came out in a wide-eyed dippy way and landed here. I flew to New York, and he set out in a U-Haul.
I stayed with an old friend in Manhattan, and in three days, I had to find an apartment. I went around on this accelerated tour of real estate in the boroughs. Manhattan wasn’t going to work for financial reasons. There were two up-and-coming neighborhoods, Astoria and Park Slope. In Astoria, the only places I saw were upholstered in linoleum. It went from the floor all the way up the wall. I found an apartment in Park Slope that we could actually afford. It seemed livable. There were a couple of restaurants and places to buy food. It’s very different now—somebody actually identified us as the “Park Slope problem.” With a couple of other people, we started the ghetto for writers.
Did you work in publishing?
I worked at Viking Penguin for three years. I began as an editorial assistant for Nan Graham, who is now the editorial director of Scribner, where Colin [her husband] works. Small world, publishing. I loved it. If there’d been thirty-six hours in a day, I probably would have stayed longer, but when I left, my grandmother had just moved in with us, and we’d just had a baby. I had one ancient baby and one new one on my hands. They were both in diapers by then. I just couldn’t do it, so I left the industry. It was the right decision. But it was also a decision that meant I didn’t have a job or an income. I was a full-time writer, which took some getting used to. I had to work.
Had your first book come out at that point?
It had sold.
The book sold after grad school?
My husband was key, in many ways, because when you work in publishing, you can spend an endless amount of time working. You take work home. After I had been doing it for about six months, my husband said, “This is really stupid. You spend all your time working on other people’s writing, but you’re not getting any done yourself. I want you to change that.” So I started getting up at five in the morning. I wrote between five and seven, before I went to work.
Iowa gives out the Michener Fellowship to alumni with a work that the readers believe will be published. They make a bet on you and then they give you a stipend, enough that you can take a few months off from your job and finish it up. As I said, I had this thing that I called my “thing,” and I sent it off, not really expecting much. Then I got it [the fellowship]. That was really validating. So I looked at my “thing” and thought, well, somebody thinks you’re going to be published!
I was very fortunate. I really had such a relatively easy experience because I got the Michener. I didn’t even understand what an outrageous request it was, when I asked Nan [her boss], if I could take some time off to work on my book. She said yes, which was so generous. Afterward, she provided liaison to Binky, Amanda Urban, an agent whom I hadn’t even dreamed of. But a friend of mine had read the manuscript and sent it to a friend of his, an editor, who said, “I think this is a Binky book.” I’m thinking, “Yeah, right.” My husband was working at Harper’s, and Michael Pollan was there at the time. When he and his wife were over for dinner, I mentioned the editor’s comment and sort of shrugged my shoulders, like, “Forget it, I’m not going to send this to Binky.” And Michael Pollan said, “Why not?” And I said, “Because I don’t need extra rejection in my life.” He said, “She’s fast. You’ll have your answer fast.” I thought that was good because publishing often moves at a glacial pace.
So I sent it to her and then she called me up on the phone. I was eight months pregnant. She said, “So! Why don’t you come up to my office and we’ll talk?” I hung up the phone—I was an editorial assistant—and everybody was like, “What’d she say? What’d she say?” Binky is just who a writer wants her to be, a towering figure of authority and terror for every editorial assistant. And I said, “She told me to come to her office.” And everybody said, “That’s great!” I was thinking she was going to dress me down in person for having the audacity to send it to her.
I was in her office on a Thursday and she’s very—she’s wonderful. Very direct and business-like. She said, “So! This is what I think we should do.” She wrote down all these editors’ names, and she said, “We’ll have an auction next week.” On Monday, there was a message on the phone. “It’s Amanda Urban. Give me a call.” I thought she wanted some information for the cover letter, and so I called her, and she said, “So! We have a preemptive offer.” I just stood there with the receiver pressed to my ear. She said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “What do you think I should do?” And she said, “I think you should take it.” Within one week, I had an agent and a publisher, which was certainly not the usual experience. I was really grateful to be spared because I was already wondering how I was going to deal. I’m not built for that kind of stress.
Did you ever get rejected?
By somebody other than my mother? [Laughs.] I didn’t have to deal with much rejection as a writer. I have written a novel and thrown it out, because my editor didn’t like it. Actually, the novel that I threw out was the one I was working on right before I started working on The Kiss. The reason that novel was so bad was because I hated everyone in it. Unconsciously, I felt that those characters were keeping me from writing The Kiss. I went into an editorial meeting for this big plan for revision, and Kate Medina, my editor, looked across her desk at me, and said, “What do you want to do?” I said—unexpectedly—“I don’t want to write this book at all.” She had bought the book, so she just leaned back in the chair, and said, “What do you want to write?” I told her I wanted to write a book about what happened between my father and me, and she said, “Oh…”
When I told her I wanted to write the book about my father and me, we stared at each other for a while. Then she said okay. I didn’t know that I could do it, so I said, “This is what I want to try to do, but I don’t know that I can do it.” I asked her not to tell the rest of the company what I was doing.
The novel that preceded The Kiss had been rejected in that sense—it was bad and we all thought so. It’d been bought, though, so it wasn’t the same sort of thing. I’ve had pieces rejected by The New Yorker. I don’t do a lot of short work, and most of my short work, I sell once it’s done. Given that, the short work can be rejected, but not much.
Must be nice.
My life as a writer has been blessed in many ways. There’s so much heartbreak in this business. My older daughter’s a painter. She’s twenty-two, she’s got a lot of talent, and I imagine she must look at the art world and wonder how she – anyone – can make a living as a painter. A career in the arts is certainly not something you would wish upon your child, because it’s just asking for heartbreak, rejection, frustration, poverty.
This is not a meritocracy. There are a lot of very bad books that do very well. There are a lot of beautiful books that sink like little stones. There are so many opportunities for heartbreak.
Who were your early influences?
Flannery O’Connor, definitely. I’ve always loved Dickens. More and more as I get older… Oh, Faulkner! I’m trying to see my bookshelf and travel through it. J.M. Coetzee. Edith Wharton. Nabokov. Hillary Mantel. Martin Amis. I also like Japanese fiction—Kenzaburo Oe, Shusaku Endo, Ishiguro. Dostoyevsky. Bulgakov. I can point to books I love or writers I loved earlier in my life, but it’s difficult to say who’s a person who’s had impact on your work. Cheever. Updike. Madame Bovary is probably my favorite novel of all time.
That’s a good list.
I was a big fairytale reader, as a kid and still as a grownup. I was always interested in hagiography, stories about saints. I read a lot of theology and psychiatry. I love Jung, because he straddles. I was always somebody who was interested in religion and had a strange religious background. I was thoroughly indoctrinated as a Christian Scientist as a kid, and then my mother converted to Catholicism, so I became Catholic. My father is a protestant minister, or was, and my grandparents were Jews. I always had these different traditions and disciplines, in terms of theology, around me and it probably provoked some questioning. My Sunday school began when I was about three. I took it really seriously. I’ve read the bible a couple of times.
Do you love writing?
I do. Sometimes it’s horrible, but I love it. I love it a lot more than being a writer. Publication is hard for me. I want my work published of course, but I don’t like going out in the world and being that person who is, in some ways, separate from me, because she is someone who lives in the minds of other people. Whereas writing itself offers these transcendent moments… they don’t come along all that often, but when it’s great, it’s transcendently great.
The paradox is that I am most myself and least burdened by self when I’m writing. Hours can vanish. Sometimes hours spent on one sentence, which is not so good, but I do love it. I didn’t begin by loving it. I began in the Flannery O’Connor camp of “I love to have written.” I never thought it was fun. I was always in a crisis of anxiety. There were a couple of people at Iowa who said they loved writing, and I thought, “Wow, really? That’s weird.” I’ve come to love it. But I’ve also become far more addicted to it. It really is this thing that I have to do.
Why do you think you’re addicted to it?
Writing is a way of bringing order to chaos, as illusory as that order might be. It offers an arena in which I get to be the director. Even if it’s nonfiction, I get to choose the order in which the information is revealed and which details I use. As time goes by, you realize there’s not much in life you have control over. It seems to me some wonderful magic trick that I get to do what I love and get paid for it. It’s the way I explain the world to myself. It’s my coping mechanism. It’s the apparatus that allows me to approach the world. Without it, I don’t know what I would do.
What are your writing hours?
For many years, my hours were predicated by my children’s school hours, which meant that I got them out of the house and reported to my post. I’m very much a believer in Flaubert’s advice— to be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. A writer needs the same kind of work ethic as anyone else who wants to get anything done. Just show up for your job every day. I’ve never been one of those people who believed in the romantic notion of scribbling away from twelve midnight until four in the morning after having lived a bohemian life. I’ve always been pretty orderly by nature. So eight until whenever they’d come home.
My older kids are in college now, and it’s still the same. My husband goes to work, my youngest to school, and I to my desk. I prefer the house to be empty or for everyone in it to be asleep when I work. If I’m really working hard, I’ll be at my desk at five, and I’ll work until seven, until I have to start rousing people, then I’ll go back. It ebbs and flows. But I go to my desk whether I’m inspired or not. I just don’t have to get dressed and go to the subway.
How have you managed to balance raising three children and publishing more than a dozen books?
I’m driven. I don’t do a whole lot else besides take care of my family. I have a few friends… who really are family. I’m not someone who’s out at parties much because I’m shy—I don’t really want to be out socializing. Anyway, I’m not much fun to be around if I can’t write. I’m addicted to it. Even if I have only an hour in a day, I’m going to use it.
How do you switch from genre to genre so easily?
One relieves the other. Mary Gordon once said that the difference between fiction and nonfiction was that in fiction you get to change the ending. You get to mete out poetic justice. I’m getting better, but I don’t think that plotting is my strong suit. That’s a problem with fiction because you have to make up the whole thing.
What makes you think that plotting is not your strong suit?
I was somebody who was quite involved with character and details but not always able to lift myself out of the forest to see the trees, to be able to see the movement of the story, which is a problem my husband doesn’t have. His mom is an actress. He grew up cuing her. He had a really clear sense of what a play was. When I would divide pages up into what I thought were chapters, he would look at them and say, “A chapter is like an act in a play. It starts in one place, and by the time you get to the end, something has changed, it’s arrived somewhere else. And then the next chapter starts.” I needed a lot of remedial work.
A good friend of mine is a Tony Award nominator, so she often “needs” theater dates. I see much more theater than I would never be able to afford or would go to on my own. Seeing plays has helped me become a stronger writer. It reinforced the idea that you can’t have unrelieved tragedies. Something has to lighten things up. A good friend of mine read an early draft [of her autobiographical first novel]. Then, when we talked about it, he looked up wearily from the manuscript, and said, “Didn’t you guys ever just go out for ice cream?” meaning didn’t we ever do something normal and lighthearted? The reader can’t just be battered for three hundred pages. That’s not something I automatically understood. When I teach, I call it the Ice Cream Factor.
Fiction does offer freedom, but there’s the working of plotting it. By the time I get to the end of a novel, the idea of having a nonfiction project, like a biography, is really welcome, because the plot’s been done. It turns into a different set of questions. I like that. I like doing both.
Have you faced any other challenges in writing fiction?
I do like writing because it is this whole world that I have the illusion of control over, but one of my challenges, especially in fiction, has been to sit back and relax and let things to unfold without worrying about it. The first time it happened it had seemed really scary—“Wait a minute, you’re not the main character of this book.” But I couldn’t banish them. Now I really love when that happens. The character that just pops out and runs away with the whole show. If you’re willing to sit in the passenger seat, it’s magic. You’re inventing it, and yet it’s pulling you along.
In The Binding Chair, the main character commits suicide toward the end. I remember feeling just grief-stricken. I was thinking, oh my god, I should have seen it coming. I knew she was depressed, I knew she was depressed! She had made that attempt earlier—why didn’t I see it coming?! One would think I’d been planning it, I was after all the one writing the book. But I was blindsided. She drowned herself, and I thought, oh my god, so that’s why she was taking those swimming lessons!
Tell me about writing The Kiss.
Writing The Kiss was not an act of altruism. Not every reader says, “This book saved my life,” but some do, enough that it’s redemptive. It’s a wonderful thing to take some part of your life and turn it into something that actually helps somebody else. But that wasn’t why I wrote it. I was just trying to save myself. I had one way.
When I was involved with my father, I had stepped outside of human society. Sometimes I would look in the mirror, and I would be surprised to see just a girl there. In my mind, I had turned into a monster. But the person I saw wasn’t frightening, she was frightened, and very alone. There was only one way for me to get back over that line, back into human society, and that was to write the book. For many people I will never be back over that line. It’s a taboo broken. I can’t un-break it.
But writing the book freed you.
I had gone through this strange passage in my life that had taken me all the way down. I was always one of those people who was eager to please, and of course it was my father, and I hadn’t seen him in years, and he was a charismatic and manipulative person. And I was incapable of walking away from love or what appeared to be love or what somebody said was love in any form, and that meant that I allowed myself to be dismantled. Finally, I got down to the bottom, where I really was considering killing myself, and then I had to pick up the pieces.
When I put myself back together, there were a few things that I left out, like doing anything so that somebody would love me. I’m not that person anymore. My opinion of myself has been hard won. I know who I am, and I could give a flying fuck if somebody says Kathryn Harrison is a bad person. I just don’t care. I do care what people think about my work.
How did you achieve such a consistent tone?
In the case of that book alone, I had written a lot of it in my head before I ever allowed myself to put it on paper. It was written in a very intensely pressured period of about six or eight months, which is very fast for me. It’s a short book. But I think it has that consistency because I wrote it in a white heat.
Once I said, “This is what I’m going to do,” I was out on the street, thinking, what the fuck did I just say? I must be nuts. I went home, I sat down, I started working, and I got about three hours of sleep per night for months, because if I stopped, I would never start writing this book again. It was thrilling in a way, that adrenaline rush, but I got up at three or four in the morning, I worked until I had to get my kids ready for school and then went back to my desk. I worked until it was time for me to make dinner or to do the laundry. Once they went to bed, I worked again. My husband didn’t see very much of me. Sometimes, I’d just be waiting for him to fall asleep, because he’d say, “You can’t get by on no sleep.” Then I’d pop out of bed and go to my desk.
It is a rigidly controlled book. It came at a time in my life when I’d been in therapy and analysis for years and just beating at the whole thing. I wanted to know what my culpability was. I literally had this fantasy of a pie graph of all the players involved, and this much is your fault, this much is your fault. I wanted that. I wanted to know exactly how bad I should feel. At some point, God bless my analyst, I hit the wall. I realized that all of this cerebral going around and around and around was not only failing to produce the desired effect, but was preventing me from approaching my own history. There was one moment, where I thought, there’s only one thing I can do with this, and that’s to tell the story. I know how it happened.
My first novel had been so autobiographical. I did not understand how I would feel once it was published as “a novel,” meaning I made this up. More and more, I felt uncomfortable with that for a number of reasons. I knew that I had an interesting piece of family history, and I felt that I had betrayed my history by fictionalizing it. I felt that I had unwittingly obeyed this cultural imperative that says, “This doesn’t happen, or if it does happen, it didn’t happen to you. There might be some ignorant subnormal people, but incest is not something that happens to people like you,” the subtext being “and therefore like me.” More and more, I felt like, yeah, it does happen, and I can tell you just exactly how.
That was the guiding idea of the book, and that’s why it’s very nonjudgmental, and that’s why it pissed people off. I refused to say I’m a victim of anything. I told it in the present tense because, for me, that story will never be over. It was a way to get back to the young woman I was. It does have that shell-shocked aspect. Once I allowed that voice to take over, it was easy to keep it consistent, because that’s who that young woman is: I was so overwhelmed by what had happened at the time that I wasn’t feeling very much. I was sleepwalking through my life.
I thought the nonjudgmental aspect was the most important part.
I did, too. Not only did I understand the limitations of judgment, but I also understood judgment as an impediment. I knew that it was an unhappy story and that it had to be as compressed as possible because there was really only so much that anybody was willing to take, including me, and that my task was to make it understandable. The past that’s dropped in is only what I think is necessary to understanding what happened once I met my father. I needed to have certain scenes from my childhood, with my mother and my grandparents, so that you could see that this girl was a human being as opposed to a monster, and that it still happened. I took responsibility for a lot of it, and many people would say far more than I should. I’m glad I wrote the book when I did because I’m not sure that I have the same clarity anymore.
I had arrived at a window of clarity where I could see us as three people, none of whom meant… well, I think that my father did have some malignant qualities and some questionable motives. I really do think that he had the intention of ruining and destroying the family that he believed had destroyed his life or had tried to when he was a young man. But, you know, three people came together, and they had needs, and they betrayed one another.
Was the publication hard on your husband?
The publication was very hard on my husband, because it was public, because he feels that I have no sense of self-protection and that I need a reminder to keep me from shooting my mouth off. I actually think that most people I know do think about what other people think of them, and I used to, too. But I went somewhere else and I came back and I wasn’t the same person. Of course I was the same person, but I had been through this intense and peculiar and hopefully relatively unusual situation that changed me, changed what I thought about myself, what I thought about life. I don’t even know what I knew before all of those lessons. I learned a lot about what people are capable of, how people betray each other.
Did any family members get upset with you for publishing the book?
My mother was dead. My grandparents were dead. I have no siblings or cousins.
What about your father?
I had no interest in exposing my father. The book doesn’t take place anywhere. He doesn’t look like anything. But I realized also that I was telling a story that he certainly wouldn’t have wanted out there. Somebody finally tracked him down, and he didn’t deny it. He said, “She’s a writer. She has a good imagination,” which was not exactly a denial. He did not act in outrage like any normal person would have, had he been wrongly accused. But I have no contact with my father and haven’t since I was twenty-four.
Anybody I lost was not somebody I cared about anyway. Nobody had known it, but the people who were my friends and loved me, just thought, Oh, now we get it. And then they were sad or whatever, but it didn’t really have a huge effect on my personal life. I shared it with my husband’s parents before it was published, because his father was the headmaster of Sidwell Friends, which is where the Obama’s kids go. He had a relatively high-profile public position. I didn’t want them to be blindsided.
But actually, the thing is, I didn’t sense that anybody was going to flip out. I don’t know if I would have been able to write the book if I thought that people were going to have a hissy. My husband tried to tell me. At the time, I was friends with Andrea Dworkin. An unlikely pair we were. We argued a lot, but she was really smart and a major voice of feminism. I handed her the manuscript before it was even in production. She gave it back to me and was complimentary. Then she said, “Prepare yourself to be dragged through the mud.” I thought, poor Andrea, she’s so paranoid. I would hate to live like that, always expecting bad things to happen.
That’s how far I was from perceiving that any of it would turn out the way it did. That was good. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit there chewing my fingernails.
It wasn’t a book that needed publicizing, so I was excused from doing a lot of what I hate to do—go on book tours. I’m grateful to have a publisher. I’m grateful that they want to send me places. I don’t enjoy it. In the case of this book, it would have been especially gruesome.
Do you hate doing readings?
I actually like it at this point, but this has been my job for about twenty-four years now. I was a disaster in the beginning. I would have this stress-induced dizziness. I would stand in front of a podium and feel like the entire thing was listing to the side. I was so preoccupied by not falling off of the floor. That was a distraction. It took a while just to calm down.
I remember my first reading, because a couple of people from Random House were there. When it was over, they said, “Well, Kathryn, we’ll send you to a media coach.” I was so bad. I kept worrying about going too fast, so I kept going slower and slower and slower… I couldn’t pick my head up and look at people because doing the reading at all relied on my pretending that they weren’t there.
Then when The Kiss came out, they came up with a punch list of questions they thought people would ask me, and then they tried it out. The publicist asked me a question, and I cried, each time, every question. They sent me back to a different media coach to train me not to cry.
How did she train you not to cry?
A lot of it was just practicing, but she was somebody who could help me more professionally than anybody at Random House. They didn’t really know what to do with me.
Then I went on Dateline, and while I didn’t understand this at the time, they hammer at you for hours to get just twenty minutes. They want an entire range of emotions. They have an agenda. They hammered at me until I finally did start to cry, mostly out of exhaustion. One person—who was it?—wrote, “She’d obviously been coached to cry.” I was thinking, you just can’t win. I had been coached to keep my cool under pressure.
I grew up a lot during that publication, in understanding what the world was like. I am by nature not a worldly person, and I believed that all journalists were honorable people. I never expected to be quoted out of context. I never expected to be slandered. For people to say things that were not true and were never fact-checked. Those sorts of things were not in the realm of my understanding, so I would gasp and say, “How could somebody say that about me?! It’s not true!” Now I’m smarter. I realize how little control I have over people’s responses to what I do.
Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post critic, was the worst and also the most slanderous. He attacked the writing, and I didn’t think that that would happen. Was it the perfect book? No. But as a piece of work, I thought, I will stand behind this and say that this is mine. I hadn’t been worried about the writing, but of course the writing was attacked. That’s my Achilles heel.
I remember feeling disillusioned and unhappy about this. I was talking to the film criticMolly Haskell who was by chance at some gathering I was part of. Those days, people who ran into me would wince and ask how I was doing—because some of the responses to the book had been so venomous. One person said, “Turn around, I want to see how many holes there are in your back” —and I said to Molly, “I thought the quality of the work would protect me.” And Molly said something to the effect of, “Are you kidding? That’s why everybody is angry. If it had been a bad book, then nobody would have had to take it seriously.” I left that party a little happier than I had been. I’m sure she has no idea what a favor she did for me.
I care what I think about my work. I care what I think about myself. There are plenty of people out there who say I ought to be burned at the stake, and I just don’t care. It’s been a gift.
Do you have a strategy for dealing with publication?
Let it go.
How do you just let it go?
When my first novel came out, I remember somebody telling me that when Gore Vidal’s books came out, he would leave the country and that he never read his reviews. As a first novelist, I said, “Of course I’ll read all my reviews.” And I still read my reviews, but if it looks like a hatchet job, Binky will say, “Don’t even look at this.” When I got my first negative review ever, I was tearful, like I’d gotten a bad grade. My husband looked across the table—we were at dinner—and he said, “Do you want to play with the big boys?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, take your hits.”
I do want to play with the big boys. I’ll take my hits.
THE LEDGE’s Stacy Knecht met with Kathryn Harrison in Amsterdam, on the Dutch publication of Envy, in 2009
Will Moreland, the ‘leading man’ in your novel Envy, is a psychologist, and his father is a veterinarian. Yet you were originally going to make Will a vet, an animal doctor. Why?
Yes, that’s right. It was my own fantasy when I was fifteen that I was going to be a veterinarian, because I love animals and I find medicine interesting. One of the things that’s fun about writing is that you can pursue fantasies you didn’t get to in real life. I was doing the research – I had a really hard time getting vets to agree to talk to me about their work. I called my own vet and said, ‘I was wondering if I could hang out with you for a little while and see how you work, and he said, ‘Uh… Why?’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m writing a book…’
Most of my experience is that people have really liked that. But across the board: four vets, very unwilling. My own vet disappeared completely. Didn’t return my calls. So I gave up on him, and then finally a friend of mine offered up her own vet, sort of strong-armed him into it somehow, and we hung out together. But he had nothing to say. Nothing at all! And I realized, hey, vets don’t talk much, and they have patients who don’t talk! Vets don’t even like talking! So I thought, there’s not much I can do with a character who doesn’t like to talk. So I sort of overcorrected and made Will a shrink, he’s hyper-articulate, can’t stop the flow of words.
Envy opens with a quote by a poet I like very much, Lars Gustafsson: ‘In those years I had a great need to be seen. And when one succeeds in seducing someone, one also succeeds in being seen.’
Are you familiar with the novel that comes from? The Death of a Beekeeper? It’s a wonderful book. It’s – literally – about the death of a beekeeper. It’s a man who… who has cancer, although he doesn’t acknowledge this until maybe two-thirds of the way into the book. He’s ill, and you know that he’s ill, and he’s often in pain, and the book is really about his musing about his past, and about his relationship with his ex-wife. They have no children, and he’s totally estranged from her. I suppose he could call her and let her know that he’s ill, but he doesn’t. There’s are very interesting passages about his wife and the kind of relationship they had. The fact that he and his wife had an unspoken agreement that they wouldn’t ever look each other in the eye.
Ever. They didn’t ever look at each other. I myself, around the same time that I was reading the book, had done an exercise with my own husband in which you have to look into each others’ eyes, and realized how seldom people really do make, and keep, eye contact, and that there are many people who simply won’t let you do it at all. You can try to pin them down and they just squirt out from under you. So I was thinking a lot about that, and what it means to look at somebody and to be seen, and to know yourself as ‘seen’, and how there are times in your life in which you want to be seen, and want your presence acknowledged by that interaction. And there are other times in your life when you absolutely don’t want to have your eyes met by another person’s eyes.
I think human beings are poised between two terrors. One is to be known, and the other is to not be known. And each of them presents real fear, there is a sense of horrible loneliness, of being completely bereft if you are never really known – not the face that you present, but who you are. On the other hand, there are times in which the idea of being known, at least by certain people, is equally frightening. The vulnerability it implies is also scary. The species is caught between a rock and a hard place. I’m very much aware of this in myself
I like the anonymity, I like the fluidity of being able to pass through various circumstances. On the other hand, the counterbalance is that I have a sort of peculiar career, in which I can be totally naked in front of strangers… A book itself, when you think about it, is a strange thing. It’s a silent interaction – I mean, there’s a lot of words in it but they’re not spoken aloud – a silent interaction between me and somebody I don’t know, and on the page I can say anything, it gives me the opportunity to be completely stripped bare. In fiction and in non-fiction, I’m somebody who really wants to vivisect myself, to really just cut myself open.
There is something in me that I suppose is exhibitionistic, but there’s also that insistence on being known, and being understood for who I am, and that’s sometimes more important than people’s approval, or affection. There’s always been – I think largely because of the relationship that I had with my mother, I’ve always had the sense of not being able to… of always having to push a relationship, so that I am seen completely and that there’s always that sense of, well, now do you love me? Now do you see who I am? Because my relationship with my mother was always so much the opposite. I was always trying to figure out what she wanted, and how to be attractive or lovable, I was constantly shape-shifting…
It was exhausting. On some level it sort of broke me. By the time I was through with my mother, it was like: Okay, I give up! I performed every act of self-alchemy I could, and I still didn’t secure her love, and now… I give up.
Your protagonist, Will, describes himself at one point as ‘God-bereft’.
As opposed to ‘godless’.
Yes. And I wondered if the idea of being seen is perhaps more urgent for those who feel ‘God-bereft’, or ‘godless’.
Probably. We live in sort of a weird time, especially if you examine the whole issue of ‘being seen’, because there are so many ways to be seen nowadays, we have so many means of recording things. When I was working on my second novel, Exposure, I had been to somebody else’s wedding, and I suddenly realized, with a sickening impact, that I was involved in what was actually some sort of production, that the transaction between these two people, in front of a priest, would’ve had far less meaning for the participants if they hadn’t had it recorded, caught on tape, so that they could replay it to themselves and see it. Since then, I’ve actually seen people redo parts of things for the tape of the wedding. Like, let’s go back and do the cake-cutting – which is grotesque, in a way, but also sort of sad, because you realize that people are so dependent on these images they can create that they’ve taken precedence over the actual experience.
They’re polishing, making it better.
Yes, they’re making it perfect. They’re actually compressing, or making ‘instant’, the process of memory. Over the years, you or I might polish an event, so that it looks better than the reality. But this is actually being done in the moment – ‘pre-done’, for the process of happy memories. So I wrote about that a lot – that was one of the major aspects of my second novel.
I’ve always been fascinated by photography, by memory’s appropriation of the recorded image. We used to be creatures who believed that it was dangerous to have your photograph taken, because it would steal away part of your soul – now I think it’s actually the opposite, that we rely on photographs, or being on television, or being in front of an audience and filmed, as a way to actually get a soul. That you’re real-er, having been recorded. That maybe your wedding never took place, if you didn’t have the document that you could see.
Grief is the catalyst for Will Moreland’s unraveling, after he loses his son, Luke, in a drowning accident. But envy seems to further propel his crisis. It bonds him with his twin brother, Mitch, a world-champion long-distance swimmer. He’s also jealous of an old lover he runs into at a college reunion, who has a daughter that may or may not be his. And he envies his wife, Carole, her ability to grieve privately and calmly.
And he also envies his father, who seems to handle life with much more grace than Will. I titled the book after I’d finished it. I didn’t set out to write a book about envy, so Envy was more an instinctive than a conscious choice. I’m not sure how strictly realistic my novels are. Mitch, whom we never see, is less a real person than a doppelgänger for Will. Will is cerebral; Mitch is all body. Mitch’s face is disfigured; Will’s isn’t. Mitch never appears, but he’s talked about a lot and he’s a very powerful presence.
And submerged in water.
Yes, swimming in the unconscious, if you will. Of course the book has a lot to do with psychoanalysis, and is about betrayal as much as envy. Betrayal would have been a good title, but there’s the Harold Pinter play, Betrayal, which is such a good one, and one that still exists in people’s minds, so I didn’t want to get it confused with that. And in terms of a title, Envy is… You know, titling something is an entirely separate art.
In this particular book, betrayal and envy seem very much related. Let’s talk about Jennifer.
Oh, yes. Jennifer’s a real piece of work. My ‘bad girl.’
You described her as being the only character in the book whose main goal was to ‘wreak havoc in the lives of others’.
Yes. As readers, as consumers of entertainment, we’re used to men who are destructive, whereas it seems to un-sex women, so it was fun writing Jennifer, because she’s clearly so sexual, and so destructive. You don’t often get to read about women like that, they’re highly unusual, and in terms of literature, or narrative, and how we expect things to be resolved, we expect that person, the bad girl, to be punished. Which is why Jennifer was fun. She came in like a wrecking ball and ruined Will’s life and then just passed through the book and went on – to ruin someone else’s life, presumably! Without being punished. I like that.
You’ve spoken described how a character can suddenly arrive and take care of business, for you as a writer. Do you remember what was going on before Jennifer appeared on the scene?
No, but I do remember the first time that this happened to me. I was writing Poison, a novel that was set in Spain in the 17th century. That was a nervous-making process for me, because I never anticipated working on a story that was set in a different time and a different culture. What happened was, I was on my way to visit my grandmother, who, in the last couple months of her life, was in a nursing home nearby where we lived. I stopped in at a junk store – because I find them irresistible – and I was just going through these dusty volumes, and I picked up a book called Carlos, the Bewitched, which was about the last Spanish Hapsburg Carlos II, who was completely crazy. It’s a period of history that I find fascinating, the peak of Catholic hysteria and the fear of witchcraft. I read the book, and felt sort of outraged, because here was the queen of Spain, who had been a princess at the court of the Sun King, and she’s married off in a political alliance to this very unappealing, unattractive, horrible, insane man. It took ten years for her to get pregnant and bear a child, because Carlos was impotent. And then they killed her! She had a miserable life in Spain. I mean, on the face of it, to be a princess in Europe seems like it must’ve been a pretty good deal, but in fact, she was just traded off as chattel. Everybody in Spain hated her, and was suspicious of her. And then she was murdered. And nothing was preserved of her, not one recorded statement, so she existed, to me, like a silhouette. I ended up obsessing about this woman. I had actually started another book, but I’d be in the library and I would end up going into the history stacks and always trying to find a reference to her, and there would be maybe a sentence here and there… she would always be maddeningly elusive.
What was her name?
Marie Louise de Bourbon. She was the niece of Louis XIV. I kept looking her up and I became increasingly fixated on this woman, which is sort of odd – and really inconvenient. So then I thought, oh, well, what the hell, and just started writing about her, because I seemed to be thinking about her all the time anyway, and I would have this sense of panic when I was conscious of what I was doing – how can I possibly be setting a book so many years ago, I didn’t even speak Spanish, so in a lot of cases I couldn’t go to the original documents. And then, I was doing research, and I discovered that there was a silk industry in Spain, in the 17th century, which struck me as odd, because I’d always completely associated the silk industry with China. And it failed. They tried it domestically, and they also tried it in the colonies. It was possible to grow silk, but it wasn’t successful. Not successful enough to pursue.
So out of the silk research – which was really a tangent, but one I found interesting enough to pursue – this character, Francisca, who was the daughter of a silk grower, just sprang to life and started running the whole show! It was the first time this had happened to me as a writer, and I felt sort of panicked… But then, after it happened again in The Binding Chair with the character who became the main character, the Chinese woman – also somebody who sprang out of research – and then again in The Seal Wife, and when Jennifer showed up, I felt almost relieved. It was like: Oh, yes! This really strong-willed woman who will push the story along. And obviously it’s something that comes out of my own unconscious, these women – and it’s always been a woman so far –there’s another one in the book I’m writing now – these voices arrive and have a life that seems separate from mine and my own intentions for the story I’m telling.
That reminds me of the way Will describes the very vivid dream he’s had about his dead son, Luke. He knows perfectly well, both as a psychologist and as a father, that the powerful images in the dream are really just part of him, the dreamer. Here’s the passage: ‘”All you,” he would have said, were he speaking with a patient about that patient’s dream: fragments of you, aspects of you, possible yous, impossible yous, incarnations of you, the you you were, the you you may become, your wishes, your fears…’ But they’re somehow so real that they take on their own life.
Exactly. I love it when that happens. I feel it gives a narrative a sort of integrity, a life and a purpose and a vision of its own. It seems whole. Like in Frankenstein – the lightning bolt that pulls everything together and brings it to life. And also out of my control, in the same way that the monster is now out of Dr. Frankenstein’s control. What’s going to happen next?
And this issue of inspiration – does it come from without or from within – is one that I’ve thought has a religious aspect. What is your sense of God? Is it something that is completely within you, something that comes out of your unconscious, or is there, in fact, a force outside of you? I’ve seen an analyst for many years, an older woman, and there was a period of time in our dialogue in which we had a lot of conversations that were totally indeterminate, about ‘What is God?’
She’s one of the few analysts who actually does believe in God, which is the only reason that I ever stayed with her, because I don’t think I could see somebody who was an atheist. I could see an agnostic because I’m, constantly worried about this question. There are times in my life when I feel quite atheistic, or when I become, firmly, a secular humanist. And then there are other times in which faith is sort of restored to me, or imposed upon me again. I have a lot of questions about both those periods, and I associate a particular kind of comfort with each of them, and discomfort, and I think that in the end, I just end up in a position of confusion. I’m in an endless, slow motion spiritual crisis that’s never resolved. Which is fine! Because it’s interesting. But I’m like Will, in that sense, because I’m constantly sifting through experience, puzzling through.. That passage about Will, about his mental solitaire and sifting through experience to try and discover a universal plan in which God ‘resides’ – that’s totally me. That’s completely my experience of being a conscious being – which is mostly uncomfortable.
In nearly every one of your novels, the protagonist is either unable to have a child or loses one. Envy is the first novel to feature a protagonist with a surviving child. Will and Carole still have their daughter, Samantha.
Apparently I’ve reached a point of optimism.
You have three great, healthy kids that you’ve written about in your essay collection, Seeking Rapture, so devoted readers recognize that this fear isn’t drawn from your personal experience. What is it about this theme that has you writing about it over and over?
Nothing in my personal reproductive life has been in any way disappointing or traumatic. But I’m scared of happiness, and health, and stability. I’m always aware of how much I can lose. And once you have a child, you can’t imagine existing on the other side of losing that child. Is it possible to survive such an event? I drop one of my kids off at school and think, Today’s the field trip to Staten Island. Hmm. Bus. Bridge. And my mind starts spinning: What’s going to happen? In all likelihood, nothing. But every day is a leap of faith. Here are these creatures that were once inside your body, then held in your arms, and then you’re expected to entrust them to other, seemingly responsible grown-ups. They might do their best, but there’s fate. The world acts upon them.
After Luke’s death, Will’s father, Henry, takes up photography. Is this his way of grappling with loss, making things constant and immortal by seizing them on film?
Aren’t most human endeavors a response to the consciousness of mortality? With photography, on some level you can seize and fix a moment and have it forever. There are other ways to record a moment—you can write about it, or paint it—but a camera seems to promise actually keeping the moment itself. Ultimately photography is no more or less adulterated than other art forms, but it gives the illusion of being more real.
In this novel, you’ve chosen to tackle two potentially treacherous areas: the death of a child, and therapy. These themes can so easily become hackneyed. And yet you take the plunge…
I think people write about what they’re afraid of, and once you have children, it’s impossible not to, at moments, be terrified of losing one. And to be mystified by how people navigate a loss so huge, and so transforming. When you think about who you might be on the other side of that kind of loss… I think you don’t even know. You can’t picture that self. You can think of who you might be after your dog died, or after you lost your house, or your job, but in terms of losing a child, it’s so huge that it seems impossible to sustain, and yet we do know that there are people who have lost their children and do survive – we assume their lives are blighted forever, but they’re still there. And I guess I was always interested in the fact that couples who lose children usually also lose the marriage that produced the child.
That’s what people say. Is it true?
Well, anecdotally that’s been true, in my experience. I mean, the only people I know who have lost children have also gotten divorced afterward. And it makes perfect sense. If you’re always forced to share that one, huge, agonizing experience with that person, then I think there might be many reasons why you might not want to spend the rest of your life with that person, because it’s just…. it’s too much pain.
So I was interested in that, as a writer, in thinking about what happens to a marriage after a child dies. And I originally started the book from the point of view of the mother. The first part of this book was about fifty pages, told from the point of view of the mother, after the death of a child. I had the drowning section, but it wasn’t told from the father’s point of view, and several other sections… and I just sort of stalled out, or backed off, I just couldn’t go any further.
Then, when I went back to the pages I had I thought, well, you know, there’s a lot of stuff in here that I like, so I don’t want to just throw this out… but what’s the problem here? And then I thought I might try telling it from the father’s point of view. ? Because in fact, I found it more possible to look at my husband and try to think of what grief would do to him and what it would look like to me from the outside.
A lot of what I used in Will’s character is borrowed from my husband. For example, the part of the drowning chapter in which it’s said that Will is always a very careful person, everybody always wore their seatbelt – that’s very much Colin. And the boating accident itself is one that we had, Colin and I, which is so unlike us. We were vacationing with Colin’s parents, and we had the use of this little Sunfish. And there was that little chart on the wall, which we didn’t even bother to look at, we just went off with the boat, I didn’t know how to sail, and Colin did, it was like, oh this is really fun… and then we were about to come back and we hit a rock, we actually damaged the sailboat, and I got hit in the head with the boom and went under – not long enough that I had to be rescued or anything, but there was a period of time in which I was under the water and I thought, oh, this is how people die so easily in boating accidents, and then it was like: SWIM!!! And I popped up in the water and Colin was in a total panic, because I was underneath and he hadn’t found me, he’d been going all around the boat, and finally we embraced in the water and said, what’ve we done? It was so stupid. And so not like my husband. How could that happen? We came home rather shamefaced, and turned the boat over twice on the way back, we were so shaken. It was one of those things that was scary enough that I thought about it for years afterwards, about how family life can be shattered in an instant by something so totally dumb.
So you can see all the pieces of the book beginning to come together. But I couldn’t write it from the point of view of the mother, because I think I was just too threatened by it. I literally couldn’t imagine it. I don’t know who that person is – me, on the other side of that kind of loss. I just hadn’t ‘met’ her. But I could sort of make a guess as to who Colin might be. Because as his father was dying, I had this conversation with Colin in which I said to him, I am so sorry, there’s nothing I can do here, I can’t change any of what I want so badly to change, but if there’s something I can be doing for you now while your Dad is dying, tell me, don’t just assume that I know, tell me what to do. And he said – completely true to my husband – he said, have sex with me every night. And I looked at him and I said, really? and he said, yes, have sex with me every night, that will help. And I thought, of course, that is the only way, it’s so completely a no-brainer. it makes sense… you have to conjure life, it’s the only response that you have to death. And so it seemed to me that in the wake of losing a child, a father might fixate on sex, and that would be a male response to grief. But the female response would be perhaps more closed off, and self-protective, and that if you took these two people together – the wife, who’s dutifully saying, okay, take my body, and then not being there, not being emotionally present, how that would frustrate the husband and make him feel even more lonely, if physically satisfied.
So how do you keep a topic like the death of a child from becoming a cliché?
I don’t know… I guess I don’t think about that sort of thing while I’m writing it. That’s the sort of thing that publishers and agents think about: Oh God! The death of a child! Why do you have to do that, Kathryn?
Was that their response?
On some level, yes. It was like, alright, okay, you’re not making things easier for us here… But then, I don’t usually make things easier for people. Nor do I think it’s my role.
I don’t always necessarily write the kinds of books that I’d want to read, because I do sometimes read books for purely escapist reasons. I don’t want to always be provoked by what I read. But in large measure I do rely on books to enlarge or heighten consciousness and my awareness of life, and I think that when I write, I’m usually exploring things that bother me, or trouble me. I guess I just don’t see myself as somebody who’s… I’m not spreading oil on the water, I’m doing the opposite. I think that’s just my nature. In the story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, I’m the little kid who says, ‘But he’s naked!’ That’s me. That’s my role. I never sat down and said, how do I keep this from being a cliché, because I wasn’t even thinking about that. By the time it’s finished, and I’m done, I might look at it analytically and think, have I managed to avoid cliché?, but I don’t worry about it from the outset. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it at all.
I’ve brought something along with me today, a quote from a review of Envy. I don’t think it was meant to be funny, but I had to laugh when I read it: ‘Readers who admired Harrison’s controversial memoir, The Kiss, will find themselves in familiar territory here… Harrison’s dark night has given her superhuman powers of observation and significant poetry and her prose. But one can’t help wishing Harrison would turn her laser-like focus more often to gentler, happier things. When we ask why Harrison would choose to paint these bleak landscapes, the answer is because she must’.
Are you asking me to comment on that? While you were reading that I had this ridiculous image of myself in mountaineering gear, on some sort of rock face, with pitons, chipping my way up to plant my flag – because she must! Ridiculously heroic.
I’m not ever going to be writing the polite, domestic little novel. Part of that is an accident of fate – I landed in a family which would not really allow me the luxury of contemplating polite, domestic events. Also, I think, just because of my own nature. I feel strongly that we’re here for a limited amount of time and we have the limited capacity to read and think and speak, and so I’m not going to waste that on small, gentler happier themes. Which is not to say that I don’t rely on having a great number of gentle, polite, domestic, happy events – most of the fabric of my life is quite normal and undramatic. In fact, I think that if you’re a writer you really depend on having a rather stable and undramatic life, because you have to get work done. It gives you the freedom to act out on the page.
A friend of mine once said to me – because I did grow up in a peculiar family, there was a lot of conflict and fighting, an exhausting amount, throughout my childhood – I was talking to a friend who was getting a divorce, and we were sitting in my living room and there was kids’ stuff all over the floor, and the husband, and the whole thing, a whole arena in which she was not happy or finding herself or anything, and she said, completely struck by an epiphany, she looked at me and threw up her arms and said, ‘I get it! I know why all this works for you!’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because for you, it’s exotic!’ And I said, ‘You might have a point!’ Because there is that aspect to my family life now which is largely undramatic and pretty happy and seems like some sort of weird tightrope act that I’ve somehow managed, in spite of myself, to do. But I don’t do it on the page. I’m not going to train my ‘gimlet eye’ or my ‘laser-gaze’ on whatever doesn’t interest me. Because I can’t. Because I must! Literature depends on a chorus of all sorts of voices. There are quiet, calm voices that I like to read, and there are others that are louder, more shrill, but they all come together, and I think that – to stretch this metaphor almost as far as it can go – you can only speak in the voice you’re given.
Can you talk about your experience of writing in different genres?
Over the past six or eight years I’ve gone from fiction to nonfiction to fiction to nonfiction. For me, the demands of one form relieve those of the other. Last year I finished a nonfiction project about a kid who murdered his family in Oregon, a book that posed a lot of formal problems. There was a huge amount of material to sift through and find what among thousands of details was significant. The challenges of nonfiction have less to do with invention than with making choices. What you choose to reveal about the subject you’ve chosen. It’s a more cerebral process than writing fiction. While fiction is a freer form, you have the problem of coming up with a plot. Fiction relies more heavily on the unconscious—your dreams, your instinctive, intuitive self. I couldn’t do one or the other; I love them both.
Yet you’ve described the process of writing memoir as uncomfortable. Why?
If I’m comfortable I’m not doing a very good job as a writer. In terms of memoir, my aim is vivisection. I want to lay myself open and see what’s there, and that’s an inherently painful process. It implies a willingness to see myself clearly, a self who may not be the me I’d prefer to discover. We all have illusions about who we are, and if we strip away our fantasies about ourselves, it’s a very naked process, and not comfortable. Like taking your clothes off and standing in harsh lighting in front of a really accurate mirror. You’re not going to see what you want to see. Memoir is to report on this, to maintain a clinical distance from yourself. We’re taught to be modest, so underselling yourself is also a problem.
What of memory’s role, as opposed to that of research?
Any time you’re dealing with memory you have to acknowledge that it’s very slippery, and mutable. A common misperception is that memories are received, that they come already formed, like little movies downloaded into your head. But memory is itself a creative process. I don’t know if you have a sibling, but if you do, the way each of you remembers a particular Christmas or whatever holiday is subjective and different from another’s. Because each of you took particular details from the totality of what occurred and assembled those into a narrative. There is the chaos of experience—a glut of material—and each of us selects only a fraction of experience and then orders those pieces in a particular and idiosyncratic manner. So, a tremendous amount is lost, more than is saved, really.
Your latest nonfiction book, While We Slept is about a teenager in Oregon who killed his family. What drew you to this story in particular?
Thirteen years ago I was chatting with my agent, who told me she’d met with an interesting woman who, when she was sixteen, lost her family when her eighteen-year-old brother killed their parents and sister. The story stayed with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have a weakness for true crime, and I especially like reading about murder, because I don’t understand it. Emotionally, I mean. It’s sickening and fascinating at the same time. And it being a story of murder, I felt a kinship with the idea of who Jody, the sister, was, someone whose life had been severed into two pieces by her brother’s act. She had two lives: one before the murder, and then another life after the murder.
Did Jody like the end result?
Ultimately, yes. But it was a grueling process for both of us. For me because I don’t have that journalist’s nose for blood; I don’t like going after people, at least people other than myself. Having to interview a man who killed his family and the sister he didn’t kill, over and over again, leaning on them to get what I wanted—that was painful for me. It felt inherently exploitative, and I wanted very much to do justice to the story, and to those who were drastically wounded by it.
You often write about sexuality and abuse.
I don’t think writers are particularly calculating in terms of what they write about. I think we write the books we can’t avoid writing. They might not even be the books that we want to write. The subjects I choose are those I can’t avoid—they choose me. Writers get muddled when they respond to overly intrusive editorial advice, when they write what they are made to understand they should be writing. That’s always a mistake. That said, in terms of fiction, I like applying pressure to characters, to see what they do. Sex, abuse—that’s pressure.
What’s your writing ritual?
I try to write every day. It’s an apparatus, a way to deal with reality, on which I depend. I wake up early because I like to work when the house it quiet, and I write when my family is out of the house, at work and at school. I think I’m addicted to writing; it’s the only sure defense I have against life, and I never turn to anything more consistently.