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Birnbaum V.

Kathryn Harrison

Our man in Boston and the author discuss her latest novel, Enchantments, the writing process, how book reviewing works at the New York Times, what it’s like to be nastied, and the life and times of two writers raising children without a television in the house.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Though she is the author of seven well regarded novels, Kathryn Harrison may be best known for her controversial memoir, The Kiss. She has also been a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, Harper’s, Vogue, and other national magazines.

Harrison’s latest opus, Enchantments, recounts the last days of the Romanovs, Russia’s doomed monarchs, as seen through the eyes of “mad monk” Rasputin’s 18-year-old daughter, Masha.

As novelist Scott Spencer writes, “Harrison takes us on a magic carpet ride to Russia one hundred years ago, and with perfect grace, impeccable style, and great narrative flair, she gives us a whole wounded world that is for the course of this utterly compelling novel as real as our own lives. Actually: more.”

In the conversation that follows Kathryn and I chat about the Ides of March, her addiction to writing, The Kiss, her fascination with Imperial Russia, her next novel, living in Brooklyn, reviewing books, sports metaphors, blurbing, social media, living with another writer (Colin Harrison), The Seal Wife, and George Saunders.

If you have a liking for writing, literary fiction, or smart snappy conversation, this chat should satisfy those interests.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Besides Julius Caesar, who cares about the Ides of March? What’s the big thing?

Kathryn Harrison: I’m not sure. The Ides of March are mentioned in Shakespeare.

RB: Are you on a whirlwind tour?

KH: I seem to be going in and out of rather than doing a month or two. Random House has been great about that—I have three kids, so leaving for weeks at a time is never an option.

RB: They seem to still have the money—

KH: To send people [out on tour]? I don’t really understand it.

RB: You’re a veteran published writer. How much has the world of publishing changed since your first book?

KH: Oh of course, the internet has revolutionized the whole thing, the way books are sold.

RB: Setting aside the business, what’s the writing process for you? You sit down, write something, your agent—

KH: I’ve had the same agent for 20 years.

RB: How rare is that?

KH: It is pretty rare. I am usually not—writers often blame publishers for things that are outside of everyone’s control. And they feel things would be better with some other publisher.

RB: It’s always better to blame someone who is not present.

KH: (laughs) I never thought of that.

RB: You have never been disenchanted with the whole project of writing?

KH: No, I am addicted to it.

RB: You received some criticism for your memoir [The Kiss], yes?

KH: Yeah.

RB: Was that bearable, or beyond that?

KH: (pause) Some of it was difficult—it bothered my husband [Colin Harrison], who is a much more private person than I am. I hadn’t anticipated at all there being a controversy.

RB: Why should you? Is that part of your job, to know how people will react?

KH: No, no. It was a little bit overwhelming, but ultimately there were some good aspects to it, in that by then people were already talking how nobody read anymore. Books were marginalized. Suddenly, I had written a book that a lot of people were talking about—op-ed columns and so on. That was not a bad thing.

RB: Make it to Oprah?

KH: I did, actually.

RB: (laughs)

KH: But not until a couple of years ago when Mackenzie Phillips announced that she was the face of consensual incest. First of all everybody said there is no such thing, and if there were going to be someone to be the face of it, it would be Kathryn Harrison. I was called and asked if I would go on the show after Oprah discovered what an explosive topic it was.

RB: And Oprah herself represented a big shift in the way books were marketed.

KH: Huge.

RB: Would you characterize yourself as being in mid-career?

KH: (laughs) I hope I have at least 20 years left. I guess so.

RB: Prior to the new book, Enchantments, had you ever written about Russia?

KH: No.

RB: You have talked about your longtime interest in Russia as—

KH: Fascinated.

RB: So what took you so long to write about it?

KH: I read Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie when I was 11 or 12.

The Sun King had a fistula and had it operated on, at a time when operations were more traumatic and painful then they are today. And because it was the Sun King, it suddenly became very fashionable to have your asshole operated on. Testimony to how ridiculous the species is.

RB: The kiddie version? (laughs)

KH: It’s not that hard. I was excited because I knew it was a grownup book. I didn’t have any trouble understanding it. And I loved it because of the relationship between Rasputin and the young tsarovich, mostly. And the burden of a secret like that, and the effects on the political situation. There were aspects of it that went beyond that. The hemophilia was huge in terms of my response to the story.

RB: Right. It’s an uncommon disease found in royal families who tend toward a degree of inbreeding. Is it found in Appalachia?

KH: There must have been some sort of mutation in Victoria, because it originated with her, and then showed up in so many of the royal families of Europe. I was in a car accident when I was five or six and my grandfather was driving the car. I hit my face and cut my mouth and chin and my mother magically appeared. She was driving a car and happened to see a car on the side of the road that looked like her father’s. So I had this sense of—of course reinforced by Catholicism and vampire stories and the fascination with tuberculosis, which is a literary sort of fascination. Just the power of blood to have—

RB: Where did you grow up?

KH: Los Angeles. The accident was on Sunset Boulevard.

RB: The last time I saw you, you had published a short biography of Saint Thérèse. Are you a religious person?

KH: Uh (pause)—I am fascinated by religion. I don’t know what my own beliefs are, exactly.

RB: Really? I guess it hasn’t come up—it’s not an issue. (both laugh)

KH: My grandparents were Jews. I was raised first as a Christian Scientist then as a Catholic. My father was a Protestant.

RB: In the broad strokes—do you believe in a god?

KH: I don’t know.

RB: Do believe there are rules or moral imperatives that follow from the existence of such a being? Or is our conduct self-determined?

KH: Well, I—I think the rules are man-made, and I’d say, I am in a moment in my life where I’d say that the gods are man-made too. I’m actually thinking about it a lot because I am writing a biography of Joan of Arc.

RB: Aha, looks like a trend.

KH: Yes, I am really interested in religion.

RB: How about writing about Mary Baker Eddy?

KH: Yeah—I had a fantasy about writing about her. But the church [Christian Science] controls all her papers. Mary Baker Eddy has had a profound effect on my life—mostly destructive.

RB: Because you couldn’t take medications when you were a child?

KH: When I was a child, it was the guilt associated with illness. When you are sick, you are “in error.”

RB: (laughs)

KH: No, literally that’s what they call it.

RB: I can laugh.

KH: Yes. It means you somehow have fallen—you no longer are aligned, which meant that I never admitted it when I was sick. I always understood that meant that I was—bad.

RB: See, Jews wouldn’t guilt you like that.

KH: No. It’s still something that very much affects me.

RB: Do your kids have any religious predilections?

KH: My husband is a Quaker, and if we were going to raise them as anything we would have raised them as Quakers. We went to a Quaker meeting here and there, but they [her children] are heathens. They want to be. (both laugh) They chose to be heathens and I went along with it.

RB: They are not heretics?

KH: No, that would require that they had some belief system.

RB: My son has a minor bleeding disorder, and reading about Alexander made that more vivid.

KH: My grandmother was something of a hypochondriac—she was terrified of nosebleeds. And I used to have real gushers.

RB: You waited a long time—did you wait, or just find other things that were more pressing to write about?

KH: What happened was that I continued in my fascination with the Romanovs and Rasputin—I did seek out books about them and Rasputin and at some point—five, 10 years ago, five years ago maybe—I came across a book that had a epilogue to Rasputin’s life, and in it was the fact that his daughter had become a lion tamer. Like most people, I had never thought of Rasputin as a family man, and to discover that he was a family man, that he had kids, a wife back in Siberia—that transformed my understanding of him. Once I had this young woman, I had another pair of eyes with which to look at the whole situation. I thought of writing a book centered on Rasputin, but he is such a sensational figure.

RB: Is there a reliable biography of him?

KH: Not really, no.

RB: He had no archive of papers.

KH: He was illiterate, basically.

RB: You have the tsarina destroying the family’s private papers—is that based on the history? You have them being burned.

KH: Um, no, I made that up. I think. (laughs) Sometimes I don’t know what I made up after while.

RB: Speaking about making up, there were a number of unusual things that seemed plausible. You cited a rectal operation that someone had gotten and it became a fad.

KH: In Europe, yeah, it was the king. The Sun King had a fistula and had it operated on, at a time when operations were—

RB: Dicey.

KH: Yeah. And certainly more traumatic and painful then they are today. And because it was the Sun King, it suddenly became very fashionable to have your asshole operated on. Testimony to how ridiculous the species is.

RB: Why would this become a trend?

KH: Because you can say that (laughs) you did what the King had done.

RB: Maybe there’s a novel there? You mentioned the Joan of Arc bio—is that your focus these days, nonfiction?

You see these incredibly skinny guys—why have their pants not fallen down? I don’t understand. I don’t really want to see anyone’s underwear.

KH: I tend to switch back and forth. Not by design, but I think one relieves the other because they make different demands on me as a writer. There is a wonderful freedom in a novel—you can just remove characters and have them back in and change things. But there is a responsibility to plot.

RB: Have you read John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact? He was writing something for Harper’s and then it went to McSweeney’s, where over a period of a few years D’Agata went back and forth with the fact-checker, an annotated exchange that makes up the content of the book.

KH: Sounds interesting.

RB: It was a cover review of the New York Times Book Review. It’s an interesting and seemingly irresolvable problem. Did you read Game Change or any of those books?

KH: No.

RB: Books that rely on apparently unverifiable facts and hearsay.

KH: Well, the line is blurring in general. Reality TV is certainly not real—it’s manipulated and edited.

RB: Staged.

KH: People, like my children, get their political information from talk shows—The Daily Show. I don’t know, there is a loosening, sort of.

RB: Yeah, there has been a not surprising shift since, I think it was with Nixon, where politics is now marketing and branding. Candidates become products. Previously they were more real.

KH: They weren’t the product of polls.

RB: Nixon’s two main guys, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, were from the ad world. How do we dial this bad turn back?

KH: I don’t know that there is any turning back.

RB: Do you worry about what your kids are learning? I took my son to see We Have to Talk About Kevin in part because it’s about the reliability of the narrator. I don’t think kids are trained enough to question the story.

KH: Perhaps. My kids are 22, 19, and 11. Both our daughters are really big readers, read all the time, and have remained faithful to paper books. (laughs) My son doesn’t read novels. He reads a lot about sports. He plays baseball. I don’t know that I can answer the question very well because our children were raised in a household over which two writers preside. And we never had a TV while they were growing up.

RB: Wow, there you go. No video games?

KH: My son finally scratched together enough money to buy an Xbox. We had a TV, but when the trade towers came down we lost reception, and we never got cable because my husband was afraid his mind would be sucked into ESPN and he’d never escape. (both laugh) Fear of the ESPN.

RB: That can happen. By the way, why are the choices one makes in the NCAA basketball tourney referred to as one’s bracket? The word refers to a part of the whole scheme.

KH: Because somebody left off the “s” and everybody followed—living language. I wonder what’s going to happen with the word “like,” which my husband campaigns against.

RB: Totally.

KH: “Totes” now.

RB: I like “peeps.”

KH: Peeps is OK, “my peeps.” My son is the source for all that.

RB: My son poses as a gangster. A 14-year-old white Jewish suburban kid. (both laugh) At least he doesn’t wear his pants down around his knees. That one I can’t figure out.

KH: Yeah, literally I don’t understand how they stay up.

RB: Velcro.

KH: You see these incredibly skinny guys—why have their pants not fallen down? I don’t understand. I don’t really want to see anyone’s underwear.

RB: Do you still live in Manhattan?

KH: No, never have. We live in Brooklyn.

RB: Would you leave Brooklyn for any reason?

KH: No. I feel I’ll be carried out of my house in a box when I finally leave.

RB: Why is that? What keeps you there?

KH: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles and I visited New York when I was 15 and realized that I had been misplaced at birth, and was always determined to get back. I went to Stanford—I applied to a number of schools in the East, but when it came down to it, I didn’t want to leave my grandparents because they were pretty dependent on me. I would come home for long weekends.

RB: Were they first generation?

KH: They were both born in London, actually. My grandmother grew up in Shanghai.

RB: As part of a diaspora or as part of a Jewish community?

KH: She was not there as a refugee. Her father had come from Baghdad and settled. Baghdadian Jews. (laughs)

RB: Import/export?

KH: He was one of the Sassoons1. He had a brokerage. Rice futures, rubber futures.

RB: Did their background stimulate your interest in exotic locations?

KH: I went to Shanghai—one book [The Binding Chair] is set there around the time of my grand mother’s—I had thought of writing a biography of my grandmother but there were a good 10 years unaccounted for, which is problematic. I went to Paris to interview her cousin, who was quite old at the time. He was lovely and a lot of fun but he had no interest in answering my questions. At the end of it he just said (adopts an exasperated tone), “Just make it all up, nobody cares! Nobody will know the difference.” (laughs) So I was sitting on the plane on the way home, distraught, because he was my last hope in terms of filling in this time. And then I thought, “Yeah, I’ll just make stuff up.”

RB: This notion that there is not really reliable information about Rasputin—how much bibliographical information is there?

KH: His daughter wrote a book about him, and I think that was a whitewashing, perhaps an innocent one, about her experience of him. He came to St. Petersburg after having spent quite a bit of time as a wandering mystic (“starets”) and there that attempted to explain why he was such a Lothario and it had to do with the Khlysty, this heresy, a sect of—I don’t know if its fair to call it a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, but the basic premise was that as salvation depended on being forgiven for one’s sins to hurry the thing along—

I think most writers have an immune response to getting a letter that is critical—that’s to reject it immediately. I usually go lie down for a couple of days.

RB: You’d sin a lot. (both laugh)

KH: Seriously, they would meet in the woods and drink a lot and then fornicate. And then whip each other.

RB: That’s sounds cool; why didn’t it catch on?

KH: These were hidden ceremonies. (chuckles) Orgies actually. I don’t know how true it is.

RB: Bacchanalian.

KH: Exactly.

RB: Your portrayal of the circumstances of the execution of the Romanovs, was that factual?

KH: Yes.

RB: Why would whomever investigated and discovered their remains—why would they have ended up looking down a mineshaft?

KH: They knew where the execution was, that house in Ekaterinburg—and then I think there were probably rumors, and I think they went in concentric circles out from it, to see where the bodies might have been disposed. There were a lot of people dropped down mine shafts around then.

RB: (laughs)

KH: Seriously, during the revolution when the Bolsheviks murdered people it was a good place to throw bodies.

RB: I don’t know if it was the Argentines or the Chileans who invented this, but under their various dictatorships they would fly (alleged) dissidents out over the ocean and drop them out of planes.

KH: Really. Very tidy. (laughs)

RB: How long did it take you to write Enchantments?

KH: Three years.

RB: Three years in which you inhabit the lives of some odd characters.

KH: Yes, I know. In the first draft it took me longer than it usually takes for me to write a novel, and the first draft was very realistic. Or, firmly in the tradition of realism. And I found it flat and that it didn’t really add very much to the story. What happened was that I was reading—I was trying to figure out a strategy for revising it and what was wrong with it and how I would address it. I was looking at a big picture book of the Romanovs, and there were excerpts from letters included. One of the letters was from a relative of Alexandra’s speaking of her childhood, and there was a line it in that said after her mother had died when she was six, it was as if she were held captive under a cloud, or something like that. And at that moment it just suddenly occurred to me: “All right, I’ll just give her a cloud.”

RB: Tell me about the title. Most of the book has the imminence of death—and Rasputin’s death, with all the wounds and gunshots.

KH: Rasputin? I remained faithful to what I could discover of the history.

RB: And he actually died of drowning.

KH: Yes, they found him with water in his lungs—meaning he had to have inhaled it.

RB: Is the title tongue-in-cheek?

KH: The book turned out to be a lot more about storytelling than I imagined it would when I began it.

RB: The stories are almost all—

KH: Dark?

RB: That too. They are not fairy tales. Except for Baba Yaga.

KH: I suppose it’s about Masha’s ability to soften the Tsarovich’s rather stark perception of the world.

RB: He’s the only one who knows—

KH: What’s going on?

RB: He’s not fooled by any of the machinations of their captors.

KH: The portrait of Alexei and Rasputin’s daughter is entirely fictional—not based on anything that I discovered about either of them.

RB: Were the daughters with the tsar’s court?

KH: They were in fact made wards of the tsar, but politically, the whole house of cards collapsed soon there after. I don’t think there was any intimacy with Maria Rasputin and any of the family, really.

RB: And did she actually marry a man her father chose for her?

KH: She did.

RB: And they went to Paris?

KH: Yes, and she was an excellent equestrian. And she is a cabaret performer. She did whatever she could, as did most White Russians. The detail about the assassin ending up presiding over a beauty salon in Paris, I didn’t make that up. Which is wonderful—I love it when you find things like that.

RB: Doesn’t that reify the impulse to make up other unlikely things?

KH: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Having observed myself writing four books that take place in different times and settings, I realized that my strategy is—strategy is not the right word because it sounds like it’s a cerebral conceit—

RB: Process?

KH: Process is probably a better word. I read history until I feel a sense of ease in that world, I understand. It’s sort of a critical mass of information, and at some point I think l have gathered up details, like Yusupov and his salon in Paris, that I understand the kinds of things I can make up. I read until I can figure out (pauses) what am I looking for—just to get a feel for the time that sufficient to be able to make things up that are plausible and fit in with the other things. And I often do lose track of what’s true and what’s false.

RB: I am aware of two opposing approaches­—E.L. Doctorow reportedly researches as little as he can get away with. And Edward Jones for The Known World has a list of books that he intended to read but never did. I received a letter from a historian in Texas who found Jones’s approach outrageous. All of which reminds me that I learned more history from Gore Vidal, Doctorow, Alan Furst, Ed Jones, Thomas Berger than from textbooks.

KH: Yeah. I realized when I did the research for Poison, which is my first novel set in the past, that I had not really appreciated history or enjoyed it as a student because I was so overcome by the facts and dates, and all these things you had to be able to regurgitate to a blue book, that I didn’t think history was as seductive as it is. It’s just stories.

RB: Exactly. There’s too much of it without focus on the important stuff. To make the point about stories I tell my son about George Washington, who when he and his troops were bivouacked in New Jersey for the winter would send his junior officers on night missions. This, so he might rendezvous with their wives.

KH: I did not know that.

RB: That’s a great story to tell about the father of our country—

KH: Who could not tell a lie. (laughs)

RB: It makes him more real, not some bloodless figure shrouded with a variety of myths

KH: I completely agree. (pauses while RB changes tapes)

RB: Part II.

KH: This is where we get down to business.

RB: And there will be arm-wrestling. Speaking of history—last summer I read John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun, which was set in post-Reconstruction America in four different places. There is history here that we aren’t taught. Why has no one figured out that that is the way to get people interested in history? American seem to be ahistorical.

KH: Perhaps because we are as young as we are? I keep trying to come up with reasons.

RB: People seem to like antiques. (laughs)

KH: Yeah, I suppose that’s a pretty limited appreciation for history.

RB: Where does the patriotic fervor come from?

KH: Well in some ways the country must have formed itself in opposition to so much of what was in the old world.

RB: A whole civilization was ravaged—

KH: Yes, we are good at that.

RB: And we stole from Spanish Americans, and we continue to decimate the land.

I will write a critical review of a book, but I won’t trash a book. If I am given a book and I dislike it so much, I really feel I am not the right person to review it.

KH: Yeah.

RB: The ice shelf is shrinking dramatically.

KH: I just remembered that I heard Rick Santorum offer his opinion that global warming was just a hoax, and that the world is here for us to use.

RB: Apparently we also don’t need facts or science to support your claims.

KH: We are coming up against what reality is. Santorum clearly has an agenda and it is clearly served by his denying there is such a thing [as global warming].

RB: Was it Lysistrata where the women stopped making love with their husbands?

KH: I think it is.

RB: Why don’t women do that now?

KH: (laughs) It’s a good idea—a good bumper sticker.

RB: We talked about the noise generated by The Kiss. I recall the New York Observer was particularly strident and cruel to you and Colin.

KH: (laughs) I know.

RB: Was that just their style, or were they singling you out?

KH: No, the Observer is nasty, and that’s one of the things its readers depend on. It was the storm in a teacup of the moment.

RB: I read it because I enjoyed Michael Thomas’s take on things. Did you read him?

KH: I think he was one of the people who nastied me the most.

RB: Whoops. I missed that.

KH: I might be wrong.

RB: I enjoyed his admonishment of young journalists asserting, “They just wanted to do lunch.”

KH: I haven’t looked at that file in years—it’s not something I do look at—I think he wrote a few columns, but he was not the person who wrote that cover piece that went with the lovely caricature of Colin and I.

RB: I recall that they referred to Colin as a “dirty-book writer.”

KH: (laughs) Well, Colin’s books are dirtier than mine, I suppose. But who cares?

RB: They don’t stand out for their—

KH: Pornographic qualities. (laughs) And of course The Kiss doesn’t really have sex in it.

RB: Do you still review books?

KH: Yeah. I do.

RB: Under what circumstances—

KH: I only review for the New York Times, and the circumstances are they call me up.

RB: Do you ever have the feeling—this is an impolitic subject—you are being asked to review something because of a perceived animus you may have toward an author?

KH: No, actually, absolutely not.

RB: Occasionally some reviews seem to be set up that way.

KH: I have read reviews that might suggest that idea. The Times tries quite hard not to allow people to use the book review as a means of—

RB: Really?

KH: There’s two things. The Times tries hard, and they do expect that a reviewer will say if there is any sort of conflict of interest. Some people are more honorable then others. There have been books I have been asked to review that I say I can’t because, you know.

RB: Will you write a negative review?

KH: I will write a critical review of a book, but I won’t trash a book. If I am given a book and I dislike it so much, I really feel I am not the right person to review it. On a couple of occasions I have said, “I am not the right reader for this book; I have nothing good to say.” But it was definitely the kind of book that I would have never have picked up in the first place, so that’s not fair, I think.

RB: Is it the case that you ever pick up a book and it’s a discovery and you want to review a book?

KH: Oh sure.

RB: Do you then follow through?

KH: Follow through in what way?

RB: Contact the Times or whomever?

KH: Oh I see—no, no. But you don’t pitch reviews to the Times. Their editors decide the matches. And they match people for reasons, but with no agenda other than to create an interesting combination of people. I remember when I got my first negative review, being weepy, and my husband looked across the table at me and said, “Do you want to play with the big boys? Well, take your hits.” (both laugh) And I told myself that.

RB: Spoken like a true ESPN devotee. Life as a sports metaphor.

KH: We have a lot of sports metaphors in our house. “Playing over your head,” I like that one.

RB: I like “leaving it all on the field.” I recall Robert Stone using it and it made a strong impression. I think that’s what he does—I don’t know how he gets it back for the next one.

KH: (laughs)

RB: What are you reading these days? How do you get to read? Galleys?

KH: I get a lot of galleys and I throw most of them away. Like most writers, you get a lot of galleys.

RB: Why do you do that? Time constraints?

KH: Yeah, if I responded—

RB: You’re not curious?

KH: I am curious enough to look through them. Let’s face it, at least half the books that are published are not very good.

RB: I must receive the half that is. I feel I read a lot of wonderful books. And they come to me in that way.

KH: I do too, but I get them mostly because people want blurbs—publishers seeking an endorsement. Blurb-writing can be a full-time job.

RB: That’s a subject that is raised occasionally at various literary journals—the Millions recently raised the topic. It has amusing aspects.

KH: Every time I have a book coming out and have to come up with people—it’s excruciating, asking for [blurbs].

RB: I guess I am somewhat influenced when I see a blurb by an author I know and it reads like more than log-rolling.

KH: Yes, I think that’s what the publishers hope for.

RB: But that’s just a form of word-of-mouth. When I don’t know the authors of blurbs—

KH: It wouldn’t make a difference.

RB: Right. If Stephen King blurbs something it doesn’t matter to me.

KH: My idea of true success would be to arrive at the point where a publisher did not start hounding me to come up with victims for blurb letters.

RB: Why not just rely on quoting the trade journals?

KH: I don’t know. I wish they would.

RB: Does the post-book-completion part occupy a lot of time? Is there a lot of work after you finish the final version of a book? 

KH: I suppose it has to do with how much work a writer is willing to do. I have been with Random House for 20 years. I feel that they have taken care of me and therefore I try my best to do what they want. I really would like to be released from the apparent necessity of coming up with blurbers. It is excruciating. This is my 13th book—I have used up everybody I have ever known. (both laugh)

RB: I volunteer.

KH: Next time—even though I don’t have your business card.

RB: Remember a few years ago when Sony Pictures was caught using a made-up reviewer for their newspaper ads and the trailers?

KH: No. I’ve always wanted to put [blurbs by] dead people on the back of a book. Shakespeare: “Kathryn Harrison’s…”

RB: Enchantments took three years to write, and you turned it in when?

KH: It usually takes nine months to a year—I turned it in in 2010. I am consistently published in spring—it ended up being 18 months. It’s a very fey business.

RB: It’s probably a much different business than when you started.

KH: I have a Facebook page, which is something that would not have happened if there weren’t some sort of utility for me as a writer. I drew the line at tweeting. 

RB: I don’t, and I have a limited knowledge of its role in the info shit stream. I also don’t “like” things on Facebook.

RB: Do you know what LinkedIn is?

KH: I get requests all the time and I just fill them. My son, of course, had a Facebook page when he was in high school. He was very private about it. One day I was teasing him, and I said, “OK Walker, I can have a Facebook page if I want to,” and I started it and he flipped out. “No!” It was just a joke, and I stopped because I didn’t really want one. However, Facebook kept coming back every month or so, saying, “Hi Kathryn, you started a page.” And one time it was about three in the morning and I was sort of punch-drunk, and I thought, What the hell. I conducted an experiment in which I friended anybody I could who had said anything rotten about me.

RB: (laughs)

KH: You know what—they all became my friends. And they were like all, “Hey happy to see you.” That was a cynical little adventure. I was curious to see what would happen—what a friend is.

RB: Many principles of rationality seem to go out the window with Facebook. I see it as cyber Tourette syndrome.

KH: It’s like a stalking device.

RB: “Friends” just seem to blurt things out. 

KH: It has increased the idiocy of public discourse, I suppose. Also, you find out who are the truly narcissistic monsters that you know. They will tell you anything—”blah blah blah blah blah. I had strawberry jam on toast this morning.”

People generally assume that it’s a problem—two bloated artistic egos bumping up against each other. But in truth, Colin and I met as writers at Iowa. So it wasn’t like one of us became a writer. We always knew that was who we were.

RB: I couldn’t bear people who daily posted how many words they had written that day—

KH: Ooh, that is really—

RB: On a regular basis.

KH: Are there people who do that?

RB: Yes.

KH: Not my friends; my friends are people who say mean things about me.

RB: It’s the Godfather thing—”keep your friends close—

KH: And your enemies closer.”

RB: You alluded to raising your kids in a household headed by two writers—what’s it like for you?

KH: People generally assume that it’s a problem—two bloated artistic egos (both laugh) bumping up against each other. But in truth, Colin and I met as writers at Iowa. So it wasn’t like one of us became a writer. We always knew that was who we were. It helps in that we understand each other—what we need, what a person needs as a writer. It’s OK to get up from the dinner table and start scribbling on a paper towel.

RB: (laughs)

KH: Or to stare off into space and not answer questions. Those sorts of things. We understand each other, in the same way two doctors would understand each other based on what they knew about each other’s lives. You know, Colin writes and he is in the business [as an editor at Scribner]. We live in a small, unnatural world peopled by writers and editors.

RB: You live in Brooklyn.

KH: But we moved there 25 years ago.

RB: Pioneers.

KH: We were.

RB: I know, I understand. Twenty-five years ago it wasn’t a mecca for writers, was it?

KH: It was pre-gentrified.

RB: That must mean that your property has quadrupled in value. You can buy a mansion in Iowa.

KH: No, no.

RB: So when either one of you has a book published, you commiserate with each other.

KH: Yeah, we can bitch to each other about things. Certainly it helps that we write different kinds of books. It would be difficult for us to feel competitive with each other.

RB: Does he ask you to read his books before he submits them?

KH: He does.

RB: And you him?

KH: No. (both laugh)

KH: I keep it away from him. I am somebody who really does not like responses until I am ready for them, and I am usually not ready until the book is taken from me by an agent or publisher.

RB: Can’t you train yourself?

KH: To do which?

RB: “I have turned in the book—I am ready for critiques.”

KH; Oh. I do want to hear it. By the time I have parted company with it I am very impatient about hearing back. I have never fired off a letter immediately with my first opinions about editorial advice. It’s true that after a week or so goes by the comments do seem less inflammatory. I think most writers have an immune response to getting a letter that is critical—that’s to reject it immediately. I usually go lie down for a couple of days. (both laugh) I find it difficult to read long editorial letters. My editor does write long ones.

RB: Who is your editor?

KH: Kate Medina.

RB: And the “Joyce” you dedicated this book to, is that [photographer] Joyce Ravid?

KH: Yes. She’s a very close friend of mine.

RB: Godmother of your kids?

KH: In essence—she’s the person in our will, in terms of our kids, if something were to happen to both of us. I have no family other than my children and my husband. So when Joyce and I discovered each other we just liked each other immediately.

Once a book is fixed, once I can no longer manipulate anything, I lose interest. It’s dead to me, in a way. I think of reviews as tombstones.

RB: I don’t think I have ever seen a book by her.

KH: She has one, and her work has appeared in books. She did a lot of magazine work before the internet. One of the big problems for photographers is that people pirate images right and left. I find it disheartening just contemplating it from her point of view.

RB: I’ve had that problem. And when I called a well-known literary site they claimed they thought that my photo was promotional. Scum.

KH: (laughs)

RB: Another problem is that so many people are able to take pictures—

KH: With their phones, immediately.

RB: And news sites encourage people to send in their images. That devalues the work of pros and photography.

KH: Absolutely! Another thing that changed photography was digital imaging and the ability to manipulate. All those beauty magazines—first there is the make-up, and then there is all the touching up.

RB: I was going to say, why even do a real photo, but there is a theory that the closer you get to a 100 percent computer-generated image, the more un-human it looks

KH: It’s like these strange movies—I’m trying to think of one where there are animated humans—they look like humans—

RB: An extension of video games. Apropos of nothing, I liked The Seal Wife the most of all your books. I don’t know why.

KH: I like that book too.

RB: Is it fair to say that it’s most unlike your other books?

KH: It’s the most (short pause)—it’s unlike the other novels, definitely.

RB: Where did it come from?

KH: Uh (pause) (laughs). That’s a hard question.

RB: You could say, “I don’t know.”

KH: It’s built on my grandfather’s experiences in Alaska. He was there in the teens [of the 20th century]. He took photographs, and he had a wonderful lens, and there was a picture of a native woman whose name was, he told me, Six-Mile Mary, because she lived three miles out of town. So if she came to town she had a six-mile round trip.

RB: We should base our names on things like that. (both laugh)

KH: I don’t know what mine would be. But she was a really interesting figure in my childhood. She was smoking a pipe, which I found mildly intoxicating. I had this mother who really put herself together, who set her hair before she went out, and perfume and makeup, and she looked perfect. That’s one kind of beauty, and there was this other woman who represented a whole different order of beauty that had nothing to do with what I understood before. She was the seal wife the book was based on. And it had something to do with the climate. I wanted Bigelow’s interior life to be continuous with the topography.

RB: With 13 books, how much do you think about what you have already written?

KH: Not at all. The only time I ever really think about past work or even sometimes look up something is if I run into a narrative problem or challenge and I think, “I remember something like that from x book, let’s go back and see how I handled it in that context.” Once a book is fixed, once I can no longer manipulate anything, I lose interest. It’s dead to me, in a way. I think of reviews as tombstones. (both laugh)

RB: How upbeat.

KH: Well, that’s me.

RB: Is there a book or a story you have always wanted to write that you are gearing up to write? 

KH: I actually have a box of scraps of writing and ideas, and it’s for a dystopia. I find them fascinating and I want to write one of those—probably set in the not too distant future.

RB: Is there one that you have read that you favor?

KH: Never Let me Go by [Kazuo] Ishiguro, who wrote Remains of the Day. It’s a really great novel. I think it’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read. I don’t love all of his work. But that was a remarkably great novel. 

RB: I liked Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse as a dystopian novel.

KH: I love George Saunders’s short stories—CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was an amazing collection. I don’t read many short stories—I really like a longer trip, being socked into the middle of a big fat novel. 

RB: I’m with you—900 pages, great. So the Joan of Arc book is next for you.

KH: It’s been great. I’m six months in to it. It’s been great because I have had the pleasure of visiting the Middle Ages, which is always my favorite period (laughs). A lot of good stuff—the bubonic plague—

RB: Well, good, thanks.

KH: OK, thanks.

Footnotes

  1. Harrison emailed later to elaborate: "My grandmother, the one who raised me, grew up in Shanghai. Her father’s name was Solomon Benjamin Sassoon, but he was too proud to use the name Sassoon to open doors for him, so he reversed the names and went as Solomon Sassoon Benjamin. He was born in Baghdad—one of the many descendants of Sheik David Sassoon—went from there to Bombay/Mumbai, and on to Hong Kong and then Shanghai. He had a small brokerage and made and lost and made again a small fortune, which paid for my education, among other things, before it was entirely frittered away."
biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum