May 2009

Mark Doten

features

An Interview with Binnie Kirshenbaum

Binnie Kirshenbaum’s latest novel, The Scenic Route, is an assemblage of stories. The overarching plot has Sylvia, a woman recently divorced and laid off, traveling to Europe. There she has a potentially life-changing affair with Henry, a wealthy, married man. That’s not the main thing, though, or not exactly: the bulk of the pages in this odd, fascinating book are the stories Sylvia and Henry tell each other -- about themselves, their pasts, their families, and some of the more esoteric branches of 20th century history, as well as Sylvia’s failings in her relationship with a mentally ill friend -- as they make their way from Florence to Moravia to Switzerland, and onward to the end of things. 

I spoke with Binnie via e-mail about the book, Bach, her new position as chair of Columbia’s MFA writing program, and how it sucks to be pigeonholed as women’s author.

There's a grand tradition of novels and stories in which Americans head off to Europe and have transformative experiences. James, Hemingway, Cheever, and more recently, works like Prague or Everything Is Illuminated. What is the fascination there, do you think? And is it a different fascination for us now than for these earlier writers?

Europe is thick with ghosts; it could be there is something about being haunted and being a writer. The older the civilization, the more stories it has to tell. In that way, Europe is ripe, as a place. Although we are the Americans abroad, Europe can feel more like home than home does. The languages and the currencies might be foreign, but there's often a shared worldview, a connection, real or imagined that lets us feel as if we belong there. But we don't belong there, so we get to have it both ways: we're the outsiders but in a place that fits. Each generation of American writers and artists probably had, has, its own Europe, its own rationale for expatriation. Henry James wasn't likely looking for the ancestral shetl, but... or maybe it's all about the food and the shopping.    

Do you like to travel? What was your last vacation outside the US?

The summer that I graduated from college, I had no money but I went to Europe -- to France and Spain --  for six weeks; put the whole thing on my new-minted credit cards. It took me longer to pay off that trip than it did my student loans, but I was always glad I did it. I seem to travel in cycles. Like seven years of feast and seven years of famine. The past two years, I've gone pretty much nowhere but in the five or six years before, I was off five or six times a year. I don't always love traveling while I'm doing it, but I love it in retrospect. And of course, the more horrific the experience, the better the story. My last vacation outside the U.S. was spectacularly unoriginal. A week in Prague and two weeks in Paris. Prague and Paris are cities I feel connected to, the way I feel connected to New York, so you could say that's not really traveling, but more like going home. 

The book has an idiosyncratic, digressive structure -- we get Sylvia's stories of herself, her family and friends, because she tells them to Henry, her romantic companion in Europe. But these stories are generally told in an unmediated fashion, such that we wouldn't know that the narrator is addressing Henry, rather than whoever it is that your standard narrator is taken to address -- the reader or whomever (scads of critical theory devoted to this question, I'll leave it alone) -- at least until those moments when a character (generally Henry) chimes in with a response. I'm curious about how you developed this style. It's actually precisely the same device that appears frequently in 30 Rock -- we are given a flashback we assume is just in Tina Fey's head, then Alec Baldwin interrupts with a cutting remark, and we realize that she's been narrating the whole embarrassing mess. I suppose that 30 Rock is not actually an influence on The Scenic Route?

I might be nice to think I was influenced by 30 Rock, but I saw it for the first time only a few weeks ago. Maybe that's an example of one of the simultaneous discoveries that Sylvia mentions: the radio or the calculus. Or influence by osmosis, through the airwaves while I slept. Obviously the whole notion of storytelling, how stories get told and why, is what drives (sorry) the novel. We're always telling our stories to someone; Henry was Sylvia's "ideal reader" but he's also a story within the story, and the over-riding story -- “The story of Henry and me," Sylvia is actually telling to the unknown reader under the guise of what she would tell Ruby [her mentally ill friend] if Ruby would listen.

Music, from Bach to Sinatra to "Puff the Magic Dragon," plays a big role in the book. Can you talk about how you go about picking out, as it were, a soundtrack for a novel? The European portions of the book are mostly Bach: "I don't remember what we listened to on that afternoon, but it seems, in retrospect, that always the Brandenburg Concertos were playing, as if I remember it from a bird's-eye view: a car, a forest-green Peugeot, coursing along a mountain road, the route depicted in Morse code-type dots and dashes, and then the music comes, the melodic garlands woven from the first oboe and the violino piccolo, and then that violin joins the first horn for an exuberant allegro." Do you listen to music while you write?

Music while I write? No. It would distract me; carry me off elsewhere. The concept of background music confounds me. How can you not listen? But I did sometimes listen to the music mentioned (except for "Puff the Magic Dragon") between the writing. Like when I wrote that bit you just quoted, I stopped writing to listen to the Brandenburg Concertos, to hear if it really sounded the way I was hearing it in my head. When quoting song lyrics, I often paused to listen to the song to check that I got lyrics right. But none of the choices of music were conscious or deliberate. Rather, each bit popped into my head seemingly unprompted the way music does. But it's not unprompted; it's cued from the scene.  

Bach has exerted a gravitational pull on writers as diverse as Bernhard and Joy Williams. Part of this is the interplay of voices in his music and his use of repetition -- devices that have direct analogues in writing. But is that too simplistic in some way -- saying that writers like Bach because he's doing the same thing as a writer? What do you find in Bach?

I would say that your observation about voice and repetition is hardly too simplistic; you've thought about this far more carefully, analytically, than I did. My response to music tends toward the primal; what you so eloquently refer to as the gravitational pull. My body responds to it more than my mind considers it. Like a kiss.  

The texture of the prose in this book is striking. You employ frequent repetitions in a way that is musical -- Bachian? -- but these repetitions, as opposed to those, say, in Beckett, or Gertrude Stein, or Bernhard, have a natural quality, so that, rather than alienating the reader, or at least highlighting the fact that THIS THING YOU ARE READING IS A FICTIONAL TEXT, I had the feeling I was listening to a real person who's telling us a real story.

Here are 3-1/2 early paragraphs from which I've removed
all but repeating words:

to Italy to Italy a letter registered letter a letter love letter the
letter the letter a letter the letter let go.
Let go.
Let go let go let go blah blah blah pink slip pink slip pink pink
shame embarrassment embarrassment embarrassments embarrassments shame
shame
The letter.

And here are just a couple sentences of that with all the words back in:

...I got a letter in the mail. A registered letter. A letter that you have to sign for, you know it's not going to be a greeting card or a love letter either. Walking from the living room to the kitchen, I read it, the letter, the letter that exuded the same milk of human kindness as a letter that...

So the repetitions here are really quite insistent -- but instead of feeling pathological, once you stick all the other words back it feels, as I said, natural -- almost comforting! Can you talk about how you arrived at this style?

First I have to talk about what a good reader you are, how sharp and thoughtful. And generous. Despite what I just said about my response to music being primal, I'm acutely and consciously aware of the sounds words make, the music and the rhythm of language, the timing of it. In this case, some repetition might've been the result of Sylvia's determination to make herself understood, or rather, to be sure she isn't misunderstood. Unlike Beckett or Stein, the repetition isn't an intellectual or philosophical exercise. It's the character's need to emphasize and/or crystallize, independent of the author. But there's no doubt that I listen to the beat of a sentence and will return to it to fix the sound. And of course, sometimes there are repetitions simply because a particular word is the one I want. Pink is pink is pink -- not mauve.   

You've taken over as the chair of Columbia MFA creative writing program. Do the demands of this position make it hard to find the time and focus for your own writing?

No, not hard. Impossible. I'm trusting, or deluding myself, that it was the learning curve preventing me from doing my own writing; that once I've gone through the full cycle, I'll be able to get back to it.

How has the teaching of creative writing changed since you first taught it?

I haven't been teaching all that long. The way I teach is the same, although I think I'm a better teacher, and a better reader, because I've learned so much from my students. The common misconception that M.F.A. programs result in cookie-cutter stories might once have been true, but it's never been my experience. My students' writing has always been wildly and wonderfully diverse. There's also the old stereotype of the writing teacher who hasn't written a word in thirty years, but that is certainly cannot be said of my colleagues who are spectacularly productive and vibrant. And it wasn't true of my professors when I was a student either.

Has the global economic uncertainty had any affect on your students' writing? Your own?

I don't know that the economy will affect the writing (except perhaps as subject or circumstance of characters), but it has to affect how we envision our futures as writers and how we publish. That doesn't necessarily mean the future is bleak (although it does seem that way at the moment); not bleak necessarily, but we are re-inventing how we will be read, and how that will play out is unknown. 

Is it difficult to build a novel around two characters who are defined less by the actions than by their omissions and failures to act?

Failure to act and missed opportunities are actions; running the other way, hiding, denying, lying to self and others. All verbs. What might go unsaid or what isn't done is still there. No, no more difficult, I don't think, than building any novel. Which is to say, Yes, it's difficult.  

When I was reading and thinking about your book, I became increasingly stuck on your publisher's jacket copy, such that this perfectly ordinary bit of work came to stand -- in my mind -- for some larger questions. So OK, and please bear with me, because this is an exceptionally long question that probably will receive a short answer: The Scenic Route would seem to fit quite comfortably (divorced middle-aged woman has affair in Europe) into that hazy catch-all of contemporary lit, "women's fiction." Clearly that's where Harper Perennial is aiming. They have your book as an "ill-fated romance," a tale of "the good life that comes at a steep price," a "story of love lived and lost." All of which is accurate, and maybe even fair. But I mean seriously, we've also got: a cross-cutting investigation into the horrors of the 20th century; a testament to the inevitable annihilation of the past (and our memories of the past); and a weird storehouse of esoteric knowledge (the history of Shalimar perfume, Galvani's corporeal-electric experiments, Newton, Leibniz, Alger Hiss' pumpkin patch): all of which makes the book closer in spirit to Sebald than [imaginary ideal women's fiction author]. Now, I'm not suggesting that we trade out your cover image of a red convertible on a winding, bucolic and very European road for a black-and-white pic of the Ossuary Douaumont, and a blurb that name-checks Proust, Sebald and Musil. And I don't mean to cast aspersions on the good folks at Harper Perennial, who undoubtedly know their business, and that business is simply to do well by this book -- to sell as many copies as they can, in tough times. If there's a question here -- if the only response to what I've said isn't to simply raise a hand, shush me, and say, "it is what it is" -- I suppose it's this: to the extent that people have an idea of you as a writer (in the way that we might have ideas of Hemingway or Didion or Brian Evenson or Charles Baxter), is it a fair one? Do you ever chafe against it? Want to smash it? Do you ever feel pigeonholed? Is there a way in which books by women are marketed differently than books by men? This barrage is circling around a more central problem, which is something like this: even these days, when most authors (apart from the anointed few) are lucky to sell a few thousand copies of their books, do you ever think about the idea of you out there? The nice answer here would be to downplay all this, to say “No one really thinks about me,” or "I'm grateful for any readers I have" or "no I guess I never think about that," but I'm actually looking for a more nervous/awkward/insecure response, if it's in you.

Oh, I think about it a lot. Your question hurts; the exposed nerve. The pigeonholing is terribly painful. It makes me crazy and sad, and ashamed, too. I raise this point with every book I do but there remains this determination to market me as "a women's author," or as it is often phrased, "to appeal to the broadest audience possible." The problem is that the broadest audience possible HATES me, and those who might appreciate what I do don't handily find their way to me. I have, on occasion, said that I wouldn't pick up my own book in a bookstore. People will read up, but they won't read down. My readers either stumble on me by accident or word of mouth, although there have been some astute critics and I am tremendously grateful to them, just as, yes, I am grateful for any reader who gets why I'm trying to do. I just wish they'd tell more of their friends. Someone once said that it was my name, that it is hard to take someone named Binnie Kirshenbaum seriously, which I thought was kind of funny unless it's true, in which case it is cruel. I really don't care about how many books I sell as far as money goes, but of course I want to be read, and read well. Thoughtfully. I mean, we write to communicate something, and all too often it feels as if I'm shouting into the wind. And it makes me doubt myself and think, maybe they are right, and/or I have failed, in every sense. Which is why I am grateful for the good readers I have, and the thoughtful critics because they relieve some of the self-doubt. At least for a little while. 

I hate questions that try to link a novel to an author's "personal life," but -- since I feel compelled to ask! -- I guess I also love these questions. So, with apologies: name one way in which this novel is autobiographical? And another in which it most emphatically isn't? 

When I was a child, I really did have a gutted and stuffed duckling, the thought of which now repulses me. Sylvia's attitudes about fur and meat-eating mirror my own. And I grew up in the suburbs. I'm not passive the way Sylvia is. I never got a severance check. I'm married and have never been divorced.