An Interview with Kate Bernheimer, Guardian of Fairy Tales
By Taylor Murrow
Endlessly fascinated and inspired by the magnetic world of fairy tales, Kate Bernheimer has dedicated her life and career to preserving the art form through her own literature and editorship. She has published novels, children’s books, and short story collections (the most recent of which is Horse, Flower, Bird), in addition to editing anthologies such as My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, which include work by acclaimed authors Francine Prose, Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, among others. Cherishing classic fairy tales and creating haunting new ones, she is keeping the ancient beloved tradition alive; the “fairy-tale feel” flourishes with Kate Bernheimer.
Horse, Flower, Bird has already received widespread praise: Aimee Bender calls it “a strange and enchanting book, written in crisp, winning sentences; each story begs to be read aloud and savored.” Rikki Ducornet says of Bernheimer: “Each of Kate Bernheimer’s marvelous books is precious, strange and impossible to anticipate–an oyster concealing a tiger’s eye or a child’s game of doll tea staged by Hieronymus Bosch.”
She is currently an Associate Professor of English and Writer in Residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, teaching a graduate fiction workshop, and is also in residence each spring in the Gaines House. She will be reading for the 1718 reading series this Tuesday, March 1, at 7 pm at The Columns Hotel. The event is free and open to the public.
Room 220: Can you define a fairy tale for us? What is it about this ancient form of storytelling that has kept you so engaged in both your writing and your studying?
Kate Bernheimer: I like Harvard scholar Maria Tatar’s description of fairy tales as domestic myths. Fairy tales may be identified by some very identifiable artistic techniques (abstraction, depthlessness, everyday magic, intuitive logic) and also by their form, by their shape. Yet they may come in any style – and tell anything. A fairy tale is a story with a fairy-tale feel. This form keeps me engaged completely: it is never ending and it feels new and old and forever and gone. No one will ever complete a study of fairy tales; they lend themselves freely to all theories, all artistic forms of expression. They’re dangerous like that. Fairy tales speak the language of story – and often of the weak overwhelming the strong. I think fairy tales have kept readers transfixed for centuries in large part because they restore to the fragile great strength, and because they belong to no one.
Rm220: Where is the line between the fiction genre and the fairy tale genre, if there is one at all?
KB: I think, as Nabokov did, that “all great novels are great fairy tales,” and then some. If you show me a book – a novel, a story collection, a collection of poems, a series of one-act plays, a screenplay – in any style from mainstream to experimental – I will show you the fairy tales in it. I can find not only the influence of fairy tales, but how fairy tales have given the narrative shape.
Rm220: Do you think the idea of fairy tale as a legitimate contemporary art form is lost to people today? Is there a “modern” fairy tale?
KB: I have dedicated my life as a writer, editor, and scholar to what I call a “Fairy-Tale Revival,” through which I have sought, since 1995 or so, to bring readers’ attention to fairy tales as a legitimate contemporary art form. Not only are fairy tales flourishing in the literary arts – as they always have, but with less critical acknowledgement – they are absolutely flourishing in film, visual art, and music. I think, too, people have been educated through the work I have done, and fairy-tale scholars have done, about fairy tales “more adult” roots. I think that all modern fairy tales – like all “old” or traditional tales – are fairy tales. A fairy tale is always old and new at the same time.
All this said, fairy tales face extraordinary prejudice still: the National Book Foundation excludes them in their guidelines for their prestigious book awards. They list no other form – they do not exclude “Bible retellings,” or “retellings of Shakespeare,” but only “retellings of myths, fairy tales, and folklore.” Maria Tatar and I have started a campaign to ask the National Book Foundation to remove this exclusion and we have hundreds of supporters to date.
Rm220: Your most recent book, Horse, Flower, Bird, has illustrations by Rikki Ducornet. Some of your other books do not. What purpose do illustrations serve for their fairy tales? Are they necessary anymore?
KB: When I first encountered fairy tales as a reader it was through illustrated books and turning the page – to discover a drawing or illumination – was thrilling to me as a young reader, and it imprinted in me, like a sense memory. I think even if a fairy tale is not illustrated, we sense the pictures; they leave room for that, for the reader. It is in large part their glorious flatness that does that. Whether a specific artwork needs an illustration – that is up to the artist. In the case of Horse, Flower, Bird, I was elated when the brilliant Rikki Ducornet read the manuscript (which had a lot of white space on the page as it does now – a sort of picture-less picture book for grown-ups) and said “Kate, I’d love to do some illustrations for this.” It spoke to her, which was truly a great honor for me.
Rm220: What do you see as the connection between women and fairy tales? Female characters often appear to be the most dynamic in folklore, not to mention that it seems as though girls cherish fairy tales in their youth more than boys.
KB: The fairy tales that have been popularized in Western culture mainly feature girl heroines – but traditionally, for every female Cinderella who finds herself in servitude and need of assistance, there is a male Cinderella, in fact. There are as many dull boys as princes, as many violent fathers as tender ones, as many foolish and spiteful girls as deserving and radiant heroines, as many kind mothers as murderous ones. Girls may be urged to read certain kinds of packaged fairy tales, and are imprinted by them, as I was once upon a time too (and still am sometimes) but there are other fairy tales to read and adore – fairy tales for grown-up children of all kinds, as fairy-tale lover and Surrealist Andre Breton called adults.
Rm220: What do you think about the Disney-fication of so many classic European tales? Is something lost, or do those movies still serve a purpose?
KB: I grew up watching Disney movies – and loving them – in my grandfather’s basement where he showed them on an old-fashioned projector. It was not until I was older that I encountered the more traditional versions, first in the Adult Room of the Waban Public Library, and later, after graduate school, in a New Hampshire library, where I also encountered my first fairy-tale scholarship and learned about their origins. From beginning to now, I would say that fairy tales provided me a fantastic education as a reader and human, made me into a person who adores books, their possibility spaces. I think they all serve a purpose – to keep us company through this dark human night. The purpose is grey and luminous always.
Rm220: You’ve studied German tales, Russian, Yiddish, etc…you name it. Are there particular ones that have affected you most?
KB: I may be misquoting him, but I once read that Andy Warhol, when asked which new punk and rock bands and artists he especially liked, answered, “I like – well, I like them all.” (Once he added, “But especially Patti Smith,” which I too will add – her memoir JUST KIDS is a great fairy-tale and she refers often to fairy tales in it). I was definitely influenced from a young age by the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which both enchanted and horribly alarmed me. My topsy turvy doll – a doll with a little girl on one side and, when you flipped the skirt over, the grandmother and wolf on the other (the head had two faces!) terrified me. I dressed as her a few times for Halloween. I loved her.
Rm220: Tell us about the Fairy Tale Review.
KB: Fairy Tale Review is the annual literary journal I began in 2005 when, after ten years of celebrating fairy tales in my own novels and stories and edited books, I had continued to hear from many writers who lamented that their poems and stories with a more overt fairy-tale feel was not being accepted by journals. I had also become increasingly aware of critical slights to fairy-tale work – often seeing very, very good books dismissed as “in the end, only a fairy tale” at the ends of otherwise praising reviews. So I established a journal to celebrate the diversity of fairy tales in new literary works. The next issue, The Brown Issue (each issue has a color title, a la the Andrew Lang series) will be our eighth issue. We now get thousands of submissions a year. I say “we,” but it’s really just me, elf-like, in my bedroom, surrounded by piles of envelopes and papers. I do have a couple of magical volunteer elves around the country who sometimes pitch in: thank goodness for them!